“They say…” Some misconceptions about Colombia

Image credit alphadesigner.com
 Image credit alphadesigner.com

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I didn’t know much about my new home beyond some news snippets from the late 90’s. After I did my research, I realized most of what I did know was based on stereotypes that were unfair and outdated.

One of my Spanish teachers really proved this point with a little social experiment.  He showed our class a World Cup commercial with a split screen showing the morning routine of two little girls, one living in Spain and one living in Colombia.  The routine was the same in both videos as the two girls got up, brushed their teeth, had breakfast, and headed out to school.  The difference was that the girl on the left was alone—her parents had already left for work a couple of hours before. She left their small, modest apartment and walked alone to school past graffiti and people hanging out in the streets.  The other girl ate with her dad, who (chauffeured by their driver) took her to school where she did her assignments on an iPad.

After watching, we used our new Spanish skills to describe the differences between their lives. It was interesting because EVERY person in the class assumed the girl featured on the left was from Colombia and stated that fact in their descriptions. When we finished the advertisement we saw that that wasn’t the case and the girl on the left was the Spaniard and the girl on the right from Colombia. Funny how these assumptions creep in!

Keep scrolling for a list of some common misconceptions about Colombia.

The coffee is so good

When we moved to Bogotá we were ready to drink so much mind blowing coffee! Every day would be this amazing experience where Juan Valdez and his donkey would bring us fresh beans! Well, maybe not that extreme but you get where I’m going.

We were quickly informed that the best Colombian coffee is exported. I guess that’s why Europeans and Americans love Colombian coffee—no one would buy it if they exported the crummy beans. There is good coffee to be had here but you have to seek it out. Also, the price of the good stuff is roughly the same as the U.S. (In case you’re wondering, the best we’ve found in Bogotá is Bourbon Coffee Roasters.)

The “C” word

Before our first trip to Bogotá, I googled Colombia’s cultural do’s and don’t’s. The first thing I came across was to not make jokes about cocaine. The stereotype that most citizens are somehow involved in growing, processing or trafficking coca is an untrue and an unfair association.

Cocaine has partly funded Colombia’s civil war, which has resulted in 200,000+ deaths over the last 50 years. To combat the army, the FARC and ELN planted landmines in the countryside. These actions have given Colombia the second greatest number of landmine victims in the world, right behind Afghanistan. In the war against drugs, many farmers have had their land and livelihoods destroyed, because spraying the coca plants was a common method of eradication. Unfortunately, it kills all vegetation in the process.

With this information in mind and considering the fact that many of those caught in the crossfire between the guerrilla groups and army were innocents, it’s understandable that Colombians are anxious to separate themselves from this image.

All Latin American countries are the same

This is the only part of this post where I’m going to be a little rough but take heart dear reader, because I’m taking the medicine right alongside you. In some respects, many of us from the U.S. are a little ignorant about the world outside of our homeland. In WWII we saved the day, our economy boomed, and we were the leaders on the world stage! We are big and important and proud, but we are not the only folks on planet earth.

Living in the digital age and alongside a 24-hour news cycle, it’s no longer ok to assume that in all 22 countries south of the Rio Grande people eat tacos and wear sombreros.  Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Uruguay all use pesos. However, I dare you to bring your Mexican pesos to Bogotá and try to buy an arepa. You can’t, because all of these currencies are different. And while we’re at it, Colombian food isn’t spicy, Bogotá isn’t hot or humid, and if you call yourself an “American” here the expected response should be “me too,” because everyone from the top of Canada to bottom of Chile is an “American.”

Colombia is a third world country

I think people use the term ‘third world’ as a seemingly polite way to say poor. But according to The Nations Online Project, the idea of first, second, and third world countries is a bit outmoded. These descriptions were created during the Cold War to create a hierarchy in which western, capitalist countries were ranked “first world” and eastern, communist countries were ranked “second world.” Everyone that didn’t fit in one of these categories was grouped into the third world, meaning that rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and communist countries not in the former USSR like North Korea were included in this group alongside the quote ‘poorer’ nations.

However, Colombia is like many other countries in the world (including the U.S.) where there are rich, poor, and (unlike the U.S.) a rapidly growing middle class. When I visited Bogotá for the first time I was surprised at many of the similarities between this city and my old one. There are nice neighborhoods and ones that are run down.  There are cute touristy areas and places I wouldn’t walk at night. There are department stores similar to Target, where you can buy groceries, fill a prescription and grab new socks. These things are in addition to the many libraries, free public schools, free health clinics, movie theaters, and amazing restaurants. The Foo Fighters are coming here for goodness sake.

Of course, in the countryside, there are more ‘mom and pop’ type restaurants and stores.  There are parts that are still suffering from the civil war, so of course conditions in these areas are impacted by their circumstances. However, just because there aren’t multi-lane freeways or a family doesn’t have two cars doesn’t mean that a country isn’t developed.

You’ll be robbed as soon as you leave the house

I’ve only felt sketched out once since I’ve lived here when I accidentally rode my bike through a street that had been blocked off for a protest. That being said, after six months we are not convinced that Bogotá is less safe than any other major city. I would not want to walk in most of Detroit after dark and I distinctly remember being freaked out while walking to a restaurant in an industrial neighborhood in Chicago. Just to note, people constantly told us that we shouldn’t walk at night or be out much at all after dark, but apparently only 27% of crimes in Bogotá occur at this time.

My perception of my own safety today is drastically different from what I initially believed. On my first night in Bogotá, I was having dinner with Cody and some colleagues when we were going to go to a bar and meet some other folks for a drink. Our host insisted we take a car to the bar…across the street. This visit was peppered with advice about what to do and not to do in the city and I came away with a growing sense of fear for my new home.

I was thinking about this initial advice from Bogotanos when I recently read an article about imagined atmospheres. This term is based on the idea that our impressions of our environment—made up of memories and past experiences—can have as much power over our perception as the actual events occurring today. For instance, locals claim that crime is more common in the city center even though your chance of being pickpocketed is higher in a ritzy area like Parque de la 93. Bogotá and other Colombian cities have been through rapid, positive changes over the last couple of decades and it seems that opinions and personal beliefs are still catching up.

Now that you’ve read the list, check out this video for some examples of popular Hollywood movies that perpetuate the coffee/drug/violence stereotypes. The commentary is in Spanish but you’ll still get the idea. The film Mr. & Mrs. Smith is voted the worst offender for portraying Bogotá (a city of eight or so million) as a sweltering village where people dance salsa all day.

One little disclaimer: this post was meant as an opportunity to examine our own inherent assumptions and beliefs. I am by no means an expert on Colombia nor am I trying to position myself as one. My words are a reflection of my personal experience and if I’ve caused anyone offense I hope you’ll keep this fact in mind. Please let me know what you think anyway ;-)

6 thoughts on ““They say…” Some misconceptions about Colombia

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  2. Years ago we had “The Ugly American” for those traveling outside the Great U.S. Daniele, I’m so proud of you with your intelligent comments, the fact that you research your data, and the growing concept to believe what we hear on any media. More young people need to read and really research what is happening in the world. I talk to so many older folks that can’t be bothered with newspapers, TV news (not the best source) so they rely on what their friends tell them. E Gods, how safe are we with those folks at the helm. At any rate, congratulations to you, Danielle, for being so great! lots of love from Aunt Katie

    1. Aunt Katie thank you so much for the kind words! I was glad to read that the “Ugly American” stereotype is fading…I hope I’m doing my part to keep things moving along ;-) And we are on the same team…down with the fear mongering 24-hour news cycle!

  3. The United States has to be one of the most insular societies in the world. Because the country is so large, it’s possible to travel quite a bit without leaving our borders, which few do. And Europe where most foreign travel takes place, frankly isn’t all that different from the USA, certainly not when compared to some places like Mexico, Colombia, India, China, etc. And because English has become the world’s second language, most Americans don’t ever learn a second language. As a result, most Americans believe the world to be pretty much like the USA, which is a completely wrong assumption.

    As for the whole crime thing, I’ve spent a ton of time in Mexico, including a 4-month road trip last year where I drove from Boston to the Yucatán peninsula. And what I’ve learned is that while there’s certainly plenty of horrific crime in Mexico, the odds of a Gringo tourist or expat being involved with it is pretty small. Vanishingly small, in fact. I suspect the same is true of Colombia, particularly in the major cities. The places where there’s lots of crime are places you really have no reason to go.

    On coffee, there surely must be a place in Bogotá where you can get good coffee cheap. After a while hunting around Mexico City, I found a place that roasts its own beans, and there you can get a kilo of fantastic beans for $10.80 USD. But like Colombia, a lot of the good stuff is exported, so you have to hunt.

    Anyway, great post!


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we really think Americans need to go out and travel. En masse.

    1. Hi Kim, I couldn’t agree more with what you said about the U.S. being insular and assuming the rest of the world is similar. Well said! We’ve found good coffee in Bogota, but the prices have been more on par with the U.S. And if you compare those price of the cheap stuff here, it’s astronomical!

      Thank you so much for reading and especially for commenting–comments make us newbie bloggers feel like rockstars!

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