Impressions of Colombia

Friendly people, slow roads, and lush green mountains

It’s impossible to get a complete sense of a country in a month. But here are some impressions we formed while traveling in Colombia, in the upper northwest corner of South America:

  • Colombia is really big: You could fit California and Texas inside it and still have room for New Jersey. Apart from a week on the Caribbean coast, we spent our time in the west-central part of the country, in a triangle formed by the cities of Bogota and Medellin and the town of Armenia. It looks like a fairly small area on the map, but distances are deceptive. It takes a long time to get between towns here.
"Chiva" (rural bus)
These coloful open-sided buses, called chivas (goats), connect Jardin with neighboring towns
  • We’re at the northern end of the Andes, the mountain range that runs like a spine down almost the entire western edge of South America. The mountains here are much taller than I’d expected, topping 17,000 feet—higher than anything in the continental United States. Surprisingly (for someone used to the Alps or the Rockies), most of the mountains are green all the way to the top, covered in thick forest. The scenery is often stunning.
  • Colombia sits just north of the Equator (the capital, Bogota, is at about 5 degrees north latitude). This close to the middle of the planet, the days and nights stay nearly the same length all year. The sun rises about 6 a.m. and sets about 6 p.m. So we’ve had some strange experiences for people from the mid-Atlantic United States, such as having it stay light past 6 o’clock in late December or sweltering in summer-like temperatures (on the Caribbean coast) while eating dinner in the dark.
Mountains and forests near Jardin
  • Colombia is much more economically developed than I’d expected. I was imagining something akin to the poorest places we’ve visited: Guatemala, Honduras, Cambodia, and Laos. We’ve seen pockets of rural and urban poverty here, but on the whole, Colombians seem better dressed, fed, and housed than their counterparts in those countries. Colombia has modern cities with skyscrapers, organized bus networks with fixed prices and schedules, and small towns where the tap water is clean enough to drink. Recycling facilities are widespread, and I scarcely ever saw a motorbike passenger without a helmet (even children).
  • One thing that must be hindering Colombia’s economy is the awful state of its roads, which slows transport to a crawl. Geography doesn’t help: The 500-mile-long central mountain range has no passes below 10,000 feet, and the volcanic mountains are too geologically unstable for tunneling. So highways between major cities zigzag up and down steep slopes, with trucks and buses creeping along at 10 miles an hour. Most of the main roads are only two lanes wide, and road work frequently reduces them to one lane, requiring stops of 20 to 30 minutes as traffic alternates between the single available lane. As a result, on a bus trip from the town of Chinchina to the city of Medellin, it took us more than 8 hours to go 114 miles.  
Chiva (rural bus) on a dirt road
  • The large-scale drug trafficking that plagued Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s has moved north (to parts of Mexico and Central America), and the FARC guerrillas who terrorized the countryside for years have made peace (and in some cases, gone into politics). As a result, Colombia is a much safer place than it was a few decades ago. Many Colombians who fled overseas are moving home, city dwellers are happily visiting rural areas that were off-limits for years because of guerrilla activity, and the country is attracting a growing number of international tourists as word of its beauty spreads.
Jardin plaza and mountains in the distance
  • Still, the events of Colombia’s dark years remain close under the surface. A family who hosted us shared the harrowing story of two family members who were kidnapped by guerrillas in 2000 and held in jungle camps for several weeks. One escaped and the other was ransomed, and both are now leading safe and apparently happy lives. But the experience was still vivid for everyone in the family.
  • The majority of Colombians we interacted with were very kind and open. They were interested to know why we chose to visit their country and showed obvious pride that Colombia—once a byword for drugs and danger—was now drawing tourists from all over the world.
Woman selling corn
  • During our first few weeks, almost every time Colombians said they had relatives in the United States or had lived there themselves and we asked where, the answer was New Jersey. Later we met Colombians with connections to Miami, Chattanooga (hometown of Melissa’s mother), and Canada. But for a while, it seemed like all of the Colombian expats in America must be centered around Morristown, New Jersey. People were pleased to hear that AJ was from New Jersey too, allowing them to forge a small connection with a visitor from far away.
  • Thank goodness for the few Colombians we met who spoke some English, because people’s Spanish was harder to understand than I’d expected. Several things we read before we left emphasized what clear Spanish Colombians speak, which may have lulled me into thinking I didn’t need to work too hard on my rusty Spanish before the trip. That was a mistake. Between thick Afro-Caribbean accents on the coast and pronunciations elsewhere that we weren’t used to (double l pronounced as j), I struggled a lot with understanding and communicating. Things got a bit better when I learned to start conversations with “Lo siento, no hablo mucho Espanol” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak much Spanish) rather than just letting people babble away at me while I looked blankly back at them.
Chris looking at a metal statue of a thinking man
  • When Melissa and I visited Mexico, we joked that every song we heard had the word corazon (heart) in it somewhere. In Colombia, it seems like every song includes the word bailar (dance). Colombians apparently do like to dance. Even small towns boast a couple of self-styled “discos,” complete with mirror balls, although the music is more salsa than Bee Gees.
  • We were pleasantly surprised by how few Colombians smoke (especially after a summer in Europe, where smoking was rife). Many cafes, hotels, and other buildings have no-smoking zones in front of them, even for their outdoor terraces, so we could enjoy outdoor dining without ending up next to a table of smokers.
People sitting at colorful tables in Jardin plaza
  • From big cities to small towns, there was lots of environmental messaging around, such as signs about the importance of conserving water and power or protecting biodiversity. With only a few exceptions, there was much less trash around than in some other developed countries I’ve visited—yet another thing that Colombia seems to be doing right.
Mural in Manazales

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