By Manuel Fuentes
Medellín (Colombia), Jul 14 (EFE).- Claudio is a Chilean architect who met Jairo on a business trip to Bogotá, but their budding relationship was put on pause when the pandemic struck. Now that life is back to normal, Claudio has scheduled a weekend getaway to Colombia. They will see each other again after more than two years, but this time they have chosen a different setting for their rendezvous: the welcoming city of Medellín.
There are few cities in the world that have managed to overcome a reputation for violence and backwardness to lead a process of social change and modernization. Among the most prominent cases are New York, Singapore and Medellín, a city that between 2002 and 2014 experienced a decrease in crime of more than 85 percent and today embodies a successful process of social reintegration.
And it is that same collective commitment to coexistence, pluralism and respect for diversity that has made it a top destination for “gay-friendly” tourism, full of sexual freedom, social diversity and open recognition of gender identity on the part of its 2.5 million inhabitants.
The second most important city in Colombia has characteristics that make it a travel destination with special charm. Its location, in the center of the Aburrá Valley, offers a tropical climate with an average temperature of 24ºC (75.2°F). Surrounded by forests and natural parks, Medellín is also one of the main financial, commercial and service centers in Colombia.
But what has made this city especially famous as an international tourist destination in recent years is its cultural revival: from the Flower Festival, an annual event that offers visitors more than 140 cultural events, to the Festival of Poetry, winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize, without forgetting the Colombiamoda fashion fair or the intense university activity, which transforms Medellín into the knowledge capital of Colombia.
The morning that Claudio and Jairo arrive in Medellín, the capital of Colombia’s Antioquia province surrounded by wooded mountains and life, there is no sign of the fear and extreme violence that once defined the city. Nowadays the “City of Eternal Spring” is committed to freedom and love and is open as never before to diverse and friendly tourism. It is today a city that exudes art, joy and, above all, tolerance.
“Through its cultural, artistic and entertainment offerings, Medellín is consolidating itself as a destination recognized by the LGBTIQ+ community from all over the world” and especially from the United States, Mexico and Brazil, says Ledys López, Undersecretary of Tourism of the Mayor’s Office of Medellín.
And a very important factor for its consolidation is to have good connectivity. Medellín currently has direct flights to cities that are world leaders in LGBTIQ+ culture, such as New York, Miami, Madrid, Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.
“It’s not just about serving an emerging niche, but also about connecting Colombians and the gay community with the international public,” says Juan David Borja, Operations Manager at OUT in Colombia, a travel agency specializing in LGBTIQ+ tourism.
The signing of Colombia’s Peace Accord in 2016 boosted demand, “but there was no clear offer for tourists from this community. They simply arrived in the country and hired services, but there was no gay identity in line with their expectations and interests,” the tour operator said, adding that “the disappearance of the sense of fear and terrorism” has led many to identify Colombia and Medellin as “a new land for this type of tourism.”
According to data from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the new scenario of peace and harmony boosted local LGBTIQ+ tourism, with growth of 10 points above conventional travel.
FASHION, CULTURE, ENTERTAINMENT…
“Medellín welcomes all people, of any origin. It is a city of very friendly people, with a climate that is simply perfect.” Claudio and Jairo could not agree more with Juan David Borja’s description of a city that brought together 85,000 people for the last LGBTIQ+ Pride march “to show its true face through love.”
Determined to discover the varied cultural and entertainment offerings with a diverse approach, the couple set out on a Friday morning to explore the fashion, art and design stores in the El Poblado neighborhood, the epicenter of “queer” life in a city where diversity is alive and enjoyed.
And it’s not just a perception. In 2017, Colombia won the award for Best Emerging LGBT Destination at the Fitur International Tourism Fair in Madrid and was subsequently recognized as South America’s Leading LGBTIQ+ Destination at the World Travel Awards (the “Oscars” for tourism) in 2018, 2020 and 2021.
There is also time over the weekend to explore the more artistic side and history of the city, with a must-see visit to the Museum of Modern Art to appreciate the powerful social protest of painter Débora Arango; the Museum of Antioquia, filled with works by the world-famous Fernando Botero; and the Casa de la Memoria Museum, opened in 2006 to provide a space for dialogue and acknowledgment of the armed conflict in Colombia.
On Saturday morning, Jairo prepared a very special visit: Comuna 13, an area of Medellín that was plagued by poverty, terror and helplessness during the 1980s and 1990s because of the urban guerrilla militias, paramilitary groups and drug trafficking organizations. Today, the figure of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar is now only a “souvenir” sold in street stalls.
The residents’ eagerness to better themselves, the socio-cultural transformation of the city and the development of productive activities, such as LGBTIQ+ tourism, have made this neighborhood a model of coexistence that every weekend celebrates a kind of mini-carnival, with thousands of tourists winding through its steep streets, dancing, singing and enjoying the delicious local cuisine.
And to round off the trip, you have to experience the “ballroom” culture, which emerged in New York in the 1970s, has strangely boomed in Medellín, and has become an international reference in the art of drag. Claudio and Jairo have heard a lot about the Querida Bar, the Oracle Club and, especially, the Chiquita Bar, located in the “pink zone” next to other equally fascinating places, bars, restaurants and dance clubs.
It is in this crazy fun atmosphere, where Walther Duque, a young designer passionate about fashion, theater and film, gives life to his alter ego Gretha White, the “drag queen” of Medellin, famous for her elegance and Hollywood glamor.
The weekend in Medellín is over and the reunion has served to send the pair of friends off with the feeling that the pandemic is giving way to a new era open to a future of hope, freedom and diversity. As they say in Medellin, “una chimba, parce!” That’s great, dude! EFE