Colombia, North West of South America, is a place that is perhaps best experienced to be believed. Before arriving, you’re warned of the dangers - usually by people that have never stepped foot in the country - and so you board your flight with nervous trepidation. Yes, Colombia has had its dark days. Rife with crime based on political upheaval and fuelled by a less-than-savoury drug-trade, Colombia was at one point a place best avoided. This is no longer true. In the last twenty years, the country has undergone a transformation that has seen it metamorphose into a bucket-list destination.
A gem of the Americas, Colombia is arguably the very best combination of all its Latin American neighbours. Its equatorial location makes for a varied landscape and climate – from dense Amazon jungle, pretty colonial towns and metropolitan hubs that loom way beyond the clouds to lush coffee valleys of the wildest green hues and tropical Caribbean sands.
The imposing landscape has managed to foster communities and allow their idiosyncrasies to mature into regional traits and traditions. The people of Colombia have developed strong regional identities, adding a distinct flavour and feel to each of the country’s hot-spots. Because of its complex history, Colombia has become a multi-ethnic melting pot. Most Colombians embody a mix of ethnic backgrounds. Before the Spanish arrived in 1499, the indigenous Muisca, Quimbaya and Tairona had the lay of the land. Since then, the Europeans descended in their hoards, bringing with them Africans during the slave trade years and Middle Eastern migrants too.
This melding of landscapes, ethnicities and cultures has made Colombia a traveller’s dream. From the laid-back living Costeños on the coast to the efficient and quick-witted Paisanos in the central valley regions, the Colombians are a varied bunch with one commonality: their philanthropy. Experiencing a golden-age of tourism, the Colombians are inquisitive and grateful of the burgeoning industry. ‘Gringos’ are affectionately welcomed. Ask for directions of any local in any part of the country, and they will most likely walk with you to your destination, asking questions in a whirl of indecipherable Spanish.
In Colombia, there’s no must-see tourist attraction – no Patagonia, Iguazu or Machu Picchu – to draw people by the thousands. Colombia’s main draw is the fact that it has no main draw. It’s a country that invites intrigue from every corner. A frenetic energy abounds from the Colombians. Vitality flows from the streets and into the jungles through the people. It’s this atmosphere and optimism in abundance that stays with you when you leave. It’s only then that you realise how different Colombia truly is.
Top 4 Colombian Hot-Spots
Tayrona National Park
Visit this jungle lined paradise for a taste of Costeño living. Perfectly positioned on the Caribbean coast near Santa Marta, Tayrona de los Indias was once home to the indigenous Tairona people of northern Colombia. Accessible by boat, on foot through the jungle, or on horse-back, this destination is a secluded oasis in one of the hottest parts of the country.
Hot Tip: Visit the panaderia near the lagoon at Arrecifes beach for a pain au chocolat like no other you have ever tasted. Freshly baked loaves of chocolate bread are made fresh in the mornings, keeping you full for the entire day.
Colonial Cartagena de Indias sits on the northern coast of Colombia. As well as being the perfect spot to access the white-sand beaches of the exotic Rosario Islands, Cartagena is a city of stunning architectural proportions. The old town of pastel-coloured Spanish colonial buildings is a dream for anyone with a camera. It has remained firmly rooted in its past and for this, has an enchanting nostalgia about it that is unrivalled.
Hot Tip: Hang out at Plaza de Trinidad in the evenings and immerse yourself in the lively local vibe. Street artists and performers come here to entertain the crowds of locals sipping on beer and sampling street food. The best burgers in town are also served up here.
Once infamous for being the most dangerous city in the world, Medellin has turned its fortunes around. Recently named as being one of the most innovative cities in the world – thanks to its transport links that include escalators that ascend from the valley into the surrounding mountainous regions - Medellin is probably the place that best displays the complete regeneration of Colombia. Squares once rife with crime have been transformed by art installations and musicians and artists fill up the local parks.
Hot Tip: Do not miss the Real City free walking tour. This is by far the best way to experience the real Medellin, taking you to the down-town spots that most would want you to avoid. The tour aims to reveal the truth of the city that many locals would prefer wasn’t told.
Sleepy Salento can be located in the coffee region of Colombia and is best known for its proximity to Valle de Cocora, or ‘The Valley of Palm trees’. This tiny Colombian town is surrounded by lush green vegetation – much of it tropical fruit and coffee plants – making it the perfect place for a serene get away in the heart of nature. Take a coffee tour and discover the process behind Colombia’s best blends and don’t miss the breath-taking Valle de Cocora.
Hot Tip: Hike your way to Valle de Cocora and take a trip to the hummingbird sanctuary en route for a brief respite. Here you can sample the Colombian delicacy of a steaming mug of hot chocolate, served up with cheese. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it...