The company was wrapping up a two-year soft launch, during which "whatever could go wrong did go wrong," he said. On arrival, Sanghrajka's own transfer did not show up at the airport.
Yet, despite all these bad omens, "I fell in love with the country," he said. "The Colombians were so innocent then. They just did not know how to do this, [but] now things work like clockwork."
He said he was drawn to Colombia upon hearing, for example, "that the government burned drug crops in places like Tayrona [National Natural Park, on the Caribbean coast] then put the farmers back to work in tourism making more money than they had before."
Bottom line: Big Five announced its formal launch of a Colombia product in spring 2009.
Sanghrajka said he tells this story about himself whenever anyone asks about the U.S. State Department's Colombia travel warning. His challenges, however, were about service and not about the occasional violence and other risks that concern the U.S. government these days.
Just the same, he said that unlike in the past, "We don't pretend the warning is not there."
There also are travel warnings on Israel and Kenya, Sanghrajka pointed out, and Egypt was recently on that list, as well. "If we wait for the warnings to be lifted," he said, "it will be too late" to see destinations at their most authentic and before they are crowded. "As with other countries, you have pockets that are still unsafe and not open to tourists," he said.
Sanghrajka readily acknowledged that Colombia is not for everyone. For one thing, it is "young, without the polish of others. ... Clients have to be flexible about accommodations. If you want a place with an established infrastructure, go to Peru."
As it happens, I returned to Peru last fall, my first post-Shining Path visit, and Sanghrajka was right about the hotels. But this June, I finally made the journey to Colombia, which had been, until a few years ago, something of a pariah in the neighborhood.
Probably because my whirlwind press trip was largely limited to two of the most popular destinations for Americans -- Bogota and Cartagena -- I also was comfortably housed in Colombia. Not incidentally, my press group got a taste, as well, of what Colombians mean when they say their homeland is a culinary destination. (View a slideshow of images from Colombia here or by clicking on any of the photos
Even so, I admit I was a little uncertain how I would feel in a country that over decades had been the backdrop for a lethal combination of drug warlords, left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups. The travel warning wasn't the issue; it was the lingering effects of consumer media reports.
Then there was the issue of garden-variety crime and the fact a former Travel Weekly colleague and his companion had been robbed at knifepoint in Bogota's Macarena neighborhood while vacationing in Colombia last year. Sanghrajka said my friends "weren't in the wrong area, it was just bad luck," which also affects tourists where there are no travel warnings, he said.
To judge by Solar Tours CEO Rafael Checa's description of the custom Colombia itineraries his firm has sold for three years, our group's experience was much like that of a client on a tour operator's program.
"We choose hotels in areas that are safe and activities that are deemed safe," Checa said. We keep people busy with fun and enriching things [and hence] keep them from wandering to the wrong places."
At the same time, he said, "our partners are good" about advising what clients can and cannot do, "like not using public transport ... [but] there are limits to how much you can tell people."
Similarly, Michele Shelburne, president of Ladatco Tours, said her local representatives inform visitors of "the do's and don'ts, the goods and the bads. ... I say what I say for many countries: Stay on the beaten track."
Bogota, Colombia's centrally located capital, is set on an Andean plateau 8,563 feet above sea level. During our one full -- and definitely enriching -- day in the city, we were accompanied by guides as we visited museums, toured the presidential palace, attended a coffee tasting and walked through the historical center, La Candelaria.
We also lunched and walked briefly in Macarena, described as a bohemian area of town noted for its restaurants.
In three separate instances, members of our group were cautioned to be careful of their cameras, once by a guide, once by a security person and, in my case, by a passerby. In each case, it seemed that person had an interest in ensuring that no visitor had a bad experience.
Ladatco's vice president, Rosita Perez, said that while Macarena and La Candelaria are both attractive touristic areas, they should be visited only in daytime. Even then, unescorted visitors should travel only via taxis arranged by a hotel or restaurant. "Bogota has come a long way, but we are not out of the woods," she said.
In Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, we were accommodated for three nights in the walled Old Town. Our escorted itinerary was busy, what with a catamaran sightseeing cruise, a visit to an emerald factory, sightseeing from a horse-drawn buggy, a trip to the castle and a spa visit, among other things.
But there was time I could use, camera in hand, to wander the Old Town, where I became more comfortable with each daily foray. Besides, the tourist police were very visible in the public squares.
We saw quite a few uniformed and armed men during our journey, only some of them tourist police. In addition, Colombian hotels often employ private security guards, as ours did in Bogota. We also saw private security personnel at a handicraft market hall, where emeralds are sold in Bogota, and at one restaurant in Cartagena. Maybe other restaurants had less-obvious security.
"Americans are not used to seeing that, but Colombia had been almost in a civil war until about eight years ago, and there is still fighting in some areas," Checa said.
By this point, it might seem that I was fixated on security, but the real point is that there are systems to deal with issues faced by this recovering destination. Tour operators talk about the issues freely, and the systems seem to be working. By the end of my sojourn, I could imagine living in Cartagena -- except for the fact I was meant for a cooler climate.
Inadvertently, I had found myself in agreement with visitors featured in Colombia's 5-year-old "Only Risk" promotional campaign, which says of Colombia: "The only risk is wanting to stay."
Nine tourists who did stay tell their stories in ads that were rolled out in 2007 in print and on radio, TV and the Web. They still appear in 15 countries, including the U.S. and Canada.
Enrique Stellabatti Torres, tourism vice president for Proexport Colombia, the government agency charged with promoting exports, including travel, said the campaign was born of "a need to answer questions regarding the risks of visiting Colombia."
In the view of Ladatco's Shelburne, the country was "clever" in introducing the "Only Risk" campaign. Ladatco returned to Colombia three years ago after an absence of several years, and, she said, no one has asked about the U.S. travel warning in the last two of those years. "Colombia largely overcame that with the 'Only Risk' ads," she believes.
Stellabatti said the travel warning did not have much effect on the country's tourism, but noted that old images don't fade quickly.
"To counteract any negativity, we bring in journalists, have fam trips, go to trade shows and work with our PR agencies to tell the world the country has changed" he said, "But it takes time."
He said Colombia hosts fam trips from numerous countries, including the U.S., with arrivals every month.
Proexport also sponsors tourism seminars, most recently on June 29, when 150 buyers and more than 50 suppliers gathered for this networking opportunity in New York.
Whether it is the advertising, better services, seminars or more good press -- including news about the recently implemented U.S.-Colombia trade agreement -- the forces have converged to raise Colombia's tourism profile considerably.
According to Proexport, arrivals by air increased an average of 10.3% a year between 2001 and 2011, while the average annual rise worldwide was 3.4%.
Cruise lines never stopped making calls at Santa Marta or Cartagena, but the numbers had dwindled in the worst of the turmoil, and their passengers would not be overnighting anyway.
There were 23 port calls in 2003 and more than 10 times that many in 2011 (235). The number of cruise passengers more than sextupled between 2006 and 2011, when the count rose from 50,946 to 315,304. The bottom line is that cruise passenger numbers rose 518% between 2006 and 2011.
Understandably, Colombia's numbers early in the century were low, for a sizeable country so well situated at close to the midpoint between North and South America and with so much geographical and cultural diversity. Colombia needed strong growth to catch up.
Air arrivals from the U.S., the most important source market, also picked up considerably through 2010, after a pause when the U.S. economy hit a big bump in 2008. In 2009, U.S. arrivals totaled 311,931, up 19.2% over the previous year. In 2010 arrivals rose another 10.8%, to 345,536, and Americans accounted for 23.4% of arrivals.
However, the numbers tumbled in 2011, by 8%, to 317,962, making Americans 20% of international air arrivals.
Stellabatti attributed that decline to the U.S. economy. Camilo Duque, leisure tourism director of the U.S. market for Proexport Colombia, added that airlines had reduced services and raised fares, which hurt numbers even with full flights.
Ladatco's Perez also cited the U.S. economy as a challenge, saying her firm did not feel the effects of the problems until last year, "and it has rolled over to 2012."
Moreover, she said, "This is not exclusive to Colombia. We have seen it regionwide." As examples, she cited Ecuador and Galapagos, where now there are "deals and discounts left and right as berths go empty."
Fortunately, she said, 2013 is already looking better.
Big Five's Sanghrajka agreed that the economy has been an issue, but he guessed that Colombia's corporate arrivals have been off more than leisure arrivals, which brings the totals down.
In his opinion, there is another issue, as well: Bogota and Cartagena "get all the press," and the potential for trips limited to two destinations may have flattened. When clients want more, he said, it is hard for Colombia to compete with destinations such as Peru.
He said it is time to push harder for the overlooked places like the coffee region, Cali, Tayrona and others. Proexport, he said, "will get it right, and as they promote more of the interior, [the statistics] should shift."
He said Big Five's business continues to grow "because we offer new areas. ... There are more undiscovered areas in Colombia than elsewhere in South America."
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that Proexport is getting ready to make some changes. For example, Stellabatti said it is time for the "Only Risk" campaign to "evolve."
He said Proexport is planning to have a new campaign by next year, but no decisions have been made regarding images and taglines.
A new campaign, he said, "needs the same meaning but will use different language to give the audience a chance to know we have changed."
Maria Claudia Lacouture, Proexport Colombia's CEO, also looked ahead when addressing participants at the June 29 tourism seminar in New York.
She noted that the new U.S.-Colombia trade deal, implemented in May, includes an open-skies pact, as of Jan. 1, so "there will be more air service." In fact, JetBlue announced last week that it plans to launch the first New York-Cartagena nonstop service Nov. 2, with three flights a week.
As for cruising, she said, Proexport is working with the government to create an infrastructure for cruises to the country's Pacific coast.
In addition, she said, Proexport is working with other countries to create multinational tourism routes. Work is under way with Ecuador for a route with a religious theme, and Proexport is talking with three other countries to develop a four-country plan, encompassing Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile, that would tap into their common heritages.
Lacouture acknowledged that a common perception of Colombia is that it is insecure. But, she asserted, "Everywhere, if you go to an unrecommended place, you can have a problem."
Meanwhile, Proexport's Stellabatti said, Americans most often visit Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin. The last choice is an eye-popping example of change: Medellin was once the murder capital of South America.
Stellabatti urged agents to look at selling more of the country and pointed to the list of Proexport's "recommended" destinations at its website
For Big Five, the coffee region is the "real emerging area," Sanghrajka said. Located west of Bogota, it is accessed via any of three cities -- Armenia, Manizales or Pereira -- each 45 to 55 minutes from the capital by air.
"It is not just about the coffee export," he said. "This is an authentic area with a coffee culture. Coffee is a way of life. The hotels are former plantations."
Shelburne said Ladatco's custom-designed itineraries include the top three cities and the coffee triangle, but also a number of overland destinations from Bogota. These include the "small historic towns of Villa de Leyva and Barichara, the latter perhaps the best preserved of the colonial towns."
The hitch for some travelers is that "these places have limited facilities, using posadas, and there is no nightlife." But that is in the nature of a destination that, as Shelburne said, "is just coming back."
Or, as Sanghrajka says, "Colombia is a sleeping giant. It's only a matter of time and it will be a mainstream destination. Then it will be too late. Now, it is something special."
In 2008, Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, flew to Colombia expecting to shut down his fledgling operation there.