Queer Colombia: Uncovering Gay Culture in Centuries of Tradition

A photo of Plaza San Pedro Claver in Cartagena in queer Colombia.
Plaza San Pedro Claver in Cartagena, Colombia.
Photo by Josh Watkins

By Josh Watkins

Traveling as a queer individual is always stressful, but when you and your partner decide to travel to one of the most traditionally Catholic countries in the world, nerves are on edge—especially when you don’t speak the native language! But with South America calling our name, my partner and I traveled to Colombia earlier this month to experience culture in every sense of the word.

Before the trip, I indulged in heavy research on gay culture in the country. What I found surprised me, as many travel blogs praised Colombia for being a very LGBTQ-friendly destination, despite its conservative reputation. This was confirmed upon arrival, as it became increasingly obvious that Colombia’s gay community is thriving.

Food from Castor Cafe in Medellín in queer Colombia.

Provisions from Castor Cafe in Medellín. Photo by Josh Watkins.

Our first stop was Medellín, which is referred to as the Eternal Spring because of its constant spring-like weather. Not only is the weather fresh and welcoming, the people are too. The heartbeat of Medellín is one that is young and artistic, and it has an alternative vibe similar to Austin or Asheville. The city doesn’t have many spaces that are specifically designated as gay or straight, as it’s a pretty liberal, accepting place. It wasn’t uncommon to see same-sex couples hand-in-hand or engaging in public displays of affection.

We had our first taste of Aguardiente here, a Colombian anise-flavored liquor. Translating roughly to “fire water,” the spirit is reminiscent of harsh licorice and peppermint flavors. It’s easy to lose track of how much you’ve had, so be weary!

A photo of the Feria de las Flores in Medellín in queer Colombia.

The Feria de las Flores (Festival of the Flowers) in Medellín. Photo by Josh Watkins.

Most memorable in Medellín, however, was the city’s annual Feria de las Flores (Festival of the Flowers)—a celebration of Eternal Spring that features parades, pageants, and countless musical acts. Foreigners and locals alike come out in masses for this weeklong party.

Next, we traveled up the northern coast to Cartagena—considered the queen of the Caribbean. It’s obvious why—the city is a mixture of old world romance, mystery, and thrill. To us, Cartagena felt like New Orleans, just with less public intoxication and more authenticity! There are two primary neighborhoods in Cartagena: Old Town (colonial mansions and cathedrals) and Getsemani (a historic slave neighborhood that now houses many local businesses).

A photo of Playa Libre in Cartagena in queer Colombia.

Playa Libre in Cartagena. Photo by Josh Watkins.

Queer culture is extremely casual in this coastal city. Cartagena has two gay bars: Le Petit, a low-key locale that offers food and pitchers of beer mixed with rum, and D8, a two-story dance club that specializes in Latin pop music. Outside of the bars, traditional music and dancers can be found on nearly every corner.

Although Cartagena has the highest tourism rates in Colombia, it’s slightly less developed than Medellín or Bogotá. This allows for a collective humbleness amongst its residents, but also a wariness of travelers, as petty crime is quite common.

My favorite stop in Cartagena was Café Del Mural, a hole-in-the-wall “coffee laboratory” in the Getsemani neighborhood. Here, each and every beverage is custom-made. Nitro cold brew from a keg? No way! Café Del Mural infuses nitrogen into each individual serving of coffee. They also offer tastings of different roasts and brewing methods.

A photo of the Getsemani neighborhood in Cartagena in queer Colombia.

A flag-lined street in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena. Photo by Josh Watkins.

While Cartagena offers a colonial paradise and Medellín provides a stunning modern cityscape, Bogotá merges the two. Between the ritzy Chapinero neighborhood and the historic Candelaria, Bogotá is a great example of metropolis juxtaposition.

Coming from Houston humidity, the crisp mountain air left us longing for more. This high altitude, capital city is the epicenter of gay culture in the country. A modern, cosmopolitan city, Bogotá boasts world-class shopping and eateries, stunning architecture (both old world and modern), an incredible backdrop of the Andes Mountains, and the largest gay club in Latin America—Theatron.

Seeing 10,000 people on a slow night, Theatron resides in a former movie theater. It offers 10 distinct rooms, each with a different theme. The cover charge floats around 45,000 pesos (about $15) and promises an open bar until 2 a.m. Theatron is truly a sight to be seen, rivaling the clubs of Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, and Tel Aviv.

The Chapinero neighborhood is home to the majority of the city’s gay culture—countless gay bars, spas, and cafes made it hard to choose where to start! What Bogotá has—that Medellín and Cartagena lacked—is impeccable local fashion. I’ve never seen so many well-dressed people in one place! The city merges modern with colonial, while the fashion merges edginess with class.

Varietale and Amor Perfecto are, in our opinion, Bogotá’s most notable cafes. Offering high-quality coffee crafted by passionate baristas, both provide a handsome caffeine fix. Our most memorable foodie experience in Bogotá was at Arepas La Reina. An arepa is a grilled corn dough patty (think fluffy tortilla) stuffed or covered with cheese, vegetables, and meats. Arepas La Reina technically serves Venezuelan-style arepas, but they were a perfect savory warm snack in the cool weather. We actually returned a few times—it was that good!

After the first few days in Colombia, all of our hesitations and nerves subsided. We came to realize that, although it’s a traditional and conservative country, Colombians are warm, welcoming, and accepting. Each major city is different from the next, offering endless variety—it’s almost like visiting multiple countries in one! With its affordability and thriving gay scene, there’s never been a better time to go.

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