Just as I was getting excited about planning lots of trips around Colombia, I was brought back to reality (or maybe just fear) by my only expat friend here. She works in international development and travels to many regions around this country. When I told her of my plans to go to Cano Cristales, a river that changes colors to vibrant reds, blues, greens yellows, oramges, throughout the rainy season, she said, “You know that’s prime guerilla teritorry, right? Why would you go there?”
“I was under the understanding that the national park itself is under Colombian military control. You fly into the park so you avoid the guerilla laden roads.”
“You realize, don’t you, that when the Colombian military says that something is under their control, it often meets that there are 5 soldiers in a little hut somewhere, with no other military or police presence for many, many kilometers. How are they going to keep track of everything that goes on in a huge national park?” she replied.
What could I say? I actually have no idea of what really goes on here, other than what I hear from people. The reliability of news sources is questionable as journalists are often threatened and worse. My friend hangs out in the expat community and with the embassy crowd so chances are she knows more than I do. Somehow I felt super naive all of the sudden. Just because a French travel agency was leading trips to this national park (which is supposed to be spectacular) doesn’t mean it’s safe.
And how do you gauge safety as an expat? Information is incomplete and in many cases outdated. Just because there were alot of guerilla activity and kidnappings in an area many years ago doesn’t mean the situation is the same today. Things change quickly here. Colombian friends always advise asking other friends who live in the areas one is interested in visiting. But what is safe for other Colombians is not always safe for foreigners. We get international attention and press. Our embassies make a stink. We are more valuable to would-be kidnappers.
As my Colombian friend put it, “Your family would be a buffet to guerillas who wanted some attention to their cause.” Four US citizens, three of them young girls would surely make international news. On the other hand, there are many beautiful and “safe” places to visit in Colombia and we don’t want to be paranoid either. We want to see as much as we can of this beautiful country! (But we don’t want to be foolish!)
My understanding is that the US Embassy doesn’t let its staff travel to many places that are considered perfectly safe by people living here (and which we have visited). The people I have met who work for the US Embassy complain about its restrictive policies. But who knows? Maybe the US Embassy knows something the rest of us don’t? Or maybe they just want to avoid the bad press and complications that could result from something happening to one of their staff or citizens? It’s hard to know where the truth lies.
Then there are the places like La Guajira (the northernmost point of South America where the desert meets the sea), which according to my expat friend, who just visited there, is no man’s land. It is sparsely inhabited and ruled by the Wayu indigenous tribe. It is starkly beautiful and attracts travelers who are willing to brave many hours in a 4X4 bumpy roadless desert, sleep in hammocks and use doorless latrines (holes in the ground) to find paradise and live with an indigenous tribe. There is no military or police presence for miles but not much has happened either, except for reports of a recent rape of a British traveler. Of course this happens all over the world so you can’t discount visiting a region based on this alone. Again, how do you know what is safe enough, especially when traveling with 3 girls?
I have to confess that this conversation with my expat friend made me so nervous and paranoid yesterday that I started worrying about our upcoming trip to Ecuador. The girls and I will be traveling on our own (accompanied by a 20 year old family friend who will help me out) for ten days before meeting up with my husband for the last 2 weeks of our trip. Of course I know that there are no guerillas in Ecuador (other than near the Colombian border), but somehow in the dark of the night, I started getting nervous about the trip. Being responsible for three girls and a young woman is a big… responsibility.
I called one of the places we will be staying in Ecuador today an asked them about safety. I was assured by the expat owners that the route we will be doing is perfectly safe. Just put all of our valuables in a money belt and have fun! It made me feel alot better and also made me realize that it’s so easy to get nervous and paranoid about safety in a country like Colombia. Of course we have to be prudent and avoid going to guerilla laden places (I reluctantly am giving up on Cano Cristales) but we can’t become so paranoid that we don’t enjoy the magnificent beauty of this place (La Guajira is just my kind of place!)
As a side note, I am super excited for our trip to Ecuador in June – volcanoes, staying with indigenous families, horseback riding, white water rafting in the jungle, five days deep in the Amazon rainforest, and a stay in an isolated cloud forest lodge with no electricity which will require a several hour uphill hike to get there (we have arranged for a mule to transport our two youngest girls) – these are just some of the highlights! It’s not for everybody but I love getting into nature at its most pristine and also exposing our girls to different ways of life.