“You’re from Colombia? Where the drugs at?” This was how Paola, my Colombian friend, was greeted when we visited Nebraska together. With Pablo Escobar and Narcos purporting this image through the media, it’s not surprising that people react this way when the country is mentioned.
It’s disheartening to witness this negative perception manifest itself so often, because Colombia is the most selfless, non-materialistic, high-spirited, and genuinely radiant culture that I’ve experienced.
Here are a few takeaways that you should remember Colombia for:
1. They’re the #2 Happiest Country in the World
According to Gallup’s 2018 Survey of Happiness, Hope, and Economic Optimism, Colombia is ranked the second happiest country in the world. As a country that has endured decades of violence and political instability, it’s incredible that its citizens are the most joyful, content people that I have ever met.
They thrive on their celebrations, fiercely love their families, and largely define their success based on their relationships and the time they get to spend with loved ones, rather than by their riches, societal status, or rung on the career ladder.
Hardship is faced with a conviction that things will always improve over time with time and with faith in God.
2. Most Locals Don’t Do Any Drugs
The only real market for drugs comes from the tourists creating demand for it. While most people fail to admit it, drug use is remarkably widespread in the United States. It’s become normalized in the American culture for college students to do drugs – recreational use of them is ingrained in our culture and is glorified by the media.
In Colombia, on the other hand, I did not encounter one person in their twenties with any interest in drugs. There was a clear aversion to drugs from millennials; they knew that a path that included drugs would bring a whole slew of problems along with it.
3. Music, Dance, and Art Can Be Found With Every Turn
Colombia pulses with an organic energy. Having a good time is defined by music, dance, and fellowship with others, rather than by expensive venues and activities.
Artisans and street artists run rampant, and locals can be found consistently supporting one another’s crafts. I befriended dancers in Santa Marta, Medellín, and Cartagena, and heard incredible musicians on public transit in Bógota.
Even the cross-country buses blast reggaeton music and play music videos on their televisions, no matter the hour. In the three times that I rode cross-country transportation (20+ hours each time), the only break from music was to play comedy specials on their televisions, which had everyone on the bus roaring with laughter in the dead of night.
4. Safety Is As Much of an Issue As With Any Large City
The most common reaction I received after telling someone I was going to Colombia was a warning not to go alone. I was flooded with unsolicited advice about how I’d get kidnapped or robbed or mugged if I traveled there.
While it is important to stay aware of your surroundings, as long as you avoid certain areas, don’t walk alone late at night, and don’t flaunt yourself as a foreigner, there’s no reason to be targeted or to fear for your safety. As with all places, people would rather help you than hurt you.
Every time I was out in the evening, kind locals would offer to walk me home. There’s a culture of looking out for one another, and a solidarity among community members that I have not felt anywhere else.
5. Sharing Is Ingrained Into the Culture
Perhaps it has to do with being such a religious community, or perhaps it’s their family values that drive their generosity. Whatever the case may be, people don’t think twice before sharing what they have. If anyone has a snack or plastic bag filled with water, there’s no question whether it will be shared among everyone, no matter how small it may be.
Even the word sharing is used in Colombians’ vocabulary more than I’ve ever heard it used in the U.S. People talk about wanting to spend time with others to share, to go to the beach to dance and share, or to eat together and share.
When meeting someone for the first time, the person will make strong eye contact, and either take your hand or hug you and kiss you on the cheek.
These small gestures will fill you with a sense of belonging, community, and being authentically seen.
Instead of the fear I was told to feel by society and the media, I felt safe, loved, and genuinely cared for by the people I met. People consistently went out of their way to help me and to help each other.
These are the qualities of the culture worth talking about. Despite a troubled past, the country has remained resilient and economically made a major comeback, now sporting one of the most stable economies in South America.
With several cities booming with digital nomads and tourism rates skyrocketing, I hope that more tourists will start to visit for more than just an inane desire to have nights they won’t remember clubbing and snorting coke.