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Surrounded by the palm-fringed shores of Tierra Bomba, Blue Apple Beach House is an eco-aware hotel run by entrepreneur Portia Hart. Just 30 minutes outside of Cartagena by boat, locals and tourists alike flock to this laid-back locale to enjoy lazy afternoons, great music, and delicious food in a beautiful setting.
Portia was kind enough to sit down with us and share more about her journey from student in London to eco entrepreneur in Colombia. This is her inspiring tale.
An unlikely story
“After finishing university and spending a summer in the rather damp London weather, I embarked on a quest for sunshine,” Portia shares. “With no real plan or idea of where the wind would blow me, I found myself in the sunny South of France, working with yachts and developing quite the taste for the area’s famed pink wine.”
“After living on the Riviera for nearly a decade, the travel bug hit yet again, this time leading me to colourful Cartagena. One of the first things I noticed? A serious lack of casual-yet-delicious beach dining establishments and, of course, decent rosé. I wanted to change that.”
Armed with an idea, an opportunity, and almost no competition, Portia decided to go for it. One incredible chef, a fantastic DJ, and, of course, a topnotch supplier of Provence-style rosé later, she opened her first waterside restaurant in the mangroves of Isla Barú. Their motto? “A successful day at the beach comes down to three things: good food, fun music, and decent rosé.”
Portia’s new endeavor turned out to be just what the area needed — so much so that patrons started asking if they could spend the night! As requests kept pouring in, a new opportunity soon became apparent, and Portia and her team relocated the club to Bocachica.
Blue Apple Beach House is born
Converted from a private beach home, Blue Apple Beach House has only 10 bedrooms adorned with local products from sustainable sources, such as bespoke linens and hand-woven hammocks and one-of-a-kind pieces by local artists, carpenters, and artisans.
While this comfortable and relaxed atmosphere offers refuge from the chaotic city vibes of Cartagena, don’t be fooled — the team at Blue Apple knows how to party. As the website says, “if it’s total seclusion and silence you seek, we are not ashamed to say that this is not the place for you.”
Portia quickly lets me know while they definitely work hard on sustainability, she prefers Blue Apple not to be referred to as an “eco-hotel,” but more of an “eco-aware” one. She is the first to admit that they still offer things like air-conditioning, and that not every single practice is 100% eco-friendly. For example, while they have no client-facing plastic products, sometimes suppliers still deliver those products wrapped in plastic. Yet, for Portia, it’s less about being perfect, and more about doing as much as you reasonably can.
“Our approach has been to forget about eco-certification and green labels. Sustainability is not binary, it isn’t something you are or aren’t,” she says. “If you can’t be perfect, that doesn’t mean you can’t be better.”
A few of the ways Blue Apple strives for sustainability:
- All glass is recycled.
- All food waste is composted, and if it can’t be, it’s fed to on-site pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys, and goats.
- All trash is sorted, with cardboard, used oil, aluminum, tin and plastics #1 and #2 going to the mainland to be processed.
- Staff members are regularly trained in sorting and recycling, and whoever brings in the most recycling each month receives a price.
- They only sell products from companies of which they know the owners and their business practices.
- They recently employed a full-time sustainability manager who is responsible for making their supply chain more green.
However, her passion for sustainability wasn’t always as strong as it is now — it actually started as a bit of fluke. After the hotel had been open for a few months, a neighbor told Portia that the “sanitation company” hired to dispose of the hotel’s rubbish was actually dumping it in his garden, and questioned whether the property would have a negative impact on the environment. This was a lightbulb moment for Portia, as it became crystal clear to her that responsible tourism meant offering guests a comfortable, relaxing and joyous experience without negatively impacting others in the community or the environment.
Doing good for the community too
Bocachica is a historic village located on Isla de Tierra Bomba, a largely undeveloped island. Roads are unpaved, there is little to no running water, and electricity is patchy at best. Most families live on the Colombian minimum wage, which is less than $10 per day.
While some hotels put up gates and separate themselves from the surrounding communities, Blue Apple wanted to elevate its neighborhood and give guests a window into the amazing local community. They started by hiring local workers to provide services, activities, and products to hotel guests, such as massages, souvenirs, snorkeling, and dirt bike tours. They also began investing in their employees by providing financial support for English lessons to help staff communicate with tourists, as well as offering a saving scheme to help staff save a portion of their tips for future projects or rainy days.
The hotel has also always been sure to purchase local ingredients and produce where possible, while being conscious not to deplete the environment of its finite resources. Being deliberate about not overfishing the area is just as important as purchasing local fish.
The Green Apple Foundation
As the hotel grew, so did its influence. Through its artist in residence program, Portia was introduced to Caitlin Oliver, an environmentalist from Canada. This chance meeting turned into a year-long project together, and the Green Apple Foundation was born.
Green Apple is an independent, not-for-profit social enterprise that aims to help the hospitality industry in Cartagena handle waste and natural resources. As word about the foundation spread, other local businesses and even international organisations signed up to support Green Apple and adopt their sustainable business practices, such as reducing landfill waste, creating more jobs in sustainability and encouraging greener habits for business owners, customers, and suppliers.
Today, the Green Apple Foundation has already achieved a number of impressive milestones, such as starting the first large-scale glass-recycling operation on the Caribbean Colombian coast, converting 1,700 litres of cooking oil to biofuel, collecting more than 250,000 bottles to reuse and recycle, diverting over 100 tons of waste from landfill — plus many more.
The path to a sustainable future
“We need activists, but they alone cannot change our future. It has to be much bigger than that, we all need to get involved,” Portia says. “The word ‘sustainable’ shouldn’t just apply to travel, rather to everything. Our lives and times have changed, and everything we do has an impact. Making changes to your everyday life and thinking consciously about how you’re affecting the environment will make a difference, however small. Imagine the combined difference if millions of us make those changes. And when it comes to travel, don’t you want to make sure your favourite destinations remain just as beautiful for travellers 100 years into the future?”
How to travel more sustainably
Sustainability isn’t just about being green. Green Apple considers four key pillars when establishing sustainable practices: environmental responsibility, economic prosperity, social justice, and cultural vibrancy. For travellers who want to explore and experience more sustainably, Portia recommends thinking about how you’re impacting each of these pillars, wherever you go. A few questions to ask yourself to better assess your impact:
- Does the place you’re eating, drinking or sleeping in have environmentally friendly policies, and are they actually acting on them? If not, look for a greener option that’s having a more positive impact on the environment.
- Does the property or location you’re staying feel culturally aware? Does it integrate well with the local community, or does it feel out-of-place? Is the staff local? If a place feels out of touch with the local culture, perhaps it’s worth considering a destination where you can really integrate and interact.
- Am I speaking up? Hotels and businesses appreciate constructive feedback from their clientele, so if you have suggestions or questions about sustainable practices, it’s worth asking. And if you notice something, such as a leaky faucet, reporting this to reception could mean reducing water waste.
Looking ahead to the future
While they’re ahead of many other nearby hotels, Portia says she doesn’t ever feel like their efforts are enough, and that they are always trying to do more.
“What we’re doing now is probably about 5% of what we should be doing,” says Portia. “We are never done, but our method is to try to inspire those around us — our colleagues, our competitors, our clients, our community — to change with us, rather than scare or lecture people into doing it, or to go it alone.”
In 2020, the Green Apple Foundation is fundraising to build a workshop where their team of eight glass artisans (all women) can work and learn safely, transforming waste bottles into souvenirs and objets d’art.
At Blue Apple, the team is implementing a solar plan to help small businesses switch to solar power, as well as creating a strategy for more effective water recycling and greywater management. The new sustainability manager will also be reviewing their entire supply chain — especially products such as furniture, meat, vegetables, toiletries, and sunscreen — to assess suppliers and their environmental impact, so they can tell patrons exactly where everything in the hotel comes from, and guarantee that these things were sourced sustainably.
They also have exciting plans to create a boutique shop within the hotel in which every single product is locally made with responsible materials and manufacturing.
Experience Blue Apple Beach House for yourself
As one happy guest put it, “In Cartagena, there are a lot of offers for beach excursions, but none — and I mean none — compare to Blue Apple Beach House.”
Or just get involved
Whether it’s by spreading awareness, choosing reusable products, or staying in hotels that promote an eco-aware business model, every effort counts.
“I never considered myself an eco-warrior and still don’t,” Portia says. “I get all sorts of things wrong every day, but the feeling of getting a few things right is inspiring and much better than feeling guilty all the time. Do what you can, when you can, if you can, is how I view it.