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Colombia: Magical and Real

On my first day in Colombia I encountered a wolfdog framed in a light blue colonial window. From his second story perch he stood tall, impervious to the pedestrians picking their way down the cobblestone street below, staring into the distance at the majestic mountains framing Bogota. He seemed to me like a character in a novel, introduced on the first page, some magical half-wolf, half-human sentinel, poised to leap over us all, leading us all on a surrealist adventure through Colombia’s winding history of violence, beauty and metaphor-laden magic.

LEFT: A husky keeps watch over the street from a window in La Candeleria in Bogota, Colombia. RIGHT: Street scene in La Candeleria in Bogota, Colombia.

Flying into Bogota the night before, Colombia’s new travel campaign had been on a loop on the little airplane screen in front of me: coffee-cups merged with a dreamy green landscape; parrots chirped, flitting in and out of picture-perfect frames in a jungle, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s words sailed from a time-worn book, swirling around our wonder-struck traveler as she wandered through a colonial city scene, in all creating a poignant convergence of past and present, of reality and fiction. “Colombia’s Magical Realism” is the campaign’s name that evokes the literary genre that made famous the Nobel-winning Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and in whose stories the protagonists live in scenes that nonchalantly blend reality with magic.

Advertisements for Colombia’s Magical Realism tourism campaign.

It’s a particularly apt campaign. In literature and in art, magic is a brilliant storytelling device for tales steeped in pain and loss. Not only does magic engage the senses and imagination, but it also serves as an heady analgesic that allows for difficult topics to the addressed and processed, lessons distilled from imaginative parables and metaphors. Colombia has had her share of violence, loss and pain. Just a few years ago Colombia was regarded as one of the more dangerous countries in the world, with cities like Cali and Medellin synonymous with the cocaine cartels based there; in fact, the previous tourism campaign hinted at Colombia’s recent bloody history of murder and kidnap with the slogan, “The only risk is wanting to stay”. That still rings true: If you go, you’ll want to stay.

View from an ecohab at the Tayrona National Park. Tayrona National Park, in northern Colombia, is a large protected area covering the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as they meet the Caribbean coast. It’s known for its palm-shaded coves, coastal lagoons, rainforest and rich biodiversity. At its heart, the Pueblito ruins are an archaeological site accessed via forest trails, with terraces and structures built by the Tayrona civilization.


Jungle foliage near isolated Cañaveral Beach at Tayrona National Park. Tayrona National Park, in northern Colombia.

I’ve been wanting to visit Colombia for years, and was thrilled for the commission from Lonely Planet Traveller to photograph this magical country for their “Great Escape” feature. It was every bit as rich and magical as the tourism campaign promised.

The magazine layout:

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