Before I open my eyes, I think I can smell the rain outside. It’s early, very early, but the joy of westward jetlag means that I’m already wide awake. Voices in Spanish that haven’t seen Spain rise up from the courtyard and slip under my door. Outside, I hear footsteps on stone, steadfast and staccato, while the soft twist of cinnamon glides into the room.
I get up and open the shutters and that’s when it hits me. The parched clouds on blue sky canvas, the rain on the flagstones, the dark green mountains overpowering the horizon. The soldiers, the rooftops, the tiles and the domes, the steep narrow streetways, the children, the smells, the blot of new colours, the clamouring quiet sounds, the spirit and the senses that merge before my eyes.
I’m here. In Colombia. And I’ve never felt more alive.
The Power of Perception
Years ago, I travelled to East Africa on a medical school placement. We studied (occasionally,) took safaris into the Serengeti, climbed Kilimanjaro and learned how to cut pineapple into slices in the small town of Moshi.
Our experiences in the hospitals require articles of their own. Yet at this unexpected crossroads, among those we met were a few working Americans.
“My grandma cried when I left,” said one.
“Mom thought I’d never come back,” said another.
They called Africa the “dark continent” and commented on how no-one they knew had come back alive. Largely, it turned out, because no-one they knew had gone there at all.
To young Europeans, who’d grown up on Africa’s doorstep, such hysteria seemed… hysterical.
An Invitation to Colombia
Roll on through the years to 2012 when a message arrived in my inbox, inviting me to Colombia.
Colombia. My heart beat a little faster and that old literary companion, the shiver down my spine, strut its stuff and reminded me why people use it.
I longed to go. I’ve love to go. But was it safe to go?
I’m hardly a timid traveller. I’ve driven in north Africa, caught trains during earthquakes in rural China, scaled walls of ice and jumped out of a plane. I have even visited Manchester on a dark and stormy night. Yet, as my far more adventurous mother is keen to remind me, there’s a difference between adventure and reckless stupidity.
I did a little research.
I checked the travel warnings on the FCO website. I left my wedding rings at home. I spruced up my travel insurance and wrote letters to my family explaining how much I loved them. (Only kidding. But perhaps it crossed my mind.)
I accepted the invitation and I boarded the plane.
Over the week that followed, I had some of the best times of my life.
I went underground to face giant sculptures carved into the rock. I pressed my face against glass to see gold of Colombian history. I took in Botero, Picasso, Dali and Toulouse-Lautrec in the leafy shaded courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art. I snapped vibrant street art on the concrete walls around the city. I ground coffee and sipped beer, tried clumpy juices with names like Lulada and tucked into arepas and empanadas, fresh avocado and hot ajiaco.
And that was just Bogota.
At the coast in Cartagena, I bathed in the colours of the Caribbean soul and sea. Fresh coconut at sunset, sweet coconut in the day’s sticky humidity and fried coconut at almost any other time. I cycled past fraying churches in dappled colonial colours and hopped onto a catamaran that floated past skyscrapers while the sun melted into orange in the sky. I swam over coral and scrunched sunlight and sand within the gaps between my toes. I danced with hot pirates and got chatting with local vendors. I even joined a stag do.
In short, this place was amazing. What had I been afraid of?
“Twenty years ago,” said Pablo, a smooth-voiced guide who led me to the Salt Cathedral near Zipaquira, “we could be eating like this in a family restaurant when they would arrive.
“A convoy of cars, big cars, and a lot, a lot of men. The bodyguards would come in, they’d be very obvious with their guns, big guns, and they’d take over the restaurant.
“Everyone with children, everyone else,” he frowns, “would have to leave immediately.
“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t drive out of Bogota,” he went on. “The roads were not safe, it was better to fly. Now there’s only trouble,” he lifts his arm with a wave as the car moves along “a long way out there in the very rural areas.”
The seemed to match the views held by the local expats too.
“Bogota’s just like any other city,” said one. “You have to be careful.”
“Out of interest,” I replied, forcing my voice to sound casual, “where are you from?”
(A long time ago I heard the same words from an Israeli couple. Just before they said they heard shells exploding each night.)
“Perth,” came the answer, which seemed more than safe enough.
So now, mainstream life here is safe. That’s quite a journey, given that back in 1987 judges were murdered at a rate of one per month and a number of presidential candidates were slain. Newspaper editors, top police officials and even ambassadors died at the hands of guerrillas and drug cartels.
Those are statistics that rather put into perspective the sacrifices of our current political and editorial leaders. How many of us would volunteer for a life in public service that carried such appalling life expectancy results?
The driving question, of course, as I roamed around the country was what on earth had changed? How had a country so stricken with problems switched from being a shorthand for crime and corruption into a top travel destination?
And as usual with big, overreaching questions, the answer was complex.
Increased military presence, said some sources. The shift of the drugs trade into Mexico. The financial woes of neighbouring Venezuela. The assistance from the US.
I’ll type it out again as it’s not a phrase you hear every day:
“Our country was made better with the help from the US.”
It was a comment that jolted together two memories of mine. One involving talk about “dark continents” from all those years ago. The other from just last week.
I asked Facebook, in the way that only a social media geek can, whether anyone had a photo of Colombia I could use.
I braced myself for tumbleweed; instead, I received a flood.
Email after email, photo after photo, blog post after blog post came shooting across the wires. Colombia was hot property: people had visited the country and loved it – and they wanted to let me know.
And overwhelmingly, these emails came from Americans: people stuck with the stereotype of having so much and knowing so little when it comes to events around the globe.
I utterly loathe stereotypes and I like to think I don’t carry many with me, so it’s a juicy, squeezy pleasure to corrode through two in the space of a week.
Yet nothing compares to the pleasure of that first morning in Bogota. The scent of the rain, the shape of the clouds and the rhythm of a heartbeat skipping that little bit faster. The thrill, in short, of reaching a new travel destination for the very first time.
Colombia has a C word and it’s a command instead of a noun.
“Come,” it tells you as it takes you by the hand. “Come and see us – and make sure you come now.”
To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world” – Freya Stark
For most of my time in Colombia, I was travelling with local guides and officials who obviously knew the best places in town and understood the lay of the land. However, in Cartagena on the coast, I wandered freely on my own during the day and with friends at night. I was not hassled once. Not at all. Obviously, I can only tell you about my own experiences but they are this: my travels to Colombia to the standard tourist cities felt easier and safer than in many other countries, including parts of the UK, the US, Hungary, Brazil and definitely India.
Is Colombia Safe?
In reality, checking safety advice should be something we all do every time we visit a country. Since I have a British passport, I alwayscheck out this site.You’re probably better served by whatever advice your government issues, since disputes are sometimes nationality-specific and in the unlikely event that you ever need any help abroad, it will be your own embassy you’ll have to turn to.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com