critical tourist (1)

How Stereotypes Have Damaged Colombia's Image

“Narcos” might have been a successful series that brought heaps of money to the production house, but it buried Colombia under new layers of prejudice.

Iulia Hau
Iulia Hau

At the risk of making this too personal, I’ll tell you how I was reduced to shameful silence when, driven by boundless ignorance, in front of a Colombian I met in Valencia, I blurted out: “Colombian? You must know where to get coke, right?” The reply: “Romania, you say? Should I come to you for paid sexual services, then?” My heart felt like a shattered puzzle, and I wished the ground would swallow me up. Yes, this can happen when we let clichés permeate our being without any filter.

Anyway, this is just the tip of the iceberg and probably the most harmful of the prejudices surrounding the beloved land, but it’s far from being the only one. Here are the age-old patterns that drive Colombians crazy and which you’ll surely mess up in their presence.

1. You can be attacked on the street and robbed of your valuables anywhere.

Do you imagine Colombian streets to be the definition of chaos and anarchy? That someone lurks around every corner, eager to snatch your phone, and that your bag wouldn’t be safe even if you sewed it to your skin? Let’s be serious! We’re venturing into fantasy land here.

Yes, it’s not Scandinavian safety, but a little common sense and caution will keep you out of harm’s way. Listen to the locals’ advice (which is exaggerated anyway because they’ll assume you’re from some ultra-civilized universe, unaware of how trained you are to watch your pockets in the subway), but trust your instincts above all.

2. All Colombian women are voluptuous, beautiful, and surgically enhanced.

I can’t imagine the pressure these expectations put on the less curvy, more natural Colombian women, or those who simply don’t care about grooming. They are beautiful, and it would be a huge offense to say otherwise. What probably enhances their attractiveness to Westerners are their distinct features, like Snow White’s ebony-black hair with blueish tints, which are hard to find in Europe.

Their graceful, wavy, feminine, passionate way of moving, gesturing, and expressing themselves makes everything seem fascinating when words roll off Colombian lips. But to say “all are voluptuous and surgically enhanced” is a stretch.

3. All Colombians dance salsa like professionals.

Colombians dance better than non-Colombians, and you’ll grasp the truth of my words in all their glory if you ever find yourself near a dance floor hosting both Colombians and, let’s say, Europeans (though they don’t have a monopoly on graceless hips).

Next to a Colombian, those with paler skins often stand out awkwardly, showing an absolute lack of rhythm and elegance. Luckily, those who dare to dance don’t care and seem to have a blast.

However, to say that all Colombians are professional salsa dancers… God forgive us! Capital city residents are reputedly the worst dancers, but if you ever meet a Colombian who says they don’t know/don’t want/don’t like to dance, don’t give them that “You’re Colombian and you don’t dance? Impossible!” look. Be understanding.

4. Colombians consume a lot of cocaine.

Oh, how I wish I knew the untruth of this before I asked that shameful question to the aforementioned Colombian. My shoulders still droop with the weight of feeling stupid, even now when I remember. Well, brace yourself and learn that Colombians are not the consumers of the drugs produced in their country. Just like many other First World consumer goods, here they bear the brunt of all the evils resulting from cocaine production so that the packets can end up in Western pockets.

Only in Colombia was I slapped in the face with the reality that a wild night in a Brussels club, for example, might translate on this side of the world into the death of a man caught in a shootout, an eight-year-old child involved in drug trafficking and condemned for life, or the outbreak of a war between two rival gangs. Because this is what drugs mean to Colombians. They have experienced a different side of the same reality throughout history, and if you think I’m being overly dramatic, not at all! I’ve been too evasive.

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5. Colombia is all about the beach.

It’s somewhat understandable why, thinking of Colombia, one might imagine veils turned into skirts covering healthy legs, shorts worn casually to show off the buttocks, and coconuts sheltering straws. But I can’t let you go to bed tonight with such a mistaken idea.

Yes, Colombia is blessed with coasts bathed by both the Pacific and the Caribbean, but that’s just the outline. Colombia is crossed by the Andes and houses peaks flirting with 6,000 meters, covered by fertile plains, lush forests, and crossed by two rivers. So, if one of the reasons you’re not including Colombia in your future plans was that “you’re not really a beach person”… think again.

6. There's a lot of poverty in Colombia.

 Indeed, there are both poor and rich people here, injustice, inequality, ostentation, and hunger. Can you judge? Doubtful. Colombia’s economy isn’t vastly different from any Balkan state, for example, and you won’t feel like you’re from another planet. Moreover, when it comes to discussions about money, practical life situations, jokes, and ironies about the hardships of existence in a capitalist economy, you’ll find you have more in common with them than with the French, for instance.

7. Colombia is a very backward country.

I won’t judge you if you’re now picturing a country where highways are a thing of the future and Wi-Fi is a luxury only the most fortunate can afford. But I won’t embrace you either. Yes, there are less urban areas where civilization isn’t quite at home, but those might be the very places that charm you the most. On the other hand, you’ll discover cities more modern than you could ever imagine.

Colombia is full of art and artists, museums, airports aplenty, shopping centers… perhaps too many, I’d dare say. There’s a subway system in one of the cities, and the speed and quality of the internet won’t let you down when you need it most. And you can pay with a card almost everywhere in cities. Maybe they haven’t adopted contactless payments yet, but that’s no reason to point fingers.

7. Colombia is a very backward country.

I won’t judge you if you’re now picturing a country where highways are a thing of the future and Wi-Fi is a luxury only the most fortunate can afford. But I won’t embrace you either. Yes, there are less urban areas where civilization isn’t quite at home, but those might be the very places that charm you the most. On the other hand, you’ll discover cities more modern than you could ever imagine.

Colombia is full of art and artists, museums, airports aplenty, shopping centers… perhaps too many, I’d dare say. There’s a subway system in one of the cities, and the speed and quality of the internet won’t let you down when you need it most. And you can pay with a card almost everywhere in cities. Maybe they haven’t adopted contactless payments yet, but that’s no reason to point fingers.

8. Traditional Colombian music must be... reggaeton, right?

With 1025 folk rhythms, the singular has no place, and in any case, reggaeton music doesn’t fit among them. I won’t lie now by saying that it’s not a rhythm easily heard on all streets, especially now when Colombian reggaeton singers are trending and conquering the world, but it has nothing to do with the traditional.

Although it’s very likely that salsa will captivate your hearing during your stay, you might be surprised to learn that there are even more beloved rhythms among the locals, such as merengue (to dance until your legs give out), vallenato, salsa choque, or cumbia.

9. Cartels and guerrillas rule.

A plane ticket to Colombia doesn’t require writing a will beforehand, and the decision to travel there isn’t a death sentence. In fact, your chances, as an innocent tourist, of encountering a guerrilla are as slim as seeing an elephant sprinting down Kiseleff. Recent years are characterized by an unparalleled level of peace for Colombia, and even if the old conflict between the revolutionary armed forces and paramilitary groups still exists, you will never witness it with your traveler’s eyes.

However, remember that these conflicts have spilled much blood and caused much pain to the Colombian people, and if you want to discuss this with a local, ask and listen, rather than speak. Your opinions formed from the media and probably mistaken will not be received with understanding smiles.

10. I don't know any Colombian personality other than... Shakira.

Without mentioning Juanes (Tengo la camisa negra) and the footballer Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama (I won’t go so far with hypocrisy: I had no idea he existed and I looked it up online, convinced that many of you will know for sure who I’m talking about), Gabriel Garcia Marquez is none other than… Colombian.

Who am I talking about? “Love in the Time of Cholera” cannot be a silent title, which tells you nothing, but if you’ve never passed indifferently by a bookstore, even “One Hundred Years of Solitude” could turn you into a professional exclaimer of “ahaa”.

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