When we initially made plans to travel to Colombia, I must confess, we really knew very little about the country before we started to research it. When we thought of Colombia, two things came to mind – Coffee & Cocaine.
You can’t mention the country of Colombia without witnessing the widening of peoples eyes and the inevitable question – what about the drug lords?
Pablo Escabor and the terrifying grip he had on the country in the 80s is an undeniable and sad part of Colombia’s history. You can’t seem to get away from it and the glamorization of it by the West – just turn on Netflix and watch the success of Narcos if you don’t believe me!
I cannot state it enough – we did not book our trip to Colombia to do drugs. A lot has transpired in the country over the last 2 decades and now it is a much safer place to travel to, so the fear of running into some drug lord territory was quite low. However, we did recognize the fear and misunderstandings that people had about the region that made ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ and the drug fueled disco era of the 80s, possible.
Throughout the 90s, with the fall of Escobar, increased security and the (sometimes misguided) assistance of the U.S. – the country of Colombia has mostly stabilized. I am by no means an expert on politics of the region – but we did have a chance to discuss the history and background of the country with the locals to get their perspective.
The bottom line is this – while there is still political corruption (and that is undeniable) the country is no longer the haven for drug lords that it once was. People feel much safer there. The drug lords that descended to take over the business after Escobars fall have now largely moved north, to Venezuela and Mexico. While sad for them, it has provided relief for the country of Colombia and the people that reside there. They’ve been able to now essentially take back their country and focus on nurturing the many rich assets of the region. In fact, economically speaking they have strong oil reserves, an incredible climate for coffee plantations, bio diversity that enables them to be the world’s largest export of roses and so much more. In fact, people have been moving back to Colombia and investing in the region like never before – even Medellin is turning out to be the next ‘hub’ for start-ups, attracting talent from all over the world.
Locals also rightfully informed us that the Coca plant itself was used (and still is used) for medicinal purposes. Cocaine is a transformed, chemically treated version of the plant and violates its intended use. Coca is used to ease digestive problems, provide energy, help with arthritis, ease pain, help with depression, calm migraines, and so more. In fact, in Colombia you can buy and drink Coca tea, which is the natural form of the plant (and tasty I might add). It does provide a calming effect, we enjoyed it and would even recommend it.
Yet, the scars from Escobar’s reign do still exist. Maybe it’s because we weren’t looking for it, but Cocaine was not something that seemed to be used by the locals there. In fact, the use of it is frowned upon and represents a dark history. If you’re looking to travel to the region and party, I’m sure you’ll find an outlet for it but don’t expect the locals to embrace you. The people themselves don’t want to be known or associated with the painful past of the Cocaine drug trade in the same way Germans don’t want to be known solely for the pain of the Nazi takeover. It’s a shameful and extremely painful time that Colombians don’t even like to talk about. Many of them, I suspect, were impacted personally by that time period and they are still healing from it.
If you do travel to Colombia, be mindful and respectful of this. Do not ask them about Escobar or the illegal drug business unless they bring it up and / or you develop a relationship where you can talk about it respectfully. The people want to be known for the riches and beauty of their country, as well as the beauty and kindness of their people. And believe me, there is plenty of beauty to take in.