Colombia is, without question, an emerging destination. The question was, at least for me, “Is Colombia an emerging “tourist” destination or a “traveler’s” destination?”
Currently, I think after spending a few days here, with the assistance of three excellent guides – one independent, one from Impulse Travel (Raul), and one from Pro Colombia (Stephany) – who were refreshingly open, honest, and willing to share the real Colombia, the answer is right now “Colombia is a Traveler’s Destination”.
I want to preface what follows with this: Colombia offers a very diverse experience with all of its regions from the Caribbean to the Pacific to the Mountains; city to country to beach. It is quite impressive. There are luxury, premium, boutique, and truly unique hotels, some wonderful food (which I am still exploring), and a number of interesting sites. There are also some amazing nature experiences, a developing art scene, and more. (My brief time at the just-starting travel trade show underscores the diversity of, and efforts to expand, Colombian tourism; albeit the show is focused more on Colombian operators.)
Bogota has areas that show it off as a vibrant city with its surroundings offering options as well. The people are clearly getting on with life after the 2016 Peace Agreement and there is much to be enjoyed! While my primary hotel during the tour was terrible in just about every way, the ones that tourists would more probably stay at are most surrounded by great restaurants, plenty of shopping, and an exciting vibe. And the countryside is beautiful.
More importantly, the people I’ve been in touch with pretty much all have smiles, show their pride in Colombia, and desire for you to have a great time. (Yes, there is street crime, but if you take proper precautions and stay out of the bad areas, you can pretty much avoid it. But know it exists.)
That said, it is important to dig deeper!
I asked this question of a few people:
“With the internal conflicts and war ending so recently with the 2016 Peace Agreement, which still is not supported by about 50% of the population, would you say the majority of Colombians ‘trust’ or ‘tolerate’?”
Every person’s answer was “That is a difficult question to answer!”
There are those that support(ed) the government, those that support(ed) FARC, those that supported Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels, and – without limitation – those that supported none of them. But it isn’t just that simple. It gets complicated!
I visited a new art installation called Fragmentos. It is a powerful statement, created by melting down thousands of weapons from the internal war…tons of them…and then using them to form large tiles. The tiles’ surfaces are physically embossed by women who had been raped and tortured during the internal war; literally pounding out – and this is the word they repeatedly use during the video shown – their “resentment”.
While this was extraordinarily moving, another thing struck me – hard: There was no mention of whether the women were violated by the members of the government army or FARC (the resistance) or the drug cartels, or even some other local militia. Why I don’t know. But it seems that it may be because, at this point in time, the actual entity associated with the horror is just not that important. Or it might possibly be because “tolerance” rather than “trust” or “forgive” rather than “forget” is central. Or, possibly, because the divisiveness resulting from each woman possibly supporting a different faction (government, FARC, drug cartel, local militia, etc.) would obscure the important message (and healing) being delivered. Alas, it could be a combination of them…or something else. It is just not something that a few days can deliver the answer.
Speaking of the “victims”, defining whom the victims of the Colombian violence of the past years is not clearly defined. There are many that consider the guerilla fighters that eventually gave up their weapons in the peace effort also to be victims. There are the peasants, the indigenous people, and the list goes on.
I also visited La Trocha Cerveza – La Casa de al Paz (The House of Peace) established by and for FARC ex-combatants. The concept apparently is that discussing one’s differences and views over a beer will help keep the peace and create greater understanding. So, La Trocha, a microbrew, was created to not only fulfill that desire, but as a way to create funds to support the house, community discussions, and support all victims and peasants who suffered during the conflicts and war.
While there was a small bar, library, shop, and gathering areas on the first floor, women creating clothing and selling them on the second floor, and community space on the third floor, what struck me was the artwork that was everywhere. So much conflict. So much pain.
But, also, so much of a desire to show them as a way to promote discussion and, hopefully, peace. (Alas, if the peace was strong, I don’t know there would be a need for such a place…or places!)
With this genuine desire to work through the continuing pain, something struck me – again hard. Not only was the outer gate and front door locked, but in order to leave the door had to be remotely unlocked as well. Maybe by now I have been overthinking things, but I’m pretty sure I need to think even longer and harder!
During my tour of Bogota, the contrasts were both stark and hidden. A stroll down a popular pedestrian area there is a wonderful vibrance with music, lots of shops, street vendors selling all sorts of goods, food, etc. But in the same area there are also buildings that are covered in a mesh to keep rocks, balloons filled with paint, and graffiti from protesters bombarding them during regular protests.
In Bogota’s Plaza de Bolivar, there are protesting indigenous protestors living on the steps of the National Capital building, directly across from the Palace of Justice (which was burned down during the 1948 riots). Yes, yet another faction having issues!
In fact, the last day of my pre-buyers’ marketplace tour was canceled because of a scheduled strike throughout the country, which would have brought the country to a standstill. But the strike was canceled at the last minute because – and this is noteworthy – the government said it could not guarantee the safety of the protestors. In other words, there was a real belief that things could get violent.
Ironically, the tour was called, “Breaking Borders” and was to focus on some of the lowest income and hardest oppressed people in Bogota and the efforts to change that. It was truly disappointing – but also a bit prophetic – that those that don’t even register on Colombia’s six categories of income levels were left out.
Now with that background, and taking a breath, during my tours I met wonderful people, experienced beautiful places, ate delicious food, and stayed in a unique property (and visited another). And all this just in the Bogota area. With Medellin, Cartagena, Cali and more very much available to explore, but not on this, my first journey to Colombia.
Next up: You know it, all those places I visited and experienced!