|US $1 = 2,000 Colombian Pesos (COP)
I really enjoyed the Latin culture in Cuba when I was there in June... warm-hearted people, Caribbean music, salsa dancing, sexy women, and an almost reckless zest for life. It just isn't practical for an American to stay in Cuba very long. I also wanted to learn some Spanish, so I started asking around for suggestions of a country off the "gringo trail" where I could spend some time.
Someone mentioned Colombia as an option and I was intrigued. I have been to Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru which border the country to the east and south, but I didn't know a single person who had been to Colombia. I scanned the travel section at Borders and found two shelves of Brazil, another two shelves of Costa Rica, and no Colombia!?!? Then I found one skinny little Lonely Planet guide for Colombia, that's it!
Well it turns out that Colombia's reputation for murder and mayhem is still widely believed, but the reality now is very different. For example, in the early 90's Medellin was the murder capital of the world, and the city's famous drug lord Pablo Escobar was listed by Forbes magazine as the seventh richest person in the world. More on Escobar By last year, the murder rate in Medellin was 37 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, so you are more likely to get whacked in Washington DC (45), Detroit (42), or Baltimore (42).
Most people credit the strong leadership of Colombia's popular president Alvaro Uribe for the dramatically improved security situation. Uribe was elected in 2002 on a strong anti-violence ticket, and he takes the issue seriously since his father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping. President Uribe has also forged stronger relations with the United States, with the result that Colombia is now the third-largest recipient of US foreign aid. Colombia's new stability has led to a flood of foreign investment and significantly increased tourism.
Don't get me wrong, Colombia is still not Switzerland. Fighting continues between the government, the left-wing FARC and ELN guerrillas, and the right-wing paramilitary groups. Colombia also remains responsible for over 80% of the cocaine that finds its way to America's streets, and occasional violence still makes international news. What is not usually reported though is that most of the problems are in rural areas far from the places where most people live and tourists visit, and the situation for everyone is dramatically improved.
Seeing Colombians bravely rejecting the remaining narco-thugs and working hard to improve their lives is inspirational. People also know they have a political choice between economic freedom and opportunity, and the socialism that many Latin-American leaders such as Hugo Chavez are imposing on their countries with unfortunate consequences. President Uribe's approval rating is consistently above 80%, so it seems clear that Colombians are choosing the path of liberty and prosperity, and they consider America their ally. I wish my Cuban friends had the same opportunity.
Here is a good article from the UK Guardian about the dramatic recent changes in Colombia. Rebirth of a Nation
I decided I wanted to spend time in the large capital city of Bogotá, the colonial coastal town of Cartagena, and the city of eternal spring Medellin. I found a language school called NuevaLengua that offers classes in all three cities, and they arranged my schedule. My first three weeks were in Bogotá. Check out the photos!