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When the Spanish first arrived on Colombia’s Caribbean coast in the early 16th century, they had an appalling time. One of their boats was shipwrecked at the mouth of the Magdalena river and when the survivors staggered ashore they were met by a cannibal tribe. They were “miserably and cruelly killed at the hands of these barbarians and buried in their stomachs”, wrote Pedro de Aguado, an early chronicler of the conquest.
Happily, these days the locals are far more welcoming to foreigners, especially those who come to invest. The Caribbean coast, for years regarded as a backward, mosquito-infested and corrupt relation to the rest of Colombia, is well and truly open for business.
Infrastructure investment is booming. Ironically it is a Spanish company, Sacyr, that is close to completing the gigantic Pumarejo bridge, spanning the Magdalena close to the site of that shipwreck. About 2.3km long and rising 45 metres over the silty brown waters of Colombia’s largest river, the $240m bridge is set to be as emblematic to the coast as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco.
Barranquilla, the coast’s largest and most dynamic city, will soon unveil a new airport, in time to welcome visitors to the Inter-American Development Bank’s annual assembly in March. The meeting will be held at the Puerta de Oro, a swish new riverside conference centre. Close by, Portuguese company Mota-Engil has developed the Malecón, more than 5km of walkways on what used to be swampland at the city’s edge.
The ports of Cartagena and Barranquilla have been modernised and are among the most important in Latin America. Cartagena is home to the giant Reficar oil refinery and a thriving petrochemicals industry. There is talk of building a deepwater port in Barranquilla and a new pier at Santa Marta to receive cruise ships.
Tourism, too, is booming, thanks in part to the 2016 peace agreement signed between Colombia’s government and leftwing guerrillas from the Farc. Thousands of visitors flock to colonial Cartagena each year, and to the Tayrona national park near Santa Marta, where the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range sweeps down to the Caribbean. These are the crown jewels of the industry, and with miles of beaches, year-round sun and rich biodiversity, there is potential for much more.
Energy projects and mineral extraction have boosted the local economy, particularly in La Guajira, the finger-shaped department (province) that juts out into the Caribbean near the border with Venezuela. BHP, Anglo American and Glencore operate Cerrejón, one of the largest opencast coal mines in the world, while the national government is encouraging offshore oil and gas exploration.
“The coast is full of opportunities,” says Juan Carlos Mora, chief executive of Bancolombia, the country’s biggest bank, which is financing several projects on the coast. “If I had to advise foreign investors who are looking at the Colombian market, I would have no hesitation in telling them the first place they should look is the Caribbean.”
In all, the coast is around 1,100 miles (1,700km) long, running from the Panamá isthmus to Punta Gallinas, the northernmost tip of South America.
At the western end lies the Gulf of Urabá, a hot and humid corner that is known for its banana plantations, organised crime and drug trafficking. But even here, things are changing. Urabá is the coastal outlet of Antioquia, one of Colombia’s richest provinces. With improvements to ports and roads, Urabá hopes to become the go-to Caribbean port for Antioquia’s bustling capital Medellín.
At the other end of the coast lies La Guajira, which, with its abundant sunshine and strong winds, has the potential to become Colombia’s capital of renewable energy. Infamous for smuggling and piracy, and long ignored by central government, La Guajira is the second-poorest of Colombia’s 32 departments, but may have a bright future.
In the centre of the coast are the three major cities, Barranquilla (population 1.2m), Cartagena (1m) and Santa Marta (500,000). The latter two were important in the colonial era but have since been eclipsed by Barranquilla, which — along with its hinterland — accounts for 27 per cent of coastal gross domestic product. There are plans to link the city by train to Cartagena, 115km to the west, and Santa Marta, 100km to the east.
The coast is home to 10m people, a fifth of Colombia’s population, and while it has made progress it is still plagued by problems.
A third of costeños, as coastal dwellers are known, live in poverty. Nationally, the figure is 19.6 per cent and in the capital Bogotá just 4.3 per cent, according to the national statistics office. The eight most northerly of Colombia’s 32 departments account for 22.4 per cent of the country’s population but only 14.9 per cent of its GDP.
Away from the glitzy hotels of Cartagena and the private villas on Colombia’s Caribbean islets, there is real deprivation.
For years, the coast has been largely cut off from Colombia’s main cities in the Andean highlands. That is starting to change, but plans to build a major highway from the interior to the coast, and to dredge the Magdalena to make it navigable to large ships, have fallen victim to corruption. Both projects were tendered to Odebrecht, the disgraced Brazilian construction company that paid billions of dollars in bribes to win infrastructure contracts across the Americas.
Income and skill levels are lower on the coast than inland, and the inhabitants of Bogotá and Medellín still tend to look down on their coastal compatriots as laid-back to the point of laziness and inherently corrupt. At election time, vote-buying is still commonplace in the Caribbean region.
But the coast is changing. A renaissance is under way and now, perhaps more than ever, the costeños have the chance to prove their highland critics wrong and encourage more foreign investors to step ashore.
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