Cartagena: A Fitness Escape

Food, Fitness and Fun on Wellness Vacations

By Eleanor Harte

Yoga in Croatia
Doing yoga in Croatia. Escape to Shape photos.

Picture your ideal vacation. Do you spend the week waking up without an alarm, lying on the beach soaking up the sun, and indulging in carbs, margaritas and ice cream for every meal?

Or do you wake with the sun, doing yoga and a bootcamp class on the beach before sitting down to a healthy breakfast that was prepared by a local chef?

If your answer is the latter, a health and fitness getaway might be just the vacation option you’re looking for.

Fitness vacations are a growing trend – in 2013, the global wellness tourism market grew to $494 million dollars, a 12.5 increase from 2012.

At first it seems crazy – isn’t the point of a vacation to relax, hang out and do nothing?

But many times getting home from a vacation makes you feel like you need another one just to recover. You might feel bad about everything that you ate and vow to double your time at the gym to make up for it. A “get in shape” vacation can eliminate all that.

One company that offers these all-inclusive fitness vacations is Escape to Shape, a company that has taken fitness lovers to exotic locations all over the globe for fifteen years.

Co-founder Erica Gragg says that with the company, she and her business partner Francesco Anchisi created a vacation that they themselves would want to go on. These vacations include daily fitness classes, group excursions, language classes, health prepared food and cultural visits. Everything is included, except for airfare and alcohol.

All You Have to Do is Show Up

The villa in Cartagena
The villa in Cartagena

Gragg often returns to the same sites year after year, and has nailed down the perfect itinerary. Most trips host between fourteen to twenty people per week. Some of them come in groups, some come with one friend, and some come alone.

Thanks to the communal atmosphere and common interests, guests quickly become friends. And in regards to activities, all that guests have to do is pack their things and get on the plane.

“We make it really easy for them to visit a place that might not have been on their radar before, or a place they maybe didn’t want to visit by themselves,” said Gragg.

On the Escape to Shape trip in Cartagena, a city on the northern coast of Colombia, guests are picked up at the airport and brought to the 16th century villa where they stay for the next five nights. Each day they’ll take two exercise classes – taught by instructors from the barre-based fitness brand Physique 57, which offers a “results driven” program – and spend their days exploring Cartagena.

The idea behind this kind of trip is to take cultural explorations that might happen on an “ordinary” vacation and pair them with the fitness classes and healthy food, which tend to take a back seat when most people vacation. Even better, people don’t need to worry about planning what to do every day or what they’re going to eat.

“They just have to buy their ticket and the rest we take care of, everything from curating the meals so that they represent an authentic way to experience the local cuisine in a healthy way, “ said Gregg, “to organizing unique activities and excursions that will help guests to develop their own relationship with the country and the culture.

Multiple Vacation Options

Cartegena isn’t the only place for clients to visit. The company runs trips to Laos, Chile, Germany, Morocco, Sicily and a number of other countries. On every trip, Gragg organizes active cultural activities that allow participants to feel like they had an equal mix between fitness and culture on their vacation

Participants kneel before monks in Cambodia.
Participants kneel before monks in Cambodia.

As far as food goes, everything is included in the trip cost – and it’s representative of the culture, with a local twist. Fried foods are very popular in Cartagena, so Gragg explains that they make adjustments.

Instead of fried plantains, they’ll have baked plantains instead – people still get to sample the local flavor, but in a healthier way.

A group called Girlfriend Getaways runs similar trips, but for women only. Their mission is to “empower women to strong, healthy, confident and to be their best”.

Their all-inclusive trips are held at luxury hotel resorts, pairing fitness activities and personal training sessions with a vacation at the beach. Their vacations include three healthy meals a day, nutritional snacks and five hours of fitness per day. Biking, kayaking, boot camp, kayaking and cardio kickboxing are among the activities they offer.

Another company is Rancho La Puerto, a fitness ranch located in Baja California, just over the Mexican border that specializes in giving guests a chance for renewal of “mind, body and spirit on a journey to true wellness.”

The ranch welcomes men and women of all ages, and offers approximately forty different fitness classes a day for each week long stay. Activities include hiking, cardio, tennis, yoga, cooking classes, meditation, and evening entertainment. All food is semi-vegetarian.

Biking in Atacama, Chile
Biking in Atacama, Chile

The Best Kind of Clients

Gragg said the best client for an Escape to Shape trip is one who has a sense of curiosity, enjoys the art of discovery, and likes being around other people. She thinks some of the best parts of the trips come from the communal dinners, where participants eat meals prepared from local ingredients and there’s interesting conversation. She said that over the years she has had some really engaging and fun guests come on trips.

“Some clients have done ten or fourteen trips with us,” she said. “More guests have done multiple vacations with us than those who have just done one, and we’re really proud of that statistic.”

Participants of all ages have gone on her trips, though the average age tends to be between 30 and 55 years old. Gragg doesn’t focus on ages, young or old, when thinking about trips. “It’s really about being young at heart, being open minded and wanting to experience new things.”

How intense are the classes? Gragg said that her instructors cater to all fitness levels and can adapt to various injuries and suggest modifications. Participants don’t even have to love fitness; no class is required and participants can choose how many they want to attend.

She has even had a handful of people come on a trip and not attend any, though that’s rare.

The appeal of these classes lies in the fact that all of the planning is taken care of down to the last detail. “We attract a lot of Type A personalities who entrust us with their holidays which is nice because they can completely surrender,” said Gragg. “They leave the details up to us.”

Costs of Escape to Shape trips vary depending on destination, but for the Cartagena trip, the cost is $3,200 per person for a double occupancy room and $4,000 for a single occupancy room. This includes everything but flights.

Eleanor HarteEleanor Harte is a journalist and writer based in Boston, MA. She’s fortunate to have studied abroad in Paris and to have visited Ireland, Belgium, Scotland, the Czech Republic, and a few other countries, but she has many remaining on her list! She’s always looking for the next adventure.

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