Beauty Overruns Medellín, Colombia,
a Plastic Surgery Mecca for U.S. Travelers
by Amanda Castleman
Latin America has a magic word, a simple term that unmoors the minds of men. The power is uncanny.
“Medellín,” I say, then wait for the inevitable reply.
“Ohhhhh! The most beautiful ladies in the world!”
Only one guy – a U.S. immigration officer in Miami – struggles past the soft focus and slack jaw, a reaction ingrained as a knee jerk, seemingly. “So gorgeous,” he murmurs, “but, well, I like women more … natural.”
Medellín – once home to cocaine king Pablo Escobar’s cartel – now peddles another intoxicant: beauty. The locals stalk on stilettos, breasts cantilevered over Scarlett-slender waists. Where nature stints, the surgeons step in: nipping, tucking, plumping and smoothing the already-incredible gene pool in this central Colombian city.
Wise in the ways of business, Medallín exports its bumper crop of babes. Matchmaking agencies promise norteños “the most beautiful and family-orientated Single Latin Women in South America!”
The traffic, however, increasingly flows both ways, as U.S. women seek cheap cosmetic alterations. Never mind that smugglers, paramilitaries, leftist guerillas and government troops still clash in the corrugated countryside. A new nose or cleavage costs about 60 percent less than in the States. Andale!
Visitors just topped the million mark for the first time in two decades, according to the Ministry of Commerce and Tourism. Many come to buy beauty – to have or to hold.
In 2004, some 21,000 sought surgery. That number leapt 30 percent the next year and keeps climbing like a hungry jaguar.
Colombia is making a comeback, fuelled, in part, by silicon.
The government cracked the cocaine cartels over a decade ago. And since 2002, the nation’s beloved president, Álvaro Uribe, has steadily restored law and order. Medallín, in particular, has blossomed; a 2004 Newsweek article even declared an “urban and economic renaissance” for the City of Eternal Spring.
The countryside here is ruffled like a first communion dress. Medellín fills a mountain valley: terracotta roofs climb the shamrock green slopes. Its people trade in textiles and flowers now, producing beautiful things, as well as beautiful people.
Downtown hums. T-shirted teens wander among cafés and boutiques, laughing in the mild December breeze. Glasses chime on bar balconies, restaurants overflow their patios. Bands blare power-pop anthems from makeshift stages in the streets. Soon the city’s clubs – legendary across the Americas – kick some bass into the buzz.
The bloodlines here blended blacks, conquistadors and indigenous tribes. But the party scene is uncut Latin. Cocktails at midnight, dinner at 2am, dancing until you see Baby Jesus in a tortilla …
I’ve been awake 50-some hours, dodging snowstorms across the States to Miami, then stumbling to Bogotá and finally Medellín, high in a spur of the Andes. Nonetheless, I’m pogoing in a disco as dawn flexes her rosy fingers. A karaoke victim croons New York, New York: “I want to wake up in the city that never sleeps.”
He has. Soon I might too. If I ever get to bed.
Squint just right – fanning 31 years of crows’ feet and hard-won laugh lines – and I see the point here. Snake-hipped salseros gyrate beside salarymen, trading plastic thimbles of aguardiente , a sugarcane liquor that resembles ouzo. The crowd churns, all shoeshine and bright teeth, craving the second when the strobe pops and freeze-frames everyone as a star for half a heartbeat.
And the women, the women of Medellín, the most gorgeous women in the world, they carry the illusion. Oh, make no mistake: many are living dolls, creatures of artifice: paint and potion and liposuction. But the paisas have this, this grace, that somehow lifts them above the stretched hides of Phoenix or Palm Springs. Their faces are clear, calm, often radiant.
Never have I seen women simply enjoy their beauty so much. This ease, this celebration, is what inspires jealousy, not their Playboy-cookie-cutter curves and cheekbones.
In a country scarred by drugs and insurgents and bitter poverty, the people find comfort in the flesh, sculpting towards perfection – and some semblance of control. The true beauty, here in Electric Ladyland, lies deeper, though. The blinged bodies are backed with the gifts hardship bestows: compassion, strength, humor and high-beam hearts. And that punch combination may well justify the magic of the word “Medellín”.
Briefly I understand this, dancing – barefoot now – in the disco. Then I step on shattered glass … and reality slices home: all this artificial beauty carries a price.
"Colombia's passion for implants is almost unmatched," Joshua Goodman noted in a recent Associated Press article. "According to the Colombian Society of Plastic Surgeons, more than half of the 450,000 operations performed last year were breast augmentations, costing about $2,000 to $3,000 per procedure – more than half a year's salary for the 58 percent of the country living below the poverty line."
Caracol TV captured the plastic-fantastic culture in the 2006 soap opera, Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso (Without Tits, There is No Paradise). Millions of Colombians tuned into this controversial show each week, debating whether it offered insult or a much-needed mirror. The telenovela followed a teenage girl, who attempts prostitution to pay for her boob job and thus attract a traqueto (gangster) boyfriend – except her small bosom deters clients.
Nor does the cup runneth over for visitors, the medical tourists. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons warns against procedures abroad, where patients could chose an unqualified doctor – and have little recourse if the operation goes wrong.
However gorgeous, however welcoming, the city that never sleeps has few easy answers, it seems.
I’ve been to Electric Ladyland. And it cuts both ways.
IF YOU GO ...
American Airlines links Miami and Dallas-Fort Worth to Bogotá. Avianca and Copa fly on to Medellín’s new airport, José María Córdoba, 35km southeast of the city. A taxi downtown costs about $US 20, while the shared shuttle is just $US 2.
Lonely Planet Colombia is the only guidebook dedicated to this country. Read Gabriel García Márquez, the country’s Nobel laureate and father of “magic realism”, to catch the mood. Or tune into Maria Full of Grace, Ugly Betty or the lesser-known productions about Medellín trafficking: Sumas y Restas and Rosario Tijeras.
The Hotel Intercontinental perches high on the hillside, curving around a vast pool. Mid-range travelers may prefer the 1940s Art Deco palace of the Hotel Nutibara, while backpackers endorse the Palm Tree Hostal.
Colombia Tour Solutions arranges plastic surgery trips. Learn more about options abroad through Society for Plastic Surgery or bulletin boards like PS Journeys and Poor But Happy.