Colombia: Tourism’s Comeback Kid in South America

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This close-by country is marching back into the prime tourism lineup with improved security countrywide and a major campaign of image building and infrastructure enhancement.

Getting the message out to the travel industry, Proexport Colombia held its Destination Colombia expo in Bogota earlier this year. The program featured a trade show of buyers and sellers of tourism products and services, combined with various FAMs designed to show off the variety of the country’s attractions beyond the better-known destinations of Cartagena and Bogota.

Sara Caballero of Yampu Latin America Tours was there, flying from Bogota to the Caribbean area and Santa Marta, whose major attractions are the Cathedral, the Gold Museum that occupies the former customs house, and the hacienda where Simon Bolivar spent his last days and eventually died, as well as a few excellent beach resorts outside of town.

From Santa Marta (also accessible by car from Cartagena), Caballero continued to Tayrona National Park, embracing a spectacular stretch of deserted beach and virgin rainforest. Caballero reports that the visit included seeing the little museum that documents the story of the Tayronas culture; kayaking on the Don Diego River and an hour-long horseback ride through the jungle to Arrecifes, a gorgeous beach site but whose currents make it somewhat dangerous for swimming. From here it is a fairly steep trek to El Pueblito, a Tayrona settlement, once populated by some 10,000 people and where dozens of ancient terraces have been restored.

“This is not a corner of Colombia suited to every traveler—the trekking, for instance, is difficult, but the accommodations are really nice and interesting,” says Caballero. She particularly likes the Ecohabs, a colony of 14 cabanas fashioned in the style of Tayrona huts that are set spectacularly on a coastal hill overlooking the sea. Accommodations—all with big sea views—are carpeted, have TV and air conditioning, and a hammock and cold water showers are located in the downstairs sitting area. Facilities include a restaurant serving Colombian specialties and a computer room with Internet. These accommodations are managed by Tayrona National Park and offer such amenities as a jacuzzi and spa by the beach, as well as tables by the sea for romantic dinners. According to Caballero, these are perfect for families and honeymooners.

Yampu Latin America Tours has introduced a 6-day package that combines three nights in the walled city of Cartagena and two nights in Tayrona National Park. With a choice of three-, four- or five-star hotels in Cartagena and eco-friendly lodgings in Tayrona, transfers and overland transportation, sightseeing and international air from Miami, the lead price is $2,399 pp dbl.

Also attending the expo was Miami-based 2000LatinTours, and according to marketing director Luz Silva, “We are finding new demand for this destination, particularly from the ethnic community that is increasingly requesting vacations during which they can return as tourists to their country of birth.” The company offers packages of varying lengths to Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin. Additionally, from these destinations, golf tours are a new feature. During a 5-night stay in Bogota, for instance, clients can mix sightseeing and golf, playing the Club Campestre Guaymaral, the Club Campestre de la Sabana and the Rincon de Cajica.

New to 2000LatinTours’ Colombia product is a 7-night, live-aboard dive vacation, focused on some 20 dive sites in the waters off the volcanic islands of Malpelo and Gorgona, 300 miles west off the Pacific coast port of Buenaventura. One day is spent at Gorgona (about a 5-hour boat ride from the mainland), which was once a penal colony and now a national park, covered in dense rainforests and rich in flora and fauna, such as white-face monkeys, three-toed sloths and dozens of land and marine bird species. The underwater world is populated by grand coral reefs, turtles and rays, and humpback and finback whales mate offshore, roughly July to December. Three days are spent at Malpelo, a tiny island that is part of a larger national marine reserve (on UNESCO’s World Heritage list) and is considered one of the best diving locations on the globe. Malpelo waters are the habitat for one of the world’s largest hammerhead shark populations, as well as giant manta rays and many endangered and rare species such as the short-nosed ragged-toothed shark.