When I look back on the eleven years since I first visited Colombia and the four years that I have lived and worked here, more than anything it makes me proud to see how much the country has advanced in such a short time. It was really only 20 years ago that the world considered Colombia a failed state, ravaged not only by a decades long internal conflict with left-wing guerrillas but also terrorised by the ruthless tactics of the world’s most infamous drug baron. It was a no-go country for tourists and the citizens themselves rarely ventured out after dark. When ex-president Alvaro Uribe swept to power in 2002 with a mandate to improve the security situation, it literally kicked off the start of a golden age. Even when I landed in Cartagena in 2004, only two years into his presidency, I could see no trace of fear in the locals that I met. Everyone was looking forward to the future with optimism and there was a palpable energy in the air, the energy that comes from the freedom of being able to pursue one’s dreams. Something which we have taken for granted for centuries in Europe and America and so we have become blasé, but which in Colombia was a very recent phenomenon. It’s still the same more than 10 years later. There’s a dynamism here which is translating into very tangible economic results and improving the quality of life of millions of Colombians. Colombia’s economy is currently the fastest growing in South America with the lowest inflation.
Medellin, the city that I happily call home, is a model example of how inclusive social policies can radically change a city for the better in a relatively short time frame. The ex-mayor who pioneered many of these policies has won multiple international awards. By investing in education parks in the poorest neighbourhoods, creating integrated transport links to connect those poor barrios with the mainstream of the city and building sports and recreational facilities amongst other initiatives, literally hundreds of thousands of people have been brought into the workforce and can lead a dignified life with a steady job for the first time in their lives. When visitors come to Medellin they are impacted not just by its outstandingly beautiful natural setting but by how modern, efficient and vibrant the city feels. In recent years Medellin has witnessed a number of start-up incubators spring up around the city, such as Colombian entrepreneur Andres Barreto’s Social Atom Ventures. They are becoming more and more prevalent in Bogota as well, as the Colombian start-up scene is booming. The low-cost air travel market is being disrupted by another Medellin based company, Viajala. And my own wife’s company started life here in 2011, bringing international students to do internships and learn Spanish in Colombia. They have now expanded around the world. So it’s no wonder to those of us who live here that Medellin was voted the most innovative city in the world in 2012, beating New York and Tel Aviv.
Now when I see how the number of articles in the travel press lauding Colombia as one of the hottest travel destinations has exploded recently, it’s not a sensation of “I told you so” that I feel but a happiness and pride that the world is finally beginning to give Colombia the credit it deserves. Bring your family on holiday to Colombia? Why not! It makes me smile that now whenever I’m back in Europe, I no longer get the barely concealed sniggers from people when I tell them that I live in Colombia. I’m much more likely to field questions such as is Cartagena really as magical as they say and did I bring any coffee back with me for them to try (the answers are: it’s even more magical than they say; and yes of course I brought some back, my friends would kill me if I didn’t go back laden with bags of coffee!). It’s probably worth explaining that Colombia has always had the potential to be a world-class tourist destination. Colombia’s history is incredibly rich and the country has a strong cultural heritage. It was Alonso de Ojeda, one of Columbus’ fellow voyagers, who set foot on La Guajira in 1499 and which began the Spanish rule. However there are archeological sites in Colombia which date back to 18,000 BC, including what is thought to be the oldest pottery discovered in the Americas dating from 5,000 BC. Cartagena was founded in 1533 and was so coveted that Sir Francis Drake laid siege to the city in order to capture it for the English. He succeeded but the English departed only two months later. Eventually Colombia gained independence from Spain in 1819 under Simon Bolivar. You can see statues of Bolivar everywhere you go in Colombia and many other South American countries.
So really, it has always been a mistake to think that the unfortunate violence which has marked the country’s recent past is all that there is to Colombia. It is but a blip in its history and the country itself is rapidly moving on, not that it really ever held it back. Despite the pain and conflict the country might have suffered from, it still managed to produce legendary names on a global stage – nobel-prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez invented a new genre of writing; Fernando Botero made the rounded, sensuous shapes of humans, dogs, horses, birds etc into an art form and his work can be seen open to all the public from London to Barcelona to Singapore; Shakira is a global musical superstar and currently Colombian players grace the starting line-ups of the world’s top football teams. Colombia has moved on and put behind it the troubles that have blighted its recent history, it’s now time that the rest of the world did as well. Which is exactly why Boris and I started Amakuna. We are both expats who moved here not only to be with our Colombian wives but because the country itself stole our hearts. Together we hope to put our love and passion for Colombia into creating the most fantastic holidays for our clients and to really show the world all that Colombia has to offer.
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