If you were born and raised on the east of the Atlantic, you probably have limited knowledge about Colombia, mostly restricted to what you've seen in the Narcos series or the two special episodes of The Grand Tour. Such comfort that comes from living on the 'other' side of the world; we swallow whatever mainstream media serves us and sleep on it, thus escaping the envy of the unknown.
I have traveled to 15 countries so far. Initially, these trips were for tourism purposes, but later they turned into a search for a new homeland. I've always imposed certain criteria on myself, and these criteria automatically highlighted some countries while completely eliminating others from my radar. I've been in Colombia for about 4 months now, and I've just realized that, just like finding a partner to share your life with, you don't know what you're looking for in a homeland until you find it.
Let me try to describe this country to you as best as I can, a place that often gives me goosebumps and fills my eyes with tears.
If you're like me, after watching Lord of the Rings, you researched where it had been filmed and added visiting New Zealand to your bucket list. Well, know that you haven't seen anything yet.
Explaining Colombia's extraordinary landscape is truly difficult; however, what's even harder to believe for anyone accustomed to city life is how accessible and intertwined this natural miracle is with daily life. Wherever you live, even the busiest streets downtown are filled with a variety of flowers, trees, birds, and insects. If you venture a little further from the city, the surface of the mountains surrounding you and touching the clouds is covered with such dense vegetation that... You know, sometimes, when you gaze at the stars at night and realize how insignificant you are in this vast universe; in Colombia, you feel just as vulnerable in front of Mother Nature.
Even the most popular tourist attractions in the country remain so untouched by civilization, which is also a testament of the respect Colombians show to the land bestowed upon them by God.
For Colombians, life itself is a festival that must be constantly celebrated. Birthdays are a big event, there are numerous national and religious holidays, and if there isn't a special reason like winning a soccer game, every Colombian will surely have a reason to drink and dance wildly at least once a week.
To elaborate on the term 'wildly'... For example, last month, I attended the San Juan and San Pedro festivals in Ibagué. On this occasion, a parade was organized in the heart of the city.
Imagine hundreds of dancers wearing colorful costumes representing different regions, including half-naked policemen throwing out Aguardientes (sort of light rakı) to the audience, performing various choreographies as they pass by for hours. A convoy that stretches for kilometers, with thousands of enthusiastic, happy, and of course, drunk citizens. Just another day in Colombia.
While this might be considered innate for a Latin American country, it is something I truly hold dear and still struggle to get my head around – the seemingly limitless personal freedom and independance.
In fact, the dancer police I mentioned earlier summarize the matter; no one is afraid. Not just of the police, but actually, no individual, institution, or punishment is feared. This is evident when they take to the streets to protest any government decision they deem unjust, showing it at every opportunity, whether they're enjoying a laugh-filled party until the early morning hours or not hesitating to appreciate the sheer beauty of half-naked women wandering the street. No one says "turn down that music!" and no one judges entering a bar after leaving a church.
You might say that personal freedoms like these exist in every developed country. No, they don't. If you were to try giving a Marc Anthony concert at 3 AM in Germany, the police whom your neighbors just called would soon be knocking on your door, then they'd probably question your mental health; in the US, you can't drink alcohol on the street or defend your rights without fearing the law enforcement.
Polite, friendly and cultured (in other words, muy amable!). You might think that this lack of authority would lead to an anarchic society, but Colombians adhere very well to universal manners and courtesy rules. No taxi driver will fail to bid you good day or say, "of course, with pleasure" after you tell them your destination. Mall elevators are not stepped in without a sweet buenos días, and even in the seemingly chaotic traffic, drivers generally use their turn signals, wait their turn at roundabouts, and don't cut in front of each other. Even in the most remote neighborhoods, vecinos separate their trash into recyclable and non-recyclable items.
Most of the people I met knew more about Turkey than I knew about Colombia before I came here. They have no prejudices; they're positive, enthusiastic, and curious.
The beauty of women is well-known, and everything you've heard about them is true. However, what's more striking is not their natural beauty but the tremendous effort they put into this aspect. They take very good care of themselves, their hair is always done, there are no women going out without makeup, gyms are crowded, and there's a reason behind all of this.
Colombia is a fairly patriarchal society, and there is tremendous pressure for women to be beautiful. For example, walking around with naturally curly hair is almost frowned upon. This emphasis on physical appearance is also present in men; you hardly see them wearing shorts even in this heat. Most of them go out in shirt and pants, especially if it's an occasion like going to a restaurant or an event. They are all shaved and smell great.
I won't delve deeply into Colombian cuisine because, especially for a Turk, I find it somewhat bland. Except for cilantro, they hardly use any spices. When you come here, you'll often hear about arepas (a tasteless type of bread made from white corn), tamales (rice with lots of onions and garlic, pork and chicken, exotic presentation, a delicious breakfast or lunch when coupled with hot chocolate) and guacamole (a dip made from avocado, my favorite!). Make sure to try the coconut lemonades wherever you go.
My humble advice is to experience mid-to-high-end restaurants rather than traditional home-cooked meals. In terms of taste and presentation, they can easily be compared to the best examples of Mediterranean countries. The service and portions are in line with US standards, and the prices are on par with pre-COVID Turkey (one of the best local restaurants, Baranda, serves a buffet lunch for 22,000 COP, or $5.5). Of course, the quality and prices increase when you go to major cities like Bogotá and Medellín, but eating out in Colombia is a reasonable feast under any circumstances.
The theme of health and conscious eating habits is evident as soon as you enter the grocery stores, with labels indicating 'high added sugar', 'high saturated fat', or 'high sodium' on packages. All products are legally inspected and, if necessary, packaged in this way. Products without added sugar are very popular, and for example, you will always find both the sugary and sugar-free versions of mango juice on a buffet. Moreover, when they do need to use sweetener, they usually opt for panela, which is one of the purest and healthiest forms of sugar cane.
Exotic fruits and vegetables that are considered rare in Europe, such as coconut, mango, or avocado, are sold as snacks on the streets here. Similarly, the slopes of the surrounding mountains are covered with fruit orchards that eventually result in the most delicious coffees you'll ever taste. There isn't just one flavor of Colombian coffee; different regions yield coffee beans with different tastes. Juan Valdez is the most famous brand in this field, and there is even a coffee-themed amusement park in Quindio.
Models specific to South America, like Chevrolet Onix or Renault Kwid, are common. Mazda is very popular, perhaps a third of the market belongs to them. Taxes are relatively low, so cars are sold at almost the same price as in the US, which is quite cheap for us. Because there is no displacement-based taxation, there is also no Mazda 3 with an engine size below two liters. From Ferrari to Porsche, there is a wide variety of models in the premium segments. Even models you thought you would never see are probably tucked away in Bogotá's closed garages.
Since the roads are generally narrow and the topography of the country results in endless curves and slopes, car preferences are determined accordingly. There are almost no highways, plenty of rain, and as you move away from major cities, the infrastructure weakens, resulting in rough terrain. As a result, those who can afford it go for SUVs, while others manage with small and economical cars.
Fuel is relatively expensive, and there's almost a two-fold price difference between regular gasoline and 98-octane. As of now, the price per liter is about 3500 COP, or 0.9 US dollars.
Taxis are quite common and cheap; they can take you anywhere for under 10,000 COP or $2.5. Alternatively, you can use Uber, but it's about 50% more expensive. There are also 'underground' WhatsApp groups where you can get Uber service for the price of a taxi if you can join. Speaking of taxis, when getting in or out, please close the door slowly; they are quite sensitive about this because the cars used for taxis are so old and cheap that it's possible for the door handle to come off in your hand.
Motorcycles surrounding you like a swarm of bees in traffic is the most important thing to watch out for when driving a car: They are really crowded and can jump from anywhere at any moment.
One of the main complaints of the people is this, but when I look at the charts, I read that the Colombian peso has done quite well, especially since the reckless money printing by the US Treasury during the COVID period.
The country's crime and homeless rates paint a different picture. If you're working an average job, life is not cheap. In particular, grocery shopping can be a burden, so people turn to street markets where they can find affordable and natural food. However, it's important to note that the quality of goods is high. You don't need to specifically look for organic section because almost everything is already non-GMO and additive-free. Similarly, the quality of clothing made in Colombia is above average. Malls are a completely different world compared to the outside; while walking the streets, you complain about the lack of infrastructure, but as soon as you enter through those doors, you find yourself in a European environment.
Apart from visiting one or two dentists (70,000 COP or $17 per filling), I personally haven't had much opportunity to experience it, but according to the World Health Organization, Colombia's healthcare system is the 22nd most efficient in the world. The social health insurance called Entidades Promotoras de Salud (EPS) covers most of your needs, and it's almost free (for example, costs 12% of pension for retirees), while private health insurance, which you can obtain for a small fee, offers many more options and covers your medications. Colombian doctors receive very high-quality education and complete part of their training abroad.
Culture and Art
I'm not an expert on the subject, but I can guarantee that you will be satiated with all kinds of beauty in this country. I live in the 8th largest city and even here, the value placed on art, cultural events, and music (Ibagué is known as the capital of music) is impressive. You come across original sculptures at every corner, and you encounter musicians, dancers, or jugglers performing talents that could rival professionals at traffic lights. Latin music notes emanate from every house, and since dancing is taught in schools as a fundamental part of education, every Colombian can accompany it with exceptional skill when needed. The presentation beauty in the restaurants I mentioned earlier continues in the decoration of those restaurants and in almost every advertisement, sign and label you see around. Each detail, logo, and design exudes originality and artistry.
The Flip Side of the Peso
Of course, not everything is rosy. Corruption, economy, and security are among the fundamental flaws of their country according to them. They are certainly right, but from my personal perspective, there are some other issues as well:
As mentioned, people here – including petty thieves – are not afraid of the police. There are many homeless people in Colombia, and as a result, the crime rate is quite high. My personal impression is that it's more about property security than personal safety; it's possible for someone to come up to you on the street and snatch your cellphone or bag, and the same can happen in your car while waiting at a red light.
Such risks are present in many regions of the US as well, and personally, I think it's somewhat exaggerated. Since I arrived, I haven't felt in danger even once. Nevertheless, Colombia ranks 156th out of 167 countries in the safety category of the Legatum Prosperity Index, and even if you don't come across such incidents around you, when you see the completely iron-grilled shops for protection and witness people reaching out their hands through those bars to do their shopping, or when you observe security guards checking the receipts of every customer and their purchased items at the exits of stores, or when you notice the dogs in almost every household that serve as an organic alarm against thieves, you understand how much Colombians suffer from this issue. Nobody feels safe, and I think this is a bigger problem than the lack of security itself.
Colombians have very strong family ties, and you might find it odd that I consider this a negative aspect. Let me explain.
Imagine that you live in different apartments of the same building with numerous family members, and that your front door is always open. Suppose your relatives drop by without notice at any time of day, and each time they do so, according to courtesy rules, you are obliged to stop whatever you're doing and entertain them. Also, assume that attending all sorts of special days, particularly birthdays, of your relatives is an unwritten law.
As we all know, you can't choose your family. If all your relatives were people you loved and respected, which is rarely the case, maybe this situation wouldn't be much of a concern. Even then, I don't think such a restricted individuality has any benefit to any society.
A considerable number of Colombians flee or plan to leave their country; when you ask them, they often mention corruption, economy, and security as reasons, but when you listen, you realize that, in fact, most of them are running away from their families. Don't get me wrong, not because they don't love them; it's because they feel suffocated.
As you've already comprehended, Colombians love to have fun, and for this reason, they have a whopping 18 official and religious holidays. Even when they work, they take a 2-hour lunch break, the most important meal of the day... followed by a short nap. Spending enjoyable time with loved ones is more valuable to them than any kind of career ambition. In summary, they savor life, and it's impossible not to envy that.
However, if you're someone with high expectations from life, someone who's obsessed with their job/business/project, and if you want to create an environment suitable for your goals and surround yourself with employees of this quality, it's challenging. Life flows sweetly but slowly here, no rush.
On the other hand, if you already have a regular income source and wish to live a retired life, this is paradise.
Don't be surprised to see babies napping or tiny children dancing in events accompanied by mariachi and rumba. Colombians grow up with parties that continue until the morning, hours-long and extremely-loud parades, incessantly chirping crickets, constantly barking dogs, motorcycles attempting 0-100 km/h tests in alleyways, and car alarms that are triggered by every nearby cat only to go off the next morning. Thus, for them, such noises are not abnormal at all, but if you're an auditorily sensitive outsider, you would prefer to be in a constant state of intoxication because enduring this can sometimes be really tough.
The Irrational Choice
No one buys an Alfa Romeo because it's the most reliable, refined, or economical car. People buy an Alfa Romeo because they are human; because it appeals to their emotions, ignites their spirit, and makes them happy. The symphony of the engine covers the creaks coming from all around, and when it breaks down, its beauty compensates for the frustration, and the fuel consumed is forgiven.
Colombia is a bit like this: It's not the richest, safest, or most peaceful country; you're not coming here for that. You should come to see this country because you're human, and most importantly – especially in this digital age – you need to remember your humanity and live it again.