March 31, 2016
During the three years I have spent in the U.S. as an international student, I have come to realize there are many misconceptions about countries that lie outside of North America and Europe. One of those countries is Colombia, the country where I am from and where I grew up. I have decided to address some of the most common misconceptions that I have heard about Colombia in hopes of clarifying them and giving a clearer and truer picture of what my country is actually like.
Let us start with the name. The country is Colombia with o, and not Columbia. The difference is only one letter, some might argue, but how would you like it if every time you went to Colombia people spelled your country United Stetes of America?
The country has so much to offer, from the incredible diversity of flora and fauna to the exquisite traditional dishes to paradisiac beaches, yet most people associate Colombia only with its infamous drug trafficking problems. To make things worse, notorious kingpins like Pablo Escobar and popular television series such as Narcos have further spread the country’s unfavorable image.
There is no point in denying that narcotrafico has had a significant negative impact in Colombia, but the government’s battle against drugs has been highly effective and successful, as the production of cocaine has dropped significantly in the past years.
Yet Colombia’s reputation as a drug country remains so prominent in people’s minds that I was once asked if cocaine was sold in Colombian supermarkets. Just for the record, the answer is no. Drugs in Colombia are illegal, and in spite of the country’s role as a major cocaine producer, Colombians—in general—are not drug consumers.
Given Colombia’s location in the northwest of South America and near the equator, some people assume the whole country is basically a tropical forest. This conception could not be further from reality.
While Colombia does have tropical rainforests, it also has deserts, mountains, plains, and islands. The country is home to unique geographical features which include a desert right next to the ocean in the northernmost part of the country, a mud volcano popular because of its alleged healing properties and Cano Cristales, a red, yellow, blue, green and black river often referred to as the most beautiful river in the world. The country’s challenging landscape makes traveling in Colombia truly an adventure of a lifetime.
The notion that all Latin American countries are virtually the same is a misconception that oversimplifies the complexity of the individual countries. While some characteristics, such as the language (Spanish) and the religion (Catholicism), are indeed common to most of Central and South America, each country is unique. People in the U.S. often seem shocked when I tell them I do not like spicy food, and the question that follows is a variety of “but isn’t Colombian food spicy?” To answer the question, no, it is not, and just because Mexican food is spicy does not mean all Latin American food is.
Some of my friends at Augustana University were also surprised because I did not know anything about the Cinco de Mayo celebration (which is not celebrated in Colombia) or when I did not know slang from other Latin American countries. Imagine if someone from Alabama and someone from Alaska were expected to eat, act, speak, and dress the same - do you get my point?
Lastly, I will address the common belief that Colombia is dangerous. While there are some revolutionary and violent groups, these people are located in very specific parts of the country. Furthermore, Colombia is undergoing a peace process between the main guerrilla group—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government. After the agreement is signed, the FARC will put down their weapons, and violence levels in the country are expected to reduce significantly.
Undoubtedly, urban crime rates in Colombia are high and there are dangerous areas in some cities, but every major city in the world has violent zones. As long as you are careful and stay away from unsafe areas, you will be fine.
Colombia is by no means a perfect country—no country is—but it is certainly much better than what most people imagine. Today Medellin, once famous for its high crime rates, is one of the country’s main cultural hubs and is considered the most innovative city in the world and the “Fashion Capital of Latin America”; Barranquilla, the hometown of Shakira and Sofia Vergara, hosts the most colorful carnival in the planet; Bogota, the capital of the country, is a modern, cosmopolitan city and every year hosts the biggest theater festival in the world—the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro. Colombia, which also houses more than 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity, is the second most bio-diverse country in the planet, and was crowned as the happiest country by a WIN/Gallup International Association survey.
So hopefully after reading this you have a better picture of what Colombia really is like, and next time you hear about it drugs and violence are not the first thing to come to your mind, and instead, you associate Colombia with what it really offers: spectacular landscapes, flourishing modern cities, an immense biodiversity, a variety of music, dances, and national celebrations, and—I might be biased here—the best food in the world.