In the 90s, when I was much younger and dreaming of all the places that I would travel to one day, I remember someone asking me if there was a place I wouldn’t go. I didn’t hesitate in my reply: Colombia. Back then, it was considered one of the most violent countries in the world with a rate as high as 81 murders for every 100,000 people—a statistic that was largely the result of drug violence and an ongoing armed conflict with the Marxist guerrilla group FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as “the People’s Army”).
Since then, Colombia has made incredible strides in changing that reputation. Over time, the crime rate has decreased from that dubious peak in the 90s to a murder rate of 25.5 per 100,000 people—that’s less than in some U.S. cities. In addition to this improvement, over the last four years the Colombian government has been hard at work to resolve their ongoing conflict with FARC, which has been going since 1964 and is considered the longest-running civil war in history. The peace talks culminated this past summer in a historical ceasefire accord that looked as though it would be ratified in a public vote on October 2nd, but was shockingly rejected by a narrow margin. I cannot truly know all of the complicated reasons why it didn’t pass, but the majority of the casualties in this war have been civilians and the peace referendum was considered by some to be too lenient on the FARC members. While this was a big setback, both sides (so far) continue to be committed to the peace process. Meanwhile, Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in trying to bring the war to an end.
This is the backdrop to the Colombia I see today, which so far hasn’t earned the trepidation I once felt about it. On our first day we rode bikes in Ciclovia, which is a cycling event held every Sunday in which the city closes down roads until 2:00pm to make way for cyclists, roller bladers, joggers, and the like. As a cyclist I may be a little biased, but I believe you can judge how civilized a country is by how open they are to accommodating human-powered transportation—in which case, Colombia is far ahead of many countries I’ve visited, including my own.
In addition to Ciclovia, we’ve filled each day with exciting sights, including Monserrat, which is a church perched atop a peak that is a site of pilgrimage and provides a breathtaking view of the sprawling city of Bogota below it. We also enjoyed a fascinating graffiti tour of the old town that featured some truly sophisticated urban art. Every corner we turned held a visual surprise full of color, vibrancy, and meaning. Perhaps when you live your lives against the backdrop of war, the need to express becomes more urgent—and through trial, error, and gradual public acceptance of your craft, it rises to a level that transcends.
Today we leave the big city behind to visit Villa de Leyva, a village about three hours from Bogota that has been declared a national monument. There we will enjoy some peace, quiet, and the many trails that surround it. More to come…