Intoxicated, lost and aimlessly filtering through an assortment of dimly lit streets in downtown Bogotá, I was beginning to think that my nomadic exploration around South America was soon to come to an abrupt and discom- forting end. Having only flown into El Dorado less than 24 hours before, I found myself misplaced in the Colombian capital.
Two large silhouettes appeared 100 yards in front, and were approaching at an alarming rate. A fear of dread lined my stomach. Were the naysayers about to be proven correct? Would I regret the purchase of an insubstantial travel insurance deal off a ramshackle website? These questions were soon to be answered before a softly spoken tone of broken English penetrated through the shadows. “Are you okay? Do you need help?” The fearsome dark figures in the distance were nothing more than a couple of affable Colombians looking to help an adrift gringo. A small example, but one that perfectly encapsulates the Western European opinion and subsequent reality of modern Colombia.
Whether we like it or not, each one of us is susceptible to prejudices that cloud our everyday judgment. These prejudices – and a lack thereof – were in full force every time I mentioned to a friend or relative that I was visiting South America. In 95% of these cases I received a comical, albeit apprehensive response, that involved the words “cocaine” or “murder”. This morbid view of the continent is justifiable considering the sheer amount of negative coverage broadcasted on European news. Murdered footballers and drug gang shootouts have had a monopoly on Colombia reporting over the course of the previous decades, and something that has stained this country’s reputation to the point becoming almost impenetrable.
Previously, I had fallen for these glorified newscasts, but had conducted enough research to know that the instability in the area had significantly diminished in recent years. That was then-my mind made up–that the rucksack was rammed shut and I headed for the airport. The departure gates were awash with herds of sun chasing Brits heading East for the likes of Sydney and Bangkok. I, on the other hand, was en route for the dawn of a Spanish-speaking adventure.
Bogotá was the first port of call. My back alley incident, perfectly summarized the amicable nature shown to me by the inhabitants of this buzzing metropolis. Those thoughts are also echoed for the Caribbean coastal region. Unlike the capital, these are already engulfed by an ever-growing tourism industry, so one might expect the locals to have grown tired of disoriented tourists; yet they always displayed a willingness to support and guide.
After visiting the coast, the delightful prospect of a 17-hour bus journey to Medellín became a reality and as my coach cut through the Colombian heartland, I couldn’t help but think that riding this same route in the 1990s would have signaled a death wish. Yet the only annoyances faced were numerous checks from Colombian police who were a slight hindrance to the journey. But no doubt, a blessing in disguise when viewing the bigger picture.
Medellín appears to be a paradox at first glance. How can a city so apparently precarious seem so safe? “I’m here to tell you why your parents shouldn’t be having panic attacks. Medellin is no longer dangerous,” proudly exclaimed the guide on the free walking tour. He was not wrong. Whilst you may see the odd bullet hole intersecting within the modern architecture, there is nothing that gives you the feeling you are walking around what was the most perilous city on earth less than 20 years ago. In fact, one gets the idea that the locals now treat it as if it were half a century ago. This is evident in the contentious Pablo Escobar tour; a tourist attraction that severely divides opinion. Morally corrupt it may be, but the fact it’s allowed to exist shows how far Colombia’s second city has come.
It is impossible then, not to believe that Colombia has turned the corner and is finally starting to realise an untapped potential. The second most biodiverse nation on earth has always had the raw materials and en- vironment to be an economic, social and cultural powerhouse, but has been continually weighed down by external perceptions. From my time in Bogotá – and amongst other travellers – it was as if there was an unspoken consensus that we were experiencing a fascinating place, but one yet to be fully appreciated.