Ilost count of how many times someone asked “is it safe?” when they heard I was traveling to Colombia. Booked on a 21-day birding expedition with an American who was going on his third trip to Colombia, I felt safe. OK, maybe “fairly” safe. I mean, a bird guide would not want to go to an unsafe place, right?
I am not one to be scared easily. Some of my craziest adventures include jumping out of airplanes, mistakenly skiing down the mogul slope, working in a war zone in Iraq, hiking West Texas rattlesnake country, getting the car stuck in a North Dakota blizzard and riding a fast Harley in the rain. So Colombia was a piece of cake, I thought naively.
Colombia’s travel reputation was marred in many ways by negative media coverage, and locals will agree that their past is not without turmoil and bloody conflict. So Colombia was hardly darting up on my bucket list. But as I am not one to pass up an opportunity to travel to new places, I anxiously emailed our trip leader to say “yes” to the vacant spot on a birding expedition. I bravely bought my airline ticket, squirmed through numerous vaccine shots, and packed my bags with clothes I did not care if lost due to an emergency exit.
Somewhere along the bird watching trip, rambling through the Andes to the Amazon, I fell in love with Colombia. I returned a few months later for another month-long birding expedition, and again to research potential property for that perfect spot in the Andes to settle my road-tested bones. I have explored the coffee zone, Amazon, northern Colombia and all three corridors of the Andes. So, I feel fairly qualified to give my two-cents about whether Colombia is safe.
I admit and can truthfully say, I experienced one very scary moment.
It was the day I got on the back of a motorcycle driven by a young real estate agent who rushed through the bustling, busy, congested capital of Antioquia, Medellín, because we were late for an appointment. What was I thinking?
The majority of vehicles on the Colombian road are motorcycles and fill every available space on the road. They are fast and easy to drive. They are easier to park, often inside the foyer of an apartment. Compared to the price of a car, they are cheap to own. You do not need to be trained or take a test to drive one. A helmet is obligatory in large cities and on major roads, but rarely used in the country. According to the national statistics agency DANE, in 2015 there were some six million motorcycles circulating in Colombia – more than half of the total vehicle fleet. It gets scarier. In 2013, 43.5% of people who died as a result of a road accident were motorcyclists, with Antioquia having the most fatalities. According to a Colombian friend who works in the transportation industry, an average of 300 motorcycle accidents occur in Medellín every day.
My past is full of riding motorcycles. I admit, however, that most of the time I was in orderly traffic on maintained highways with drivers following the passing rules. Living in a small town high in the Andes, I ride motorcycles on dirt roads leading to hiking trails, friends, or bird-watching hot spots. The biggest safety problem in rural Colombia is dodging boulders falling from cliffs and chickens scattering between pot-holes filled with mud.
I soon learned riding a motorcycle in the big city of Medellín is unique and not for the queasy-inclined traveler.
Motorcycles are allowed to drive in between vehicles stopped at red lights, giving them the advantage of being the first in line to zoom ahead of the pack. Like racecar drivers listening for the gun to shatter the silence, Julian would watch the pedestrian countdown intently. As the numbers flipped downward, his body would tense and move forward in anticipation of pushing the throttle the very nano-second it hits zero. I stiffen, grasp Julian and close my eyes. No wait, maybe I should open them. No, close them. Oh jeez!
We’re off, my helmet pushed back- wards by the force of passing air. I try to push it back into place with one hand, realizing I should have actually buckled it. The other hand is tightly clutched around Julian’s ribs. I forget to close my eyes and watch in horror as we zoom closer and closer to the next red light without touching the brakes.
Julian top-dogingly snakes between vehicles, his mirror within inches of other mirrors. I look for broken glass on the
road, but there is none. “How do they do that?” I wonder. I turn my head and stare at a truck tire within a foot of my head that is bigger than our bike. I look up to see the driver talking on the phone with one hand and smoking a cigarette with the other. The statistics come blaring into my head. I’m sure Julian’s ribs are pretty bruised by now.
Once on the freeway, I begin to breath. The open road gives an exhilarating feeling of freedom as we dart ahead, leaving the four-wheeled losers behind. I smile at memories of my teen years when my boyfriend would purposely drive crazy, forcing me to hang on to him tightly.
On the third day of apartment hunting, I have the hang of it. Julian’s ribs have healed as I sit calmly and enjoy the interesting people I share the road with. As we maneuver our way up to the white line, I feel part of a special gang of bikers who can break all the rules and get away with it. I shift forward with Julian as we watch the countdown together. We are the bikers of Medellín. And I survived to tell the story.