Risky Colombia

It’s a brilliant public relations campaign and marketing strategy, and every time I see the spots on television and ads in newspapers and magazines, I must admit I get chills as the memories rush through my head like the roiling waters of the Magdalena River.

Over the past two months, I’ve experienced many of the places seen in those ads, and as my time in Colombia comes to an end, I’m feeling a bit sad.

Early readers of this blog may recall my post from January 30 titled STERN WARNINGS. In that post I wrote the following:

“…as I prepare to leave for Colombia in about two weeks, I’m not sure which Colombia I will find: one still engulfed in a raging war or one where you can travel by road and feel safe. The State Department tells Americans to avoid traveling between cities and rural areas by road and instead take commercial flights.”

Well, I ignored my government and traveled every stitch of Colombia by road, as I had planned. And with one exception, the roads were perfectly safe. The exception was somewhat of an anomaly.

It was the last day of carnival in Barranquilla and I decided to forgo the last day’s festivities by getting an earlier start to Santa Marta. I took what is known as a “puerta puerta” – a van that picks up passengers at their home or hotel and delivers them right to the door of their next destination.

In Cali, my last major city stop in Colombia, with my couchsurfing host Elena, right, and her student Sofia, whom I helped with an English project.

Because roads many roads were still blocked by carnival parade, floats and other related events, the van was forced to find an alternate route out of town. We found ourselves in a very bad neighborhood, about 15 passengers, including a woman with a newborn baby. As the driver tried to make his way out he encountered streets blocked by neighborhood youths who demanded a “toll” to allow passage. The youths blocked the road with tires, rocks, and held chains and ropes across the roadway, demanding cash. They were armed with sticks and rocks and surrounded the vehicle. The driver lowered the window ever so slightly, just enough to hand the youths the pesos – what to me looked like at least 2,000 pesos – approximately $2.  The youths dropped the chains and removed the tires and allowed passage.

The Unicentro shopping mall in Cali is not only for shopping, it's where people come to sit by the fountain and chill or have a nice time just wandering

Just a half block up the street, another roadblock. The driver again paid the cash. We drove less than a block and yet another blockade. This time the driver decided he wasn’t going to pay this bunch of thugs. He drove up slowly to the youths and when he saw an opening, he stepped on the gas and sped through. But the angry youths peppered the vehicle with rocks and gave chase, striking the vehicle with sticks, bear fists and whatever else they held in their hands. The passengers – the newborn was now stirred awake and crying – were clearly shaken and afraid. The driver, however, managed to pull away with minor damage – a dent here and there – to the vehicle. To put everyone at ease, the driver joked that it would have been worst driving through here at night. It was the only time in my two months in Colombia that I really feared for my safety. But before you, reader, go painting all of Colombia as a dangerous place, know that we had landed in a bad neighborhood because of circumstances beyond our control. Normally, none of us in that van would have been there to begin with. With some minor nonsense here and there that is to be expected, the rest of the trip in Colombia has been absolutely fantastic.

Peeking through the plants - this area is apparently lover's lane - some of you need to get a room! :)

Recall again, early readers:), that I wondered in STERN WARNINGS which Colombia would show up on this trip: the one painted as a very dangerous place or the friendly, beautiful and incredibly amazing one, I say now without hesitation it was the latter. So many people, so many places, so much joy and laughter.

So I say the campaign to sell Colombia to the rest of the world is indeed brilliant: face the fact that people across the world believe yours is a dangerous country and come up with a tourism campaign slogan that tackles straight on that perception. The slogan?: COLOMBIA: THE ONLY RISK IS WANTING TO STAY. Like so many, I faced that risk. Click here for more on that campaign.

So now I move on and forward. Next stop, Ecuador. Hey Ecuador, I’m won’t ask that you top your neighbor Colombia. But can you at least match?





[shameless :) promised :) secret :) message :) para Ana :) en Envigado: agua CALIente…  aaahhh… :) que rico. :) Pero los mosquitos pican mucho y ya siento la malaria :) ]

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