Colombia was on-track to become the world’s number-one tourist destination in 2020, until the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic brought the global tourism industry to a screeching halt. The recently announced discovery of tens of thousands of ancient rock paintings will help Colombia secure its position as a top tourist destination when the pandemic is over.
How Did Archeologists Miss This Ancient Treasure Trove?
It would be one thing if we were talking about a handful of images deep within a previously unexplored cave, but these are thousands upon thousands of red ochre paintings spread across eight miles of cliff walls in the Serranía La Lindosa area of Colombia’s Amazon rainforest. How is that we’re only learning about them now?
The short answer is Colombia’s fifty-year long civil war. The ongoing violence and unrest made the area unsafe for researchers. But when the long-running conflict was finally ended with a peace accord in 2016-2017, archeologists set about finally looking into what they long-suspected was hiding in plain sight—depictions of life and nature of the ancient peoples who arrived to the area that had transformed from Ice Age landscapes into rainforest jungles.
(Guillermo Legaria/AFP via Getty Images)
Clues to Ancient Colombian Culture and Rainforest Fauna
It will take many years for experts to fully study this incredibly extensive collection or rock art and understand what they can learn about these first humans to make their way into the rainforests of Colombia. There are lots of geometric patterns, but there are also handprints and images of people dancing, laughing, hunting, and even wearing masks.
There are also many depictions of wildlife, much of which was very different at the end of the last Ice Age from what we are familiar with today. Super-sized megafauna still present at the time includes mastodons, giant sloths, the palaeolama (a kind of gigantic lama), and the huge Hippidion, an Ice Age horse that lived in South America during the Pleistocene period. Also among the images are plenty of “normal” creatures, including deer, tapirs, alligators, bats, monkeys, turtles, snakes, porcupines, lizards, fish, frogs, armadillos, and large rodents such as pacas and capybaras.
Many of these animals were included in the diet of these ancient Colombians, along with fruits and nuts from rainforest trees. Evidence of this diet was found in nearby rock shelters
(Marie-Claire Thomas/Wild Blue Media)
One of the initial mysteries presented by these rock paintings is how high up on the cliffs many of them are. The artists would have needed to build some fairly impressive ladders or other scaffolding to reach that high. As it turns, among the images are some that show towers probably built from trees and humans on or near them, although in some cases it looks like they’re jumping from them.
Colombia’s Tourism Industry on Hold: Post-Pandemic Outlook is Bright
By all accounts, Colombia was on the cusp of being named the number-one tourist destination in the world in 2020. But then along came a global pandemic that all but stopped tourism entirely everywhere as international travel in all its forms came to an abrupt halt.
The rise of the tourism industry in post-conflict Colombia has been nothing short of meteoric. It seemed like Colombia, the second-most biodiverse country on the planet, was at the top of everyone’s travel list. It’s five different ecological regions include the Caribbean coast, the Andes mountains, the Pacific coast, the Amazon basin, and the Coffee triangle region. None of the countries around it (Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil) have that particular distinction.
(Colombia Trade Ministry)
Back in 2006 Colombia had all of a million visitors—a figure that grew by more than 194% to 3.1 million visitors in 2018. And more than 20% of those visitors are from the United States.
Bogotá, the capital, has emerged as the country’s top tourist attraction thanks to wise investments in improving its cultural offerings in the form of improved museums and entertainment facilities, rehabilitated pubic areas, and many parks and bicycle paths. There are also no fewer than nine UNESCO world heritage sites in Colombia, including the historic center of Santa Cruz de Mompox, Los Katíos National Natural Park, all of Cartagena and the surrounding area, and San Agustín Archaeological Park.
At the end of 2019, Colombia was ranked as the top trending destination for tourism in 2020 in a ranking by the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA). In 2019 Colombia’s tourism industry employed 1.4 million people and represented $19 billion or 3.8% of the nation’s overall economy as measured by GDP. Needless to say, 2020 became the year completely derailed by a global pandemic, though every country’s tourism industry has been equally affected.
Guatape, a popular tourist destination in Colombia
The good news is that Colombia is planning how it’s going to recover in 2021 as COVID vaccines make their way into people’s arms everywhere, including big upcoming investments in tourism infrastructure, which is what holds back the development of tourism in many smaller municipalities.
Those much-needed improvements, along with one of the most important archeological discoveries in recent decades with the rock paintings of Serranía La Lindosa, Colombia should have no problem bouncing back from the pandemic to claim its place as the world’s leading tourist destination.