To the average person, Colombia means drugs, Pablo Escobar, drugs, hot women, and drugs. To Colombians, no matter where they live, it is home. An amazing place, with beautiful landscapes, delicious food, upbeat nightlife and a relaxed lifestyle. Colombians, like most Latinos, are very patriotic (fun fact: the law requires their national anthem to play on TV and the radio twice each day) and think their country is the best place in the world. Second to Miami, of course.
In 2016, the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with leftist FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels, putting an end to a war that had lasted more than 50 years. A war that has left millions of people without homes, a war in which many of them lost their children, who were kidnapped by FARC or by drug cartels. Things are starting to get better for Colombians, so if you’ve always wanted to travel there, now it might be a good time. But before you head that way, here are some not so fun facts you should probably be aware of.
15. Child soldiers
Over the years (about 52 years, to be more specific), FARC rebel groups have recruited thousands of children and turned them into soldiers that were being used for very dangerous jobs, like installing landmines and transporting explosives. Most of them were around 14 years old, but some were as young as eight. A large number of them had voluntarily joined the groups in an attempt to escape poverty or because they became orphans during the war. Others were kidnapped and forced into this horrendous lifestyle. Even when their parents knew they had been kidnapped by FARC, they did not announce the authorities for fear of getting killed. FARC didn’t recruit just boys; girls were also forced into becoming soldiers or into sex slavery.
14. Bye-bye, kale, there’s a new superfood in town!
Introducing Coca! The most demonized plant in the history used to produce the evil cocaine, and one of the main ingredients in the original Coca-Cola. Well, it turns out that coca leaves are chock-full of antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins and contain more calcium than any other plant. No wonder it has been called “the plant of immortality”. The oldest man ever documented, A Bolivian, chewed coca leaves on a daily basis and lived to be 123 years old!
At Embajada de la Coca, a café in Bogotá, you can have a cup of coca tea, and purchase a wide variety of baked goods or some of the delicious coca crepes that the owner prepares in the small kitchen. It’s all legal, very tasty and very healthy. Just don’t try to bring any of it back home! And remember, kids, coca tea is good for you, but cocaine can kill you.
13. Underage prostitution
In a country where prostitution is legal (if you are over 18), you can imagine that sex tourism is booming. Driven by poverty, thousands of young women, many of them younger than 18, come to Cartagena to try their luck as sex workers. Often, these girls are kicked out of their houses by their own fathers, who send them to work and for many of them, this is the only way to make money. Some of them just like the idea of making good money – around $75 a day – versus $10 at a different job.
The girls prefer foreigners because they pay more. Tourist packages for Cartagena have often included along with visits to important landmarks, “extra” offers for drugs and adult entertainment. Some companies went as far as creating albums with photos of minor prostitutes to advertise to tourists on the beach, and allow them to pick their favorite.
12. “The Cocaine King”
Pablo Escobar was the richest (with an estimated net worth of $30 billion at the beginning of the ’90s) and most notorious gangster in the history.
Escobar was making so much money that he had to spend about $1000 a week on rubber bands for his stacks of cash. He also lost about $2 billions to rats, since he was storing part of his money in warehouses.
He was responsible for killing about 4,000 people, including 200 judges and 1,000 police officers, journalists, three Colombian presidential candidates and many other government officials who refused to accept his bribe and work with him.
In 1989, in an attempt to kill presidential candidate Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, Escobar had the plane Trujillo was supposed to be on bombed, killing 110 people.
He surely was an unscrupulous guy, but he was a loving father, who offered his family unconditional love and an extravagant lifestyle. While he was in hiding with his family, his daughter got sick, so Escobar burned about two million dollars in order to keep her warm.
11. Extreme inkings
Colombia’s Tattoo Conventions are famous for the unique artists they attract.
Performance artist Jacob Angel, also known as “The Angel of Death”, considers himself a real Colombian vampire. His split tongue, numerous piercings, unusual face painting and the cloven hoof shoes he wears are sure to draw people’s attention. And that is not all. His performances are just as spectacular: one of his shows consisted of him being suspended on chains, attached to hooks that pierced through the skin on his back.
Carlos is going for a different look. A more “horny” one if I may say so. His horns are made from medical grade plastic surgically inserted under the skin and the look is completed by his demonic-looking tattooed eyeballs. See, Carlos Dehaquiz is a “professional freak”, so he really needs all these “embellishments”.
10. Medellin’s houses of horror
There are many abandoned house in Medellin, where criminals (member of guerrillas or paramilitary groups) bring their kidnapped victims, torture them in an attempt to obtain information, then kill and dismember them. The bodies are then wrapped in plastic bags and thrown in rivers. According to some reports, sometimes the victims are strapped to a table and dismembered with power saws while they are still alive.
Such horror houses were discovered in Buenaventura, as well, where locals heard wailing and crying coming from nearby abandoned houses and alerted the authorities. Shortly after, a total of 15 bodies (all dismembered) were found scattered around the shore.
9. Refugees in their own country
The many years of war have left behind about 7 million internally displaced people, making Colombia the country with the second largest concentration of IDPs in the world, after Syria. When you have to deal with bombings, land mines, massacres, kidnappings, death threats, on a regular basis, you are left with no choice but to leave the little you have behind, flee your village and try to find shelter in the outskirts of Bogotá and other cities. They end up living in dirt-floor shacks and relying on government handouts. They are treated like beggars and no one will hire them, simply because they are displaced.
8. The haunted hotel
The Tequendama Falls Museum of Biodiversity and Culture hasn’t always been a museum. Built in 1923, the mansion was originally used to hold parties for Colombia’s high society. With beautiful architecture and a stunning view of the Tequendama Falls, the place was perfect for lavish parties. It was so popular that it was turned into a hotel in 1928 and was supposed to become one of the most extravagant buildings in the country. But suddenly people stopped coming to the hotel. The nearby Bogotá River had become one of the most polluted rivers in the world, producing an awful smell that repelled visitors. Also, the legend says that during the Spanish conquest of South America, the indigenous people were being captured to be sold as slaves. To avoid that, many of them jumped off the cliffs and lost their lives and their ghosts are believed to haunt the mansion and the surroundings. A few years ago, the building was turned into a museum, but there are still people who think it is a cursed place and prefer to stay away.
7. Escobar’s hitmen
Jhon Jairo Velásquez was Escobar’s right-hand hitman and killed about 300 people and helped murder at least 3,000 more. He earned his nickname, “Popeye”, while he was in the Colombian Navy, due to his physical resemblance to the character. Velásquez even killed his own wife, after he found out she was an informant.
Even after the death of Escobar, hitmen are still a reality in Colombia, although are now organized in neighborhood gangs, rather than working for a cartel. During the ’80s and ’90s, Escobar recruited thousands of boys, as young as eight years old, who were trained to become hitmen for his Cartel. Known under the name of “Sicarios”, they averaged killing one person every three hours. For their dirty work, they were compensated with money, weapons, and cocaine. And money was good! The assassins were paid $3,500 to kill a police officer in uniform, $8,800 to kill an officer disguised as a civilian and $880,000 to kill a general. Most of these children came from very poor families, had a history of physical and emotional abuse, so turning to a life of crime was pretty much their only choice.
6. Exotic foods
Colombian food is a mix of indigenous, Spanish, African and Arab cultures. Lots of hearty dishes full of color and flavor. But if you’re the adventurous type, you probably want to try something really special. Do you, by any chance, like big butts and cannot lie? Then, you should try some “Hormigas Culonas” or “Big-Ass Ants”. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Ants with big butts, that are salted and fried until crispy. Yummm!! Some say they taste like popcorn, to others they taste like bacon. What’s not to like? Ummm, maybe hairy legs and antennae?
And don’t take too long deciding if you want to try them or not. They only come out of their nest 1-2 days every year, so they’re not easy to come by and can even be a little pricey.
Now that we got that out of the way, we can move on to something a little less scary, like guinea pigs (“cuy”), for example. But don’t forget, just because it’s called a pig, it doesn’t mean it tastes like pork. They are rodents, after all. Crisped to perfection, served next to potatoes. So don’t be surprised if your Colombian hostess says she has to stop by the pet store to get something for dinner.
5. Parque Jaime Duque
This place made the list with the most strange amusement parks around the world. Latinos are not as prude as other cultures and are generally not that mortified about nudity. Other people, though, might find the collection of about 700 strange (some naked) sculptures, a little too much. Not to mention that one of them represents the Statue of Liberty, who is not only naked but also a man!
If this place had a theme, it would probably be nudity. But other than that, nothing really seems to fit together. There are all kinds of oddities that don’t have a connection to each other or famous monuments modified in the most bizarre ways. There is a detailed replica of the Taj Mahal, whose walls are covered with a mural depicting Colombia’s fight for freedom. You can also find miniature versions of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, dinosaurs, the Hand of God, a plane, a boat ride named “Dante’s Inferno”. All in all, this is definitely a must-see place if you’re in the area, but don’t take your kids if they expect every park to look like Disneyland.
4. “Devil’s Breath”, the world’s most dangerous drug
Ask any Colombian about “borrachero” (or “Devil’s Breath”), and you’re very likely to hear a crazy story.
“Borrachero” is a tree that grows wild around Bogotá, whose seeds contain scopolamine, a drug that can turn anyone into a “zombie” slave. Andrea Fernandez is one of the hundreds of victims of this drug, that is very popular among thieves and rapists. Andrea was riding a bus in Bogotá with her newborn baby. Three days later she was found by the police wandering topless along the side of a highway, with her face all bruised and no memory of what had happened to her. Her son was missing.
The drug is colorless, odorless and tasteless, so can be easily added to drinks or food. The victims are then easily manipulated into committing robbery, engaging in prostitution or giving all their money. Scopolamine has a long history, dating back to before the Spanish conquest and was even used by Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele as an interrogation drug.
3. Perpetual traffic jams
If you ask anyone (local or tourist) what the number one thing they hate about Bogotá, the answer will be “the traffic”. In a city with almost 8 million people, that is not exactly unusual. But imagine over 1,000,000 cars stuck in traffic every day, honking again and again, because they’re in a hurry, they’re angry or just bored. All these people are driving bumper to bumper on the numerous lanes. The concept of traffic lanes only exists on paper. In real life, wherever there’s room for another car, there’s a lane. As a result, road accidents are the second most frequent cause of violent death. To make things even more complicated, street vendors like to conduct their business… well, in the middle of the street, among cars.
2. What’s your coffee routine?
Colombians have coffee in their blood. They drink it after they wake up, with their morning snack, at lunch, with their evening snack, with dinner and even have a small one before they go to bed. That explains how they can dance all night long at every party.
The surprising part is that children, as young as 4, enjoy their daily cup of coffee, too. With milk, of course. This is actually very common in many Latin countries. Experts, however, advise against caffeine consumption at an early age. Aside from giving you insomnia, making you jittery or making it difficult to concentrate, too much caffeine can affect calcium absorption, which is vital for proper growth.
When they don’t drink coffee, Colombians indulge in the occasional cup of hot chocolate, served with… cheese. Don’t dismiss it just yet. It’s supposed to be really good. Gooey, melted white cheese (mozzarella will do) apparently is great with chocolate. Who would have thought?
1. Still a dangerous country
On June 16, 2017, The U.S. Department of State issued a warning for U.S. citizens about the risk of travel to Colombia, due to “violence linked to domestic insurgency, narco-trafficking, crime, and kidnapping in some rural and urban areas.”
What’s the worst you can expect when traveling to Colombia? Kidnappings, gangs of robbers, spiked drinks, shady drug tourism. But truth is the same applies to many other countries in South and Central America.
There have been reports of criminals that pose as taxi drivers, then drive their foreign victims to an ATM, where they rob them at gunpoint.
Don’t leave your food or drink unsupervised, don’t accept any chewing gum or cigarettes from strangers. Pretty much anything could be contaminated with scopolamine or other drugs. So, stay safe, and no matter what you do, just don’t call their country “Columbia” or you are in big, big trouble.
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