On August 4, 2011, I'd never thought of visiting Colombia. I didn't even have a precise idea where it was in South America.
However, I'd joined Google+ the month before, had been using the service, and at that time I think about 10,000 people had me in circles. (The growth on Google+ has been remarkable. On Twitter, some 8,000 people follow me and that's been constant for awhile. On Google+ at the moment, 245,590 people have me in circles, up from 10K in early August and 0 in early July. I have no idea why there's such rapid uptake on Google+ or why the huge disparity with Twitter, which I've used for five years.) For this reason, 26-year old Matt Dickhaus, head of U.S. marketing for Viventura, emailed and asked if I wanted to "participate in a South American tour," possibly for free.
With apologies to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, thus began my Six Stages of Colombia.
Stage 1 - Incredulity. People don't offer me trips to South America every day. I was intrigued but skeptical. I don't stay at "free" hotels that require a time-share pitch, and this seemed like a possible branch of that tree. Also, I have an 8-year-old, Tyler, who, when you pick him up and shake him, feels only somewhat ready for international travel - not quite ripe, in other words. Leaving him home wasn't an option, nor did I want to.
Stage 2 - Excitement. Matt and I started emailing and speaking by phone. Tyler adores animals, and has been obsessed with the rainforest since age 3. We honed in on Colombia. Viventura had never had young children join a tour (they generally recommend travelers be at least 14), but Matt and his team began putting together a new itinerary: "a kid friendly journey with a focus on the beautiful beaches and extraordinary wildlife Colombia has to offer." Plus, what Viventura wanted from me was something I'd want to do anyway: post pictures, share the experience online. Viventura could accommodate up to 9 people on a tour, so I started asking friends with kids if this was something they could see themselves doing. I offered to spread my "free" trip across all the travelers so what it would amount to was a slightly deeper discount than the 10% off they would already receive. I asked local friends. I asked relatives. I asked Evan Brown. I asked Rick Klau. Many were interested but it's a lot for people to drop everything and haul their kids to South America, and our travel dates were right up against the holidays.
Stage 3 - Panic. By October 3, I was serious enough about the trip to be looking into nitty-gritty details, like air fare (expensive and indirect, from Los Angeles), and safety. Our anchor city for much of the trip was Medellín, which no North American adult can hear without also immediately inserting the words "Drug Cartel." U.S. State Department advisories about Colombia are somewhat encouraging ("Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years" and "The incidence of kidnapping in Colombia has diminished significantly from its peak at the beginning of this decade"), but also chilling:
[T]errorist groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and other criminal organizations continue to kidnap and hold civilians for ransom or as political bargaining chips. No one is immune from kidnapping on the basis of occupation, nationality, or other factors. Kidnapping remains a serious threat, with two kidnapping cases of U.S. citizens reported since August 2010. One kidnapped citizen was rescued within 4 days and the other case resulted in the murder of the victim. Kidnapping in rural areas is of particular concern. On July 2, 2008, the Government of Colombia rescued 15 hostages, including three U.S. citizens, who had been held for more than five years. Although the U.S. government places the highest priority on the safe recovery of kidnapped U.S. citizens, it is U.S. policy not to make concessions to or strike deals with kidnappers. Consequently, the U.S. government's ability to assist kidnapping victims is limited.
[Link mine.] Matt and I emailed. He's originally from Florida. He has lived and traveled in Colombia without incident for two years. They've been running tours for 5 years with non-U.S. customers (primarily Germans) without a single issue: no thefts, let alone a kidnapping. Matt's the poster child for the country's official tourism campaign, The Only Risk Is Wanting To Stay: he went there on vacation and decided to stay on.
At this point, the exponential growth of Google+ was starting to creep me out. I was now in over 50,000 people's circles. I told Matt that if we did this, I didn't want to post during the trip. Someone could readily follow along with our online itinerary and have an unpleasant surprise waiting at our next destination. No problem, Matt completely understood, and sent me more information about Colombia, crime, drugs, and kidnapping. Bottom line: I was reassured.
Stage 4 - Excitement. This trip was sounding amazing. Pacific beaches, Caribbean beaches, the historic city of Cartagena, a mud volcano, probably more animal and plant species than in any other country on the planet regardless of size? Tyler and I were so in. And, it turned out, so were were my great friend and neighbor Lorri Megonigal, and Tyler's best pal on earth, her son Ryan. We started organizing. Rick Steves travel satchel? Check. Packable beach toys? Check. Shots and pills...?
Stage 5 - Dread. The next U.S. government Web site to throw cold water on the proceedings was the CDC. You don't go to the beach and jungle regions of Colombia without innoculations for yellow fever, typhoid, and Hepatitis A and B. And with malaria, of course, there's no vaccine (have you read State of Wonder?), you have to take preventative pills.
Ugh, two 8-year-olds and a battery of shots and pills. It was a testament to how much the kids wanted to go that they sucked it up and did it. Not without tears and trauma, but they did it. My son had never swallowed pills before, and we learned that capsules (assisted by water through a straw) are easier than tablets, and tablets (even foul tasting ones) are easiest with peanut M&Ms. Yellow fever shots make your arm sore. They make a little kid's arm considerably more so.
The sales clerk at my local Ace Hardware is a dead ringer for Sofia Vergara, a decade or so from now. I asked her where was she from.
"I don't talk about that."
"Is it Colombia? Because we might go to Colombia."
End of discussion.
We spent Thanksgiving with good friends, one of whom travels often to Medellín and Bogotá for business. While there, he is constantly accompanied by armed private security and uses armored ground transport.
Stage 6 - Excitement. We paid our initial deposit, bought travel insurance, checked our existing insurance for what it covered, bought international phone and data plans.
I started cruising Clicker.com for Colombia videos. Anthony Bourdain did a great one on Medellín and Cartagena. Music Voyager made me want to salsa, and further assured me visits could be fun and safe. Globe Trekker showed gorgeous Cartagena and described its pirate past. I shared these with friends (including my travel companion) and family to help them feel better about our decision; nearly everyone I told about the trip expressed something between surprise and alarm. I read about smuggling subs in Wired, saw that the FARC leader had been taken out, and noted the myriad videos about drug and FARC violence were mostly out of date.
I met a sweet woman with no English, and her daughter, my son's age, with some, at a fall craft fair. She was a talented artisan and made beautiful leather goods. They were from Colombia.
Another friend is from Colombia, Barranquilla. At their holiday party, her sweetheart of a mother gushed about the country and offered to teach me some salsa.
By November 12, we'd booked air fare, paid deposits, and were definitely going. If we didn't know anything else, we knew it would be an adventure.
Disclosures. I've been following the discussions begun several years ago by Jeff Jarvis and renewed this month by Rafat Ali and Jeremy Head, about bloggers, travel, exposure, and junkets. I'm also well aware of my obligations under the FTC Endorsement Guides and regulations. As I think you'll see in coming posts, the arrangement between me and Viventura wound up being more of a beta test than a junket. I traveled, I gave feedback, and now I'm writing. In order for you to assess my objectivity, or lack thereof, for yourself, here are all the benefits and incentives Viventura provided.
- 1 tour package, ordinarily priced at $1,745.00 U.S.,
- 10% discount for those traveling with me (children priced same as adults),
- 2 surprise Salsa lessons in Cartagena,
- 1 surprise 1-night hotel upgrade, following some flight arrangements gone awry,
- 2 small wooden boxes of coffee candy as farewell gifts, and
- 4 days traveling with Matt Dickhaus as interpreter, guide, all-around good guy, and child-whisperer.
Other than the meals included in my complimentary tour (4 dinners and what wound up being 7 breakfasts, for 1 person), we paid for all our own food and drink, our air fare to Colombia, hotel incidentals, some taxis, entrance fees for Tayrona and El Piedra del Peñol, and horse rental fees in Tayrona. For more on what is and is not included in the tour, go here.
Next up, our first day in Colombia: staying in Medellín, and traveling to La Piedra del Peñol y La Reserva de Guatapé (The Peñol Rock and The Guatapé Reservoir).
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