Here's Where to Find Disney's Inspiration for 'Encanto' in Real Life

the Madrigals family in front of their Casita in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Encanto”
Photo: Courtesy of Disney

Colombia has more than 3,600 butterfly species (the most in the world), so the average viewer may not realize that the yellow butterflies that swarm through Disney's enchanting animated movie Encanto were inspired by author Gabriel García Márquez's frequent use of yellow butterflies as a symbol of love, hope, and peace in his "magic realist" novels.

Disney's tale of the magically-gifted Madrigal family who live in a magical house in the enchanting highland town of Encanto—set in the beguiling real-life Valle de Cocora—begins with the tragedy of Colombia's violent past before morphing into a panegyric to Colombia's warm and welcoming beauty. Bougainvillea spills over colonial mansions painted in vibrant tropical pastels—guava, papaya, and tangerine. Toucans chirp as they swoop overhead. Slender palm trees tower over a riot of velvety green. Villages quilted with cobbled plazas are populated by women in lacy polleras (skirts) and cheery menfolk wearing iconic sombreros vueltiaos (decorated woven straw hats) and woolen ruanas (shawls).

Encanto is packed with vivid, almost hallucinogenic, details that reflect Colombia's culturally vibrant, ecologically astounding, and geographically stunning diversity. Here's where to experience and savor key elements from the movie that capture Colombia's real cinematic enchantment.

The setting of Encanto

When Byron Howard and Jared Bush, the two directors of Encanto, visited the Valle de Cocora in 2018 they instantly knew this is where the casita of the Madrigal family should be. Deep in the heart of the Eje Cafetero—the "Coffee Axis"—in the Cordillera Central, the exquisite mountain-framed valley is studded with endemic Quindío wax palms towering 200 feet. The hairsbreadth-thin palms (the world's tallest) burst upwards from undulating lime-green pastures like slender fountains, their tousled fronds lost in mist.

Vintage Willys Jeep taxis from the nearby village of Salento offer a fun ride up a bumpy country lane to Cocora, with its hiking trails, horseback rides, and centuries-old dairy farm-restaurants, such as Donde Juan B Bosques de Cocora, serving whole pink trout bathed in garlic.

Encanto's eponymous village is a mirror-image of #Instaready Barichara, a perfectly preserved 18th-century hilltown resembling a movie set. Barichara, in Santander province an 8-hour drive north of Bogotá, feels like a town lost in time with its stone-paved streets and whitewashed adobe homes with traditional red-tile roofs, stone zócalos (the lower third of exterior walls), and wooden doors, windows, and railings colored as if by crayon. Many homes have been restored as chic boutique hotels, such as La Nube Posada, which also serves gourmet meals. I fell in love with the local delicacy: hormegas culoñas (big leafcutter ants).

Howard and Bush also graced Encanto with the effusive flower-bedecked balconies and pastel-colored exterior walls of Cartagena.

Butterflies… endless butterflies

The tear-inducing song 'Dos Oruguitas' about two caterpillars (representing abuela Alma and abuelo Pedro) that fall in love, then turn into butterflies and fly apart, is a metaphor for the miraculous, transformative nature of butterflies… which flutter en masse around Alma and Mirabel when they express their love for each other, and Sebastián Yatra's 'Dos Oruguitas' morphs into a beautiful song of redemption.

Seeing real butterflies in Colombia couldn't be easier: the country is home to 3,642 species! While in the Eje Cafetero, check-out the lepidoptera at Jardin Botánico de Quindío, where some 50 species flit about a netted enclosure.

Yellow butterflies flew around Gabriel García Márquez's grandparents' house in Aracataca, where he was born and lived as a child. (His grandmother Tranquilina's story about an electrician who was eternally followed by butterflies inspired the mariposas amarillas that surround the lover Mauricio in One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Today, yellow butterflies adorn Aracataca, a somnolent mini-Macondo a 2.5-hour drive south of the Caribbean city of Santa Marta. They seem to dance in the glaring sun on commemorative wall murals, while giant wooden butterflies seem to flit about the garden of Gabo's former home—today the Casa-Museo Gabriel García Márquez. Gabostown Tours offers guided tours.

To experience clouds of yellow butterflies, visit Colombia in spring or fall when millions of Phoebis philae migrate north and south.

Animals and birds

In Encanto, adorable little Antonio Madrigal is blessed with the Dr. Doolittle-like gift of being able to communicate with animals and birds. His room morphs into a rainforest filled with coatimundis, capybaras, a jaguar, and tapir, plus hummingbirds and toucans (including Pico). No wonder! Colombia is a tropical menagerie teeming with astonishing wildlife.

Antonio's room—replete with jungle treehouse—was based on the Chocó rainforest, in the country's northwestern extreme. Reserva Natural El Almejal provides a perfect base for exploring this supreme hothouse of biodiversity and home to real coatimundis, jaguars, and tapirs. For a treehouse experience, head to Reserva Natural Tanimboca, near Leticia, in Amazonia. Overnighting alone in the rainforest, you may hear—and, if lucky, see—jungle cats and other nocturnal critters, including tapirs, prowling around your treehouse. To see capybaras, check into Lagos de Menegua, an agrotourism complex and ecological paradise in the marshy flatlands of Los Llanos, a 6-hour drive east of Bogotá.

Wherever you are in Colombia, the birding (with some 1,920 species) is sure to astound. To spot them, sign up with a reputable birding guide or tour company, such a Quindío-based Penelope Birding. The Valle de Cocora is an exclusive reserve for the endemic and critically endangered Yellow-eared parrot (you'll need an eagle-eyed guide to spot it). Hummingbirds zip past, like the green flash of sunset. And toucans hop about the silvery yagruma trees. I've even spotted Andean condors overhead here!

Combine a visit to Aracataca with Reserva de las Aves Río Blanco, in the montane rainforests of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The Fundación ProAves, which operates the reserve (and 25 others), is a good resource.

the Madrigals family in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Encanto”
Courtesy of Disney

Music and dance

It's easy to fall under the spell of Encanto's magical musical scores, which play up Colombia's diverse genres. Cumbia... guaracha… joropo... merengue… vallenato... plus salsa and other contemporary sounds. For example, 'Colombia, me encanto,' the movie's final track, is an infectious vallenato that has you swaying irresistibly in your seat.

"Vallenato is what we (Latinos) put on at parties, so I wanted to write the most joyous song possible... A love letter to Colombia itself," recalls songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda. "It gets ratcheted up to the Nth degree when you add Carlos Vives' vocals." To catch the vida loca vibe of accordioncentric vallenato in person, head to its birthplace, Valledupar, which hosts a vallenato festival every late September or early October.

Germaine Franco's score for Encanto is infused with cumbia, considered the most quintessential of Colombian musical genres. Its soulful beat pulses through the streets of Barranquilla and Cartagena, where it evolved as the Caribbean derivative of the cumbe dance of West Africa. Cumbia is performed in Encanto by Mirabel's uncle Félix, an Afro-Colombian costeño (Caribbean coast dweller). He's the biggest personality in the movie, with a huge, open, fun-loving personality typical of the Colombian Caribbean.

Cartagena's Crazy Salsa Dance School will teach you the moves of this and other popular dance forms. Cali, however, is considered the capital of sizzling salsa, and ground zero for beginners who yearn to dance like a pro; the city's Tango Vivo y Salva Viva has produced several national champions.

Food experiences

"You just healed my hand with arepa con queso," says Mirabel to her mum, Julieta, whose arepas (cornmeal cakes) and other dishes have healing powers. Magic is everywhere in Encanto, including in the kitchen and (spoiler!) the disastrous dinner scene when Mariano proposes to Isabela and everyone is served ajiaco.

This delicious and hearty soup is a must-try Andean favorite, perfect for a cold and drizzly day around Bogotá. Traditionally served in a black earthenware bowl, it contains chicken, potatoes, avocado, capers, corn on the cob, and a blob of thick cream. In Bogotá it's featured on most restaurants' menus. Foodies with guidebooks in hand flock to the hole-in-the-wall La Puerta Falsa, in the heart of cobbled La Candelaria. For the best of the best, I prefer my steaming bowl of ajiaco at El Son de los Grillos, a much cozier, antique-filled restaurant three blocks away.

As to warm, freshly-made arepas, you'll discover dozens of types on a culinary adventure around Colombia. Crisp arepas boyacenses from the Boyacá region are stuffed with cheese. Arepas de huevo, stuffed with fried egg, are a Caribbean delicacy—Barranquilla and Cartagena dispute which makes the best. And crunchy, zesty arepa santandereana, from the Andean Santander district, mixes yucca (cassava) and chicharrón (fried pork rinds) deliciously into the cornmeal.

To learn how to prepare arepas, ajiaco, and other signature Colombian dishes just like Julieta Madrigal, don an apron with Colombian Cooking Experience and bring home the best souvenir possible.

The Madrigal’s casita in “Encanto” is more than a house—it’s alive—embodying the same magic that has blessed the Madrigal children
Courtesy of Disney

Flowers

Encanto is a veritable tropical Eden. Isabela, the golden child ("Señorita Perfecta" to Mirabel, her youngest sister) of the Madrigal family, conjures beautiful flowers with every swish of her hand and hair. The Madrigal home and village of Encanto are awash in bougainvillea and other flowers. That's Colombia!

The giddy oranges and pink bougainvillea tumbling like veritable cascades over the walls of Barichara and nearby Villa de Leyva were a clear inspiration. So, too, the bougainvillea-festooned balconies of Cartagena, the not-to-be-missed UNESCO World Heritage City with its centuries-old cathedrals and castles, and horse-drawn carriages, enclosed within thick fortress walls.

That strangely pink river where abuela Alma and Mirabel sit and make-up after the house collapses? It exists! Check it out at Caño Cristales, in Parque Nacional Natural Sierra de la Macarena, in Los Llanos. Here, crystal-clear streams flow over granite bedrock colored like an artist's palette with Podostemaceae—aqueous flowers that bloom pink each summer and fall.

In early August, head to Medellín—the 'City of Eternal Spring'—for the spectacular Fería de las Flores (Flower Festival). The highlight is the Desfile de Silleteros, when hundreds of farmworkers parade brilliant flower arrangements on their backs (they make a cameo appearance in Encanto at minute 7:00). The day prior, be sure to visit a flower farm in nearby Santa Elena. The farms are made more vibrant as Colombian visitors dressed in ruanas and sombreros vueltiaos flock to see farmers putting the finishing touches to their silletas—flower arrangements. Medellín Day Trips offers excursions.

"In a time when travelers are seeking comfortable familiarity now more than ever, Colombia is the perfect destination for those who want one foot in exploration, and one foot in comfort," says Flavia Santoro, President of ProColombia, which last year announced its new country brand as the 'Most Welcoming Place on Earth.' "What could be more welcoming than an animated Disney movie, Encanto, which so beautifully showcases Colombia's natural and cultural splendors?"

Christopher P. Baker, the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' leads annual photo tours of Colombia featuring Bogotá, the Valle de Cocora and Salento, the Eje Cafetero, Medellín, and Cartagena.

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