Fulfilling a crazy dream we’ve had since we were first married, my husband and I – and our two little ones – have taken a year off to drive the Americas from Argentina to the US, and we recently spent a month exploring Colombia. This was one of the countries that we had the most fear about visiting, as we were nervous about driving through areas under control of armed rebel groups. These fears quickly faded away as we found the country – from it’s landscapes to it’s people – to be warm and inviting, and a great place to visit with our young children. In fact, I’d recommend Colombia as a great vacation option for families looking for a new place to travel. What makes Colombia such a great option for families?
1. Colombians Love Kids: In our travels through Colombia with our two toddlers – aged 2 and 3 – it seemed like everywhere we went the locals wanted to interact with us. And it always started with fawning over our little ones! We never felt guilty that they made a bit of a mess at the restaurants because the waiter or waitresses always seemed to bring an extra treat for them and were more than happy to accommodate whatever we needed. When our vehicle broke down in a small town north of Medellin and we were stuck all day in the mechanic’s shop, his wife brought out little bags of toys left over from a birthday party for them to play. In fact, traveling with kids throughout Colombia helped us connect with the locals much more easily and people were more willing to help us.
2. Colombians are the Happiest People on Earth: It’s official: there is no happier country than Colombia! A recent Gallup poll found this South American nation not only had the happiest population on the planet, but their happiness was almost twice that of the global average! Being surrounded by such good vibes will undoubtedly rub off on any visitor as you enjoy the things that make Colombians happy – the mild climate, the delicious food, the laid-back lifestyle, and the natural beauty all around you.
3. Colombia is Safe: When you think of Colombia, what is the first thing that pops into your mind? For me, it used to be Pablo Escobar and his cocaine empire. But today’s Colombia is a far different place. The reign of the drug gangs and armed rebel groups are long over, replaced by a thriving middle class that enjoys a nice quality of life with relative security. In fact, as we drove the length of the country from south to north, we encountered hundreds of army checkpoints and saw a good number of police in every town. Although the soldiers definitely carry big guns, they also generally carry big smiles and are very friendly. We weren’t asked for a bribe at any time, which is a big deal to us as we were quite on guard after getting hassled constantly by police throughout Argentina, Paraguay, and Peru. Though there are regions you have to be careful about visiting, if you stick to the main touristy areas such as Cartagena, Bogota, Medellin, and the coffee region you will have no problems. Just be sure to ask the locals before you go driving down a deserted mountain road!
4. Colombians Know How to Have Fun: There is no such thing as a quiet night in on the weekend in Colombia. When it comes to forgetting about the stresses of the work week Colombians have it down to a science. From the hot and steamy salsa clubs of Cali, to the sophisticated bars of Medellin, to a simple get-together at home where the whole neighborhood seems to have been invited, people young and old seem to be enjoying life. The porch culture is still intact here, and it seems like in whatever neighborhood we drove through people could be found relaxing outside and visiting with their neighbors, who drop by without first calling (gasp!).
5. The Government is Improving the Infastructure: Having spent 9 months driving throughout South America, the state of the roads has come to be an important issue for us in any country we go to. Though Colombia’s roads are not the best at the moment, we witnessed a good number of projects underway that are sure to improve the driving experience in the country in the next couple of years. In particular, route 40 – which connects Bogota in the west to the Panamerican highway (route 25) in the east – is undergoing a major renovation. For the entire 90 kilometer stretch through the mountains, we saw countless new bridges spanning the valleys and tunnels in the process of being built, which will transform this 9 hour windy drive into a short and easy trip once the new road is complete. In Medellin, the city recently opened a gondola lift system called the Metrocable which carries passengers from the cities’ poorest neighborhoods up and down the mountain to connect with the city’s Metro train. President Juan Manuel Santos has taken the courageous step of tackling the complex problem of poor infrastructure and has promised to make it one of his administration’s top priorities. We hope he can succeed! For now, we recommend flying between destinations in Colombia, though driving will give you a glimpse of some of the most untouched, impressive landscapes in South America.
6. Colombia Has Something For Everyone: From the rolling green hillsides of the coffee region of Quindio, to the lush rain forests in the east, to the striking jagged peaks of the Andes, to the Caribbean beaches in the north, you can plan a vacation in this tropical country that encompasses them all. Stay for a few days at a working coffee farm such as Hacienda Venecia and learn about coffee production while relaxing in the quite lush landscapes of the “zona cafetera” and sipping some of the best coffee in the world. Then jet to Medellin or Bogota for a few fun nights out on the town in the Colombia’s fashion and political capitals. For beach lovers, plan a trip to Cartagena to explore the walled city – a UNESCO World Heritage site – then take a day trip to Playa Blanca, a paradise of white sand and turquoise water. For those looking for a more off-the-beaten path adventure, book a jungle tour out of Leticia in the south, or take a very different kind of “trip” – partake in an Ayahuasca ceremony with a guided shaman in Mocoa. Amazingly, there is even a desert region – the Tatacoa desert – that features striking red and grey landscapes. And don’t miss seeing the ancient statues dotted throughout the pre-colombian ruins at the San Agustin Archeological Park. There is so much to explore in Colombia!
7. Colombia is Not Overrun with Tourists – Yet! Vacationing in a touristy area can be a bit of a drag – everything seems overpriced and you feel like you are just another face in a sea of foreigners; merely a nuisance to locals. We didn’t feel like that in Colombia. Though we met quite a few travelers throughout the country, we never felt like just another tourist. Before we reached Colombia quite a few fellow travelers we befriended along our journey from Argentina to the US spoke highly of the country, in particular the warmth of the people – and we have found the same to be true. Though to be fair, we have encountered a wealth of kindness in each country we have visited. But it feels like Colombians really go out of their way to help travelers in particular. When our car began leaking oil in Pasto, we took it to a mechanic who spent a good hour tightening some hoses and refused to charge us. In Mocoa we were driving in circles looking for a good place to eat before finally asking a couple on a motorcycle for directions. Instead of telling us where to turn they instructed us to follow them and proceeded to lead us a mile or so out of their way to the best chicken broaster in town. This happened to us again in Medellin – an old man lead us four blocks out of his way so we could find the Metro station. On the Metro, a young couple from Medellin excitedly asked us about where we were from and the whole ride on the Metro spoke proudly of their city, even offering to lead us to our destination so we wouldn’t get lost.
So get yourself to Colombia for a very different kind of family vacation, and let the world’s happiest country wear off on you!