When you tell people you’re going to Colombia, many don’t have to say a word to let you know how they feel. If you tell someone over the phone, you may notice a long pause or a sigh. If you tell someone in person, you may witness a widening of the eyes that asks, “What is wrong with you?!”
Just about every Colombia travel article I’ve read in major publication frames the story around the country’s turmoil in the 1990s. “Is it safe yet?” they all ask. Even though I was determined to go to Colombia, those stories made me nervous about my trip. But after I arrived, it didn’t take long to realize that the people who wrote them were shoving a predetermined story into a narrow and dramatic angle rather than letting the story of present-day Colombia unfold naturally.
I had my ups and downs as a traveler in Colombia, but the overwhelming majority of the time, I felt not only safe, but that people were looking out for me as a solo female traveler. There were, of course, the typical little ways some people try to rip you off as a foreigner, but largely, Colombia was one of the most honest places I’ve traveled to. Here are three examples:
At the end of a day hike along a historic trail, I ran into a couple I had met before who were hiking from town to town over the course of a few days. My hiking buddy and I had lunch with them at a large restaurant in a tiny, empty town. When it came time pay, they realized that most of their money was gone.
I saw the look of panic as one of them realized that he had left the equivalent of a couple hundred US dollars behind in a drawer in a guesthouse in the previous town they had hiked from. They were both really quiet after that.
Rather than hiking on to the next town as they had planned to do that afternoon, they joined us on a bus back to the previous town and went to search for their missing money. As we said goodbye to them, I was skeptical about their chances of getting their money back. I ended up seeing them a few days later when they returned to San Gil, and I asked them if they got their money back.
They did! When they went back to the guesthouse, receptionist had asked them how much money they were missing, and them gave them back every single Colombian peso they’d left behind.
A Camera Returned
A couple posts back, I mentioned feeling upset about loosing a camera on the day I traveled to San Agustin. That night, I was mad at myself that for being careless and for not backing up my pictures as often as I should. By the next day, I had let it go and moved on.
Two days later as I was walking back to my hostel after visiting the San Agustin Archaeological Park, a man driving a car towards me began frantically waiving at me.
At first, I wondered who he was, then I noticed he had a car full of gringos and I recognized him as the “taxi” driver who’d given my travel partner and I a ride to our hostel on the day we arrived in San Agustin. I thought he was just being friendly and I waved back at him.
As he pulled up alongside me on the narrow road, he began to shout, “Your camera! Your camera!” He pulled out a camera from his glove compartment, and sure enough, it was mine. I got my camera back!
A Phone Returned
After telling the story of having my camera returned to me over dinner one night in San Agustin, others started to tell their own stories of kindness and honesty in Colombia. One Swiss traveler had story about losing his cell phone. Similar to my experience, he had given up on finding it and let it go. But then the person who found his phone went out of their way to contact the last person he called and was able to track him down that way. The Good Samaritan arranged a meet up and the Swiss traveler got his phone back.
It’s easy to forget in media coverage of certain countries or regions that there are regular, good people just living their lives amidst everything that may be happening or may have happened there. It can be difficult to understand that there may be everyday humanity hidden behind the extremities that have been carefully selected to gain our attention.
Even though I try not to assume media stories tell the whole truth about a place, it still took me awhile to even consider Colombia as a potential destination. Then, in almost losing something there, I saw that experiencing a place for yourself, witnessing humans being human, and taking that home with you is worth more than anything you bring with you on a trip, whether it’s cash, electronics, or preconceived notions.