Rough start to Colombia...
Bogota was my very first stop in Colombia... and smooth sailing it WASN’T. Excited for my solo adventure in Colombia to start, having traveled all over the world, a large majority of the time in developing nations, fear certainly wasn’t the first thing on my mind. Of course, a healthy amount of fear and caution is always a thought when traveling, but why would I have any more fear traveling in Colombia than I would traveling in, say, Mexico, Guatemala or Peru (three countries I’ve safely traveled in.) Sure, I knew some of the history here and that you obviously need to be careful while traveling in Latin America, especially as a solo female, but I already knew these things. And none of these were sound reasons to NOT come to Colombia. Plus, I’m not the kind of person that let’s fear get in the way of (almost) anything. Andddd what better place to practice my Spanish and immerse into a new culture than in Colombia?! Fuck the haters and the fear - this trip was gonna be rad.
I arrived in Bogota around 7 am on a red eye from Mexico, and though I was excited for this next adventure, I was exhausted, emotional and vulnerable... as I now know, not always the best recipe for success. Anyway, having forgotten to call my bank to tell them I’d be traveling, my debit card was immediately declined from the ATM, and with the zero Colombian pesos that I had, I ordered an Uber and headed to my hostel. “Have fun and be careful,” some Colombian friends I had met on the plane had messaged me a few hours after settling in. Shit... did I really need to be thaaaat careful? I tried to push the fear away like I’d done with all the other seemingly endless comments regarding my safety from my family and friends when I’d told them I’d be traveling to Colombia, but now a local was telling me? Maybe I wasn’t as safe as I thought I was... Though all I wanted to do was sleep, relax and clear my head, I couldn’t officially check into my hostel (aka get my bed) until 3 pm so I decided to chill on the couch next to another hostel guest. Having told me he’d been in Bogota for quite some time I figured I’d try to get some peace of mind regarding safety for travelers and asked him if I actually needed to be as concerned as everyone was saying. I tried not to let people’s concerns and comments get to me, but when everyone you know has incessantly reminded you to be careful (as if I don’t already know that) it’s hard to not let it get in your head. “Well...,” my hostel friend started out, “you definitely need to be careful.” “The other day I was walking in the touristy area in La Candeleria and I was robbed by five guys with knives.” Holy fuck... the fear was creeping in. “Maybe I’m just unlucky,” he insisted, “but don’t walk at night, make sure to be in a group of people, don’t have too much money, but don’t have NO money on you cause that’ll be worse if they do rob you (so put money in multiple places on your body), don’t have your phone out... “ and his list seemed to go on forever. As tears flooded my eyes I couldn’t help but question my decision to come here. Did I just make a huge mistake? Should I just book a flight back to New York? The purpose of this trip was to have an intentional solo journey where I would focus on my Spanish, my creativity, my photography and setting new and healthy habits and intentions for myself. But would I even be able to walk around by myself? Would I even be able to take my camera out without getting robbed? How would I get around without Google Maps since I can’t take my phone out? Am I going to have to just live in fear the whole time I’m here? And not trust anything or anyone? That’s DEFINITELY not the trip I wanted to have nor the life I wanted to live for the next 6 weeks. All I could do was panic and cry.
As my fear, exhaustion, frustration, confusion and overwhelm continued to deepen, the next several hours were less than desirable. Despite the 6-hour “nap” that I took later that day which I had hoped would clear my head (and my irrationality), shitty things continued to happen (like the faulty ATM I used that took my money (though it was returned a few minutes later…) as well as a throbbing headache…) Even though, in reality, nothing actually BAD had happened on that first day in Colombia it was one of those situations where everything just seemed to go terribly wrong. One of those days where you’re convinced the universe is against you and that, maybe, it’s trying to tell you something. I tried to keep things in perspective and focus on all the positives of this trip... but when you’re running on 3 hours of interrupted airplane sleep after saying bye to your boyfriend for the next 7 weeks and hearing that your fellow hostel-goer got robbed at knife point, it’s HARD to stay positive. But before outright deciding Colombia was an absolute terrible place to be, I thought it would be wise to at least give Medellin a fair shot (where I’d intended to stay for the majority of my 7-week trip) and booked my $30 flight from Bogota to Medellin a day earlier than expected… so I had just one more full day in Bogota.
Though I woke up with another throbbing headache (maybe it was the elevation?) I did what I always do in every new city I go to and headed to the city center (La Candelaria) for a free walking tour of Bogota to get my bearings, see more of the city and hopefully learn a little bit of the history. Upon seeing about 25 other tourists from around the world at the meeting point for the tour, my fear immediately started to dissipate and, for the first time since my arrival, I was actually excited to be in Colombia. THIS was the Carly that I knew. “How many of you were told by your friends and family that Colombia was a dangerous place to be in?” our tour guide, Jeff, asked the group at the start of our tour. Every. Single. Person. Raised their hand. “And that’s why I’m here to tell you and show you all the amazing and beautiful things about this place and hopefully prove to you that Colombia is truly a wonderful place, despite what you may have heard,” Jeff continued. And for the next three or so hours – he did. And it worked! Between the colorful narrow cobblestoned streets, the stunning mountain backdrops and the rich and controversial history (from the Spanish inquisition to Pablo Escobar) I gained a much-deserved respect and appreciation for both Bogota and Colombia. There was a lot more I needed to learn and a lot more I needed to experience, but despite all previous fears and thoughts, Colombia was most definitely a place I wanted to be in, and I was finally looking forward to getting to know it.
Before heading to the airport the following day I woke up around 7 am to squeeze in a visit to the iconic Monserrate, Bogota’s famous mountaintop backdrop (and accompanying church) that overlooked the city from 3,152 meters (10,341 feet) above sea level. Though the site was completely packed and the view was a bit cloudy, it was definitely worth the early wake-up and was certainly a great ending to a very rocky start.
Looking back, having now been in Colombia (happily!) for a month, it’s crazy to think about how PETRIFIED I was to be here when I first arrived... and that I actually even considered buying a flight back to New York (thank the Lord I did not…!) It is truly mind-boggling to realize how much fear can stop us from living our best lives, and how deeply affected we can be from the media and other people’s perceptions about certain places (whether we’re conscious of it or not). Yes, Colombia has a long, dark history. And, yes, just a few decades ago it used to be one of the most dangerous places… but so was the neighborhood that I now live in in New York! Things change. People change. Countries change. And, unfortunately, reputations take the longest time to change. Oh, and just for the record, I know more people who got robbed in Barcelona and in my college town in the U.S. than in Colombia... So before we jump to conclusions and simply assume the worst, let’s try to spend some more time doing extensive research and doing our very best to be aware of our preconceived notions, stereotypes and fears (and where they might all be stemming from). The more we are able to look at things objectively, the more we are able to live our lives as fearlessly and joyfully as possible... and what better way is there to live than that?!
So… as you might’ve guessed: If you have an opportunity to come to Colombia, you should 100000% take it.