Colombia is a Country for Travelers

June 2015

Graciela: We were a group of all Colombians and my gringo husband discussing travel to other countries. I mentioned my experiences going to Italy, France, Spain, England, The United States and Mexico. That was during my early 20’s. My protective parents felt better when I took a group tour, which I did in the beginning.

Michael said, “I have always been more of a traveler than a tourist. As a writer I feel that more is gained following the story than just seeing the place.

“Aren’t tourist and traveler the same thing just a different word?” one person asked.

Michael: It has only been recently, within the last 20 years, that I have noticed people really making a distinction between the two. And many have different ideas of what each is. Plug “Tourist Traveler Different,” into a search engine and many writings pop up about the subject. Some focus on likes and dislikes, such as travelers like people, local food and stories. But tourists are in search of impressive hotels, organized tours, food they know and taking photos.

Others commenting on the subject focus on attributes. A tourist looks at something and says how it is better in his country. A traveler enjoys discovery of why there is a difference. People from the USA are constantly considered more tourist than traveler by others in the world. As I have heard more than one person put it this way, “People in the The United States travel to see how much better they have it than the rest of the world. Others travel for education and experience.

There is the fear factor to make a person a tourist rather than a traveler. While travelers venture into smaller towns off the beaten path, find interesting places where the locals eat and try to speak the language; tourists stay in places similar to what they have at home and look for English.

It is interesting to note that every article I have ever read about why Americans do not travel abroad mentions fear. Some writings go so far as to blame the American media and the government for creating that fear.

But some take the difference way too far. They believe that unless you are couch surfing and backpacking that you are just a tourist.

Then there are those who believe if you go to a museum that traveler status is stripped from you forever. I look at it differently. Museums often provide insight into the people and their culture. Places like Museo del Oro and Museo Nacional in Bogotá do just that. Graciela and I visit each once a year. I always learn more about Colombia and its people.

Graciela: In my opinion you can be both a tourist and a traveler. My trips to Europe were as a single young female. I signed up for tours but always made sure the itinerary included free days. I used the time to go back to places to explore more and to experience the small towns outside the cities. However I know many of those on the tour just spent the day at the hotel. By doing that and not interacting with the locals I feel they lost learning about the culture.

being a travelerMichael: My thought process is that being a traveler involves seeking knowledge and showing respect. Quickly coming to my mind in regards to respect is the recent Sabah earthquake in Malaysia. It is considered a sacred mountain and 10 tourists stripped naked and purposely urinated on the mountain. This was even after their guide told them not to. I don’t care if they were backpacking. Their actions make them a tourist.

Sure you can do the tourist thing in Colombia. Just get off your cruise ship and see only old town Cartagena, the fort and take a guided trip to see such sights as the Old Shoes. Or in Bogotá stay only in the gringolandia areas. There you will find restaurants you know like, T.G.I. Friday and others similar. Heck you will even find a Starbucks coffee in Parque 93 area. Though you will not discover the Colombian culture and food you will have a thinner wallet.

I blame much of this on the often misnomer of travel writers. I have read so many articles where the writer never ventures out of gringolandia and the major tourist attractions. They eat only at restaurants where 90% of the Colombians would not recognize the dishes and the judge quality by price. These posers should more appropriately be called “tourist writers.” To really best understand and enjoy the beauty of Colombia one needs to be a traveler.

How best to enjoy Colombia

First of all don’t be the spectacle. Read our blog on what to wear in Bogotá. If you are going to some of the warmer places then wear what is appropriate there in order to blend in. Let people feel that you are not superior to them. This also means learning at least a few words in their language like thank you, please, how are you, etc.

Graciela: There is much more to our sights than what is visible at first. Do not just look at places and what is happening around, experience them. At the top of Monserrate you have a beautiful view of the city. There is also a church and restaurant. Do not just take photos of the city. Also walk around, discover the stations of the cross understanding the artwork that they are. Really look at the details in the church especially the fallen Jesus. Imagine what Father Rojas was thinking when he ordered its carving in 1656 and why for 400 years there have been pilgrimages up the mountain. Some use to crawl their way up asking for miracles and favors. I know of one guy who use to hike the trail up every weekend.

Michael: A tourist will eat at the restaurant up there and I have heard many almost brag about how much they spent doing such. But it is a French menu not even Colombian food. One is much better experiencing the taste of Colombia at such places as Club Colombia, Chigüire 53, El Portico, Colombian Cocina or Pesquera Jaramillo. Not only will your wallet thank you, but you will get a taste of the country.

Coffee shops are our thing. We visit one almost 300 days a year and have written about many of them including our ten favorite. Sure you should hit the Juan Valdez flagship store. But also consider Nico Pan on a Sunday morning. Not only can you get a good breakfast tamal there, but watch the people coming from church. Remember Colombia is 95% Catholic and religion is a part of the culture.

Graciela: Don’t complain or constantly compare your country to ours. We know we have problems and do things different. But you find that in any country. Remember the idea is to learn about our country.

allow curious sideInstead allow your curious side to get the better of you. Ask our citizens what they like best about the city or country. Ask what is their favorite thing to do on weekends. Ask how birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc. are celebrated.

Michael: Do not go around in your own little tourist world oblivious to what is happening around you. Pay attention and be sensitive to the culture. Where I grew up in The United States we got use to walking into a store or meeting someone and just giving a wave or the hand or nod of the head as a greeting. Colombians use voice. When you enter a store or meet another person on the street they often say, “Buenos Días,” or “Buenas tardes,” even if they do not know you. It is their culture. Give a verbal greeting back to these people, otherwise you are considered rude. Don’t just start asking a question. Colombians are polite and always start with a greeting first. And remember the smile.

Graciela: I am very pleased that my country does not sell as many overpriced trinkets that other places do. These are those things made cheap to be decorative only and say “Colombia” on them. Nothing says tourist more than by purchasing an overpriced bauble.

Fortunately Colombian manufactured usable goods are easy to find. Fine leather purses are available at places like Pandora and Boots ‘N Bags. Probably the best time and place for quality Colombian crafts is December at the Expoartesania.

Michael: Come to Colombia. To get the best from the country blend in, experience it, be curious, be respectful, take your time and have an open mind. You will discover and enjoy so much more than just being a tourist.