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  • Suzanne Murphy

Getting used to Colombia’s unique culture

Personal blog, July 2018

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. And so we probed them as to why we needed to be careful.

“Because, you know, you will have people looking at ye and stuff.”

It seemed a ridiculous response however, 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 do get stared at. Many people will also try to chat to you in street and unfortunately, as a reality for many women in Colombia, you will also almost certainly 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.

However, having 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 proud 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 example of this.

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.

When our tour was being interrupted by an overenthusiastic local, swarms of other 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, but now that I do I feel so much more at ease in this country. All it takes is some context.

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 excited to see the ‘new’ Colombia that people here are trying to shape for themselves.

As a new president looks set to be ushered in next week, I hope this great country continues to reinvent itself and to challenge people’s perceptive of it.


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