This post is sponsored by our outdoor friends and experts Roads, Rivers and Trails.
People often think Colombia is a dangerous place because of drugs and sex-trafficking. That is still a strong possibility, but I'm willing to bet there is more potential danger in simply walking the streets by foot. Not because of dangerous drug dealers, pocket thieves, or rapists. Not because it's easy to get lost or end up in a bad neighborhood. Walking the streets of Colombia, specifically Barranquilla, is one of the most dangerous threats to tourists because of the rabid taxi drivers. I love them, but fear them all in one package. It is not just the taxi drivers that present danger, but all forms of ground transportation like motobikes, buses, vans, and even bicycles are mobbed into this system of chaos. For purposes of this article, however, I'm picking out the most dominant, most noticeable, and most populated of the ground transportation, the yellow taxi.
Now BT is an adventurous group. We like trying new adventures like shooting guns in Estonia, climbing mountains, seeing the horrors of humanity and going on pilgrimages but we we're not in the least prepared for what we were about to encounter in Colombia.
Let me paint you a picture of my very first taxi ride in Barranquilla, Colombia:
(11:30PM and I have just landed in what appears to be the smallest, oldest, smelliest airport in the world)
"Taxi! Taxi! You need a taxi? Come, I take you! Taxi Taxi!"
(Mind you this is all in rapid Spanish as well)
"Hotel la Casona" (I hand him the address)
"Sure, Sure I know the area, good part of town"
(He buckles up...so we buckle up)
1st gear, 2nd gear, 3rd gear, the engine growls
STOP SIGN, He slams on the brakes while shifting to neutral.
We turn left and the tires shriek.
1st gear, 2nd gear, 3rd gear, 4th gear
INTERSECTION, He chunks down to 3rd gear, looks both ways and guns it back into 4th.
4th gear and we are whizzing by rickety buildings.
STOP LIGHT, He slams on the breaks, throws it in neutral glances each way, sees a slow-moving van coming from the left and guns it through shifting back into 3rd as we launch forward.
(If I were to guess we probably averaged 45 mile/hr speed for every drag race we completed...who were we racing? Everyone and Everything!)
He whipped a U-turn, avoided the homeless guy laying in the middle of the street, passed a slower taxi, honked at a street sweeper who was crossing with his barrel of trash, pulled one more u-turn from the wrong lane going the wrong direction, and we were there!
Fastest 20 mile taxi ride I've ever had, and it only cost $15 and that was tipping him generously.
It was midnight by this point so I thought, hey, maybe it's because there is no one on the streets and taxi drivers are the only ones brave enough to roam the streets. Or, maybe he really wanted to be done working and we were his last customers for the night.
The next day I learned those theories were like saying "pigs can fly". They just have no traffic rules. Pass whenever, wherever possible, honk if someone is in your way, going to slow, about to be in your way, or you want to pick them up. Stop signs and stop lights are unnecessary and speed limits are in a foreign language.
It is one thing to be riding in this chaotic mode of transportation, but it is another to view it from standing street level. In order to help diminish the Colombian stigma of lurking danger I've developed a how to list for safely walking the streets of Barranquilla. Apply these rules and safety tricks at all times and in all Colombian cities (but especially Barranquilla) in order to stay out of the statistics of some of the most dangerous cities in the world.
- Before leaving the safety of your lodging put on durable, comfortable, jump-able shoes and tie them tight if they have laces.
- Before leaving the safety of your lodging wear the coolest, lightest clothing you have.
- Before leaving the safety of your lodging have an idea of where you are headed, and plan a route with the least amount of street crossings.
- Begin walking with head up.
- When you arrive at your first intersection assess the curb and find the easiest step down, but do not step down yet.
- Before moving assess the curb across the street to find the easiest step up. Some curbs may be so big that it is impossible to step up or there may be no sidewalk. At this point an alternate crossing or route may need to be found as you want to stay out of the street as much as possible. (There is also a large possibility that rain may cause a rapid moving river preventing curb crossing)
- After you have assessed both curbs fully, listen for honks. Honks will signify one of two things: WATCH OUT or DO YOU WANT A RIDE? After being in the streets of Colombia for more than one day you will begin to distinguish which honk means which, and you will know that a WATCH OUT honk means the taxi is flying by at speeds of the out of control variety. You will also learn that the DO YOU WANT A RIDE? honk means they will be slowing down for the possibility of getting your money. Simply shake your head no to signal them to keep going.
- Continue listening as you look both ways. Even if it is a one way street (which most are) look both ways because some bikers don't mind going against the flow and peddle bikers can come out of nowhere and they hurt just as much.
- If there is a cross walk sign you may luck out, but do not depend on it and stay worried even if you spot an opening.
(If you remember the computer game FROGGER you will be good at this next part. If not...good luck.)
- You must time your step to hit the space right after a car passes, before the next motobike turns the corner, and in between the honking taxi speeding through the red light. (this is why knowing your honks are important)
- Be confident, but not overly confident. If you walk like you own the streets, cars and bikers will more often stop or let off the gas. They will still honk, but won't bite. If you are timid they will own you, possibly nudge you, and you might as well hail one of the hundred taxis beeping at you because you are close to death. At the same time don't get over zealous because if you hear a ripping bike engine or a taxi with passengers, they will treat you to a concrete salad for lunch. They win in the game of biggest Kahuna, and they mind no one.
Final words of wisdom: Do not lose in the game of Frogger, unlike the computer game you do not have another life to try again. Now go forth and own the streets of Colombia like a Lord!