Colombia still has a notorious reputation across the world, spawned by its booming cocaine business that fed the USA for a number of years and is only just starting to be overturned. With an uneven balance of power between private landowners and the government, there was a feeling of tentative authority when I visited. The government is only just starting to impose itself, so it seemed to me, and with the recent failed attempt to broker peace with a rather large private army, the struggle goes on.
It was tentatively explained to me whilst I was there, and the poor filter of my memory makes for a poor teacher. But with privately owned land came private security to protect it, and the power still lies with those land owners and the armies that grew from security forces to become the true authority in many regions of Colombia. It’s getting better, I was reassured; more and more tourists are beginning to visit the country, providing a healthier and less sinister source of revenue. Escobar and his cartel are gone, supposedly; he at least is very dead, and Colombia is on a hopeful path to a better international reputation.
But that didn’t quite stop me, a very nervous looking tourist at airport security, from being carted off to a room to be x-rayed by the police. I was stressed and furious at the time, now I can perhaps appreciate that I must have seemed very on edge and worried as the security/airport policeman (they seemed to be one and the same) searched through my luggage. It was certainly a more thorough check than I was used to coming back from places like Iceland, Norway and even Thailand. Perhaps it was perfectly understandable that he interpreted my natural inclination towards panic as fear that he was about to find the drugs I could have been smuggling.
Colombia’s reputation is such that their outgoing security is much more strict that in my previous experiences. On my way there during a stopover in Madrid my bag was swabbed by security; it could have been coincidence, good or bad experiences with airport security seem to rely on luck more than anything else. Or it could have been my destination; Colombia might raise a red flag with airport security officials. Maybe South America in general, I just don’t know.
What I do know is that Colombia, in particular the city of Medellin where I stayed, was a joyful and fascinating place. It was colourful, loud, the locals were generally friendly, and the metro system made it incredibly easy to travel around. Of course there were bad areas that I was warned away from, as there are in every city; I can’t imagine that London is 100% safe, but the railway system was certainly more efficient and competent than ours. The cable cars that took me all the way up Arvi Park above the city were packed with a number of people that would have made any British system collapse in on itself within seconds.
So, being in Colombia is a joyful and fascinating experience. Leaving it wasn’t quite so pleasant, so to any prospective visitors I’d recommend that you get to security well before the time of your flight, maybe add an extra hour and a half just to be safe. I wasn’t delayed enough to be running in a panic to my departure gate, but it was a close enough call all the same.