CARTAGENA, Colombia -- After a week of remote treks through the rain forests and an isolated ascent into the Colombian Andes with a small group of five International Expeditions travelers, I was convinced that we had the entire country to ourselves. I was even feeling a bit torn about coming home and writing about it, only to let this wonderful South American secret out.
Then we rolled into the walled city of Cartagena, the touristic colonial town on the Caribbean Sea, and found that it was abuzz with international travelers.
I was clearly a bit late to the party regarding Cartagena, which, despite being the only place we visited in Colombia that bordered on overly tourism-oriented, was charming. It has every reason to be a bit overrun, not least because it has become a popular cruise port.
As for the rest of the country, for travelers in search of a destination where one can often feel completely alone with nature, wildlife and the elements, they may want to put Colombia on their near-term to-do list -- near-term because as the situation continues to improve in Colombia, it's only a matter of time before more travelers start making their way there.
With an emerging destination such as Colombia, which only really started to develop its tourism offering in the last decade, there are still going to be some amenities lacking here, some hotel infrastructure lacking there.
I would be lying if I said there was constant hot water and electricity available at our rustic eco-lodge in the mountains or that the roads were devoid of organ-jiggling potholes and ditches.
But that seemed like a relatively small price to pay for the otherwise priceless experience of getting to see such a bounty of unique flora and fauna; having genuine encounters with the country's welcoming and varied communities; feasting on grilled meats, stews, arepas (a flatbread made from corn) and fresh fruit juices alongside locals; and simply getting to visit a destination while it is still so refreshingly bereft of -- well, to put it plainly, other tourists.
Cutting to the chase
What most people probably want to know about Colombia, however, is: Did it feel safe?
My knee-jerk reaction to that question is that undeniably it did. I never felt that I was in any sort of danger. There were no sketchy-looking characters lurking around anywhere. I never felt nervous about carrying my purse or other possessions in plain sight. And while there weren't a lot of other non-Latin American tourists around, I didn't feel out of place or like some sort of enigma. Everyone just treated us with that perfect mix of kindness and aloofness.
It actually felt safer than other, more crowded touristy destinations.
But it's worth noting that upon closer inspection -- whether skimming the local newspapers and glimpsing a headline about a journalist who covered the illicit drug trade being killed, or encountering local police in the Sierra Nevadas passing out fliers asking if people had come into contact with anyone buying or selling drugs -- I realized that Colombia is not out of the weeds yet.
There are still plenty of challenges ahead for the country, as there are for most countries in the world, including our own.
Does it affect the tourism experience? Only in the sense that most curious travelers would simply like to be aware of current events in the country they are visiting. The topic does come up and is likely to be discussed between local guides and travelers.
The great thing was that Colombians were so open and seemingly honest about everything they've been through, the awful times they've experienced as a country and the hopeful places they're heading.
That interaction, learning about Colombia's more recent past alongside its more ancient one, honestly only enhanced the experience.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.