Only a decade ago Colombia was a place for the hardy, or some would say foolhardy, visitor, but recent years have been ringing in the changes in this north-western corner of the South American continent. Here, Anna Maria Espsäter explores capital Bogotá, second city Medellín and the nearby Coffee Zone, as well as the colonial heartland of the northeast and adventure sports destination San Gil
There’s no getting away from the fact that Colombia used to have a bad name and the country’s less than favourable reputation has been hard to shed, but recently there’s been quite a revolution taking place – we’re not talking political takeovers here, but rather a revolution in tourism. Less than a decade ago a mere handful of tour operators offered tours to Colombia from the UK – today there’s a wide choice of over 50 operators and given what the country has to offer this isn’t surprising. Colombia is one of the most varied and interesting in all of South America: the only country with Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, abundant wildlife rivalled only by Brazil, landscapes ranging from arid desert to lush rainforest. Crucially, Colombia has also become far safer than it used to be and all the major areas of interest to travellers are now deemed safe to visit. The usual precautions when travelling are advised, particularly in bigger cities and it’s best to take extra care in border areas, but for the most part Colombia has vastly improved its safety record. The author lost her credit card in Medellín, only to get it back, unused, a week later, by the kind people who found it.
Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, can come across as a bit overwhelming at first, with some eight million people crammed into its metropolitan area, but it’s well worth a visit for its stunning location, surrounded by the Andes, and for its old town, La Candelaria. Bogotá was founded by the Spaniards in 1538 and La Candelaria is one of Latin America’s best preserved historical centres, replete with colonial architecture. Although fairly touristy by now, La Candelaria is comparatively quiet, as the streets here are narrower and don’t hold as many cars as other parts of Bogotá. The main square, Plaza de Bolívar, flanked by the vast cathedral and other impressive buildings, is a good place to start a walking tour of the old town. Many of the city’s churches, palaces, museums (including the famous Gold Museum, Museo de Oro with over 35,000 gold objects) and other sights are crammed into La Candelaria and it’s possible to spend several days in this part alone before running out of noteworthy buildings to explore inside and out, but one day is enough to scratch the surface at least.
Bogotá sprawls and not all areas are of interest to the visitor, but one must-see is the sanctuary atop the hill of Monserrate, reached by cable car or funicular railway. This shrine and pilgrimage site has some of the best views in Colombia, stretching far and wide across the capital from its 3,152 m vantage point. For a very different Bogotá, ultra modern, posh and pricey neighbourhoods Zona T (Zona Rosa) and Parque 93, have the latest in fashion, food and fancy bars. While in the capital, don’t’ miss the wondrous Zipaquirá salt cathedral, just outside Bogotá. Carved underground, inside a salt mine, it’s one of only two such cathedrals in existence (the other is in Poland).
Medellín and La Zona Cafetera
Second city, Medellín, has a very different vibe from Bogotá. The former hometown of the infamous drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar has transformed itself into a liveable, likeable city, since his heyday in the 1980s. These days it’s best known for its flower festival, taking place in August, and for the remarkable sculptures donated to the city by Medellín-born figurative artist Fernando Botero. It’s one of few cities in Colombia that has an excellent mass transit system, el Metro, connecting many parts of the city and making it easy to get around. Places worth visiting include Plaza de las Esculturas (Plaza Botero), home to Fernando Botero’s proportionally exaggerated ladies, gentlemen and animal sculptures, taking over most of the square; the beautiful Joaquin Antonio Uribe botanical gardens with its abundance of orchids; the area of El Poblado, the city’s best place for nightlife, with excellent restaurants and bars. These days it’s also possible to take a Pablo Escobar tour of Medellín. Not everybody’s cup of tea perhaps, but it does give interesting insights into more troubled times in the city’s recent history.
A few hours south of Medellín by coach or car lies the heartland of Colombian coffee culture and some of the finest landscapes in all the nation. La Zona Cafetera, or the Coffee Zone, as it’s known, stretches through three of the country’s 32 departments, Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío, nestled amidst rolling, green hills, giving the area a remarkably Alpine character. The lower slopes of the Andes are prime coffee-growing country and this is the place to find out all about coffee culture. It’s possible to stay on a coffee finca (farm), take a coffee tour and of course sample the black liquid that is the area’s raison d’être. The towns and villages here are often colourfully painted and have some of the prettiest architecture in Colombia. Salento, in Quindío department, is a lovely village to stay in and it also gives access to nearby Los Nevados national park, home to several volcanoes. Valle de Cocora, where Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm, grows in abundance, lies a few miles south.
The Northeast – Boyacá and Santander
Two departments northeast of Bogotá, Boyacá and Santander, deserve a visit, home as they are to some of the country’s finest colonial architecture and yet more stunning natural landscapes. Tunja, capital of Boyacá, sits atop a steep hill and is worth a visit for its well-preserved buildings surrounding the main square, including Casa del Fundador, an original 16th century conquistador mansion, right next to the cathedral. The real gem in these parts, however, is the small colonial town of Villa de Leyva (also spelled Leiva), reached from Bogotá by bus via Tunja. It looks somewhat unassuming at first, but this little town has a distinct claim to fame – its 14,000 sq m main plaza is reputedly the largest cobbled square in Latin America and it’s appeared in films as well as books (Cobra Verde by Werner Herzog and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, among others). Surrounded by stark, white buildings, it’s an eerie sight to behold, especially at sunset, when the shifting colours play across it, slowly turning the bright whites a gentle shade of mauve. There are many quaint cafes and artisans’ shops in the old colonial buildings near the square and several places of interest nearby, including a fossil museum, a convent and a 16th century windmill.
Continuing northeast, the department of Santander has successfully turned itself into a centre for adventure sports and outdoorsy activities. The town of San Gil is the main hub and the place to organise everything from abseiling and caving, to rafting, paragliding or horseback riding. Rivers Fonce and Chicamocha run through deep gorges in this area, making it ideal for rafting and other river activities. The Chicamocha canyon is particularly worth a stop for spectacular views, although recently opened Chicamocha national park (PANACA) is more of a theme park than anything else and the views are just as good from the road. While in the area, don’t miss Barichara, voted prettiest town in Colombia. Although that is perhaps an exaggeration, it is undoubtedly a very lovely-looking little town, with its white, blue and green painted houses, picturesque squares and impressive churches.
The above is just a brief introduction to all that Colombia has to offer in terms of landscapes, cities and culture to explore. Don’t forget to log onto CD-Traveller on April 25 to read part two of the guide which will look at Cartagena and the Caribbean coast, the Pacific coast, salsa capital Cali and the South, as well as the Colombian Amazon.
NEED TO KNOW
There are currently no direct flights from the UK to Colombia, but a number of airlines fly via Europe or the U.S. including national carrier Avianca (www.avianca.com), Air France (www.airfrance.co.uk) and Delta (www.delta.com).
Colombia is by no means a small place and the Andes stretching the length of the country can make travel by road a slow experience. Domestic flights are a good way to get around if pushed for time. Airlines such as Easyfly (www.easyfly.com.co), COPA Airlines Colombia (www.copaair.com) and Satena (www.satena.com) can be booked online and often have good deals. There is also an extensive network of long and short distance buses.
Places to stay
Bogotá: Casa Playtpus, www.casaplatypus.wix.com
Medellín: The Blacksheep, www.blacksheepmedellin.com
Salento: Plantation House, www.theplantationhousesalento.com
Coffee Finca: Hacienda Venecia, www.haciendavenecia.com
Barichara: Greengoes Guesthouse, www.greengoestravel.com