If you mention you’re thinking of travelling to Colombia to people at home, you’re often met with some kind of negative response. “Why would you want to go there?”. “Isn’t Colombia dangerous?”. To the general public, Colombia conjures up images of atrocious violence, cocaine, drug cartels and corruption. And yes, it was once that way. But in 2002 the newly elected President Álvaro Uribe launched an immediate and effective clampdown on terrorist groups. According to Lonely Planet, for six years murder rates fell by 40% and highways cleared of FARC roadblocks became safe to use. With regards to drugs, Colombia still supplies around 90% of the USA’s cocaine. The effort to reduce coca cultivation is still ongoing, but for now the larger drug cartels have diminished and areas that used to be unstable are now no longer.
Only the most remote areas of the country, up in the northeast and the jungle east of the Andes, are still controlled by the FARC and paramillitaries. Certain night bus routes are also sometimes targets for armed robberies, but they are none that I intend to use. Stick to the Gringo Trail and there apparently runs little risk. From reading other blogs and reviews, many travellers seem to state that they actually felt safer travelling in Colombia, compared to neighbouring South American countries.
Colombia is a country eager to shake off it’s tumultuous past and is steadily growing into an upcoming tourist destination.
Rough Itinerary – 10 weeks
This is my initial idea for an itinerary. I’ve left myself more than enough time to do everything on this list. When I travelled in South America last year it was almost a constant rush getting from destination to destination. I saw a hell of a lot and it was great. But the problem is travelling like this often tires you out to the extreme. I want to travel differently this year and slow it down. Spend more time in each place to get a better feel for it. If I meet people I really get on with, I can stay longer. If something goes wrong, hey, I’m not in any real rush to get somewhere else. I’m also open to plans changing completely if better options arise, and this itinerary lends enough time for that to happen (it’ll also help me avoid places with protests… remember Chile, anyone?).
So here we go:
2 weeks Bogotá. Trips to Zipaquira and Villa de Lleyva.
1 week Zona Cafeteria. Visit Armenia, Salento, Valle de Cocora, Manizales.
1 week Medellín. Trip to Guatapé and Piedra Del Peñol.
4 weeks Cartegena. Possibly volunteer with IVHQ. Head to Barranquilla for Carnival.
2 weeks Santa Marta, Taganga and Cuidad Perdida trek.
I plan to get around from city to city by bus (well, coach). Sometimes cheap airfares are advertised which I might consider whilst I’m out there, but part of the fun of travel is actually getting from one place to the next under your own steam. Plus, you see a lot more from a window of a bus. Bus travel in Colombia appears to be cheap and fairly comfortable, and the longest bus ride I’d take being approximately 13 hours, from Medellín north up to Cartegena.
After getting by travelling in South America for 3 months last year knowing virtually no Spanish or Portuguese and rather lazily using hand signs, I’m endeavouring to at least be able to make basic conversation in Spanish by the time I go away again this year. Above is my attempt at learning some initial key phrases, including sentences about myself and where I’m from, how to buy bus tickets and phrases to use whilst shopping (note: I typed these up from my Latin American Spanish Phrasebook, so I’m hoping they’re correct…). These are the kinds of things I really wish I’d taken the time to learn for my last trip so I could have communicated a little better with the locals.
There’s little else I can do now except countdown the days until I go – (got a while yet!). The nice thing about having already backpacked once is that I am a lot better prepared than I was last year. I have all my gear, I know what works now and what’s not worth taking. I’m not scared of being alone anymore. I’ve also had every vaccination under the sun so thankfully I won’t have to go through the ordeal of being jabbed in every limb again.
These are some of my own recommendations for reading up a little more about Colombia.
I try to read a lot and have a bit of an obsession for travel literature (especially when it comes to South America). The authors of these four books above all write about their individual experiences in Colombia. I choose to read these kinds of books whilst planning trips as they often give even better, more personal insight into places to visit within countries. Short Walks From Bogotá by Tom Feiling (picture above) is my personal recommendation for finding out more about Colombia. He journeys throughout the country, stopping at places previously too dangerous to visit. By speaking to a vast array of people, from former guerrilla fighters to tribesmen, his writing reveals many truths about Colombia’s past and present.
I’ve also found the following blog posts to be great sources of inspiration, experiences and practical tips: