Long gone are the days that Colombia only conjured up a frightening notion of Pablo Escobar-inspired drug cartels and street gangs. To break with that past, ProColombia had adopted the slogan “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.” That slogan has never been truer than today. Colombia now enjoys a totally different reputation—one of exotic landscape with a vastly-diverse culture. No surprise, then, that the country has climbed up to one of the top must-see destinations and one that many corporations are now favorably considering as an incentive destination for their top-performing personnel.
Notwithstanding its relatively-small size, Colombia is one of the most ethically and linguistically diverse countries in the world, with its rich cultural heritage reflecting influences by indigenous peoples, European settlement, forced African migration, immigration from Europe and the Middle East. Urban centers are mostly located in the highlands of the Andes mountains and the Caribbean coast.
Colombia is among the world's 17 megadiverse countries, and the most densely biodiverse per square mile. Its territory encompasses Amazon rainforest, tropical grassland and coastlines along both the Caribbean and the Pacific ocean.
With that backdrop, when we were asked for our suggestions for our client’s next incentive program, we did not hesitate to suggest Colombia—which happily was quickly approved. With relatively short flight times from many US and Canadian gateways, the group easily made it to their first stop in the country’s capital, Bogota. At first sight, Bogota is another big metropolis, buzzing with maddening traffic. But much like many other colonial cities, to discover real Bogota, you have to walk everywhere. Luckily, it was Sunday and most main streets in Bogota are closed to vehicular traffic—making it perfect for discovering many gems that would have otherwise been missed.
Upon arrival, the group was housed at the relatively-new Grand Hyatt with its many amenities and well-appointed guestrooms. The group got to get acquainted with life in Bogota by spending their first night with their colleagues at the Huerta Bar Cocteleria Artesanal—abar is famous for its cocktails that feature sustainable and local ingredients.
One of the most recognized highlights of the cultural diversity of Bogota is in display in the historical center of the city at La Candelaria neighborhood, where the buildings and streets guided our curious group through the story of the capital of Colombia. With this colorful introduction to the city, it was time for a sumptuous lunch. So, we headed to Prudencia Restaurant, where the menu changes every Monday and is inspired by Colombian cuisine.
On day 3, the group got to see one of the main attractions of Bogota’s historic center—the Gold Museum, a massive, 3-story museum home to more than 20,000 pre-Columbian gold pieces and artifacts.
From there we headed to the Monserrate Mountain—a must-go attraction. It was also a good excuse to make the group do some exercise by climbing up the mountain to reach the highest point in Bogota and a place with magnificent views of the city [although some still did opt for the cable car to make it to this amazing spot].
Having completed the first leg of their journey through Colombia, we boarded a short flight to Colombia’s famed city, Cartagena de indias. From afar, Cartagena’s skyline is deceptive. Its white towers rise above the Caribbean from a peninsula of tan sand and concrete, making it look like a bigger, beachier metropolis than it is. But with fewer than a million people, Cartagena is a compact city. One might expect the crisp new skyscrapers in Bocagrande to be amid a vital, cosmopolitan downtown. Instead, Cartagena’s character—its lush plazas, fruit vendors and street art—is contained in two small, impossibly photogenic neighborhoods: the walled Old City and the rising barrio Getsemaní. There, in the birthplace of Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism, are the city’s most refined restaurants, its museums and balconies that spill over with flowering bougainvillea.
We arrived in Cartagena at midday. It was already time to explore the culinary treats of this historic city. There is only one way to truly experience Cartagena: by walking its narrow streets. From El Reloj, we took the walkway that passes in front of the city’s big convention center and into the Getsemaní neighborhood. On a narrow, block-long side street, La Cocina de Pepina is a pink-and-orange-walled dining establishment that is all Colombian. It is run by a local food historian, who thankfully for our group, speaks fluent English. The restaurant celebrates Colombian coastal cuisine with a chalkboard menu of dishes like ajies rellenos (roasted, stuffed chiles), sopa Caribe (a Caribbean seafood soup), an appetizer of cabeza de gato (balls of yucca, cassava and plantains with a roasted red pepper sauce) and the hard-to-find Colombian craft beer Apóstol.
By the time we were done with lunch, it was already very steamy. It was time for a sweet afternoon. We took the group directly to La Paletteria, where a glass case contains dozens of paletas in flavors like tamarind, coconut and Milo, a locally beloved chocolate-malt drink. A few doors down, we stopped at Swikar that sells colorful hard candy. The storefront attracts onlookers who watch caramelo makers swirl, spread and shape sugar syrup into strawberries, watermelon wedges and orange slices. Around the corner, Gelateria Paradiso looks like an English teahouse, with upholstered benches and white wicker furniture, but its gelato tastes of tropical ingredients like hibiscus flower, passion fruit and the local plum, ciruela criolla.
With dripping paleta in hand, the group climbed the fortified walls and walked the periphery of the Old City, where vendors hawk Cuban cigars and icy cans of cerveza Aguila, and young couples swoon in cannon portals, looking out across the choppy Caribbean. For those who cannot resist lingering over the sunset, there are touristy, but enticing, outdoor cafes that serve cocktails and wines. Then, we traced the stone wall back toward Puerta del Reloj, the clock tower gate that marks the entrance to the “centro histórico.” On the way, we stopped at NH Galería, a modern-art gallery and museum with a small, intriguing collection of works by Colombian and international artists.
The night had fallen. It was time for some CSR and a closing dinner that group will likely never forget: Dinner at a women’s prison!
Restaurante Interno opened in December 2016 and has already attracted a strong following in this tourist town. The group got to have dinner in a renovated hall which still has bars over the door but now is brightly decorated with pink paint, floral murals and comfortable cushions. Interno is located inside the San Diego prison in the heart of Cartagena. It is staffed by incarcerated women. The restaurant was created and is headed by Johana Bahamón who since 2012 has been working with her team of the Fundación Accion Interna to improve the quality of life in that prison and prepare the female inmates for reintegration into society.
Thanks to the INTERNO project, the inmates are now able to receive the training and skill sets they need to prepare for their freedom. These include gardening an herb garden, library, sewing machines, bakery, dining room, computer room, among others.
With a menu created by the best-known chefs, INTERNO has become a social experiment for the civilian population of Cartagena and visitors alike to play a key role in helping the servers (i.e., the inmates) slowly learn to taste freedom—a true second chance. We couldn’t have thought of a better CSR activity to finish our program than this visit (i.e., farewell dinner) to the San Diego prison. To the amazement of our guests, we had to share with them that INTERNO was selected by the Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 greatest places 2018.
For suggestions for your next “out-of-the-box” incentive destination, call on professionals at the Maxxus Group.