With its rich, diverse culture, picturesque landscapes and lush natural resources, Colombia should be one of the most popular tourist destinations in South America. However, the country’s image took a hit in the 1980s, with the rise of cocaine and the drug cartels that controlled it, most notably, Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cartel. In recent years the Colombian government has addressed this problem head-on, dismantling drug rings and adopting a national slogan designed to put visitors at ease: “The only risk is never wanting to leave”. A recent spike in Colombia’s art scene may also help lift the stigma that shrouds the country, adding a new dimension to a people and culture the world thought it knew, and helping Colombia develop a new identity, or perhaps, reclaim an old one.
To be fair, Colombia is still the world's top producer of cocaine, and the legal status of cocaine within the country, combined with the high demand for it outside of the country makes the drug trade a recurrent enemy of the government. To make matters worse, drugs are not the only vice thriving in Colombia. Prostitution is also legal and readily available, making Colombia a popular destination for sex tourism, like Thailand or the Netherlands. In 2012, American secret service agents made international headlines when they got into a spat with a prostitute over an unpaid bill for “services rendered” while then President Barack Obama was visiting Cartagena. While the incident was a PR nightmare for the US, it also added to Colombia’s already prevalent image as a haven for illicit activity.
There is, however, much more to Colombia than sex and dope—and there always has been. In the heart of Medellin, the very city Escobar called home, lies the Museo de Antioquia, one of Colombia’s oldest museums. The museum features the work of famed Medellin artist Fernando Botero, known for his voluminous depictions of people and animals. This “Boterismo” style won Botero international fame, with many of his paintings and sculptures being featured in museums around the world. There was even a restaurant named after him in Las Vegas. Medellin is not the only city to get swept up in the art craze. The capital city of Bogota is home to over 100 commercial art galleries, a byproduct of an economic boom that Colombia experienced as the drug wars began to subside and the country began to stabilize.
Sometimes, in the scramble to create a compelling story, media outlets may narrow or oversimplify the identities of people. Colombians are joining a long list of ethnic, gender, and religious groups who take issue with the way they are portrayed in the media and are taking it upon themselves to help the world understand that their culture may be a bit more nuanced than it has been led to believe. While the rise of Colombia's art scene may not refute the bloody images the media has shown in the past, it does add to them, creating a separate narrative for the country that exists alongside the current one. In the end, understanding Colombia may not require the world to empty its cup, but rather, to invest in a larger one.
JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself.