Upon telling many friends and family that I would be spending my summer holiday travelling around Colombia, ‘Try not to get killed’ was a standard response. And yes, while Colombia still exports 80% of the world’s cocaine, suggesting that Pablo Escobar’s violent legacy is yet to be defeated, there is so much more to this South American wonderland than the coca leaf. Vibrant cities, Caribbean beaches, Andean peaks, deserts, the list goes on and on – the country’s geographical range is simply astounding.
The first stop for my companions and I was La Guajira, the country’s largest desert and the northern-most part of South America. For those looking to well and truly find their inner self, this could be the perfect place: beautiful sunrises and sunsets stretching over 60 metre sand dunes that roll into pristine Caribbean waters. Join pelicans taking a dip or even flamingos amongst the mangroves.
Alongside learning about the natural beauty of the area, we were lucky enough to learn about the traditions and folklore of the Wayuu, the largest indigenous ethnic group in Colombia. The Wayuu have faced centuries of persecution by the Spanish and were adversely affected by the 1970s drug trade, as portrayed in Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s 2018 film, ‘Birds of Passage’.
A few hours west lies the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s largest coastal mountain range and home to Colombia’s recently discovered archaeological gem, Ciudad Perdida, or ‘The Lost City’. Three days of trekking through mosquito hell (not to mention the rabbit-sized frogs and creepy crawlies) and a 1200-step staircase later, the rainforest gives way to the ancient city believed to be 650 years older than Peru’s Machu Picchu. The highly intricate gold artefacts of the Tayrona people that once lived there can be seen in the Gold Museums of both Santa Marta and the capital. Rediscovered (accidentally) only in 1972, it remains relatively unknown.
Colombia also boasts some fantastic cities. Medellín, for example, once the heartland of Escobar’s infamous cartel and murder capital of the world, is working hard to overcome its troublesome reputation. Now, a tram, outdoor escalator systems and even a cable car, are signs of the government’s attempts to address the poverty and inequality that have marked the city’s past. Community projects encouraging street art and hip-hop music also bring its residents and tourists together.
When the sun goes down the salsa shoes come out, before local DJs take you through a Berlin-esque experience of the early hours. Our hangovers were easily cured by a trip to the colourful colonial town of Guatapé, just an hour outside the city. Coffee from the surrounding plantations and the sweeping views at the top of the Piedra del Peñol were an undoubtable highlight of the trip.
As our five weeks came to an end, no one, contrary to expectation, had been caught in the crossfire. In fact, despite some minor linguistic difficulties, a few gastronomic disappointments and an inevitable dose of diarrhoea, we returned home unscathed and with a strong sense of affinity for the country and its warm, welcoming people. I would ask anyone to take ‘violent’ or ‘unsafe’ stereotypes with a pinch of salt and to go support a tourism industry that is helping a country turn a corner. I promise you won’t regret it.