Colombian Wanderlust with Harry Hastings

Like the sound of drifting down the Amazon river admiring some of the most unseen wildlife in the world? Or how about salsa dancing in Cali, where the pulse of music runs through the city?

Harry Hastings, founder of Plan South America does. He’s the one bringing once-in-a lifetime adventures to life. We find out where’s on his hotlist and what we have to look forward to...

Harry Hastings, Plan South America

Plan South America focuses on creating utterly unforgettable experiences. What inspired you to set this up?

I was 22 and living in Buenos Aires. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life but was adamant about remaining in Argentina. I had taught English, worked at the Buenos Aires Herald, reviewed the city’s nightlife for Time Out and flirted with the wine industry before starting a concierge company. I remember our first client – Rod – an enormously tall, completely bonkers Texan with a shock of red hair and a very glamorous wife, greeted me at 8am in the lobby of his hotel with a Bloody Mary and a US$100 tip. Quite aside from the cash – invaluable to an impoverished freelancer – I got a huge kick from making their time in Buenos Aires so enjoyable. I started to explore further afield and, over time, broadened our coverage across Argentina and, eventually, into South and Central America. 

Describe the most unusual experience that you have conjured up. Is there anything that you never thought you would be able to create for someone?

I remember getting a 2am call from our concierge team asking how we should respond to a client’s demand for two muscular men to be sent to a hotel room.  Perhaps we’ve lost our edge, but such requests seem to have calmed down since the early days. 

In Colombia, we’ve arranged 3-day wedding party in Cartagena; a heli-tour of the Caribbean from La Guajira to Parque Tayrona and Cartagena; a gemologist-led expedition that began at an emerald mine in Boyacá and finished on the cutting and polishing tables of Bogota. Fortunately, our local team is exceptional, so we have yet to be outsmarted by a request.

Cartagena, Colombia

What makes Colombia special to you?

I remember arriving in Colombia for the first time. A friend and I were driving the length of the continent and had been told to leave the Ecuadorian border by dawn and drive quickly without stopping for any reason. That journey was supremely beautiful and utterly exhilarating. Crossing into the southern province of Nariño, we soared through Andean foothills and plunged into lush valleys. It was an impossibly bucolic landscape. Every fruit, blossom and blade of grass grew in profusion. Blanched Brahman cattle and horses grazed freely. Roadside venders sold bars of panela, mandarins and cured meat. We stopped in the elegant, white-washed old-town of Popayan and had lunch by the monastery. Wooden carts groaned under the weight of grapes and mamoncillos. We drank Club Colombia and watched from the shade as the afternoon unravelled. That was when I first fell in love with Colombia.

If you could recommend three bucket list places to go in Colombia where would they be?

Cali is impossibly edgy and sexy.  We don’t send a lot of clients there, but the adventurous minded - particularly those who like music and dance - adore it.  Some of the best Colombian food and music come from El Chocó, on the wild pacific coast, as well as mind-blowing biodiversity.  Road-tripping through the province of Santander is always fun. They sell fried salty fat-bottomed ants on the roadside. Don’t knock ‘em ‘til you’ve tried ‘em. Santander’s colonial towns are amongst Colombia’s prettiest, and Chicamocha National Park is an adventure playground for hiking, paragliding, riding and rafting.

Cali, Colombia

What would be your hidden gem, the bolthole off the beaten track?

I loved my time in Honda, an extraordinarily hot little town in central Colombia, home to the magical Hacienda el Triunfo, for horse lovers and birders.

Or Los Llanos, where the Andes meet the Amazon. These vast plains shared between Venezuela and Colombia and are populated by capybara, anaconda, giant ant eaters, puma, jaguar, armadillo and myriad birdlife. There is nowhere better to observe llanero (cowboy) culture in Colombia, whether grading cattle, fishing for piranha or enjoying campfire recitals with the locals. 

And the most unforgettable view in Colombia that has stayed with you?

Probably getting lost when driving from Medellin to Salamina. I took a wrong turn which led to an hour down a dirt track, that got narrower and narrower until it eventually turned into a path. I turned off the car engine and walked to higher ground to see where I’d got to. The hill on the other side fell gently into a patchwork of pastures and neat little plantations. There was an ox and cart loaded with plantain. The only sounds in that hot, still air were birdsong, the trickle of water from a stream and cattle grazing. There are many more impressive views in Colombia, but the peace of that little valley was like no other.

Have you met any of the artisan communities that Colombia Collective works with on your travels?

I have met the Wayuu, the Kogi, the Arhuaco and the Guambiano, and I visited a filagree workshop in Mompox. I think there are about 90 indigenous communities in Colombia, so look forward to being introduced to the rest of them by the The Colombia Collective.

Mompox, Colombia

What Colombia Collective item are you packing in your suitcase?

I’ve got a Wayuu Pom Pom Tassel for my keys and a Nariño hat. In truth, I’m waiting for some additions to the men’s collection!

Which one song transports you back to Colombia?

There are quite a few of them. Maybe Palenque by Abelardo Carbono y su Conjunto, or Gaita de las Flores by Lucho Bermudez. We have an excellent playlist we give to clients which usually gets everyone on their feet.  I’m listening to it now and its transporting me nicely.

And finally, where in Colombia are you most excited about returning to when lockdown restrictions relax?

There is an hacienda I’m desperate to visit for clients in Antioquia, as well as a newly opened Caribbean beach house. There’s more exploring of Cauca to be done, but the absolute priority will be getting back into the Amazon. I’ll happily mule some creations back for your Amazonia Collection.

 

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