Getting Past the Past: How Colombia Reinvented Itself as a Tourist Destination

Michael Verdirame


There are many things to consider when choosing a destination for a vacation—for some, beaches and warm weather make for the ultimate in relaxation, while others seek culture and history, utilizing travel as an opportunity to learn not only about new people and places, but about themselves as well.  For some, an ideal vacation consists of a balanced mix of leisure, adventure, and scholarship, with the hopes that upon returning to everyday routines, one will not only be rested but enriched.  Additionally, it almost goes without saying that when choosing a place to visit, safety is of paramount importance; almost no one but the most serious adrenaline junkies (and maybe a few journalists) would willingly choose to go to a place where their well-being would be at risk. 


While there are many places around the world that might fit this general criteria, there is one in particular destination that might come as a surprise to many, as this place has developed a reputation over the last few decades of being full of danger—a country that is inhospitable to visitors, to say the least.  This country, which only recently has become an ideal option for tourists planning a trip, is Colombia.


Columbia is a country of extremes and opposites—beaches and mountains, old and modern, urban grit juxtaposed with breathtaking nature.  There is also a great disparity in the distribution of wealth, with the very rich sharing space with the very poor, and a middle class that finds it difficult to stay in the middle for very long.  Additionally, despite Colombia’s recent emergence as a viable tourist destination, that is not meant to indicate that all parts of the country are safe, leading to the perception of extremes between areas that are perfectly acceptable for tourists to explore and those that are dangerous even for locals.  In a country shaped roughly like a diamond, the Lonely Planet guidebook for Colombia advises visitors to travel only to the parts covered in the book, which amounts to roughly half of the land area that falls within the official borders of the country.  Add to that the political turmoil that is happening in neighboring Venezuela, it makes for a region that while much improved, still has a long way to go.



Colombia’s recent history has been plagued with media buzzwords that include drug cartel wars, guerilla kidnappings, and military rebellions.  It is these things that have contributed to the picture that has been painted of Colombia as a lawless nation full of violence and danger.  In the mid-1960s, the appearance of communist ideals in certain parts of the country worried the government so much that they bombed areas where they believed the communists to be concentrated.  This led to the creation of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), who vowed to overthrow the government and redistribute land and wealth among the whole country, thus ending the income disparity.  While FARC still exists today, they are mostly relegated to the parts of Colombia not recommended for visitors.  Despite still being the world’s largest producer of cocaine, the tide began to change for Colombia when Alvaro Uribe was elected president in 2002.  Choosing to push back against FARC using force rather than diplomacy—which had not been working—Uribe’s strategies have been largely successful, despite the scandals and corruption that plagued his administration.  The result is the Colombia visitors find today, a fascinating place that is still a work in progress.


One place in Colombia that has consistently been able to defy the stereotype of danger and violence is Cartagena, located on the northern coastline of country, the extreme southern part of the Caribbean Sea.  Generally able to remain free of the conflict taking place in other areas, Cartagena became the city people attempting to flee the violence sought refuge in.  Today, Cartagena has played a large role in raising the tourism profile for Colombia, largely due to its extensive history combined with tropical beaches lined with luxury hotels.  These hotels are located in an area of Cartagena known as Bocagrande (or Big Mouth, an unintentional allusion to the increasing amounts of wealth flowing into the area).  This is where the largest concentration of tourists who visit Colombia end up, serving as an easy introduction for those that might be tentative due to the country’s reputation.  Bocagrande’s beaches are comprised of volcanic ash, which give the Caribbean water’s normally turquoise hue a muddy appearance.  A trip to Bocagrande, however, while required for any visitor to Cartagena, does not come close to painting a complete picture of this remarkable city.


For those able to pull themselves away from the beach, the walled Old Town of Cartagena provides the perfect opportunity to become immersed in the culture and history of Colombia.  Surrounded by Las Murallas—thick stone walls whose construction began over four centuries ago—the Old Town contains a number of old churches, plazas, and museums, as well as hotels and restaurants.  Much of this area also caters to the wealthy, with opulent mansions that contain balconies and shady patios. 



At night, the Old Town’s many squares are teeming with people, with many vendors and performers attempting to earn a living.  Some of the best nightlife in Cartagena takes place in the Old Town as well, providing people with an opportunity to go from bar to bar, as most have outdoor seating and music for dancing.  Many people who have visited the Old Town in Cartagena agree the best way to explore this area is to start by traversing the walls and work inwards, allowing serendipity to recommend turning a corner here and there as the mood strikes.


In order to get a comprehensive picture of the current situation in Colombia, it is important to travel to more than one place.  The capital city of Bogota provides visitors with a stark contrast to Cartagena, sitting much higher in elevation and having a much grittier, urban feel than its coastal counterpart.  The greater Bogota area is vast and sprawling, and is generally not frequented by tourists as it is still prone to gang and drug violence. 


The city’s cultural epicenter—and the place where most visitors gravitate—is La Candelaria, the historic downtown area with cobblestone streets lined with restaurants and accommodation ranging from budget to extremely chic.  In addition, museums adjacent to colonial buildings—some dating back more than 300 years—make this part of Bogota a must-see not only for its uniqueness in Colombia, but in the world.  As a caveat, however, it is still important for visitors to keep their wits about them, and to avoid certain parts of La Candelaria after dark.  Asking a taxi driver to go to La Candelaria will require a more specific destination, as there are some places even they do not want to drive through.



Following the wealth in Bogota will take visitors to the area known as Zona Rosa, where retail stores for designer brands and upscale restaurants cater to upper-class Colombians.  Generally safe for tourists, visitors with more disposable income usually elect to stay here, as the shopping, dining, and nightlife here—though more expensive than in other areas of the city—is regarded to be the best in all of Colombia.  While some regard the Zona Rosa as the epitome of the problem of income disparity in Colombia (it is only a short drive to some of the poorest areas of Bogota) many believe this part of the city to be the best of what Colombia has to offer—what puts Bogota on the map as a world-class city capable of attracting high-profile businesses, and what will eventually play the biggest role in changing the perception of Colombia throughout the world.


The question remains: is Colombia safe for tourists?  The short answer is yes.  Not only is it safe, but it is tourism that will most likely be the single most important determining factor for altering the belief that many people still hold that Colombia is dangerous.  It will take people visiting, experiencing the culture and history, getting to know the Colombian people, and returning home to spread the word to develop Colombia as a viable destination. 


Even so, it is important to realize that the journey for Colombia is far from over.  There is still a large part of the country that is not recommended for visitors, and in the parts that are mostly safe, it is still vital that tourists stay alert, as wandering a few blocks in the wrong direction could mean trouble.  Like any country trying to recover from a long period of internal conflict, there is still much work to be done. To think of Colombia in the context of its past difficulties, however, is to miss out on a country rich in culture and history—a one-of-a-kind experience lost as a result of the trusting a public perception that is not always current or accurate.  


Author Bio:

Michael Verdirame is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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