Edgar Ernesto Ruiz Rodriguez
Ever since we visited Cartagena, Colombia during Christmas of 2010 as an Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) Post Trip we have wanted to return to Colombia and see more of this beautiful country. This came about when we received a phone call from OAT to tell us that our scheduled trip to Ukraine and Moldova had been cancelled due to the problems there. My wife, Gennie immediately checked OAT’s last minute deals and there it was - Colombia's Colonial Jewels & the Coffee Triangle trip available between March 24 and April 4, 2014. We had two weeks to get ready and fly.
OAT did a great job of getting us flights (albeit center seats), emailing us our documentation as PDFs, and letting us know we would be part of a group of nine. We received a welcoming email and a phone call from Edgar Ernesto Ruiz Rodriguez, our Colombian tour director (TD) from Bogotá, Colombia. As this was our 71st tour since we retired in 2000, we knew how to pack, get our house and pet ready, and leave early in the morning of the 24th.
We had no difficulty making connections even though our Delta flight from Denver to Atlanta was one hour late leaving Denver International Airport and we had less than 50 minutes to make the connection in another terminal. The flight from Atlanta to Bogotá was uneventful and we landed just after 9 PM and were met by Edgar Ernesto as we exited customs. He immediately helped me use an ATM and then took us to Carlos who drove us to the Hotel de La Opera where we were warmly greeted and taken to our room on the 2nd floor, with an outside window facing the street. We were shown the utmost courtesy and help throughout our stay there - everyone had a smile on his/her face.
After an included breakfast we had an orientation meeting where we met the rest of our group and found out we would be only 8, one of our travelers would not make it. Edgar introduced himself, told us his background, and then introduced Tatiana, the director from the Bogotá office. We each introduced ourselves and then Edgar gave us a narrative of the 11 day trip.
From the moment we were on the bus to see our first sight in the capital city we knew we had a special TD. He faced us the whole time when he spoke to the group. That was a special feat as the streets of this city and the countryside of Colombia were up and down with sharp curves. He saw us and we saw him when he spoke. His information was timely and in depth. If anyone asked a question he took the time to respond in detail. I had given him a list of questions on Colombia after our first meeting and he was the first TD to seriously discuss the questions I had given him.
At the end of every day he was very specific on our schedule the following day. He made sure everyone understood and knew the time schedule. He would repeat those instructions and the group was never late or missed an event.
The Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) itinerary was followed explicitly. We would be out of the hotel by 8 AM and we would be involved from 9 to 12 hours a day. On the days we went from one city to another we did so by aircraft - flights being no longer than an hour whereas if we had driven it would have been 6 to 10 hours on the Colombian roads. We explored the city streets and mountains of Bogotá. We rode the Aerial Tramway of Medellin with working people to visit the Santo Domingo Savio barrio and meet its citizens who live there.
In the coffee triangle around Pereira we went to plantations to wander and pick coffee and meet the people who work on the steep sides of the Andes Mountains. We also had an opportunity to visit and walk the Cocora National Park to the height of 8600 feet. After our flight to Cartagena we were able to enjoy the beauty and splendor of the Old City (1533) and the colonial architecture.
Our group was also very fortunate to have three excellent local guides and four drivers. Pablo drove us in Bogotá; narrow streets, up and down and people and vehicles on the sidewalks and streets. Paulo showed off his city of Medellin with pride and vigor. Assisting him, Raul knew all the shortcuts when we were on the bus and showed us all the different part of this emerging city. Alejandro was the perfect ambassador for the coffee triangle, driving his motorcycle an hour each way to help Edgar. We had Hector to drive us all over the area and into the Andes - what a feat.
In Cartagena we had the knowledge and expertise of Katty who gave us an abbreviated view of this beautiful city. Javier drove us from the airport, around the city for three days and then was at the hotel at 4:30 AM to take us to the airport. What was especially noteworthy about the three local guides was the way they worked with Edgar. It seemed to us that all were best friends; joking, kidding, suggesting unique events, and involving us with the local people.
Of the multiple positive aspects shown by Edgar was his involving the group in questions and answers with Colombians. From Day 2 and every day we were in Colombia we met people from all walks of life. A policewoman and her job expectations. We spoke to two separate students as to the costs of private tuition, transportation, and majors. We were interviewed by a student on education. We spoke to vendors in the Bogotá market including fruit, flowers, herbs and fragrance stalls.
In Medellin we went to the low economic area and visited 80 year old Alicia in her home in the barrio. Edgar invited Angelo, a street boy, to have lunch and talk with us. We met single mom Lina, who ran a restaurant in the barrio. On the road when we stopped for bathrooms we spoke to Col. Rodriguez on his responsibilities and then we stopped to speak to the artist Ignacio (Nacho) noted for his Zocalos, concrete bas-relief decorative tiles. While in downtown Medellin Edgar and our group spoke to a lady of the evening/prostitute about her life, age and whether her parents knew of her professional choice.
Once in Pereira we were treated by the fabulous cooking and meals from Claudia. On the second night she invited us to her restaurant and we were involved in the preparation and cooking of our Colombian meal - tamales with all the accompaniments. For our final night in Pereira she once again cooked us a wonderful Italian meal.
Once in Cartagena, we were treated to new experiences by Edgar. Just outside our hotel and by the plaza we met Julia, a Palenque fruit vendor in her colorful attire. As we walked the Old Town streets we came to the University of Cartagena and we entered and spoke to three students about their schooling, costs and expectations. While at the Fortress the gift shop proprietor spoke to us and then gave Gennie a flag of Colombia to commemorate our return to his beautiful city.
On our final day we had a walking tour of the Getsemani neighborhood and as we passed a home with an open doorway Edgar and Katty entered and asked Gladys if we could visit her house and see all the birds she had on display. And the bus ride, taking a local bus on the malecón like the natives do - putting a finger in the air to stop it and then yell "Para" for us to get off. NICE!
As one can read in the last few paragraphs Edgar was exceptional in introducing us to the people and life of Colombia - more so that any other OAT TD we have had. But he went much further to have us get a TASTE of Colombia. In Bogotá we had Coca and panela tea and then sampled the Culona (large-bottomed ant). Then we had sips of Chicha, a corn beer. In the market we sampled fruits no one had ever had before as well as Lechona, pig in a pig. We finished the day with oblea - a waffle with all kinds of sweets.
In Medellin we had a Media Mañana; arepas, farmer's cheese, hot chocolate with pan de queso. In Pereira we had another Media Mañana with Santa Rosano chorizo, empanadas, arepas and coffee. Another day he gave us coffee flavored cookies and plantain chips on the bus. In Cartagena, while on a long walk in the sun and humidity he bought us Kola Roman, invented there in 1865. These were true highlights in tasting Colombia.
As we had flights to catch when we moved from city to city Edgar took the lead when we got to the airport by taking our passports, checking us in, taking us to the gate, and having us board before everyone else. He always got us the seats we wanted - aisle, window or middle. We never had a problem with his leadership.
Lastly, I want to thank Edgar for the care and attention he provided me when I was beset with a BAD case of food poisoning after eating a chicken breast for lunch. He provided transportation for me back to the hotel, called a doctor and interpreted, and went to get medication three separate times. As he did these he still carried out his responsibilities to the rest of the group in included activities and dinner. THANK YOU!