Why Everyone Is Obsessed With This Party in Colombia
On a recent evening in the Zona Rosa district of Bogota, Colombia, several dozen young women in heels and men in sports coats stood on the sidewalk, shifting in place. It was a Tuesday, barely 7:30 p.m., and while the rest of the neighborhood hummed with the lull of a weekday night, the line to get into La Villa stretched halfway down the block. One by one, the bar’s security personnel searched clients’ bags, waved metal detectors, and secured neon wristbands before opening the burgundy cordon to let them through.
Inside, a dark staircase led to the bar’s main floor, and a third story overlooked the dance floor in an open courtyard style. No one, however, was dancing. Instead, the area was filled with people sitting on stools crowded around wooden tables. Perched in the middle of each table was a small laminated flag – U.S., Colombian, German, Brazilian, and French – with the words “beginner,” “intermediate,” or “advanced” in the corresponding language. Conversation drowned out the music.
“Welcome to Gringo Tuesdays,” said Tiffany Kohl, a 32-year-old Iowa native and La Villa’s owner, as she surveyed the scene from beside one of the locale’s two bars. Ever since 2011, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday nights, La Villa has opened its doors for free to travelers, foreigners residing in Bogota, and Colombians who want to practice another language. “The idea is language exchange in a comfortable setting that allows you to relax, learn, and have a good time,” she told me when I visited in April.
The concept is simple: Find the table with the flag and level of the language you want to practice, grab a drink, sit down, and start chatting. Each table accommodates about five to 10 people; conversations are sometimes collective and sometimes one-on-one. Event coordinators ensure that each table has at least two native speakers (volunteers are rewarded with free drinks), and there are normally at least five languages represented. Adding to the appeal of the evening is what happens after 9 p.m.: a raging dance party that last until 3 a.m.
” Mi español no es muy bueno,” said Miriam de Visser, who’s in Bogota on an exchange program from Holland, as she sat at a table with the Colombian flag and the word ” intermedio.” Dressed in a tank top, white sweater, and bright red lipstick, de Visser said she takes seven hours of language class per week, but that that’s not sufficient. “The key is to practice,” she said, “that’s what you can do here.” There were six people gathered around her table, leaning into a conversation. At one point, they exploded backward in laughter. De Visser said she’s come regularly since finding out about the event from her flat-mates three months ago and, as an added benefit, she’s met lots of new friends.
Kohl first arrived to Colombia in 2006 on a six-month volunteer exchange program. When it ended, she had no desire to leave. “Colombia is a beautiful place with amazing people and lots of opportunities,” she said. “I fell in love with the country.” But meeting locals with whom she could practice the language wasn’t easy. The country was wracked with violence from the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running war between leftist FARC guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries, which began in 1964, and the few foreigners in Bogota were isolated and had no idea where to go out safely. Kohl managed to make some Colombian friends, so in 2009, she started organizing weekly outings between foreigners and locals, with an emphasis on language practice. The idea for “Gringo Tuesdays” was born, though at the time, it was much more informal and the group would bounce from one location to another until she hit on the table and flag idea and decided to host it at La Villa. Kohl spoke conversational Spanish when she arrived in Colombia, but she perfected it by going out with locals and losing her fear of making mistakes. “There was less pressure than in a classroom or structured academic setting,” she said. “Learning became fun and a simple means of communicating and interacting rather than homework.”
Today, Kohl explained, La Villa almost always reaches capacity – 550 during the language portion of the event because of chairs and tables, 750 during the party, an average of 1,000 coming in and out throughout the night – but it took more than a year to get to draw these numbers. The idea of mixing cultural language exchange with a party, and with alcohol, was apparently not something that Colombians took to naturally. “Colombians, at times, can be hesitant to try new things until proven that it works or is popular,” she explained, adding that they associated learning and studying with a classroom rather than a bar. “But once the foreigners started coming regularly, the Colombians started to see it differently as something new and exciting, and once they actually gave the event a chance, they fell in love with it.”
Over time, though, Gringo Tuesdays has become more of a hit with the people who are not “gringos.” Kohl says that based on her team’s calculations, approximately two-thirds of her Tuesday clientele are Colombian. They are people like Tatiana Bustamante, 23, who studied in Canada in 2015 but has not had a chance to practice English since returning. She was dressed in a long skirt and a sweater, drinking a soda and conversing quietly to another young woman sitting next to her. That night was Bustamante’s first time to Gringo Tuesdays, and she wasn’t staying for the party. But, she said, she was having a good time and would probably return. Seated at that same table (U.S. flag, “intermediate”) was Gabriel Rico, who had a chance to visit San Diego last year and has been coming to Gringo Tuesdays weekly for about six months. “I feel like I need to learn better English, and this is a great place to practice for free,” he said.
As 9 p.m. approached, the crowd started to get antsy; people wandered to the bar and started chatting away from the tables. On the hour, workers swooped in, disappearing the tables, stools, and flags almost instantly. The lights went down, the DJ came out and the music went up. Some people left – several attendees said they only come for the language exchange – but most stayed. New arrivals, paying a post-9 p.m. cover (the equivalent of $3), made the dance floor impassable within moments.
“This is the event in Bogota,” said Chris Lamont Wolcott, a 32-year-old from the U.S. who was dressed in a slightly shimmery blue shirt and has been living in Colombia doing real estate. Indeed, there’s a cohort of loyal Gringo Tuesday followers who rarely miss a week and post on the bar’s Facebook page. They sport the Gringo Tuesday hats and T-shirts, which are available for purchase from behind the bar. “This place has got a reputation,” said Wolcott, explaining that the night is known, among men at least, for drawing in “high-quality, attractive females.” He met his girlfriend here two months ago.
This is a slippery slope in Colombia. Sex tourism is a reality, and Colombia is known for its exceptionally sexy women. Kohl was adamant that Gringo Tuesday is not the place for that: She has a trained security team on the lookout for prostitution, drugs, or other illegal behavior. She said that meeting people is “the essence of any nightlife scene, but what I do is offer an alternative that’s not just about picking people up.” She also delights in facilitating real connections and has even attended several weddings of couples who met at Gringo Tuesdays.
Whatever draws people to Gringo Tuesdays, it’s clearly a winning commercial idea. “I want to make a Gringo Tuesdays wherever I go!” yelled Wolcott at one point in the evening. He said his work in Colombia was ending and that he’d be leaving the country soon. “You stick a flag on some tables and open your doors. It’s a really simple business model.”
There have been numerous spin-offs in Colombia, but, based on Kohl’s team’s market research, nothing so far has reached the popularity level of Gringo Tuesdays. She also looks for similar events as she travels throughout Latin America and says she has never found anything on par with this gathering. And this event has not been her only focus. For the last decade, she’s been quietly building a mini-empire, creating ways for travelers and foreign residents to “go beyond the typical tourist experience.” She currently owns three bars and a restaurant, and heads up Tiffany Kohl Productions, which runs Gringo Tuesdays, a weekly salsa lesson/party, and coming soon, Bogota’s first pub crawl.
Her client base may soon skyrocket. On June 23, the Colombian government and the FARC rebels signed a historic cease-fire accord after nearly three years of peace talks. The Colombian government has been working hard to incentivize tourism, hoping that with the official end of war, travelers will flock to the country’s gorgeous beaches and culturally rich cities. “Everyone is waiting with baited breath,” Kohl told me in April, about the prospect of peace. She said she’s excited for more potential tourists and the opportunity to “share the experience that I’ve had over the last 10 years and help other foreigners know the better sides of Colombia.”
For, now, though it’s hard to see how more people could take advantage of Kohl’s signature event. Around 10:30 p.m., the sidewalk line outside La Villa had grown longer and an old man with a cart had arrived to sell gum and candies to the expectant Gringo Tuesdays crowd. They were in for a wait: the club had reached capacity.
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky was a 2016 Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation.