Three years ago two old friends asked if I wanted to accompany them to Colombia. I jumped at the opportunity, not least because Amanda was born and raised in Colombia and has a very large and close family there. I would enjoy that most precious of travel experiences: life among the natives.
Was I nervous? I suppose. A little. But I’ve traveled to a number of places in the world that are said to be highly dangerous and almost always found the news reports greatly overstated the danger. Nowhere in the world is that more true than in Colombia. A little research provided an interesting statistic: The murder rate in my hometown, New Orleans, is much higher than in Colombia as a whole. That hasn’t always been the case, of course.
A decade ago Colombia was a nation in turmoil, with drug cartels, armed rebels and the private armies of wealthy landowners engaged in daily combat. Kidnappings, particularly kidnappings of “rich gringos,” were common. In the past 10 years Colombia has turned itself around, becoming one of the safest nations in all of Latin America. Of course, care must be taken. There are large swaths of Colombia where you shouldn’t venture, particularly along the borders with Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador. But your chances of getting your pocket picked are much higher in supposedly sunny Amsterdam — in Holland! — than in Bogota, Cali or Medellín.
The improved conditions in Colombia can be largely credited to one man: Álvaro Uribe, who served as president of Colombia from 2002-2010. He went to war with those who had long terrorized the nation, pushing them into the wild hinterlands and out of the daily lives of most Colombians. With my new Colombian friends I watched Uribe one night as he appeared on an informal interview show — the “Carson Show” of Colombia, I was told. He was calm, smart and funny. Edgar Higuera, who otherwise spoke not a word of English during my visit, watched him intently. “That is my president,” he suddenly announced, his voice filled with fierce pride. For my benefit, he delivered his judgment in English.
I returned to Colombia this past summer, this time with my daughter. Just two years following my first visit, I found a markedly different political and social atmosphere. Uribe was gone from office. Perhaps most significantly, he had left peacefully, in accordance with the constitution, when his second term expired. His service, and his departure, changed the people of Colombia. They are no longer actively at war. Peace is ordinary, commonplace ... assumed. It’s as if the Colombians were holding their collective breath through those eight years, hoping against hope that this time someone would succeed in setting Colombia right.
Now, at last, they can breathe.
Mark Couhig is a reporter for the Sequim Gazette. He learned everything he knows about travel from “Europe on $10 a Day,” which he bought in 1975.
“Beyond a certain point, spending money on travel doesn’t improve the experience, and in fact diminishes it, mostly by removing you from the local culture,” he says. “Vacations to resorts and fancy hotels can be fun, even healthful. But for travelers, getting by on a shoestring budget is the best and only way to go.”