19 October 2010

Bomba Estereo in Argentina: Buenos Aires never felt so Colombian!!

If you’ve ever heard anything about Bomba Estereo - and you very probably have - I’m just going to say that everything you’ve heard about them is true.  This is my fourth or fifth post about Bomba Estereo, so I might as well rename this as “Bomba Estero blog by Marcela” instead of “Colombia Travel Blog by Marcela” : ) , but the fact is that since I heard about them last February I really wanted to go watch them live. I have traveled a lot in the last few months, and it seemed that any time I arrived to a new city , Bomba Estereo had just left….. so I was getting frustrated….

So, of all places in the world I finally saw them in Buenos Aires!  Yes, I just got back from Buenos Aires Pepsi Music Indoors –the  Bomba Estereo gig at the Trastienda in Buenos Aires and  felt that I had to share the experience with you all!  Apart from their great music there are two things that were my highlights; first of all is the energy they put into their performance. At the beginning I sat for a bit but it didn’t take too long before I was jumping up and down and dancing to their electro cumbia… Li just has such an enchanting voice that just makes you move.  My second highlight is the fact that they made all Argentineans that were there dancing to these Colombian rhythms as if they were their own… and I felt at home.  For two hours Li and the band transported me to my lovely country .. thanks Bomba Estereo for joining us in our efforts to change Colombia’s face to the world!

13 October 2010

Camilo Gomez: A story of entrepreneurship and love for Colombia

As I said in my last Colombia Travel Blog entry, besides Colombia’s   Pro Export and its very successful “The only risk is wanting to stay” campaign, there’s a lot of people out there working to improve Colombia’s image and helping turning it into the new touristic destination in Latin America.  Last week I had the chance to chat with Camilo Gomez, Mantaraya Travel’s CEO and I want to share his very interesting points of view with you. Camilo is one of the pioneers in the online Colombia travel business and his story is one of entrepreneurship, faith in our country and determination.

Camilo’s family comes from San Gil, north to Bogota and close to Bucaramanga  and it was there where  his relation with tourism began:  his father Javier was one of the founders of “Rios y Canoas”, one of the first Rafting and Adventure Travel  Companies in Colombia.  As the other business partners were Costa Ricans, it just felt natural to start selling their services in that country as at that point in time it was probably even more difficult to convince Colombians to travel to that area than to do so with foreigners, and that’s how, against all odds,  the business started. Imagine the merit! Remember this was back when huge parts of the country were controlled by narcs and terrorists. See my post on Safety in Colombia to see how tough it was.   

During that time, Camilo trained in Costa Rica and the Colorado Canyon to be a professional Rafter, unfortunately due to the still unsecure situation his business had to end operations. He persisted and a new company was opened in Tobia - closer to Bogota – this time focused almost entirely in the local market, but it had to be closed in 2003 for the same reasons. But as every visionary does, Camilo didn’t give up. Perhaps foreseeing that times were starting to change in Colombia, he decided to start saving money in order to wait for the right moment and strategy.  Having a Business Degree, he started working for Citi Bank while slowly but steadily building what is now known as Mantaraya Travel.   In 2005 he applied and won a founding  by SENA  (a government body that promotes education and entrepreneurship projects), and  in 2008, at age  25 he finally quit his “traditional job”  and started  dedicating 100% of his time to Mantaraya.  
In only 2 years of “official“  operations,   Mantaraya  has grown even faster  than the already impressive  foreign  incoming Tourism yearly rate in Colombia, and has had a lot of support from Pro export  which lead to Camilo traveling  to many of the International travel fairs that Colombia officially participates in. Even more, later this year they’ll be feature in two international cable channels. 

Mantaraya has loads of information available. You can plan your trip, research about destinations and make a reservation, the concept is that people visiting the website have enough information about Colombia available  in order to have a glimpse of what to do in the country either if they just have a rough idea of what they want or to redefine and confirm were they want to go if they’re in a more advanced stage of their trip plans.  Visitors have the option, in virtually every section of the site, to send Mantaraya’s native English speakers sales staff a detailed form describing what their needs are. With this information and the expertise of their Colombia travel experts who fine tune the itineraries until they fit what the passenger wants, Mantaraya is able to put together all kind of tailor made tours.   This philosophy, based in the idea that every passenger has unique needs, is the key factor of what makes the company so successful. 

At least half of their passengers come from the U.S and Canada while the other half is a mix of Latin Americans and Europeans, in most cases seasoned travelers who are costumed to travel abroad with the assistance of travel companies and therefore expect an international standard service and to be able to be one phone call away from their travel advisor both to feel that they’re properly being looked after and to change anything if the case merits it. Reaching such required quality service in a country like Colombia, which is just starting to open its eyes to the opportunities that international incoming tourism offers, has been a tough job that involves constant training to their providers into understanding that concepts like punctuality and efficiency are vital for their operations.
Unsurprisingly the best selling destinations are the typical ones and therefore the “safer” ones too: The Caribbean, Cartagena and Bogota, but Camilo says that the Amazon and the Coffee Triangle are the next raising stars, specially for visitors from North America,  while Europeans prefer the Pacific Coast destinations.

In the years they’ve been operating, they have had no incident involving safety matters; on the contrary in some of the most “exotic” destinations, people are starting to realize the positive impact of having foreigner tourists visiting them and are becoming very interested in learning about hospitality. As an example, he mentions that some of the very local and picturesque restaurants in Tayrona, for instance, have organized themselves to improve security in their area.   
Camilo is also aware of the fact that, if not done responsibly, the tourism industry could alter not only the eco system but also the traditionalcostumes of many of the inhabitants of Colombia’s most ancient cultures. For instance when the Koguis (the local tribe from La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta) are in their yearly time of pray, Mantarraya refrains from selling the 5 day trek to Tayrona’s Lost city. 

Colombia is a complex country to visit, you can go to the Andes, the Caribbean beaches and the Amazon Jungle to name a few and it’s as well giving its baby steps into being and international travel destination, that’s why it’s so important to have a local company that knows the country complemented by foreign english speaking travel advisors living in Colombia.
Camilo sees the Colombia Travel industry with optimism; we are already seeing how very big hotel chains are making huge investments in the country, a clear signal that shows a market about to blossom.  As pioneers,   they  have now another responsibility: to develop new products, especially in the area of adventure and nature themed tours in order to keep the pole position they have now.  “Colombia is going to be a leader in nature destinations in Latin America in the years to come”, Camilo says, “Just behind Brazil and Mexico” …. And I truly believe that’s absolutely true.

You can visit Mantaraya’s website at: http://www.mantarayatravel.com/ 
When I ask his opinion on the current image that Colombia has and how safe is it perceived  to be, I realize that Camilo’s position is very similar to mine:  he points out that  Colombia was immersed in an internal war for 50 years and the situation has been gradually changing only since around eight years ago, when the first tourists began to come sporadically, and although the country is much safer now, there are things and situations that –as in any other country – one should avoid,  Mantaraya  promotes the development of alternative destinations, but only sells tours in places that are 100% considered safe for travelers.