Dispatch from Cartagena: G Adventures' Colombian Cocktail
PHOTO: The Old City in Cartagena. (photo by David Cogswell)
Tour operators don’t own their own assets. They all sell the same countries and many of the same attractions. Their itineraries often look similar in the brochures. But on the ground, in the operation of the tour they are very different.
As businesses go, tour operators are extremely individual. As a rule they are very personality driven, usually built around an individual entrepreneur whose individual vision is very much his own.
They are all very different people, but they tend to share some traits. They are charismatic, passionate and visionary, and their personalities are built into their companies.
I have followed G Adventures (formerly Gap Adventures) for years, but never experienced one of their trips, and now I am doing that for the first time in Colombia, on a new tour in a country that is also a relatively new undertaking for company.
G Adventures’ leader and founder is Bruce Poon Tip, who founded the company nearly a quarter of a century ago when he was still in college. So now, in spite of being the head of a company that has a considerable history behind it, he is still a young man, about the age most company founders begin. He’s not only a highly sought after public speaker, he’s also a bestselling author with his book Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business.
As is typical with tour operators, his vision and his passion draw people to him and fuel his company. I knew that the Toronto-based company had its own way of doing things. Everything you can see from the company, its website, its brochure, its style, is all unique and reflects this basic mindset from the founder and built into the company’s mission. But I had never experienced one of their tours, so I didn’t really know how it played out on the ground, where the rubber meets the road (in the case of places where there are roads).
So now I have my chance to experience a G adventure, the Caribbean Colombia Express. It’s a one-week trip that will explore one small avenue on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, which also has a Pacific coast and a vast inland mainland, including the giant metropolis of Bogota, a city of 8 million inland.
But we will have not pretension of exploring the whole country in our week here. We won’t tear through the country in a flash seeing all the must-see sights at a dizzying pace. We won’t be able to say we “did” Colombia and to cross it off our list of destinations conquered. That is not the G style.
Instead we will take this one portion, this one little strip along the Caribbean coast, and we will immerse ourselves for a week so we will hopefully have a feeling for it that will live in us when we leave.
My trip began with a flight on JetBlue from New York JFK to Cartagena. It’s a great pleasure to fly with JetBlue, one of the rebel airlines. It’s one of the outsiders, not part of the airline oligopoly, but a little dog that bites at their heals and gives them some healthy competition in some markets.
The flight had free wifi, though I didn’t get it to work. They say that they offer it in the coverage area, and since it’s free you don’t get too upset when you are out of the coverage area, or even if the system is overloaded with subscribers.
JetBlue is still a very human airline and its on-board staff reflects that spirit of an individual organization out there fighting the legacy carriers for a little chunk of marketshare, and appealing to customers by differentiating its offerings in charming ways, even so simple as being friendly and having a sense of humor.
The route went straight south along the east coast of the U.S. such that we flew over the Atlantic near the east coast of Florida, through the center of Cuba and Jamaica and straight down to Cartagena.
I always have some geographic adjustments to make when I experience flights to South America. Since Mexico is connected to California (which was previously part of Mexico) and then Central America is south of Mexico, I tend to think of the west coast of South America as being south of the west coast of North America. But actually when you look at the map it’s not that way at all. South America is much east of North America, so the west coast of South America is directly south of the East Coast of the U.S.
There is a one-hour time difference between New York and Cartagena, but that is just based on daylight saving time. There is virtually no jet lag based on time zone differences.
Arriving in Cartagena, I took a taxi to the Hotel Don Pedro de Heredia. It cost $5 US. The hotel is located in the old city of Cartagena. It’s a beautiful area and the hotel typifies the G Adventures style of travel.
G is not going to put you up in a five star luxury chain hotel in which you will feel almost exactly the same as in one of the chain’s properties in any other city. G does not put you in a velvet glove that isolates you from your environment. I discovered right away that G is very much about immersing you in the destination, providing opportunities for authentic experiences and chances to meet with local people and get to know them.
Those phrases about authenticity and immersion are often heard now. This is essentially the mantra of the travel industry now, which has collectively discovered that this is what people want.
The word “authentic” is practically every tenth word of all travel promotional literature these days, so that the word is becoming almost like “awesome,” which has lost the power to convey anything. “Awesome” has become like an expletive, just a placeholder in a sentence between other terms that have meaning. “Authentic” is on its way to the same fate.
But in the case of G Adventures, the company was built on these premises from its foundation, so they are not just empty words. On this trip I am having the opportunity to see how G does it. And this really is G’s turf. Authentic, immersive experiences building bonds with local inhabitants is really very much at the core of what G is all about.
Today is my first full day in Colombia after spending my first night here at the lovely Hotel Don Pedro de Heredia, a place so sweet and special it makes you wish you could live here.
Over the next few days we will move eastward along the coast and experience the beach town of Santa Marta, Minca, Tapanga and Tayrona National Park. If you care to join me, I will report back to you as much as I can about the experience and what awaits you if you should choose to follow the same route with the same hosts.
I will also be sharing photographs on Facebook if you want to take a look.
I’m looking forward to this week and you can be here in spirit if you want to be.
More by David Cogswell
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