Written by: Miguel Reyes, travel journalist
Translated by: Jason Najum
Colombia is often an enigma to foreigners. Some talk about the natural wonders and kindness of the people; while others can’t help to focus on the chapters of drugs and violence. This mixed image leaves potential visitors wondering what the country is really like today.
Inspired to see the new Colombia, more than 300 students from Wharton – the prestigious business school of the University of Pennsylvania – came to explore the country with Vaová. In words of its founder Juan Pablo Toro, the “goal is to show the Colombia we Colombians love”.
The first stop was Medellín, the “City of Eternal Spring”. Its pleasant climate all year round enchanted many in the group. Of course, there were the lovely mountains and vegetation as well, but it was the kindness of the people that ended up leaving the biggest impression.
“Little by little I started to let go of stereotypes and discovered a city with the best weather and the friendliest people I’ve ever met”Wharton Student
One of Vaová’s strengths is how it offers packages for all kinds of tastes and travelers. “We had the opportunity to choose from a variety of activities and they were all really attractive. From paragliding or visiting a coffee farm, to going out in a party boat and getting to know one of the best clubs in the city. Definitely, there are options for all tastes,” said one of the Wharton students.
The first night the group had dinner at an exclusive restaurant, then they had a private party at Charlee, a nightclub on the roof of a building in the El Poblado neighborhood, an area with some of the best nightlife in the country.
The next morning, we took a bus to Piedra del Peñol to climb it. This colossal rock formation overlooks a water reserve spotted with small islands. The history of this place is fascinating. Between 1970 and 1980, Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) flooded 6,000 hectares of land to build the largest hydroelectric dam in the country. Everything was inundated –the only surviving memory is the cross of the town’s church, still reaching out of the water.
At that point, many of the travelers were beginning to get an idea of the country’s transformation, especially here in Medellin. In the 80s and 90s, Medellín was notoriously dangerous. It was run by the drug cartel, headed by Pablo Escobar. But since the turn of new millennium, an unparalleled transformation has taken place. Today Medellin is one of the most innovative cities in the world, with some of Colombia’s most advanced infrastructure and people with a strong sense of belonging.
“I used to relate this city with Pablo Escobar. Now it’s the smiles of the people, the spectacular landscapes, and the pleasant moments I’ve gotten to experience”Wharton Student
After climbing the rock formation, we sail the waters in a party boat that many remember as one of the best experiences of the trip.
“Vaová took care of everything we needed to have an unforgettable time: music, drinks, food, entertainment… we never went missing a thing”.Wharton Student
The second part of the trek was in Cartagena. Here the first thing that hits the eye is the architecture. This city has an incredible history and its atmosphere is still full of life. Cartagena is defined by luxury and nightlife, and by its beautiful architecture and colorful historic center.
However, that’s just one side of the city. “Social inequality is notorious. On one side you have the finest restaurants and bars in the country; and next door, slums,” noted another student. Vaová is aware of the importance of supporting lower-income communities and local producers as much as possible, which is why they’ve focused on creating relationships with locals.
“This is not an ordinary tourism agency. It’s a new way of traveling, by supporting local communities and turning tourists into locals”.Juan Pablo Toro, CEO at Vaová
In Cartagena we had another spectacular afternoon in the Rosario Islands. We arrived by boat and Vaová’s team had prepared lunch and a party on the beach with crystal clear waters. The Rosario Islands are a natural wonder.
The students highlighted the trip’s logistics. 20 staff members traveled with the group so that everything was kept in order. Despite being 300 people, Vaová had enough organization to make everything very easy for the travelers. The recognizable T-shirts were very useful, because it was always easy to find someone whenever the clients needed help.
These treks show that there’re infinite ways to travel, and that Vaová is taking things a step further. Thanks to companies like this one, Colombia is constantly growing as a popular travel destination. In fact, along with Japan and Israel, Colombia is the most popular destination for graduate students in the United States.
“I loved that the staff was full of young adventurers. They were there for everything we needed and we even established friendships. To have this kind of great experience from such a young company, was a pleasant surprise”Wharton Student