Snowbirds in Colombia and Other Forms of Tourism

I spend my winters in Colombia. I’m retired and live 8-9 months of the year in a northern climate.  But when it gets bitter cold I gladly head south. Technically, this makes me a snowbird, or ‘un pajero de nieve’.  

I’m always trying to define, for my ever-curious, Colombian hosts, what a snowbird is and why it is I stay in their country 3-4 months a year. I explain things like the 23.5-degree tilt of the earth, the four seasons, the polar vortex, what -40 degrees feels like to breath in and why northerners migrate to warmer climates in the winter. Notwithstanding, my bird analogy remains foreign to their equatorial experience.

Colombian Holidays

It isn’t that the Colombians don’t understand the sweet art of doing nothing. They love to travel, visit family, head to the beaches, mountains and party.  And they have 18 public holidays, known as ‘festivos’, a year to do it.  Colombia has more public holidays than the any other county besides Sri Lanka and India. And when a holiday falls on a weekend or mid-week, it’s moved to the following Monday giving them a total of #8 – 3-day weekends.

What is Snowbird Tourism?

Snowbird tourism is a ‘thing’ in Colombia though misunderstood.  Snowbirds are people from northern climates who move to the southern climates during the winter. Seasonal migrants, when the snow flies in the north they move to the south in order to keep enjoying comfortable climates and outdoor activities.

Snowbird’ was a term coined in 1923 describing migrant workers from the north who came south to work in the winter. Around 1979 it was relaunched to describe retired tourists from the north living in the sunbelt areas of the USA during winter months.  Nearly 4 out of 5 snowbirds were from Canada.

Though snowbirds are of all ages, the baby boom generation (people 50-70 years old) make up the majority. In urban-slang the term has negative connotations; snowbirds are outsiders, seasonal visitors, usually old geezers who drive slowly and wear white socks with sandals. ‘Winter visitor’ is the politically correct term being encouraged.

Snowbird migration can have a big impact on the local economies. The winter visitors come and spend money, though some find temporary jobs. Some come hauling their own home – trailers, campers, motor homes and are called ‘Rvers’.  In the winters, ‘Rver’ parks in the sunbelt fill up and in the summer sit empty. Snowbirders form their own communities, associations and have newspapers and magazines and advertisers addressing their interests.

Snowbirds in Colombia

But these days the winter visitors from the north travel much further south than the southern USA sunbelt. It must be global warming.  For the well-traveled, old-hippy baby boomers, the sunbelt doesn’t end at the Mexican border. It now includes Central and South America. Snowbirds follow the sun down to Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Colombia – countries where favorable foreign exchange rates allow retirement dollars to stretch a lot further.

In Colombia I’ve met snowbirds from North America though most are from Europe – largely Germany and France. They rent apartments by the week or month in major cities like Medellin, Bogota, Cali, Cartagena and Santa Marta.

They travel between the colonial villages of Mompox, Barichara, San Gil and Villa de Leyva. They rent country homes in the mountains and coffee zones. They have extended stays in hotels and travel the beaches, mountains, islands and jungles.

Though they often stay in the more visited destinations in Colombia, it’s not uncommon to see them venture towards the more rugged and isolated parts of Colombia like Los Llanos, the Amazon, Ciudid Perdida, La Guajira and Tierradentro.

Different Types of Tourism:

While many people associate Colombia with a certain kind of tourism, there are many different types of domestic and international tourism currently in existence.  Here’s a list of touristic activities currently taking place in Colombia:

Youth tourism – fast paced affordable travel for young travelers

Recreational tourism – rejuvenating, bicycling, walking tours

Adventure tourism – extreme sports river rafting, speleology, diving

Ecotourism – venture into the countryside, environmental, wilderness exploring

Agricultural tourism – visit a coffee farm, stay on a ranch in Los Llanos

Wellness tourism – spas, quality affordable medical options, cosmetics

Cruise ship layovers – walking tours, visiting museums, markets

Volunteer tourism – learn the language, discover the country, assistance

Whale watching tours get close to the whales on Colombia’s Pacific coast

Bird watching tours – birding tours, unique bird species, photography

Honeymoon tourism – romantic getaways, must see destinations

Luxury tourism – luxury travel, tailored-made holidays, exclusive resorts

Safaris – natural wildlife watching experiences

Culinary tourism – for the foodies-visit restaurants, markets, food tours

Religious tourism – Catholic traditions, visiting sacred sights, churches

Festival tourism – the Carnival in Barranquilla, Medellin flower festival

Yoga tourism – yoga resorts, meditation, yoga on the beach, spas

Gambling tourism – best casinos in Bogota and Cartagena

Conference tourism – incentive company planned trips and tourism

Drug tourism – illegal in Colombia except for the hallucinogenic ‘Yage’

Sex tourism -while prostitution is legal, exploitation or ‘pimping’ is not

Dark tourism – going on a Pablo Escobar themed tour near Medellin

Snowbird tourism -warm destinations for older, seasonal tourists

I’m sure there are more. One could go into depth on any one of these classifications. At a later date we will.  And while these groupings categorize main travel motivations, tourists and travelers will combine many of these activities in the course of single trip.

Snowbirds are not the actual bird

The next time you hear the term snowbird, you’ll know they are not talking about the dark-eyed junco – a bird that migrates north (not south) in the winter months.  

They are talking about the baby-boomers, crazy gringos, strangers and backpackers who come to enjoy the equatorial sun.  Nice people, they say. They mind their own business. They show up around the end of the year and will probably be gone by Easter

See also articles on retiring in South America:

Retirement in Ecuador

Retirement in Panama

Author: Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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