Dispatch, Colombia: The sooner you go, the better

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Most travelers are familiar with destinations that have become too popular for their own good, overdeveloped and overrun by tourist traps.

What is less common are those still relatively under-the-radar places in the world, still somehow and surprisingly undiscovered by the majority of travelers. What they lack in luxurious accommodations and perfectly-tuned tourism infrastructure, they have in something much more priceless — escape.

For these few remaining hidden gems in the world, there’s generally a reason they’ve been kept out of view, likely some relatively recent turmoil.

Colombia (Cartegena notwithstanding — I’ll get to this charming but touristy Colombian city in a later dispatch) is one of these places. It’s a place about which you want to say, “Hurry, get here now, before everyone else is let in on the secret.”

If that rally cry entices travelers, they should nonetheless be prepared. In some of the more remote areas and arguably most rewarding corners of the country, they need to be willing to sacrifice five-star hotels for something more in the three-star category. But for the right kind of traveler, they won’t mind.

As experienced tour operators like International Expeditions, with which I traveled around Colombia, build up product and capacity here, the good news is that they’re doing much of the heavy lifting in this emerging market. They’re ironing out the wrinkles and helping travelers find and do things that would be much harder to do on their own with the more limited resources still available for travel

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to Colombia.

When things don’t go according to plan, as they often do in travel (and more often in up-and-coming destinations) having someone on the ground that can quickly respond is key. It can reduce frustrations and make potentially complicated situations much less so.

Take for instance a missed flight we experienced from Pereira to Santa Marta via Bogota. Suddenly left with an unplanned day in Bogota, International Expeditions’ ground operations team rushed to put together an impromptu city tour and lunch in Bogota that saved the day.

Our accommodations have ranged from the chic and modern Hotel Estelar Parque De La 93 in Bogota to the charming casita-filled Termales del Otoño with natural hot springs in Manizales to the remote and rustic eco-lodge Hotel Minca.

While Hotel Minca might be considered basic at best, in some ways it was the most refreshing. It is a throwback to something simpler rather than the newest and hippest places to stay, many of which might not feel that distinguishable from one country to the next.

Hotel Minca feels more like staying at a local villager’s home than in some hotel hotspot.

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A couple of people in the group claimed that while the accommodations were simplest here, the lush Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park that envelops the property was among their favorite destinations for bird watching and nature viewing. And the endearing town of Minca gives travelers an opportunity to get an intimate glimpse at the way of life for many Colombians.

Where else will the local guide, aka “Jungle Joe,” (www.junglejoeminca.com) invite guests into his home for some sweet treats and home-brewed beer?

There is a lot of hubbub in the travel industry about authentic travel. Minca is authentic. Hopefully, it will stay that way as the secret seeps out.
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Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.

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