How the Directors of Disney's 'Encanto' Brought the Magic of Colombia to the Big Screen

"We heard magic runs in the streets there and we really felt that while we were there..."

Even though international travel is still complicated due to COVID-19, films filled with inspiration from around the world have provided the hope that any travel lover has been craving.

The latest film that makes us feel like we've landed in a new destination? Disney's 60th animated movie, "Encanto."

Taking place in the heart of Colombia, "Encanto," released in late November, follows the life of Mirabel, a young girl who is the only one in her family without magical powers. Although she feels held back by her lack of powers, things take a positive turn when she learns she is the last hope to save her home.

Encanto Directors stand overlooking a mountain in Colombia
Directors Byron Howard (L) and Jared Bush (R). Courtesy of Brian Davidson

Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard thankfully got to travel to Colombia before the pandemic and told Travel + Leisure all about their trip and why they felt South American country was the perfect backdrop for their film.

"We went down to see as much of the country as we could, and it really, really inspired us," Howard said. "From that point on, it really became clear that Colombia was this crossroads of all of Latin America where culture comes together, and dance and tradition and families are beautifully blended ethnicity wise. We just absolutely loved that."

The two directors first traveled to Colombia in the spring of 2018 for some initial research. While visiting both big cities, like Bogotá and Cartagena, and small villages high in the mountains and along the coast, they felt the presence of magic at every turn — which became the major theme in the film.

"The idea magic is everywhere was something that we actually really tried to incorporate into the story. We have this magical family, but to this town, they're somewhat normal, was something we wanted to bring in," Bush told T+L.

Their trip was also filled with wonderful food including ajiaco (Colombian potato soup) in small villages, to hot chocolate with cheese in Bogotá, fresh arepas — which make their way into the film — and fat-bottomed ants in Cartagena.

Bush and Howard planned to return to Colombia with their entire team in March 2020 and needless to say, they never made it back. Thankfully, friends they had made on their first trip carried out their research by sending photos of every element they could have needed to make their Disney story come to life.

"The one very important thing that happened on the original trip was that we made very, very good friends all across the country. And so, while we couldn't go, we had amazing people there to help us take pictures of things, to take videos, to send samples, to talk to us about fabric and textiles, and architecture," Bush said, adding that the crew would have typically taken another three trips, if not for the pandemic. "It was a real group effort."

Among the photos and videos they had to work with, recordings of nighttime noises that were made from their first trip actually made their way into the film.

"Colombia is the birthplace of magical realism...we heard magic runs in the streets there and we really felt that while we were there — it's hard to describe it," Bush said.

Selfie of Encanto Directors Byron and Jared
Courtesy of Jared Coffee

After visiting so many different areas it also became abundantly clear that the film would need to reflect the range of dialects throughout the country. Regionality and studying language on a wide spectrum helped to understand how people speak and played into the creation of the film's characters.

Almost the entire cast is Colombian, with many members living in Colombia. The Spanish version of the film also uses voice actors exclusively from Colombia.

For first-time visitors, the two recommended visiting the city of Cartegena for the rich culture and delicious food, Bogotá for nightlife (and fighting off jetlag), and the enchanting Valle de Cocora for nature at its best — which also inspired the magical house, la casita, in "Encanto."

"There is no shortage of good food or beautiful, warm and welcoming places to see," Bush said.

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