It wasn’t kidnapping, guerrillas or even petty criminals that first made me fear for my life in Colombia. It was the taxi I’d taken.
We sped through traffic, careening through 3 lane roads that somehow accommodated 6 cars, each separated by just a lick of paint. The sound of car horns was incessant. All the while, the driver tapped his steering wheel in time to the salsa music that played. He nonchalantly texted on his mobile.
I began to realise that this guy was confident, and this relaxed me enough to start taking note of the city. I stopped noticing the erratic swerves of the taxi, and instead took in my frist impressions of Bogota: dirty, chaotic but exquisitely foreign and exciting. When I arrived at my new home the driver, who I thought might be the last person I ever spoke to at one point, thanked me excessively for my custom and wished me well in his country. This, as I’ve come to realise after a year of living here, is Colombia.
Living in another country is always a challenge, whether you cross the channel to France or explore the less-travelled paths in Africa. Before getting my job with See Colombia Travel in Colombia, I worked in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was the same thing there. Cultural differences, language and bureaucracy can all be blockades on your path to what many back home will see as living in paradise.
For me, though, the negatives are far outweighed by everything you gain from living abroad. Experiencing a new culture is like an opportunity to see the world with new eyes. You learn about foods, music, artists that you never knew existed. It’s a way to understand your own culture, where you’ve come from and, in my case, the peculiarities of ‘being British’. When you find yourself craving a pint and some nuts in a dimly lit pub but having nowhere to go, you realise things like that are unique to where you come from. Pubs here in Bogota, (though they have surprisingly good home-brewed beer) are trendy; a place to be seen, rather than a place to hide. They’re generally too expensive to go to regularly.
More likely, in Colombia, your quiet nights in pubs are replaced by sparsely decorated bars playing loud music. Chairs are mostly taken out so the locals can dance throughout the night. Your heavier nights are similar to home only in a superficial sense – seeing friends, drinking, heading to a club. ‘La rumba’, as it’s known here, feels radically different. Colombians are intent on enjoying themselves, and revel in sending each other spinning around the dancefloor to the sounds of the local music: salsa, cumbia, vallenato and reggaeton. They don’t drink much and they prefer to share bottles of rum or Aguadiente (the local liquor) over drinking beer.
Day to day life is marked out by differences that, no matter how long you live here, still have the ability to catch you by surprise. A Porsche SUV can be trailed by two men riding a horse and cart. At night, the faint sound of bottles clanking can wake you as someone roots through your bin bags looking for cardboard to recycle. The frustrating inability to get a curry when you really, really want one shows up at least once a week.
Despite these occasional jolts, though, life in Colombia isn’t so different. Bogota is a huge, sprawling city not unlike London. It rains a lot (a surprise to some, but Bogota is high in the Andes), it’s noisy, and not a day passes without the city offering something to do. It’s also surprisingly cosmopolitan here, as is evidenced by the cafe I visited today for some of that famous Colombian coffee. Behind me I heard a Colombian joking with an American. Near, a French girl taught her language to a local and when they stumbled upon any confusion they reverted to English, which is widely spoken. To my side were a couple of Irish girls enjoying some pastry. Across the room was a German guy browsing the internet on his Mac. Nestled in the corner were a couple: one English, one Colombian. They sailed between languages seamlessly and without realising. I left and bought some Arabic food from a nearby restaurant.
For many, Colombia remains static in the turmoil of it’s turbulent past. In these minds, drugs, kidnappings and crime lurk around every corner. There’s no use denying that once it was an extremely dangerous country but, while relics of the troubles can still be seen, the truth is that Colombia is making giant strides forward into a bright future. Billionaire investors are beginning to put money into the country, and tourism has almost doubled in the last 5 years.
My own work is in the tourism sector as a writer, and so I see this rapid growth first hand. The excitement around tourism in Colombia is palpable. Through my work writing about Colombia I’ve been cited in TIME Magazine, The Guardian, the Daily Mail, the BBC, USA Today and many more large international media outlets. It’s hard to imagine such attention if I was writing about Spain or Italy.
Part of my job also involves travelling the country, and as I revisit destinations I constantly see more and more travellers (including my own parents) taking the leap and exploring the beautiful, pristine beaches of Tayrona National Park; the enchanting streets of Cartagena and the vibrant, bustling, vibrant capital city, Bogota. This surge is in no small part to a sharply observed tourism campaign by the country that claims ‘The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay’.
One day I’ll return to England. I never thought I would, but I miss Stevenage. For me, however, at the moment, Colombia’s tourism slogan has got it absolutely right.