COLOMBIA, April 2013—I’d thought my unconditional love for Colombia was well established. I’d visited for speaking engagements. I’d made a giddily enthusiastic episode of a previous series in Medellin and Cartagena. I’d waxed poetically and often about how well I’ve always been treated, how thrilling it is to see how far the country has come from its bad old days.
I’m a fan of its people, its music, its food and its disarmingly injured pride.
But coming out of the remote jungle village of Miraflores, I made a mistake.
I tweeted a photo of myself standing under a shade tree surrounded by young Colombian military recruits.
My old friend and Top Chef colleague Tom Colicchio tweeted right back: “Too soon”—connecting the appearance of machine guns with the then-recent Newtown massacre.
I tweeted back that “this is what it looks like in FARC country.”
Of course I meant “territory recently controlled by the FARC,” the unpleasant Marxist guerilla group who’d been terrorizing Colombia for decades with kidnappings, assassinations and worse. They operate hand in glove with the cartels—essentially shaking them down and providing them with protection—in return for funds. And, indeed, not too long before I arrived at the dirt airstrip, merchants in the small town are said to have accepted payment for basic goods and services with coca paste.
Now, Miraflores is swarming with army and police. The FARC, by almost all accounts, have been beaten back significantly.
The phrase “FARC country” was not, however, interpreted as intended, meaning an area, a neighborhood, a territory once under FARC control. Not in Colombia.
Colombians were outraged.
Our fixers and drivers were very, very unhappy—in the uncomfortable position of being closely associated with someone (me) who was (for the next couple of days, anyway) widely thought to be a FARC sympathizer.
It was a clumsy, ill-worded and foolish thing for me to have done.
Colombia is NOT, for the record, “a FARC country.” Far from it.
As I should well have known, the struggle between the FARC, the cartels and various right-wing militias has been deeply felt by nearly every Colombian family. Opinions—even perceived opinions—can have consequences. Just about everybody you talk to—even in a present day Colombia that is much, much safer and secure—has lost someone to violence.
Colombians—more than anyone—have paid a terrible price in lives for the world’s seemingly bottomless appetite for cocaine.
Colombia has been very successful in recent years in its war on cartel and FARC-related violence. But the ludicrous futility of any fully successful “war on drugs” is apparent with a single look out of a plane window.
In spite of all its painful history, Colombia is emerging as what should be a vacation wonderland.
Have I said yet how beautiful the place is? It’s incredible.
It’s fun. And, yes, it’s safe. Every day, more so.
Cartagena has some of the most beautiful colonial architecture in Latin America. A great bar scene. Amazing food and architecture. Medellin is a modern, sophisticated, enormously enjoyable place to spend time. It’s as far from its image as a murder capital as you can imagine. And people are heartbreakingly welcoming and happy to see visitors who have come to their beautiful country for something other than to talk about narcos and violence. Cali is a party town to rival Miami. The beaches along the coasts are as unspoiled as your wildest fantasies.
And yet many people still don’t go—I would urge you to put aside the stereotypes.
If you want to find bad people in Colombia, you can surely find them, as you could in New York or Los Angeles. But nowhere have my crew and I been treated better or with more kindness and generosity. I’d bring my family on vacation there in a heartbeat. And hope to soon. As I said before: Colombians are proud. Let them show you what they are proud of.