With sophisticated cities, a fascinating history, super-friendly people, and natural assets that encompass everything from the Azure waters of the Caribbean to the snowcapped peaks of the Andes, Colombia truly is the sleeping giant of Latin America.
Despite being the second most populous country in South America, and covering almost as much area as Peru, Colombia is still relatively undiscovered as a travel destination. The country owes much of its obscurity to its troubled 20th century past, but now that the violencía is well and truly over, Colombia’s welcoming and sophisticated people have their eyes fixed firmly on the future (when they’re not dancing, that is).
There’s never been a better time to uncover Colombia’s many wonders. As a 2008 government-sponsored TV campaign put it: The only risk is that you’ll want to stay…
Read on for a few of the greatest hits. Choosing only four spots to highlight was such a challenge that we’ll almost certainly be writing a follow-up to this travel journal sometime soon.
Colombia’s high-altitude (8,675 feet) capital has long boasted some wonderful colonial architecture, an incredibly vibrant array of fruit and flower markets (there’s even one market where you can buy fresh herbs at 2am!), and several world-class museums. But in the 20 years since Colombia started opening up to the world, Bogotá has added to these on-paper charms an infectious and cosmopolitan urban energy. The city has become, one resident told me, “a real capital where there’s always something to do … even on a Tuesday night.” Bogotá, which is home to people from all corners of Colombia, is a wonderful introduction to the rich and welcoming tapestry that is Colombian life.
Bogota is Colombia's high-altitude capital gem.
A walking tour of the well-preserved historic center is an absolute must. Established in 1538, Bogotá has some serious buildings (the cathedral on Plaza de Bolívar is quite something) and some gorgeously atmospheric colonial-era neighborhoods, not least the cobblestoned treasure trove that is La Candelaria. The graffiti scene – painting walls is not illegal so Bogotá has attracted some big names – is also fascinating.
When it comes to museums, you cannot miss the Gold Museum which, with over 55,000 artefacts from all of Colombia’s major pre-Hispanic cultures, is the largest and most important collection of gold in the world. The Botero Museum, which celebrates Colombia’s most famous painter and sculptor is another. You will have come across countless reproductions of his chubby dancers and dictators but seeing them in the flesh (pun intended) is a real treat.
Bogota features on all of our most popular Colombia itineraries.
Since the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s when Pablo Escobar and others made Medellín the epicenter of the drug wars, Colombia’s second city has undergone a stupefying makeover. Granted, the City of Eternal Spring did have ‘good bones’ – its location in a delightfully temperate valley surrounded by jagged peaks is pretty special, and its resourceful and welcoming people are surely its greatest asset. But it’s still hard to fathom just how pleasant Medellín, boasting a slick metro and a groundbreaking cable car system which has empowered the poorer communities on its outskirts, has become. With a thriving coffee scene, fantastic restaurants, delightful public spaces, and a buzzing nightlife, it’s the kind of place that has you reaching for the real estate listings.
The City of Eternal Spring is a well-earned nickname for Medellin.
As the world’s largest exporter of cut flowers and a hotbed of street art, music, and dance, Medellín is colorful in every sense of the word. Every August, the city plays host to an incredible parade of floral sculptures – but you can visit the silleteros to see how they turn flowers into art at any time of year. The same goes for Comuna 13 – once the most dangerous part of the world’s most dangerous city, but now a hive of socially conscious street art, breakdancing, and musical expression. This creative outburst is heartwarming proof that the people of Comuna 13 have chosen to look forward rather than back … And they would appreciate it if you do the same on your visit to this sprawling hillside (expect lots of stairs on your walking tour) conurbation.
Medellín is also the birthplace of Fernando Botero. Although the city does have a museum dedicated to his works, his sculptures are so ubiquitous that you almost don’t have to bother (especially if you’ve been to the Botero Museum in Bogotá).
Visit Medellín on our nine-day Bogota to Medellin & Cartagena tour.
Cartagena de Indias, with its emblematic fruit sellers and ubiquitous music, is one of the most gorgeous cities on the planet. Hemmed in by eight miles of centuries-old stone walls, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Old Town is more about soaking up the balmy, bougainvillea-bedecked atmosphere than it is about ticking off individual sights. And who better to give a précis of the enduring allure and mystery of the city than Gabriel Garcia Márquez himself?
In the eighteenth century, the commerce of the city had been the most prosperous in the Caribbean, owing in the main to the thankless privilege of being the largest African slave market in the Americas. It was also the permanent residence of the Viceroys of the New Kingdom of Granada, who preferred to govern here on the shores of the world’s ocean rather than in the distant freezing capital under a centuries-old drizzle that disturbed their sense of reality…
Love in the Time of Cholera
Caribbean romance awaits within the walls of Cartagena.
There were also more prosaic reasons for the Viceroys’ choice of base. Most of the gold and silver mined by the Spanish crown passed through Cartagena on its way back to Europe, making the city a perennial target for pirates and privateers. The city walls and the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas were built out of defensive necessity, not to indulge modern travelers!
It goes without saying that a city this fabulous has a truly dazzling collection of boutique hotels. Not least the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, a former convent that combines high touch rooms, facilities, and service with a 400-year history that seeps all the way down into the crypts which now house the hotel bar. (Witnessing the exhumation of a corpse said to have “22 meters of flowing ginger hair” from these selfsame crypts was the inspiration for Márquez’s novel Of Love and Other Demons.)
Suffice to say that once Cartagena, with its fabulous bars and restaurants and thriving Caribbean and slave culture (learn more about this on a day trip to one of the nearby communities), has seized you in its clutches, you’ll have a hard time escaping. Not that this is a bad thing…
Cartagena features on all of our most popular Colombia itineraries.
Tayrona National Natural Park, which is accessed via an exceedingly picturesque five-hour drive from Cartagena, combines splendid nature with a still-thriving indigenous culture and fantastic ruins. While some choose to stay in the regional capital of Santa Marta (Cartagena’s baby sister and a great lunch stop), we highly recommend basing yourself in one of the elegantly rustic eco-lodges on the fringes of the national park.
Tayrona cuts a delectable cross section through the wild topography of northern Colombia – the region upon which Márquez’s fictional magnum opus One Hundred Years of Solitude is based. Where else can you snorkel in the coral-rich waters of the Caribbean, laze on a palm-fringed beach, and explore a mega-diverse jungle habitat while gazing upon (or hiking up!) the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (the world’s highest coastal mountain range)?
Tayrona's aptly-named Lost City.
As if this isn’t enough, the park has an extremely important archeological past. There are major ruins at Pueblito (an old Tayrona village with a number of terrace dwellings) and Ciudad Perdida (aka The Lost City, an incredible site that’s sometimes compared to Machu Picchu). The only snag is that Pueblito is currently off-limits to the public (due to a request from the Kogui community for whom the site is sacred), and Ciudad Perdida can only be visited as part of a five to six-day guided trek … Or seen from above on a chopper flip if you’re up for a splurge.
What makes visiting even more fascinating is the fact that descendants of the Tayrona people, one of South America’s greatest pre-Columbian civilizations, still call the park home, and are heavily involved in the park’s management. No surprise then that community and village visits in Tayrona boast an authenticity that’s hard to match anywhere in the Americas.
Visit the Tayrona National Park on our nine-day Bogotá, Tayrona & Caribbean Nature tour.
This journal has barely scratched the surface of what Colombia has to offer. Stay tuned for the next instalment or, better still, discover the nation’s many marvels for yourself on one of our most popular Colombia itineraries.