Ten years of transformation: An interview with Colombian journalist Richard McColl
Transformation can take on many forms and can happen at any scale. What’s necessary in all cases, however, is a clear sense of its benefits and the will to make it happen. For the past two years, Delaney Turner has been helping clients transform their content marketing strategies from his office in Bogotá, Colombia. This is the first entry in a new series profiling the people who are transforming this oft-misunderstood country in new and exciting ways.
After 10 years of calling Colombia home, Richard McColl knows there’s more to the country than Narcos and Romancing the Stone. As an author and journalist, he’s travelled to some of the most remote places in a country replete with them. His Casa Amarilla hotel has sparked a tourism boom in one of the country’s most historic towns. And through his popular podcast, Colombia Calling, he explores the dynamics that shape the country’s politics, economy, and social mores at a pivotal point in the country’s history.
I chatted with Richard at Libertario Coffee Roasters, a recent entry onto Bogotá’s burgeoning gourmet coffee scene, about the many transformations he sees taking place in the country.
What was Colombia like when you arrived? How did it feel on the ground?
Colombia felt about 20 years behind, but catching up. It was clear, regardless of where your politics sit, that change was taking place.
Colombia offered more opportunities to get in on the ground level. The markets in other parts of South America – Argentina and Peru, for example – were already saturated. Cartagena had its hotels and its tourism, but it’s an island apart from the rest of the country. I could come in and do what I wanted to do, which was report, and make a change on the ground.
One of those changes being La Casa Amarilla, in Mompox
Yes. Mompox was the kind of town I look for when I travel. And I had spent so much time writing about social projects that I wanted a project to put my money where my mouth was. I knew the history and had worked as a guide, so it was a good match. Also, the Pound was incredibly friendly to the Peso in 2007.
When I got there the only foreign tourists were myself and another English writer. Mompox is perceived to be difficult to get to, and everyone behaved as if it was in a captive market. It was clear that no one had set up the appropriate business. No one was thinking about the international market.
Had you ever run a hotel before?
But I did have experience running a guest house in Yoho National Park in British Columbia. It was 12 kilometres from the nearest road.
Getting up and running did have its challenges – finding and training the staff, for example. But it was equally fun – the man who cut down some tree branches for me was named “Spider Man.” No one knows his real name. And I think we’ve done a bit of a service. We’ve rescued a house, we’ve put Mompox on the international map, and earned some respect.
How much of what’s happening in Mompox is indicative of what’s happening in Colombia?
I see Mompox as a microcosm of Colombia as a whole. It’s a perfect demonstration of Colombia’s class system but also of what’s happening behind the scenes. You don’t see it so much in a big city like Bogotá, but if you peel back the layers in Mompox it stares you right in the face.
There’s the feudal descendants of the white colonial families – the same 10 or 15 families who seem to run most things. They’re Italian and Spanish, they all have their family trees on their walls, and they all plan to write a book about their family history.
Everything here is appearances. If you ever get invited into their house, you’ll never get past the front sitting room because that’s the only one that’s left in its regal splendor. Beyond that, usually the colonial houses are falling down.
Then you have lawyers, and teachers, and tradesmen, then you have a mix of indigenous and descendants of black slaves. That mix was forced onto the people of Mompox by the Conquistadors. It’s a very interesting physiognomy.
How important was it to be named by the Economist as Country of the Year?
It was a huge boom for the country that the Economist named us the Country of the Year. I don’t like to use the term “failed state,” but there were severe challenges to the reality of this country.
Colombia was a more aggressive place when I arrived. There was suspicion everywhere. If you were a foreigner, a journalist, or working for an NGO, you were labeled a liberal or sympathizer. When I was working in Cali, foreigners would stop you on the street to talk because it was so rare to see. Now you can’t swing a cat without seeing foreigners and expats, and there’s hardly a U.S. newspaper that doesn’t have Colombia on its list of countries to visit.
A town like Mompox, which has lived off cattle farming and little else in recent years, needs another industry. Of course, tourism won’t pick up the slack from the collapse of the oil market, but these are positives. Ten other hotels have opened up since we started, and we’re always referring people to them.
The government sees that we’re registering more foreign tourists, so now they’re looking at Mompox and they want to make it a special tourist destination. They’ve also completed a restoration project along the riverfront, and that’s been immense. Everyone’s benefitting.
I also have to laud the tenacity of the government’s negotiating team to reach a very good agreement with the nation’s biggest guerrilla group. What we’re seeing at the moment is an armed peace. Whether there will be social peace is another story. But they’ve been able to get over seven thousand combatants to stop shooting and reintegrate them, which is huge. People say they can pick holes in the accord everywhere, but it’s a very complete agreement.
A lot of this change is being driven by a new generation of Colombians. What evidence do you see of the change they’re bringing?
I would say there’s a turning point. The new generation who are in university at the moment have a more open view of the country and its history. Their parents would have lived through the darkest days of the conflict and would know of or would have had family members who were severely affected. But their children are looking for a different way to address things.
There’s also a process of de-colonialization happening. This generation is looking to deconstruct the history as they were taught it from a Castilian perspective, and that’s exciting.
A lot the young generation have also spent time in the United States or Europe, and they’ve studied fields they wouldn’t have been able to in Colombia. They’re bringing that knowledge back and applying it in a Colombian context. You see it in the service industry, you see it in academia. Of course, we’re living in a globalized world and the hipster culture has arrived in Bogotá – we’re even sitting in a hipster coffee shop.
There’s a different attitude – in barrios like Teusaquillo, Chapinero, La Macarena, even into the La Candelaria, there’s a willingness to try new things. Back in the 90s, the attitude would have been “That’s not how we do it here.” This new generation is prepared to try, to fail, and adapt. That’s very exciting to see.