“I urge you not to go Leah,” my father warned me just minutes before my boyfriend and I were to leave for the airport, bound for Colombia.
“Thanks for your concern, Dad, but if we keep chatting about this we will miss our flight.”
That morning my father had read the United States travel advisory warning against travel to Colombia. He could not understand why we would risk our lives for a vacation.
But Dominick and I didn’t want an all-inclusive resort vacation. We wanted to eat beside locals, dance to traditional music and stroll through precolonial neighborhoods.
Our first “adventure” was to go to the romantic and legendary city of Cartagena, where 13 km of centuries-old colonial stone walls continue to protect the Unesco World Heritage Site from invaders. We figured we were going to be among the first foreigners to meander the cobbled alleys.
That is, just as soon as we pick out our hostel from the Lonely Planet guide.
I find that we Americans have this ideal of discovery – that if we haven’t been there yet, no one else has either.
Cartagena was streaming with European and Latin American backpackers, beautiful young couples and happy families. After only meeting a few Americans, it started to make sense why I had to go to three different book stores to find Lonely Planet Colombia and why my trusty internet travel searches revealed few options.
“I must thank you, on behalf of all of Colombia, for as Americans, trusting in us here in Colombia and enjoying our culture,” said an elderly Colombia man whom we met during an actual adventure off the beaten path to Parque Tyrona (hiking barefoot through knee-deep mud in the jungle and sleeping in hammocks).
Behind tears, he stopped short of adding, “we need you.”
Colombia is huge. It is about the size of California and Texas together. I reminded my father that Mexico is also on the U.S. travel advisory list, but nonetheless he would have been fine with me vacationing in Cabo. So just like Mexico, there are plenty of safe (without drug cartels ruling the streets) places to visit in Colombia.
We are finishing up our final few days in Bogota with our friends Juan and Filiepe. This has been a trip of expectations defied. We have slept in a rugged hostel, a swanky hostel, hammocks and jungle floors, a five star hotel and finally, a twin bed in a Bogota high-rise. We have enjoyed arepas from street push-carts and Chilean-Colombian-Asian fusion while being offered Panama hats from street peddlers.
We were not nearly among the first tourists in Colombia. But we were among the few Americans who “gave Colombia a chance.” And wow. The kindness of the people, above everything else, makes me want to come back.