Colombia has finally begun to secure a reputation as a safe, if somewhat off-the-beaten track destination. Two decades have past since the dark days of Pablo Escobar and the associated drug-related violence of the early 90’s. Modern Colombia is thriving with its strong economic and political ties to North America. The tourist cities feel safer than ever before and the country is populated by some of the most laid back, friendly people in the South American continent. Quite amazing considering their recent, turbulent past.
Aside from the modern and vibrant capital city of Bogota, Colombia has a host of intriguing places for the more adventurous tourist. Visit the coffee triangle around the cities of Manizales, Armenia and Pereira. Take a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride through the dimly lit, cobblestone streets of colonial Cartagena. Relax on some of the remote beaches of the Tayrona National Park, located close to the Venezuelan border. Colombia is also home to hidden gems such as the small town of Villa de Leyva. As the witty tourism ministry slogan explains ‘El riesgo es que te quieres quedar’ – ‘The only risk is wanting to stay’.
Here are some highlights from my recent trip to Colombia…
I arrived in Bogota with pre-conceptions about the security situation and conjuring images of gun-toting drug lords. With hindsight, I couldn’t have been more misinformed. Having checked into my hotel in the upmarket Zona Rosa district of the city, I took the funicular to the summit of Monserrate where you can have lunch whilst enjoying unrivaled views of the Colombian capital. After returning back to the city centre, I visited La Candelaria district where there is a high concentration of government buildings and interesting streets. One of my favourite stops was the museum of famous Colombian figurative artist, Fernando Botero. Botero is famous for accentuating the fullness of his subjects.
Having spent a couple of days in the capital, I took an early morning Avianca flight to the northern coastal city of Cartagena. Cartagena is a former hub of the Spanish empire in the 16th Century, and was an important shipping port of the wealth from the New World to Spain. Cartagena is now arguably the number one place to visit in Colombia as it oozes history, colonial charm and is the perfect setting for a romantic getaway. I spent most of my time in the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town which is surrounded by stone walls enclosing several blocks and hundreds of charming colonial homes – many of which have colorful flowers hanging from their balconies. I like my architecture so I felt like a kid in a candy store. The famous Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez has a house in the city. His home is right next to the Sofitel Santa Clara hotel which is worth a visit even if you are not a paying guest! The hotel was used to film part of ‘Love In The Time of Cholera’ – associated with a Marquez book by the same name.
Santa Marta & Tayrona National Park
From Cartagena I made the road trip along the coast to the city of Santa Marta. My favorite excursion was to the 17th Century Hacienda ‘La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino’ which is famous for being the place where South American liberator Simon Bolivar died. A little further along the coast towards the border with Venezuela, I found what can only be described as a hidden gem, an off-the-beaten track paradise. The Tayrona National Park is set in a mountainous region flanked by rugged beaches. I camped in the park for a number of nights although the Ecohabs offer a more comfortable way to stay. There are not many tourists or locals around so it really is a great place to forget about your woes!