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As Colombia recovers more and more from its previous days of political turmoil, tourism to the country has been surging. With this influx comes a resurgence of responsible travel organizations providing visitors authentic local experiences while also having a positive and sustainable impact on the communities they visit.
While stepping between farmers wielding machetes to chop coconuts and fishers filleting freshly caught fish, travelers are quickly immersed in the atmosphere and culture of Mercado de Bazurto. The group is escorted by a local guide, who leads them into the market’s chaotic labyrinth just 30 minutes outside of Cartagena’s city center. It’s an immediate assault on the senses. Enveloped in the rhythmic percussion of champeta music, the group weaves through colorful produce stands, touching exotic and prickly green guanabanas and pausing to quench their thirst with sweet lulo fruit and juicy pineapples. While learning about the city’s Afro-Indigenous culture, the group has the chance to meet local vendors and listen to their stories of everyday Cartagena life.
This experience is part of Discover Cartagena, a travel program created by María Isabel Alvarez Ortega in the summer of 2017. Her excursions guide travelers outside of the historic walled center of Cartagena and into the residential neighborhoods, like the one she grew up in. “The old city is magical and fantastic, but it isn’t anything like the local life here,” she says.
Discover Cartagena aims to bring a touch of humanity to travel. “The trend in tourism is experience,” says Ortega. “People who travel want to learn about local cultures.” And they also want to help the local people in return. She explains that 60 percent of the fees from the tour go directly to the communities they visit. On this particular tour, proceeds are used to purchase food directly from the resident sellers, which is later used by her family to prepare lunch for the group.
The day ends with a quintessential Colombian lunch in Ortega’s childhood home. At the table, while sharing a meal, both groups exchange anecdotes of their lives and cultures. After this half-day tour, many of the travelers remark how human connection truly adds to their experience.
“There’s a whole mixture of ethnic groups that make Cartagena unique,” explains Alex Rocha, founder of the tour company Experience Real Cartagena. “It’s shown in the music, food and way of living of the people. But you can’t see that if you stay in the walled city. You have to go outside.”
Having worked for other travel organizations in the city, Rocha led tours limited to the “bubble” of the historic center. However, he yearned to take visitors outside the city walls to visit the vibrant neighborhoods in which he grew up. He created his tour company in 2012 to show visitors exactly that.
On Rocha’s tours, while walking through the barrio San Francisco, it’s not uncommon to join a game of dominoes or play pickup soccer with residents on the street and even dance to champeta music in a neighborhood bar.
According to Rocha, part of responsible travel is understanding the history and challenges of a city. “It’s very important when visitors come to ask about the situation of the people and how they can help contribute to improving their lives,” he says.
Money from Experience Real Cartagena’s tours helps fund The Alex Rocha Youth Center, Rocha’s social impact program that supports disadvantaged children in the community by teaching them everything from English lessons to computer skills. The school believes that with stronger English-language skills, the children will have more opportunities later in life.
Rocha proudly takes his tours to the school to meet the children, visit the classrooms and join in a game of soccer.
Insider Tours, a tour company operated by Cartagena non-profit Fundación por la Educación Multidimensional (FEM), also recognizes the importance of its tours in the growing movement of responsible tourism. FEM focuses on helping indigenous communities overcome inequality, and responsible travel is a crucial part of its mission.
“Social and economic inclusion is important to us,” explains Andrea Atehortúa, a director at FEM and Insider Tours. “We designed the tours so they give income to the communities but also protect their culture.”
Insider Tours operates its experiences under two defining principles of responsible travel: “Acción sin daño, which translates to ‘do no harm,’ and participatory design,” explains Atehortúa. The tours must financially and ethically support the communities in a positive way while also including community participants in designing and operating the experiences. “It is important for us to foster unity within the communities, so we want to make sure that these new sources of income do not create division. We look for ways to make sure that everyone is included,” says Atehortúa.
During its exclusive Zenú Weaving Workshop, tourists travel to 20 de Julio, a local neighborhood just 20 minutes from the historic downtown center. The workshop is run by a group of six indigenous Zenú women who teach the group how to weave the caña flecha fibers to make the famous Colombian sombrero vueltiao.
Atehortúa explains that this community, once a powerful ancient civilization known for its textiles, has almost completely lost its culture and traditions. In recent decades of urban migration and having to work other jobs to make ends meet, the women have slowly abandoned their ancient craft. Finances from the tour help the women promote and protect their artisanal work.
“Responsible tourism has to go both ways,” says Atehortúa. “It has to benefit both parties at all levels.”