So we left one notoriously dangerous South American city of petty theft to another with much more of a serious reputation – Bogota, Colombia. DFATs advice was clear “We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Colombia because of the high threat of terrorism and criminal activity. Terrorist, insurgent, paramilitary groups and armed criminal organisations are active throughout Colombia and there is a high risk of kidnapping, including of foreigners.” And yes, there were some ares in Colombia, particularly around borders that you wouldn’t dare go. Paramilitary which controlled the cocaine trade from South America into Northern America did not take kindly to tourism and that was just fine with us. Although you could cross some borders by land between Ecuador and Venezuela it was a gamble and entering Panama via the Darian Gap was an impossibility, so flying was the best means in and out.
Our international flight was a piece of luxury, our first internal airfare within the continent after 1000s upon 1000s of kms traveled and borders crossed by road. Excited to be landing in the country to which we had heard so much positive word of mouth, hopefully it would precede its reputation of being one of the worlds most dangerous counties of unruly drug cartels and merciless kidnappings. I hoped that Colombia was like other bad lands we had visited – Cambodia, Croatia, Burma where 10 years ago you just wouldn’t dream about going, but today, in most parts of the country it was a different story.
Exiting the airport with out hands tightly around our day packs we quickly moved to the taxi stand and jumped in one with the most “friendly” faced man we could find. We had only just heard a travelers tail of a French backpacker landing in Caracas, Venezuela, where upon exciting the airport and taking a taxi to his hostel he was express kidnapped for 24hrs and forced to withdraw a few grand from his bank account before being left unscathed. Thank god we weren’t in Caracas right? But to our surprise our taxi driver was super friendly, albeit a small argument over fare cost, he drove us proficiently to our hostel “La Pinta” located in the upscale financial district of Bogota and one of the safest neighborhoods.
Bogota stands 2400 meters above sea level, is the largest city in the country and the key economic and industrial hub filled with luxury malls, great restaurants and nightlife, universities and over 7 million residents. It was beautifully surrounded by the Eastern Cordillera and the final end point of the Andes to which we had followed from south to north. But instead of being dry, dusty or snow-capped, it was green and lush and covered with dense jungle and alpine. The weather was perfect with blue skies and a comfortable temperature. The architecture of the houses was also very different to what we had seen across other South American cities, they had a British influence and were built from red brick with triangular roofing.
We were welcomed with the contagious smiles of our Colombian hosts at our hostel and were shown around and introduced to the two resident labradors that made for a homely and safe atmosphere. Not being able to check in to our room until 3pm that afternoon we had the day to walk the streets in the new town and get our bearings. A little uncertain we asked the hostel staff if it was safe and where to go. And they helpfully replied that we were perfectly ok and to go and explore their beautiful city care free with the only advise, to stay away from the old town after dark. So we walked down the main street passing hairdressers, boutique shops, the major banks and smart looking Colombians in their suites, minis, beautiful long hair and a Jennifer Lopez behind – the women seemed to stand up to their reputation. Sipping lattes in the luxuries shopping malls of Zona Rosa and window shopping in Zara, we treated ourselves to a haircut and cheered with the locals as Colombia played Ecuador in the soccer pre-qualifications for the World Cup.
For our second day we had opted for one of the free tours run by the government in La Candelaria, the historic center of the city to which we were also accompanied by an English speaking guide and an plain clothed police officer. Again we had heard the horror stories of staying in the historic district – armed robberies on the street, armed gangs attacking hostels in the middle of the night and its generally dodgy reputation to which it was very unwise to travel the streets alone or after dark. But again, we were surprised by what was a beautiful, colorful, Spanish flavored old town with yes, a few homeless hanging around the centre plazas but generally just everyday people making the most of every day. Our tour guide Diana was a flamboyant and passionate Colombian who loved the city and told us that Colombians were “craaaazy, craaazy for life, family and having a good time..sometime too craaazy”. Her “r’s” rolled uncontrollably as her hands waved around to add even more expression.
The meeting point was the towns center of Plaza de Boliver, a huge square housing the seat of the congress, mayors office and the impressive neoclassical Cathedral Primada, Bogota’s largest church that loomed over the square. Out the front of the congress building University students protesting freely about upcoming elections while military silently stood with their heavy duty machine guns protecting the government buildings from any wrong doing by its opinionated and democratically free civilians. Shooting off the plaza were steep cobbled streets filled with Museums with free entry for all, theaters, cafes and libraries while on every street corner was another military officer standing on guard to perhaps maintain order or more likely give the tourists a sense of safety.
But for us, the military was not a necessity, the people on the street promoted that sense of stability, welcomness and friendliness that we really hadn’t felt anywhere else outside perhaps Chile. Every second passer by looked at you with a smile and a “Buenos Dias” (good-day) that gave off that vibe that fellow travelers had commented on. Although the government was trying hard with its global marketing campaign with the tag line “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay” maybe the job was already being done slowly by the Colombian people and the travelers that dare to go, don’t want to leave and tell others of their amazing experience. Word of mouth – the most powerful means of changing attitudes…and ours was about to change.