We told a group of Irish men in Peru that we were heading to Colombia and their response was not what we had expected.
“Oh, be careful there.” they told us.
Not the typical response you get from a backpacker in South America. In general everyone is either desperately trying to get to Colombia or raving about having been to Colombia. It is quickly becoming the top destination for young travellers in Latin America.
And yet, we had three guys telling us to watch ourselves. When we asked them why?
“Because, you know, you will have people looking at ye and stuff.”
It seemed a ridiculous response at the time but now that I have been travelling in Colombia for a few weeks, the situation is totally different to every other experience I have had in South America.
In Colombia, as a foreigner you will be stared at and this is a fact. Many people will also try to chat to you in street and unfortunately, as a reality for many women in Colombia, you will be catcalled.
At first I wasn’t sure how to deal with this and in all honesty, I felt quite uncomfortable at first in Cali and then Medellin, the first two places I visited.
As a solo female traveller, a huge factor in how much I like a place is based on how safe I feel in it. Unfortunately, I initially felt less safe in Colombia than any other country in South America.
Now that I have spent some time here I have realised that the reaction to foreigners in Colombia is generally a positive one and the extra attention we receive is due to the unique social and political history of the country.
The reality is that the influx of tourists experienced in Colombia is a relatively new one, something that has only begun to flourish in the past decade.
Therefore, for many people in Colombia, you might be the first of only a handful of foreigners that they have encountered in their entire lifetime. So, yes, they tend to stare. But in the majority of cases, this staring and attempts to speak to you are harmless and well-intended.
Colombians are so proud and happy to see tourists in their country because it is a positive demonstration of the changes happening in Colombian society. They want to shake off the stigmas associated with the country from the eighties and nineties and by being a tourist in their country, you are a living breathing result of this progress.
That’s why if you have little to no Spanish, I recommend learning basic Spanish conversation before arriving in Colombia so you can truly make the most of understanding this amazing cultural shift.
Colombians are a proud people and are working to demonstrate that they are much more than their troubled history would suggest. On a walking tour we were approached by a man who asked us to be nice to Colombians you meet around the world and not to automatically stereotype them as people associated with drugs, crimes and atrocities. This is very offensive to Colombians.
When our tour was being interrupted by a drunk local, swarms of people took up the mantel to discourage him, saying that our tour is very important as we were learning about Colombian culture.
It took me a while to understand this unique perspective of Colombia and its people, but now that I do I feel so much more at ease in this country. All it takes is some context.
Though I don’t want to bring in negatives, catcalling is an unfortunate reality in Colombia. I know that local women here are certainly subjected to this harassment, but as a solo female traveller who was not used to it, I must admit that I found it particularly jarring at first.
Though I have heard a few horror stories, as with any country, you simply need to be on your guard and recognise that street harassment is an unfortunate reality of the culture. Though there are more women in Colombia than men, in the cities you rarely see them walking around alone.
They tend to travel in groups in the city centre and despite the heat, wear jeans and long pants all the time. In general, you encounter more men and groups of men on the streets than women and so perhaps as a foreigner walking alone and inevitably in shorts to combat the heat, perhaps it is only natural that you will attract attention.
It is not a perfect scenario but in general, the people in Colombia who catcall are all talk and no action and can be easily ignored. You will quickly be able to tell the difference between a person who is harassing you and a person who is genuinely excited and/or curious to see you in their city.
All in all, my perspective on Colombia has done a 180 in my first week here and I feel proud to be part of the emerging tourist sector witnessing the ‘new’ Colombia that people here are trying to shape for themselves.
So as I witness elections and a new president taking the reigns (June 2018), I hope this great country continues to reinvent itself and to challenge people’s perceptions of it.
For a wonderful guide to backpacking in Colombia, I recommend this guide of best things to do in Colombia.