It has been some time since we´ve seen used a guidebook and it has been some time since we have seen a fellow backpacker.
Now two months traveling in Colombia and just two months remaining, my travel companion and I have much country to explore. With a little intuition and a bit of luck, we have found ourselves in some of the most beautiful and unique places the country has to offer. But surprisingly, we are often the only gringos in sight. Adam, my companion, commented that maybe we should call the documentary “Where is Everyone?”
At the moment we are in a small beautiful beach town on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Our hotel is $10 a night for the both of us, a great big plate of big fat fish costs about $2.50 and a beer on a nearly deserted beach costs 70 cents.
Where is everyone indeed. Perhaps the answer lies in the Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet is perhaps the best selling guidebook in the world. It´s usually filled with reliable information, good advice, and country hot spots. But its popularity is a double-sided coin. Small remote villages quickly lose that far away feeling when they suddenly become filled with foreigners and ATMs. Guidebooks become so trusted that travelers often forget to guide themselves. I cannot count the times I´ve seen tourists with their noses buried in their guidebooks instead of looking at the beautiful place they´ve been guided to. But it would be wrong to say that Colombia is suffering from a lack of travelers.
The tourist industry in Colombia increases by about 20% each year. So where are they? Open your guidebook and there they are. The two places we have been that are mentioned in Lonely Planet were filled with backpackers. Follow the tourist trail and you will always find tourists. But stray just a few miles off the loop and suddenly no one speaks English, prices are local, and real traveling begins. So what is real traveling? A question we ask people we interview is “What´s the difference between a tourist and a traveler?” One man responded, “Tourists take pictures of the locals and locals take pictures of the travelers.” Maybe real traveling is just going somewhere uncomfortable and finding comfort. If this is the definition of traveling then anyone can travel, it only takes an open mind and the desire to experience something new. In Colombia, something new is about to happen. We can feel it, because everywhere we go we see mirages of five star hotels and tour buses. Being in Colombia right now feels as if we just walked into Cambodia 15 years ago when they opened their borders to tourism. Word is traveling fast and everything in Colombia is about to change.
Three weeks ago we were in a pueblo called Guatape just two hours outside of Medellin, the third largest city in the country. In Medellin, we met a woman on the metro who invited us to stay at her lakeside 4th story apartment in Guatape, by ourselves, for a week. Guatape is one of several villages surrounded by hundreds of lakes and green-shrouded mountains. It is beautiful. Naturally, we were the only foreigners there. But not for long. In 2010, the South American summer games will be held in Medellin. That means that all the water sports will be held in Guatape. A local informed us that a field of cows will soon be replaced with two resort hotels and that sand will be brought in from Cartagena to create artificial beaches. If safety in Colombia continues to improve, Colombia just might well become the Costa Rica of South America.
But for now, just off the tourist trail (you understand if I don´t reveal our exact location) life is quiet and life is good. Be it tourist or traveler, finding yourself in someplace new changes many things, if not just your perception. “Can traveling make the world a better place?” we ask people. This traveler believes that it can. We are all ambassadors of our place of origin, like it or not. When we meet someone from another country, we often reference that country based on our experience with the people from that country. If it´s a good experience we might say, “You know, I met a Colombian/American the other day. They´re not so bad after all.
So may we represent ourselves well, tourist or traveler.
check out our documentary — The MapMakers: Project Colombia at http://www.themapmakers.org