Colombia Wrap-Up

As promised, here’s the Colombia wrap-up post (finally! I’m glad to be done with it). After 2 months down there, it feels good to be back in the States. I’ve gained a new-found appreciation for American cities: they seem suddenly so clean, spacious, and organized—and the skyscrapers in downtown LA have never looked so beautiful to me before. And the people—they are so diverse! And weird!

My Altered Map o Colombia
I wanted to start this post off with this map, in order to give the non-geographically inclined amongst you an idea of what kind of topography it consists of, and where I have traveled within it. As you can see from my crude, multi-colored route-lines, I’ve only traversed a 1/3 of the country at most. Yet this is about the most that the typical traveler will see of this country, including most Colombians themselves.

The Jungle

The reason for this is that almost 1/2 of the country is immersed in Amazonian jungle, south-east from the Cordillera Oriental range of the Andes wherein Bogotá is nestled. And this is your first clue to the deep, dark, complicated and mysterious heart of Colombia. Even when you’ve traveled across most of the main sightseeing circuit as I have, you are left with some kind of sense of having missed something, that there’s something you didn’t quite grasp about the country and its people. Especially when you consider the on-going civil war and drug trafficking that is so strangely invisible, yet so widely publicized.

And that’s because few travelers (for good reason) venture deep into the jungle, wherein the natives dwell still in their traditional manner, and the birds, insect, and animal life is some of the most diverse on the planet. The jungle that harbors also the rebels and terrorists and drug traffickers.

The Driving

Take a look at that map again, and note that the majority of the populated areas are located within the three Andean ranges that sprawl upward towards the coast. This means that traveling by land is always a harrowing, at times breath-takingly vivid experience. And the few roads that connect the towns and cities are rarely more than two lanes, which means that you’ve got trucks, buses, cars, bicyclists, horses, cows, and people on foot all vying for the same limited stretches of tar. This explains, in part, some of the loco driving in Colombia, because if you don’t drive aggressively and pass at any and every given opportunity, you’re gonna get stuck behind an over-sized truck hauling some industrial machinery.
However, at a certain point, my understanding of the crazy driving ends, and I just think that many drivers in Colombia are just plain horrendous. For example, they don’t have any concept of a middle-ground; it’s either full-speed ahead, or slamming on the brakes. What’s especially ridiculous about that is when they are driving on small city streets with stop lights up ahead, yet they will still achieve full speed before reaching the stop sign, thus assuring the hardest possible braking. This can’t be good for the life of their cars. And yet, oddly enough, all the drivers exhibit the utmost of care and caution when approaching potholes or bumps in the road. They will slow to a crawl and inch over the holes, obviously concerned for the welfare of their vehicle. And then once over it, immediately hit the gas and blast full-speed ahead, until encountering an obstacle, whereupon they slam on the brakes again.

As a pedestrian in Colombia, it is your responsibility to yourself to get the hell out of the way of any approaching vehicles. As in, you will be killed or maimed if you don’t, because the cars will not look out for you. Even the dogs in Colombia understand this, and you will be amazed at the dexterity with which dogs will look both ways and cross the street in high-speed traffic. It makes you realize that American dogs must really be coddled, that they haven’t yet evolved this awareness of the danger of automobiles.

I’m quite thrilled to be done with fearing for my life while walking on the streets. Even when on the sidewalks in Colombia, you still have to be on the look-out for rogue motorcyclists, who will jump the curb at full-speed to circumvent traffic and barrel directly towards you, either skirting you by inches, or forcing you to leap out of the way. This doesn’t occur frequently, but it does happen. Look out.

Sometimes I wonder if the reason everyone is so lackadaisical there in regards to human life and frailty might be due to the great health-care coverage that they enjoy as Colombian citizens. It’s like, hey, no big deal, I just fractured my skull and broke some ribs. I’m covered!

Another thing to mention about the vehicles in Colombia is that they mostly run off of diesel, except for the propane powered engines. You’ll witness buses and trucks belching dense thickets of sun-blocking diesel fumes into the air as they chug up the Cordilleras.

The People

I have read frequently about how clear and well annunciated Colombian Spanish is. Now, some Colombian Spanish is clear and well annunciated. But on the whole, and in general, most Colombian Spanish I heard was most decidedly unclear, nor well annunciated. I don’t know to whom everyone else has been speaking to. It’s been consistently difficult for me to understand anything that people have been saying to me in Colombia, because it’s either been too soft, too fast, or some combination of both. It also doesn’t help that they’ve only been speaking directly to my girlfriend, rather than to me, and she understands even less than I do. Even when I would lean forward and try to enter into the conversation, demonstrating my little tidbit of Spanish-speaking ability, they would continue to ignore me and speak to her. After a while, I just stopped even trying, and let her negotiate the speedy barrage of unknown words on her own.

I have also read many gushing statements on how friendly the Colombian people are. I don’t know that I can be quite so effusive. Now, my extended Colombian family was extremely hospitable—beyond hospitable. But the strangers on the street, the workers in restaurants, hotels, etc, were, on the whole, and in general, more on the rude side of the things.

This isn’t to say that you won’t meet some very nice Colombians in bars and clubs and otherwise. But rather to note that in the many daily transactions (just as in most places in the world, of course), you may be subject to being shoved out of the way, ignored, or having small children yelling in your ear.

Also, there are absolutely no bars on blatant staring down there. I know that I’m freakishly blonde, but I still don’t appreciate being stared at for a half-hour when I’m just trying to eat my breakfast. After a while, both my girlfriend and I would just glare back at people until they got the notion to look somewhere else.

Random thought: could it be that an overabundance of red meat in the Colombian diet contributes to machismo and aggression? Maybe a few more vegetables on their plate, aside from the little sliced tomato and shredded lettuce, might do a body good.

The Food

Waaaay too much fried food, lads, and not even usually fresh nor hot when served, unless you’re in a nicer (i.e. not on the street) joint. Anyone know the stats on the rate of heart failure in Colombia?

I don’t mind eating too much meat for a little while. I just wish the dishes could have been spiced up a tad more. Just a bit more variety. Something that would go slightly above and beyond meat, french fries, beans, rice, and patacones.

But at least, of course, there were the juices. I will truly and dearly miss my jugos de níspero, maracuyá, lulo, and guanábana. And coffee. My favs were the períco—or pintado depending where you be—which is coffee with milk. As opposed to café con leche, which is milk with coffee. There’s a difference. Of course, there’s always just the straight-up cups of tintos, if you want to old-school it, and get with the peops on the streets.

The Sex

Sex seems to be a non-familial issue in Colombia. Colombians are comfortable with their sexuality. So on a long-distance bus ride, for example, the family film for the trip might be “American Pie: Beta House,” Wherein there is a naked sex scene within the first five minutes, continuing with boobies unabated from thereon. Or in a hotel, you might be flipping through the channels and go straight from CNN to GIANT VARICOSE PEEPEE THRUSTING IN VAGINA. This is a hotel where families were staying. Also, sex shops abound in Medellín and Bogotá, with 30 different types of dildos. I didn’t know that many types of dildos existed.
I also am convinced that Colombians watch way too many novelas on television, because they get a little too caught up in moments of passion in public areas. They will not hesitate to stick their tongues down each other’s throats and dry hump in public areas such as in front of museums, or in parks, or next to you in a bar or restaurant, or on street corners. It can be a little gross sometimes.
Colombians furthermore don’t stigmitize plastic surgery nor excessive make-up. You’ll see a number of surgically enhanced boobies, even on men, especially in Cali and Medellín.
There are also a lot of “love hotels” everywhere in Colombia. Make sure you don’t actually stay in one.

The Phones

There ain’t no public telephones nowhere in Colombia, so when you want to make a call, you either go into a place with telephone cabinas, or you pick up a cell-phone from a dude standing on the street with a placard around his neck that says “minutos.” He will have 2 or 3 different cell-phones, one for each different type of carrier, which is made evident by the first 3 digits of the cell-phone number.

If you’ve ever despaired at the general lack of cell-phone etiquette in the United States, then fear not—Colombians are ten times worse. They all have cell-phones with annoying ringtones, and they will happily chat away at full volume in public places. Your bus driver will be chatting on his cell-phone as he whips around a dead-man’s curve in the Cordillera Central at 80 kph. Entire families seated together at a restaurant will be chatting into all their respective cell-phones.

The Businesses

I was amazed at the general lack of business ethics and acumen in Colombia. Overall, most Colombians running their restaurants, internet stores, cafés, and tiendas didn’t really seem all that concerned about making money. I say this because at the time I traveled in Colombia, it just so happened to be concurrent with the time of the year that most Colombians go on vacation, December 15th – January 15th. This meant that many places were just completely closed that entire time, such as restaurants listed in my guidebook. Now, I’m not one to begrudge someone for taking a vacation—however, when you are running a business, I imagine that you are probably trying to make some cash. But most places just go ahead and shut their doors on Sundays, festivos, siesta time, or just whenever they dang feel like it, apparently. It’s rare to find a shop with hours posted on it, but even when you do, don’t expect them to adhere to those hours. It’s just a bit perplexing, because I don’t understand why you would intentionally give up tons of business. On Sundays, for example, there are loads of people walking around in the streets. But little is open. See the market potential there?

A Summation of the Country as a Tourist Destination

It’s a beautiful tropical country. If you are into hiking, cycling, that sort of outdoorsy thing, then there’s plenty for you in Colombia. If you are into drinking a lot of aguardiente or rum, or dancing, or hitting on Latino men or women (or being hit on), then there’s plenty for you in Colombia as well. I sometimes feel like since I didn’t party very much in Colombia, I kind of missed out on one of the defining national past-times.

However, if you are looking for a relaxing, stress-free vacation, most definitely do not come to Colombia, unless you’re set on shelling out the big bucks.

My recommendations for quintessentially Colombian souvenirs: hand-woven Arhuaca mochilas; tropical fruit jams; emeralds—but only if you’ve got some money to spend and an ability to distinguish quality; and finally—of course—a few bags of good coffee.

And Finally

This post is getting a bit over-long, so I’m just going to end it with a brief list of my best and worst times in Colombia.

The Best of Times: gorging on juicy red beef at Andres’ Carne de Res outside of Bogotá on Thanksgiving; chilaxing on my cousin’s finca in Armenia; gorging myself on strange fried meats (such as smoked cow lung) on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the city in Cali; walking back from the Parque Nacional del Café in the pouring rain; dancing and drinking with my cousin and friends in Armenia; trekking through the jungle to Ciudad Perdida for my birthday (I know, I made it sound like a nightmare—but I love that kind of shit); drinking fresh níspero juice on the waterfront in Santa Marta; eating a three course meal in Cartagena, accompanied by 2 bottles of Chilean wine, for Christmas dinner; frolicking in warm mud with the consistency of chocolate cream in a mud volcano, and then getting bathed like a newborn babe by an old woman in a lagoon; walking along the river in Medellín at night admiring all the Christmas lights; eating pasteles in La Candelaria; walking around the amazing rose garden at the Botanical Gardens in Bogotá.

The Worst of Times: the infamous 31 hours in an orange truck from Armenia to Santa Marta (the more I think on it, the more skeptical I get on why a truck would deliver oranges all that way, given the price of oil, and the fact that oranges grow rampantly and well on the Caribbean coast; some questions, perhaps, are better left unasked); getting scammed in a restaurant in Santa Marta; getting sick in Parque Tayrona; the Islas del Rosario “tour” in Cartagena; going to a Botanical Garden in Medellín in which there were no flowers—in fact, just going anywhere in Colombia only to find it was in the process of renovation, or just plain closed; getting soaked to the bone by nasty street water in downtown Bogotá; and finally, the plane ride home.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my escapades in Colombia as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about them, and thanks for keeping up, or reading a few posts, or reading just this post. This blog will now cease as a journal of my daily mundane existence, excepting for the scattered updates of my physical whereabouts, as I am now engaged in the act of trying to decide, in an as thoroughly researched and thought-through process as possible, where the hell in the United States I wish to settle down in for the next foreseeable chunk of my future. Tally ho!


Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

22 thoughts on “Colombia Wrap-Up”

  1. I just finished reading your excellent Colombia travel journal and I applaud your writing skills and unflinching, refreshing honesty. You have a great way with words!
    I’m a fairly seasoned low budget Latin American traveler in my midlife, and much of what you’ve written in general rings true with most countries I’ve visited in the region.
    My wife & I will be visiting Colombia for 3 weeks at the end of February, and your journal has provided some excellent information, which is still in relatively scarce supply where Colombia travel is concerned. We found your writings from a link at the PBH forums, btw.

    I just wanted to say ‘Thanks!’ for all of the time and effort you went to in putting this together. It was informative, entertaining and greatly appreciated.

    And yeah…..we’ll be on the trail Ciudad Perdida. ;-)

  2. Thanks for the positive feedback, John! I hope you and your wife have a wonderful time in Colombia. If you have any comparisons or contrasts to add from your own experiences, I would love to hear about it.
    I think (and hope) that you will find your Ciudad Perdida trek substantially less muddy than mine was. Good luck and no dar papaya!


  3. I guess I have an altogether different view of Colombia than you described. I am a “Gringo” with a Colombian wife. We live in Bucarmanga. I have been here for a while now and find the Colombian people friendly and helpful. Your description sounds like a lot of folks from “up there” that think if you don’t run on “LA Time” you’re not normal. I do agree that the drivers here are awful, kind of like S. FL in the winter when there are a lot of New Yorkers there. And, there are places here you don’t visit, a lot like in LA, Detroit, etc.
    Anyway, maybe some day you’ll come back and stay longer.

  4. I imagine that if you live in Colombia you will have a much different view than that of a traveler. Any criticisms of Colombia I made come from frustrations that I experienced frequently, not simply from preconceived bias. I wasn’t looking simply to compare Colombia to the US—I’m quite aware that there is plenty to criticize in the US, and I do so frequently. I hope that I don’t give any impression of unfairness in my evaluation of my experiences there.

    1. I loved all you wrote, the good and the bad…. and I’m a Colombian-American! I tried to go back to “my country” to live my retirement years and after finding a nice penthouse apartment in a beautiful neighborhood in Bucaramanga, for the same rent I pay here for a tiny and old apartment in Houston, I decided at the end to stay here in Houston.
      As you said, it’s such a great feeling to return to USA and find all places so clean and organized. I’ve been in many countries and never felt afraid of driving, not even in England with their “bloody” way of driving on the left side of the street… but I’ll be damned if I ever drive in Colombia. Whenever I took a taxi, I had to promise the driver to give him a good tip if he slow down and choose the less congested streets. It worked wonders, since they are not used to being tipped… do you wonder why?
      About the food: I agree with you that they eat much too much meat and no veggies, even though they are sooo fresh and abundant. But I’m a soup eater, and every region has their own soups or stews, so I never get tired of ordering soups everywhere I go. Just one soup is enough to keep you full from lunchtime until it’s time to go to sleep. And the juices!!! I miss them all here… they really have the most exotic fruits and drinking them liquefied with milk, or water, it gives you all the fruits that you never get to eat (or drink) here.
      I’ll return to Colombia, I still have most of my family there, but this time I’ll take your list of best places to visit and will keep away from the other ones.
      Thanks a million for being so honest and delightful in your descriptions of your adventures in the Andes cordilleras…. that’s something I also miss seeing, but from a plane, I’d never travel by truck or even buses there, it’ll kill my back, butt and who knows what else :)

      1. Yolanda, thanks so much for your thoughtful words, it’s nice to hear from someone who sees through all my (many) complaints! I also sorely miss those jugos naturales–nothing compares here in the States. If I ever return to Colombia, then I will try eating more of the local soups and stews, as per your suggestion. Cheers, and enjoy your well-earned retirement!

  5. I spent 9 months in colombia and I also found the people incredibly friendly.

    It’s simply a matter of not viewing a country with your own pre-conceived perceptions of how things should be (which admittedly is pretty hard as these are ingrained in all of us).

    Some people may stare but latin culture is much more open than US/English. Some people are genuinly interested and proud that you are visiting their country. Others, a minority, may appear aggressive as they disagree with the foreign policy of your country or more likely with the hoardes of arrogant Westerners who come down to Colombia flashing their dollars or to take advantage of the sex trade which is becoming more and more common. Sometimes decent and honest travellers get tarred with the same brush as our less ethical countrymen and this happens in every country of the world.

    Colombia isn’t full of a million backpackers like Peru. This is a great thing as the culture is not being diluted to cater to the demands of foreigners (yet). So what if people stare. We are there to look at their country, people and culture. It’s not a one-way mirror and they are entitled to look at us too.

    Public displays of affection are common in latin cultures. They view our culture as cold. Its not that bad surely for people to express their feelings and affection. I viewed this as a positive and maybe one of the things that we could improve upon in Western cultures.

    Oh and love motels are common because 95% of colombians live with their families until marriage and as such need intimacy from time to time. On the otherhand the lack of opportunities for private time may also be a cause of the public displays of affection!

    Also I know it is frustrating when things aren’t open but family is more important to Colombians than making money and Christmas is the most important time of the year for them. Frustrating at the time when you are hungry and in need of food but with hindsight it is quite nice that family is central and that people aren’t working 24/7 like in NYC or London.

    And fully agree that the traffic and the food are both of high danger to the tourist.

    But really enjoyed your blog and the above is not intended to criticise as you write about Colombia in a fair and honest way and as you personally experienced it. I just hope my experiences can add a depth and a variety of opinion to yours!

  6. Liam, I don’t mind criticism as long as it’s constructive. Thanks for the insight into the different cultural norms in Colombia. Bear in mind that in elucidating traits such as excessive PDA and business laxity, I am not just sitting back and critiquing through my “pre-conceived perceptions”—I am also attempting to create some humor out of such obvious differences. I don’t believe in rose-tinting my glasses when I am in another culture, but I also do try to approach every new situation and person with respect. If there are times when I feel that I am not similarly treated with respect, then I will certainly vent those frustrations accordingly.

  7. It’s a shame you ventured all the way to Colombia and completely failed to apreciate the beauty of its culture. The fact that family is central to people’s lives, a crying or a playing child is not a nuisance to the average Colombian unlike in the developed world, it’s what children do and it’s accepted and affection is given even by total strangers.

    The mentality you went with to Colombia was completely wrong, such as staring back at people just because they were curious of you. Trying to talk to them about a conflict they’ve lived for decades and pains them thoroughly to think about, especially when many have lost someone they knew to the violence. Don’t you think that Colombian’s are aware that most of the outside world only knows this aspect of their country? Well they do! and everytime they have gone to visit another country they are stared at in the airport and viewed with a nastier degree of suspicion than they probably ever gave you.

    I hope you don’t intend to visit the country again, even though from what you wrote it looks like you’re happy to see the back of it. I’m sure most Colombians after reading this will also be happy to see the back of you.

  8. Jonathan: It’s a shame you ventured onto my blog and completely failed to explore anything that I wrote on Colombia beyond one post. It’s furthermore a shame that you completely failed to see any kind of humor in what I wrote.Thanks for stopping by and revealing what an overwrought turd you are!

  9. I do appreciate constructive criticism, generally speaking, Malasangre. Unfortunately, Jonathan’s criticism was not entirely constructive. First of all, what right does he have to tell me that my own perceptions of my own experiences in Colombia were “completely wrong”? I have the right to think whatever I want about my own travels, thank you very much. Second of all, he grossly overreacted to tidbits of details that I provided about Colombia and Colombianos in order to provide a bit of humor and spice up the narrative. It’s not like I went around Colombia staring aggressively back at people or slandering their culture or habits. And from whence comes Jonathan’s completely misinformed attack on my superficial musings on Colombia’s civil warfare, a reality that is unavoidable in any discussion of the country (“Trying to talk to them about a conflict they’ve lived for decades and pains them thoroughly to think about, especially when many have lost someone they knew to the violence”)? I never tried to talk to any Colombian about this issue unless they themselves brought it up. Frankly, Jonathan just sounds like an overly sensitive person who wishes to be indignant and self-righteous about all perceived slights to a country that he feels he knows and appreciates better than myself. Hence, why I termed him (in a moment of peeved spite) an “overwrought turd.” If my response sounded nasty (which it was, of course). . . oh well. I’m just kind of over being told that I didn’t appreciate a country’s beauty when in fact I enjoyed the country very much. If someone wants to share with me their different experiences and perceptions of Colombia, I’m all for it. I am totally open to someone else loving every second and stare and loud child screaming in their ear for hours on the bus. But if they want to criticize my own experiences and perceptions, you’re damn right I’m going to defend myself.

    What am I supposed to write about another country? All uncritical praise? Don’t I have the right to critique and contrast my own ingrained perspectives with that of that country’s? You can agree or disagree with my viewpoints, but you can’t tell me that what I felt was “wrong.” I tried to provide as balanced a perspective as I could, while still giving voice to my feelings.

    Can’t please everyone.

  10. Sigh. In any case, Malasangre, you are totally right: I should not have directly insulted Jonathan, it was quite brutish and unseemly of me. Jonathan: I apologize for perfunctorily labeling you “an overwrought turd”, and I appreciate your commentary and I am glad that you took the time to read my post on Colombia. See what New York City is doing to me? It’s making me an a-hole!

  11. well sorry to see your article about your trip to colombia so late but i really wanted to do some coments about what you wrote, im from bogota and im an ad copywriter, not that good whit the copywriting on english but im gonna give it a try. The things that liam talk about where an execelent explination to your problem while you were here in colombia, it is true that not everybody in colombia is nice but i would say that more than 80% of the people are, the thing about cellphones make me laught till my eyes dried off, especially when i saw your coment about the sign that says “minutos” but you should recognize that find someone who salles you a minuto is a lifesaver in some situations. im trying to talk about what liam let pass, oh and i really hope you see the humor on what im about to say and dont feel it as an insult but only a traveler could find andres carne de res as one of the most important moments on his trip, clearly thats the place where all the travelers are taken when they come to bogota, which i believe is a big mistake cause there are a lot of places way better than andres, and i think yu are wrong about other thing, if you want to relax come to colombia and visit coveñas, having a house next to the sea can be really relaxing, hope you come again with better information on what to do for a great trip. oh and jackeline we dont need a better goverment, what we need is that the people take compromise about the problems of the country and not just wait for the goverment to fix them, everybody can help make a chance.

  12. Thanks for commenting Faolan! Glad I was able to make you laugh and that you didn’t take my critiques of Colombia as insults. Andres Carne de Res was not somewhere I would have gone on my own to, but I did enjoy it nonetheless. Traveling somewhere gives you a wholly different perspective on a place than what you have as someone who lives there. It all depends on random things that happen and in who you happen to talk to!

  13. This is the best thing I have ever read on the web. I haven’t laughed so much in ages. I have been to Colombia 4X with my Colombian wife and of course I didn’t have many of the experiences you did since she speaks perfect Spanish but so many of the things you said were true and I love your sense of humor. I was rolling on the floor about the part about the dogs looking both ways before crossing the street and the missing toilet seats, I didn’t see more than 1 or 2 in my 3 week trip. If you ever decide to give up teaching you could have a great career as a comedy writer or standup comedian.

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