Colombia offers culture, history for visitors

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday September 28, 2022
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A woman paints a mural in Cartagena's historic walled city in Colombia. Photo: Heather Cassell
A woman paints a mural in Cartagena's historic walled city in Colombia. Photo: Heather Cassell

Colombia is an amazing country rich with art and culture, food, history, outdoor adventures, and beautiful sandy beaches.

I learned this when I traveled to the country as a guest of award-winning sustainable LGBTQ travel company Out in Colombia and the country's tourism bureau, ProColombia, right before the pandemic shut down most travel.

Colombia has been reopened for tourism since the fall of 2020. As of May 1, travelers ages 18 and older need to provide proof of "complete vaccination" or a negative COVID-19 antigen test 48 hours in advance of travel, or a negative PCR test 72 hours in advance of travel, according to Colombian and United States government websites.

Colombia is a year-round destination, but the best time to experience the South American country is December to March and June to September.

JilChristina Vest, founder of the Mini Black Panther Museum and Women of the Black Panther Party Mural in Oakland, vacationed in Colombia a month after the museum's opening in June 2021 for her first trip outside of the U.S. since March 2020.

Responding to the Bay Area Reporter's questions, Vest wrote in an email interview that Colombians were responding to the pandemic life by wearing masks and socially distancing.

Vacationing on a beach in a small town outside of Cartagena with a group of friends, Vest was enjoying playing in the water and soaking up the sun outside of their vacation rental. She boasted about "views to die for," the fresh seafood, and how "high-end, yet very affordable" Colombia is for a vacation.

"It is a very friendly and chill vibe here," Vest wrote. She hadn't interacted with the local LGBTQ community during her trip like I did, but she had similar observations about LGBTQ Colombians' openness and showing "public affection with no issue."

Great strides

Colombia's LGBTQ movement has made great strides since 1999, according to the Astraea Foundation's 2021 report. The South American country's capital, Bogotá, became one of the first cities in the world to establish a government office focused on LGBTQ issues, the Sexual Diversity Department, in 2013. Same-sex marriage was legalized in 2016. This year Colombia's constitutional court advanced gender diversity, reported Human Rights Watch.

Before my trip to Colombia, Bogotá elected its first openly lesbian mayor, Claudia López Hernández. López Hernández's swearing-in established her as the first out LGBTQ person to lead a major South American city. López Hernández married her longtime partner just before she took office in January 2020.

Out in Colombia

It was Colombia's beauty, people, and progress with LGBTQ rights that made gay American expatriate Sam Castañeda Holdren, 41, fall in love with the country during his first visit in 2013. He traveled to Colombia on a three-month career break to learn how to speak Spanish fluently.

"I reflected on my time back in Colombia and realized, man, I really loved it there," Castañeda Holdren said. "There's just a lot that makes the quality of life pretty amazing."

In 2014, the Fresno native packed up and moved to Medellín, once the center of Colombia's drug trafficking run by Pablo Escobar's infamous drug cartel. It didn't take long before Castañeda Holdren discovered he loved sharing what he was learning about Colombia and the country's LGBTQ life with queer people on his blog and with friends in the states.

Gay travelers visiting Colombia found Castañeda Holdren online and asked for help for them to get to know where to go to find Colombia's LGBTQ community. He started putting together itineraries.

In 2016, he founded Out in Colombia to continue sharing his love of the country and promote its queer culture and businesses. Out in Colombia offers custom and packaged tours in English and Spanish. In 2021, he set up a foundation, Cocora Alliance [LINK:], where a portion of the proceeds from traveler's trips are donated to the local communities.

It was the right time to launch his LGBTQ travel business. Colombia was only two years into its LGBTQ travel campaign to woo LGBTQ travelers to the diverse South American country.

A lot to offer

Colombia is famous for its coffee, beaches, tropical jungles (35% of the Amazon rainforest is within the country's borders), and, of course, its darker side with the drug trade. The country's drug lords have been pushed deep into the Amazon on the Brazilian and Colombian border with the U.S.'s help, Sebastian Fernandez Leal, a representative with ProColombia who formerly worked at the United Nations in New York City, told me in the car from Cartagena's airport to our host hotel, Estelar Cartagena de Indias.

The South American country offers a lot to travelers. Colombia is home to more than 25 national parks. It is also the only country in South America to boast of beautiful beaches on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Top artists call Colombia home. The country is a gastronomic hub. Its LGBTQ community is energetic with creative and culinary endeavors.

The country also boasts of having South America's destination LGBTQ nightclub in Bogotá. Mega LGBTQ nightclub Theatron [LINK:] features 16 separate but interconnected dance clubs, including a concert hall, all in one building that takes up an entire city block.

My journey

My journey through the South American country with Out in Colombia began in Cartagena and took me to Barranquilla, Medellín, and Bogotá, four of Colombia's largest cities. I was taken by the country and people. Colombia is a vibrant and welcoming country with a spirited culture and natural beauty, particularly in Cartagena, Medellín, and Bogotá.

Colombia was discovered in 1499 by Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda. The Spanish started colonizing Colombia in 1525. Nearly 300 years later, Colombia was founded in 1810 as a major trading hub for gold and African slaves, and remained under Spanish rule until it won its independence in 1819. Colombia once enslaved more than 1 million Africans until the country abolished slavery in 1821.

Today, Colombia is home to the third largest population of Black people outside of Africa, Brazil, and the U.S., according to Travel Noire. The country's 11 million Afro-Colombians make up four Black communities: mulattoes, raizales, palenque, and zambos.


In Cartagena, "palenqueras," the community's women, stand out in the crowds with their traditional colorful dresses and head wraps balancing bowls of fruit on their heads. They can easily be found in the squares, like San Pedro Claver Square, in Cartagena's historic walled city. Our group enjoyed tasting the traditional fruit snacks sold from one of the women's stands. They also earn money by posing for pictures with tourists.

Belkin Chico, a lesbian tour guide with La Mesa, which works with Out in Colombia, guided our group from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas to the walled city, telling us the history. Our evening was spent relaxing on a private sunset catamaran cruise on Cartagena Bay and enjoying a gourmet meal at the stylish Club de Pesca.

Cata Gutierrez, a hip-hop artist, tour guide, and activist, stands in front of one of the many murals that decorate Comuna 13 in Medellín, Colombia. Photo: Heather Cassell  

Cartagena was dazzling and sophisticated. Medellín was bursting with creativity. Our group enjoyed shopping at a local market and cooking and making cocktails in the morning. In the afternoon we went to the notorious Comuna 13, locally known as C13, that was once under the control of the Escobar drug cartel.

Today, artists have taken over the hilltop neighborhood and have transformed it, noted Cata Gutierrez, our tour guide who grew up during Escobar's reign of terror in the neighborhood. When she was 8, a gang killed her family in front of her as they were taking her to school. Her uncles took her in. When she was 13 she started earning money rapping on the subway while going to school. She later joined Casa Kolacho, an artist collective where she found community and thrived. Gutierrez had just launched C13 Brewing Company, as a part of the Comuna Project, at the time our group toured C13.

It's challenging to be LGBTQ in the community, Gutierrez said. Homophobia remains, but two weeks before our visit a stairway was painted in rainbow colors in C13. Gutierrez said no one had defaced the steps. Instead, the community was enjoying it.

South America's fourth largest city, Bogotá has a thriving LGBTQ community, our LGBTQ history tour guide Juan Camilo, an ally, told us as we walked through the city, stopping at historical points. At Cafe San Alberto, our group enjoyed a coffee and rum tasting that made Irish coffee look boring. On our last night in Colombia, our group enjoyed an elegant evening dining at B.O.G. Hotel and more dancing at Theatron.

Where to stay
I was a guest of Esestelar hotels in Bogotá, Cartagena, and Medellí­n.

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