Colombia Wants Your Tourism Dollars
Colombia boasts huge mountain ranges, large portions of the Amazon, and endless coastline and surf breaks. But can a country come back from a civil war to become a mecca for adventure?
First, the DJ starts playing. Then the bats come out. It could be a coincidence, or it could be that bats like electronica. The graffiti artists definitely don’t like the music; they clear the dance floor pronto, leaving the bats to flutter to the rhythm. I’m using the term dance floor loosely here. It’s a slab of concrete in the center of an abandoned rum distillery in the middle of the Colombian jungle. Dictador, a premium Colombian rum brand, has invited a dozen of the world’s most renowned graffiti artists to paint the tanks and walls of its former distillery. For the past two days, I’ve been watching them create massive murals while enduring the country’s infamous heat. Dictador’s owners want to use this project to raise money for conservation in Colombia. The artists will produce bonus canvases for auction; the proceeds will go to Conservation International, a nonprofit that’s helping Colombia establish policies to protect its mountains.
It’s a strange project, but Colombia is in a weird place right now. The country was devastated by a half-century-long civil war, which had the inadvertent effect of preserving vast landscapes that were once controlled by rebels. Since the 2016 peace treaty, the country is enjoying its first break from wide-scale violence in a generation and is now trying to figure out what to do with all that pristine land. Meanwhile, deforestation and development have ramped up significantly since the peace treaty was signed. Call it an identity crisis.
And, oh yeah, the war is over, but while most of the country is trying to move on, there is still some lingering tension where bad guys don’t want to give up their bad-guy ways. Most of the violence is in remote rural areas that the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, used to control, particularly the regions that border Venezuela and Ecuador. Cocaine production has hit an all-time high, and 3,000 militants have decided to ignore the peace treaty and continue fighting. Some of them don’t take too well to the government creating parks and preserving land where they’re growing or transporting coca. Call it a postwar hangover. But cities like Bogotá and the coastal towns where tourists venture are generally considered safe for travelers. (The U.S. State Department has softened its travel advisory for most of Colombia, labeling it a Level 2 risk, on par with Germany, Denmark, Burma, and Spain, but there are certain regions of the country that the government flags as being too violent for Americans to visit.)
I’m in Colombia to watch artists paint but also to explore the mountains and coast. The adventure potential is off the charts down here—lush forests full of waterfalls and canyons, lonely beaches with cliffs and surf breaks, mountain biking on ancient footpaths that might comprise the world’s best adventure cycling. And then there’s the birding. Colombia is widely recognized as the single greatest birding destination in the world—and the world is starting to notice. According to Colombia’s trade ministry, tourism has increased 300 percent in the past decade, with more than 3 million foreign visitors in 2018. The increase in tourism is promising, and certain leaders insist ecotourism is the country’s future. But Colombia is still trying to figure out how to capitalize on its natural attributes. In other words, while it has tourism potential, the country definitely does not feel like a tourist destination—yet. So, if you’re looking for a place that offers raw adventure where you’ll sweat through police checks and sleep in working coffee farms and trail run through jungles, a place where abandoned distilleries are tagged by the best graffiti artists in the world, then go to Colombia. Now.
But first, a brief, oversimplified recap of Colombia’s recent history. The South American country spent more than 50 years in a civil war, as the FARC fought the government over inequality and land rights. In the midst of the unrest, the cocaine business boomed. Pablo Escobar. Narcos. Romancing the Stone. Colombia developed a reputation for violence over the years that caused most Americans to eschew the country for tamer destinations.
The FARC occupied some of the most remote corners of the country, controlling hundreds of thousands of acres of mountains and jungle. People fled the land where the group established encampments, and development ceased. As a result, Colombia is one of the few countries in South America where more than half of its acreage is still forested. It’s considered the most biodiverse country in the world. It’s a phenomenon known as gunpoint conservation, and as wild as it sounds, it has happened in other countries, like Myanmar, which suffered a 70-year civil war that left certain regions untouched by loggers. But Colombia stands as the quintessential example, where conflict limited access to vast stretches of the Andes mountain range and the Amazon.
Since the peace treaty was signed in 2016, Colombians have started exploring these previous no-go zones, experimenting with ecotourism and researching landscapes that had been lost to the scientific community. Scientists are discovering new species in the mountains (Colombia’s Humboldt Institute found six new species of frogs and beetles in a single forest near Medellín), and adventurers are finding forgotten paths that are perfect for cycling, hiking, and trail running.
“We spend a lot of time exploring routes we find on Google maps,” says Julian Manrique, a Bogotá-based cyclist who recently founded Hidden Journeys, a tour company that specializes in providing support and logistics for people looking to pedal Colombia’s mountains. The country’s terrain goes from sea level to almost 20,000 feet, with two massive mountain ranges, the Andes and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, dominating most of the country. “There are so many narrow roads crossing the Andes, the potential for cycling is unlimited,” Manrique says. “You just have to be willing to put in the work, cross rivers, and ride where nobody has ridden before. It’s an open map ready to be discovered.”
Sometimes the roads are paved, sometimes they’re a mix of dirt and gravel, which means much of the riding is tailored to today’s adventure-hungry gravel bikers. The scenery can shift from busy city streets to dry, almost desert-like scrub flatlands to dense cloud forests on a single ride. I spent several days biking with Manrique in Colombia four years ago, just before the peace treaty was signed. We pedaled through the crowded streets of Bogotá and climbed an impossibly steep grade to a café overlooking the city, where we drank agua de panela, a hot drink with melted cheese. Manrique calls it Colombian Gatorade. It tastes good, like sweet tea. Later, we pedaled forgotten, half-paved roads deep into coffee country, then set out for long climbs into the mountains near Chingaza National Park, known for its high-altitude, sponge-like forests and small alpine lakes. Colombia already has the longest road climb in the world—Alto de Letras, which rises at a 4 percent grade for almost 50 miles—but Manrique says that the famous climb is just a drop in the bucket.
“If you like riding through unknown terrain and love climbing, Colombia is it,” Manrique says. “We’ll do a day that starts at sea level, covers 125 miles, and climbs 10,000 feet back into the mountains. It’s mad.”
Cycling has had a foothold in Colombia for decades. Bogotá was the birthplace of the ciclovía—a weekly Sunday event where the city shuts down one of its main streets for bikers—and the country has a strong group of pro cyclists competing on the international circuit. Since the peace treaty was signed, several companies have started offering multiday cycling tours using relatively well-established routes in the mountains, most of which incorporate Alto de Letras at some point in their itinerary. But road cycling isn’t the only sport to catch a postwar bump. Trail running is also booming, with a burgeoning portfolio of races, most notably Del Mar a la Cima, a 50-mile ultra sponsored by Merrell. The event drew a thousand runners from 15 countries last year. They tackled a course that starts on the beach and finishes on the side of the tallest coastal mountain in the world.
“The whole scene is growing quickly here,” says Emily Schmitz, a Minnesota-born trail runner who has lived in Bogotá for the past decade and works in the humanitarian rights field. “With each race, the prizes get better, the routes get better, the logistical support gets better, and there are so many trails to run here.”
Schmitz says she can leave her home in Bogotá and within 15 minutes be running in the mountains on ancestral trails that were once used to connect the city to surrounding communities. “Even after ten years here, I’m still amazed at the beauty of the countryside,” Schmitz says. “So many areas have remained untouched in a manner that we do not see in the U.S., where so much of the land has become incredibly overdeveloped.”
But as Colombians rediscover their own country, development has kicked into high gear. Deforestation has reached epidemic levels, with almost a billion acres of forest lost since 2016 and new conflicts arising between conservationists and paramilitary groups and criminal gangs.
“Anyone wearing a green uniform and carrying a gun is the same to us,” says Jaison Perez, a representative for the Arhuaco, an indigenous tribe that lives in the coastal mountains of Colombia. “The paramilitary are still active, and they’re still killing people. We don’t see as many deaths as before, so things are better from a social perspective but worse from an environmental perspective. The peace treaty has accelerated people’s thirst for short-term gain.”
There’s a race to dictate the future of Colombia’s mountains—preservation or development—which brings us back to Dictador’s old distillery. It sits literally in the middle of the battle. The building is positioned between the coastal Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range, once controlled by paramilitary groups, and the Perijá Mountains, a biodiverse range that was a hotbed of guerrilla activity. Six new bird species have been discovered in these mountains in as many years, and a new trail has been established to help throngs of tourists explore these bird-rich peaks.
This is the second edition of the Dictador Art Masters graffiti project. A handful of large murals were painted at the distillery last year, and the entrepreneurial rum owners are planning to do an event each year, bringing in new artists until they feel the distillery has become the world’s greatest graffiti exhibition. Then they might open the distillery as a museum of sorts to raise money for conservation efforts.
The list of painters involved is a who’s who of illegal art. Nychos, an Austrian. A Colombian named Toxicomano, who likes to paint jaguars. Daleast, from China. Faith, from South Africa. You’ll notice they all go by one-word pseudonyms. The distillery itself is a mix of concrete, brick, rusted steel, and tin roofs that are peeling back at the seams.
The artists aren’t adjusting very well to the heat at the distillery. The temperature is in the mid-90s Fahrenheit, with humidity pushing 45 percent. They flew in from Cartagena on a small Cessna, landing on a dirt airstrip next to the distillery, and have spent most of their first day acclimating to the environment by napping and drinking tiny bottles of Costeñita, a cheap Colombian beer.
While the art project seems disconnected from its surrounding landscape, it actually fits in with the unique style of conservation emerging in Colombia, where private companies, nonprofits, locals, and the government work together toward goals. Fabio Arjona is Colombia’s former vice minister of the environment and current director of Colombia’s branch of Conservation International. He says working with various groups who claim control of an area is imperative specifically because of the country’s troubled past: “People have to collaborate here because of all of the conflict. A company could build a pipeline, but it would just be bombed over and over. If you don’t partner with all of these groups, you won’t get anything done.”
Ivan Duque, a conservative president, took office in 2018, and environmentalists are worried that he won’t preserve the country’s progressive approach to conservation and the peace agreement established by the previous administration, led by president Juan Manual Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for signing the 2016 treaty. The left-leaning Santos made massive conservation gains, tripling the amount of public land, adding and expanding several parks, and passing a corporate carbon tax. Tourists took notice, some coming to bike in the mountains, others coming to beach resorts popping up along the Caribbean coast. A lot of them are coming for the birds. A 2018 study shows birders from the U.S. could contribute up to $46 million a year and create more than 7,000 jobs. With almost 2,000 species of birds, Colombia is the most bird-rich country in the world, the pinnacle of any birder’s bucket list of destinations.
“The twitchers showed up first,” says John Myers, the social innovation specialist for Conservation International. He’s been involved with developing Colombia’s birding infrastructure for the past several years. He also helped bring Dictador and Conservation International together and has been watching the graffiti artists paint the tanks with me at the distillery. Twitchers are hardcore birders, obsessed with ticking off elusive species. Myers says they started showing up before the peace treaty was signed, quietly bagging species. Birding was a clandestine operation then, with few guides or infrastructure and heavy on risk, because the best sites were often in guerilla- or paramilitary-ruled mountains. But in 2015, Myers began designing the Northern Colombia Birding Trail, a collection of preserves and lodges serviced by trained local guides and designed to give the country’s ecotourism a boost. The centerpiece of the Northern Colombia Birding Trail is the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an imposing mountain that rises directly from the Caribbean and is known worldwide for its abundance of endemic species.
According to Colombia’s four indigenous tribes that live on the mountain—the Arhuaco, Wiwa, Kogi, and Kankuamo—everything begins and ends with the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a beast of a mountain that starts as a cluster of coral in the Caribbean and rises to an 18,700-foot glaciated peak. The tribes consider it the heart of the world. As for its size, the mountain is the kind of thing you can appreciate only from a distance. I spent several days on and around the mountain and never once caught a glimpse of its white caps because of a veil of dense clouds. It’s an isolated mountain, separated from the Andes by a gap on the Guajira Peninsula, an ecosystem unto itself.
“Santa Marta is like an island, with so many species evolving all on their own,” Myers says. “Imagine the Galapagos but as a mountain.”
With 28 endemic species of birds living only on its slopes, Santa Marta Mountain is the exclamation point on the Northern Colombia Birding Trail. It’s also ground zero for conservation, representing the largest remaining coastal forest in the Caribbean and home to Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park, as well as a pilot program where indigenous tribes take part in a progressive carbon sequestration program. The ancient ruins of La Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, is also tucked into the recesses of this mountain. Archeologists think it’s 650 years older than Machu Picchu and served as the political and spiritual epicenter of Colombia’s original tribes. Treasure hunters “discovered” it in 1972, but the indigenous tribes of Santa Marta have visited the site for decades. You can visit it, too, if you’re up for a four-to-seven-day trek through Santa Marta’s steep slopes.
Myers and I decide to leave the distillery and head toward the mountain for some trail running and birding. Our driver and guide for the next few days is named Gabriel Utria, but the world knows him as Gabo. If birding in Colombia has a celebrity, it’s Gabo. He grew up on the side of Santa Marta and is arguably the most knowledgeable birding guide in the country. Gabo once went on a three-day hike along the spine of Santa Marta to see a hummingbird that lives only at a certain elevation on the mountain. Colombia sends him all over the world as a representative for the country’s burgeoning birding industry. A few years ago, a former U.S. state department diplomat—the most successful birder in the world, with more registered species sightings than anyone else—traveled to Colombia to add a couple endemics to his list, which had stalled as it grew toward 9,000. He called Gabo, who delivered with five species the man had never seen before.
So, yeah, Gabo goes by one name, like the graffiti artists back at the distillery. And Prince.
We hit two private birding preserves as we make our way through the Guajira Peninsula, on the border of Venezuela. The first is a dry forest in the valley, full of scrubby-looking trees and cute, puffy owls that Gabo calls toward us as we walk a dusty dirt road. The second is a 1,200-acre preserve at the base of the mountain as we get closer to the coast. Gabo helped a handful of locals establish the preserve, building a bathroom and training guides. A restaurant is coming that will focus entirely on local dishes, like sancocho, a vegetable stew with an ear of corn resting in it. Gabo says it’s exactly the sort of project the area needs.
“The local communities need money from legal things,” says Gabo, as we pull away from the new preserve. “The coast was full of coca plantations 15 years ago. It’s what most people know. But now, maybe ecotourism is the future.”
The Guajira Peninsula is one of the poorest regions in Colombia, full of families displaced by decades of conflict and refugees fresh from Venezuela. We see people selling cheap Venezuelan gas in old Coke bottles on the side of the road. There are occasional police checks. At one point, some middle school girls pull a rope across the road and start dancing in front of the car, charging a toll for the “carnival.”
Gabo helped Myers create the Northern Colombia Birding Trail, which stretches from Tayrona National Park on the coast along the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and into the Perijá Mountains, on the other side of Dictador’s abandoned distillery. Together, they trained 43 guides—former hunters, fishermen, and farmers—in the art of birding. Gabo’s been working to fill out the amenities on the trail, establishing new preserves and training coffee farmers to turn their homes into lodges.
Other lodges are also popping up along the trail. Near Tayrona National Park, the busiest in Colombia’s expanding system, we stop for lunch at Gitana del Mar, a posh new resort complete with a palm-thatched yoga studio, manicured landscaping with private access to a pristine beach, and a high-end restaurant with a menu that focuses on local fish, veggies, and fruit. The resort is close to a legit surf break, as well as the beaches and cliffs of Tayrona and the waterfalls and trails of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Meyers says the resort is the first of its kind in this part of Colombia, but it’s a sign of things to come as the small towns that line the coast and mountains, which have been popular with international backpackers for a few years, get discovered by American travelers looking for finer digs.
But in the midst of this burgeoning tourism industry, violence has erupted. A park guard at Santa Marta National Park was killed, possibly by a paramilitary group, the week before I arrived, and the director of the same park has received death threats. His family left for Bogotá while I was watching graffiti artists tag Dictador’s distillery. Myers took the director’s deposition before he and his family fled town. “Imagine if someone threatened to cut your family into pieces,” he tells me. “It sucks to have to talk about this stuff again. For the last few years, all we talked about was how great everything is.”
Myers says the murder and death threats are centered around Santa Marta National Park and the government’s conservation priorities, which expanded the park to include “the tongue,” an area stretching from the mountains to the coast that has traditionally been ruled by paramilitary groups who would use the deep bays to move shipments of drugs at night. The park director worked with indigenous groups to restore a sacred site in the area called Katanzama and to eliminate any further development. “These disputes are always about land,” says Myers, adding that the current violence around the park is targeted and hasn’t proved to be a threat to tourists. “If you’re a gringo on vacation, you’re safe. It’s a different story if you’re an environmentalist here.”
Fabio Arjona tells me that the new rash of violence is an extension of the old problems that existed before the peace treaty was signed: “The threats are the same they’ve always been. Drug trafficking has lessened in recent years, but it’s still a big threat to conservation in general, and it contributes to deforestation. It’s hard to find a substitute for growing coca. It’s too lucrative.”
Colombia’s national parks aren’t like parks in the United States. The government can declare a certain landscape as a park, but people are still allowed to live inside the area. So, with Santa Marta National Park, you have the government trying to enforce Colombia’s conservation priorities, but also 100,000 indigenous people calling the park home and countless other residents who fled their ancestral homes during the FARC rebellion. It has also traditionally been a hotbed of drug trafficking, thanks to nearby coca plantations and the coastal access to move the drugs.
“There’s such an overlap of jurisdictions, both legal and illegal,” explains Myers as we drive up the side of the mountain on a road that quickly goes from pavement to a four-wheel-drive track. For the most part, the indigenous tribes are allowed to manage their land as they see fit. Conservation International is working with them on carbon offset programs, but most of the tribes are notoriously reclusive when it comes to the outside world. Tourists are typically not allowed to visit their villages, so while the national park is public land in theory, there are large swaths that people can’t access. The glaciated peaks, for instance, are rarely visited by anyone but the indigenous. Meyers, who works closely with the tribes, tells me he gets at least one request a year from a professional snowboarder or skier who wants to ski the snow.
According to Gabo, Santa Marta has always been a mess. His parents managed the biology station inside the park, and Gabo grew up on the side of the mountain. During the prolonged civil war, Santa Marta was controlled by paramilitary groups and drug traffickers, who were at odds with the FARC and, often, the government.
“The paramilitary controlled everything around Santa Marta,” Gabo says. “They ran the town, the schools, the hospital. We were always afraid. Even just 15 years ago, it wasn’t safe here. But birding has gotten popular since the peace process, and you can go places you couldn’t go before.”
We stop for the night halfway up Santa Marta Mountain at a 12-acre coffee farm that does double duty as a birder’s hostel. The view from the farm is stellar, encompassing the dramatic ridgeline of Santa Marta as it drops steeply into the ocean. We sit on a patio and watch the sun set below the ridge while the family who owns the farm cooks chicken and rice for us at an outdoor kitchen. A young boy plays with a remote-control car at our feet. Gabo says this home, called Casa Café, is an example of how ecotourism can directly impact the people of Colombia.
“We’ve been working with this family for three years, and they just opened six months ago,” Gabo says. “It’s going well. They take in birders and backpackers, make them dinner and breakfast. It’s good income for them, which is important because the price of coffee is dropping.”
We wake up the next morning at 3:30 for a predawn assault on San Lorenzo Ridge, a birding hotspot on the flank of Santa Marta Mountain. Myers and I plan to run from the coffee farm to the ridge, timing our ascent with sunrise. We begin with headlamps in the dark, tiptoeing our way through the small boulders and streams in the dirt road.
It’s a beautiful nine-mile run through a jungle that turns into a dank cloud forest, the temperature dropping as we climb 3,000 feet. We pass the occasional hostel and café, but mostly it’s just a thick canopy of palms and succulents growing out of the limbs of trees. We hear howler monkeys in the distance and catch quick glimpses of tarantulas with our headlamps. When we reach the peak of the San Lorenzo Ridge, it’s covered in mist, the sun burning orange behind a thick layer of clouds. At first, the birding is shit. We drink rum and wait for the mist to burn off, but it never does. The clouds are soupy, and the forest is thick with dew. We hear one of Colombia’s signature birds, the white-tipped quetzal, but never catch a glimpse of it. But the clouds burn off as we make our way down the mountain, and we stop near Gabo’s childhood home and wander down a trail. Within a few minutes, we see a Santa Marta Blossomcrown, a tiny hummingbird that’s found only here. We eventually bag three endemic species. Myers is giddy as we head farther down the mountain, detouring on a dirt road to grab a beer at Nevada Cerveceria, a brewery that a German transplant opened a few years ago.
Birding is probably the brightest example of how Colombia has pivoted to capitalize on its natural beauty since signing the peace treaty. The Northern Colombia Birding Trail is used as a model for other ecotourism projects within the country, spawning a handful of other birding trails in other parts of the country. I get the sense that this is just the beginning, that the ecotourism potential in this country is huge—but also fragile because of the remaining instability.
“This rise in ecotourism could force the current government not to mess up the peace agreement, because if they do, they’ll lose out on the tourism boom,” Myers says.
There’s plenty to lose. Just ask Gabo.
“Everything we’ve done the past couple of days, none of this would have been okay before the peace agreement,” he says as we drink lagers on the brewery’s patio, which overlooks a creek that tumbles down the mountain. He’s another best-case scenario for what ecotourism is doing for Colombians. His company, Birding Santa Marta, has grown so much in the past few years that he’s had to hire several of his family members. “In the beginning, my family didn’t believe people would come to Colombia to see birds,” he says. “But now they understand.”