On Location: The Colombian Towns, Architecture, and Music that Inspired Disney’s ‘Encanto’

For film directors and production designers, research trips offer a flood of information about a destination and culture. And for Disney’s Encanto directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush, their two-week trip to Colombia was no different. With Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the Disney flick’s original songs, they traveled from Cartagena on the country’s north coast to the lush valleys and national parks of central Colombia, absorbing as much detail as possible to inject into Disney’s first feature-length animated musical set in Latin America. Those details—and the focus on Colombia’s diversity of nature, music, people, food, and culture—are evident in the film from start to finish, thanks to this trip and the “Colombian Cultural Trust” that Disney assembled of local architects, documentarians, musicians, artists, botanists, and more. 

Encanto, which follows the magical Madrigal family living in an equally magical house in a Colombia valley, brings some of the country’s most beautiful locations to animated life, from the soaring wax palms only found in the Cocora Valley to the colorfully painted window sills of towns like Barichara. To hear more about the real destinations that inspired the film’s look—and to find out with where Howard, Bush, and Charise Castro Smith, another director and co-writer on the film who joined the team after the research trip, want to travel on their next trip to Colombia—we sat down with the trio. 

Disney’s Encanto opens only in theaters November 24. 

Tell me a little bit about the research trip you took back in 2018. What were some of the things you saw that impacted the movie’s look?

Byron Howard: We went all over the country. We went to big cities like Bogotá and Cartagena—and parts of the film are heavily inspired by this place called Salento next to the Cocora Valley. If you look at where the Madrigals’ house is set, it’s heavily inspired by the rolling terrain of that valley. There are wax palm trees there that are 200 feet tall, which exist nowhere else in the world. And the moment Jared and I stepped into that valley, it looked art-directed, it looked like someone had painted it. It was so unreal.

Jared Bush: We went to really tiny towns, too, like Barichara. It’s like a town lost in time, which is really what we wanted to do with our film, to have it feel timeless and inviting to others. [Barichara is] a place where it probably looks the same today as it did 100 years ago and it feels like you’re transported to a different era. A lot of our story and the way things look in our town are based on that.

We also went to an amazing town called [San Basilio de] Palenque, which is a couple hours outside of Cartagena. It was the first free town in the Americas and it feels like a village literally taken out of Africa. We knew that we were going to have many characters who were Afro-Colombian and there’s something very special there between the people that we met, the music, and the dance that we saw. A lot of that’s reflected in the movie as well. That’s a very, very special, unique place that I highly recommend.


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