When the travel company Monograms reached out to me about working on a project, I was intrigued for a few reasons. I wasn’t very familiar with them and their unique brand of travel certainly interested me. More than that though, their process of facilitating travel experiences appeared on paper to be a great match for me and offered what I believed to be the best way to first explore Colombia. Looking back on the experience I was certainly proven right, but because the company offers travel experiences so unique I thought I’d take a few moments to share how exactly they improved my trip and why I think they can be a great option for the independent traveler.
What is Monograms?
First of all, Monograms is not a travel tour operator. Not really. They call themselves an “un-tour” but first I think it’s important to define what a tour company is in the first place. While it varies, a tour operator creates package trips with everything you’ll need on your travels. This can include flights, but not always, but always does include hotels, tour guides, activities and many meals. They’re one-stop shopping, they ARE your trip. Monograms doesn’t do that. Instead, I really see them as a different kind of resource for the independent traveler. At the heart of their trips though is the Local Host. Part tour guide and part fix-it person, they are your main contact in each city and, as I learned, have the power to transform a simple trip into a travel experience you’ll never forget. They were so critical in my own enjoyment of Colombia that I want to share a few examples of how impactful they were to my travel experience.
Power of Being Alone
I’m told that many people don’t enjoy planning the nitty-gritty details of the travel experience. Personally, I do, but that’s of course one of many things that makes me a little unusual. Anyway, what Monograms strives to accomplish is to go ahead and plan out those not so interesting details and then leave the rest of the trip up to you. Let’s take my trip to Colombia as an example. I selected the hotels where I wanted to stay based on provided options and then Monograms dealt with: booking the hotels, transfers and coordinating the Local Host. The host is essentially a tour guide, but it’s really much more than that. I had an itinerary that included some time with the Local Hosts as they showed me around the cities, but I also had plenty of time by myself. I loved planning the trip as I would had I organized and booked everything, from discovering what interested me the most to even looking up some other walking tours in both Bogota and Cartagena. I spent hours researching all of the activities and I loved every second of it. Once on the ground, that sense of independent discovery was exactly the same as on personal trips I take, because the time was my own. In Bogota the Local Host spent half a day with me, showing me the highlights, but the rest of the time was independent. The same was true in Cartagena; only the coffee growing region of Colombia was almost entirely led by the Local Host because it has to be, due to the types of activities in the region. So it’s a balance. Things like hotels, airport transfers and so on are automatically taken care of for you so you never have to think about them. Learning about new destinations, exploring them in your own way and at your own pace, that’s the responsibility of the traveler. It sounds a little trite, but it really does accentuate all the great aspects of the travel experience while eliminating some of the minutiae.
What we all want when we travel is to feel connected to the destination. Every travel expert tells us to go local and try to learn about the “real” destination, beyond the tourist veneer. Thankfully that’s built into the Monograms experience with the Local Host. They are locals, they call the destination home and in most cases have lived there all their lives. Sure, they’re part tour guide but they’re also part new friend. In my experience they were incredibly open and honest, maybe a little too honest at times, and were unafraid to answer any question I had. More importantly, they quickly understood my own desire to get to know Colombia on a more personal level and in Cartagena, the Host went to great lengths to make sure I had a chance to experience the city away from the throngs of tourists.
I mentioned that I wanted to learn about the local food, the traditional bites and not the fancy restaurants. I wanted to know what the comfort foods in Cartagena were like and the Local Host took it on as his personal mission to help me discover his favorite things to eat in his hometown. The following day he took time out of his schedule, he wasn’t supposed to be with me that day, and we drove out to the city perimeter to a place few tourists go, but which is a mainstay for most residents – the Mercado de Bazurto. I intend to devote an entire post to the market, because it is truly unlike any other market I’ve visited in the world. A massive area that seems to extend forever, the labyrinth of dirty walkways, stalls and shops sell everything. Not just a lot of things, but everything. At the market you can buy any fruit or vegetable you can imagine, all meats being freshly butchers, school supplies, electronics, clothes – you name it, and it’s there. It’s also a little intimidating due to its size and the incredible number of people packed inside even in the middle of the week. My Local Host though knew the market well and during the hour we spent there we shuttled me around with a finesse that showed his experience, giving me plenty of opportunities to meet new people and to try local delicacies I would never have found any other way. It was an incredible, if not overwhelming, experience but it was the best thing I did in Cartagena because it was real. It was an honest experience that drew me into the local culture in a way that would have been impossible for me to do on my own. That’s the difference with Monograms and that’s what transformed my trip.
Going local is used so often in the travel context that its meaning has been lost. When we travel we of course want to see the famous sights, but the modern traveler also wants more than that. They want to leave their comfort zone a little, see a different way of life and, in the process, grow from the experience. That’s meaningful travel and that’s what I enjoyed in Colombia, thanks in large part to those heroes of my trip, the Monograms Local Hosts.