Colombia improving its reputation as it continues a turnaround...Whistler snow!
Toronto Star travel writer Adrian Brijbassi is making his first-ever tour of Colombia, which has been getting a lot of press lately. Here's his initial report...
BOGOTA — Mexico’s bicentennial has received a lot of coverage this year, but it’s not the only Latin American country that gained independence from Spain in 1810.
Colombians celebrated their nation’s 200th birthday on July 22 and for a country that not long ago was considered among the most dangerous in the world, there’s a lot to rejoice every day. The economy — ranked 35th in global GDP according to the International Monetary Fund; putting it ahead of Portugal and the United Arab Emirates — is booming, thanks to the soaring price of minerals, especially gold, as investors have turned to resources while the U.S. dollar struggles. The government last month raised the outlook for 2010 GDP growth to 4.5 per cent from 3.5 per cent. Loads of Canadian resource companies and banks do business regularly here, and tourism from North America is growing.
Bogota is the most popular Colombian destination for business travellers. The city receives more than half of the country’s almost 1.5 million foreign visitors. But tourists still prefer Cartagena, a major port for cruise ships, and the islands of San Andres and Santa Catalina as vacation spots. The Colombian capital, though, is selling itself as a place where visitors can enjoy the history, art and culture of a nearly 500-year-old city. Air Canada has started direct flights from Toronto, and that’s been a help in getting Canadians to come down.
Bogota butts up against the Andes, the peaks of which can be reached by cable car or funicular. From the top, you’ll find historic churches, including Monserrate, which draws a crowd for its 17th-century statue of Jesus falling from the cross. During Easter week, more than 1 million people make the trek up the mountain, says tour guide Fabio Quiroz (see photo below with Stephany Romero of the tourism board).
Monserrate is 3,200 metres above sea level and 600 metres from the base station in Bogota. Even on a cloudy day, you can see the city sprawl before you from the mountaintop. More than 8 million people live in Bogota and that’s made for diverse neighbourhoods and a lot of vibrant nightlife, especially in the Zona Rosa area, where the partying goes on until 4 in the morning.
It’s a fun spot, with salsa dancing, all kinds of cuisine, an Irish sports bar (of course), nightclubs galore, a huge shopping mall, some fine hotels and an easygoing feel that puts you at ease. Zona Rosa is upscale and trendy, kind of like Queen West.
A bustling spot for tourists and locals is Juan Valdez Coffee Shop, named after a fictional character who is the most well-known Colombian icon after Shakira. Valdez’s beans don’t lie: the coffee is fantastic. The chain, which is a Latin American version of Starbucks but with much better brews, has expanded into Chile and the U.S. (No plans for Canada, so you won’t be tempted away from your Timmy’s double-double just yet.)
The city is still edgy in some spots where tourists will want to go, including the historic district, and getting around from neighbourhood to neighbourhood isn’t easy. There isn’t a subway, the buses take a while to get you where you want to go and taxi drivers will take you for a ride in more ways than one. But it’s a dynamic place with a lot going for it.
Stephany Romero of the trade and tourism board says the contemporary art scene in Bogota has attracted major curators from Europe and elsewhere in recent months. Big-name hotels are coming into the capital; Marriott opened its second location in as many years this summer. The government is offering a 30-year income tax exemption for any hotel renovation or new construction projects completed in the next eight years. Medical tourism is a growing income producer for Bogota and the rest of the country, which is known as a centre for inexpensive cosmetic surgery. And convention business is increasing. Bogota recently came in 79th out of 288 cities for number of meetings hosted, according to a report by the International Congress and Convention Association. That’s up from 229th in 2002.
The exchange rate is favorable (with $1 Canadian equalling about 1,750 Colombian pesos) and the people are friendly. Considering the issues with increasing crime and violence that other parts of Latin America are having, Bogota and Colombia have a chance to make big strides in tourism in coming years as long as they continue to maintain the turnaround they’ve seen in the past decade.
I’ll have more on Colombia in the coming weeks in the Star.
SNOW SEASON IS HERE...BUT NOT IN FLORIDA
The folks out in Whistler/Blackcomb report they got a couple dozen centimeters of white stuff on the weekend, and the forecast is for more in the coming days. Similar news came my way from Colorado, so it looks like ski season is almost upon us.
On the other hand, it's been lovely down in south Florida, where they're getting ready to officially open a new JW Marriott Marquis. Looking at this story in the Miami Herald, however, it seems they've been accepting guests for a few days.
We'll try to get someone down there soon and get a report on our own on what's happening in Chris Bosh's new home town, and my apologies to Toronto Raptors' fans if I appear to be rubbing it in as I'm actually a fan and not too happy at the demise of the team that GM Bryan Colangelo was supposed to have turned around years ago or am I wrong?