The danger of raised expectations

Amongst the global backpacking crowd, countries don’t get much cooler at the moment than Colombia.

While I was researching my trip, Colombia wasn’t even on my original itinerary. After hearing people rave about it, and in particular how much safer it is now, it became a must see.

When I got to Mexico, the excitement continued to build. Pretty much every traveller I met who’d been there couldn’t wait to tell me about how it was the best country they’d ever been to, and that anyone still worried about security concerns (outside of the Amazon areas) really had no right to be backpacking in the first place.

After being warned about Mexico and Guatemala (and realising how over-cautious those warnings were), I arrived in Colombia ridiculously excited and not at alll apprehensive.

Big Mistake. Unduly raised expectations are a dangerous thing. The taxi drive into Bogota revealed a city that looked like one of London’s uglier suburbs (although god know what I was expecting. Latin American capital cities are frequently ugly, and even the nicer ones still have plenty of ugly bits). My first encounter with travellers in my hotel was with three others who’d been there a few days. All had been mugged.

Some tower blocks

Some tower blocks

My excitement soon faded to disappointment and apprehensiveness. After emptying my wallet of everything and leaving my camera behind, I ventured out to explore, and the feelings persisted. The main square was nothing special after seeing so many amazing ones elsewhere. The colonial buildings were a bit drab. And much of the archtitecture was pretty bland.

Not all that exciting from above, either

Not all that exciting from above, either

It didn’t help that my first two days were a public holiday, and everything was shut as all the locals had left town for the weekend (I could see why). Oh, and it rained most of the time too.

I spent a couple of full days there, punctuated by further tales of muggings, but I soon realised my heart wasn’t in it, and so my planned week was cut to three nights, and I left as early as I could once a plan had been formed.

Not a patch on your average Mexican cathedral.

Not a patch on your average Mexican cathedral.

In retrospect, the fault was mine and not the city’s. Raising one’s expectations so high is a very dangerous game. Nowhere is perfect, and I have no idea how I allowed myself to think that somehow Colombia could be. Writing this a week later, I think my initial impressions were harsh, and I really didn’t give the city much of a chance. I have to back at the end of the month to fly to Lima, and I’m determined to give it a fair chance, this time with more realistic expectations – and I’ve spoken to other traveller since then, and it seems like I’ve unfairly judged the place, and it’s my own fault.

You can see my slightly disappointing photos of Bogota here if you really have nothing better to do.

24 responses to “The danger of raised expectations

  1. oh no – not the post i needed to read while contemplating heading to colombia. I’m hoping that’s just bogata – please tell me that it gets better.

  2. I spent my first week in Bogota, and wasn’t especially impressed. A Colombian friend and I were just discussing the city yesterday – the weather is often dreary and rainy, it’s BIG, and the main tourist draws like the square you saw aren’t much.

    But when I took that 25-minute flight over to Medellin, and took the bus down into the valley on a beautiful day with the downtown streets buzzing with people, well, it was a COMPLETELY different impression. A week turned into two, and then three, and here I am 6 months later, in love with the place.

    But there’s more to Colombia than the big cities like salsa-capital Cali and romantic Carribean Cartagena. The small pueblo towns, national parks, and undeveloped Carribean beaches (Taganga and Parque Tayrona) are suppose to be great too. Frankly, I didn’t visit any because I was so content with my experiences in Medellin. And I know I’ll be back for the rest.

    PS – be sure to connect with couchsurfers – search for “drink/coffee” because a lot of them can’t host travelers as they live with their families. Some of my BEST memories and best friends here resulted from couchsurfing connections.

    • Cheers Dave – I’m enjoying the coast very much right now, and will be heading down to Medellin some time next week, thanks to your writing about it I’m very much looking forward to it

  3. My girlfriend has been raving about Colombia after spending two weeks around the area of Cartagena. Doesn’t seem like Bogota has that much to offer, but don’t let that put you off. If all I’ve seen of Costa Rica was San Jose I would definently not think much of it either… I would then have missed out on some of the best travel experiences on my trip!

  4. You should have stayed in London, or wherever. It seems to me you were looking for the wrong things. You don’t go to another country expecting to see what you have at home. If you think Bogota, and the other Latin American capitals are ugly you have no idea what ugly is. It’s your opinion, and I’m sure no one cares. People who have gone to Colombia with an open mind, trying to see the good things, have a totally different notion.
    By the way, those who really know how to travel are aware that the Capital cities never reflect what the real countries are.

    • Did I say anywhere in there that I was expecting to see what I have at home? If you actually bother to to read any of my other posts you’ll see that I have a very open mind about travel, in fact Bogota is pretty much the only place I’ve visited so far that I haven’t liked, and as I said in the post I’m going to go back and give it a second chance.

      Seeing as I live in a capital city myself, I’m fully aware that capitals are normally very different to the rest of the country. I’ve been to many, and Bogota is the only one I haven’t liked. Stop being so sensitive and patronising and accept that everyone is different, and it’s inevitable that not everyone is going to like everywhere.

      • You generalized: “Latin American capital cities are frequently ugly and even the nicer ones still have plenty of ugly bits”. Of course. Like ANY other city in the world. Of course, they are ‘third world countries’, remember? you can’t expect everything to be perfect.
        It would be nice to know if you bothered to visit The Gold Museum, Monserrate or the incredible Salt Cathedral (unique in the world), just to mention few places.

      • Did I ever say I expected things to be perfect? And I’m sorry you don’t like to hear it, but I’m afraid that I found Bogota far uglier than average for a capital city, and the nice looking bits really weren’t nice looking enough to make up for that, for me at least.

        And yes, I did go up Monserrate, which had a lovely view, but I found the gold museum not to my taste. To Bogota’s credit, I absolutely adored the Botero museum, which I’ll be blogging about on my next post about Bogota, when I return at the end of the month.

        Oh, and I think the miners of Wieliczka in Poland would be a little surprised at hearing Colombia’s salt cathedral unique, seeing as they have something pretty similar (which was listed as one of the very first UNESCO World Heritage sites back in 1978, and which I visited back in November)

      • I don’t know where my message went. I certainly hope you’re not blocking me…

        I was trying to explain that the Salt Cathedral is unique not because it’s a salt mine but because it’s a real Roman Catholic Church built inside of a salt mine.

        That makes it unique.

  5. In support of Geoff it is almost refreshing to see a blog post about something else than complete and utter praise for a destination.

  6. I agree, the trick is to stay in the moment, take in information, but in reality, don’t put much emphasis on what other people are saying. Mostly, people are affected from the tourist industry that plays upon fantasy.

  7. By the way, this safety/danger perception is BS also, everybody thought I would be in danger in the Middle East, and that preconceived perception is false.

  8. The uniqueness of the Salt Cathedral lies in the fact that it is a REAL Roman Catholic Church that conducts religious services periodically.

    • Yes, so is the one in the salt mines in Poland. Pope John Paul II said mass there when he visited. They built a statue out of him made of salt, too. So, like I said, not unique.

      • Ok. I’m sure you’re right about that. So the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquira is not unique…:-)

        BTW, when my grandfather was very sick at home, a priest came and said mass at his home. I don’t think that made my grandpa’s house a church. But who knows.. maybe it is and we don’t know.

        This is a real story but I was just trying to smooth things over..:-) I’m smiling.

  9. I’d never block anyone. I’m more than happy for people to come here and disagree with me, nothing wrong with a spot of lively debate.

  10. Hi, a tip for next time you are in Bogota – try dancing salsa like the locals in club/restaurant Andres Carne de Res (
    One of the whackiest clubs i have ever visited (in a good way) and HEAVING

  11. Maybe all is not as the same way other people see.
    Bogotá has different things people like very much but you can not find many architectural expressions you can find for example in Buenos Aires. There is another things to find here: the Gold Musseum is now re-inagurated, Museo Nacional that I liked very much, Jardín Botánico, Parque Simón Bolívar, zona-T, the Candelaria neighborhood, but there are many thing and beautiful places near Bogotá: Zipaquirá and its salt-cathedral, Nemocón and its Mina de Sal (salt mine, with its water mirrors, wells, stalactites or stalagmites cascade), Villa de Leyva, the Guatavita new town and its enchanted pool formed in the crater of a volcano, the Candelaria Desert, and many other places. You can enter this address
    to see many pictures of Colombia and other countries and decide by yourself with another point of view.

  12. Pingback: My 7 Links: Revisiting some old favourites | Itinerant Londoner

  13. As a fellow Brit, going to Colombia and staying in Bogota is like going to England and staying in Hull! I stayed in Medellin, Cartagena and San Andres which are much more fun…. Bogota for me was just the entry into the country, even Colombians themselves would say Bogota is gray, dull, cold, sad. Medellin and the other cities I visited were sunny, tropical, colorful, pretty, exciting! I enjoyed them much more.

  14. So far I have visited Buenos Aires, Santiago, La Paz, Quito ,Bogota and Mexico City in Latin America.
    I have to agree with you in this one, bogota is not for my taste, I wen’t to monserrate, chico, some restaurants outside the city,gold museum, bolivars house, etc. Just nothing really outstanding. And I think your opinion and mine should be respected.

    If a person doesn’t like my city (Berlin) then its their opinion and I respect it. So far mexico city and bogota where not to my liking AT ALL. My favorites where Buenos Aires and La Paz.

    I love your blog btw.
    Keep up the good work!

    Lyna (Germany)

  15. The problem with Brits and some Yanks visiting Bogota is that it actually does feel a bit like a run-down Croydon or Brooklyn in the 90’s. It doesn’t fit with their stereotypical image of what Colombia “should” be like so they dismiss it. Yes its rainy, it can be cold/gloomy but it also has one of the most interesting and varied sub-cultures in music, the arts & food that I’ve experienced. From the reggae roots bars at Congo and Casa Babylon in lower Chapinero to the quaint sunday market and restaurants around Usaquen plaza to the Pacific coast fusion restaurant at mini-mal in chapinero alto – There is so much going on.
    What I’ve heard Brits say about Bogota is what I used to hear many Americans describe London before the millennium. That it was dull, foggy even many who visited who only stuck/still stick to Buckingham Palace/Big Ben/ Picadilly/ Regent st. etc. still feel it as semi-bland and expensive. They completely miss out on Camden Town, Shoreditch, London Fields, Hackney, Brixton, Notting Hill, Borough market, etc.
    You have to work for Bogota and its usually tourists that want most things presented on a plate that miss out on the city’s quasi-punk charms of a bygone era.
    Believe me the city that has one of the largest theatre festivals in the world, ‘Ciclovia’: the world’s longest open streets scheme every Sunday till 2pm, the ‘septimazo’ every friday night after 5pm and the largest free rock festivals in Latin America does not make for a boring city.
    Rock Al Parque:

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