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10th March 2015

Cocaine, cartels and corruption

Planning on going travelling in South America? Hetty Dillon shares her experience of living in Colombia and shows how there is so much more to the country than the things it is famous for

Discover Colombia, a vibrant and colourful country thanks to its heritage of Spanish, Indigenous and African ethnicities and the variety of its landscape and culture. It is a fascinating country still emerging from the lingering shadow cast upon it by its violent past, its notorious role in the Cocaine trade and the violence of its internal conflict between FARC rebels and the Colombian government.

Fortunately over the past twenty years Colombia has seen a transformation and contrary to stereotypes of it being a no-go danger zone, it is much safer than it was and is fast becoming a popular destination for young travellers with a taste for adventure. With an array of cosmopolitan cities, glorious palm-fringed beaches and jungle paradise hang-outs, Colombia is a large country boasting endless places to see.

On the North Coast alone wander through the romantic colonial streets of Cartagena, swim in the warm turquoise waters of Caribbean paradise Parque Tayrona and sip on fresh fruit rum cocktails whilst dancing to rhythmic Latin beats on moonlit rooftop bars in Taganga. Rather than sticking to the predictable gringo trail; ticking off party hostels, skipping through cities and only skimming the surface of the country why not do something both more adventurous and immersive? Because the Colombian tourism business is still in the early stages of development, it’s still possible to get an experience that is literally off the beaten track.

Spend a month living on a coffee plantation and learn about the various stages of coffee bean production in Minca, volunteer at an eco-yoga farm amid jungle-carpeted mountains in the Coffee Region or help out at a hostel in beach paradise Palomino and learn some Spanish in return for food and accommodation. The opportunities are endless. I spent five months living in Colombia and fell utterly in love with everything about it. It is a place where time moves at a slower pace, people greet each other in the street and dancing salsa is an integral part of life whether you’re seven or 70.

It’s a shame that many jump at the chance to go to Colombia solely thinking of the cheap and easily available cocaine that is still linked with Colombia’s reputation. Before dabbling in the local speciality look around and consider that for the most part the only Colombians you’ll see on drugs are the homeless children as young as ten years old. Their vacant faces tell the stories of the devastating consequences directly linked to the drug trade and guerrilla conflicts that are still visible when walking down the streets of modern day Colombia. Visit Colombia, enjoy the beauty of its scenery and warmth of its people but remember that it’s got infinitely more to offer than just that white powder. Instead of cocaine, cartels and corruption, think culture, coffee and champeta!

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