Finding Peace in Colombia

A thrill seeker surrenders to South America’s scariest nation.

Images by Andrea Bakacs

I enjoy a bit of adrenaline when I travel. I’ve paraglided off Andean cliffs and tracked forest elephants in wartime Liberia. So why not take a vacation in Colombia? My imagination awash with stereotypes—drug lord Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel assassinating politicians, Marxist FARC guerrillas kidnapping tourists—I booked my flight to Bogotá, heart pumping.

But Bogotá didn’t square with my stereotypes. Unbeknownst to me, this cosmopolitan city of 7 million had been dubbed the Athens of South America, because it’s full of libraries, museums (more than 40 of them), and universities. I strolled past the city’s oldest intellectual relic—Saint Thomas University, founded by Dominicans in 1580—and then through the majestic Plaza Bolívar, where I met up with my Colombian friend Martha, a biologist.

We talked about Colombia’s big news: how much safer it has become for visitors over the years. It was once known as the kidnapping capital of the world, but the numbers have dwindled—from a peak of 3,572 in 2000 across the country to 437 last year. (Don’t get me wrong: murder rates are still high, and urban violence may be on the rise, but that can be said about other worthy destinations, too.)

So, frustrated that Bogotá was a little too tranquila for me, I took a three-day road trip with Martha across the Boyacá province, where the FARC are said to control certain hilltops. That may be true, but the lowland roads are more secure. President Álvaro Uribe has militarized many of the country’s highways, making travel safer now than it’s been for decades. It is still possible to get robbed on these roads, but we didn’t see so much as a hitchhiker. Singing along with Shakira on the car radio, we waved to roadside soldiers. We toured a salt church, backstroked in a teal-blue lake, and feasted on a fritanga barbecue in the cobbled streets of Villa de Leyva.

Still itching for excitement, I hopped a cheap Avianca flight to swashbuckling Cartagena, historically a thug’s mecca where pirates laid siege. I toured the Palace of the Inquisition, where tribunals had once condemned 800 people to death for blasphemy and witchcraft. Its creepy museum displays the torture devices used on the heretics.

Outside, the Caribbean shimmered serenely beyond stone city walls. I heard the clicking of horseshoes, and spotted a cabalgata of hundreds of equestrians riding Old World style, bougainvillea vines spilling down from balconies above them. Walking past the house of Colombia’s chief reporter of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, I noticed a subtle sea breeze and felt as safe as I ever had in Latin America.

Cartegna: evening carriage rides through the Ciudad Vieja, hotels with rooftop pools, and plazas full of restaurants and shops

That simply wouldn’t do. I got what seemed like a good tip at Cartagena’s annual Hay Literary Festival. While I talked Borges and Bolaño with other festival attendees over mojitos, a tipsy Colombian poet shouldered his way into the conversation and declared Colombia’s little-known Rosario Islands to be “swarming with narco-terrorists.”

The next morning I hopped the first boat to the islands and found lodging in a small hotel run by a Norwegian named Finn. He cooked scrumptious seafood, which I ate when I wasn’t snorkeling the islands’ turquoise waters. Over lobster, another traveler, a social worker from San Francisco, asked Finn if he ever felt unsafe in Colombia.

Finn drained a glass of rum, his big belly folding over Hawaiian shorts, and recited a Colombian tourism slogan: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”

Finn might have felt groovy, but I did not. I was so relaxed that my pulse had almost stopped. So I hightailed it back to the mainland and took a bus into a paramilitary narco-zone in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The B movie they showed on the bus boded well. The plot: a bus is stopped by guerrillas and the passengers are taken hostage.

After an uneventful passage, I got off the bus and hitched a ride in a pickup truck, deep into the hills. I’d heard on the bus that there “might be a hovel” up there that would do for lodging. Another pickup passed ours. It was packed with paramilitary fighters. One of them laid a chilling stare on me.

I braced myself and delivered my best “Wassup?” nod. He tightened his jaw. I shuddered with fear, and delight.

Then I saw my hovel. It was a kind of eco-resort. The owners, a Colombian-and-Belgian couple, optimistic about Colombia’s ever-brighter future, had recently opened the hotel. I was the sole guest; my room perched over a private swimming pool, waterfalls crashing out of the jungle around it.

While exploring barely excavated Tayrona Indian roads, I stumbled upon a muscular, 20-something Canadian harvesting cacao with organic aplomb. Why had he chosen Colombia for his off-the-grid dream? “Because it’s so peaceful.”

When I met his neighbor—an Irish Buddhist—I realized I’d journeyed to the polar opposite of my expectations. Instead of Escobar, I’d found Siddhartha. The Irish Buddhist invited me to meditate with him next to his creek-side hut. I reluctantly pretzeled my legs into a half lotus. I’d come for blood, not bliss. But when a scarlet ibis swooped overhead and landed on a strangler fig across the brook, I sighed, chanted “Om,” and surrendered to the enigma of Colombia.