Colombia’s 2023: A non-political take on the year

By Oli Pritchard December 21, 2023

Compared to Colombia’s last year in politics, there was much to celebrate in wider society. That’s not to say it was all good news, of course – crime remains concerning and inflation is stubbornly refusing to jog on. However, sporting successes and cultural celebrations meant there was plenty to cheer.

Whether the earth moved for you in August’s earthquakes, or you were moving your hips to la bichota in November’s spectacle in Medellín, there was lots of entertainment around. The superpoderosas won the nation’s hearts, as did the heroic children in the Guaviare jungle.

Children survive jungle ordeal

Not just headline news in Colombia, the incredible story of a group of Uitoto Indigenous children that first survived a plane crash in the rainforests of Guaviare before then lasting for over a month foraging and waiting to be rescued made the news worldwide. The heartwarming story later took a dark turn with allegations of domestic abuse against the father of two of the kids.

Staying in the rainforest but moving to the other end of the country, the Darien Gap saw an ever-increasing number of migrants crossing, most en route to the United States. Tens of thousands have passed through, often in terrible conditions. These travellers are arriving not only from neighbouring countries but also countries as far as India and China.

Edgar Álvarez' figurines illustrate the Darien issue. Courtesy of Ángela Forero Aponte
Edgar Álvarez’ figurines illustrate the Darien issue. Courtesy of Ángela Forero Aponte

In fact, Colombia has also seen high emigration numbers, with inflation and a spiralling cost of living leading to dissatisfaction with the economy, combined with post-pandemic rebound effects. The numbers for 2023 won’t be out until next year, but they don’t look good. 

More jungle news from the Magdalena, where the cocaine hippo problem popped up to waggle its ears again. The recommendation was culling, although that faces fierce opposition from animal rights’ groups, as well as significant logistical issues. Transporting them to Mexico or India has been suggested as an alternative. There was also outrage at the shooting of two escaped chimps in Pereira in July.

There was a spate of earthquakes in August, leading to some road blockages and general concern over Colombia’s preparedness for natural disasters. More encouragingly, cruise ships have put Buenaventura back on their list, and the first boat was met with delight and hopes for the future of the city. It’s also seen some success with crime reduction.

Transport me to the stars

Viva Air, Colombia’s answer to Ryanair, collapsed in February, bringing chaos and panic to airports countrywide. Avianca eventually ended up being the big winners from that, despite initially being blocked from taking over the company when it first ran into problems.

They came under fire later for ill-advised publicity around a missing ‘A’. People have been complaining about the company’s lack of ethics, service and competence for a while now, so it was more than a little tin-eared to run a big campaign focussing on what had gone missing.

The Bogotá Metro continues to move forward, with a slightly condescending metro experience opening in the capital. We really have begun to see signs of progress though. Both demolition and construction are clearly visible. A sad part of that was the end of clubland hotspot Kaputt. However, Petro’s desire to go underground threatens the progress made so far.

An end may also be in sight for the long-benighted question of the Séptima. Claudia López finally won approval, sort of, to start a legacy project to restrict car access to northern parts of the trunk road. Mayor-elect Galán is lukewarm on it, so expect plenty of modification, delay and meddling from local NIMBYs. 

The good old TransMi angered many by putting in ever more extreme measures to try and reduce fare evasion. It’s certainly a real problem – you’re unlikely to take a trip and not see a dozen people at minimum cheating the system. The one measure never taken though, seems the most obvious: fine some and jail others.

Catastrophic crime concerns continue 

The father of Colombia’s most famous sports star, footballer Luis Díaz, was kidnapped at the end of October, shining a light on the alarming rise in kidnappings. While this had been reversing for a decade or so, there has been a sharp uptick in recent years, almost doubling throughout this year

Much of this is from guerilla groups, especially the FARC rebels and ELN. The former came back in spectacular style, as Iván Mordisco, thought to have been killed, reappeared in April armed to the teeth. Good news came in late December though, as the ELN announced an end to kidnapping for economic reasons. Little and late, but better than nowt. Paz Total continues to exist purely as a slogan rather than having any effect.

Shady’s back, once again. Photo courtesy of the FARC-EP

The year started with the murder of DJ Valentina Trespalacios and the subsequent arrest of US national John Poulus in Panama. Femicide continues to be a serious issue in Colombia, although many cases don’t make the headlines. The city has a free helpline for those suffering from domestic abuse – Línea Púrpurra.

Within Bogotá, everyone has been talking about crime and outgoing mayor Claudia López has become more strident in recent interviews, claiming that the police are ineffectual and out of her control. She’s not wrong, but could have said it earlier. Four out five Bogotá residents now feel unsafe in the capital, and she’s done little to combat that.

Scintillating salsa soccer superstars simply shine

Sports now, and the women’s football team lit up the World Cup Down Under by reaching the semi-finals. Prodigy Linda Caicedo’s winning smile was everywhere over the summer as the Real Madrid wonderkid inspired Colombia’s run. World number two Germany were cast aside and Ireland limped home but the superpoderosas were eventually halted by a strong England team, traditionally Colombia’s nemesis in the men’s game too.

Tolima fan and BP writer Tristo Quigley in his beloved Sydney

It’s hard to overestimate just what a phenomenon Caicedo could be. At barely 20 she’s already been to a Copa America final and World Cup semi, scored at every tournament and level she’s been tested at and earned her place at Real Madrid. Already ranked in the top three of female footballers, the sky’s the limit for her. All this, and a cancer survivor too.

The men’s team also found form, with new coach Nestor Lorenzo turning things around and going unbeaten through the initial rounds of World Cup qualification. The biggest scalp there was a first-ever win in World Cup qualifiers for a Lucho Díaz-inspired Colombia against regional giants Brazil. The future again looks rosy for los cafeteros.

Domestically, Millonarios of Bogotá won the first championship of the year. That takes them to within one win of Nacional in the all time rankings. Junior (tu papá) took the second championship, prompting absolute scenes across the entire northern coast. Spare a thought for Águilas Doradas, who came top of the table in both regular seasons (unbeaten in the second) yet finished empty handed due to the playoff systems.

Colombia also punched above its weight in cricket, finishing third in the Latin American championships thanks largely to all-rounder Laurel Parks, tournament MVP. More traditionally, dominance continued in inline skating, where Colombia took a whopping 61 medals in the Panamerican Championships, 29 of them gold.

Sad news from the tennis courts, as Colombian doubles team Cabal and Farah bowed out. While there was an unfortunate doping incident, the two are far and away the country’s best ever players. On the topic of doping, Superman López got a suspension in cycling, which wasn’t a big surprise, while Nairoman re-signing with Movistar was. Keep an eye on that for next year.

Music and more

In culture, Bogotá once again hosted a plethora of national and international events, from the geekfest that is SOFA, through the joys of ExpoPet and the caffeine hit of ExpoCafé. Throw in high culture events such as FilBo, Bogotá Fashion Week and ARTBO and the city is right back on the pre-pandemic track of cultural development.

Most excitingly for many was the debut of IKEA at the Fería del Hogar in September. We give it no more than two years before Billy bookcases are everywhere. Bogotá put its own classist spin on that, with a whole shower of gomelos moaning that it was too far south (19 with the NQS!) for their tastes. Hopefully, no one will tell them it’s a European working class store.

Music too, saw Festival Estéreo Picnic expand up to a four-day extravaganza and Cordillera cemented itself into the entertainment fundament of the city. The former is Colombia’s well-established premier music event and featured vital current heavyweights such as memelord Drake (spotted on the TransMi) and Billie Eilish. 

Waiting for Wu-Tang at FEP. Courtesy of Laurel Parish.

The latter, meanwhile, is an upstart that focuses heavily on Latin talent both old and new. This makes it an excellent complement to FEP for us foreigners, as it features bands many of us have never seen live or know little of rather than the bands we may have seen before back home. With one in spring and the other in autumn, it balances the year neatly.

Ageing megastars have Bogotá on their list now and this included the Monsters of Rock featuring KISS and Scorpions. Later in the year, Roger Waters came to visit too. Canadian megastar The Weeknd bizarrely played midweek. Some followed the herd down to Blur, while Moz and Blink-182 cancelled. Both, sadly, will return next year.

Over the Magdalena river valley, Karol G AKA La Bichota put on probably the country’s biggest show of the year, though. This was no simple gig but a mini-festival. She might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but fair play to her for laying on free drinking water and a whole host of activities and involvement even for those without tickets. Other stars: take note.

Karol G popped up earlier in the year onstage with celebrated tax-dodger Shakira at the VMAs as the latter was being presented with a vanguard award. In turn, Shaky had exploded back onto the pop circuit by collaborating with Argentinian producer Bizarrap on two diss tracks against ex-husband Gerard Pique.