There are tales of those who have made Colombia their preferred destination for medical tourism’s nips and tucks. Take retired football legend Diego Maradona. Maradona chose Cartagena, Colombia, over his native Argentina to undergo surgery to remove around 112 pounds from his five-foot-three frame in 2005. While JLo insists that she has never had any surgical improvements, rumour has it that her ex, Marc Anthony, jetted off to Colombia for cosmetic dental procedures. But it’s not just celebrities and sports personalities who have set their sights on Colombia as their surgical hot spot (ironically, Colombian-born Shakira and Sofia Vergara are supposedly, all au natural). According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), Colombia’s popularity for aesthetic surgery has moved them into the eighth spot of countries with the highest number of surgical procedures, up from 11th in 2013, and just behind popular heavyweights like Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Germany, the U.S. and France.
The culture and attitudes in South America play a large part in how the industry has grown. For one, it’s a society where, traditionally, image is an obsession and there’s social pressure to look good. “The population may be more accepting of cosmetic enhancements and the augmented self as the acceptable norm, says Ann Kaplan, CEO of CosMedicList (cosmediclist.com), a Canadian online community that connects reputable doctors with patients. Paulina Vega, Miss Colombia who recently won Miss Universe, was quoted in The Huffington Post in favour of plastic surgery, saying that she wasn’t opposed to other contestants undergoing the knife as long as they didn’t take it to the extreme. According to Dr. Lina Triana, a plastic surgeon based in Cali, Colombia, and president of the Colombian Plastic Surgery Society, the climate is tropical and South American women (and men) aren’t shy about sporting revealing fashions, which look better when they have larger breasts, six-pack abs and well-endowed buttocks. There is also the attitude that surgical enhancement is for everybody. “In Colombia, we follow the belief that plastic surgery isn’t exclusive to the wealthy, which is why procedures are less than, say, in the U.S,” says Dr. Triana. “There is also a combination of a higher U.S. dollar and euro, and cheaper operating expenses allows Colombian clinics to offer surgeries at a lower cost.” For example, the average cost of breast augmentation in Colombia is $4,000 compared to $6,800 in the U.S, while a tummy tuck can run you $2,200 cheaper in Colombia. Dr. Triana insists that this doesn’t mean that the quality of service is compromised. Many surgeons operating in Colombia have studied and practised in the U.S. before returning to their hometowns. Thanks to the recent surgical boom, many clinics offer what she deems as a better, overall environment. “Colombia is known for the quality of the experience,” she says. “We are focused on customer service and take great care of our clients. We have a high quality of aftercare where our doctors—not nurses as in most cases—interact directly with our patients.”
The Rise in Body Contouring
While Brazil continues to claim the title of the highest number of cosmetic enhancement procedures in South America (they had a whopping 2,058,505 surgical procedures in 2015, 31,240 of which were non-surgical skin tightening), Colombia is slowly building a reputation for body-shaping procedures such as liposuction and breast and buttock augmentation (there were 357,115 aesthetic plastic surgeries in Colombia in 2015, which is up from 252,244 in 2014). “Our plastic surgeons have been shaping these parts of the body for a very, very long time,” says Dr. Triana. “Now that buttock augmentation is becoming popular in Europe and North America, people are looking for surgeons with experience, doing their research and coming to Colombia.” Adding fuel to the current butt trend are celebrities. “The increasing cultural diversity in the celebrity pool, such as Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez, offers a diverse view on what is now considered attractive,” says Dr. Lawrence Tong, a plastic surgeon at the Yorkville Institute of Plastic Surgery in Toronto, where the Brazilian butt lift (a method of buttock augmentation where fat is injected into the butt is on the menu. “When I was practising 20 years ago, nobody ever requested a larger butt, and now it’s acceptable,” he says.
Colombia and Medical Tourism
The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) estimated that in 2015, there were 2,713,000 international tourists travelling to Colombia. By 2025, that number is said to increase to 4,030,000. According to Dr. Triana, while the reasons for tourist visits aren’t conclusive, medical tourism in the country is on the rise. “I don’t like the term ‘medical vacation’— it makes light of surgery. This gives people the idea that they’re coming for a holiday, but it’s a surgical procedure. Part of a successful surgery is the prep work leading up to it, followed by the patients staying for recovery, which can take up to a few weeks,” she says. Kaplan, whose other company, Medicard (medicard.com) helps finance medical procedures for Canadians at home, cautions patients to not just look at the sticker price: “It’s a long way to go for cosmetic surgery. Patients need to incorporate all the costs, including travel, accommodations and aftercare, which could be the same cost as having the same procedure done in Canada.” While Kaplan and Dr. Tong aren’t convinced that Canadians are flocking to Colombia for surgical procedures, according to the 2015 ISAPS survey report, 25 per cent of surgical patients in Colombia were from other countries, most commonly Spain, the U.S. and Canada.
The Enhancement Trend: Colombia vs. Canada
What the experts do agree on is that surgical procedures in both Canada and Colombia are becoming more normalized. Patients and doctors are seeking that perfect balance. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the trend was definitely ‘bigger is better,’” says Dr. Triana, “but today’s trend is about harmony. People want breasts and buttocks that suit their shapes—they don’t want people to know that something has been done, which is the way it should be.” She even sees patients who had breast implants done 10 to 20 years ago coming back and requesting a decrease in size. Kaplan confirms that people want to look better, not augmented, which means that surgeons have adapted their techniques. “Doctors with experience think about exactly where and how to use a product, like how to make the lip roll out so it looks natural. Surgeons have become artists.”
Article first featured in Elevate Magazine: