• Valerie Romero

How I managed to travel Colombia without being murdered: A Survivors Tale.

“Really?? Why are you going there??”

“That’s a weird country to choose”

“Don’t get kidnapped”

“Wow I hope you don’t get murdered”

“Don’t get trafficked into a drug cartel”

“That’s not safe for you to do alone is it??”

If the sarcasm was not evident in the title, I was less than impressed by the amount of negative comments I received before leaving for my trip. At the time I just laughed it off, and had it only been the odd one or two comments I would’ve left it at that, but it seemed that every other person I spoke to (even people who didn’t know me!) had something negative to say about my trip. Firstly, not only is this extremely insulting as Colombia in not just a country that interested me, it is part of my family’s history. Secondly, it is closed minded and frankly, a bit behind the times. And honestly, why tell someone who has already planned their trip and bought their flights that you think they’re not going to make it back?? Rude much.

South America has become a very popular backpacking destination, and there really is no good reason to avoid Colombia if you’re going to make this trip. I am of course biased, but personally I found it to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, and so I’ve come back to my blog in the hope of persuading at least one person that they were wrong.

I won’t lie to you though there were some moments where I really struggled. My very first day alone in fact, was no picnic. I had arrived in Santa Marta the night before, anxious and stressed about the month ahead of me, and honestly terrified at the thought of being completely alone on the other side of the world. But I had a free day before my trek to the Lost City and determined to shake off some of my nervousness, I decided to go for a walk through town.

This turned out to be a less than enjoyable experience to be totally honest. Foreigners in general (but especially single girls) appeared to be a target for heckling and cat calling by various men, and although harmless it was unexpected and made for a pretty stressful walk about the town. Needless to say, that morning stroll did not last long and I soon returned to my hostel, slightly shaken. Was this how the next month was gonna be?? No, I refused to allow that. So, I went back out, ignored the weird looks I knew I was getting from the locals and got on a public bus to a park. I made it, calmed down, and ended up seeing about 100 iguanas that afternoon. All in all, a successful excursion if you ask me. The second challenge I faced that day, however, was my return journey home. I decided to get a taxi as the bus route was a bit confusing and I wasn’t sure where the stop was. So anyway, the lady at the entrance of the park showed me towards a young man and his taxi, I told him where I was going, and I got in. As soon as he started driving, it began.

“You’re so pretty” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Can I get a picture of you?” “Can I get your number?” “Do you have a phone?”

The questions seemed never ending. To me, the easiest and most natural way out of this was to just play along until I got to my destination. Thanks, Yes, Definitely Not, No, Yes but I left it at the hostel. It was exhausting, but it worked and when I finally got to my hostel I took down his number, promised to call him when I needed another ride somewhere, and ran inside. His number went straight in the bin, and I never saw him again. I spoke to another girl later that day and was somewhat relieved when she told me she too had the most flirtatious taxi driver she’d ever met. It felt much less personal, and I realised that this was just some kind of irritating game that often gets played with solo female travellers.

The rest of my trip was easy breezy compared to that day, but I don’t think it would have been if not for those experiences. That day taught me a lot about how to handle myself in this new environment. Yes, it is very different to England and other places I’ve been, but just behaving sensibly and doing things confidently makes a big difference. Reckless behaviour and not thinking can lead to negative experiences that are often completely avoidable. E.g. the girl I met who had her phone stolen out her back pocket in a Bolivian market. Surely this is just a lack of common sense??

On that note, a couple of things I would advise a prospective solo traveller would be:

· Do a bit of research on travel fares so you know roughly how much you should be charged – that way you’ll know if someone is trying to overcharge you

· If you can ask what the fare will be before the journey, they’re less likely to overcharge you

· Learn the currency and worth of each note/coin. Nothing says “scam me!” like umming and ahhing into your wallet when the time comes to pay

· Don’t whip your phone out on the street, wait until you’re indoors

· Have a rough idea where you’re going so you don’t have your eyes glued to a map the entire time and are more aware of your surroundings

· As a follow on from the previous point, if you appear to know what you’re doing or where you’re going, strangers won’t bother you as much.

· Don’t advertise all your belongings, aka no phones or wallets in back pockets

· Don’t wander around late at night on your own

· If in doubt, ask a security guard or policeman for help – there are usually plenty around and they’re happy to help

I get that it’s not always ideal but it’s just about being cautious really. I personally wouldn’t put my phone in my back pocket on the Underground, and there are definitely some places in London I wouldn’t go walking through alone at night. And don’t pretend like people don’t get mugged/ assaulted all over the world. Bad things can happen wherever you go, there will always be some level of risk. But Colombia is totally worth the extra precautions, in my opinion. I got through the rest of my trip without any more uncomfortable incidents, and I really did have the time of my life.

Those who follow my accounts on Instagram will already have an idea of how much I loved this country, but I really can’t say it enough. Every town I visited felt completely different, but I always left slightly mesmerised and wishing I could stay just that little bit longer. The 4-day Lost City trek was unforgettable. Partly because I thought my lungs were gonna collapse from all the uphill hiking, but mostly because of the incredible views and unique experience you simply won’t get anywhere else.

Cartagena was probably my favourite location. In the few days I spent wandering the colourful streets of this town I ate some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had and drank so much fruit juice it’s probably still running through my veins now.

Medellin really deserves its own post, but I’ll spare you of that for now and keep this short. Once the murder capital of the world, this city has undergone an urban transformation and completely turned itself around. The incredible street art and dance/rap performances were so moving, and you could really see how much of a difference the city’s new direction and the support of tourists over recent years has made to the locals’ lives.

I could ramble on about this country for pages, but no blog post could ever do it justice, so I won’t try. But my point is, Colombia (and South America in general) is well worth visiting, and definitely shouldn’t be avoided because of its history and the reputation it can’t seem to shake off. It is a beautiful country, a stunning continent, and if navigated with a bit of common sense more than safe to travel alone. I had the best month of my life and look at that – I wasn’t murdered!

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