Will Colombia be 2021's Most Popular LGBTQ Travel Destination?

by Matthew Wexler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday December 3, 2020

With a vaccine in sight, we're all itching more than ever to start planning a responsible getaway for 2021. Of course, travel in the new year may look far different from the past, with more travelers considering less-crowded destinations and outdoor experiences. But we still want our LGBTQ fabulousness.

Colombia has been gaining traction as the next hot spot for queer travelers. Same-sex activity has been legal for 20 years, and same-sex marriage since 2016. But what can LGBTQ visitors expect on a visit to this South American destination with shores on both the Caribbean Sea and the South Pacific Ocean?

EDGE chatted with Sam Castañeda Holdren, CEO of Out in Colombia, for his take on what makes Colombia unique and what's ahead for the year in travel.

EDGE: What inspired you to start Out in Colombia?

Sam Castrañeda Holdren: After visiting Colombia for the first time in 2013, I fell in love with the place, as many ex-pats do. The people are so warm and friendly. The country is both modern and developing. Medellin, where I live now, is a very green city. You find yourself in an urban environment surrounded by nature. But, as a gay traveler, it was difficult to find community. So I started a blog at first to help do that. Then, a couple traveling from Los Angeles reach out to see if I could connect them with a gay travel guide. I really didn't know any, so I offered to organize an itinerary for them. It was a success, and I enjoyed connecting gay travelers from my home in the U.S. to the community and cultures in Colombia, my new home.

EDGE: Coronavirus notwithstanding, how has LGBTQ tourism evolved in South America since you first started the company?

SCH: To answer this, I first need to speak to how the community has evolved in general.

When I first came here, it was difficult to find resources and information about the LGBTQ community. And it was virtually impossible to find any information in English. But something amazing happened after the government signed a peace deal with rebel fighters in 2016. Colombia simultaneously opened its doors to international tourists as the people of Colombia started to open up a bit more themselves.

The LGBTQ community has evolved and is now very vibrant. We're starting to see more diverse expressions. Also, queer people who had left Colombia during the conflict began to return home, bringing new ideas and perspectives with them. It's great to see more community organizations popping up, playing a role in public policy while gay nightlife diversifies. Just a few years ago, there wasn't much variety in terms of gay bars and nightclubs. But now, more options reflect the community's diversity, including more drag experiences, more artistic spaces, a mixture of music—it's not just all reggaeton and electronic music anymore.

Tourism, in general, has evolved since the peace deal was signed. That was a signal to the rest of the world that Colombia had become a safe place to visit. And it really is, including for the LGBTQ community. Around that same time, the LGBT chamber of commerce in Bogota kicked off the conversation about LGBTQ tourism. With the support of the chamber and ProColombia, the country's tourism board and several city tourism offices, LGBTQ tourism has become a key strategy for the country.

We have seen more and more tourism suppliers reaching out to the community and being more welcoming. At OUT in Colombia, we have spent a lot of time over the past four years identifying tour operators, guides, hotels, and other service providers that are not only gay-friendly but also offer an excellent, high-quality, and sustainable experience. Our network has grown substantially, and we're excited to offer a wide variety of experiences in several Colombian destinations.

We have also developed some unique experiences with local entrepreneurs, including our favorite CookingOUT Experience where you visit a local market to taste exotic fruits and shop for ingredients that you will use to prepare lunch with a gay chef. It's very hands-on and people really enjoy it. We have also developed LGBTQ-focused city tours using gay and gay-friendly guides, so you get to know the LGBT+ community as you explore the city.

EDGE: For those who haven't been to Colombia before, what qualities make each of these destinations unique?

SCH: Bogota is the capital and the largest city in Colombia. It's the most urban, cosmopolitan destination in the country. I'm a foodie, and one of my favorite things about Bogota is the delicious food scene. You'll also find a lot of great nightlife in the city. Theatron is a must-see. It's the largest gay nightclub in the Americas, perhaps even the world.

SCH: Known as the City of Eternal Spring, Medellin has springlike weather every day of the year. Temperatures are pretty much always between 70 and 80 degrees. It's the second-largest city in Colombia. In addition to its urban appeal, there are a lot of easily-accessible day excursions to nearby pueblos and outdoor activities. For example, adventure travelers can ride ATVs through Medellin's mountains, go river rafting, enjoy horseback riding, and paraglide over the valleys through the Andean mountain range. There is a growing gay scene in Medellin, as well. One of my favorite day excursions involves a coffee farm visit to enjoy a coffee tasting experience. It's not the same cup of joe that you'll find at your local Starbucks.

SCH: This city by the Caribbean Sea is one of Colombia's gems. The old historic center is surrounded by a 16th-century wall the Spaniards built. The city has an impressive history and a unique culture. The food is great too! After spending a couple of days in the city, it's always great to cool off on the nearby islands where you can access exclusive white-sand beaches and crystal-clear waters.

EDGE: Both Bogota and Medellin seem to be art and culture hubs. Is there a growing community of LBGTQ artists?

SCH: I recently visited a new bar and art gallery in downtown Medellin specifically for queer artists. It's a new, unique space in the gay nightlife scene, and it's a reflection of the growing arts culture in the city. Of course, Bogota has its share of queer artists, too. We recently designed a tour that takes visitors to studios of queer artists. It's still somewhat in development, but the idea is for travelers to engage in an interactive experience and, in some cases, participate in the creative process. We also include visits to different galleries where art lovers can purchase pieces from the local scene.

EDGE: Looking ahead to 2021, are you planning bookings? If so, how have itineraries been altered given the pandemic?

SCH: Yes, we are absolutely booking trips. In fact, one of our returning clients has already booked and completed his journey. Colombia is open for business. We have made sure all of our partners are implementing the appropriate biosecurity protocols so you can travel worry-free. As always, we create custom, one-of-a-kind experiences, so each itinerary is unique. But we recently took time to organize some standard packages that include some of our most popular experiences.

Matthew Wexler is EDGE's Senior Editor, Features & Branded Content. More of his writing can be found at www.wexlerwrites.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @wexlerwrites.