Colombia – The Best Place to Travel During the World Cup

I was woken up by the blaring sound of vuvuzelas and car horns.  Typically this would have annoyed me to no end.  But this was the day of the big World Cup match – Colombia versus Brazil.  It also happened to be the 4th of July holiday back home in the US.  And while I was a tad bit sad that I’d be spending yet another 4th of July abroad, I was way more excited to be in the Caribbean city of Cartagena to watch a game that was so important Colombia’s president declared the day a civic holiday.

It’s pure coincidence that I happened to be traveling in Colombia during the World Cup.  And though I know relatively nothing about soccer football, game days have been some of the best days I’ve had since I touched down in Colombia a month ago.

My boyfriend and I had arrived in Bogotá just in time for team Colombia’s first match.  Since we’d never been to the city before, we didn’t quite have our bearings.  We were searching for a place to watch the game when it started pouring down rain (as it tends to do in Bogotá).  We ducked into the first café we came across and took a seat in a room full of true fútbol fanatics.  It was there that we experienced team Colombia’s first victory.  I’m not sure which I enjoyed more, seeing Colombia shut out Greece 3-0 or watching the fans jump in ecstasy after each goal.  I also witnessed another thing that would become the norm during the weeks to come.  After Los Cafeteros’ win, elated fans took to the street – they bumped music, honked car horns and blew on vuvuzelas; they danced, high-fived and stopped traffic as they celebrated their country’s first win.  Suffice it to say it was fun and the perfect introduction to this amazing and often misunderstood country.

world cup celebration in bogota
Fans flood Bogotá’s streets after Colombia’s win, literally blocking traffic as they celebrate.

I watched the next three games in different places and in various manners – each experience more memorable than the last.  For the second match I was on a four-hour bus ride to Pablo Escobar’s old stomping ground, Medellín – admittedly it was very poor timing for a transit day.  As we drove along the rural roads I could hear small towns explode with noise as entire villages celebrated each of team Colombia’s goals.  Luckily the bus driver stopped so the passengers could catch the last few minutes of the match at a roadside restaurant – only in Colombia!

fans gather in medellin
The match was broadcast on a big screen in Medellín’s Zona Rosa. Being among so many fans was seriously the best way to experience the World Cup!

In Medellín I gathered with hundreds of fans in one of the city’s main squares.  They were clad in gold and red jerseys, their cheeks were painted with red, blue and yellow stripes, they donned crazy hats and colorful wigs and, of course, they blew into very loud vuvuzelas.

crazy world cup hats
It was pretty easy to spot foreigners in this crowd. Just look for the person without a wacky hat or a gold jersey!
medellin colorful wig
Fans look up at the big screen in awe when Colombia scores its fourth goal of the day. Also, how awesome is that girl’s wig?!

Colombia dominated Japan and scored four times that day.  With each goal the crowd erupted, chanting “COL-OM-BIA! COL-OM-BIA!”  They jumped up and down, waving their flags and getting covered in white foam.  (The spray foam salesmen did pretty well that day.)  After Los Cafeteros’ third victory there was such a cacophony my ears were ringing for hours afterwards.  But it was so worth it!  Being around so many enraptured fans was infectious and I’m pretty sure that was the day I caught World Cup fever.

world cup celebration
Elated fans celebrate the win by waving their country’s flag and spraying ridiculous amounts of white foam all over everyone. So fun!

In Cartagena – the city I will spend an entire month in – team Colombia appeared to be a team of destiny as they went on to another victory over Uruguay.  Fans partied in the streets and as I was walking back to my apartment there was no way to escape the celebration.  I was pulled into the crowd and virtually forced by an ecstatic Colombian woman to take shots of aguardiente (anise-flavored liquor) out of a little plastic shot glass.  Eh, why not?  I drank and reveled in the frenetic atmosphere as an impromptu parade began.  Cars cruised by – the drivers honked as the passengers hung out of the windows, waving the Colombian flag and slapping palms with passersby.  The celebration went on into the night.

Agardiente translates to “firewater” and is everywhere in Colombia. I think everyone was drinking a little bit of aguardiente that day.
street parade cartagena
These parades made for some prime people watching. I honestly could have stood on that corner all day.

The World Cup had been so much fun.  So you can imagine my excitement when I woke up on the day of the most important match of all, Colombia versus Brazil.  All of Cartagena was in the streets and we struggled to find two empty seats at any bar.  We finally managed to cram into an over-packed restaurant where we waited for the game to start.  As someone who had zero interest in football just a few short weeks ago I was slightly surprised at how anxious I was about this particular game.

The nervous energy was palpable.  The crowd emitted shrill screams whenever Brazil threatened to score, a teenage boy yelled at the TV in frustration and the woman next to me anxiously covered her face with her hands.  The wind was taken out of the crowd’s sails early, after a devastating goal by Brazil.  But despite the setback the fans never gave up hope.  They drank Aguilas (a popular local beer), they danced and they chanted “COL-OM-BIA! COL-OM-BIA!”

gameday beers
Game-day beers.

Despite team Colombia’s best efforts, including a goal toward the end of the match, they couldn’t get it done.  They lost 2-1.  The World Cup was essentially over.  It was definitely a heartbreaking loss, yet these fans had the most amazing attitude.  Their team had lost.  Their star player, James Rodríguez, was in tears on the television.  But instead of dejectedly filing out of the restaurant, they stood up in unison and started applauding their team.  Despite the loss the fans kept cheering and they paraded down the streets as if their team had won the entire World Cup.  Colombians are so incredibly gracious in defeat; it was truly touching.

For me the loss meant that all the fun was over.  But for Colombians this Word Cup represented something much more important than good times.  With a country that’s been so stigmatized by its violent history – including drug cartels, Pablo Escobar, kidnappings and the FARC – the World Cup had introduced a new side of Colombia to a global audience.  This is a beautiful country with beautiful people. It’s a country that has spent years recovering from decades of violence.  And while it’s far from perfect, Colombia has come a long way.  Through this World Cup the rest of the world was able get a small glimpse of this amazing country.

For me, these are the things I love about traveling.  I was able to gain such a deep understanding of a country’s history and culture through something as seemingly superficial as football.  It would have been unbelievable to experience the World Cup in Brazil.  But, for me, Colombia was the best place I could have imagined being during this tournament.  And I’m so happy I was able to experience team Colombia’s amazing World Cup performance right here in Colombia.

For a great documentary on the history of football in Colombia I suggest watching 30 for 30:  The Two Escobars.  It offers a great overview of football during the Pablo Escobar-era and a wonderful insight into the intersection of narco-traffickers and Colombian football.

How and where did you catch World Cup fever this year?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

34 thoughts on “Colombia – The Best Place to Travel During the World Cup

  1. Wow, so jealous. It must have been a wonderful experience, watching football in such a company. Where people are happy, celebrating, no violence, just joy. I feel sorry for people, that they lost against Brazil.

    1. It was truly a great experience. And I love that I was able to experience each game in a different city. I only saw happy, supportive fans which was amazing. That being said there was definitely violence. Ten people were killed in Colombia during celebrations after their team’s first victory. In a few of Colombia’s major cities this led to alcohol bans on game days. Like I said, Colombia has come a long way. It’s an amazing place, but it’s not perfect. And I felt really badly for the fans after their loss against Brazil. But they took it like champs 😉

        1. Yeah, I definitely didn’t witness anything worse than some drunken arguments. I think some of the deaths were due to fans shooting guns in celebration and stray bullets hitting people. It’s sad 🙁 But, those were definitely isolated incidences and shouldn’t represent Colombia as a whole.

  2. Nothing better to soak up the whole world cup experience than being there in person. I remember the days when it was like that with our local football scene here and the atmosphere was just so much fun….but oh well, I’m not much of a football fan so other than catching up here and there, you only really get that involved when you experience it first hand…glad you had this time to enjoy…:)

    1. I’m a huge sport fan. I’m all about baseball and American football. But soccer (football) is not a sport I’ve ever really followed. I couldn’t believe how quickly I got wrapped up in the World Cup frenzy here. It was definitely special to be in Colombia during this particular tournament. I really did learn a lot.

  3. I love to read this kind of blogs, the difference experiences that the people have around the world and I always have a special curiosity about the things that foreigners write about Colombia, cause you know; that bad reputation and stigmatized of all of us is really silly sometimes, for example when we visit other country our passport that say “Colombia” is always a problem, mmm colombianos where is the coca?* – like you have written is not a perfect country maybe without all the problems here actually could be a paradise… that’s the reason cause we are so so proud of our people who makes the difference and show to the world that we are tired of this situation and we have potential.
    It was really nice read your experience here during the world cup, the last years the sport has been huge in Colombia’s history; for the Olympics games 2012, le tour de France 2013, liga diamond, Il giro d’Italia 2014 and others were similar.
    I hope you continue enjoying this country, happy travels!
    PD: Sorry about my English, I’m still learnig it.

    1. Hi Ana! I’ve always been curious about Colombia. Growing up in the U.S. I heard a lot of negative stereotypes about Colombia. However, my brother-in-law is from Cali, Colombia. So I grew up hearing amazing things about the people, the holidays, the food and the beaches. When I was deciding where I wanted to travel, I read a lot about other travelers that had visited Colombia and most people only had great things to say. And now that I’ve been here for a month, I have only had wonderful experiences. After visiting Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena I’m still in love with Bogota. Though I could live in any of these cities 🙂 The World Cup has been a really great experience for me. And it pushed me to do a lot more research into Colombia’s history. This is a beautiful country and I’m so happy to be here 🙂 Oh, and don’t apologize for your English. My Spanish is terrible!! You write very well 🙂

  4. I loved this post – I could feel the excitement in your pictures, and I agree that it’s moments like that where I realize how much I love to travel. To experience a culture during it’s ups and downs (even through soccer… ahem… footballl) 🙂

    1. Thanks Katie! Yeah, it was a really cool and unexpected travel experience. I found myself researching the history of soccer (football!) in Colombia and it was all very fascinating. I’m kind of obsessed with how politics, sports and culture intertwine. And Colombia’s relationship with football is very interesting! I’ve definitely made some great travel memories! And I will never get used to calling soccer football. Just saying!

  5. Lovely article 🙂 I have to say… you have great timing!

    I thought it would be so great to be in England – a country passionate about the sport – during the World Cup. But unfortunately, the English team was rather mediocre and went out in the first round. Thus quite a bit of the excitement about the tournament has gone out the window – although it’s still being covered and pubs/bars are still showing matches (I’ve had fun watching Brazil matches at a pub in Leeds that has served as the de facto HQ for Brazil fans this World Cup).

    But it certainaly seems fun being in a country during the World Cup that’s passionate about the sport and doing well in the competition.

    1. Thanks Rashaad! I definitely have great timing 🙂 Ah, that’s too bad that England didn’t make it very far. But that’s pretty cool you were able to watch with Brazilian fans. I’m sure that atmosphere was out of control!! I couldn’t believe their final performance though…

    1. Ha, I’m not sure I’ve fully accepted it. I have to consciously think about it every time I’m talking about football. Ugh, but then there’s “American football” … it all gets too confusing!

  6. I’m so happy that you got to experience the contagious alegría of Colombians. It’s things like this that make me so proud of my country, even if it frustrates me a lot of times, it really is beautiful and special! Ok…I’m a bit biased, but how can I not be? I love that people got to see this side of Colombia and realize we’re so much more than our violent history 🙂

    1. I’m happy I was able to experience it too. It’s funny, Colombia is typically pretty off the radar for Americans. But my friends and family back in California were all watching the matches, particularly team Colombia’s. I think the world got caught up in Colombia’s excitement. And I really do think I showed everyone that Colombia is a different place now than it was even ten years ago.

  7. Wow! Looks like they really love their football. And I’m so impressed by the way they reacted to their defeat. Columbia played so well through the tournament. Lucky you, that you were there to witness it. A great education into their culture.

    1. Ha, they definitely take their sports pretty seriously here! And they really did take the defeat like champs. Nothing seems to get them down. It was a great experience indeed 🙂

  8. HA! on July 8 you might have thought that Colombia would be The Best Place to Travel During the World Cup, but I’m an American expat living in Germany 😀 😀 In the end, I was in the best place! 😉 Love the photos–such vibrant colors and scenes…can really feel how excited everyone was!

    1. Haha, very true. Wow, Germany would have been the perfect place to be an expat this year. How cool! The Colombians went nuts when Germany won the final. It was as of their own team had won 🙂

  9. I’m colombian, and i have to say this has touched my soul. Iwent back to all the tears i spread in my house watching that match, and all the pride we all felt while our team was there (even after the elimination). This is true, we were just so happy by watching all of our team dancing, playing with his hearts. Maybe you don’t know this, but that match was the last one Yepes (the captain) would’ve ever play, and after this James Rodriguez married David Ospina’s (our goalkeeper) sister and started playing in Real Madrid. This maybe the greatest side of my country, and it shouldn’t be recognized just by it’s past. I really hope you read this and smile, because you’ve definetly made me smile (almost cry) by reading your article. Finally, I hope you’ve enjoyed the taste of Aguardiente and ¡ERA GOL DE YEPES!

    1. Aww, I’m so glad you liked this. I don’t think it’s possible to convey how much I love Colombia. My boyfriend and I would love to move there. We just need to find jobs there first 😉 We have nothing but fond memories!

  10. Hi Justine! First of all, thanks for loving my country, we need more people like you, people who realize how we (colombians) really are, we wanna break all those bad stereotypes that we have had since the 80s, about mafia, drugs and extreme violence.

    Secondly, I totally agree with you, this post was the perfect description for my country and how we live-love futbol! It can turn a little bit messy and crazy but this is part of our culture and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    I don’t remember how I got to read your blog but now I find that you’re such an inspiration for me, I followed you today on Instagram and I felt totally identified with you, in your posts and in your photos. I also lived in Jakarta for 7 months and reading your posts makes me wanna go back to Indonesia, because you describe exactly the way I lived it as a bule. Take care and keep traveling <3

    1. Hi Mariale! Thanks for the nice comment. It’s so crazy that so many people still stereotype Colombia. But what’s amazing is that anyone I know who has been there absolutely loves it. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t fall in love with the country after traveling there. I’d go back in a heartbeat if I could! I know that I’ll be back someday. That’s so cool that you lived in Jakarta too. Haha… we’re fellow bules 🙂

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