Colombia Climbs Higher
Once benighted by drug traffickers and violence, Colombia has emerged as the world’s newest luxury destination, thanks to some ambitious urban design, economic renewal and the magical realism of its people.
When Netflix released the first season of Narcos, which chronicled the criminal exploits of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the action-packed programme had all the makings of a binge-worthy series: drugs, money, sex and violence, and more plot strands than a Dickens novel. It immediately captured the imagination of viewers worldwide.
But although the show succeeded in thrilling audiences, it also perpetuated common misconceptions about Colombia. By dramatising the most violent period in the country’s recent history – a drug war that displaced over four million Colombians and caused the deaths of more than 3,000 civilians – the series basked in the photogenic chaos of a lush, tropical nation ravaged by violence and controlled by drug cartels awash in excess cash. In 1989, Escobar was listed as the 7th richest man in the world.
Today’s Colombia is a vastly different place. Homicide rates are the lowest they’ve been in more than four decades. Cities like Bogota and Medellin, the country’s largest, have become models for smart urban design and regeneration. A cautious optimism buoys the economy. In 2016, the government and the FARC rebel group (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) signed a peace deal officially ending one of the longest and most violent guerilla insurgencies of the 20th century.
International visitors, who long avoided Colombia, are returning. The Colombian Tourism Board’s 2011 slogan, “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay”, has since been replaced by “Colombia is Magical Realism”, a deferential nod to legendary author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the enchantment of a countryside well worth exploring. From the lush coffee region to the Caribbean coast to the sweeping heights of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia offers a wide array of landscapes. The country is next only to Brazil in biodiversity, and its cities are similarly enchanting, home to burgeoning art scenes, up-and-coming restaurants and a vibrant blend of Afro-Latin and indigenous influences.
“For years there was a lot of scepticism. Tourists didn’t come to Colombia,” says Cristina Consuegra, co-founder of Colombian luxury travel company Galavanta. But perceptions are starting to change, and not only among backpackers. Over the past three years Consuegra has created itineraries for billionaires and titans of industry who want to experience the country’s intrigue via chartered yachts, luxury villas and backcountry expeditions.
She has even started bringing clients to former FARC strongholds, areas that until recently were strictly off-limits. “High net worth travellers have been everywhere, but not Colombia,” Consuegra says. “Now they can be pioneers and experience destinations that are off the beaten track.”
In the mountain range of Serrania de la Macarena, wealthy travellers can now marvel at the vibrant yellow, green, blue, black and red shades that ripple from the bottom of the Cano Cristales (River of Five Colours). In El Choco, on the west coast, where FARC rebels once clashed with the army and paramilitaries, visitors can watch as humpback whales migrate north from Patagonia. Many of the new destinations are remote and only accessible by helicopter, but Consuegra has found ways to work around the logistical limitations, bringing supplies in from nearby cities and setting up safari-inspired tents.
It would be a stretch to say that the entire Colombian countryside is open to travellers. Land mines are still being cleared from some areas, and there are still small pockets of militant communities in what is a delicate, post-conflict environment. But the desire among tourists to explore the Colombian countryside is a considerable change from just a few years ago.
Consuegra says a major turning point came in 2015, when a Four Seasons hotel opened in Bogot. and signalled to the world that the country was “safe enough” for luxury travellers. Previously travel agents were tasked with convincing cautious tourists to take the plunge, but now wealthy tourists are seeking Colombia out on their own. “And they don’t even ask about safety anymore,” she says. “They just want to know where to go.”
Bogota, the capital, is the entry point for most international visitors. The dense city of eight million is cradled by Andean peaks and home to a thriving contemporary arts scene as well as an increasingly sophisticated set of restaurants – several of which now rank among the best in Latin America. In the cultural epicentre of La Candelaria, tourists roam the cobbled streets lined with carefully preserved colonial buildings that house museums, restaurants and hotels. In the ritzier north, posh entertainment districts and bars offer great sunset views.
As urban transformations go, Bogota’s has been remarkable. The city's investment in transport, including the much-lauded TransMilenio - the largest bus rapid transit system on the planet, which carries 2.4 million passengers daily, as well as cultural infrastructure and attention to environmental restoration, have garnered international attention. This is due in part to the city’s charismatic mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, a former journalist and urban transport consultant known for promoting cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. People should walk more, he has said, “not in order to survive, but to be happy”.
However, no Colombian city has transformed as radically as Medellin. The birthplace of Pablo Escobar, located in a green valley of the country’s northwest mountainous region, Medellin was once considered the most dangerous city in the world. At its height, the Medellin Cartel earned US$4 billion a year for its members, controlling 80 percent of the cocaine supply in the United States and leaving thousands of corpses in its wake.
Today, the city is home to an emerging creative class and thriving art scene. Open-air bars and restaurants – previously unthinkable – are packed. Homicide rates have dropped from 381 per 100,000 in 1991 to less than 27 per 100,000 (lower than Baltimore, Maryland, US).
Tourists now flock to the city’s many museums, street murals and leafy gardens. At the Medellin Botanical Garden, a large installation by local design studio Plan B Arquitectos serves as a public plaza and concert venue featuring a wooden meshwork of modular “flower-trees” that weaves its way through the garden’s heart. Downtown, there’s the Museum of Modern Art and the Museo de Antioquia, which houses more than 188 works by one of the city’s other famous citizen – the artist Fernando Botero, world renowned for his rotund and whimsical sculptures.
A number of progressive urban policies are credited with revitalising Medellin, in particular an approach city wonks call “social urbanism” – using urbanism as a tool for promoting social mobility and equity. Former mayor Sergio Fajardo (2004-2007) championed this approach. He reserved many of the best public projects for the city’s poorest areas and always sought local community input, even from drug dealers when necessary. One of his most radical propositions was a cable car system, Metrocable, which connects the poorer hillside neighbourhoods with the city centre. He also installed a 1,260 foot-long outdoor escalator, similar to Hong Kong’s, which clings to the side of the valley. The new public transport stations consequently became hubs for ambitious integrated urban plans, with new buildings, public spaces and social programmes developed with input from local residents.
Medellin’s bold strides have earned worldwide praise. In 2013, the city was crowned “Innovative City of the Year”, by the Urban Land Institute, in a competition sponsored by Citi and the Wall Street Journal, beating out Tel Aviv and New York. The same year, it won the Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Last year, Medellin received the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize awarded by the Singaporean government. “Medellin has come a long way from its past, sending a powerful signal that inclusive and collaborative governance can overturn even the most difficult circumstances,” the jury’s citation read.
But remarkable as Medellin’s transformation has been, significant challenges remain. The city’s ritzy El Poblado district may feel like Singapore, but Popular, the poorest, resembles the slums of Dhaka. Colombia is Latin America’s fourth largest economy, but its wealth gap is one of the highest in the region. Juliana Londono, a Colombian PhD candidate at University of California, Berkeley, estimates that the wealthiest one percent own 20 percent of the country’s wealth.
In recent years, the middle class has grown to around 27 percent, a number that is still low compared with countries like Mexico (49 percent) or Chile (47 percent). Lack of wider access to higher education and the structure of the labour market – half of all jobs created are part of the informal economy – perpetuate the disparity. And without a sizeable tax-paying middle class, municipalities struggle to fund the type of large-scale infrastructure projects required to streamline urban life and make Colombian cities competitive in the modern era.
“Without solid growth of the middle class, you’re not going to find money for big infrastructure beyond roads,” says Brandon Haw, a New York-based architect who has worked extensively in Colombia over the past decade. “Roads are an easy fix, but we all know roads just lead to more congestion.” Haw describes Medellin as “tied up in spaghetti”, where beautiful rolling terrain is knotted with endless winding roads. “You literally can’t move at certain times of day.”
Bogota isn’t fairing much better. Plans to build a much-needed subway system have been circulating for 60 years. Over the past three decades, Bogota’s population has grown more than 90 percent and with limited space for developing new urban zones the capital is in desperate need of a solution to its mobility problems.
Colombian cities are all grappling with growth. The violence that ravaged rural areas during the drug war years accelerated the rate of urbanisation. In the space of just two generations, Colombia went from being 70 percent rural to 70 percent urban, and populations were packed into unprepared cities quickly and often chaotically.
One of the fastest growing cities is Cartagena, a port town on the Caribbean coast that was settled by the Spanish in 1533. Cartagena’s picturesque Old Town, a Unesco world heritage site, has become a popular tourist destination full of upscale restaurants, artisan boutiques and salsa clubs. Many of the historic colonial buildings have been gutted and restored as boutique hotels with shaded courtyards and pools that offer luxurious respite from the intense Caribbean sun.
Outside of the dense historic centre, the city has grown in a fashion typical of Latin America: high-end condominiums have sprouted up along the waterfront while poorer neighbourhoods have expanded in valleys prone to flooding. But one solution to Cartagena’s unbridled growth could come from private hands.
Novus Civitas, one of Colombia’s largest developers, plans to transform a 2,500-acre site outside Cartagena into a lively metropolis that will house over 100,000 people. Known as Serena del Mar, the ambitious project is set to include a university, a John Hopkins hospital, a marina, bike trails, luxury hotels, low and high-income housing and a central commercial centre built around a dredged canal. According to the developers, the project will guarantee inhabitants “security, health, education and the necessary infrastructure for a daily life of quality.”
The master plan was drawn up by EDSA, an American landscape design firm that specialises in sustainability, and it includes streams coursing through residential areas, large parklands (three-quarters of the total area) and protected estuaries and mangroves. Channels have been opened up so that seawater can refresh the mangroves, and when it rains, the water flowing through the valleys will irrigate the golf fairways. The buildings’ foundations, meanwhile, are elevated well above sea level to protect against rising waters.
EDSA also made connectivity a priority. “Serena del Mar was conceived as La Ciudad Sonada (The Dream City),” says Marco Lorrea, a principal at EDSA. “It will become a new city totally connected via pedestrian and bike trials throughout the site, as well as allowing connectivity to the local highway and local streets.”
Other architects working on Serena del Mar include Moshe Safdie, who designed the hospital, and Brandon Haw, whose firm is behind four buildings, including a business school for the University of the Andes. Haw’s design for the business school draws inspiration from Cartagena’s Old City and features a central pool for natural cooling and vertical fins that filter sunlight and reduce the need for air conditioning.
Serena del Mar has been generating a lot of interest from Cartagena locals who are looking to move out into an area with more space and where they modernise their lives. “For people in the country who have lived in such hardship and fear, this is an amazing piece of optimism,” says Haw.
The developers’ attention to social issues also makes this project distinctive. Decades ago, communities fleeing rural violence settled on beachfront land that is now part of Serena del Mar. And though landowners are technically obligated to consult with local residents about how the land will be developed, this condition is often disregarded. Novus Civitas, however, signed a charter with the government, promising that Serena del Mar will include accommodation, education and jobs for these local residents.
Municipalities and developers around Colombia and Latin America will be eyeing this project closely. Urban utopias don’t often deliver on their promises, but given Colombia’s remarkable turnaround, its ambitions to mix wealthy golfers, migrants and sustainable design in a city for the future shouldn’t be underestimated.
The story appeared in the January 2018 print edition of The Peak