Why I’m Bullish on Colombia

I moved to Latin America to make my career in an emerging market.

Globalization got a bad rep in America and industrialized economies because it moved jobs to countries with lower costs of labor. Developing countries, on the other hand, saw the emergence of a middle class. Goldman Sachs coined the term BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) for those countries that could eclipse traditionally rich countries. Then they identified the CIVETS countries to join the economic ranks of the BRIC, in which ‘C’ stood for Colombia. GDP growth in emerging markets, sometimes upward of 10%, is simply impossible to achieve in developed economies where 4% growth is considered rapid expansion.

So why Colombia? The best opportunity lies in the greatest unrealized potential. Emerging markets see so much growth because of their unrealized potential – mostly due to limiting economic policies from the past. For example, China had so much unrealized potential because its 1.3 billion people lived under the inefficiency of a government-planned economy. Allowing all those people to produce for a profit motive is why China is now the world’s second largest economy, and set to become the largest in my lifetime.

Brazil is the Latin American emerging market most economists drool over because of its size. But if we look at unrealized potential, Colombia is the most attractive. Where does Colombia’s unrealized potential come from? Security. Colombia’s undergoing a historic turnaround.

In addition to a guerrilla insurgency, the 80s and 90s were marked by cocaine cartels’ contribution to instability, most notably Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. The cartels bribed, kidnapped, and assassinated politicians and policemen. Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world. Right-wing paramilitaries added to the chaos.

The climate of violence and insecurity repelled foreign investment for decades. Who in their right mind would build a business in a country which could be taken over by Marxists, where professionals are at risk of being kidnapped, or where common street violence prevents people from going outside? In addition to tourism, foreign investment was nil.

Times have changed. The New York Times ran an article last month on the attractive real estate market in Bogota. From the article:

Once a byword for kidnappings, bombs and chaos, Bogotá has become one of South America’s most attractive cities for foreigners to live and invest in … Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president since 2002, has taken a hard line on security issues and scored notable successes against left-wing guerilla groups in recent years.

Love him or hate him, Uribe’s government has kicked the collective ass of FARC – enticing mass desertions, killing high profile leaders, and remarkably rescuing Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors.

Tourism is exploding behind the industry’s campaign slogan, “The only risk is wanting to stay,” which proved 100% accurate for me after my 2008 visit.

Here’s a slideshow from Colombia’s Proexport:

A few highlights:

  • Homicides cut in half in last six years
  • Kidnappings down to a fifth of the level six years ago
  • Foreign investment five times higher than five years ago
  • International visitors doubled in five years
  • In 2010 the World Bank named Colombia the most “business friendly” nation in Latin America

The unrealized potential in Colombia stems from how little was being produced due to insecurity, as well as how business-friendly the country is now. Capitalizing on this unrealized potential is called “extreme investing” in this 2007 BusinessWeek article, in which the author calls Colombia an “extreme emerging market.” Here’s a selection from that article:

Colombia’s stock market has soared fourteenfold since October, 2001 … Colombia’s strong fundamentals stand out. Its $130 billion economy, a world leader in the production of coffee, petroleum, textiles, and flowers, is growing at 6.8% a year, two full points faster than the Latin American average. In the past 10 years, Colombia has slashed its inflation rate from 18% to 5%, and since Uribe was elected, unemployment has dipped from 16% to 13%. The nation has never defaulted on its debt or experienced hyperinflation. And entrepreneurial thinking is spreading. Run a Google geographical-hit query, and you’ll see that, per capita, nowhere in the world are there more searches for the words “Peter Drucker,” the late management guru, than in Bogotá. No. 2? Medellín.

I’m also bullish on Colombia because of the people. Bogota is known as the “Athens of Latin America” for its high student population. You can’t walk far without passing a university. It’s an education hub, which is why many multinationals build their Latin American headquarters here. Of course, they build an office in Brazil to manage Brazil, another in Mexico City for Mexico. And they often choose Bogota for the Andean countries over Lima or Caracas.

Medical tourism is a growth industry projected in Latin America. Soaring healthcare costs in developed countries is causing those citizens to look for operations abroad, cosmetic surgery being no small part of that business.

USA Today came out with this excellent article about tourism growth in Bogota. Also check out USA Today’s photo essay, The Bogota boom.

Natural and organic consumer products are another growing trend in developed countries. With a sizable chunk of the Amazon rain forest, Andes Mountains, two long coastlines, and a tropical climate, Colombia is one of the most botanically diverse countries in the world. See this New York Times article about the growth of HPC products from the Amazon.

Colombia has coastlines along both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea for convenient shipping to and receiving from everywhere in the world: Buenaventura on the Pacific; Barranquilla on the Caribbean.

Aside from import/export, those two coastlines feature some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Tourists love Colombia for its beaches, mountains, rain forest, ethnically diverse culture, and WOMEN. I’ll never hear the end of gringos’ drooling over Medellin and the paisa women. Colombian women are among the most seductive in the world, making the country’s a major destination for sex tourism.

For an indepth look at Colombia’s economy, see this Harvard researcher’s 2008 report Revisiting Economic Growth in Colombia – A Microeconomic Perspective. Unfortunately, it reads like only a Harvard researcher could’ve written it. The main argument is that, for Colombia to maintain its strong performance, it must make easy access to financing (low interest rates) a priority.


Venezuela – While Hugo Chavez is Alvaro Uribe’s political nemesis, Venezuela is Colombia’s biggest trading partner. The countries have a long, shared history. The economic disaster that is modern Venezuela primarily hurts Venezuelans (many of whom face water and power rationing at the time of this writing), but Colombians will also take a hit as detailed in Bloomberg’s December article, Colombia Growth in 2010 May Be Cut by Venezuela Trade.

Crime – Security is improved but it’s still not the safest place. The low cost and widespread availability of drugs produce tens of thousands of addicts roaming the streets, which doesn’t create the best atmosphere to shop.

Insurgents – FARC has suffered crippling losses during Uribe’s tenure, but they’re still 10,000 strong. That’s ten thousand trained guerrillas aiming to overthrow the government.

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  1. Very interesting. I think you’re in a great place. One’s got to take some chances to find opportunities and I’m sure you’ll find the opportunity.

    I remember one of my Colombian friends in the 90s saying that the biggest advantage the US has with Colombia is Colombian’s lack of planning ability. The flip side was that Colombians are amazingly responsive and creative dealing with things that come up. Have you seen this?

    Hopefully the good times continue and some of the benefits accrue to you.

    Wishing you all the best,



  2. Hey Colin,

    This is definitely one of your best posts. I found it really informative — nice overview of what’s going on in Colombia; it helped me put a lot of things in context that had been scattered in my head.

    As I was reading this I was thinking you should work for their tourism board. You do a great job of selling the country’s positive aspects.



  3. Make a point to check out Barranquilla when you get a chance. I’m here for Carnaval and in 30 years of global travel I’ve not found nicer people. Great fish and cold beer – tropical paradise on a beer budget. There is a large middle eastern immigrant community here – lots of chicas with a latina/arab mix. Think Shakira. I think I might drop anchor here.



  4. Hey Collin, excellent post!!! after reading it I felt very proud of being Colombian :). I noticed that you are very-well informed about a number of national issues. It’s not really common that foreing people gets involved in these kind of topics. Also, it’s so nice to know that there are people like you, that have chosen Colombia as new home.

    I reckon that at this stage you know more of my own country than me… hehehe. Probably, I’ll hire you as tourist guide next time I visit Bta.

    Keep writing… PAOLA.


  5. Colin,

    Ok, that’s it. I finished all of your posts this week-end. Great read, start to finish. It’s neat to see your experiences change and your writing along with it.

    I don’t think this is book material, I think you should write this as a screen play.

    I’ll be in Bogota in March on business, maybe I’ll see you around.

    Again, thanks for the read.

    Tony Z.


  6. Hey Colin,

    Great post, keep up the good work. Thanks for including the links to the articles.

    Glad to see that not all your posts are related to the seedy aspects of life in Colombia.
    Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your candor in talking about all the different aspects (whether good or bad), but
    it’s just nice to hear a positive post from you. Kind of have gotten used to only reading about the bad stuff, since I started reading
    your blog.

    Hey, you know how you seem to always stumble into bad situations where you’ll feel uncomfortable by the “zombie basureros”.
    You know, it is possible to avoid the parts of Bogota where the “basurero” concentration is the highest.
    That’s what I do, and for the most part it is possible to avoid them….except for the ones that sneak up on you.
    I mean, likewise I’m not gonna go walk around the worst part of the Harlem projects in NYC.

    Anyways, not crticizing, but although the seedy posts are interesting, I wanna hear more about the positive from you as well…so keep it up.

    Finally, I found Dennis Demori’s comment above about about you working for the tourism board funny…….guess he hasn’t read the rest of your posts.
    But, I do sort of agree with him that this post does merit business magazine / travel magazine / “tourism board” positiveness.




    @ Andy – I realize, more and more every day, that my earlier writing is biased by the area I live in. Chapinero south of Lourdes near Carrera 13 is not a fair representative of the entire city. Then again, I love it around here and wouldn’t live anywhere else!


  8. Hi expat:

    Your “blogs” are very special with an excellent insight for the different idiosyncrasys of the cultures of the Latinoamerica countries.


    Francard1933. A.C.


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