In life there are generally two types of people – those who dream and those who act on those dreams and Steven Dillon is definitely the latter! After becoming underwhelmed by his corporate job, Steven decided to change his life and lifestyle by moving to Colombia. He and his wife, Marcela, have since created a travel company, Other Way Round, which inspires others to get to know the authentic and charming country that Steven fell in love with. It’s such a pleasure to hear about his own experiences living as an expat in Colombia and if you’re looking to creating your own business in Colombia, there are some helpful tips in here for you, too. Enjoy!
Name: Steven Dillon
City of origin: Glasgow, Scotland
Where you live in Colombia: Medellin
Can you let me know a little about yourself and how you ended up in Colombia?
I’m originally from Glasgow in Scotland. That’s where I grew up, went to university, and still consider home (although I haven’t actually lived there for over 15 years).
After leaving university, and of course after taking an obligatory year to travel the world, I moved to London to kick-start my professional career and it was there I met my now Colombian wife Marcela, who had also recently moved to London to study English and complete her Masters degree.
I first visited Colombia back in 2010, when I went there with Marcela to see her family, and since then my connection with the country has grown significantly stronger going from yearly visits, to getting married in Medellin, to living in Colombia and now launching a travel business there.
What were your first impressions of Colombia? And did they match your expectations?
I honestly had no idea of what to expect on my first trip to Colombia.
Before meeting Marcela I think, like most people, I knew very little about the country. I had of course heard the scare stories of drug cartels and kidnappings with which many people tended to associate Colombia; I also knew that Shakira was from there which probably rather embarrassingly tells you something about my taste in music. Being a massive football fan I also always enjoyed watching Colombia play at the World Cup with their many flamboyant players like Tino Asprilla, René Higuita and Carlos Valderrama. In addition I had watched an ESPN documentary called The Two Escobars which tells the story of the intersection between drugs, politics and football in Colombia during the 90s. It was fascinating viewing and for sure reaffirmed the stereotypical image I already had of Colombia.
But then I heard Marcela’s version. Yes, growing up in Colombia had been tough at times. She – like almost all Colombians I know – had been directly impacted by Colombia’s well documented problems, and some of the stories she told me were frankly horrifying and extremely difficult to comprehend as someone coming from a well-developed country with few comparable issues. But you only had to spend 5 minutes with her to see how much she loved her country. How much she missed the food, the music, the dancing, the climate, the diverse landscapes, the rich culture, the warm and friendly people, and their strong sense of family and community.
And it was definitely Marcela’s version of Colombia that I experienced upon my first visit.
I couldn’t believe how modern the city of Medellin itself was – with its extensive infrastructure, its hip bars, and stylish restaurants – all completely unexpected compared to the image I had built up in my mind. And I loved that in-your-face energy of the city, so vibrant and lively and completely different from what I had ever experienced living in Europe or in my travels throughout the world.
And then you could drive just an hour or two outside of the city and find these quaint little towns, or pueblos, like Guatape and Santa Fe de Antioquia which felt like almost like a completely different world away from Medellin with their cobbled streets, colorful buildings and even more colorful characters. The pace of life in these places was so slow that it genuinely felt like stepping back in time. They absolutely fascinated me.
And I instantly warmed to the Colombian culture.
I couldn’t get enough of the food most of which I had never even heard of before: Bandeja Paisa, Arepas, Sancocho, Tamales and so much more, not to mention the endless supply of tropical fruits and delicious juices on offer.
And boy did they love to dance. I loved how it was so ingrained within their DNA – if you’re Colombian, you dance, it’s that simple – and although that certainly left this rather rhythmless Scotsman feeling slightly awkward on more than a few occasions, it was a real eye-opener to observe just how important dance is to the Colombian identity.
And I really appreciated just how much their lives seemed to be centred around family. And not just their immediate family, but how the full extended family really looked out for each other. It was heartwarming.
Suffice to say I fell in love with Colombia from that very first visit.
You clearly love Colombia and have even started started your own travel company, Other Way Round. Can you tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to create it?
I started Other Way Round along with my wife Marcela in 2017 with the mission to share with our visitors the Real and Authentic Colombia that we both know and love, and to give them that same insider experience of the country that I have been fortunate enough to gain over the years.
In truth it has been a bit of a process to get here.
My background is actually in technology and back in London I was a freelance Program Manager leading various tech projects for companies in and around the city. I had a solid corporate career, was well-paid, had a high quality of life and on paper everything was going great. But in reality I was severely lacking in purpose. I didn’t particularly enjoy what I did – I had followed that career path more out of practicality than passion – and at some point I finally decided that wasn’t how I wanted to live my life.
So in 2016 I quit my job and decided to take some time out, headed to Medellin (where I had only really spent time on vacation up until that point), and spent 5 months there studying Spanish, living with my in-laws and volunteering at a local kids foundation called Poder Joven. It was during this period that the idea for Other Way Round was born.
I’ve always loved to travel and always had this insatiable curiosity about other cultures. I think it’s why I like Colombia so much, the culture is so different from my own and I find even the most trivial day-to-day things endlessly fascinating. And I’ve always enjoyed being part of social groups – football teams, hiking groups, I’m currently a member of a triathlon club, some of my very favourite vacations have been with groups of friends, and I’ve been on some really cool group tours which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.
And so along with Marcela, I decided to combine these passions to create Other Way Round – a travel group which focuses on bringing together small groups of travelers, getting them away from the tourist spots, immersing them in real-life Colombia, and doing that in a way which positively impacts Colombia and its people. We have partnered up with Poder Joven (the kids foundation where I volunteered) and will donate to them a portion from every trip sold. We also plan to extend that concept to partner with other charities in each of the areas of Colombia where we travel.
That’s the short version at least! You can find the more detailed story here.
What’s one of the more challenging aspects of living in Colombia?
For me the biggest is the language – Colombia is really difficult to navigate if you don’t speak Spanish. That may sound obvious but it actually surprised me a lot when I first visited.
I had traveled extensively throughout Europe, Asia and Africa and had always (rather shamefully) managed to get by on English. But on my first few visits to Colombia I really struggled a lot with the language barrier and spent much of my time simply nodding and smiling (which, let me tell you, gets tiring very quickly). I think it was especially difficult as I was staying outside of the tourist spots, with family, but even in the more touristy areas there was then – and still is now – very little English spoken.
It’s slowly changing for sure, and more and more of the younger generation are learning English which is great. And for me personally it’s no longer such a huge deal as these days I speak decent level of Spanish. But for anyone planning to visit or stay here you will definitely get more out of your trip if you speak even a little Spanish.
What has been one of your favourite destinations in Colombia and why?
I’ve travelled all over Colombia and hands-down my favourite place is still Medellin. As you can probably tell from above, I love the place and can’t get enough of it. But I think I’ve talked enough about Medellin and so will give you my second favourite spot – Parque Nacional Tayrona.
Tayrona is a national park in the remote far north of the country, close-ish to Santa Marta, and it’s where the Colombian Jungle meets the Caribbean coast. It’s full of lush green rainforest, golden sandy beaches, coconut filled palm trees, pristine blue ocean and to this day remains home to the Kogi indigenous tribe. It really is a picture of paradise and the perfect place to go get away from it all and lose yourself in nature. I love to go there and spend the morning hiking through the jungle, the afternoon laying by the sea, and the evening chilling on a hammock and sipping on a beer. Like I said, paradise!
What’s your favourite Colombian plato tipico?
If you asked me this question only a year ago it would have been a toss-up between Bandeja Paisa and Pargo Rojo.
The Bandeja Paisa basically sums up Antioquia in a plate and for meat lovers it’s a must try. It’s a hearty plate filled with all of the favourites from the region – rice, beans, minced beef, chicharon, chorizo, fried egg, plantain, avocado and more. Just be sure to leave time for a siesta afterwards!
The Pargo Rojo is a fish found in the Caribbean sea of Colombia and is cooked in that very popular Colombian deep fried style which the locals seem to love. It’s normally served alongside coconut rice, patacones and a tomato salad and if you like fish then you’re definitely going to want to sample this.
I actually decided to shift to a vegetarian diet a little over a year ago and must admit that I’m still experimenting with vegetarian food in Colombia. Surprisingly, it is a lot more readily available than you would think and my current diet consist of lots of arepa, eggs, rice, beans (frijoles), avocado, soup and plantain.
What’s your favourite arepa?
I have to confess that, a bit like you Sarah, I’ve developed somewhat of an addiction to arepas! I have one pretty much every day for breakfast and more often than not again in the evening for dinner.
I must have tried just about every type of arepa out there – even those, dare I mention them, Venezuelan arepas – but I always come back to the tried and trusted Arepa Paisa. They’re plain, they’re simple but they’re so damn tasty! Normally I’ll have them in the morning with quesito (a soft, spreadable Colombian cheese) and a special combo I learned from my brother-in-law is to add a Ducales cracker on top. Delicious!
On the weekends, as a special treat to myself, I’ll swap out the cheese for some arepa with scrambled eggs and have it with a cup of that rather delightful Colombian hot chocolate!
Do you have any tips or advice for people wanting to follow their travel dreams to Colombia?
Like I said earlier, a little Spanish goes a long way and you’ll get so much more out of your trip if you can speak some of the local lingo. Try to learn the basics before you come and if not possible, take some lessons while you’re here. They’re relatively cheap, the quality of teachers are generally high and you’ll be amazed by how much you can pick up in a short time. Spanish lessons also a great way to immerse yourself more within real-life Colombia.
On that last point, get outside of the tourist zones if you really want to get to know Colombia. Yes, Colombia in general is probably still less touristy than almost every other country you’ve visited, and it is still relatively untouched in many parts, but in major cities like Cartagena, Bogota & Medellin there are plenty of tourists around and they all tend to congregate in the same areas. If you only stay in these same places you will no doubt get a diluted experience of the country. Go check out other less-touristy parts of these cities, venture out to the pueblos, explore the countryside and get talking to the locals (with your new found Spanish skills obviously)!
And if you’re worried or hesitant about coming because you’re scared Colombia might be unsafe, then please don’t be. There are undoubtedly some things you should be aware of before coming, and if you’re travelling alone in Colombia then do your research and take the necessary precautions. However, when you arrive you’ll quickly find a country far removed from what the scary headlines would have you believe. Now is the absolutely perfect time to visit Colombia, the country is rapidly opening up to tourism and you can now visit many of the places which were previously inaccessible, but at the same time it still hasn’t yet been hit by mass tourism and so you can still (for now) get to experience it authentically.
What’s something new that you’re currently working on that you’d like to share?
All of my efforts at the moment are fully focused on working together with Marcela to grow Other Way Round so that we can continue to share with more and more people that real and authentic Colombia that we both know and love. I would therefore be extremely appreciative of anybody who wants to help us spread the word.
How can people find out more about you and follow your projects?
You can check out the website: www.otherwayround.travel