Colombia Rising

written by | Posted on November 12th, 2012

Hiking the highlands of coffee country.

Colombia is the gem of two oceans: 500 miles of Pacific coastline and another 700 along the Caribbean, the Emerald Coast where the first European adventurers landed in the 16th century in search of a New World full of riches.

In the 21st century, it is leisure travelers who are discovering Colombia, a country twice the size of France. It offers a bounty of dramatic landscapes; a rich biodiversity that includes 20 percent of the planet’s bird species (1,867 in all); cultural treasures from a pre-Columbian past and a lively present-day visual and performing arts movement; and outdoor adventure options stretching from warm beaches to cool Andean highlands. In fact, since mid-decade, tourism has been rising at a double-digit percentage pace as this close-by country, with improved security countrywide, a greatly enhanced infrastructure and a major campaign of image building, has become tourism’s comeback-kid in South America.

bountiful bogota
While the delightful Caribbean resort town of Cartagena is the tail that wags the dog in leisure sales from the U.S., every year there are more good reasons for travelers to spend quality time in Bogota, one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere and one of its liveliest and most interesting capitals.

Most recently—prior to the 36th annual gathering of 2012 TravelMart Latin America in Cartagena in September—Recommend joined a group of U.S. and U.K. tour operators on a get-acquainted-with Bogota and the Coffee District tour. Our host was Panamericana de Viajes, a Bogota-based destination management company that has been showing visitors around Colombia for more than a quarter century and is introducing a new way to experience “coffee culture.”

We started in Bogota, whose first conquistadors came in search of the golden treasures of El Dorado; the original settlement was officially christened Santa Fe de Bogota de Nuevo Reino de Granada de las Indias del Mar Oceano. Many centuries later the capital has a nice short name and a highly contemporary profile. The skyline is dominated by steel and glass buildings, and residential areas mix styles from Andalusia and Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet stopping here for a close look, you’ll find lovely colonial corridors along which to wander and museums full of dazzling pre-Columbian treasures, as well as masterpieces of modern art.

Highlights of our Bogota sightseeing included a walkabout in Plaza Bolivar, bordered by the Cathedral and the Palacio de San Carlos, as well as La Candelaria. The latter is the cultural heart and soul of the city, dotted with ornate churches such as San Francisco with elaborate interiors; San Ignacio and its colonial art works; and the fresco-lined Church of Santa Clara, now a museum. Few South American capitals can match Bogota’s grand collection of museums, and most are located in La Candelaria district. Its most famous treasures and the world’s greatest assemblage of pre-Columbian gold objects (33,000) are on display in the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum).

Taking a cable car up and a tram down, we journeyed to the peak of Monserrate Hill—crowned by a handsome white church and a couple of fine restaurants—to enjoy the finest panoramic views of Bogota, then drove 30 miles out of town to the mountain town of Zipaquira to descend 590 ft. underground to the vast Salt Cathedral. Carved inside an immense, 25-acre active salt mine, this surreal and stunning piece of engineering and artistry is built on three levels, with the Cathedral, measuring 394 ft. in length and 72 ft. high, on the lower level.

Through good luck and good planning, our 2-day marathon of sightseeing included a Sunday, the day when major avenues close to cars (7 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and cyclists of all ages take to the many routes along the 214 miles of bicycle paths called ciclorutas. It’s a lot of fun and there are many places to rent bicycles and join cycling tours. In the city’s northern residential neighborhood of Usaquen, Sunday is also Flea Market day, with a vast emporium of arts, crafts, jewelry, clothing, and foodstuffs spread out over many blocks of cobblestone streets.

Another neighborhood shopping pick is Hacienda Santa Barbara mall whose modern boutiques occupy this stylish commercial center, located adjacent to our hotel, the 82-room Hacienda Royal. This is a stylish hotel in a safe neighborhood with fine dining restaurants within walking distance; the atmosphere is welcoming and low key, the service friendly and efficient. Newly renovated rooms are spacious and comfy, fitted with all amenities including TV, CD player, mini-bar, sofa bed, Internet (cost additional) and breakfast, and guest facilities include a restaurant and bar, spa and gym.

The Usaquen district hosts another member of the Hoteles Royal group (eight properties in Bogota alone): the 251-room Radisson Royal Bogota. Elsewhere in the country, La Merced, a beautiful 8-room boutique hotel in the historic center of Cartagena, is also part of the Royal family.

Cartagena is must-visit.

take a coffee break
And then we were off to coffee country, yes the homeland of mustachioed Juan Valdez, an iconic fictional figure, but in real life a coffee farmer plucked from the fields by a Madison Avenue ad agency in 1950s. He rocketed to fame as the spokesman for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, made up of more than a half-million coffee farmers or cafeteros.

Still wearing his sombrero, Juan Valdez is alive and well—a role now played by grower Carlos Castañeda—and most of the flavorful Colombian coffee continues to be grown and harvested in the west of the country within the Coffee Triangle: three little departments (Caldas, Risaralda and Quindio), whose respective capital cities (Manizales, Pereira and Armenia) form the points on the triangle. We were heading for the smallest and most charming, Quindio, where World War II-era Willys Jeeps carry loads of bananas and coffee sacks to market—and tourists like us sightsee.

This triad is bound together in a common coffee culture, as well as serene and dramatic landscapes that come in varying shades of green: tropical Andean forests laced with frothy waterfalls and remote horseback riding trails; rolling coffee plantations climbing slopes and lining valleys; clusters of banana trees and bamboo groves. Color accents come from orchids and heliconias, hummingbirds and parrots, brightly painted farm houses (fincas) and town houses.

Coffee country (Zona Cafetera) is the heartland of Colombia’s nascent “coffee finca tourism” industry that fuses history and ecology in a plantation life setting, adding a menu of adventure activities and attractions. A good example of the latter is the 128-acre Parque Nacional del Cafe, a sort of coffee theme park recreating a traditional plantation and dedicated to Colombia’s beloved bean. Its Coffee Museum hosts the “Show del Cafe,” a well-choreographed show that in song and dance—complete with beautiful costumes and catchy bamcuco and pasillo music—tells the story of how the coffee crop became the bedrock of Colombian economy. Additionally, visitors find cable car and buggy rides, go carts and gardens, pools and lakes, and—no surprise—options to buy and drink Colombian coffee.

The park sits 10 miles outside Armenia, our group’s gateway to coffee country and a 30-minute flight away from Bogota on Avianca Airlines; Armenia airport is also linked with weekly nonstop service to Fort Lauderdale aboard Spirit Airlines.

While Armenia has a not-to-miss gold museum, Museo del Oro Quimbaya, we were heading out of town along a beautiful route to Hacienda Bambusa, the lodging centerpiece for Panamericana de Viajes’ new 3-night Hacienda Bambusa a la Carte program, which offers two half-day or one full-day excursion on each day of the visit.

During our visit, we had time to:

• Tour the vast 250-acre Bambusa finca, which cultivates bananas, plantain, tangerines, coffee, pineapple and herds of white Brahman cattle. Saddle up for a ride out to see the hacienda’s ginger and cacao plantations, stopping of course to sample the local chocolate.

• Get to know all about coffee during an excursion to the Hacienda San Alberto, a beautiful coffee estate, offering guests a first-class introduction to growing and producing coffee, a process here that requires picking each ripe red bean by hand. At the end of the tour, the tasting—called cupping—shows why a cup of coffee can be as sophisticated as a glass of wine.

• Stop to shop in and savor the picture-perfect town of Salento, whose 19th century houses—painted in bright whimsical colors—line the main street and house dozens of little restaurant-bars and craft shops: handwoven hammocks are irresistible, ditto a wide selection of hats and ponchos.

• Climb aboard a refitted Willys Jeep heading out of Salento and up into the hills to picnic overlooking the breathtakingly beautiful Valley of Cocora, where the unique wax palms, the national tree, rise like slim white columns out of the cloud forest mists…with towering Andean peaks beyond.

With more time, it would have been fun to cook up a storm with Bambusa’s chef, after a market visit to gather ingredients for such dishes as banana muffins on fruit sauce, Colombian ceviche, coconut rice, or grouper with passion fruit sauce.

Most coffee estates accommodate guests in converted farmhouses. Among the most charming and historic is the Hacienda San Jose, built in 1888 close to the town of Pereira. Hacienda Bambusa, on the other hand, is really a sustainably designed, upscale eco-lodge, masterfully constructed of bamboo and adobe in the style of a traditional farmhouse. Colorful art work and comfortable sitting areas (one with WiFi connection) grace the hacienda, while the seven spacious bedrooms occupying two floors around a central courtyard have terra cotta floors, comfy spring mattresses fitted with 500-count sheets, l’Occitane amenities, and satellite TV. All rooms open to grand verandahs with hammocks and easy chairs facing right onto the gardens, a tiled pool and myriads of darting birds. In fact, on the whole estate, the bird count is over 150 species, joined by at least 15 species of animals, including otters, jaguarundi, sloths and howler monkeys, among others.

Staying in such a bucolic environment—indeed traveling about the Coffee Triangle—it almost seemed silly to ask our tour escort Nathalie Velez of Panamericana de Viajes the question so many of us have about travel to Colombia: Is it safe?

“Ours is a very different country nowadays,” she says, “for the economy is prospering, the government is stable and its citizens not only have a new outlook on life, but they feel safe in their own country. Do you?” The country’s promotion has a good point: Colombia. The only risk is wanting to stay.

getting there
American Airlines
, Avianca, Delta Air Lines, LAN and United offer nonstop flights to Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport (BOG) from Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami and New York

Colombia with Cox & Kings
New to the Cox & Kings USA touring lineup is its 13-day Colombia in-Depth. The Private Journey program explores the historic heart of Bogota and the contemporary flair of Medellin, travels to the fortified port resort of Cartagena and exquisitely beautiful Tayrona National Park. En-route guests will discover a vibrant country, wander through local markets with an expert chef, snorkel in crystal waters, hike through pristine rainforest, and savor the treasures of colonial towns.

Highlights are certainly the fantastic museum collections: art in Museo Botero and gold in the Museo del Oro; the historic town of Villa de Leya, seeming to come from a page out of Don Quixote; swimming and snorkeling in the Rosario Islands; birdwatching and beaching in the jungles of Tayrona.

Private Journey means private car and guide, and superior and/or deluxe accommodations such as the Sofitel Victoria Regio or Avia 93 in Bogota, La Posada de San Antonio in Villa de Leyva, the Sofitel Legend in Cartagena, and the Diez Hotel or Charlee in Medellin.

“There is new interest in Colombia,” says Ignacio Villan, Latin America manager for Cox & Kings USA, who credits Colombia’s ProExport USA office for this destination turnaround. “We added our Colombia In-Depth itinerary this year to give our guests a full exposure to the many facets of this vibrant country.” With security no longer a front page issue, Villan believes that Colombia “will be a big destination in two to three years.” He encourages travel agents to call him direct for any assistance they need in selling Colombia.

The Colombia in-Depth private journey cost is $5,075 with superior accommodations, $5,325 with deluxe accommodations; air is additional.
(800) 999-1758coxandkingsusa.com or coxandkingsusa.com/agents

contact information
Hacienda Bambusa: haciendabambusa.com
Hoteles Royal: hotelesroyal.com
Panamericana de Viajes: panamericanadeviajes.net
ProExport Colombia: (305) 374-3144; colombia.travel

A tour highlight is coffee tasting.

tour operator intel
Various tour operators were asked their impressions about Colombia as a hot Latin American destination for 2013 and what makes their product unique in the marketplace.

Goway Travel
“For Goway, Colombia has always been on our radar, and we currently have great offerings for time in Bogota, Cartagena—one of the most picturesque and historically rich cities in all of Latin America—the Coffee Triangle and the famous trek to the Lost City—Colombia’s Machu Picchu. As we see the demand grow next year, we are looking at introducing the stunning archaeological town of San Agustin, the bustling city of Medellin and an idyllic retreat to the Rosario Islands. And for Colombia, or anywhere in Latin America, agents shouldn’t hesitate to draw on the knowledge and experience of our in-house destination experts, many of whom have lived in the countries they sell and all who have had years of experience in selling Latin America and Antarctica, backed up by a comprehensive and in-depth training program. And for our industry partners, we are offering for every Colombia booking between Jan. 1 and May 31, 2013, an additional $25 on their Goway rewards card.”

—Don Forster, general manager, Latin America
(800) 387-8850;

Latour
“I am just back from Colombia, where travel warnings are a sales factor, although less and less; in actuality, they only apply in the far south. Wonderful hotels and attractions abound, as I think we show in our 2- to 4-night packages for agents to customize client vacations. We work only with travel agents, engaging them on Latin American destinations during travel shows, during special seminars with visiting suppliers from each destination to share first-hand information, and have experts with extensive knowledge and experience on call at all times to assist with travel bookings.”

—Arthur Berman, vice president
(800) 825-0825; latour.com

Avanti Destinations
“Last month, I was in Colombia and fell in love with Cartagena, a destination that’s going to be an easy one to sell; it has the most wonderful historic center, similar to La Candelaria in Bogota. In the countryside, Avanti offers a 3-night Coffee Triangle Tour, which we do privately because there is not much English spoken. Our website says right up front: please contact your preferred agent, for we are committed to serving the travel agent community with a secure website. Online resources are available 24/7 to access hotel availability, pricing, tour and hotel descriptions, and onsite destination webinars. And we are always on the road updating our own destination knowledge.”

—Alma Leigh Young, Latin American specialist
(800) 442-5053; avantidestinations.com

General Tours
“The Coffee Triangle is the middle point on our 8-day Treasures of Colombia tour, starting in Bogota and ending in Cartagena for our small group tours—guaranteed no more than 16 guests. Bookings are increasing, in part because the beautiful area has been getting a lot of press and also UNESCO designated the Coffee Triangle as a World Heritage Site. Of course, agents will find all our programs on our website; however, those who have signed up for our Rewards program will have their own entry to a special member site. For instance, Rewards members will know that we are offering a $500 pp discount when clients pay in full at the time of booking.”

—Beth Karlicek, senior vice president
(800) 221-2216; generaltours.com or generaltours.com/Rewards/Login.aspx