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Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay”

From national tourism promotions to travelling in the Sierra Nevada: uses and refutations of risk
Marie-Laure Guilland
Traduction de Université Bretagne Occidentale
Cet article est une traduction de :
« La Colombie, le risque est de vouloir y rester » [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
«Colombia, el único riesgo es que te quieras quedar allí» [es]


The link between risk or danger and Colombia is well established in the transnational imaginary and it is difficult to separate the two in the current ideological climate of international security. This imaginary of risk is so persistent that state-organised promotion of tourism is forced to take it into account in order to refute it. Foreign embassies, however, continue to present Colombia as a risky destination. At the same time, certain tourists, seeking meaning and intensity from their travel experience, use this imaginary of risk and play with stereotypes about Colombia during a trek in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Is the risk real or not ? It does not matter, as long as the imaginary of risk is shared. This process enables the ‘intrepid’ travellers to distinguish themselves from other tourists. In this way, the visitors insist on the imaginary of risk even as the Colombian authorities seek to minimise it.

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1This quote comes from one of the most commonly used French travel guides, and clearly demonstrates the link between tourism and the imaginary of risk characteristic of Colombia. Collective representations at transnational level paint the country as one of the most dangerous in the world. The negative perception of Colombia is intrinsically linked to the question of risk. Risk is based on the perception of a phenomenon and the evaluation of its consequences in terms of threat ; therefore, each perception of risk contains a real and an unreal part. In Colombia, there are real threats: the existence of irregular armed groups, kidnappings, drugs, etc and on the other hand, there are imagined threats. U. Beck argues that “the real social force of a risk resides in the projections of future dangers” (Beck, 1986, p. 61). In this sense, part of the threat associated with this country is not actual or real, but rather expected or anticipated.

2“Through the prism of the media, crises invade reality and change our perceptions of it, and this gives distant or unlikely events more weight than daily life. Worry, fear and anxiety here find their basis in the blinding light of over-exposed facts. And such a slanted depiction of reality affects the choices and behaviours of tourists” (Heiderich, 2005). Colombia’s reputation is the result of the production of negative images widely broadcast around the world. Such a visibility of risk in the media presents only one image of the country and feeds a feeling of fear which ends up influencing tourists and, most often, putting them off this potential destination. As a result, for a country which aims to gain a global position, a change of image has become imperative. Tourist advertising campaigns of the last decade are effective marketing tools to this end. Today, the slogan “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay” accompanies a new promotional campaign directed completely at the external market. This campaign takes on board the unavoidable imaginary of risk in order to refute its usual negative perception.

3This presentation was initially conceived around the theme ‘stability and change’, proposed by the conference on ‘Tourism Imaginaries’ at Berkeley in February 2011. In this article I therefore confront the desire for change and the extent to which the imaginary of risk is embedded in the context of Colombian tourism. It also provides an opportunity to understand how risk may acquire a polysemic value and can serve different functions in the tourism context.

4Emphasis is first placed on the government’s wish to change the image of a country marked by the idea of risk. An analysis of the marketing strategies which aim to create an attractive ‘brand image’ for the country is at the heart of this section. The next section will show how, despite these new promotional policies, negative stereotypes of the country persist and are even encouraged. Here I analyse the action of international diplomatic centres, through the ‘travel warnings’ published on embassy websites. The following section treats the ambiguity of risk in the context of Colombian tourism. If risk in general acts as a brake on the development of tourism, in certain cases it may also promote it. This can be seen in the attitude of certain tourists who, to get to the archaeological park of la Ciudad Perdida, undertake a trek through an area known for its socio-political unrest. I examine how, during the trek, the tourists engage with risk in order to publicise it after the fact. We will thus see how certain touristic practices accentuate the dialetic between risk and tourism and contribute to the negative image of the country.

5This study is a work-in-progress, based on part of my thesis, and relies on the analysis of various elements which show how each institution and group of actors link risk and tourism in Colombia. Special attention was paid to official tourist sites and ministerial reports in order to understand the new dynamics and marketing strategies promoted by the state over the past decade. These analyses were augmented by interviews with representatives/ managers at the (vice-)ministry for tourism. A similar study was made of information about Colombia provided by the embassies of a dozen anglophone, Hispanic and francophone countries. Over twenty guidebooks, veritable bibles for travellers, were also examined to see how they presented the country and what imaginaries they put forward. Travellers’ forums also play an essential role in the global promotion of the country. By directly connecting travellers, they give an impression of authenticity, so that tourists base their decisions on the experiences of other travellers. Travellers often use the forums to ask questions and see them as a source of reassurance. Those who reply provide advice and share their experiences and point of view. In this sense, forums offer a privileged point of access to travellers’ representations of their past or future destinations. The following forums were the most studied for this paper:, and Travellers’ blogs are also excellent display cases for anyone looking for ways to represent their travels or to present themselves as a traveller, and so I also included these in my analysis. Such blogs, or virtual scrapbooks, participate in the circulation or spreading of images linked to Colombia. They are significant particularly because of their many travellers photos. The study ends by focusing its analysis on a particular destination in Colombia. It was made possible by several field research trips and 6-day treks to the archaeological site Ciudad Perdida. Twice I had the opportunity to accompany groups of tourists during this trek through jungle and mountain. This enabled me to enter into informal contact with and to interview about 50 tourists. They shared with me their reasons for making the trip and their impressions during it and afterwards. These trips were also a good opportunity to observe the behaviour and attitudes of tourists, as well as the guides and the local populations. These interviews and observations were added to after the trek by other interviews with various actors in tourism in the region (travel agents, guides, people working in spin-off industries). I also examined a corpus of photographs from tourists who agreed to send me all their digital photos of the trek. These were an especially interesting source because they revealed which elements of the journey had caught the interest of the visitors. In a way, these photos, like the blogs, show what interests the travellers and what they wanted to preserve and record as an image in order to bear witness to their adventure.

Twisting the imaginary of risk to change its image

What imaginaries, what dangers ?

6The history of Colombia has many moments of danger and mythical tropes covered by the media abroad such as Pablo Escobar or Ingrid Betancourt. It feeds the imaginaries of risk and, to a greater extent than in other places, puts off entrepreneurs, tourist agencies and tourists from going there. The international (economic) situation was scarred by the events of ‘9-11’ (11 September 2001), after which the idea of an illicit merging of tourism and terrorism came into the common consciousness. From 2002, the irregular armed groups in Colombia, guerrillas for the most part, but also paramilitary organisations, have been considered as terrorists. This new manner of naming subversive groups has recourse to a powerful transnational imaginary which links fear to terrorist risks. In fact, the sociopolitical situation of Colombia has not got any worse since 2002, but the persistence of fears of kidnapping and armed attacks, alongside drug trafficking, represent the main obstacles to the development of tourism in the country.

“Brand image of the country”

  • 1 Translation from Spanish: «Imagen País busca mejorar la percepción del país en el exterior, que gen (...)

7For more than ten years, the Colombian government has been more and more concerned about the economic competitiveness of the country. Such ambitions imply a strong export market and the arrival of significant foreign investment. However, the external perception of Colombia is an undeniable barrier to such development. Since 2004, a large scale marketing strategy has been in place, to create ‘la marca Colombia’ (brand image of Colombia) (Ramos ; Noya, 2006). This involves choosing and identifying a message and an image representative of the character of the country in positive and personalised terms, in order to project it in the international context. The work of creative publicists and promoters is essentially directed at economic and commercial goals. They aim to create an “image of the country which will improve the perception of Colombia by the outside world, and to generate recognition and confidence in order to gain more and better opportunities in the fields of business, investment and tourism”1.

  • 2 Translation from Spanish: «En la medida en que prospere una autoimagen negativa será claro que el p (...)

8Many analysts (Tokatlian, 2005 ; Posada Carbó, 2002 ; Lucrecia, 2010) have emphasised the importance of a national identity derived from a positive self-perception in order to present a good ‘face’ to the outside world. Several studies have concluded that Colombians see themselves as belonging to a criminal and violent nation, and “as long as a negative self-image continues, it is clear that the country cannot build up internal power or project an image of power to the outside world”2 (Tokatlian, 2002). One of the main goals of the ‘Colombia brand’ strategy was therefore to bring Colombian citizens together behind a common cause, and ‘passion’ was chosen as the theme to characterise the population. “Muestra tu pasión”, translated as ‘Show your passion’, was the preliminary phase of the promotion of the country ; it was all about getting the Colombian people to claim for themselves this image of the country. By creating a feeling of common identification, it was easier to convert the Colombians into real promotional actors. Since the campaign, “Colombia es pasión” fig. 1 (Colombia is passion) has become the slogan of a new Colombian identity. The promotional campaign aims to give a sense of confidence back to tourists and foreign investors by highlighting the level of development and stable economy of the country, as well as the attractive, often exotic character of its landscapes and inhabitants. The theme of violence is actually cast aside, tending to be airbrushed out of the campaign, as though violence was never or is no longer a part of Colombian history and therefore identity.

Figure 1: campaign logo “Colombia es pasión”

Figure 1: campaign logo “Colombia es pasión”
  • 3 Translation from Spanish: «Desde 2004 comenzó el programa, de la mano con la política de seguridad (...)

9These promotional activities are augmented by a project on tourist safety initiated in 2001 with the programme “Vive Colombia, viaja por ella”, which would translate to English as ‘experience Colombia – travel through it’. This programme connects with wider policies of democracy, security and the economic regeneration of the country, developed at the beginning of the presidential mandate of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010). One of the aims of the government was to revive tourism by making the roads safe, allowing Colombians to circulate more freely, to visit their country, to get to know it better, and eventually to be able to promote it.
“In 2004 the programme started, hand in hand with the domestic security policy. The idea was to reclaim the country’s roads by using tourist caravans. It was a great project because we had felt trapped in the cities ; people were afraid to go out in case of ‘miracle fishing’ (‘pesca milagrosa’, the name given to random kidnappings by armed groups at illegal road blocks). What we did was to take a stand against the armed groups and to go out, ordinary Colombians on the road in caravans. We were taking a risk but we were asserting our presence in the territory to say ‘No ! This here is ours, and we have the right to drive around in our own country !’ and then, little by little, we reclaimed different spaces. As we reclaimed the spaces, tourism began to be a realistic prospect in each department” (interview with Clara Inès Sanchez, quality manager at the Ministry for Tourism)
These first initiatives to enhance the image of the country have been reinforced recently by a new tourist portal with the slogan “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay”. The genesis of the new slogan is the result of the limits of previous tourist promotions and of the power held by the imaginary of risk linked to Colombia. During international tourist fairs (ferias), even if Colombian representatives succeeded in promoting the attractive character of the country, they could never avoid the classic question “Is there a real risk in Colombia ?”. Faced with these ever-recurring questions from foreign tour operators and tourists who were fearful of going to Colombia, promoters were forced to admit that the question of risk could not be brushed aside. The solution was to “convert the risk into an opportunity”. The concept of danger was emptied of its passive, negative content and twisted to be used in a positive way. The fear that something will happen to us is linked to the desire and will to stay in the country. The slogan works on two fronts – the first recognises the feeling of fear that foreigners have about Colombia and transforms the paradigm: we move from ‘I don’t want to go to Colombia’ to ‘I don’t want to leave Colombia’. The second front works on the credibility of the message. The tourist campaign shows nine foreigners who came to Colombia and decided to stay. These characters are both witnesses to and proof of the truth of the message. As foreigners, they enable potential tourists to identify with them. They also lend weight to the promotional campaign because the safety and attraction of the country are professed not by Colombians, but by foreigners, ‘people like us’.

10The effects of security policies and promotional endeavours have been recognised but they are not quite enough. While the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) hails “the return of Colombia to the map of world tourism”, international diplomacy is not so quick to recommend it as a destination.

Colombia: a no-go area for tourists

Warning about risk: the role of international diplomacy

11Ever since the 1970s, our societies try everything to track down and contain risk or danger. The issue of risk management is more and more present in any political act. The principle of security and the wish to control everything are now watchwords. Foreign embassies in Colombia are duty-bound to manage and warn people from their countries about possible dangers. In a sense, they must evaluate the risks and put themselves in the position of their compatriots. French diplomatic circles, like many others, adopt a relatively pusillanimous position:

despite significant improvements in general security conditions over recent years, Colombia remains a state with one of the highest rates of violence in the world” (, consulted 9/02/2011).

12Unable to ignore the advances made recently, embassies are obliged to mention the progress Colombia has made in terms of security. However, they still prefer to play the safety card and provide advice lists for travellers. On their websites, the information available about risk factors linked to violence is explicit. As a precautionary measure, they provide a maximum of recommendations to travellers, to avoid having them end up in a dangerous situation. On the French embassy website, for example, imperative formulas are common, even recommendations which begin “It is formally advised not to..” and extend over several pages. The US embassy also perfectly illustrates this preventive logic:

In recent months there has been a marked increase in violent crime in Colombia. Murder rates have risen significantly in some major cities, particularly Medellin and Cali. Kidnapping remains a serious threat. U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crime, including kidnapping and murder. Firearms are prevalent in Colombia and altercations can often turn violent. Small towns and rural areas of Colombia can still be extremely dangerous due to the presence of narco-terrorists. Common crime also remains a significant problem in many urban and rural areas. For additional details about the general criminal threat, please see the Department of State’s Country Specific Information for Colombia » (URL:, consulted 14/02/2011).

13By their very length, the lists of risks which should not be taken in Colombia feed an imaginary capable of dissuading anybody who had initially wanted to go there. It is also common to see people’s shocked reactions to embassy advice on the many travellers’ forums online.

Hello, I’m Lucile and I wanted to find out more about Colombia from other tourists. I’m going for a month at the end of June with my boyfriend, who is Colombian, and whose family lives in Cali. We’re going to spend a week in Cartagena too. Do you think it would be dangerous for me to go ? Yesterday I went on the (French) Foreign Affairs website and it really put me off going. Please help me out. I don’t know what to do. Thanks in advance.”
(URL:​forum_message/​1038086/​risques_en_colombie.htm, consulted 12/02/2011).

  • 4 Some Colombians are surprised to see tourists travelling on night buses on roads that are considere (...)

14Once again, the traditional question of whether the risks are real or not is asked in the travellers’ forums, those indispensable tools for today’s tourist. Here, the contributors’ answers tend to echo the official line of the Colombian authorities and consider the diplomatic warnings excessive. It should be noted that many contributors viewed the risks they encountered in Colombia as minimal, even though they admit that they had to take precautions whilst there. Most people who had not experienced any problems during their time in Colombia thought that there was no risk at all. During interviews and in the forum, it is very common to hear tourists dismissing the preventive measures of the embassies and also the warnings of the Colombian people. It is not unusual in these discussions to hear of Colombians being taken aback at some tourist behaviours which they would consider risky4. “Another thing which I notice in general, local people tend to exaggerate the local dangers ; I’m sure it’s all well-meaning, but it actually doesn’t reflect reality. I recognise that I cannot really comment on what is reality and what isn’t, as I’ve only spent two months in Colombia. But apart from my own experience, I draw on the opinions of all the travellers I’ve met, as well as different websites. Of all the people I’ve met, they all agree on the good security level in Colombia” (URL:​forum/​colombie_transports_popayan_bogota_cartagena_jour_D1000345/​v, consulted 12/02.2011).

15The Colombia tourism context brings several perspectives on risk into contact: perspectives of diplomatic experts, of the Colombian people and the perspectives of tourists passing through the country. The ‘objective’ measure of the risk appears here as a political and social fiction and differs depending on the criteria used to judge it (Le Breton, 2002, p. 32) ? the measure derives from the debates between different social actors perceived as having the ability to provide a clear or balanced vision of the extent of the risk. The debate between diplomats and travellers who’ve been to Colombia takes place in an indirect fashion over the Internet via forums and blogs. The mediators of this debate are the future tourists who, in the end, have to decide themselves on the degree of risk presented by Colombia. Their evaluation will determine whether or not they will go to the country.

16The total security encapsulated in the expression “zero risk” has today become the motto for tourism in a changing era. As A. Maurice writes, the encounter between tourism and terrorism should not occur (Maurice, 2005, p. 284). Every possible measure is taken, particularly on a diplomatic level, to avoid this. There is a growing wish to standardise tourist itineraries in order to guarantee their safety. With this anti-risk approach, some destinations, like Colombia, are all but forbidden. Tourist flows should be shepherded into well-known and predictable itineraries. The tourist should slip into a cloak of safety which should envelop him/her from the beginning to the end of his/her journey. A. Maurice goes as far as to say that “globalisation is becoming a caricature of itself, transforming the tourist into a registered parcel which is sent hither and thither without really travelling” (Maurice, 2005, p. 284). D. Heidrerich for his part, deplores the fact that “the freedom to take risks, including for oneself, is being restricted. The society of ‘zero risk’ aims to reduce us all to became slaves to security.”

Can risk serve tourism ?

Travelling to Ciudad Perdida – a transgressive exercise ?

“With the growth of mass tourism, and travelling becoming banal, going somewhere is no longer in itself particularly interesting (…) travellers seek to distinguish themselves from the Joe Soap tourist by risking their necks” (Urbain, 2009).

  • 5 Aside from the risks linked to the socio-political situation in Colombia, this trek also holds risk (...)

17Despite the preventative ? or dissuasive ? measures taken by embassies, the number of tourists going to Colombia is growing. The majority stay in safe zones recognised as such, whilst others, in search of adventure, set off for regions discouraged by their embassy. This is the case for the tourists who visit the archaeological site Ciudad Perdida. This ‘lost city’ is at the heart of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the biggest coastal mountain in the world, which plunges down to the Caribbean sea in the department of Magdalena. The tropical climate of this region means the tourists do the trek through the jungle over a period of six days. The trip is known for its difficulty and can only be attempted by those in good physical condition. The ‘total security’ characteristic of our contemporary societies “is not the cup of tea of the traveller whose goal is to discover and explore the world” explains F. Michel (Michel, 2004, p. 328). The aforementioned political desire to have complete control over everything, makes the individual traveller feel that his freedom is being limited. The traveller who reaches Ciudad Perdida has been informed of the dangers, as this region of Colombia is known for the presence of armed groups (legal and illegal), cocaine production and the tensions which flow from the latter. However, as D. Le Breton explains, in relation to risk behaviours, “the actor persists in his behaviours because of the pleasure he takes and his being set in his identity, by his refusal to have his actions dictated to him by others, or because he sees the others as being different to himself, and that he himself is not in danger” (Le Breton, 2007, p. 38). The journey to this archaeological site appears as a locus of sovereignty all the more so because it is chosen in full cognisance of the potential risks5. So, is undertaking a trip in Colombia and particularly in the Sierra Nevada, to transgress the forbidden in the sense defined by D. Jeffrey: “the transgressive experience presents itself as an individual or collective act, planned or spontaneous, domesticated or violent, implying a link to the forbidden. Even if the forbidden has the effect of putting a brake on the ‘overflow’ of life (…) it also presents itself as an invitation to transgression. (…) The invitation to transgression is a quest for recognition of the forbidden. Transgression is not the negation of the forbidden, it ‘raises the forbidden without eliminating it’, it maintains it in order to revel in it” (Jeffrey, 1994, p. 18). Acknowledging risks may, in the worst case scenario, lead to a taste for transgression, which becomes a source of pleasure at putting one’s life at risk, ignoring advice and warnings and deriding the fear of others (Le Breton, 2007, p. 38). Taking risks becomes a motivation for thrill-seeking tourists who go to Colombia and especially the Sierra Nevada. These ‘tourists’ cast themselves in the role of the intrepid and innovative ‘traveller’ in their way of discovering the world (Urbain, 2002). These travellers are certainly attracted by the exoticism of the places and by the effort they must put in during the trek, but they are also motivated by what D. Le Breton calls “the passion of risk” (Le Breton, 1991). The visit to a cocaine laboratory and the possibility of encountering armed groups sometimes motivates the tourists to do this trek.

Background – can risk promote the site ?

18The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the regions in Colombia where the coca leaf is cultivated in order to produce illicit substances, encouraged by drug traffickers, often with backup from paramilitaries. Groups of guerrillas are also to be found around the area. In 2003, eight tourists doing the trek to the lost city were kidnapped by the guerrilla group ELN (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional), the National Liberation Army. After three months in captivity, they were finally released. This event, surprisingly, did not result in a drop in tourist development for the region. Many guides who lead the tourists up to the site set aside a night for telling the story to the new arrivals. The tourists listen, fascinated by the tale which adds spice to their trip. The story of the kidnapping makes the experience of the trip more unusual. The kidnapping becomes the badge of their courage, their risk-taking, their achievement.

Figure 2: Document shown by guides during the storytelling.

Figure 2: Document shown by guides during the storytelling.

A newspaper from 20/10/2003 showing the tourists and their kidnappers during the even

Marie-Laure Guilland

Figure 3: Document shown by guides during the storytelling.

Figure 3: Document shown by guides during the storytelling.

Tourists listening to the kidnapping story.

Travel blog photo:​travel-photo/​inoursuitcase/​freedom_07-08/​1214167440/​manuel-tells-his-kidnapping-story.jpg/​tpod.html, consulted 03/02/2011

Taking photos of weapons to prove the danger

19After this kidnapping, the state deployed its army to the area. Today, a multitude of soldiers are encamped on the terraces of Ciudad Perdida. These young men, who are mostly doing their military service, constitute an added interest for the tourists. Far from being a blot on the landscape, they are an attraction which proves the danger of the Sierra Nevada. In order to prove their bravery on their return, the tourists seek out opportunities to show off their photos with these armed men. During my field work, I saw a tourist who went so far as to put on a soldier’s uniform and pose with a machine gun in his/her hands. Of course, the soldiers have orders not to allow that kind of thing.

Without drug trafficking, the Colombian adventure is not complete

“The feat is recounted because not everyone gets to experience it. If it is accompanied by luck or risk, particularly extreme, it will be all the more listened to. The risk is the necessary spice that raises the human adventure up to the level of the gods” (Michel, 2004, p. 298).

  • 6 In fact, this does not depend on the guide.
  • 7 Translation from Spanish: «Eso se montó como tan bueno el negocio que algunas personas no pagaban p (...)

20The existence of a cocaine laboratory, which is open to visitors on the trek to Ciudad Perdida, is one of the most widely circulated stories amongst backpackers travelling through South America. It should be noted that most of the tourists who do this trek are Western young people aged between 25 and 30. They travel the world or the South American sub-continent for relatively long periods – three months to a year. Many of them told me that the journey to the laboratory was one of their reasons for doing the tour, and others added that they had chosen a particular guide because other travellers had assured them that this person would show them the lab6. During an interview, one even said “This seems like such a good deal that some people no longer pay to go to Ciudad Perdida but just as far as the laboratory”7 (Anonymous informant). The tourists show surprising enthusiasm for this visit. Some guides suggest it, and others wait for the tourists to ask for it. Whatever the case, the guides do not go with the tourists. They are instead accompanied by local farmers who bring them in and explain the process of production. For a while, the laboratory del maestro coca was the most visited. Following a report broadcast in 2008 on the TV channel Caracol, well regarded in Colombia, the lab was burnt down as part of the state anti-drug trafficking measures. Today, the laboratories visited seem to have been assembled piece by piece especially for the tourists. At 20,000 pesos per visit (slightly over US$ 10), it seems to be a bargain difficult to refuse. The managers of the travel agents who organise the trek have two approaches. Some told me in interviews that the visits were supposed to put tourists off taking cocaine once they see the amount of chemical products used in its production, whereas others explained that the visits are not their responsibility, that they are not part of the tour, and that the tourists undertake them at their own risk. At the end of the tour, we are asked to keep it secret. It is also advised to be careful of the soldiers on the road and once on site, because they have the right to check tourists’ photos and if they see photos of the lab, it could cause a lot of problems for the tourists and for the people. The travellers leave, delighted with their tour. Although they’ll still be scared of showing their cameras until the very last day, they will not delete the compromising pictures, the proof of their exceptional visit.

Figure 4: Tourists’ photos taken during the visit to a cocaine laboratory (anonymous source)

Figure 4: Tourists’ photos taken during the visit to a cocaine laboratory (anonymous source)

Twisting the imaginary of risk

Is there an enchantment of risk ? Does risk enchant us ?

21Transgressing the forbidden means engaging in a quest for meaning and recognition, as does the tourist who braves various dangers. This indicates that, in seeking to take risks, the traveller to the Ciudad Perdida goes through a kind of ‘trial by fire’ where the quest for safety becomes a quest for the self, giving meaning and intensity to his/her existence. For although caution is an admirable quality, it is never really celebrated – it seems to mean staying away from the action with the weak and fearful. On the other hand, risk-taking can be seen in a positive light. D. Le Breton notes that the expression ‘qui ne risque rien n’a rien’/‘fortune favours the brave’ or ‘no pain, no gain’ is often the motto of the daring (Le Breton, 2007, p. 40). Risk is, therefore, seen more in terms of gain than of potential loss. The gain here is individual, linked to the identity of the traveller who is boasting of his/her exploits. However, it should not be forgotten that all of these events take place within the framework of a tourist activity. No tourist sets out for Ciudad Perdida without going through an agency. The tour operators also work in a realm of risk-management. They are guarantors for the safety of their clients. It is therefore unlikely that their risk evaluation of the trek is the same as that held by foreigners and ordinary Colombians. This indicates that there is a low probability of anything untoward happening during the trip. The tourists are happy to accept the lesser risk when they look at their trip in terms of an organised tour.

“To be honest, looking back on it, I think that it was a bit scary, but at the time I was a bit…I don ‘t want to say I take stupid risks, but you know, I operate from the starting point that if there are people doing it on a regular basis and if there are well-organised things, well, that must mean that it’s ok to do and that…I’m not going to risk my life doing it !” (Interview with a foreign tourist).

22The admission of this tourist is typical of the view travellers have on the risk of going to Ciudad Perdida. This perception oscillates between a real fear and a feeling of security generated by hearing the experiences of other travellers and by the fact that their tour is organised by an agency guaranteeing their safety. This mixed up understanding of the danger is to be found in the discussions and attitudes of the travellers. The same tourist who minimised the risk in the extract above also told me:

“Even if I tell you that I wasn’t that scared, you are always aware that you’re in a danger zone. In any case, when you set foot on Colombian territory you’re really conscious that the moment you leave the beaten track, you’re running a bit of a risk. You know that you’re in Ciudad Perdida, that if you decide to travel in Colombia, it can be dangerous”.

23It is difficult to know whether this tourist really felt that s/he was risking danger by going on the trek. We must also ask ourselves whether tourists who really felt frightened or threatened would hold on to their compromising photos of the cocaine labs – let alone go to visit them in the first place. In the end, whether the risk is real or not is not really the concern of the traveller. Abdicating responsibility, these tourists allow themselves to be swept away by the idea that they’re experiencing a truly dangerous adventure. For Y. Winkin, “enchantment is the product of a voluntarily-sought illusion on the part of the tourist, whose view is always directed, mediated and who wants to let themselves be fooled by the appearance of authenticity, of transparency and by the suspension of reality (…), just like the refusal to see any negative aspects” (Winkin, 1998). In the final analysis, these tourists find it hard to know whether their trip is dangerous or not. However, once the trip is over, they become ‘enchanted ‘ by the dangers of their experience and are delighted to exploit and play with this imaginary to present themselves in an adventurous light. In this way, they become neo-adventurers in the sense that their exploit acquires a mediated value (Le Breton, 1991).

Making light of risk, creating an adventurous persona online

24The numerous tourists interviewed for this study and the analysis of various blogs and travel forums with stories and images pertaining to Ciudad Perdida point to the importance of the Internet in the context of tourism. The Internet has become a mighty tool which enables the adventure to become a communication project which adds value to the experience. For D. Le Breton, the neo-adventurer has a clear sense of marketing and publicity, and an audience is absolutely indispensable8. Bloggers create an identity by making their experiences public: “the image presented for view has an extremely powerful reflexive effect. We become that which we are in the eyes of others. Ego reinvents itself constantly using these images” (Kaufmann, 2001). These narratives and images enable other websurfers to experience the danger and risk-taking of these travellers in a vicarious manner. Blogs and Facebook have become communication platforms where risk-taking is vaunted thanks to the photos which prove the truth of the authors’ exceptional experiences. The greater the danger passed, the greater the risk to life, the greater the chance the ‘communication project’ has to attract interest and the more travellers create an image of themselves as ‘intrepid travellers’, exceptional people who go places where ordinary mortals would not dare. On the blogs, it is almost inevitable to see photos of soldiers and cocaine labs visited by the tourists in pride of place9. Some blog photos are ambiguous. One shows a young bikini-clad tourist in the middle of the jungle near Ciudad Perdida holding a machine gun in her arms beside the young uniformed soldier who had lent it to her. On the blog, the tag, from the young woman’s travelling companion, reads “I dared her.. she did it…”10.

Figure 5: Photo: traveller’s blog

Figure 5: Photo: traveller’s blog​Photos/​3292659, consulted el 08/02/2011)

25In the course of a discussion with a Colombian woman who lives at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, she expressed her exasperation at the actions of a European tourist she had met previously. He had put photos of his visit to Ciudad Perdida on Facebook, showing nothing but weapons and drugs. By boasting about his own risk-taking, this tourist was adding to the stereotypical image of Colombia, even if he himself saw it in a positive light as allowing him to present himself as a daring adventurer.


26At this hour of glory for all that is security, it is difficult to change the image of a country characterised by danger and risk. The imaginary of risk linked to Colombia is so strongly anchored that it cannot be ignored when promoting the country. In this sense, the risk is intrinsically linked to the question of tourism. Security and marketing efforts undertaken by the government to change the image of Colombia come up against prevention policies from embassies who continue to paint a frightening picture of the country. Apart from official messages seeking to play down or warn about risk, it is interesting to note that in the tourism context, risk can also be sought and used in a personal or identity project. In fact, certain tourists who want to be different leave the beaten track, brave dangers, and transgress boundaries in order to talk about it afterwards. The trip to the site of Ciudad Perdida gives them the chance to defy commonly recognised risks. Meeting armed men and witnessing drug production allow them to see themselves as adventurers and thus to give meaning and intensity to their journey and to their existence. But is the risk of going to Ciudad Perdida real or not ? It does not really matter, once the imaginary linked to it is shared and once the travellers can circulate it on their return in order to show themselves as set apart from other tourists (Urbain, 2002). This publicising, which happens on blogs, forums, photos and in travel stories in general, serves to maintain the negative imaginary fought against by official promotional campaigns. It is important to clarify that this qualitative study gives prominence to a relevant and specific type of tourist who travels to Colombia and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. It must also be noted that this traveller profile does not represent all tourists who go to these places. It was important here to look at this particular group of tourists because their actions, in strong contrast with the state’s desire to downplay the risks associated with Colombia, actually serve to maintain the imaginary of risk in Colombia.

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1 Translation from Spanish: «Imagen País busca mejorar la percepción del país en el exterior, que genere conocimiento y confianza para alcanzar más y mejores oportunidades en materia comercial, inversión y turismo»

2 Translation from Spanish: «En la medida en que prospere una autoimagen negativa será claro que el país no podrá ni acumular poder interno ni proyectar poder externo»

3 Translation from Spanish: «Desde 2004 comenzó el programa, de la mano con la política de seguridad democrática, la idea era volver a tomarse las carreteras del país con las caravanas turísticas, digamos que fue bonito porque nosotros nos sentíamos secuestrados en las ciudades, nadie se atrevía a salir por temor a una pesca milagrosa. Entonces lo que se hizo era montar unos dispositivos en contra de las fuerza armadas ilegales y salir todos los colombianos en una ruta en caravanas, todos corriendo peligro pero haciendo presencia en el territorio diciendo “no! eso aquí eso es de nosotros tenemos derecho circular por nuestro territorio nacional”. Y pues poco a poco se fue recuperando los espacios. Y en la medida que se fue recuperando los espacios el turismo empezó a emerger como una posible apuesta.»

4 Some Colombians are surprised to see tourists travelling on night buses on roads that are considered dangerous due to the possible presence of illegal armed groups. They are also surprised to see foreigners going to urban areas or rural zones known to be at the heart of the conflict. Women travelling alone and hitch-hikers are also regarded by most Colombians I’ve encountered during my time there as engaging in risky activities.

5 Aside from the risks linked to the socio-political situation in Colombia, this trek also holds risks related to weather conditions, flooding of the rivers which have to be forded, or other dangers associated with the jungle, such as bites from snakes spiders, scorpions or ticks.

6 In fact, this does not depend on the guide.

7 Translation from Spanish: «Eso se montó como tan bueno el negocio que algunas personas no pagaban para ir a Ciudad Perdida sino solo hasta el laboratorio»

8 I only consider one part of D. Le Breton’s concept of the neo-adventurer, because the travellers in question here do not seek financial gain. Whilst marketing and publicity occur, they are not intended to lead to profit, but rather to a symbolic benefit measured by the regard of other people. It is this distinction, in Bourdieu’s sense of the word, which is most sought-after in this experience.

9 Some of the many travellers’ blogs: (Consulted 05/02/2011)

10 Photo on blog URL: (consulted 05/02/2011)

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: campaign logo “Colombia es pasión”
Fichier image/jpeg, 24k
Titre Figure 2: Document shown by guides during the storytelling.
Légende A newspaper from 20/10/2003 showing the tourists and their kidnappers during the even
Crédits Marie-Laure Guilland
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Figure 3: Document shown by guides during the storytelling.
Légende Tourists listening to the kidnapping story.
Crédits Travel blog photo:​travel-photo/​inoursuitcase/​freedom_07-08/​1214167440/​manuel-tells-his-kidnapping-story.jpg/​tpod.html, consulted 03/02/2011
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Figure 4: Tourists’ photos taken during the visit to a cocaine laboratory (anonymous source)
Fichier image/png, 862k
Titre Figure 5: Photo: traveller’s blog
Crédits​Photos/​3292659, consulted el 08/02/2011)
Fichier image/jpeg, 59k
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Marie-Laure Guilland, « Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay” », Via [En ligne], 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 16 mars 2012, consulté le 03 août 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie-Laure Guilland

Marie Laure Guilland is a PhD student in Socio-Anthropology at IHEAL (Institut des Hautes Etudes de l’Amérique latine) [the Institute for Advanced Latin American studies] at Sorbonne Nouvelle University, Paris 3. She explores social dynamics through the value conflicts generated by the development of heritage tourism in Colombia. These analyses investigate the identity politics of local and national communities.

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Université Bretagne Occidentale

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