I had the opportunity to join Hyatt Hotels and a group of fellow MICE travel professionals on a tour to Bogota and Cartagena, Colombia. I returned excited to see that a country which has had so much negative publicity over the past several decades is, in my opinion, at the tipping point of change. There is great optimism among the native Colombians that Colombia has a bright future ahead of them. Tourism is a key component of that and everyone I met was anxious to make this growing industry viable. It was evident throughout my trip that the Colombian people have natural hospitality about their culture and the authentic nature of these cities makes the country a wonderful new destination for all types of travelers.
The first two nights I had the pleasure of staying at the Grand Hyatt Bogota; which opened in November of 2018. This stunning new build hotel is located only 15 minutes from the airport in a newly developed area of Bogota. Beyond the sleek and thoughtful design, you’ll also find immense and versatile function space coupled with spot-on customer service. The hotel’s location is important because, as I learned, Bogota is a very spread out city with a still maturing infrastructure, so being close to where you are coming and going from is important. The hotel also offers a top floor (and top-flight) restaurant, Ushin, with views of the mountains that ring this capital city. It also has a perfectly appointed fitness center, indoor swimming pool with hydrotherapy circuit and a quiet, dark and peaceful getaway in their spa.
While in Bogota I participated in a Weaving Peace City Tour where I visited two local shops run by indigenous tribe members. For decades the rural, indigenous tribes of Colombia became one of the biggest victims of the country’s notorious drug trade. Their land was the farm that grew an illegal crop and their communities were the unwilling processors. Fast forward and many of those communities have taken a stand and moved from a cash crop to a sustainable crop often in the form of cacao and coffee beans. Through small business funding and grants, these new crops have turned into a new business model including small storefronts in the urban center of Bogota. Wuasikamas Coffee and Distrito Chocolate are two examples of these tribes transforming their future and great stops to purchase gifts to take home.
I also had the opportunity to visit the incredible Catedral de Sal (salt cathedral) in Zipaquira. Carved out of an immense, working salt mine this man-made wonder is available for private corporate events and is very popular with locals for Sunday mass. The venue is located 1.5 hours outside of Bogota and day trip can be combined with lunch or dinner and local market shopping in the small towns along the way.
From Bogota it was an easy one-hour flight to our next destination in Cartagena, a city steeped in history along Colombia’s Caribbean coastline. We arrived just as the sun was setting adding even more magic to this unique location. Founded in 1553, the city hosts the largest walled city built by the Spanish in the Caribbean. But it also has a “modern” peninsula directly beyond the city walls that features a mile of glass and steel skyscrapers. My first impression was that the city was a great mix between a San Juan “esque” colonial architecture and a Miami Beach “ish” cosmopolitan style.
The Hyatt Regency Cartagena was our host hotel for the next three nights. This beautiful hotel opened its doors in December of 2016 and starts on the 14th floor of the building. Every room has floor to ceiling windows facing the bay or the ocean, including the restaurants and fitness center! There are several infinity pools with views to the sea including a family and adults-only pool. The pool decks transform into great group function spaces at night and the hotel has easily accessible indoor ballroom space and a full-service spa. Groups looking for lots of function space can check out the Cartagena Convention Center located downtown with 215,000 sq. ft of flexible space.
On our first full day in Cartagena we took a city tour and visited the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This fortress built by the Spanish includes a foundation built of the coral rocks that surround the city and bricks manufactured in Spain and were used for ballast on the ocean-faring ships. The ships then left the bricks behind in Cartagena and headed home with their cargo holds full of gold from the Americas. We also walked through the main corridors of the old city. Around every corner was a new Instagram-worthy picture featuring brightly colored buildings, huge wooden doors, wrought iron door knockers and beautiful bougainvillea overflowing from the balconies. Cartagena combines quaint plazas and church steeples with high-end and local shops along cobblestone streets, offering visitors a perfect combination of old and new that meld together in harmony.
The beaches right outside the high-rise hotels and condos on the modern peninsula are carved from coral rock and therefore aren’t the white sand and aquamarine waters one might expect in the Caribbean. To find that, many travelers charter a boat for the day to the Rosario Islands. This archipelago, located approximately 1 hour off the coast, features a variety of boutique hotels and day clubs on individual islands with beautiful beaches. We visited Isla Grande and the day club at Gente del Mar. We were treated to a freshly caught lobster lunch and comfortable day beds under the palm trees. It was a memorable way to spend the afternoon.
Watching the sunset is an unofficial sport in Cartagena. Our group was able to capture an especially beautiful one during a sunset bay cruise on the Sibarita Del Mar cruiser. While talking with the captain and owner of this company, he shared that six new bay cruise companies have opened in the past 2 months in Cartagena. This is a prime example of how the tourism market in Colombia in general, but specifically in Cartagena, is growing.
An often-asked question is about safety. I can personally say that I felt very safe during my travels. However, as with any destination, I encourage everyone to use common sense and caution when traveling and be aware of your surroundings. English is spoken readily in the hotels, but if you are not a fluent Spanish speaker yourself, I would recommend being accompanied by a Spanish speaking guide or partner when heading out to see the sights in Bogota as all transportation, communication, and signage are in Spanish. In Cartagena, you’ll find more multi-lingual residents because the city has developed as a melting pot of tourism and international sea trade over the years.
Currently, Bogota is a relatively inexpensive city. Cartagena, on the other hand, is more well known as a vacation destination on the international scene and more expensive.
I realized I’ve only scratched the surface of all this country has to offer. Because of its diverse topography with mountain ranges slicing through the country, each of the regions of Colombia has developed their own micro-culture with foods and attractions that are special to them. The Colombian Tourism Bureau is currently working to meld and market itself as one unified, yet diverse destination, for all types of travelers.
I look forward to seeing what progress the future will bring to Colombia and to the opportunity to share all its exciting possibilities with M&IW’s incentive, meeting and convention clients in the future!
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