This post was originally written for and published on Colombia Eco Travel.
I have been living, teaching, and traveling in Colombia for 7 months, and to be completely honest…this country wasn’t my first choice; I had dreamed of the mountains of Peru and the wine in Argentina. In fact, I had never even truly considered traveling to Colombia until I had accepted a teaching position here. It was only then that I learned about all there was to do, see, and experience here; instead of my original intention of “Colombia simply being a jumping off point to explore South America,” I found myself choosing to stay in Colombia for almost a year before planning a trip outside the country. It’s easy to gush about Colombia; most travel writers do, but in the spirit of being unbiased, there have been some pros and cons this year that I want to share with others who are planning a trip or a move to Colombia.
You can see more climates in Colombia than in any other country in South America.
From virgin jungles to the Amazon Rainforest, and from temperate mountain regions (including glaciers) to the tropical Caribbean coast – you can experience it all in Colombia usually within an hour or two flights. Because of the vast variety in climate, Colombia has almost 10% of the planet’s biodiversity. If you’re looking to experience nature, Colombia is the perfect place, and best of all? Chances are you’ll experience something completely new.
You get an incredible value for your dollar.
It’s one of the best times in history to travel to Colombia. The peso has gone down 59% from the average, which translates to big savings for travelers. Dinners out can cost as little as $3 USD, and hostel beds as little as $8 USD. On the flip side, many Colombians are struggling economically because of this, so an increase in tourism is just what many locals need. I’m proud that I spent my entire travel fund in Colombia this year, and I do my best to seek out sustainable and local businesses.
Compared to other countries in South America, there are very few tourists.
Colombia’s past notorious reputation has made the country behind when it comes to tourism. Thankfully that reputation is in the past, and most of Colombia has progressed out of fear and violence. Crime rates in cities like Medellín are down, and though it’s true that there are still some “no-go” areas due to guerilla activity, the majority of Colombia is just as safe as any other country in South America. Of course, more and more travelers are figuring this out, and tourism is increasing every year, so make it a priority to travel here before tourism takes over.
Chances are, you’ll meet some friendly and generous locals.
I’ve been hugged more in Colombia in 6 months than I had been in my entire life in the U.S., but that’s not the only reason people here have a reputation for being warm and open. From patience and kindness with my in-progress Spanish to being eager to practice English, including one cab driver who had me time how fast he could count to 20 in English – people here are excited to have conversations with foreigners. I’ve been invited over for homemade ajiaco, and I’ve been given many free rides in the rain. A family offered to let me borrow a bicycle and join them for Ciclovía, and even my doorman enthusiastically helped me with a video project for school (which included him rapping). I can’t say enough to emphasize how welcoming Colombians are to foreigners and how thankful I am for that.
Your family will worry about you.
When I first announced my move to Colombia, I received a lot of well intentioned warnings: “Don’t tell anyone about your family” [for fear of being kidnapped], “Don’t wander into neighborhoods you don’t know” [for fear of running into a drug cartel], “Careful, who knows who your students’ parents might be” [for fear of…being killed for giving out a B+?]. Colombia has an unfair reputation, but that won’t stop your family from feeling unnerved. It can feel tiring to keep reminding them of the country’s progress and that you’re perfectly safe, but with every story, you can help break down a biased stereotype.
Knowing Spanish is a must.
If you want to get off the beaten path even a little bit, you’re going to need to know some Spanish. If you don’t know any, it could be difficult to travel in Colombia. When I arrived to the Bogota Airport late at night, I could not find one person who spoke English, and I didn’t even know how to say phrases like, “I need” or “I want.” I started taking Spanish lessons twice a week right after I settled in and joined a conversation group; now traveling and engaging in Colombia is a whole lot more gratifying.
You’ll run into some creepy tourists.
Colombia’s reputation for drugs and beautiful women attracts some tourists for the wrong reasons. This was especially true in the party hostels of Medellín. There are some travel writers that encourage this kind of thinking about Colombia. In my opinion, it’s a great disservice to the people and culture of Colombia, and I personally feel embarrassed when I run into these tourists or overhear them discussing women as targets and celebrating cocaine – a drug which has had devastating effects on the country. Yes, there are beautiful people and illegal drugs here – like in any country, but there’s more than that too.
If you’re a woman, chances are you’ll feel uncomfortable at times.
Colombian men are not shy about catcalls, staring, or double takes. This typically happens when I’m alone, and it happens even more frequently to my lighter-haired friends. Many have tried to defend this as cultural, but even local women speak out about the degree of uneasiness and distress it causes. “Machismo,” as it’s called here, often crosses the line from complimentary to objectification, although not intending to be threatening. It might seem easiest to ignore, but don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo with a sassy remark back.
Just like in any country or culture, there are what can be interpreted as pros and cons in Colombia. But if traveling has taught me anything, it’s been to celebrate all the pros and work to transform the cons.