An Introduction to Colombia

There’s one huge, recent trip abroad of mine that has yet to make it on this blog – and that is the 11-day adventure in Colombia I had during my spring break, a little over a month ago.  This blog has been very quiet during my fourth semester at the University of Alabama, but posts are coming back now that I am home for the summer, before I leave the country again on my next long adventure.  And they will be published frequently so get ready!  Posts will include travel tips and stories from my time in Colombia, as well as making up for all of the missed stories from Morocco (there are so many…) and other adventures during college and around the USA this past year! Stay tuned.

Colombia.  I remember sitting at the kitchen table after I returned from Morocco last summer, with my grandmother sitting across from me, asking where my next adventure would be with that sweet smile on her face.  As soon as the word “Colombia” escaped my mouth, her face instantly morphed into one of fear and apprehension.  “Colombia?! No you can’t go there! Don’t go to that country!”

Flag in Tayrona

I guess I should’ve expected that reaction.  Most people in the United States, mainly those who don’t travel or who don’t keep up to date by reading travel blogs, or who only base their views of other countries off sensationalist news, continue to associate this South American country with its rocky history involving drug cartels and lots of violence.  Medellin used to be considered among the most dangerous cities in the world in the 1980s.

However, this continued association of Colombia with its violent history and only with drugs is much to the dismay of the locals and to the travelers who have come to love the country.  My Colombian friends, who I originally met at my university in the United States, got frustrated and sad every time a new person would respond to the fact that they were Colombian with a mention of cocaine.  And this was by no means a single occurrence – it happened again and again, unfortunately.  The reality is that as far as the instability and violence of a few decades past goes, things have improved tremendously in this country and are completely different in the present time.

walking my llama

Today, there are still dangerous parts of the country, located in the southern regions between the Llanos (plains) and the Amazon, where militant guerrilla groups do make their home in the most remote parts.  But the solution to that problem is simple: just don’t go to those areas.  They’re not too difficult to avoid either, as the region doesn’t have the same tourist infrastructure that the areas around Cali, Bogota, and northwards to the Caribbean Coast do.

And after traveling solo, as a 19 year old girl, through this “dangerous” country for 11 days, I can confidently say that I never felt scared or in danger once, and that I love Colombia and its people to pieces.  I took the time to find my own information about the country, using travel blogs as resources along with my Colombian friends, who knew their country best and who were begging me to visit.  I worked hard to save up enough money while at college, and even did the work necessary to convince my parents of its security (4 pages to be exact).  And then I finally got on that plane alone.  Regrets? None. It was an amazing trip,  and I’m so excited to share what I’ve learned and experienced in this country.  Let’s begin with some interesting facts and random things:

I'm flying

Colombia is like a miniature representation of South America.

This country was honestly the perfect introduction to South America as a whole for me.  Why? Because, it really does combine all of the aspects of the continent within a single country.  There’s the little bit of the Amazon and of the rainforest way down in the southern point, which I did not get to visit this time around.  Andean mountains cut their way across the landscape, making every bus ride a twisting journey through hills and peaks with the most amazing views at every turn, only interrupted by the flat expanses of the Llanos.   Beyond the rainforests, dense forests, and mountains, there even exists impossible desert landscapes in La Guajira, the northeastern peninsula.

landscape near tunja

High altitude major, international cities like Bogota and Medellin are where people are concentrated, and where the temperature is always hovering in the same degree range, but beyond the cities and into the countryside exist the farms and quaint villages of colonial architecture where life has not changed much since the past.  And even beyond that, indigenous culture holds strong in many places, which is most especially true on the coast near the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range.  Near Villa de Leyva, I saw signs and information for many sites of the Muisca indigenous group.

Villa de Leyva square

The most amazing beaches and brilliant blue water can be found on the coast, along with cities famous for their Carnaval (Barranquilla) and the African and Caribbean influence in the culture.  Dance is a way of life in the form of merengue or more famously, Salsa, which has made its home in the city of Cali more than anywhere.

cabo san juan

It really is an amazing that this one country holds so much diversity and so many different characteristics.

Empanadas are LIFE.

My favorite food in Colombia was the one and only, the great empanada. Although, I was on the verge of getting tired of empanadas towards the end of my trip because I ate them so darn much.  This cheap, but filling fried bread pouch filled with chicken, beef, rice, egg, or whatever else you can imagine can be found everywhere, and usually for price is never, ever more than $.50 – $1.25USD ($1000 – 2500 COP).

Empanadas

Thanks to the cheap prices, and the fact that I’m a student traveler on an extremely tight budget, I basically lived off this food while wandering in Colombia.  But I wasn’t the only one!  Empanadas could literally be found EVERYWHERE.  At universities, the preferred lunch by students is an empanada, which are sold at stands all over the place.  In cities, you can always be sure to find an empanada cart around the next street corner, and in every single bus station there are kiosks and stands where you can buy them as well.  The great thing about this food is that it’s never the same wherever you go — people always switch it up.

Empanadas weren’t the only food in Colombia of course — arepas were another popular one all over the place.  Colombian cuisine deserves its own separate post in its own right.

The national sport of Colombia is NOT soccer, or any other sport you’d guess.

Nope, the national sport is not soccer, baseball, etc.  It’s unique and it’s awesome, and it’s called Tejo. 

The way I like to describe this game is that it’s like a horseshoe toss, except with explosives.  That sounds a little scary, but let me reassure you it’s not scary at all and it’s tons of fun.  How it works is that you have a mud pit, and you have these large metal disks which players have to throw.  The goal is to throw the metal disks at a distance, and aim for the center of the mud pit.  Whoever is the closest to the center flag gets the points for the round.

Tejo

The catch is that underneath the center are some little bits of gunpowder, and when a metal disk is thrown with enough force and lands right above the pockets of gunpowder. . . KABOOM! A mini explosion happens, accompanied by a very loud noise and a little bit of smoke, followed by the excitement and celebration of the thrower who has just scored their team 3 points.  And to add even more to this fun experience, it’s customary to drink cheap beer while playing Tejo, so people tend to get progressively worse as they play (or better, depending)

I’m very proud to say that after playing Tejo for a few hours with my hostelmates in the town of San Gil, I managed to get a 3 point explosion on my last turn!

There’s nothing wrong with a lot of PDA.  It’s normal.

PDA, aka public displays of affection.  Whereas back in American culture it’s considered to be weird for couples to be all over each other, except for hand holding and kissing in certain situations, in public places, there’s nothing wrong with it in Colombia.  This isn’t unique to Colombia of course, because affection in public and sexuality are very culturally accepted by most Latin American countries, and even in Spain.

romantic streets of cartagena

Couples would be embracing and passionately kissing each other on the subways and city buses.  At universities, nobody would pass a second glance to those at the sides of buildings or on the corner having an intense moment, and neither would these people be bothered by the fact that they were in public.  Affection between family members, not just between couples, was also a common and normal part of the culture.

Drinking and dancing are also normal.

Again, where there’s a small stigma with drinking and partying in the United States, it’s part of the culture here.  Colombians are famous for their original alcohol, Aguardiente, and they take shots of this or down a few of their own national beers before hitting up their endless nightlife options.  From there, it’s reggaeton, salsa, merengue and plenty of drinking and dancing the night away.

Aguila

I know this is a bit of a generalization, but from what I could tell, Colombians were always up to have fun and enjoy life so passionately.  The Colombians I spent time with loved to party, and I loved them all the more for this

There’s a youth leftist movement and revolutionary culture.

Che Guevara is not a stigmatized historical figure known only for Cuba, starting revolutions, and communism as he is in the United States.  In Colombia, as is probably the case in most other Latin American countries, he is considered a hero by many and this is especially true for the country’s youth.

Universidad Nacional

I saw it more than anywhere at the country’s largest public university, the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota.  A portrait of Che could be seen on a few buildings, along with many political quotes.  There was a soup kitchen of sorts set up in the center of campus as well, where every day student volunteers would come to cook soup or other foods and give out to free to those who needed it.  Throughout Bogota, I saw this in the amazing graffiti everywhere and all of the political posters for the election which was happening around the time I was in the country.

Colombian buses are mobile freezers.

No, but really.  No matter how hot it is outside, if you take a cross country bus ride for more than 3 or 4 hours, you better make sure you’ve got an extra sweater or blanket in your bag, because everything you’ve heard about Colombian buses is true.  The drivers do in fact blast the air conditioning to the point of refrigeration, and whether or not this is to keep the drivers awake is unclear.

Candelaria

Colombians are among the happiest people on the planet.

According the Happy Planet Index, and a few travel books I’ve read, including Lonely Planet’s 1000 Experiences book, Colombia is one of the happiest places in the world.  Number 6, according the the Happy Planet Index.

Hammocks at Renacer

But honestly, regardless of whether or not it found a place in the official rankings, I would still talk about how happy Colombian people are.  Despite the difficulties of their history, the people remain positive and smiley and friendly, and they’ve got a lot to be smiling about.  They’ve got a constant supply of fresh, delicious tropical fruits, and can often be found lounging in a hammock, whether it’s in the cool mountain air or on the beach in the shade of a palm tree.  They aren’t too worried about time or punctuality, aren’t afraid or judgmental about open love and affection, and are very family-oriented.

DSC04040

And most importantly of all, they know how to have a good time and make the most of life, whether it be drinking beer or aguardiente, dancing salsa, or racking the points up in a game of Tejo.

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