Colombia & The Narrative I Thought I Couldn’t Tell

I remember, as an 8-year-old in third grade science class, a classmate named Ian telling me he grew up in a country with rainforests and waterfalls where the people played music all the time. He said I would really enjoy it, but that I needed to tan a few shades darker if I wanted to visit.

I was too pale, he said, which would get me kidnapped by narcoterrorists who would call my mommy and demand all her money. If she didn’t send enough, they’d slit my throat.

These things make an impression on an 8-year-old.

A few weeks later, my babysitter saw me peering out the window at a hummingbird fluttering about the porch and remarked, “Oh, I used to see those all the time in Colombia!”

And so Colombia, to me, was a place with narcoterrorists and hummingbirds.

The narco-terrorist bit is no longer part of the equation. The long civil war has ended, and the yankee-abducting FARC insurgents Ian warned me about have disbanded.

Today Colombia doesn’t want to be known for violence, drugs or Pablo Escobar. Colombia wants to be know for its art, music, food, museums, landscapes, and culture.

But I am not going tell you about these things. I already tried.

In my first article on Colombia, fun facts stood in for my lived experience because I wanted you to love Colombia and not fear it. But it’s the mishaps the make the story.

I came to Colombia at a rock-bottom point in my life, and my mission, as quixotic and naive as it may sound, was to save the rainforest or fall in love.

Yes, I was pretty delusional in the summer of 2018.

I wanted to find a reason to stop traveling. That would only happen, I thought, if I found someone or something to tie me down in a particular place. So, yeah, it was either going to be rainforest conservation or a new relationship.

Cartagena

My South America journey began one muggy July afternoon in the laid-back colonial port city of Cartagena on Colombia’s northern coast. Think beaches, seafood, tropicals fruits, Caribbean vibes, afro beats. And very, very beautiful people.

My host in Cartagena was Christian, a 32-year-old Venezuelan immigrant who works at a travel agency. Effortlessly hilarious, Christian could easily charm me into forgetting that he showed up two hours late to literally everything. He also often forgot to go to work because he lost track of time. Time. That was a source of constant shock for me. South America has a very different sense of time.

I got my my first lesson in Colombia street smarts as I was crossing this lawn to reach Castle of San Felipe.

Two homeless men who were perched beneath a palm tree approached me and asked for money to eat. One of them had a mutilated arm. I suppose I felt bad, so I agreed to give him 5,000 pesos. As I fumbled through my wallet to find the right bill, he dipped in and helped himself

“Here it is!” he said, crumpling a red bill in his palm and backing away. It took me a moment to realize he had actually just snatched a 50,000 pesos ($16).

“Wait, that wasn’t 5,000,” I protested.

“Thank you so much, brother! We’re going to use it to buy food,” he called back.

“Why would you do that? That’s stupid,” Christian said when I recounted the incident upon returning home that night.

“Well, he probably needs it more than I do,” I countered.

“He’s going to use it to buy drugs. That’s what he needs it for.”

“You don’t know that!”

“I live here. I’d know better than you.”

Old Cartagena has gone the way of Dubrovnik, Hoi An, Guatapé, Kotor. Here’s a UNESCO heritage site-turned-Disneyland. You cannot know what is real and what is staged in Old Cartagena. Perhaps there is no longer a difference.

Bogotá

Elevated on a chilly plateau high in the Andes, the Colombian capital, Bogotá, is a serious detour off the spine of any South America backpacking trip. Is is worth it?

I’ve heard Bogotá written off as crowded, polluted, and dangerous; a big modern city not unlike other big modern cities. This is all true, I guess, but I’ve heard the same complaints leveled at New York.

And that’s just it. Bogotá is Colombia’s New York. The hustle-and-bustle megapolis, the decrepit transit system and world-class museums, the constant flux of newcomers and old-timers, the glass towers where money is made and damn all. The center of it all.

It’s worth it.

I was picked up from Bogotá Bus Terminal by my host family. 23-year-old Andrés had told his family that I was a friend he met while backpacking in Europe because he felt they would not understand or accept the concept of Couchsurfing. Andrés had just returned from a year-long stint interning at hostel in Chennai, India. A soft-spoken intellectual type, Andrés and I had many riveting late night talks about religion, politics, and, inevitably, Donald J. Trump.

Andres invited me to join a family trip to visit the grandparents in the countryside. On the way we passed some breathtaking waterfalls.


When we arrived, his grandfather, a salt-of-the-earth middle-aged man who spoke in heavy drawl, cut some clementines for me from the orchard in the backyard and taught me to play dominos.

When we returned to Bogotá, we got ready to go clubbing at Theatrón, the biggest night club on the continent. On the car ride over there, Andrés mentioned he was meeting his girl there, and his mother asked whether he had invited a girl for me.

“No, Alé va a conquistar,” he said (English: No, Alex will conquer one there.)

Realizing how awkward the night could turn out for me, I invited some rando who I had been talking to on WhatApp. Surprisingly, he actually showed up.

The next morning, after just two hours of sleep, we joined Andres’s parents on their weekly jog to Monserrate, an iconic 17th century monastery and sacred site perched on a hill high above the city.

Zipaquirá & Back

A middle-aged lawyer named Jorge who lives in the northern suburbs of the city invited me to go on a road trip to a town called Zipaquirá. His car broke down the moment we stopped to pick up a quick lunch on the outskirts Zipaquirá. He encouraged me to go explore Zipaquirá alone while he waited for the tow truck to arrive.

In the 1940s, the abandoned salt mines of Zipaquirá were converted into a vast  underground cathedral complex spanning hundreds of chambers. I emerged from the mines with a dozen missed calls from Jorge. The towing tuck had arrived, and they were about to leave without me.

Upon returning to Bogotá, Jorge was very reluctant to transfer custody of me to my next host, Andres Moreno.

“I don’t have a good feeling about this, Alex! This part of the city is very dangerous!” Jorge protested, as we drove through a dodgy stretch South Bogotá. “I’m a local and I’m telling you this neighborhood is not safe.”

As soon as Jorge dropped me off, Andres Moreno addressed the elephant in the room.

“It’s an ugly neighborhood, yes, but not dangerous. Just look around you.” Andres gestures at the battered motorcycles and trucks lining the street and the oil-stained men attending to them. “There’s nobody here but mechanics. They don’t want to rob you. They just want to work.”

“So I can walk around alone at night, and I won’t get my stuff stolen?” I ask.

“Oh, no honey, this is still Colombia. At night, you WILL get robbed. You come home before dark, okay? Or you take an Uber. But don’t go walking around here alone after sunset.”

A Very Close Call

The next morning I step out to strong daylight pouring over Avenida Las Caracas, and I decide bad things cannot happen under such light. A young couple clad in matching leather jackets passes holding hands. A teenage girl and her younger sister walk by, popsicles in hand. I do not smell danger. 

I fix my sights on a distant mountainside, where, rising above a mosaic of tin dwellings cascading down a steep slope, a church spire catches my eye. For no specific reason, I set out for this distant landmark, perhaps as an excuse to pass through the hill communes.

As I wander the winding maze of the communes, I focus my camera on a narrow, colonial-style lane running up a steep incline into the mountains. Just as the frame empties of people, an elderly man turns onto the lane. Impatient, I proceed with the shot anyways, hoping he will prove photogenic. 

Apparently this does not go unnoticed. He spins around and squints his eyes at me, seemingly unnerved by my intrusion (photo above captured at this exact moment). He speaks at me, though I cannot be sure what he is saying. I nod, but I dare not speak, lest I reveal I am a foreigner in such a neighborhood where foreigners should not go

He continues to ask my attention, conveying a sense of urgency, and without hearing him, I understand he is warning me that I am in the wrong neighborhood. Get out! He points to me for other passersby to take notice. 

Annoyed that he should place a spotlight on me when I most need to be discrete, I round the corner, and begin descending the slope into the valley below.

A young man veers into the lane right after me, lunging menacingly in my direction. I walk faster as I find his eyes tracking me. I tuck my camera into my bag, and wrap my bag in my arms to deter a snatch-and-run.

I survey the next block, finding a congregation of young men loitering on both sides of the street just ahead. They register my approach, and I feel as if I am an insect about to be ensnared in a spider’s web.

I deliberate that it would be easier to elude one attacker than a gang of them. I change directions, locking eyes with the lone stalker who followed me into the lane. One way or another, it will all be over in a few seconds, I think to myself. 

He crosses toward my side of the street. I promptly do the opposite, stone-faced and allowing for no sign of intimidation. The gap between us begins to narrow when an SUV turns into the lane, placing a much welcome barrier between me and my would-be assailant. The chance interference of this passing vehicle buys me enough time to gain onto the main street.

As I round the corner, I feel as if I am stepping back into daylight from a dark, cold night. I glance at my pursuer. He twists his mouth in ambivalence, then continues on his way.

The type of experience described above played out around a dozen times during my trip. I wandered blindly into zonas de peligro out of ignorance, and I have nobody to blame but myself. That I escaped unscathed I credit to the advice of a Colombian friend in New York who taught me how to detect and allude would-be attackers.

On the whole, I think it possible to minimize threats to your safety by not wandering into unknown neighborhood and not traveling alone. I’ve put together some advice to guide any visitor who may be having second thoughts about visiting Colombia over security concerns.

Medellín

I had soaring expectations for my next stop, Medellín, Colombia’s second biggest city. In recent years, Medellín has become a magnet for digital nomads like me encouraged by the pleasant climate and beautiful scenery. Was it worth the hype? Would I too decide to put down my roots for a time? These were the questions as I boarded the bus to Medellín.

These three Colombian men were my couchsurfing hosts in Medellín. They are know across the country for entering into the world’s first legally recognized three-way marriage. Manuel (left) is a journalism professor, Christian (right) is an actor, and Alejandro (middle) is a dance teacher.

Manuel is the quirky alpha male dictator of the household who sets the rules. He required that I make them a meal, which I was happy to do, but I felt excluded when he prepared meals for the whole household each day and ate them in front of me without ever inviting me to join.

Ever the libertine horn dog, Manuel made passes for me, but I knew how to deflect. What did leave a searing impression, though, was the way Manuel nickle-and-dimed me throughout my stay.

Folks, if you’re too cheap to treat your guests with basic courtesy, stay off the Couchsurfing platform. I promise we don’t need you.

As an urban planner, one of my favorite things about Medellín is its imaginative approach to connecting a geographically fragmented city.

Geographically, Medellín, like much of Latin America, houses the affluent in the valley and the poor in the hills. The resulting inequality of access to economic opportunity feeds a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty in the hill communes.

Exhibit A: Much of the city’s population lives in areas too hilly for the train to reach. City planners tackled this issue by installing several cable-car lines linking distant hill districts with metro stops in the urban core.

Exhibit B: Steep rifts and ravines divide communes that are geographically proximate. The city has erected bridges of varying shape, sizes, and material to connect these neighborhoods. No two bridges are alike.

Exhibit C: This series of orange-roofed outdoor escalators scales the side of a mountain in six segments transforming what once once a  grueling trek up the equivalent height of a 28-story building into a breezy 6-minute commute.

When the city’s urban planning revolution began in the early 2000s, Medellím was the most dangerous city in the world. In particular, commune 12 was so violent that the Colombian military laid siege to the neighborhood in 2002. Conditions in the district have improved in recent years as tourists drawn by its colorful street art bring a new source of revenue and employment to the commune.

Guatapé

Before hitting the road south toward Ecuador, I visited Guatapé, a colorful folksy town that looks like it was drawn by a child with a box of crayons.

My photos of Guatapé, like those of Cartagena, are not faithful to reality. Consider that in searching for the perfect shot from the perfect angle, the photographer removes from view what is not desirable to see. For example…

Consider this giant majestic rock a half hour outside Guatapé. The shot above is what I get after spending hours searching for a way to hide the blighted landscape of overdevelopment and mass tourism surrounding El Peñon de Guatapé. But if you visit here in real life, you should sooner expect to see the view in the photo below.

Food stalls, ticket offices, fanny-packed tourist mobs – welcome to reality. I’ve been hiding it from you this whole time. Sorry.

The area was flooded during the construction of a dam in the 1950s. The flood waters never entirely receded. This waterscape is the result.

Cali

I hit Colombia’s hot and gritty third city, Cali, because it laid plainly in my path to Ecuador. From a downtown dominated by bank towers and highways, the city fans out into vast car-oriented sprawl. People in Bogotá and Medellín warned me about how dangerous Cali is, but personally I never felt unsafe there.

The only reason I spent as long in Cali as I did was because I became attached to my host, Icaro. Icaro is a biology PhD candidate at a local university. We got tacos with his mom on my first night in Cali, but most of my memories together are us laying around at home avoiding the unbearable heat outside. I gave him my prized Taiwanese fish pencil case (left) as a parting gift.

Popayán

Following Icaro’s recommendation, I broke up my journey to the Ecuadorian border with a day and night in Popayán, an unspoilt gem of a town with a well-preserved colonial core and very little to actually do.

Paolo, a 23-year-old local of Popayán, hosted me with this family in a traditional Hacienda-style household. Paolo invited me to an improv class at the community theater. I got to play the role of the gringo in every improv session. Shocking, I know!

Delusions Deferred

Colombia was my first taste of a vast new continent. I was greedy. I wanted more. If Colombia could be so endearing, what would Ecuador and Peru and Bolivia be like?

But my goal, as I have said in the beginning, was to meet someone or do something that would force me to grow roots.

I did meet someone in Bogotá. They begged me to stay. I looked for a job in the city. I wanted to make it work. But my job prospects in Bogotá were few and the pay too meager. I folded and hit the road

As for rainforest conservation, the conservation agencies never returned my calls. I figured Whatever opportunities they may have had better gone to locals anyways. Besides, maybe I ought to visit the rainforest before I consider what it means to conserve it. There would be plenty of opportunities to do that ahead, I knew.

Thus did my goals for Colombia cross the border to Ecuador.

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