Escobar, Drugs and Hostels in Colombia

For some time I have been observing and attempting to identify a couple of the more idiosyncratic tendencies in the Colombian psyche. My latest conundrum surrounds that of the need to place the blame, create an excuse and indeed shirk a responsibility. I feel that all of these traits can fall under the same cockeyed linguistic umbrella which hinders Colombian societal progress.

Manuel Teodoro

Septimo Dia with Manuel Teodoro

How often have I heard the following phrases: “malicia indigena”, “idiosyncracia costeña”, “el pais de los más vivos.” I once had a plasterer in Mompos who couldn’t work one day as: “se me cayeron mal unos tragos.” Even the drinks were to blame for his hung-over state, not the arm which fed the drinks to his mouth and down his throat or the cause for a celebration on a work night.

So, who is to blame for the ills of contemporary Colombia? The cartels of the 1980s and 1990s, the guerrillas, the Bacrims or can we attribute it to Spanish colonial designs dating back to the 18th century? It’s everyone else’s fault, the indigenous, the Spanish, corrupt politicians, the heat, the rain, a desire for one-upmanship and so on.

Now, for some in the mainstream media, there is no better way than to tar Colombia’s progress than to point the finger at Colombia’s corrupted youth and society caused by an increase in foreigners visiting or living in the country. Of course, we are not as morally sound as Colombians, we are not as god-fearing in that we fail to attend mass and our liberal stance towards relationships between consenting yet unmarried adults and illegal drugs may just rock the Procurador and his cronies to the core.

So, it is time to address the most recent “documentary” on foreign travellers to Colombia on Caracol. Watching Septimo Dia this evening the overwhelming impression that I received was that, were I ever to step foot in a hostel in Colombia, I would immediately be received by a scantily clad underage prostitute with mountains of free cocaine on a silver platter for my personal consumption.

Manuel Teodoro promoting his show

Manuel Teodoro promoting his show

This is an attack on two fronts by Caracol’s flagship primetime “investigative” journalism show. Firstly, there is the feeling that every traveller to Colombia has but one thing in mind and indeed, that every foreigner that has decided to stay here, set up a business and live, is chasing a cocaine trail secreted by prostitutes across the country.

How hard have we all worked over the years to promote Colombia, drive tourists and their contribution in to the local economy to out of the way destinations? It has been a strenuous challenge and combating the justified and unjustified reputation that Colombia has in the international press is a continual battle. In 2014, Colombia, a country still in conflict with all manner of problems, stands to receive and host more than 4 million international visitors. Something is working.

Yes, there are those that come to Colombia with only the worst intentions. I’ll argue that this fluid group, that is present in every generation, was coming to Colombia even as far back as in the 1960s. They would hole up in ne’er do well cockroach hotels near the port in Santa Marta (read Charles Nicholl’s the Fruit Palace) and pick their toenails until the fruit vendor would open to sell them some product. Yes, they still come today. But, they represent a small minority of those coming to Colombia just as every Colombian coming to visit the UK or US is neither a drugs mule nor a guerrilla nor a capo.

The Fruit Palace

The Fruit Palace

Scandal sells and of course this documentary will make for easy headlines and then of course an increase in viewers, which is what television, is now all about anyway. Since there’s no money in journalism it’s all about advertising and the amount of goggle eyes you can claim to have stuck to the screen as the latest commercial with El Pibe Valderrama flogging whatever it may be this time skips before their eyes. Seriously, you have to admire El Pibe; does he turn down any offer?

May I remind you that Pablo Escobar is a fascinating character that you created? How on earth did he get elected into political office, how did he get away with it all for so long, why is his death so fascinating and still the cause for argument about who was involved? Sure, supply and demand and all that…but, the supply and demand for cocaine still continues and there is currently no serious rival to even approach the notoriety of Escobar at the height of his fame. This was of your doing. And, you continue to do so, be it Caracol or RCN – Las Muñecas De La Mafia, El Patron del Mal, La Viuda de la Mafia, Tres Caínes and I am sure these soap operas will continue. Who is to blame Colombia? So, of course a foreigner to Colombia is interested in the myth, life and times of Pablo Escobar. Write a fascinating book about Francisco de Paula Santander or Candelario Obeso and make it available in English and this too will sell. I guarantee it. Why is a drugs kingpin more famous than the first black poet from South America and the tale of an emancipated Colombia?

May these contradictions end here.

Until there is an actual framework as to how to police, register and control hostels, homestays and hotels and that each category is appropriately moderated according to its category and clientele, these problems will remain in Colombia. Cotelco, Migracion Colombia (formerly DAS) and other entities all play an important role but by no means are any of them wholly effective in their policing and cataloguing of tourist establishments. Hostels, for the most part, have been overlooked by the tourism authorities and are seen – unfairly so – as dens of iniquity. Backpackers are viewed as dirty, drug consuming vagrants despite the fact that Colombia caters to a higher quality of backpacker than any other Latin American country due to the perceived difficulty and danger of travelling here.

I cannot speak for establishments based in major cities, but in my small world of Mompos, we receive backpackers/ travellers/ visitors from all over the world, who perhaps use a backpack for convenience given the lack of efficient transport infrastructure in these parts, possess one or two university degrees, travel with a partner and hold professional employment such as that of teacher, journalist, doctor, web designer or psychologist and beyond. They have read about Colombia, in fact they have most probably read more Garcia Marquez than the average “educated” Colombian, they know who Fernando Botero is, in equal measure they are excited with the news of James Rodriguez’ transfer to Real Madrid and they are concerned about the state of human rights in the country just as they are following the on-going peace dialogues between the government and the FARC guerrillas in Cuba. This is the traveller of today. They have money to spend and prefer to spend in in a certain way. This neither makes them a drug addict nor a curb crawler on the streets of El Poblado.

Colombia is the happiest nation in the world – or at least amongst the happiest – but I would dare to suggest that also she suffers from a true complex of low self-esteem. This Septimo Dia documentary not only plays on xenophobia towards anything different resulting from a policy of isolationism that still applies in today’s international politics. Yes, there may be more of us foreigners about but in no way are we all chasing cocaine and prostitutes in hostels. To say this, and to suggest this is to undermine the progress that has been made by the authorities and lay groups and foundations such as Colombian Hostels and la Asociación de Alojamiento de La Candelaria (ASACAN) which have worked tirelessly to promote Colombia, regulate businesses with a code of conduct and condemn the use of drugs and any type of sexual exploitation.

I suppose, since there is no scandalous news coming out of Cuba, no issues regarding the newly emerged criminal gangs, no issues of droughts and no crime in Colombia – the target must be honest hardworking folk just trying to promote and export the best that Colombia has to offer.

Manuel Teodoro, you may want to rethink your editorial policy if you think of yourself as a real son of Colombia. This is an example of weak, insipid and rehashed journalism so when you want to film images of Casa Ifta, don’t mix it up with images of the Quiebracanto bar from 2008. Hopefully the owners of Quiebracanto will sue for calumnia.

Your inserted and throwaway comment about how: “there are establishments working for the good of the country” just before the third advertising break will have fallen on deaf ears.

The damage has been done and there will be hundreds if not thousands of Colombians who now believe that foreign visitors come here only for sex and drugs.

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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19 Responses to Escobar, Drugs and Hostels in Colombia

  1. Mark says:

    This is why the only thing on Colombian TV worth watching is the Radiola channel during the musica llanera hour.

  2. carlosmeek says:

    Excellent piece Richard. This ought to be translated into Spanish.

  3. Quepenaconusted says:

    I have been in Colombia for 4 years, often traveling with a backpack (I love mountains and the outdoors) and not once have I been offered cocaine. There is plenty to do and see in Colombia that can only be done or seen if you have a backpack. Thus, for most travelers it just makes no sense to lug a suitcase around.

    Colombia has been relatively isolated from the world for a long time. Once I heard a well known Colombian say that this is the Buthan of South America. Most likely this results in certain fears and anxieties as the country opens up. And, of course, yellow TV loves fear and anxiety. In some ways, it all reminds me of what happened when Franco died in Spain in 1975, although Spain was at that point far more open than Colombia was until recently. Limited bouts of xenophobia go hand to hand with this process. I am sure that as time goes by, the fever will pass too, and yellow media will move on to greener (or yellower) pastures.

  4. Thanks for sharing this insight Richard! We'll now in Ecuador and will be heading to Colombia in a month or two. Can't wait to get there – all travelers who've been there are super enthusiastic about the country. Hope to finally meet you when we reach Mompos.

  5. ColombianodeValores says:



    Los gringos son una mierda que solo vienen a Colombia por drogas y sexo con menores de edad.

  6. ColombianodeValores says:

    Richard eres un imbécil , ¿qué tipo de persona le saca fotos al culo de una mujer en Medellín?, no tienes respeto por las mujeres, vete a la mierda.

  7. Charles says:

    Well written piece. I've lived in Envigado for a year with my wife. I have a couple of gringo friends here who apparently smoke marijuana occasionally, but one only has to walk a block or two to see (and smell) locals smoking it. My downstairs neighbor makes it a daily ritual. As for cocaine and other hard drugs, I've never seen it, never been offered it, and basically don't put myself in a position where it will be likely. You find what you look for and ignore everything else. This is obvious from the Septimo Dia piece (I missed it but would like to see it). If they wanted to make a valid argument about drugs and foreigners, they would be correct in blaming Americans and Europeans (and staying in their home countries) for buying the drugs and driving the market that Colombia so far seems happy to feed. Foreigners who live or visit here are not in great enough numbers to make the industry worthwhile.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you David for the comment. This is not going to end here, I know have sources telling me that the tourists on the Medellin tour were tricked into going. The gutter press!

      • tommyj says:

        Thanks Richard, with Colombian relatives and friends that I married into 10years ago, and that I visit as much as possible, I have felt safer there than some places I have been in the US. I havent been all over Colombia but have visited some small, out of the way towns on the way to family finca and, although I am sure there where areas I would not tread as a heavily accented gringo, I never feared for myslef, and in actuality made friends as they were more than interested in ME! Be smart, use your head, be humble (you are in somone else’s country) and have a good disposition and you will be fine. Look for problems you’ll find them.

        [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

        • Richard says:

          Tommy, you and I and many others know that Colombia is a wonderful place to visit. Tourism is an economic and social motor for change here, despite whatever Septimo Dia will have you believe.

    • Shaun says:

      You only have to head down to Parque Lleras for an innocent drink, Charles, and there's infinite offers from the vendedores ambulantes.

      Tbh, though Richard, often the graduate, human rights concerned backpacker is one that dabbles a little, too: they're not mutually exclusive. When I first came to Colombia many years back, I'd read GGM, volunteered for a fundacion for a while, climbed mountains and, very occasionally, enjoyed the "local produce". I wasn't alone.

      The thing is, I think from a European perspective, this is generally accepted. Having a bit of recreational drug fun doesn't make you a bad person by itself. The Colombian view seems to be a bit more extreme, black and white, and hypocritical.

  8. Steveh says:

    Hi Richard, i also didnt see the Septima Dia story but your article rings true and raises some important issues. For the TV to label backpackers and independent travellers like this is just plain wrong. These types of travellers are often pioneers that open up new areas for tourism and bring in the organised tours behind them. Many studies have shown that backpackers might look a scruffy but actually benefit the local economy more than the big-money tour companies (where most of the profit stays overseas). Backpackers are on a tighter budget but they stay longer in a country, travel more widely, spend cash in local shops hostels and guides etc, and more importantly are more loyal to the country when there is economic or conflict problems. I remember Peru two decades ago when the big tour companies abandoned the country with the Sendero Luminoso was on the war path, but the budget adventure travel companies and the backpackers kept coming and kept the tourism industry alive. Then when peace came back, big tourism tried to conspire to price the budget travellers out of the market at popular sites ie no more Machu Picchu by local train. Colombia should not make the same mistake and must ensure budget travellers are encouraged and welcomed here, as much as the fly-in tours and cruise ships stopping by. Painting them all as sex pests or druggies is not a good way to go.

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