Many of us are overloaded by work, business and politics and in dire need of a vacation. We all try to refocus, make time for our spouses, turn off the phones and reset priorities. My husband Tito and I did just that for three weeks in December during a visit to Colombia. Our main mission in visiting Colombia was to relax and enjoy the beaches and glorious weather, the food and music and to spend time with friends and some family members.
The inevitable outcome was finding people in Colombia who were interested in knowing how we protect our liberty and freedom in America and we shared thoughts about politics, opportunity and prosperity because that is where our conversations with friends always seem to lead. They too were people who are struggling with a government that has become larger and more heavily regulated and they personally are much like us, wanting to grow their businesses and take care of their families.
Tito had a big stash of resources and traveled like a one-man Voice of America. He was armed with copies of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and also a book entitled, “American Exceptionalism,” and he planned to meet with new friends. Tito had connected with many people before our trip by writing in papers and on blogs internationally, so we had like-minded friends waiting to get together for discussions. He gave a few round-table talks and lectures and the participants were so enthused that the conversations spilled over into late-night dinners and drives around the cities we visited. We met our goal of relaxing and sunbathing and I saw every river, mountain and picturesque town along the way, but business and politics followed us everywhere.
By the way, I am not complaining and enjoyed every minute of it.
We joined a rally on December 13th opposing President Juan Manuel Santos’ measure to grant impunity to the FARC terrorists (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) who have kidnapped and murdered not only Colombian citizens but also Americans. The rally we attended was in Cartagena and there were simultaneous rallies in other major Colombian cities. Much like we protest here in America, people carried signs, they marched and chanted, and had interesting slogans.
However, there were two weak links. The first was that many protesters are under the false illusion that if things get difficult in Latin America, Obama will step in and help them fight. The second weakness is there appears to be a lack of understanding of how to move beyond the protest stage and into a plan of action for policy change. The first weakness mentioned took on a new light for us when President Obama announced a revision in his policy with Cuba and our Colombian friends realized we were right. They cannot have a false sense of security about how America may respond if Socialism takes deeper root in Latin America.
As one who cautions others not to make assumptions, admittedly there were many things that surprised me about Colombia because it had changed a lot in the 11 years since our last visit. The first surprise is that the population is very young, much younger than our average in the U.S. We mostly saw couples in their late 20s and 30s with young children. The purchasing power of these young families seemed strong. There were car dealerships, housing developments, and department stores flourishing and a need for more, which means opportunity to build. Taxes are high on goods there, at 16 percent; however, the taxes on businesses for investors are low, 15 percent maximum, and there are people protesting for liberty and freedom by adding incentives to investing in some cases. In thinking about business opportunity in Colombia, it is perplexing that we have open trade there but few Americans take advantage of the opportunity and our government does little to promote trade with Colombia. The Colombian economy is ripe for American goods and even for goods and services we have in Virginia that we could offer there. The GDP has grown enormously from the $200 billion mark in 2003 when I last visited to the $400 billion GDP today.
I mention this as Cuba is considered for a trade relationship that has far less to offer. Castro’s regime has expressed no interest in abandoning Communism or allowing businesses to maintain a majority in their own interests. Colombians on the other hand are hungry for innovation, investment, and partnership with Americans. I saw endless opportunities to do business in Colombia and have enough confidence in the purchasing power of the Colombian people and their desire for new products and services there that I am eager to follow through and invest.
I was surprised by the entrepreneurial spirit and sense of creativity of the small business people. There were internet cafes where we stopped often to use a computer and could also buy small items from jewelry to shoe laces and chewing gum. There were big home building supply stores called “Easy” and “Home Center” that could easily compete with Home Depot or Lowe’s in quality and variety of goods, and there were private trucks with drivers lined up on the street waiting to be rented to help transport purchases. Vendors were on the streets selling coffee, sunglasses, Christmas novelties, cell phone time on their private lines, and people selling hundreds of pairs of sneakers. You could find almost everything imaginable in open-air markets on the streets and it was all very colorful and exciting to see people working so hard and enjoying their work.
Part of the charm of Colombia is that there are houses on quiet streets lined with mango trees where you’ll see horse-driven carts selling fruits and vegetables to your door, much the way life was a hundred years ago. The contrast between the old and the new is striking and very beautiful. Just three blocks away you may also have a modern shopping center within walking distance. Everyone seems to love music and by taking a walk you will always hear music coming from the homes. People greet each other as you pass them and in Colombia you will feel nobody treats you like a stranger. For the most part they are warm and want to please people who are visiting.
We traveled between cities by bus whenever possible to see more of the countryside.
Riding from Santa Marta on the coast inland five hours to Valledupar, we took a bus that was full of young people partying on their way to a Silvestre concert. Silvestre is currently the hottest star, so popular he is known by only his first name, and we listened to his vallenato music the entire way on the bus. As great as he is, we had our fill of Silvestre music, enough to last a lifetime. There was one eight-year-old boy on the bus named Santiago who took a liking to us and asked me to help him learn his numbers and alphabet in English. He learned to count from one to twenty in about ten minutes and the rest of the trip he was repeating the ABC song and vocabulary words, impressing us with his thirst to learn more English. We got big hugs as he left the bus with his parents and baby brother. Of all the people I met in Colombia, I will surely never forget this precious boy named Santiago.
The trip to Valledupar was to share a grand opening event for a shopping center that Tito’s cousin had helped build as the chief engineer. Once again, my preconceived notions were blown away. I was expecting to see a little strip mall but was shocked to see two large separate malls that were three levels connected by underground parking with a four lane road in the middle and a five-story Hilton Hotel being constructed on top of one of the malls. We celebrated the final construction phase with a big reception, music, and fireworks. The small town of Valledupar was happy that it now had a beautifully modern place to shop and the mall was also becoming a huge provider of jobs. Meanwhile, the town still had all of its traditional charm and old-fashioned beauty.
We left Valledupar to visit Bogota where Tito took me to the historic home of Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator who had envisioned Colombia originally as a Republic, another highlight of our trip. The weather in Bogota is colder than elsewhere and the city has the crowded bustle that we have on our East Coast, so after three days I was ready to move on to Medellin.
In previous years I had not seen other Americans in Colombia. This time it was surprising to see so many Americans vacationing in Cartagena and perhaps it’s because people are now looking for something more exotic and different from Mexico. Cartagena, Santa Marta, Barranquilla, and Medellin all had beautiful hotels and people who were very welcoming to us. At the risk of offending anyone outside of Medellin, I confess that city won my heart for the beauty of the city and mountains, the weather, and the incredible service by people who treat guests like family. In the countryside outside of Medellin up in the mountains, you drive on winding roads that literally reach up into the clouds. There are beautiful fincas (small farms) and private complexes of ranch houses with guest cottages and swimming pools along the mountain road. I couldn’t help but wonder how fabulous it would be to build a ranch resort or bed and breakfast business there, and Tito and I might just pursue that.
Colombia has friendly people with disposable income, a growing economy, a beautiful climate that varies from city to city but is always pleasant, wonderful food, and music, so what more could we ask for while looking for a place to vacation or do business? I encourage all of you to travel to Colombia and experience its beauty, especially now that you know there are so many Colombians who share our desire for prosperity and opportunity, and who feel so strongly allied with the United States. And maybe, just possibly when you are ready to travel there, Tito and I will have built a fantastic ranch resort for you to stay in.
Photos by Deborah Bornstein Munoz