Colombia has for the past decade attracted new waves of travellers to its verdant mountains, vibrant cities and animal-teeming coasts. And with international governments relaxing travel warnings to this megadiverse South American country, we discover whether this improved security will pave the way for international school trips.
By Kagumu Adventures Staff
Posted on: 3/26/2018
Let's face it, travelling to Colombia around 15 years ago was deemed highly questionable for tourists. Even daring backpackers arrived in dribbles rather than droves. And for teenage students? Forget it. Barely even a consideration.
Fast forward to 2018 and the second most biodiverse country on the planet is shining brightly as a hub for global travellers. Visitor numbers have soared 300% since 2006. Highly reputable publications like the New York Times and Lonely Planet are lauding Colombia as the place to visit. And president Juan Manuel Santos has added to the country's growing international reputation by winning the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the country's successful peace process.
This is quite a turnaround considering Colombia's often overstated and unfair reputation for violence, narco trafficking and general insecurity. But while tourism has been on the up for years, we wanted to explore why there is there still scepticism about school trips and whether Colombia, a country of undoubted natural beauty and intrigue, is now safe for teenagers to visit?
Governments downgrade travel warnings
In 2016 Colombians received the news they had been waiting for for over 50 years. Peace at last. Consequently this historic deal between the Colombian government and leftist rebel group FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) convinced the US State Department to lower Colombia's travel warning to Level Two, the same as Brazil, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and even... Belgium!
It seems these new guidelines take into account the security of individual regions rather than whole country (at last). And while it still states caution should be adhered to in certain areas, it's positive in its message:
“Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogotá, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, and Cali. However, violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural and urban areas.”
The British Government takes a similar view. On its website, a map clearly marks which parts of the country are safe to visit including major cities like Bogotá, Medellin, Cali, Cartagena and huge swaths of surrounding rural regions.
Click here to listen to Kagumu Adventures founder Simon Willis interviewed about Colombian school trips
But what about parents and teachers who, somewhat understandably, may still be wary of a country with such a chequered past? Well, drama teacher, Sofía Elizalde Durán, witnessed first-hand the situation in Colombia during an immersive week-long trip to Medellin and Rio Claro with her students from Santiago’s Nido International School.
“We visited Colombia with 23 students in November last year (2017) and what did we see? Colors, music, laughter, flavors, and warmth," Sofia said.
"If you ask me, much can be said about Colombia, yet danger or concern about safety would definitely not even make my top twenty things to mention. Let’s face it, as a traveller you must be cautious, open, respectful, no matter wherever you go.”
Sofia and her students stayed in an eco-hotel on the outskirts of Medellin, witnessed world-class street art in vibrant Medellin neighbourhoods, walked through luxuriant forests and travelled to an Andean jungle in Rio Claro, trying extreme sports and living among endemic birds, creepy crawlies and howling monkeys.
During one day students explored the formerly infamous Comuna 13, a neighbourhood transformed from a no-go area to visitor hotspot. Victor, a 16-year-old student at Nido, admitted apprehension before he visited but was surprised with what he saw.
“At first, I had a different vision of Comuna 13,” he said. “However, when I actually went there it was a lot different to what I expected and a lot better.”
Tamara, a fellow IB student born in Venezuela said: "I had a very special connection with Comuna 13 because I am from Venezuela and to see how they have gone through this massive change reinstalled hope inside of me that change is possible"
Despite the succession of positive news coming out of Colombia those who have never visited will often be drawn to its more publicised, more macabre, past. It’s only natural, right? Sofia take a different slant…
“Much is said about Colombia and its potential danger to visitors,” she says. “They say be careful of theft, assaults, and drugs. But I'm a firm believer that fear should not bring me down and/or paralyze me - much less fear based on mere rumors like these."
Most school trips abroad offer students the chance to explore a foreign land, try bizarre new foods and immerse themselves in a different culture. What really shapes lives, however; what embeds trust, compassion and empathy into a person's makeup is breaking down cultural barriers and quashing stereotypes. Colombia has many. The world knows this. And now that the travelling community has deemed it safe to visit, maybe it's time for students to seize the opportunity.
This megadiverse country has some of the most enthralling landscapes on the planet as well as some of the most welcoming people.
1. It's rather cheap you know
While it's not the cheapest South American destination (I'm looking at you Bolivia), Colombia lures foreigners for its relatively cheap travel opportunities. Medellin is one of the most affordable places despite its growing demand. Eating out ranges from less that $10US in a medium-end international restaurant down to $4US for a hearty local three-course local lunch. Domestic travel is cheap using the buses and flying.
2. Colombia is like 10 countries in one
Colombia is classed as one of the world’s megadiverse countries in terms of its ecology, and its landscape never gets old. Venture into the Coffee Zone in the Central Andes for a hypnotic kaleidoscope of greens, with pine-shaded plantations sewn onto the shimmering emerald-and-sage mountains. On the Pacific Coast, Jurassic Park–like jungle shoots up from murky teal waters, home to calving humpback whales and sea turtles who come ashore at night to lay their eggs.
On the northern coast, ocean meets desert in Guajira’s barely believable landscape, where the waves sizzle as they hit the rolling tangerine sand dunes while hikers head to the white-tipped mountain range of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to encounter jutting mountains, varied bird species, and a view of the Caribbean Sea.
3. It's hiking heaven
One of the tallest palm tree species in the world. Otherworldly ecosystems found only in the Andes. Animal species ranging from soaring Andean condors to clouds of fluttering hummingbirds. It's no wonder hikers are flocking to the Colombian Andes. As well as the snow-capped volcanic peaks of Los Nevados and the bewitching landscapes in la Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, Colombia boasts stunning high-altitude lagoons like Iguaque and Chingaza.
While various hiking spots are surrounded by beautiful colonial Spanish towns, many other mountainous regions are shrouded in myst and mystique dating back even further. Lake Guatavita, the former home of the Muisca people and the inspiration for the Legend of el Dorado, is easily reachable from Bogota and not to be missed.
4. There's peace at last
On September 23, 2015, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and the leader of FARC, the country’s largest left-wing rebel group, shook hands in Havana. The significance of this was rather huge. For more than 50 years, Colombia's government and the Marxist fighters had been entangled in an armed conflict—the longest in the country’s history. Despite initially voting against this peace deal, a rectified agreement was agreed in congress, meaning as of November 29, 2016 Colombia was officially no longer at war with FARC.
This has been followed up with a relaxation of the travel warnings from the US government, meaning new trips are emerging all across the country from cycling the car-free mountain roads in the Coffee Zone to trekking Santa Marta’s Lost City, and from sampling experimental food culture in Medellín to exploring the Pacific Coast through fishing, eating, and dancing with indigenous communities.
5. Colombia’s colonial towns are exquisite
While Colombia’s cities are undergoing something of a construction boom, its smaller, colonial towns are keeping a lower profile. A few years ago, the government created the Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonio (National Network of Patrimonial Towns) to help preserve the culture of the country’s most valuable towns.
Included in the list of 17 is Santa Cruz de Mompox, which appears in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel The General in His Labyrinth and whose center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This northern colonial town is a good base for bird-watchers seeking out rare species, and enchants religious tourists with its elaborate Easter processions. In Barichara, Santander, whitewashed buildings with terracotta roofs line the pristine streets (I mean just look at this!).
6. You can explore landscapes many locals don’t know about
Ask a local about Chiribiquete and they are likely to shrug and ask: what the heck you are talking about. Indeed, very few people have even heard of Colombia's largest national park, never mind visited her. Earlier in 2018, the government announced this virtually unexplored region would be extended to 4.3 million hectares, the size of Denmark. The only way to even see this the park of tropical forests and savannas, mountains, vertical granitic domes, rivers that boast towering waterfalls and gushing rapids, is to take a helicopter ride with one of these companies.
At first glance, Malpelo Island, lying 310 miles off Colombia’s west coast, seems like a barren rock. However, dive into the surrounding Pacific Ocean to find shimmering coral, hundreds of silky and hammerhead sharks, and even the rare smalltooth sand tiger shark. Over in the eastern grassland of Los Llanos, horses’ hooves pound the land as cowboys chase herds of cattle. The few people that visit can encounter pink dolphins in the Meta River, 19-foot-long anacondas, and, with a dash of fortune, pumas roaming the night.
7. Colombians are beyond friendly
Do an Internet search for the world’s kindest people, and Colombia will be among the first results. However such things are measured—DNA sampling? psychological profiling? measuring high fives per capita?—it’s true that Colombians deserve their friendly reputation. When you arrive, you’ll be welcomed like a long-lost cousin, invited out dancing, and plied with enough shots of aguardiente (a sugarcane liquor) to get your hips snaking in no time. Salud!