You are here

Visit to Colombia a pleasant surprise (Patrick Galeski)

Many Canadians associate Colombia with violence, but it's not at all bad

National police stand guard near the cathedral in Bogota's Plaza Bolivar earlier this year, during the nation's election campaign.When I returned from my three-month visit to Bogota, Colombia, the first Canadians that greeted me were the customs and revenue officers at Calgary International Airport. I thought I'd get the usual, "Welcome back home, sir."

But after reading on my customs form that I was returning from Colombia, their smiles faded and they commanded, "Step to your right ... now!" Most of my friends and family were equally suspicious about my visit to Colombia, often joking and asking, "How many kilos of cocaine did you bring in?"

Unfortunately, many Canadians do associate Colombia with three central images: narcotics trafficking, kidnapping and violence. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade seems to share these views. In its travel advisory for Colombia, it states: "Judicious/ extreme security measures are warranted for all Canadians travelling to Colombia. Travel to Colombia, except to designated tourist resorts, should be deferred." Back in May I ignored this warning, lured by the opportunity to learn Spanish while living in the same city as my girlfriend. Nevertheless, when I first arrived I had the same fears as most Canadians, and thought that I was either going to be kidnapped, murdered, or mugged.After three months I was happy to realize that my fears were unfounded. I never became a victim of a crime, and I had never felt so secure (probably because I've never been protected by so many soldiers, police officers and guns in my life). In the morning, I was often awakened by the thunderous roar of a low-flying military helicopter, and in many places, such as bus stations and shopping centres, the number of security guards was equivalent to the number of troops you might find at a Canadian military base.Due to the heightened security, I was extra careful when taking photos in Bogota. If you take pictures in some parts of the city, the police jump to the conclusion that you're a spy and could even detain you. Colombians take their security seriously, and are willing to take extreme measures to guarantee the safety of citizens.

Despite the heavy security, ordinary people in the city of Bogota live their lives freely. I expected to see people on edge for the presidential elections on May 26 -- political analysts were expecting violence. Although there was violence in some areas of the country, the city was calm.Bogota, while a relatively safe city, does have its problems. Its population is more than nine million and as many as four million have arrived in the city in the last 50 years. Moving from the northern part of town towards the south, the levels of poverty and crime slowly increase.

When travelling by car, lock all your belongings in the trunk in order not to tempt thieves, and keep your doors locked at all times. There are two bus systems in the city: Transmilenio and the traditional system (busetas). At every location you'll find high security, clean stations and buses, and helpful city employees. On the other hand, private buses should be avoided at all costs, not because they are dangerous; but due to the fact that these "busetas" (private mini-buses) are the worst maintained and operated vehicles I've ever seen in my life.It is true that many areas of Colombia are not safe -- and there is a war going on between four separate entities: the largest guerrilla group in the country, called FARC; the second largest guerrilla group, the ELN; paramilitaries (AUC), and the government. FARC has considerable power and influence in many rural areas. The ELN is much smaller than FARC and holds Marxist-Leninist beliefs. AUC, meanwhile, is a paramilitary organization and its mission is to destroy both the ELN and the FARC. All you have to do is drive on the highways for roughly five hours (about 300 kilometres) to see the war between the guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the government.

In Bogotá the situation is entirely different. Walking alone is not a problem -- and no one on the street will try to sell you cocaine. The vast majority of Colombians wish to see an end to the violence, guerrilla activity, and drug trafficking that exists in their country, and wish to eliminate the negative stereotype that has stained its image. Visitors will be treated with unfailing respect and courtesy. It is a country of beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and great adventure. And despite the problems of the land, I would return tomorrow given the chance