When you think of the country of Colombia, what are the words that come to mind? Drugs, Violence or Government corruption maybe? If those are, I certainly don’t blame you as many of those types of things made the headlines 20-30 years ago and before I came to Colombia I would’ve said the same thing. After living in Colombia for the last two months, the words that come to my mind now are: Vibrant, Beautiful, Expressive, Community, Togetherness, Innovative and Optimistic. Colombia truly is a beautiful country and I have come to love so many things about it over the last few months and I would like to do my best to show what the new Colombia really is because it is so much different than the Colombia of the past.
Let’s start with the facts. From the 1980s to mid 1990s, Colombian cartels were the biggest and most violent in the world. Between Pablo Escobar, his Medellín cartel, and the Cali cartel, Colombia endured many years of extreme violence that affected every single person in the country. People were afraid to leave their homes and many times if you didn’t accept the cartels bribes, you would be killed. After the fall of the Cali cartel in the mid 1990s, the country has gone through an amazing resurgence and now twenty years later, it is a place I would encourage people to visit. The country today is filled with a togetherness and community where all the people want to continue to make Colombia a thriving and safe place.
The two major cities I have spent time in, Medellín and Bogotá, are both in valleys with beautiful green mountains surrounding the city on every side. You can see the mountains from all over and both cities are very green with many parks and trees. Both cities have very nice, modern malls and amazing restaurants with every kind of food imaginable. When talking to locals, they share a sense of pride that many Colombians have for this amazing resurgence of the whole country. Since everyone was affected by the narcoterrorism, everyone has joined together to make the country a better place.
My first stop was Medellín, made famous by Pablo Escobar. Now, it has transformed into a hopeful and innovative city with many tech jobs and startups popping up. We stayed in the El Poblano neighborhood which has many good bars and restaurants within walking distance. It felt like if I was walking through a jungle sometimes on the fifteen minute walk to my workspace everyday. I’d pass by streams and there were so many trees that the surrounded buildings seemed to blend into them.
Colombians love Christmas and I mean love it. I was in Medellín for the month of December and I have never seen so many Christmas lights and decorations around the city. Even though the weather was warm and didn’t feel like Christmas, there was definitely Christmas cheers everyone you looked. Almost every park had lights and Christmas trees which would light up the city at night. I have honestly never seen anything like it and it was also fun to walk around the city with all the lights brightly lit at night. There was also a festival or street fair going on and every Colombian I talked to explained how important Christmas was to them and the country.
One of the biggest examples of the radical positive change that has transformed Medellín is the Comuna 13 area. It was once a main transportation route for the cartels as it was strategically located near a highway. It was a slum high up on a hill with many twisting turns and steep hills making it easy to hide. It was overcome with deadly violence over the years as the cartel controlled the poor area. When the government tried to take down the cartel, there would be gun fights between the police and the cartel members in the Comuna which resulted in the loss of many innocent people’s lives. We took a graffiti tour of the area which is now a growing center for art, music and dancing. The amazing murals tell the stories of Comuna 13 so that no one ever forgets what the people here went through. The murals give the people hope that they can overcome anything, which is why the revitalization of the area is so important to the people of Medellín. It is just one example of the people turning an very negative and bleak situation into a positive one through all the people in the community joining together to make their lives better.
While downtown Medellín is beautiful, there are many places outside that city that provide stunning contrasts. Colombia has everything from a little piece of the Amazon rainforest to deserts to mountains to lakes, rivers and white-sand beaches. It is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and really has every kind of environment you would need packed into a small country. One of those places outside the city is Guatapé. A massive rock juts out of the ground white a little colorful town awaits at the bottom The view from the top is spectacular and I forget the total number of steps but the very steep climb took a while. The climb is worth it though, as you see the surrounding lakes from the top. We went and toured Guatapé on a Saturday and before we climbed the rock, we played paintball in one of Pablo Escobar’s old compounds.
He had a huge house right on the lake not too far away. We had to take a ferry to get out there but the property was beautiful as it was situated on a quiet lake safely from the city of Medellín. I’m not sure how often Pablo was here but an old bodyguard of his now owns the land and allows tourists to play paintball on the grounds. This is because, the compound was bombed by Los Pepes in the 90s so all the buildings are a shell of themselves. Even after the bombing you can picture how amazing and elaborate this place was with a main house, guest house and bar area right on the lake. It was a fun activity to play paintball and although the course was small and we all get hit several times it was a good way to blend history with fun. One of our daring remotes, Kevin, decided he needed to jump in Pablo’s old pool during our group photo below. The pool was nasty but he survived.
Colombia and Medellín, specifically, is such an uplifting and positive place. Everyone is nice, the food is delicious and cheap, each city is surrounded by mountains, there are gorgeous beaches and colorful little towns scattered throughout. I think its time we all give Colombia another chance and help transform the public perception from ‘Dangerous Place’ to ‘Untapped country with enormous potential’.