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IMPULSE TRAVEL TEAM

We are a team of storytellers here to bring you the best Colombia has to offer. On our blog, we answer your most frequent questions and uncover our countries mysteries, culture, and highlights for you.

The Egipto neighborhood was formerly known as one of the most dangerous spots in Bogotá. Different gangs were fighting against each other and people from the outside who entered the barrio were commonly robbed. Within the last few years though, the situation has completely changed. For three years now, former gang members have been guiding tourists through their home and telling them their stories, leaving their criminal past behind. Find out below how tourism has had a positive impact in Egipto.


Barrio Egipto


We interviewed three different people, who have witnessed the transformation Bogotá’s neighborhood Egipto, trying to find out what, in their opinion, has changed most since the implementation of Breaking Borders.

Jaime Roncancio:


Jaime, known as Calabazo (pumpkin), is one of the leaders of the Breaking Borders project. After being jailed various times and having lost almost his whole family in the gang war, he decided to make a change. His father was the leader of the gang: La Diezma, but Jaime wanted a safer future for his kids. He saw the opportunity to bring tourism to the neighborhood.


Jaime, Viviana -his wife-, and their sons


Calabazo, what has been the most significant change in Egipto since Breaking Borders began?


The community in the barrio has become more united. Now, every member is reflected in the graffitis that the artists painted in the houses and the streets. The cohabitation within the neighborhood has improved a lot and actually became something beautiful.


What do you think are the biggest challenges that the project is facing now?


The biggest challenge is to grow as a business, to communicate better with each other and to continue to strengthen our project from different sides, so we can improve Breaking Borders.

Another difficulty has been the lack of interest of some of the members. It is not easy to engage the youngest ones with the project on a daily basis, and not everyone is motivated to get involved. More than that, the lack of monetary support is making it hard to buy the supplies we need, for example, the Breaking Borders vests and our merchandise, among others.

Andrés Saavedra:


Andrés, also called Pato (duck), is one of the Breaking Borders founders. Before the project started, he was one of the 10ma (diezima) gang members.


Andrés in the Barrio Egipto


Andrés, in your opinion, what is the most important benefit of working with tourists and bringing them to Egipto?


It is an opportunity. First of all, a chance to create job opportunities for the young boys and girls. Sure, you can tell them to stop robbing, but what will they do instead to gain a living? This project gives them employment, by guiding the tours. It also creates more chances for people who work in different areas within the neighborhood. Tourism generates new opportunities for the people living here.


What are the biggest challenges within the project?


To get the support we need. It is sometimes hard to get people from our own country, from our own city, to support us and to spread the word. We do not have degrees, but have been educated in the “University of Life”, and we can only change this community with the experiences we have had. To improve things further, the project needs to be better communicated and promoted. 


What do you like most about working in the tourism sector?


To get to know people from different countries, different cultural backgrounds and to learn about their ways of thinking. To talk to them and to see that in their countries, criminal behavior and problems also exist. It’s great to share our cultures and to break down the barriers between them. In the end, we are all one, only with different skin colors and distinct origins.


Jaime explaining the graffitis on a tour through Barrio Egipto

Elias Mendoza:


Elias is the leader behind the Buena Semilla (Good Seed) foundation. Since 2002, this foundation provides children in the Barrio Egipto with nutrition programs and school counseling. Their motivation is to keep the kids away from drugs and gang activities. The foundation entered the neighborhood before Breaking Borders started.


Elias (on the right-hand side), the leader of Buena Semilla, explaining the project of the foundation 


Elias, what opportunities do you see from working with tourists in the neighborhood?


Tourism has generated economic resources for the muchachos (boys) so that they no longer need to rob, and in addition, the security has improved a lot. It’s actually quite remarkable, that for some years now, there have not been any deaths within Egipto. A few years ago, murder happened regularly in the neighborhood. 


What has surprised you most about this project?


For me, the guys themselves were the biggest surprise. Before Breaking Borders, they were sitting on the streets, waiting for people to pass by, someone who was “giving papaya” (who was easy to rob). I didn’t imagine the potential and the commitment the guys have. They are like professional guides and learned some English within a short time. That really impressed me.


What do you think is the biggest challenge for the guys of Breaking Borders?


To think like businessmen, to think sustainable, to think in the future. Another challenge is to include the whole community because the neighbors are not yet involved and the former gang members sometimes see them as people from the outside. The Breaking Borders guys could open up more and include other people, so the whole neighborhood benefits from the tourists that visit Egipto. The boys still need to change their minds a bit and start thinking more in the future. For now, they understand that the tourists that want to see the neighborhood, need to pay for a guide. If they go on their own, the ex-gang members feel that they can still steal from them.


Do you remember how the project started off? Something you can tell us about from the beginning of Breaking Borders?


When the guys recently started the project, there were some tourists that didn’t speak Spanish who wanted to learn more about the neighborhood. However, the muchachos didn’t speak English nor had an English speaking guide to help them translate the tour. So a woman who was observing the situation offered her help to translate for the tourists. The ex-gang members agreed to her help, and they started the tour. The woman only knew a few words in English, but to get her way around and gain some respect from the men, she simply finished up the Spanish words with “ation”, so they would sound English and the guys wouldn’t notice they have been fooled. The tourists didn’t understand anything when they were told about “carpintation” (carpintería, carpentry) and “talleration” (taller, workshop), but since the Breaking Borders crew didn’t speak English, they wouldn’t know that these words don’t exist. Within the last few years, they have learned a lot, and hired official translators, so that won't happen again.

***
In only three years, Breaking Borders has made great leaps. At the beginning of the project, the guys didn’t have much knowledge about historic events that happened in the city, nor did they speak English or have translators to help them overcome the language barriers. Today, thanks to their persistence, different educational programs, and the support they received from various organizations, they are a great example for social impact tourism in Colombia.

It’s been difficult getting to this point, as people didn’t believe the ex-gang members have actually changed. Tourists, Bogotans, and even their neighbors couldn’t imagine, that criminals would transform their lives from one day to another. They feared that the tours were a trap and that they would get robbed if they went on a trip to explore Breaking Borders. Today, everyone is surprised by the transformation this project brought to the neighborhood. But still, it is a challenge to get more locals to go on the tour. Breaking Borders is mainly visited by tourists from other countries. For us Colombians, it’s important to engage in these projects and to learn more about the violent past of our country in order to preserve peace. Everyone coming to this neighborhood helps to make it more secure.

Seeing how many positive changes the project in Egipto has brought to the community within only three years is impressive. Breaking Borders started off with the simple idea of improving the situation of the neighborhood by telling tourists the story of this part of Bogotá. The guys weren’t afraid of simply starting the project, even though they didn’t previously learn to be professional guides, or studied English. They have worked hard to improve and to make their children’s home safer.












 

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