Situated at the Northern tip of South America, Colombia is defined by its lush rainforests, never ending Andes mountains, and plentiful coffee plantations. Its capital, Bogotá, draws tourists from around the globe with its street art, modern restaurants and trendy shops.
Until recent years, this country (almost twice the size of Texas) had been plagued by political strife and a war on drugs. But today, its people are proud to share their culture, heritage and beautiful landscapes with visitors near and far.
Pique Travel’s partners at Big Five Tours & Expeditions have immersed themselves in unique and authentic travel to South America. Their president, Ashish Sanghrajka, has a personal love for Colombia and recently sat down to share his perspectives on this amazing country.
Pique: Big Five has a lot of history in Colombia. Can you share more about it? Asish: I went to Colombia 11 years ago when it was still unknown for tourism. I didn’t know what to expect. I left feeling that the country needed to do a lot of work to get service levels up to that of its neighbors like Peru or Ecuador, however I saw its potential. I was in love with the country’s authenticity.
My team came down a few months after and when they came back with the same connection, I knew something special was in the making. So, we opened an office there about 10 years ago and opened the office in Cartagena about 4 years ago. Now in most cases in Colombia, you purchase an existing tourism office, but we built ours from scratch so the passion was never lost and the country could be approached with the same commitment and love that we saw on our initial visits. I just returned in May where I led an industry trip. We were the first group within the Virtuoso network to visit the Tatacoa Desert and the area of San Agustin, the largest necropolis in the world. Pique: People still have stereotypes of the old drug lords and other negativity of Colombia. Did you ever feel unsafe or are you hesitant as you send clients there? Ashish: Never once. Proof of it was taking my own family there. On that trip we were working with a biologist tracking jaguar movements in the jungles around Villavicencio or this last group I was with traveling to remote parts in the area of Huila. Neither time did I have concern. Both of these areas were under guerilla control years ago and declared inaccessible. Today, they welcome tourism. Their smiles are genuine and they are so eager to be open to the world. In Cartagena, we were walking around the walled city past midnight and never had an issue. Pique: What can you tell me about the Colombian people and culture? Ashish: You have to look past the stereotypes. If you sit with the locals outside the big city, the stories are deep and run the full spectrum of emotions. They are proud of their past, as it’s what has made their present and future that much more heroic. Also, the food is amazing (the salsa even better). In fact it’s legendary (the locals don’t do spicy well, which is a great joke my team there and I keep telling ourselves).
Pique: You've talked a little about your family trip to Colombia. What did you like most about it and was it family friendly? Ashish: Yes, I took my family there, including my wife and two young children. I use my kids as guinea pigs to see if a destination is family friendly or merely family tolerant. In the case of Colombia, definitely family friendly if you are able to choose the right activities. For example instead of doing just the Gold Museum or the Botero Gallery, which 6 and 11-year-olds may not find immersive, we did a graffiti tour and went to an artist’s house to learn graffiti together. In Cartagena we went to the San Felipe fort and instead of doing the normal tour, we set up a treasure hunt for the them in the fort with clues on its history, how it was used and more.
Pique: What are some of the most memorable or favorite experiences you've had in your travels to Colombia? Ashish: One was in San Agustin, listening to our local manager Ivan talk about what it was like living for the past three plus decades under FARC rule and how he was shut off from the world. Reflecting on that with tears of joy as he is talking to a group of Americans who are so happy to be there. If there was ever an illustration of how tourism transforms you, this was it.
The other was in Cartagena, visiting a local school in the neighboring fishing villages where my children were speaking to the students about their experiences, about soccer and about their national football star, James. I saw a real connection there that my son still cherishes. The look on his face was one I will never forget, it was one I could never give him. However, Colombia could. Pique: What type of traveler is a good match for Colombia? Ashish: Someone who loves the history of a place like Tuscany, matched with the emerging areas in places like Slovenia or Croatia for example. Someone who sees their travels as an adventure, who trusts their travel advisor and who wants to become the “Jones” instead of keeping up with them.
Colombia - Unique Experiences
Colonial Charms and Muddy Exploits Stroll beneath the flower-draped balconies of Cartagena’s colorful architecture on a multi-day tour anchored in Colombia’s famed city. See the Inquisition Palace and the imposing Iglesia de San Pedro Claver and then take a trip to the coast to dip into Volcan de Lodo Totumo, the peculiar “mud volcano.” Soak in the silt and then clean off in a nearby lagoon.
Rainbow Waters Caño Cristales is often called the river of five colors or the "liquid rainbow." The water is bright with shades of yellow, green, blue, black and especially red. Caño Cristales has aquatic plants but no fish. The water is extremely clean due to the lack of nutrients and small particles. The bright colors, especially the red-pink colors of the river bottom after the rainy season, are caused by great quantities of endemic plant species Macarenia clavígera. This is a fast-moving river with rapids, waterfalls and curious small circular pits. Called giant's kettles, these pits form when pebbles or chunks of harder rock fragments fall into a small cavity. Rotated by the current, the rocks begin to carve at the wall until the small cavity becomes a pit. The river offers opportunities to swim in natural pools formed by waterfalls and trek along trails of virgin mountainous jungle. In this wild area, numerous rock paintings remain largely unexplored. The erosion of the rock that forms the mountain range has for millennia shaped the waterfalls, plateaus, tunnels and natural pools. The combination of water, plants and light create an almost stained glass effect in some places. This liquid rainbow is a rare gift of nature.
The World of Juan Valdez Sip a cup of joe from the porch of a regal hacienda in the mountains outside of Manizales, in Colombia’s “coffee triangle.” This tour will stop at two different producers, illuminating the steps taken to get from fresh bean to rich brew. Enjoy guided coffee tastings and a traditional, home-cooked lunch with local specialties like ajiaco soup, made with chicken and three different types of potatoes.
Bogota Vibes Explore Colombia's buzzing capital, where urban art is booming. Both local and international artists have helped turn the streets into open air art galleries. Enjoy a cocktail mixed with indigenous ingredients and taste a traditional Colombian farm-to-table meal, made with ingredients freshly harvested. After noticing the high-altitude fatigue, refuel both mind and body with a spa afternoon, complete with time in a unique oxygen-infused fitness center.
Become a Chocolate Expert The idyllic village of San Francisco with its pristine rivers and sub-tropical climate makes it perfect for growing cacao. Visit a community chocolate project and learn everything about cacao plantation and production. The artisan chocolate production is coordinated by local women and combines conservation of endemic tropical forests and sustainable agriculture. Take the opportunity to make chocolate like the locals do.
Want to learn more about traveling to Colombia? Email Linda at LindaB@PiqueTravel.com.