While all travel is personal, there are some countries that touch your heart in ways you never imagined. These places are often the ones you never expect to visit in the first place, so the surprise comes later when that same location impacts you so deeply it feels like you’re eternally connected to it. At least, that’s what Colombia did to me.
Everything I thought I knew about the country dissipated the moment the plane touched the tarmac in Bogota, after almost 35 hours in transit.
They say opposites attract, but when I fell in love with a Colombian, I never considered the difficulty of navigating two entirely different cultures and upbringings in a relationship. My often cautious, abrasive, and overly sensitive outlook was forever balanced by someone with boundless energy, openness, and a radiant positivity regarding whatever life threw at us. After almost three years together, it was time to see where these qualities stemmed from and truly understand his world.
Having never visited South America before, I had very few perceptions of Colombia other than what I’d seen or heard in mainstream media — a voice which often painted pictures of petty crime, narco-trafficking, and over-the-top beauty pageants. From the very first Bienvenidos chimed by the customs officer beaming at me upon arrival, I knew I was ready to dive deep beneath the surface and truly learn what it means to be Colombian.
Between the valleys of the Eje Cafetero (the Coffee Triangle), our journey began in Camilo’s hometown of Manizales, a quaint city hiding among emerald peaks. On the steep hills surrounding the city, coffee farmers in ponchos picked their prize. Around the winding bends of the region, convoys of colorful, beaten-up Jeeps skidded along en route to their next sale. On the corners of every colonial plaza, conversation flowed over cups of black coffee. I eventually fell into the lull of a changed routine because I was made to feel completely at home by the Paisa people and their way of life. Once we arrived at Cami’s childhood home, his mother patiently flicked through beginners Spanish books, teaching me pronunciation and verbs before cooking up an enormous lunch of beans, plantains, crispy pork, and rice — forever accompanied by mug of piping-hot coffee. Extended relatives laughed as they watched me eat arepas and heard my attempts at Spanglish. On the weekend, we explored the region and were met with open hearts and inquisitive questions, from the caballero horsemen in Parque Cocora to the Jeep drivers in Salento and our newly made friends sharing an evening rum. But after a month of feeling “at home” in Manizales, our real journey set its course — backpacking the northern coast of the country.
“Costeños” is a term that refers to the vibrant people who inhabit the coast of Latin America, and in Colombia, these people contribute to the incredible diversity of the country. In the remote islands of San Andres and Providencia in the Caribbean, the Raizal culture was etched into colorfully painted neighborhoods and vibrant communities who spoke a mixed dialect of Creole, English, and Spanish. Beneath the jungle canopies of Parque Tayrona, the white-clad Kogi carried on thousand-year-old traditions under partially hidden thatched-roof huts. Where the ochre desert meets the sea in La Guajira, the brightly dressed Wayuu people stood out against the harsh “Wild West” landscape full of wooden ranches and cacti. On the streets of Santa Marta and Cartagena, crackling boomboxes blasted reggaeton, and plastic chairs waited for people to sit, watch, and interact with each causal passerby. The region has become a melting pot as a result of colonial conquest, slavery from Africa, and West Indian and Arabic trading, but over time it has manifested into a culture of its own.
After a month of backpacking long stretches of white sand and crystal-clear oceans on Colombia’s coast, it became clear that the costeño way of life was hypnotic and laid back. A waitress at my favorite local restaurant in Cartagena called me “mi amor” (my love) every time she took an order from or delivered food to our table. In the intimate labyrinth of crumbling houses on Isla Santa Cruz del Islote, graffiti read: “Menos chisme y mas oracion” (less gossip, more prayer). On our route to Punto Gallinas, makeshift road “tolls” comprised of an old piece of rope were set up in the middle of the desert by Wayuu families, with a fee of simple luxuries like fruit or cookies.
The sense of danger I had anticipated from the media’s perception of Colombia slowly dissipated in my mind, as I saw that Colombians were humble and incredibly generous. Everywhere we visited, a smile and a conversation went a long way, and the local people often opened up to share the stories of their lives with anyone willing to listen and engage in an exchange. It became apparent that over the last two decades, Colombia has suffered from a case of mistaken identity and outside perceptions have been shaped by a single period in time. Colombia developed a negative reputation around the world because of a complicated period of insecurity, instability, and injustice.
While this facade still lingers in many ways, it is clear that the foundation of Colombia’s identity has remained seemingly unchanged. The true Colombia has been kept alive in and by the Colombian people, who never lost sight of where the true riches of their country lie.