From its windswept Caribbean beaches to its Amazonian jungles, its rugged Andean Altiplano to its ancient Spanish-Colonial fortresses—there are few places on earth better viewed through a visual medium than Colombia. But it's not just superficial attractiveness that makes this country great on film; it's also got a rich cultural and historical heritage. This is worth exploring before embarking on your upcoming Colombia trip, so check out these movies for a primer before (or during!) your flight.
El Abrazo de la Serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent)
It may seem counterintuitive for a movie about the lush Amazon rainforest to be shot in black and white. However, this haunting film (an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015) is apt. The year is 1909 and it's the time of the rubber barons in the Amazon. The story follows an indigenous man named Karamakate, the last of his people, as he encounters a sick German ethnographer who's researching indigenous culture. But he's also looking for a mythic flower called the yakruna, which is said to contain powers of healing. Over time the two develop a grudging respect without ever fully understanding one another.
The movie also plays with time and space. From 1909 we jump forward 30 years, where an aging and diminished Karamakate meets another white scientist. He's also on the hunt for the yakruna, but he wants the plant for more nefarious purposes. The narrative jumps back and forth between the same points on the Amazon at different times, always hammering home the theme of culture clash.
El Abrazo de la Serpiente is based on the journals of two real-life scientists who encountered indigenous tribes that no longer exist. Not surprisingly, these themes continue today; an influx of visitors to the Amazon region has many locals worried that the delicate eco-system can't handle the mass traffic. Be sure to plan a visit to Leticia and Puerto Nariño, in Colombia's beautiful Amazon basin—but consider the footprint we all leave, and be respectful while learning about the local culture.
If you want to know more, be sure to check out this article on how to properly experience Colombia's indigenous groups.
Colombia Magia Salvaje (Wild Magic)
Colombia Magia Salvaje is a celebration of everything beautiful about Colombia. This documentary presents the country's flora and fauna in lush photography, using every possible cinematic effect to maximum effect, from time-lapse to slow motion. You'll see the Andean condor (Colombia's national bird) soaring over rugged glacial peaks, spotted jaguars stalking their prey, close-ups of the lethal skin of the golden poison dart frog, and the anaconda winding its way through the murky depths of the Amazon.
The narration does a good job of promoting conservation. That's because part of the documentary contrasts lush natural environments with the concrete jungle of Colombia's major cities, like Bogotá. The páramo (alpine tundra) eco-system in this region, for example, represents less than 2% of the country's territory, but it provides most of Bogota's water via the clouds it generates—so it needs to be protected. The documentary also contrasts pristine Amazonian jungle and its fauna with the industry and deforestation that continues to encroach and destroy natural habitats.
Throughout it all, the visuals are arresting and inspiring. You won't find a better nature documentary anywhere about this magnificent country. Just be warned: if you watch it too far in advance of your trip, you'll want to change your itinerary in order to get to Colombia as soon as possible.
The Two Escobars
Violence, drugs, and... football. This 2010 documentary transports us back to 1993 Medellín, when it was the most violent city in the world. Infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar's team of goons terrorized the country, and at the time, the rest of the world only knew Colombia for its sordid reputation—until an unlikely team of soccer superstars rose from the barrios of Medellín to become top contenders for the 1994 World Cup.
They're a contradictory group. On one hand, the team's exorbitant payroll comes from Escobar and rival narco gangs, while on the other the players seek to show the world that Colombia is more than drugs and violence. This is personified in the team's biggest star, Andrés Escobar (the other Escobar) whose humility, quiet dignity and epic talent represent the dreams of a fractured country. And as the Colombian national team inches towards the final showdown in the United States, it's clear that one Escobar is going to have to break.
The documentary clocks in at an hour and 45 minutes, but it moves at a breakneck pace—like an epic World Cup final. It mixes graphic violence with uplifting scenes of personal and professional achievement by the guys on the field. And by the end, it's at once profoundly heartbreaking and viscerally inspirational.
So after arriving in Colombia, be sure to visit Medellín and see the progress. Ride the Metrocable (gondola) up into the comunas—neighborhoods once overrun by Pablo's gangs. You'll be treated to striking panoramic views of a now tranquil city. Then attend an Atlético Nacional match at the Estadio Atanasio Giradot. The narco dollars have long since stopped flowing, leaving only the fútbol. Today the passionate local fans have a reason to cheer because the days of Escobar are over. They now live in a country whose violent past is fading further in the rearview mirror, to the point it's nothing but a faint echo lost in the slow march towards a final peace.
For more information on this stunning metropolis, see our ultimate guide to Medellín.
Romancing the Stone
This 1984 classic is probably the greatest adventure film ever set in Colombia. But there's a glaring contradiction here: due to the nation's violent reputation at the time, the film was shot in Mexico, not Colombia. Still, it manages to capture the look and feel of the country, and the subject matter—kidnappings and much-sought-after lost treasure—are things that Colombia has intimate experience with.
The story follows romance novelist Joan Wilder, who discovers her sister has been kidnapped in Cartagena. Next thing Miss Wilder knows she's on a flight to South America to try and rescue her. Wilder's life takes a romance-novel turn when she encounters adventurer Jack Colton and realizes a piece of paper her sister sent her is actually a treasure map. The two spend the remainder of the movie on the run from smugglers and the military police. It's a fun ride that should prime you for all the adventure Colombia has to offer.
And when you finally do arrive, be sure to head to Cartegena (setting of the film's climax), and stroll the ancient ramparts of the Walled City. You can be proud in the knowledge that you got to experience the true location, whereas the production crew only got so far as Veracruz, Mexico. Let this article be your guide to everything fun in Cartagena.
La Estrategia del Caracol (The Strategy of the Snail)
One of Colombia's most popular films, La Estrategia del Caracol, is a 1993 drama/comedy that, in its wild tale, captures the culture of a nation. The story centers on a home in Bogota's historic quarter filled with mostly poor tenants. A wealthy and obnoxious businessman (the type who practices archery on the grounds of his hillside mansion) is planning to evict the tenants, but the residents band together to fight back.
The reasons for the film’s popularity probably has more to do with what it represents than any of its cinematic achievements. It showcases the value Colombians place on community and piety, and a bit of their dark humor. Moreover, you’ll earn major brownie points if you mention to local Bogotanos that you’ve seen La Estrategia del Caracol.
After watching the movie be sure to stroll Bogotá’s historic La Candelaria district, where many of the locations were shot. You’ll certainly recognize Plaza Bolívar, Colombia’s sprawling government quarter that is featured prominently in the film. Also, don't miss wildly popular Colombian singer Carlos Vives as the news reporter featured at the beginning of the film.
And if you're looking for cool boutique hotels in Bogotá's colonial quarter and beyond, check out this article.