Conquering Colombia – A Solo Traveler’s Journey

I sit at Gate B32 in the Atlanta airport waiting for my flight to Bogotá, Colombia.  Time seems to drag.  I start to feel nervous.  Four days ago, I laughed when people said how Colombia was dangerous, warning me about cocaine, cartels, and guerillas.

I’m stuck sitting here for two hours, with all the horror stories rushing into my mind.  Two men sitting near me speak in rapid Spanish.  I can only make out three words.  How am I going to communicate? I wonder if I can cancel my trip and catch a flight back home.

I stand up with every intention of inquiring about how to return home.  A young Hispanic woman smiles at me.  I smile back and take a deep breath. I make myself sit down.  Why am I freaking again?  I live and work in West Africa, where the government isn’t that stable, Ebola looms nearby, and pirates kidnap people.  I decided that I had signed myself up for this adventure, and refuse to turn back before it has even begun.  My flight is announced, and I board the plane. 

One of the churches in Bogota.
One of the churches in Bogota.

 The young women is sitting across the aisle.  “¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?,” She says. “Estoy bien,” I respond.  We switch to English.  Maria is from Cali.  The conversation moves to my plans.  I am heading to Southern Colombia.  After five days, I would head back to Bogotá and the coffee city of Salento.  I would end my trip in Cartagena and Caribbean coast.  She exclaims, “You are going to have a fantástico time!”  Her confidence helps me relax and take a nap.

Six hours later, it’s just after midnight, and I am about to get a taxi.  I have never taken a taxi before.  I’ve heard stories about “unofficial taxi drivers” that take you to an isolated ATM and force you to withdraw all your money, and leaves you stranded.

I step into the “official taxi” line and get a taxi.  I hand him the paper with my hostel.  Fifteen minutes later the driver pulls up to a dark building.  I can’t see a sign and nothing looks like a hostel entrance. “Is this my hostel,” I ask. “Si,” he says with a nod of his head, “Si.” I climb out and grab my stuff.  I expect the driver to leave.  Instead, he gets out of the taxi.  He presses the buzzer and waits until a hostel worker opens the door and lets me in.  I thank my driver and begin to breathe again.

A view from one of my transports while in Colombia.
A view from one of my transports while in Colombia.

The next morning, I go to the bus terminal.  I have some minor communication issues trying to buy a bus ticket to Neiva.  I finally find a bus clerk who figures out what I want.  She hands me a ticket, then beckons a young man.  He motions for me to follow him, and he guides me to a bus.  I repeat this adventure several times over the next two weeks.  Each time someone helps me find my way and get on the correct bus.

Next, I head to the scariest place on my itinerary, San Agustin.  It is one of the active guerrilla areas.  I ride the bus up the winding road.  The road is surrounded by jungles and cliffs.  I realize how easy it would be for a guerilla to make me disappear forever.  I arrive in the town square and get directions to the hostel.  I stop several times as ask for directions.  Everyone is happy to share a smile and point me in the right direction.  I am beginning to wonder why I put so much thought into Colombian horror stories.

Exploring the statues in San Augstin.
Exploring the statues in San Augstin.

After a couple of days, I head back to Bogotá with a 10-hour night bus ride from San Agustin.  I had planned to avoid a night bus.  But, I wanted an extra day, so the night bus was my only option.  Some of the Colombia bus horror stories involve a night bus and being drugged and robbed.  As I wait for the bus, I am handed a card in English. “Do not accept food or drinks from strangers on bus.”  By departure, I had eight cards.  After a long night, I make it to Bogotá.  Another panic about over nothing.

Enjoying the views in San Agustin.
Enjoying the views in San Agustin.

I sit on a bench waiting for a pickup back to Salento.  I get in the truck.  A couple of minutes later, I notice my DSLR camera isn’t around my neck.  Panic starts to rise.  I ask the driver to turn around.  I arrive back at the bench, and it’s gone.  I am near tears when a shopkeeper motions me over.  He leads me into his store and shows me my camera. “Keep camera here,” He explains as he slides the camera around my neck.  I close my eyes in relief.  It was my fault, but the amazing shopkeeper returned my camera.  My panic dissipates and I can’t help feel that Colombia might not have the theft problems previous stated.

An early morning hike in Salento’s Valley of Cocora
An early morning hike in Salento’s Valley of Cocora

 On my last night in Colombia, I sat on the beach in Parcqu Tayrona.  As the sun sets, I look at the card from San Agustin.  I think back to my experiences.  From the life worn grandmother who insisted I take that card from her to the shopkeeper to the taxi driver, these people were willing to help someone they had never met.  They helped me with no thought of reward.  It has been three weeks since I had my panic attack in Atlanta.  I had traveled 900 miles on a bus, taken two flights, and experienced much of Colombia.  I had survived the trip, and yet I didn’t feel that accomplished.  I had conquered my fears about Colombia.  I looked at that card. 

 

The view for Tayrona on my last night in the park.
The view for Tayrona on my last night in the park.

Was all that worry different than things I worry about at home?

This post was originally published on Made all the Difference Travel Blog.

 

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