Coffee, Cocaine and Cartels.
When you think of Colombia, these are the three things which probably pop into your mind first.
Oh, and Pablo Escobar.
Whilst coffee, cocaine and drug cartels are a part of both Colombias past and present, there is so much more to this country than what you will see on an episode of Narcos. We spent 10 weeks travelling through the country; visiting both tourist destinations and getting off the beaten track. We never planned to spend so long in Colombia, we just simply couldn't leave and even now, we know it is a country we will definitely return to.
Throughout our travels in Colombia, the questions we have been asked most are "Is Colombia safe"?, "Are there still drug cartels there"? or "How easy is it to get cocaine"? and "Is the country still corrupt?"
We've decided to write this honest post answering the above questions and sharing stories we have been told by locals, our own experience and truths which you will never find between the glossy pages of the latest lonely planet.
Before arriving in Colombia then we were told the coffee was rubbish, as all the good stuff gets exported.
But we had some incredible coffee's in Colombia!
As a nation, despite producing some of the best coffee in the world, they actually drink very little. And most of the time, Colombians will drink milk with a splash of coffee as opposed to the other way around. However, there is an up and coming coffee scene in Colombia with new, speciality coffee shops popping up constantly. Coffee is becoming trendy and younger generations are enjoying this new, hipster-esq coffee scene.
Our one piece of advice for drinking coffee in Colombia though is, ditch the milk! At home, we would always have drank flat whites or cortados, but the milk is different in Colombia as a lot of the time they use UHT milk. We felt it ruined good coffee so we decided to drink coffee black and strong, and it was definitely the right decision! In really good coffee shops fresh milk is used so you can enjoy a latte or whatever your chosen coffee is, but in general black coffee is best!
Pablo Escolar & Colombia
I don't want to spend too much time talking about Pablo Escobar; as too often this is all people think about when it comes to Colombia.
Pablo Escobar - a name synonymous with both Colombia and cocaine, he is someone who is still able to divide the people of Colombia, even in death. To the rich, he was an evil and cruel man. To the poor, he was seen as a saviour. The divide is particularly true when looking at the people of Medellin who were the most impacted from the drug wars of the 1990's. Narco's is also a very touchy subject in Colombia; with most Colombians disliking the Netflix hit show and dismissing it as more fiction than fact. There is even graffiti in Medellin which reads "Netflix: Making Money From Colombia's Pain"
Whilst Pablo Escobar is undoubtably a part of Colombia's history and he cannot just be forgotten about nor swept under the carpet. There is also so much more to this beautiful country. A rich history which goes back much further than Pablo, stunningly diverse landscapes, vibrants cities, warm people and a beautifully emerging country coming into its own after a turbulent past.
If you are going to Colombia, then don't forget about everything else this country has to offer.
La Finca Manuella, Pablo Escobars Holiday home, now in ruins
Is Colombia safe?
For a tourist, then yes, Colombia is a safe country to travel around.
Like anywhere you go; apply common sense to the situation. If your steaming drunk advertising your iPhone on the streets of Medellin, then yes, it will probably get stolen. The same as it would in most cities in the world.
Colombia has a pretty rough reputation and tourism was non-existent in the country for over 40 years but they are now emerging as the must-see destination of South America. The country has worked hard to overcome its past; and the Colombia of today is a vibrant, colourful and exciting destination.
To be completely honest, when we landed in Medellin airport, I felt very nervous. And that doesn't happen often. Colombia was our very first stop, on our very first trip to South America and I was a little worried about what I would find when we walked out of those airport doors. It was after dark when we landed, but we didn't want to do it the easy was and simply get a taxi from the airport to our accommodation. We wanted to do as the locals done and get the local bus. But I was a little on edge during the journey; would our bags be okay? Where would the bus drop us? It could take us anywhere and we wouldn't know.
In the end, it was completely fine; in fact, more than fine. Exiting the bus, locals helped direct us to a taxi for the final part of our journey. Our taxi driver welcomed us to Colombia and we were able to talk and laugh in a mixture of Spanish and English. Finally, I was able to release the breath I didn't even realise I had been holding and enjoy the sights and sounds of this new country.
Over the years we had always heard "everyone gets robbed in South America", it was almost a catchphrase for the continent. So, we took the necessary precautions. We took out adequate travel insurance, I left my engagement ring at home and David carries two wallets on him; his real one and an old one with some expired cards and a small amount of money.
Thankfully, we've never had to make a phone call to the insurance company.
As I mentioned, Colombia has a pretty bad reputation for being unsafe. Primarily due to its history and at one point not too long ago, it was home to the most dangerous place in the world, Comuna 13. Comuna 13 is a barrio in Medellin that in the space of 6 years went from being the most dangerous place in the world, to being the most innovative place in South America.
See, Colombia is changing and it's changing quickly.
During our travels, we had heard things about Bogota being unsafe and needing to be careful on overnight buses, and whilst this is good advice, we absolutely loved Bogota and never had any issues on any bus in Colombia. In fact, throughout all our travels in Colombia, we generally always felt safe, with a few exceptions.
The first time we ever felt slightly on edge in Colombia was on the island of San Andres, whilst nothing actually happened, San Andres is somewhere you need to be careful. Up on arriving on the island, a group of us decided to walk from the airport to our accommodation which would have taken about 20 minutes. Shortly after leaving the airport, two policeman stopped us and told us we could not walk in that direction as we would most likely be robbed. They escorted us back to the airport to get a taxi; as far as first impressions go this got our guards up.
From San Andres, we travelled to Providencia and spent 5 days on this beautiful, extremely safe and relaxed island. Again, upon returning to San Andres (which is the only access point to Providencia) we had booked accommodation on the island. We tried to get several taxis from the ferry port to our accommodation but taxi drivers refused to go there and warned us not to stay there. In the end, a local overheard our conversation and advised us that we should not stay in that area of the island. We then cancelled our accommodation and stayed in a recommended area. Again, nothing actually happened to us on San Andres, but during our time here we just felt more tense than we had in other places.
Another exception was when we were in Cartagena - for the first couple of nights, we decided to stay about a 40 minute walk outside of the walled city and chose to walk to and from the centre. Although the centre of Cartagena is beautiful and affluent, outside the walls is a very different story.
We were advised not to carry any bags, to remove all jewellery and not take out any phones or cameras until we were within the walled city. This walk to the city was through a poverty-stricken area which felt a million miles away from the colonial centre of Cartagena. A security guard from our hostel would escort us to the main road and watch us until we were out of sight. Trash lined the streets, stray dogs barked constantly, people were everywhere just sitting or standing around. We stuck out like sore thumbs. Very rarely did we see any other tourists in this part of Cartagena. But, we done as we were told and were completely fine. We were both more tense on these walks into town, probably due to the warnings from our hostel but other than feeling a little uneasy, everything was fine.
The final place where we felt very unsafe, and would actually recommend you avoid was Taganga. This seaside town is only a 5 minute drive from Santa Marta, we got a taxi there from the city and instantly hated it. We simply didn't feel safe there; and since have heard lots of stories of tourist being violently mugged and robbed. One interesting thing we did learn about Taganga was that the reason there were so many attacks on tourists was because there is no cartel in the area. If you compare it to the nearby seaside town of Palomino, the vibe is completely different and tourist robberies are unheard of. We were told this is because Palomino is ran by a cartel which ironically makes places safer, as would be muggers have someone to answer to. We were told by a hostel owner that in cartel ran areas, if a tourist was to be hurt by a local, that person would be killed by the cartel.
are there still drug cartels in colombia?
In short, yes, there are still drug cartels operating in Colombia today. In fact, Colombia produces even more cocaine today than it did during the 1990s and it is still the number No.1 producer in the world.
As a tourist in Colombia, you will not see nor meet any cartels. That world of Colombia doesn't exist to a tourist, and the whole industry is much more underground than it was in Pablo Escobar's day; but that is not to say that it doesn't exist.
Politicians and even Colombian presidents have been proven to have ties to drug trafficking groups, and corruption in the country is rife. As a tourist, these facts will not impact your trip but for locals, life can be extremely hard. This article from The Business Insider explains Colombia's cartels as of today.
is the country still corrupt?
As I mentioned, politicians and presidents of Colombia have ties to drug trafficking groups and corruption is rife throughout the countries parliamentary system.
But that's not the only place where you will see corruption.
One local we met in Bogota told us her thoughts on the future of Colombia and it wasn't overly optimistic. She explained that corruption is embedded in the very foundations of her country, and not just in the public sector. She explained that corruption has also bled into the private sector too. For example, if you went to a private bank to get a loan or a credit card, it wasn't unheard of to need to pay the banking advisor to persuade them to approve your application.
She also explained that the police were the most corrupt of all. She said she avoided them at all costs and would feel instant dread if she were ever stopped by one. In Scotland, then generally the police are a sign of safety or assistance, yet in Colombia the people have come to fear them. The minimum wage in Colombia is approximately $300 USD per month, however the police are paid around $250 per month as the other $50 is paid in way of their uniform and shoes. Is it any wonder the police are so easy to corrupt when they earn so little? By comparison, whilst the minimum wage in Peru is the same. A policeman can expect to earn around $1,000 USD per month.
The lady who shared these stories with us was fiercely passionate about Colombia but felt little hope for its future. She has two daughters who are currently living overseas and she confessed to hoping that they would never return to Colombia. She wants them to have a better life with brighter prospects, and she feels these things are more obtainable in countries other than her own.
how easy is it to get cocaine in colombia?
Cocaine is very prevalent on the streets of Colombia, when you walk down the colourful lanes of Cartagena, street hawkers will offer you cigarettes or chewing gum whilst whispering cocaina under their breath. When we were in Santa Marta, it wasn't even as discreet as that, with one man waving a bag of white powder in our faces with the promise of a good price. Whilst cocaine exportation may not make the front page news anymore; cocaine consumption is at an all time high.
In Medellin for example, you can visit Pablo Escobar's grave and snort a line of cocaine off it. Last week, a video of a British tourist doing this very thing went viral after he shared it on Facebook.
We also met another traveller who told us he bought 3 grams of cocaine for "thirty" - I had assumed he meant £30 but he actually meant thirty Colombian pesos. This is the equivalent of £9, and in the UK the same quantity would cost you in the region of £150.
Is it any wonder more and more people are going to Colombia on what is essentially cocaine holidays? Where the drug is even cheaper than a beer.
Cocaine is everywhere in Colombia, and getting hold of some appears to be very easy.
Overall, Colombia is one of the most rewarding countries we have ever visited. We really struggled to leave as there was always somewhere else to see or a new place to discover.
From its colourful Caribbean coast, to its countless colonial towns and vibrant cities. We completely fell in love with this country. Whilst Colombia still has its own issues and problems to overcome, for those of you who chose to venture to Colombia, you will not be disappointed. And we can ensure you, there is so much more to this country than coffee, cocaine and cartels.