Colonial, Cosmopolitan Colombia

Colonial Cosmopolitan Colombia The heart of the drama is Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas Fortress, towering 135 feet above tropical sapphire seas, with banquet capacity for 800. Adjacent, groups gather at high-energy venues like Café Del Mar, an open-air lounge and restaurant lining the seaside bastions with three sections for private parties. Bring on the bossa nova!

Within the old city, our group is wandering the open plazas with buzzing cafes trimmed with fresh flowers. The upscale restaurants are ringing with enthusiastic salsa singers, and all of it’s evoking those enchanted passages about Cartagena from Love in the Time of Cholera, by native son Gabriel García Márquez. That vivacious, florid energy combined with the quiet stoicism of these historic environs is nothing short of intoxicating.

“The experience is one of being transformed into another culture, wandering the warm cobblestone streets filled with color, music and flowers,” says Monica Irauzqui, vp of Yampu Latin America Tours. “It’s so sultry.”

“We did a cocktail reception at Café del Mar for 300 people and it was just fantastic,” agrees Eli Gorin, CMP, president of gMeetings, a meetings management firm based in Miami that specializes in Latin America. “You’re standing at the crossroads of history, surrounded by this incredible scene with the ocean below you and the skyline behind you.”

Gorin says planners are often surprised to learn that Cartagena is only 2.5 hours from Florida. And, the country is a “fantastic bargain” in many ways.

“The values in hotels and restaurants is unsurpassed,” he enthuses. “Colombia is still undiscovered, so group rates are much less than those at comparable hotels with the same modern amenities in many other South American countries.”

Sightseeing seems irrelevant here, I suggest to Gorin. You don’t visit Cartagena like a tourist, so much as live in it for the short time you’re here.

“I know, when you think about tours in Cartagena, the city itself is the tour,” he says. “Just walking through the different sectors and visiting the cafes and listening to music…that’s what you do in Cartagena.”

DINING + DANCING: TWO KINDS OF SALSA Our group’s fave restaurant is Café el Santísimo. The creative local dishes play along a religious theme. Entrees and desserts named after saints and mortal sins crescendo with lomo san martin de porres—tenderloin breaded in ground coffee, with a blue cheese, brandy and fresh cream sauce.

We’re told everyone comes to the legendary Club de Pesca restaurant in the San Sebastian Pastelillo fortress, built in the 18th century. Overlooking a bustling yacht-filled marina, Pesca serves some of the city’s finest seafood cuisine for groups up to 200 in-house, or up to 2,000 by utilizing the adjacent plaza. For added panache, planners can arrange for their groups to arrive via sailboat or outboard launch while a flamenco band and dancers start the evening’s festivities.

For smaller culinary-themed incentives with a wellness hook, look into Escape To Shape. Groups gather in historic boutique properties to concoct typical Colombian dishes utilizing local fruits such as lulo and mamomcillo (little oranges and limes) with daily fresh seafood.

Numerous pilates and massage sessions in the hotels’ gardens are also organized, as are therapeutic trips to mud volcanoes outside the city. Tours of the fortress and shopping for artisanal crafts in the plazas round out a typical excursion.

If your clients are in the mood, we recommend a 90-minute group dance lesson with Crazy Salsa. Proprietors Esmerelda and Andreas can host small groups in their studio, larger groups in the city plazas and around the fortress, or they’ll bring the salsa and merengue to private offsite events.

Gorin says he’s had success with hiring dance troupes with 25 dancers on the beach, who perform typical dances of Colombia from salsa in Cali to merengue in Cartagena.

“Many of these dances originated centuries ago in Africa so there’ll be a lot of rhythm and drums,” he says. “I like to include discussion about the history of the dancing and how it ties in with the country, so there’s a strong educational component to those events.”

Gorin says Colombians are adamant that “Cali is the salsa capital of the world, although Puerto Rico and Havana will disagree,” he laughs. But it’s all the dancing, music, food and art combined that bring out the pasión of Colombia.

“What is magical about Colombia is that it is new and exotic,” boasts Beatriz Daza, director of corporate tourism for the country’s DMO, Proexport USA. “In Colombia, we have so much natural beauty all in one country, and that’s very important. Cartagena also has enormous, enormous historical importance. I think all of that is what gives us so much passion. Passion for family, passion for work and passion for art. We have a lot of passion. Columbia is passion!”

SLEEPING WITH THE ANGELS During our trip, we stayed at The Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel, originally a 17th century convent with two stories wrapping around a garden courtyard. Sit with a mojito under the arched terraces before dining on French cuisine at El Refectorio restaurant, either indoors or by the lushly landscaped pool. El Coro Lounge Bar is a beauty with French Salon-style chairs that would make Coco Chanel proud, along with a library well-suited for small receptions. Nuns of the Order of St. Clare once intoned ecclesiastical canticles here.

The 119 rooms overlook the gardens, Caribbean Sea or historic city center, and the largest of the seven meeting spaces seats 200. PR director Carmen Otero says, “We handle an average of 12 incentive trips per year, mostly medium size, between 30-100 people and 15-50 rooms.”

The Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa is another 17th century ex-convent, built by a proud Cartagenarian noblewoman who wanted to spend the rest of her days with the Carmelita nuns. With 91 rooms and a grand courtyard, the Charleston is one of those hotels you wake up in the morning and feel entirely ensconced in life three centuries ago. Except with espresso. And Cartagena’s most wickedly modern spa with hydrotherapy tubs with ocean views. And the hi-tech, yet well-preserved La Capilla room seating 250.

Gorin says, “There is no hotel better situated than the Charleston. It sits at the entrance of the old city and is a great starting point to experience the wonders of Colombia.”

MEDELLIN: CITY OF ETERNAL SPRING About 300 miles south of Cartagena, Medellin is the cosmopolitan soul of Colombia and its most progressive city, brimming with university life, artistic creativity and cafe culture. It is also the gateway into Colombia’s lush and mesmerizing alluvial valleys dotted with sprawling coffee plantations open for private group tours.

We’re here on a breezy August day during Medellin’s La Feria de las Flores (Festival of Flowers) parade, when out of nowhere, low-flying Army helicopters swoop in overhead. The thumping from the rotors shakes the air, and then the whole crowd shouts out in celebration when the choppers unload thousands of fresh cut flowers on our heads. They know how to throw a parade in Colombia.

The annual event pays homage to the city’s hundreds of flower carriers who transport elaborate wreaths created in the many flower farms rimming Medellin. Groups can organize private tours out into the countryside to visit these fragrant farms, which symbolize Medellin’s moniker as the “city of eternal spring.”

Also regarded as the Milan of Latin America, Medellin is a hub of design with international fashion shows growing in cachet, such as Colombiamoda, representing the hottest Latin couturiers. So it’s a prime city to purchase cutting edge, affordable fashion from designers ranging from local girl Pepa Pombo to Mexican sensation, Trista.

“You can see the best of the best in fashion and textiles, and Colombia’s most beautiful shopping centers are in this city,” says Carlos Baruki, Latin America vp of sales/marketing for InterContinental Hotel Group.

Overlooking the city from the side of a mountain about 15 minutes from downtown, InterContinental Medellin is an enclave of peace and relaxation amid the bustle. The large landscaped pool area is a wonderful respite, and rare to find in the region. All 300 rooms were refurbished recently, and 17 meeting rooms include the city’s largest ballroom, with a capacity for 12,000 delegates.

The design tone reflects InterConti’s proclivities towards subdued elegance with a touch of fun, like the modish Brasserie restaurant, and the Fogón de Piedra restaurant with a hay-roof indicative of native Nutabe Indian huts.

Baruki and I are talking about music, politics and the emergence of Medellin as a South American meetings mecca. But his eyes really light up when talk turns to Botero.

Medellin is the birthplace of Fernando Botero, whose world renowned paintings inside the Museum of Antioquia are a national treasure. Some of the artist’s personal collection by Rauschenberg and Stella are also represented. In front of the museum, 23 of Botero’s bulky bronze sculptures line Botero Plaza for anyone to view. Imagine a bunch of Rodin sculptures outdoors in a public square in Paris. Same idea.

The 63,000-sf art installation is available for booking for private corporate events and educational tours. Baruki says, “There’s no city in the world where art is as accessible to everyday people walking through the streets.”