On the build-up to moving to study at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, I encountered every stereotype you could think of when Colombia comes to mind: “Isn’t that really dangerous?”, “You must be looking forward to the hot weather!”, “I hope you know how to dance salsa!”.
Whilst these comments came from very well-meaning people, they demonstrate a deeper issue that is common around the globe: our misunderstanding of the beautiful country I’m lucky enough to call home for five months. So, I’ve tried to dispel some of the myths surrounding the people, culture and landscape here, however it needs to be noted that I’ve only been here for a couple of months and one article will never do justice to the diversity on offer here. Nonetheless, I hope it does succeed in opening your mind up to the many wonders and beauties Colombia has to offer.
Colombian culture is just salsa.
I’m lucky enough to be proven daily that this is certainly not true. The literature, art and history in this country is as rich and interesting as any other. Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century, and a proud Colombian to say the least. He uses his experiences and love of his country to inspire and form his writing, like Cien Años de Soledad. Infamous painter, Fernando Botero- father of boterismo, hails from Medellin and is renowned throughout the world.
This barely scratches the surface of Colombian culture, especially when you start to consider the contribution authors like José Asunción Silva have made to poignant literary movements like modernism and the effect political thinkers like Alberto Lleras have had on progressive politics throughout the world.
All of Colombia is dangerous, definitely too dangerous for a woman.
Whilst, of course, there is a certain level of danger here, like any place anywhere in the world, it has its safe areas and some more dangerous ones. It must be said that pickpockets here are very common and I know several people who have had their phones stolen whilst being here. Equally, I know plenty of people who have been mugged in London and I even got my phone stolen whilst I was in Madrid. So, like I said, muggings and dangerous areas are global, what matters is that you have your wits about you. It goes without saying if you’re approached by someone, give them what they want and get away as soon as possible- your safety and well-being are far more important than a replaceable phone.
The safety levels have improved considerably in the country, sadly it just takes a while for a place to lose its global reputation.
Colombia is just jungle.
This country is blessed with some of the most diverse environments in the world. Its dramatic cliff-faces on the pacific coast, where you’ll find Sierra Nevada: the highest coastal mountain in the world, reaching from Peru to Santa Marta in northern Colombia. Its jungles are home to some impressive biodiversity, with the Colombian Amazon boasting the largest variety of bird species in the world.
Colombia also has several bustling cosmopolitan and modern cities like Bogotá and Medellin. People from all over the world come to travel, work and study not only here but throughout the country. What came to a surprise to some people was that Bogotá, and a lot of the other places in the Andes, aren’t actually that warm, usually ranging from anywhere between 15-25 degrees year-round. What can be said for certain is that the weather here is very unpredictable: one morning you could wake up to some pretty heavy clouds but later on catch a burn from the powerful sun.
The only thing Colombians listen to is reggaeton.
This is perhaps the most accurate misconception on this list, as reggaeton is extremely popular amongst most Colombians. Nonetheless, this is a huge generalisation and ignores not only the diversity in this genre but also the popularity of every other genre here. The techno scene in Bogotá is thriving, with some of the biggest names in electronic music selling out clubs like Baum and Octava. It’s also got a huge demand for more popular, mainstream music, with festivals like Estereo Picnic hosting the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Arctic Monkeys.
I must admit, my understanding of Latin music was very narrow, mainly coming from the Nicky Jam and Bad Bunny songs that are making their way into the American and British charts. This kind of music is as diverse complex as the countries and communities it comes from.
And last but by no means least…
All Colombians are ‘narcos’.
Definitely the most harmful but unfortunately the most common stereotype surrounding Colombia, this perception is certainly one many hold.
Unsurprisingly, many Colombians are sick of hearing about it. For many of the older generations it’s a traumatic and sensitive part of their history, so seeing it trivialised and dramatised by the West can be frustrating. So, a piece of valuable advice: when meeting a Colombian, don’t make the first thing you mention be Pablo Escobar.