Visualizing the Future in Puerto Colombia

Colombia has its skeptics.

On the one hand, most of the official news about Colombia these days – and for the past several years – is extraordinarily optimistic. Despite the worldwide recession, Colombia’s economy contracted only slightly at the end of 2008 before returning to modest gains. Last year’s 4% GDP growth exceeded the central bank’s forecast. In May of this year, Colombia ousted Mexico from its #3 position in the list of Latin American and Caribbean countries with the most foreign direct investment (Brazil is far and away number one, with Chile coming in second).  Last year, Medellín was named “Innovative City of the Year” in a global contest sponsored by the Wall Street Journal Magazine, Citi, and the Urban Land Institute. Just over a week ago, former President Álvaro Uribe – who, during his 2002 to 2010 time in office, led successful offensives against the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups – was voted “greatest Colombian in history” in a poll sponsored by the History Channel and the newspaper El Espectador.

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But for every hopeful account of Colombia’s present condition, there are those who would beg to differ. Some question whether the rising tide of $3.706 billion pumped into Colombia during the first three months of this year will actually lift all boats, or only a handful of behemoths found primarily in the oil, mining, and manufacturing sectors. From both inside and outside Colombia, rumblings can be heard about the relatively high prices and sometimes low quality of the transportation and tourist infrastructure. Those who laud the accomplishments made during President Uribe’s tenure are countered by those pointing to an alleged legacy of scandal, corruption, and violence that they fear will haunt the country for years.

I fall on the more optimistic sides of these debates. I agree with Anthony Bourdain, who in a recent episode of Parts Unknown declared Colombia to be “encouraging” – a reminder that if real progress can be achieved in tackling this country’s sometimes overwhelming challenges, then surely places with more resources can make headway in addressing their own. I felt an overwhelming sense of optimism when I first visited Bogotá in 2010, and I feel it no less here in Barranquilla in 2013. It’s hard to feel that things are “down” when, thanks to this blog, I’m contacted routinely by folks who just moved here or are planning to do so soon, and when all of us in Killa (as the hip kids are calling it) are literally surrounded by construction projects. That being said, unearthing the real story behind Colombia’s statistics – figuring out how much is good, and how much still needs improving – is easier said than done, and perhaps nowhere is that exemplified more than in Puerto Colombia.

Never heard of Puerto Colombia? You’re not alone. This small town situated just west of Barranquilla has diminished into near obscurity. The fall has been almost as dramatic as its post Industrial Revolution rise. By 1893, Puerto Colombia was not only connected to Barranquilla by rail, but also boasted the third longest pier in the world – the Pier of Puerto Colombia, designed by Cuban engineer Francisco Javier Cisneros. For more than four decades to come, Puerto Colombia served as the most important maritime terminal in Colombia, receiving not only untold amounts of goods in trade, but also immigrants from around the world. Puerto Colombia’s reign ended though, with the construction of a navigable canal through Bocas de Ceniza, the point in Barranquilla where the Magdalena River enters the Caribbean Sea. Port activities in Puerto Colombia were officially prohibited by 1943, and the town’s decline began. On March 7th, 2009, two hundred meters of the famous pier crumbled into the ocean, and the structure was closed even to foot traffic.

In the face of such challenges, it might be hard to imagine that Puerto Colombia could ever be more than an impoverished shadow of its former self. Yet when I went there in late May 2013 with my husband and two friends, I left feeling almost inexplicably hopeful. The pier was indeed closed off to all traffic, and the tiny kiosks and restaurants in the pier’s neighborhood were modest to say the least. The once popular beach nearby was desolate and eroded, narrowed significantly by rising waters and lack of maintenance. But the sense of history was there thanks to the remnants of the great pier and the old railway. A very current air of artistry was present too; the benches along the Malecón, or seaside promenade, were painted with bright scenes, and the local handicrafts for sale were among some of the best I’ve seen in Colombia. A short drive away, the seaside PradoMar Hotel served up food and ambiance that was chic and elegant, but authentic too. It was not hard to imagine what Puerto Colombia could be with the right injection of resources. In short, despite Puerto Colombia’s slight ghostliness, we were charmed – charmed enough to plan to go back in the very near future.

Puerto Colombia’s current mayor, Carlos Altahona Arraut, was recognized in December 2012 by the National Agency for Overcoming Extreme Poverty (my translation) for his work in reducing extreme poverty in the municipality. In spite of this and other activities publicized by the Mayor’s office, a sign erected by a local businessman outside a pier-side storefront stated, “URGENT: Please, Mr. Mayor, we need your help. Our votes were also for you.” Next to the plea was posted a newspaper article entitled, “No beaches anymore” and an official notice of government construction “for the protection of the Pier Sector.” A handwritten note beside the notice stated that the construction plan was arrived at during a community meeting on March 21. Part of the note seemed to again plea to make Pier Sector development a priority.

As with so many small towns in Colombia, rumors circulate about funds being allocated to development and then somehow “used up” before the projects are completed or even begun. I’ll probably never know what the real story is behind those signs, and I have no idea whatsoever whether local corruption is a problem in Puerto Colombia. In any case, the answer doesn’t affect my level of optimism about the place. My hope comes from the fact that 1) citizens like this businessman at the pier are speaking out, 2) the government is allowing the people to speak, and 3) there’s an attempt to hold elected leaders accountable. That’s a pretty good recipe for progress, even if it may not be on the desired timetable.

Up Next: Hold on to your Huggies! Part 3 in the adventure parenting series will be posted soon. In the meantime, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2.

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10 responses to “Visualizing the Future in Puerto Colombia

  1. Fascinating. The new life begins when you start scratching the surface doesn’t it? Wonderful thoughtful story…very close to my own little journey. Thanks. Bejinhos, Constance

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  2. I have heard some great things about Puerto Colombia. People tell me that there are lots of people looking to move out that way as the construction boom grows in Barranquilla.

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    • I could totally see Puerto Colombia really taking off as Barranquilla grows in that direction. It seems like it really could be a great place to live – all the advantages of a small town on the ocean, while still having access to big city conveniences (like the Super Olimpica! 🙂 ).

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  3. Thanks Courtenay for your insightful commentary. I loved the pictures – especially the one of the exposed brick with the doorway.

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  4. Silver Gonzales

    Enjoy your blog. I have been to Colombia 12 times. I live in Montreal, Canada, my wife is from Barranquilla as is her daughter who lives with us and we have another daughter. We are (hopefully) planning to move to Barranquilla in June 2014 and hope to be there in Dec/January 2014. I miss the guanabana. Soursop? What kind of a name is that?

    Puerto Colombia? The long dock was something to see when I first visited Quilla in 2003. I was impressed. But everything else, xcept for the woodwork and tiles in the Church, was not pretty.

    Good that they have since begun to invest slowly. Town is in bad shape. Sad. Location on the coast, should be full of hotels and shops selling balconcitas, etc.. and factories and restaurants such as American Broasted Chicken.

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    • Thank you for checking out my blog! I am with you on guanabana. I had the chance to introduce my husband to guanabana juice just a few days ago… so delicious! I have no idea why something so tasty would be called a soursop.

      As for Puerto Colombia, hopefully it will all be on the up-and-up. The location certainly is beautiful and it still has that j’nest sais quoi (did I spell that right?) charm.

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  5. craig matheson

    Cool Blog Courtenay, Originally i’m from Scotland but i live in Puerto Colombia( well Pradomar actually about 2 mins walk from the Hotel) , I love the place and the beach is usually packed on the weekends so you must of been there on the wrong day. The pier is a cool place and you can still walk along it if your brave enough to jump the barriers LOL.

    But your right about the property boom in Killa, I used to live in Villa Santos and just taking the dogs a walk one day i counted 40 or so new apartment blocks. So hopefully things will pick up out towards Puerto because it could be done with some restoration and TLC in the town centre but hopefully investment does not destroy the History because the waves are making a good enough job of that on their own.

    Great pictures too especially the looking ones east and west from the so called castle( being from Scotland where we have real castles it looks more like a big house).

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    • Hi Craig! Since writing this, I discovered that we were indeed at the beach on an off day! I think it was a Monday. We were out and about because it was a holiday in the U.S. We’ve since been back briefly at night, and even then, there were a couple of bonfires on the beach and people hanging out on the malecon enjoying the evening. We hit the nearby beaches of Salgar regularly and have liked them, so we haven’t checked out PC beaches during the day on a weekend — we need to do that! 🙂 Sounds like you moved from Barranquilla to Puerto Colombia. I can see the appeal of doing that… close to the big city, but with small town advantages and lovely surroundings. Your comment about the castle made me laugh. Thanks for reading!

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