A Dream Come True – an inspiring story about a deep passion becoming absolute reality.
Ines (the owner of Awatawaa Eco Lodge) and I originally arranged to meet in person at the hotel. Not quite the same experience (but just as inspiring) I sat down virtually with Ines to hear how in a matter of months, a faraway dream became an almost- instant working reality.
Let’s start at the beginning, what did you do before opening the hotel and how and when did you open Awatawaa Eco Lodge?
Actually, this is quite interesting as I’m known amongst my friends as a powerful manifester. I’m half Italian and half Colombian and have been lucky enough to spend a few years living in Milan, although I definitely consider Colombia to be home. Before opening Awatawaa, I worked for an Italian paper company as the Latin American Area Manager. It was fabulous because I travelled to all these amazing countries. I love meeting people and getting to know different cultures, so the job was perfect in allowing me to mix work and pleasure together.
I’m a happy-go-lucky person and wasn’t looking for love by any means, but in 2016 I started relationship with an older man named Peter. Literally as soon as I met him, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had an operation and fortunately I didn’t need to go through any chemo. It was during this time we made a special bond, and five years later we are still together. I love New Year’s Eve and the following year we spent it together at my friend’s Airbnb in Palomino. I’ve been going there for years now, before it became so busy and popular. It’s had its fair share of drugs and drinking problems and it’s not as it used to be, but I still love this place. It’s one of those places I instantly feel relaxed and chilled – anything that’s worrying me seems to just disappear. Anyway, that evening, I told my partner casually that I’d dreamed of having a place like my friends Airbnb. I said I could imagine being old and grey lying in a hammock, taking care of customers, dipping my toes into the white sandy beaches and listening to the sounds of waves whilst drinking cocktails. Instead of saying that sounds like a nice dream, he said “why wait? Do it now.” I told him, I’d have to sell everything I own and it’s a huge risk and I have other commitments, but he said, “don’t worry, I’m going to finance the project. You will be in charge. Use your energy to build your dream.” It was literally an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Two months later, I started looking for land. First in Palomino, then I heard of land being sold in Awatawaa. Awatawaa is not a place I’d even considered looking because it’s undeveloped, but as soon as I saw it, I knew it was a special place and where I wanted my hotel. It’s even more special because it’s almost like it has its own island. In November and December, when it rains, the road to the area disappears, so you have to take a boat to get to there (and now to the hotel). Many years ago, my partner’s mum bought an island off the coast of Cartagena and built on it from scratch, so Peter assured me it was going to be an amazing adventure and he supported all of my crazy ideas. So I bought the land in August 2018.
That must have been both a scary and exhilarating moment! So you had a hotel to build, what happened next?
I’m a doer not a thinker, and definitely not an architect, but I designed each of the eco cabins and then went into the local town and employed fifteen carpenters to build them. They were great, and mixed different local woods to build the cabins, the bar, and with the left-over wood, they made the beds and restaurant tables. The project started in August and we welcomed our first guests in December of the same year! The cabins, kitchen, and restaurant were built and furnished. We interviewed, trained and employed the staff, planned menus and cocktails – it was a crazy journey, I think I lived off adrenalin the entire time!
Wow! So, you were completely full. Did you advertise? Was it word of mouth? How many cabins did you have?
I still can’t believe I did this all in so little time. I started posting photos of our journey on Facebook and Instagram and people started booking before the cabins were even built.
I remember one crazy thing I did. I heard there an antique car rally passing close to the hotel with over 250 participants. I decided to offer them a beautiful lunch stop. At this time I only had one cabin built, but with help from the local ladies from the town and some friends, I somehow fed all of the people and as a bonus had some great publicity. The rally featured us in their vintage magazine and so that event ended up being talked about all over the world.
From this event, and me posting our journey, we had reservations from Europe, South Africa, Alaska, and lots of repeat people. It’s a very peaceful place and people come here to completely relax and be with nature, especially when we have just five cabins. Can you imagine stepping outside your cabin and seeing flamingos, pelicans, trio-coloured birds right in front of you? It’s just magical.
What do you think makes the hotel so special?
Apart from our unique location, food, and stepping outside your cabin to be greeted by biodiversity, I love that on clear mornings you can see as far as the Sierra Nevada mountains from our beach, one of the highest coastal mountains in the world. Not far from us live the Wayus, Arhuacos, Kogis, Wiwas and Kankuamos indigenous tribes – beautiful, spiritual and private people who weave a special type of bag and hammocks you can buy in the local cultural markets. You have to come to visit to see how special it is.
What kind of food do you serve? You mentioned you trained the kitchen staff; do you serve traditional Colombian food?
I wanted the food to be really special, so I hired a top chef to design a unique menu. I’m so pleased I did this because this is one thing people comment on. It’s unique It’s not fine dining, but flavours, textures and freshness are our specialty. It’s a combination of Colombian food mixed with flavours of Mexico, Italy and a fusion of other countries. Normally when you arrive in Colombia, places serve the same kind of traditional food, so I wanted everything to be different. I train the cooks myself and they are managed by Lilea, a amazing local woman who has been with us from the start. In fact, you must walk to her town. We are next to a fishing town where the wives of the fishermen sit every day in front of their houses peeling shrimp the men have fished. It’s like the local gossip street with the women chatting and laughing. Peeling shrimp is a real skill. Belgium and Scandinavian countries send their shrimp to Asia to be peeled as there’s an art to it. These ladies do it with such precision and intricacy, it’s mesmerizing to watch.
You said you love to travel, what’s been your favourite country and are there any countries on your bucket list?
I have travelled to 36 countries already, but I would love to visit Africa. I saw your South African trip and thought I’d really love to join that. I’ve never been on a woman only trip and it sparked my interest. I’d also love to visit India and stay on an Ashram and travel round to really understand the different cultures. That would definitely be a long trip. I loved Thailand when I went there. The people and Buddhist philosophy were so beautiful. Turkey and Greece were lovely too – it’s so hard to say because each country has its own unique speciality. It’s the country and the people that make the experience.
What are your plans going forward with the hotel or other projects?
In 2019, we won hotel of the year for our region in Colombia. Because we were so successful, we were about to build two more cabins when Covid arrived. Hopefully we can within the next couple of years.
We are also looking to include experiences that have a purpose and support local communities, the same as what you are doing with Sia Mondo. I dream of helping communities make their own money. In Colombia we have indigenous cultures that are alive. A lot of countries don’t have that anymore – you are just told about them, but in Colombia, you can actually see and meet them. This project has been put on hold at the moment, but I hope to take people into hidden places that I love in Colombia, the ones that nobody knows about. It’s more about working with community-based tourism, not high-end tourism.
In fact, I saw this post on Instagram and it said something like:
“If you want to go to the Andes go to Chile
If you want to see beautiful beaches go to Cuba
If you want to see stunning rivers go to Bolivia
But if you want a place that has everything go to Colombia.”
We have everything here and I am proud to be living in such a diverse country.
We’ll be staying at Awatawaa Eco Lodge during our upcoming Colombia trip, join us!