“I want an email confirmation from you every day so I know you’re still alive.” This was the response I received from my family when I told them I was going to take for a few weeks to go explore Colombia. Alone. This was in 2011, I had just graduated college and had the perfect break between jobs to explore one of South America’s most treasured countries.
Had it been 2008, my response might have been a little different. I don’t know. I was graduating high school then and didn’t even know how to spell Colombia correctly (there is no U – please don’t put a U). Most of what I had heard in the news was bad: Cocaine? Kidnapping? Ransom? Colombia had earned itself a reputation that would be hard to shake.
Luckily for me, my narrow view of Colombia received a drastic makeover in 2010 while I was studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. I was eager to check off new cities and countries from my to-do list and London was an accessible choice with a cheap flight.
Being the frugal and bone-headed college student I was (and still am, honestly), I was determined to Couch Surf. I had Couch Surfed all through Europe and my trust in humanity was at an all-time high. Finding a host in London on short notice was proving to be more difficult than I would have liked. I sent hundreds of inquiries only to be met with dead air or rejection. Finally, I came across a guy from Colombia who had just recently created his couch surfing account. He had no reviews, no interests listed and only one blurry profile picture. A friend studying in Norway was meeting me in London so I decided to go for it. Surely our odds of being murdered would be lowered if we were a party of two instead of one, right?
After my Friday class, I headed to the airport only to find my flight was severely delayed. I wanted to warn my host but I didn’t have internet on my flip phone and I couldn’t make international calls eiether. My only option was to stick it out and hope he was still at our agreed meeting place even if my flight landed later than he was expecting. Two hours later, I finally boarded the flight. I landed in London after midnight and still had to catch the bus to the city center.
Of course when I tried calling my host the phone wouldn’t connect. I convinced myself there was no way he would still be waiting for me. In a moment of panic, I dialed my mom in the United States and frantically explained my situation. I don’t know what I was expecting her to say but she gave me her best, most supportive “Good luck sweetheart. I’m a million miles away and there’s nothing I can do. (Also maybe you should have listened to me when I told you not to couch surf with a strange Colombian man).”
Around 12:30, I got off the bus and scanned the street for someone who might resemble the grainy profile photo I had breifly glimpsed at only days before. My host, Oscar, spotted me and waved me down. My heart soars with gratitude for his decision to wait for me even after I was delayed and incommunicado for hours. What luck!
He tells me my friend Libby had contacted him with flight troubles. She wouldn’t be arriving until the next day. A knot builds in my stomach but I mask it with a nervous smile. He also breaks the news to me that he doesn’t actually have room for me at his apartment. Instead, he tells me in his broken English, I can stay with his friend who is also Colombian and lives with seven other Colombian men.
That’s the moment I realized I would surely end up like Liam Neeson’s daughter in Taken. When you watch that movie, it’s hard to believe someone in a new, unfamiliar country could actually be that stupid, agreeing to be whisked away by a charming stranger. It would never happen in real life because no one is that dumb.
Yet here I am, alone in the middle of the night traveling to a house full of Colombian men I knew nothing about.
The entire bus ride to their apartment my eyes were busy darting in every direction, looking for signs of my impending doom. Despite showing me nothing but kindness, I couldn’t help but feel extreme skepticism of their motives.
I arrived at the house, walked up the two flights of stairs, winced and opened the door. To my surprise, I wasn’t even murdered. In fact, I received the warmest welcome I’ve ever had anywhere in my life.
Seven young Colombian men and a few of their girlfriends gathered around me, offered me food after such a long, arduous journey. They offered up their beds, opting to sleep on the floor despite my adamant protests. They suggested sites to see and things to do in London and even offered to hang out with me so I wouldn’t be lonely. They were the sweetest, kindest strangers I had ever encountered and welcomed me into their home. They had absolutley no good reason at all to be kind to me yet the treated me like an life long friend..
Fast forward a year. I’ve graduated college and have a few months before a new job starts. Still harboring the leftover wanderlust from my study abroad, I booked a plane ticket to Colombia and headed south. My parents were alarmed but very pleased I survived my experience in London, but they were still concerned with me traveling alone to Colombia where even my new stranger friends might not be able to protect me. Because I’m me and stubbornly unwavering, they didn’t protest too loudly but requested I update them every day, even if it was just a quick sentence of reassurance.
What I found in Colombia was exactly what I had expected and hoped for; kind strangers, curious in what in the hell I was doing in their country. From the stranger who offered me a few Colombian pesos to make a call at the airport to the people who befriended me on a trek to Tayrona National Park. Every person I met treated me with respect and kindness. Also, to further dispel Colombia’s undeserved reputation, not one of the Colombians I met had any interest in cocaine or even weed for that matter. In fact, they scoffed at the idea, dismissing it as something only a moron would be interested in.
The advice I would give a solo traveler of any gender headed to Colombia is the same advice I’d give a traveler going to Paris. Be on your guard. Do not flaunt money or electronics in the open. Don’t be too trusting of anyone but don’t let stereotypes guide your judgment. If you’re taking a cab, be confident when you talk to the driver. Tell them exactly where you want to go and ask them exactly how much it will cost you.
Colombia is not the country it was five or even ten years ago. It’s rich with culture and its people are warm hearted and caring. Although I traveled to the country alone, I never felt isolated or lonely. Yes, I was able to see see my old Colombian pals from London but even when I spent days completely alone, it wasn’t long before a stranger befriended me, the odd gringa with the terrible accent. From Bogota to Salento to Tayrona, Colombia welcomed me with open arms. Exercise caution and keep your wits about you, and I’m sure it will do the same for you.
Looking for tips on you upcoming Colombian adventures? Check out my Favorite Places to Visit in Colombia.