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The icon Colombia Needs

You've won a contest. The first prize is you get to visit as many countries as you can in one week. The catch? You only have 2 hours in each country and you only get one photo.

You pick: Egypt, Peru, Australia, France, Brazil, India and Colombia.

Where would you choose to have this picture taken? Where would be your 'I've been there!' photo from each country? Every major travel destination on the list has an icon that needs no further explanation.



Some time ago, in our See Colombia Travel Blog I asked this same question to a bunch of expat friends and 99% of their answers were the same for the first 6 countries:

  • Egypt: The Pyramids
  • Peru: Machu Picchu
  • Australia: The Sidney Opera House
  • France: The Eiffel Tower
  • Brazil: Christ Redeemer in Rio
  • India: The Taj Majal

But when we reach Colombia, the answers are something like this:

Er….. Cartagen.. no wait, the coffee thing ..area,no,no …the beaches? Ermmm...

Exactly. There’s no symbol; no graphic representation; no icon that says “Colombia” loudly and clearly in just one glance.

The question I'd like to address is: Does Colombia need one of those? Or are those icons just good for a post card?

We who live in Colombia dedicate ourselves to promoting travel in this amazing country have two main tasks: the first and the hardest one is to help spread the word about how those stereotypes about Colombia being a violent drug filled country simply not true. Unfortunately the first ideas that come to mind to most foreigners when Colombia is mentioned are danger and drugs. In the best case scenario, maybe Juan Valdez and coffee.

Although things are rapidly, positively evolving and the general perception of Colombia travel is changing worldwide – I say “general “because people “in the know” have already changed that perception and are investing in various businesses and even moving over here – it is still hard to fight the bad image that some media (and Hollywood ) use to keep selling stories.



The second task, after having convinced our interlocutor that there’s nothing to be afraid of, and that this is actually one of the most beautiful, friendly and diverse lands in the face of earth, is to start explaining WHY almost every foreigner that comes to visit the country doesn’t want to leave. Why is Colombia so magical even for us who have been to many other parts of the world and that have chosen, very consciously, to live here. Where to start? How do you describe something you can only feel?

Many of my traveler and travel industry colleagues – native Colombian and gringos – agree on the fact that the key to that question lies in the fact Colombia is such a diverse country, that you can hike snow caps, enjoy paradisiacal beaches, live a jungle adventure or trek deserts in the same country and in a week time span. And although that is true, I’m one of the few that disagree about showing that as a “competitive differentiation” to “sell” what Colombia really is. Moreover, most Latin American countries claim to be  “one of the most diverse countries on earth”, (Peru, Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil are the first to pop up on my mind) not to mention countries in other regions of the world, such as New Zealand.

So, diversity might be part of the answer, but we need a stronger argument to convince our skeptic imaginary interlocutor. Another factor that makes Colombia special – the one I personally consider the most important – is how warm, generous and friendly Colombians are. I’m not sure if it’s because Colombia has been “closed” for travelers for so many decades and they don’t really know what to think of these strange “mochileros”, but unlike other countries in South America – including my native Peru – as a traveler that has been many times taken for Gringo I don’t feel that people here are trying to rip me off just because of my accent or my looks. On the contrary I have always found people very keen to help me and to proudly show their customs and sites with no further interest than that. Becoming part of this culture has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life.



So, the experience of discovering the amazing Colombia and to interact with Colombians is one of the other fantastic things you can talk about when raving about Colombia. But being completely honest, this is the kind of feeling that many foreigners develop when they fall in love with their new home-countries. I’m trying not to be biased by my love for Colombia here – although I’m pretty sure that people in Colombia are indeed absolutely special and I have never found so many people sharing this opinion – but that’s something you can’t really perceive until you’re here, so it’s something very difficult to get across.

The diversity and the people; these are the things that make Colombia magical, but they're not points that are sold easily nor indirectly. You can find endless landmarks here: the magnificent Tayrona beaches, the mysteriously enchanting streets of Cartagena, the surprisingly modern and multicultural Bogota, those otherworldly landscapes in the Cocora Valley or Tatacoa Desert that leave you just breathless… As a matter of fact, as I think about the Colombia I know and love dozens – no – hundreds of images (sanagustinarchaeologicalparktheloscityboteroplazainmedellinbeachesoftolucocoravalleythe streetsofcartagenalacandelariasaltcathedralofzipaquira) flood my mind. But there’s still no one unique image that shouts “Colombia!”.



I believe Colombia needs to officially choose an icon,  just as Peru has Machu Picchu or England the Big Ben; those icons are used to get travelers to all their other important destinations. A symbol for Colombia is one of the important steps that have to be taken in a macro plan to get this still undiscovered country to the next level. The industry here is still in its infancy and we (bloggers, travel professionals, hotel owners, governmental representatives) have an almost unique chance to do it right and responsibly in order to attract more travelers and spread the word about our beloved country.

So if you have any idea about which site do you think should be Colombia’s icon drop us a line, they don’t only have to be existing landmarks, because as in the case of the Opera House in Sydney... you can always build one.


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Andrew Wolffe Tuesday, 10 April 2012

For me it's got to be a pre Colombian gold figure

JL Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Good angle, Andrew... something that evokes El Dorado legend seems like a perfect option too.

Juli Wednesday, 11 April 2012

For me its the people, as you mentioned in your entry. If I needed to have a picture taken that screams "Colombia" it would be with some Colombian gauchos (sorry, I've been sometime in Argentina ;-)) con sus sombreros vueltiados and their warm smiles. Of course guys would probably ask some of the stunning girls for a picture ;-)

José Luis Pastor & Marcela Mariscal
José Luis Pastor & Marcela Mariscal
Marcela was born in Bogota and started travelling through the country along with
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José Luis Pastor & Marcela Mariscal Saturday, 14 April 2012

Hi Juli,

Thanks for your answer, the difficulty I see with that is that not many people around the world really know what a sombrero vueltiao is or how it looks like, so its hard to represent a "typical" recognizable national outfit that can be immediately related to Colombia. On the other hand I think that angle has already been successfully used at some extent for the Juan Valdez brand and could maybe cause a "conflict of interests" :) Cheers and once again thanks for stopping by :)

Eric Hiss Thursday, 12 April 2012

Great post JL. Some excellent insights. I would just like to add my two pesos here as someone who has spent two decades in the travel industry, first in PR (I ran the West Coast/US program for Mexico Tourism and headed the account team that opened the largest hotel in the world, the MGM Grand/Las Vegas) and for the last 15 years as a journalist/blogger (Conde Nast Traveler, LA Times, Delta Sky etc). I’ve also been hired to name multi-million dollar spas and created “brand voices” for major US hotel companies. Anyway, blah blah. My point is I understand destination branding as well as the global travel narrative.

Firstly, you are absolutely dead-on accurate about needing an “icon.” And you are also right-on about not needing to show diversity. Case in point: India and the Taj Mahal. We can all appreciate Colombia’s diversity, but India (a country I know well) is more a continent than a country, with 11 major languages, 52 regional dialects and an astounding geographical diversity that ranges from the Himalayas to the tropical retreats of Kerala. The Taj Mahal represents none of that. It is simply an icon – a hood ornament – for the country as a whole.

And on the topic of branding, considering you probably know people at ProExport, please suggest to them they change their tag-line. The word “Risk” doesn’t belong within 100 miles of the word “Colombia,” much less a few centimeters. Even in the context it’s written, it’s an immediate association. The tag is nice, but belongs in body copy where it can be better nuanced, not as a national tag.

Sorry for the long-winded post. It’s just that Colombia is a country I love and have deep ties to. My grandfather was born there 100 years ago and my family (the Lloredas) have deep ties to the country. I look forward to returning soon…

And oh yes! For the icon, for me, it has to be one of two things: a beautiful gold mask or figurine from the Museo de Oro as Andrew suggested, or Cartagena’s Plaza de Santo Domingo…

José Luis Pastor & Marcela Mariscal
José Luis Pastor & Marcela Mariscal
Marcela was born in Bogota and started travelling through the country along with
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José Luis Pastor & Marcela Mariscal Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Hi Eric,

Thanks a lot for your kind words. The Taj Mahal example you give is exactly what I’m talking about: using a universally recognized icon to establish a strong identity and THEN show everything else that the destination has to offer. Diversity is a far too nebulous concept to try to conceptualize easily and get across. Having worked with most of Latin America’s travel bureaus I have seen how, over the years, most of our neighboring countries are still struggling as well to find a unique voice. All of them, at some point, have tried to make “diversity” their unique selling point and most of them have shifted to something more adequate. I think that Peru has nailed it now with their “Live the Legend” concept that followed the ‘Pack your six senses“campaign. On the other side of the spectrum is Ecuador, which seems to change its identity and communicational focus every few months (now they’re back -again- at the “ diversity” concept with their “I discovered” campaign).

I’m the first to admit that Colombia is a whole different animal though, because although the country’s image is steadily and rapidly improving, Colombia in the international Social imagination is still a dangerous, drug filled country. In that sense I think that the “Only risk is wanting to stay” campaign did something very clever by turning a weakness into a strength in the form of a motto. I agree with you, however, on the fact that it’s very probably time to strive away from that concept and to find a new national tag-line that’s 100% positive. A second-phase campaign is needed now that the fact that Colombia is not “risky” anymore has been repeated enough times. And that takes me back to the original point: the need of an icon able to stand aside and complement a more clear statement about what Colombia is about. I don’t know if it’d be too similar to what Peru is doing but a gold figurine that relates and evokes the El Dorado legend as many have suggested here and in my original post seems like a very good starting point to exercise our creativity.
Once again thanks a lot, keep in touch and remember you can read our daily posts at our original See Colombia Travel Blog

Un Abrazo


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