I’ve visited many countries in my lifetime and have yet to find one I didn’t like. There are a few that are up there near the top of my list of favourites, but for me one stands out above all the rest. Colombia.
This is a country that doesn’t do things by halves. Everything from its geography to its history, its music to the personality of its people is done with a passion that I have found nowhere else in the world.
What is it about Colombia that makes it so special? All of the features listed above certainly go a long way towards explaining it, but there is something else. The country’s charm is more than the sum of its parts. There is a reason that this is the home of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the literary genre of magic realism. It really does feel like the sort of place where anything can happen; where the boundary between reality and fiction can be blurred. It has an atmosphere that is hard to put into words but which gets under your skin, and after a while makes its people’s crazy history and passionate personalities understandable.
I will start with the geography – the landscapes and ecosystems that are some of the most dramatic in the world. Colombia has almost everything. Its spine is made up of the northern end of the Andes mountain range. This region varies in altitude from snow-capped peaks to the foothills that settle down into the eastern plains. At its highest points the landscapes are glacial and it feels like you are on top of the world. Descend slightly, and you reach the high moorland (or paramo) with its strange flora and misty almost moody atmosphere. Finally you reach the green tropical altitudes that make up most of the Andean region. This is my favourite part of the country and the steep valleys have to be seen to be believed. Every winding corner brings a new view and there is something primeval about the impossible scenery. In the midst of this, you can find such oddities as the Tatacoa desert, a 330 square kilometer region that – thanks to its red earth and rock formations – resembles a mini Arizona. There are very few people living in this desert and no electricity, making the experience of spending a night there a special one. The mountains are also studded with majestic volcanoes, some of which can be climbed.
To the south east of the Andes lies the Colombian section of the Amazon Rainforest. Almost completely inaccessable, you need to fly to Leticia, on the border with Brazil and Peru, to find a settlement of any size but from here you can explore the most famous and largest jungle on earth. In the north, the Andes give way to flat lands and marshes before reaching the Caribbean coast. Here you can find beaches to rival any part of the Caribbean with those within Parque Tayrona being particularly impressive. Tayrona sits at the edge of another mountain range – The Sierra Nevada, which at drop dramatically into the sea. Beyond this (to the east) is Colombia’s northernmost point – The Guajira Peninsula. Just to add another surprise change in geography, the tropical green hills give way to a flat barren desert with large thorny bushes being one of the only plant species found in the area. The Guajira feels almost like another planet with its salt flats and rocky beaches.
Colombia then is a country blessed with natural wonders, but the people that inhabit this paradise are equally fascinating. The population is made up of a mixing of three ethnic groups – the indigenous Native Americans, the Spanish (and other Europeans), and the black Africans who were bought over as slaves to farm sugar and other commodities. Many people are a mixture of all two or more of these groups resulting in the distinct Mestizo look that most Colombians have. Much of the black population can be found along the coasts, further connecting these regions to the Caribbean. Here the music, accents and slang resemble that of the west African coast and there is a laid back vibe that differs from that of the highlands. There are groups of indigenous peoples across the countries and each possesses their own unique and rich culture. In the Amazon, hunter gatherer tribes can be found, resembling those of neighbouring Brazil. Some of these groups live in wooden huts and are known for their Shaman’s and belief in animist spirits. In the mountains around Silvia, Andean groups weave colourful blankets and clothes and these cultures are closest to the Inca cultures found in Ecuador and Peru. The Sierra Nevada mountains are home to the Kogi who dress in distinctive white robes and hats and have a strong belief in the sanctity of mother earth. Meanwhile the Guajira peninsula’s otherworldly feeling is compounded by the native Wayuu people who’s culture is unlike any others. The live in hammocks built under wall-less shelters, wear colourful clothing, and paint their faces to protect them from the sun.
Perhaps it is this blending of culture that has lead to the excitable and intense national character. Colombians are the warmest people and you will struggle to find more genuine welcome anywhere else. As I mentioned earlier, they don’t do things be halves. Whether they have decided they like you, or they have taken offense to something you have said they will not hold back when showing it. This also applies to one of their favourite pastimes – partying (just attend a village’s annual patron saint’s day, the carnival of Barranquilla, a football match or a family party and you will see what I mean).
I believe this national characteristic is partially the reason for their troubled recent history, but again here the magic realism comes into play. Nowhere else I know of (except maybe Afghanistan) has had so many different factions – from the various left-wing rebels, to right-wing paramilitaries formed by land barons, to competing drug gangs, indigenous defence militias and corrupt politicians and police – competing and collaborating at different times. Add to this, the out-of-this-world characters involved in this tapestry and you have a fascinating but terrible story that is too complex for most directors and authors to tackle.
The native passion is also reflected in the music of Colombia, and each ethnic group has brought its own enriching ingredients which have combined and bounced off each other to create something new. African percussion patterns have be mixed with European instruments such as the guitar and the accordion and the haunting native Andean sounds have also found their way into fusion. Colombia is home to many great genre’s such as Cumbia, Currulao, and Vallenato. The country has also produced some of the best salsa artists as well as being the birthplace of internationally popular musicians Shakira and Juanes.
A final added draw are the many reminders of the country’s abundant history. Colombia is home to many beautiful Spanish colonial towns, cities, and villages. Cartagena is the jewel in Colombia’s historic crown and is without a doubt one of the finest examples of colonial architecture. Right on the Caribbean coast, the city is guarded by town walls and a fort, both of which can be explored. Multi-coloured houses complete with spacious courtyards overlook narrow cobbled streets and leafy plazas, while numerous churches dating back hundreds of years can be found all over the city. the city of Popayan and the village of Villa de Leyva on the other hand are both examples of more austere (but no less attractive) mountain architecture and their historic centres are whitewashed. Almost every city has a historic district and visiting them is like stepping back in time.
Colombia also has some impressive native sights as well. The lost city is hidden in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada and it takes five days to hike there and back. Once there however, you are rewarded with the spectacular views of walls and man-made plateaus perched on top of a hillside and overlooking jungle clothed mountains. The sights of Tierradentro and San Augustin are no less impressive, with scattered caves, statues and ruins dotted around some of the country’s best scenery.
Hopefully this goes some way towards explaining why I love this country so much, and why I think that everyone should put it on the top of their list of places to visit. A lot of people are put off by Colombia’s reputation and there is no doubting that caution should be taken. There are parts of the country that are off-limits, and wandering around the wrong parts of the towns and cities is not a good idea. This should not however, be enough to put you off. It is very easy to avoid danger with just a little common sense, and the on the tourist trail the dangers are no greater than those in Europe or the USA. As the tourist ads say “The only risk is wanting to stay”, and if you do visit you will soon find that indefinable atmosphere working its way under your skin and making you want to come back.