Originally published by DETAILS Magazine.
Buy, Buy, Love: The Mail-Order Brides of Medellín
Twelve men and 150 women walk into a bar… This is the world of international romance tours, which promise to connect lonely men of means with young women looking for love and/or a green card—no matter how vast the geographic or cultural divide. I flew from LA to Colombia for a week-long trip to meet the participants, and discover whether this is as awful and awkward a business as it sounds—or a godsend for lonely hearts.
“Respect for the girls disarms them—they’re not used to it. Be funny and humorous. And power tip number three? Don’t lock in too early on any one girl.”
It’s a sweat-through-your-statement-shirt Saturday afternoon in Medellín, Colombia: the former murder capital of the world. Dave, a stocky ex-nightclub manager from Liverpool, England, is preaching to a crowded bus of single men. They’ve travelled from Europe, Australia, and the U.S. to meet single women. Maybe even marry them. Dave is the dating coach at AmoLatina, the Latin- centric cog of international dating monolith AnastasiaDate. Once a romance-tour client himself, Dave’s all lovable swagger and rogue British charm. It’s easy to see why the men around me have bought into him and his power tips.
We’re en route to a gender-skewed dating party. Our minibus peels off a busy highway and into the parking lot next to an unassuming club called Dulce Jesus Mio. We head inside and take in the Latin-village décor, oddly punctuated with wall-to-wall Christmas lights and large, grinning, porcelain pigs. It looks like the kind of place that celebrates New Year’s every night. (And every night at midnight, it does.)
The music starts. Reggaeton—a fusion of Caribbean and Latin beats—echoes through Medellín no matter where you go. Its pulse is the hypnotic “dem bow” beat: a mesmerizing pattern that never ceases.
Women begin arriving in groups of three and four, spilling out of bright yellow taxis. We see glimpses of halter-tops and jeans, outfits keenly hugging voluptuous figures. The youngest, smiles lined with braces, are in their early twenties. The oldest look to be in their mid-forties and strut towards the club with less giggle, more purpose. Photographers have been hired to capture the women as they
enter the club, a blinding flash lighting up their faces in front of an AmoLatina sponsor board, which reads: BRINGING THE WORLD TOGETHER.
Online dating shows no sign of slowing down its phenomenal growth. It has skyrocketed from a curiosity in the late 1990s to a $2 billion powerhouse. International sites make up only a smaller part of the pie, but last year, some 5,000 American men found their wives in foreign countries through online dating, according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
AnastasiaDate, most famous for arranging hookups with Russian women, was founded in 1993 and has more than 200 employees, working in offices in Maine and Moscow. They run regional websites in Eastern Europe, South America, Africa, China, and the Philippines. The company boasts that nearly one in five of its customers ends up either married or in a “lasting relationship” after attending one of its Eastern European romance tours. They also claim that the number of men joining has more than quadrupled since 2005—and that sign-ups by Russian, Ukrainian, and Latin American women have tripled.
Like Anastasia’s other portals, using AmoLatina is straightforward: Hone-in on one of 29 countries from a drop-down menu, then craft your ideal partner: from her age, height, weight and hair color, to her English speaking skills (which range, helpfully, from “fluent” to “does not matter”). If a profile piques your curiosity, you pay, depending on how elaborate an introduction you want to make, to send translated messages to them, have roses delivered to their doorstep, or go on a guided tour in their home town to meet them. Most customers travel to meet as many women as possible in one particular city. The participants on this trip paid $1,595 for a travel package that includes accommodation at a four-star hotel (The Dann Carlton), in-house translators, and access to hordes of women at two “socials”. One common assumption: that exotic, foreign companions will be either more beautiful than women in the U.S. or more desperate for love (or money, or a visa).
The nucleus of the romance tour is a hotel hospitality suite, where clients set up dates with women they’ve spotted on the website or at a social. When I enter AmoLatina’s regal 17th floor office, the air heavy enough to make you forget the window overlooking downtown Medellín is wide open. Huddled over a desk are
two female interpreters, breathlessly speaking into phones and clicking through AmoLatina.com. As I meet the guys for the first time, they give play-by-plays of the night before—their first party with Medellín’s locals, affectionately known as paisas.
Aggie is a hulking, cheery real-estate executive from Los Angeles who looks around thirty. He’s already befriended Mark, a six-foot-five undertaker from Boston. The pair are an unexpected demographic: young and boisterous and effortlessly competent. Steve, from Omaha, is a grandfather and a widower. Joe, a middle-aged divorcee from Boston, works at one of the world’s biggest tech companies and resembles Jon Lovitz—right down to the billowy polo he’s wearing. Joe is brash and self-deprecating, but drops the chutzpah when he talks about meeting a potential partner. Inevitably, many of the men on tour in Medellín have suffered heartbreak, betrayal, and loneliness. Some pine for a wife and children. A minority, though, are “players” who expect a tangible return on their investment. So says Dave, who confesses to taking a group of men to a strip club—which doubled as a brothel—in Bogotá a week earlier.
Today, Dave’s job is part cultural concierge, part cheerleader. The latter proves vital. For many men, booking this tour isn’t without emotional consequences. The process forces an admission of defeat: that they still haven’t figured out women. To ask for help may be as emasculating for the tour’s youngest man (just 26) as its elder members, who are seeing out their sixties. Dave is a counterweight to these insecurities: a quippy, encouraging ally.
Who are the women, then? Quite a few hail from the poorer parts of Medellín— like Comuna 13 and La Iguana—and many are single mothers. “About 80 percent of the girls who get involved with this have ulterior motives,” says Howard, a 57- year-old agricultural entrepreneur who I met on the plane and who, coincidentally, married a Colombian woman a decade ago (though not on a matchmaking tour). Having travelled regularly from San Diego to Colombia to court his wife, Howard has seen the tours evolve over the years. “The girls want to get out of the country because they have no hope. They have looks: They’re beautiful. But if they hit 25, 26 . . . the boat has left the dock. They’re too old for Colombian guys.” For these gals, the equation is simple: free drinks, free food, and the chance to meet a foreigner serious enough about love to pay for it. Throughout my trip, several young women would complain about Colombia’s notoriously unfaithful men.
One tour participant, passing through the hospitality suite, stands out when I first see him: Jack (his name has been changed here at his request) doesn’t hesitate to introduce himself. He spent years as a ballroom-dance teacher and continues to take African-dance classes. Jack’s chest is accentuated by a tight black tee, which is tucked into green chinos. His arms are circled by tattoos; a black trucker hat hides bright turquoise eyes. The underside of his hat reads: MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK.
“American women,” he sighs, “are not very nice. I’ve suffered.” Jack has a golden tan that comes from having lived in Santa Fe for two decades. His voice sings with theatricality and sweetness. It is a shock when he reveals his age: 52. He looks at least a decade younger. Probably because he weighs the same as he did when he was 20. Or maybe because he scrubs his face with sea salts. Jack has been burned—by a dancer from California. She moved in with him, and ended up sleeping with his best friend. He hasn’t dated in the four years since. After trying Match.com, he discovered AmoLatina.
“I’m not very tall. I don’t have much hair. And those things really do matter: First impressions matter,” he says. “If I go to a bar, especially a crowded one, there’s going to be a lot more men than women.” Larry, my AmoLatina chaperone, nods in agreement. “And I’m a small guy. I want to sit in the back, in the corner, against a wall.”
“It’s so hard. I’ve pretty much given up even the possibility,” Jack says with a shrug. “I have to find my own happiness in life, maybe without the love of my life.”
At Dulce Jesus Mio, it doesn’t take long for the dozen foreign men to find themselves blissfully surrounded—by approximately 150 women. The team of translators gets to work, dragged from table to table by the men to—at least partially—bridge the cultural divide. Assertive women, meanwhile, begin to edge out their rivals: cornering men on the move and grabbing translators for clandestine conversations. With dating’s golden ratio tipped on its head—these guys are outnumbered ten-to-one—in this moment, men are the commodity.
The bar is soon drenched in machismo. Aguardiente—firewater—the potent, ouzo-like Colombian liquor, begins to flow. Jack entertains a table of women,
emphasizing his points with flourishes of the hands and then listening to the responses with distinct intensity. The fellas are engaged with two, three, or four women at once. The opportunity is rousing a swagger that many of these guys had lost years ago (or never had).
I seek out an interpreter for my interviews and meet Laura, the petite translator whose fringe dances around as she talks. As the club grows humid, I’m introduced to two women: one 22, the other 30. The younger says—via Laura— that her ideal man is tall, white, and at least 20 years her senior. It’s their first time—they heard about it on the radio—and, with muffled giggles, they ask to be introduced to some of the Americans. “I want to meet a man who can dance!” says the older woman. I tell them they should meet Jack, who is still diligently engaging with a table full of girls. I promise the duo an introduction later.
After meeting several women, a familiar pattern emerges. Every conversation, every interaction, every brush of the hair and sustained glimmer of eye contact is communicating a flagrant message of desire. Sure, it’s the M.O. of a regular dude- on-the-prowl. But seeing an entire room of women who feel that way? It feels alien.
Chaperone Larry seeks me out. As part of AmoLatina’s eternal push for glamour and legitimization, the company hosts an annual beauty contest. Last year’s competition was syndicated on Univision—the United States’ largest Spanish- language TV network. The winner, a 21-year-old brunette named Marisol, is making a publicity appearance at the social. She’s pretty in a quieter way than anyone in the room. Like most of the women here, she doesn’t speak a word of English. In the aftermath of her contest win, Marisol was bombarded with men asking for dates. She says her modeling schedule was too busy, in the polite way most beautiful women say they’re too busy. Her requirements in a man, I learn, are humble: that he is respectful and committed to being in a relationship. She implies that neither can be assumed when dealing with Colombian men.
The social is three hours old when I catch up with Jack again. Grinning, he tells me he won a dance competition. More important: he’s met a girl.
“The woman I’m dancing with, Patricia, she’s beautiful: She has her own business, she’s well-groomed, she’s sexy as hell, and she’s reserved, which I like,” says Jack. “But introduce me to those other girls! It’d be rude not to.” We head back inside, and the two women from the start of the night come cross the dance
floor. They want Jack. He tells me five more minutes, but when I come back to his table, he’s left. So has Patricia.
Later that night in Parque Lleras, the party district of Medellín, I meet a 22-year- old named Santiago who is a friend of one of the social’s translators. He had no idea that anything like it existed until now. “It’s not normal in Colombia,” he insists, aghast. “It’s not normal anywhere.” Another young man, loosely connected to the tour, chimes in: “I see the women who come in. They are looking for husbands, a man that can take care of anything. They are looking for a green card. There is no love in that room.”
The phone rings early. I wake up in a jolt. It’s Jack. He wants to meet by the pool and tell me about the night before, and Patricia.
Modest spread of hair still tucked under a cap—this one a loud red—Jack lies on a sun chair and recounts what happened at the social: how he had almost overlooked the coy Patricia and kicked himself once he met her. At 32, she is 20 years younger than he is. Already enamored, Jack tells me about her job, her braces, and, shyly, her breasts. He had taken her, and seven of her friends, out with a translator. “I told them to order whatever they wanted,” he says. “I paid for the bill, I paid for the taxis home. I paid for everything.”
He and Patricia have plans to meet again tonight, over dinner in Parque Lleras. Jack throws away his hat, strips to his Speedos and wades into the pool. “I don’t want to be a playboy. I want to have a love of my life. So here I am.” Maybe it’s the hastiness. Maybe it’s that he was so emotionally candid when we were introduced. Hell, maybe it’s that I grasp even less about this concept than I first presumed—but I can’t shake the feeling that Jack is immensely vulnerable.
While he is out with Patricia, most of the other men are on a group date. They’re partying on an open-air chiva bus—a rural vehicle repurposed as a nightclub on wheels—and climbing mountain ranges to take in the spectacular, light-sprawled valley that is Medellín. Several of the men, dates in tow, chuckle when they see the bus’s four steel dancing poles. As we take off, our driver flicks a button to start a high-powered smoke machine. He flicks another, shooting neon lasers across the bus. Dave and his AmoLatina coworker Lisa dance around the poles and each other. They dole out shots, but men several times their age refuse with
polite grins, immune to the seduction of smoke, lights, and aguardiente. Boston Joe sips a Coke, arms crossed. He’s sitting alone, gazing blankly.
The younger tour members, though, are in their element: Going drink-for-drink with the guides, grinding on their dates, and belting out barely-remembered song lyrics with comical conviction.
A little after midnight, the text comes in: PARTY IS IN ROOM 1410...
The chiva has been relieved of duty and the half-dozen couples are back at our hotel. Translator Laura and I snatch a bottle of Chilean wine from the corner store—we’ll need an offering for entry. The door swings open. It’s the aftermath of a boozy soiree in Aggie’s suite, and his last two guests are stumbling out as we stumble in. All that’s left of the party is Aggie, his date, a half-dozen bottles of Grey Goose and a tiny bedside radio blaring reggaeton. Sensing that we are intruding, Laura turns to leave the room, but Aggie insists we stay. He pours us some vodka and explains that rain foiled his plans for a pool party. Then he starts reminiscing about Blake Griffin’s nasty, iconic dunk on Kendrick Perkins. His date, Tiana, remains expressionless but unwaveringly pleasant. Her body may be in the same room as us but she’s absent in every other way. It’s after 2 A.M. when Laura and I leave, and Tiana is still sunk into the couch.
“Some girls have no hope,” Howard from the plane says when I describe the scenario to him the next night. “They start thinking, ‘I’m sitting here and doing nothing, or I’m sitting at home doing nothing.’ The life has been squeezed out of them.”
On our final day, Colombia reveals her sultry charm. I forget about Pablo Escobar and nose candy and the kidnappings I’ve read about, and start to see a city of immense cultural wealth and enchanting, hospitable people. Plus, the country is a gastronomical joy: A punchy seafood ceviche elicits daydreams weeks after I return home. Today the sun is high, the air is crisp, and markets flow through Medellín’s veins.
Larry, Jack, and I sightsee. We search—fruitlessly—for a place to play tejo, a fading national sport that combines lawn bowling with explosives. We take in Medellín from a mighty height, riding to its highest point in a panoramic cable
car. As we sit, suspended a few hundred feet over the city, Jack is more certain about Patricia than ever. “She’s my sweetheart,” he tells us. “It’s absolutely unique and special. It’s the way she makes me feel, it’s the way I make her feel.”
For a younger man, such hasty proclamations would be warning signs—a young adult straining for significance. But this is Jack, and it’s hard to qualify. Whether it’s Jack’s affirmations or Aggie’s vodka-soaked fantasy, the tour has stirred something in each of the men—fleeting vignettes of what they want most in life. “I’m anticipating tonight more than anything,” Jack says. He’s planning to spend every minute of his last evening with Patricia in the hotel.
A few hours later, before Patricia arrives, I introduce Howard and Jack over some rum in the deserted hotel bar. Loud, melodramatic Anglo-pop scores their conversation. Jack is defensive and strangely flat. “Yeah, I heard a little bit about your story,” he says. Howard asks Jack about his experiences on the tour and learns about Patricia. “It must be rough for you, going back now!” Howard says. “Very,” responds Jack.
Despite spending the better part of 12 hours with me today, Jack only now reveals that Patricia has two children. He’s looking over to the lobby, distracted. “I don’t want her to show up early and me not be there for her,” he says. “Wait, is that her? I have to go check.” And with that, he leaves, his bright eyes charmless for the very first time.
“He’s running out there to go find this girl. And I’m sure he’s in love,” Howard says. “But he’s committed his heart so early. She’s got a couple of kids.” Would the father stoop to exploit the situation by using the kids as a way to get money? Howard has seen worse.
When we depart Medellín at 7 A.M., the sun yawns through the plane’s windows and reality regains its hold. The night before, I saw Boston Joe and Aggie—drunk on aguardiente—wandering around Parque Lleras looking for a bar called Sunrise. They asked the locals, but it was 12:15 on a Wednesday morning and they were out of time and out of girls. For all the promise of life-changing love— even marriage—the men depart exhausted, hungover, and a little more than $2,000 poorer.
Aggie keeps to himself during the flight. Mark, the tall undertaker, is hidden in business class. Meanwhile, Boston Joe is finishing his ham and cheese. He, wiry-
haired and furrowed-browed, looks more exhausted than the others. He rests his head on the seat in front of him as we drift across the clear, Caribbean Sea.
I didn’t see Jack again: He and Patricia had ordered room service, stayed up all night, then checked out at 4 A.M. so he could catch an early flight. In the weeks after the tour, he and Patricia took their relationship to Facebook. She’d ecstatically send him “besos!!!!!!” and post pictures of herself—around her house; lying on her bed—then tag Jack in them: a sweet, clunky sort of “Wish you were here” for the social-media age.
A few months later, I call Jack. His voice is surer than I remember. Since we parted, he’s gone on another AmoLatina tour, this time in Costa Rica. He met Mariana, a perky 21-year-old with chestnut eyes, but decided she was too young to commit to. Patricia still wants Jack to come back to Medellín. He tells me that he’s not sure. Right now, he’s dating a 25-year-old American girl in Santa Fe.
“I’m definitely attracting younger women. It’s a wonderful affirmation,” he says. “I’m grateful to the tour—it’s kind of like a playground for a straight guy. Having a broken heart was hard, but I’m more confident than ever.”
Dave—the dating coach—fills me in on Aggie’s journey. “He was asleep during our cultural orientation. The parties in the room ... He converted his suite into a discotheque!” he added. “He said that he wants to come back, and that he wants to do it the way the other guys are doing it. He realized that he wants to do better.”
The last time I’d spoken to Boston Joe about his luck on tour, he told me that a paisa he met at the social had stood him up at the 11th hour. After organizing the date and booking a translator, his only consolation prize was an e-mail address. “Come on,” Joe grunted. “What is that?” Unlike many of the guys on tour, Joe knew without question what he wanted. He told me over and over: “I’m not here to get fucked. I want a partner. I want to meet someone. I want another child.”
For most of these men, the search continues. For some, it’s already stretched decades long: a wander with no mile markers and no guarantees. Can love be found in a 21-year-old in a kitschy South American club? A gamble, at best. But these tours, romantic or not, bring with them a hope: that a 2 A.M. Google search, a sip of aguardiente, a whisper in the ear of a Colombian translator might inch him closer to Her.