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. Anna Maria Espsäter continues her exploration of this emerging South American tourism hotspot, looking at the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, salsa capital Cali and the south, followed by the Colombian Amazon
Caribbean Coast – Cartagena
Cartagena de Indias, as is its full name, is arguably the finest and best-preserved Spanish colonial old town in the Americas and that’s saying something. Founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1533, Cartagena’s strategic location along the Caribbean coast meant the Spaniards invested heavily in fortifying the city to keep pirates and invaders at bay. Today these formidable fortifications are some of Cartagena’s most visited sights. The beautiful architecture of the old town has been carefully protected and, in some cases, lovingly restored, over the centuries. During Colombia’s decades of trouble and strife, Cartagena languished as a quiet backwater, far from drug feuds and guerrilla activity, only to be rediscovered in recent times, by Colombians and visitors alike.
Vibrant and colourful, Old Cartagena is best explored on foot or by horse-drawn carriage, a popular option along the narrow streets. It’s good to take a day or two just to absorb the lively and friendly atmosphere. A good place to start is the clock tower, Puerta del Reloj, the principal entrance to the ‘inner city’ – old Cartagena was surrounded by a high wall, most of which is still intact and it’s possible to walk along its ramparts. Puerta del Reloj leads into Plaza de los Coches (from where many horse-drawn carriages set out), with pleasant arcades offering shade from the Caribbean sun. Adjacent lies Portal de los Dulces, not only selling sweets as the name proclaims, but also home to a lively bar scene, full of character(s) and Colombian rum, incidentally not at all bad. The Old Town centre is circular, which can be a bit disorientating, but since there’s hardly anywhere lovelier to lose one’s way, that’s really not a problem. At every turn there are 16th century convents, richly decorated noblemen’s mansions, brightly painted churches and scenic plazas. Although there are many ‘must-sees’, the nicest option is to simply forget all about them for awhile and follow your feet. Wherever you go, there willl be interesting sights and beautiful views with the Caribbean never far away. An excellent place to end the day is watching the sun set over the sea from Café del Mar, on the ramparts of the Baluarte de Santo Domingo.
Caribbean coast – Cartagena to La Guajira
Although there are several resorts and fishing villages heading west from Cartagena, towards Panamá, the majority follow the coast heading east. In and around Cartagena itself there are several beaches including Bocagrande, Bocachica, Boquilla and the nearby islands Islas de Rosario, reached by boat. Following the coast heading east, the first main centre, a few hours from Cartagena, is Barranquilla, a major working port best known for its spectacular carnival (held 1-4 March in 2014). Another hour or so along the coast lies the next sizeable port, Santa Marta, worth a visit not so much for the city itself, although it has some historic buildings, but rather to use as a base while exploring the area. Santa Marta has a number of good tour operators organising tours to nearby areas of interest including Tayrona national park, a tropical paradise with secluded beaches and quiet coves; La Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City), an ancient ruin dating back to 500 AD that can only be reached on a strenuous trek; and Aracataca, writer Gabriel García Márquez’s birthplace.
There are also pleasant beaches at nearby Rodadero and Taganga, the latter well-known for its diving. Continuing east to Riohacha, administrative capital of semi-autonomous La Guajira department, you enter a different Colombia altogether. It’s barren, it’s sparsely populated and once you’re off the beaten track, it’s quite magical. Reaching the very northernmost tip of South America, at Punta Gallinas, is one hell of a trek, by dirt roads and boat, but even though there’s “nothing” there, it’s worth the discomforts of the journey. Taroa sands, magnificent sand dunes à la Lawrence of Arabia, run all the way to the sea, where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean. The silence and solitude are quite frankly awe-inspiring in this remote spot. Just over a thousand visitors a year come this far for the experience of being at one with nature, miles away from modern entrapments. There is no public transport to get here, but several tour operators collaborating with the indigenous Wayúu, who inhabit these lands, organise tours and transportation.
Cali, the South and the Pacific Coast
After the desert landscape of La Guajira, the greenery of the lower Andes is a bit of a shock. The Andean mountain range stretches the length of Colombia and many of the main cities are situated in mountain valleys surrounded by mighty peaks. While Bogotá is the third highest capital in South America at 2,625 m and has a comparatively cool climate, and Medellín at 1,495 m is known as the ‘city of eternal spring’, southern city Cali, at 1,030m is hot, and in more ways than one too. Cali is the self-proclaimed salsa capital of the world and hot salsa music can be heard everywhere. The city’s bars and nightclubs pulsate to it, there are plenty of ‘salsadromes’ and places offering salsa lessons, in fact Cali is worth a visit for the full-blown salsa experience alone – the barrio of Juanchito is particularly good. The city also has some pretty colonial architecture and there’s another Gold Museum (Museo de Oro). Furthermore, Cali serves as a gateway to the Colombian Pacific, reached by bus, train or a short domestic flight. Buga, a well-known pilgrimage town with a splendid basilica, is worth a stop en-route to the coast.
Very different from its Caribbean counter part, the Pacific coast is wetter, greener and wilder, with interesting wildlife, including many species of reptile, several different types of whale and over 400 species of bird. Continuing south, the historic town of Popayán, founded in 1536, is another worthy stop, with many old-fashioned white-painted buildings, beautiful churches and interesting museums. The area surrounding the town has some lovely thermal hot springs open to the public for a spot of bathing. Situated halfway between two of Colombia’s most interesting archaeological sights, Popayán is a good base from which to organise excursions to both. Tierradentro, to the northeast, a pre-Columbian site of made-man burial caves is fascinating, as is San Agustín archaeological park to the southeast. Last, but not least, Colombia’s far south-eastern corner deserves a visit, despite being completely inaccessible by road. This is the Colombian Amazon, reached by boat, or most easily, by plane. Capital Leticia is the hub of the area and the main airport. Tours by boat can be organised from here to nearby Amacayacú national park, as well as to the Brazilian and Peruvian sides of the Amazon jungle.
This two-part guide only touches upon the main sights in Colombia and there is still plenty more to discover slightly off the beaten track – the volcanoes of the far south near Ecuador, the cowboy culture and haunting music of the Llanos, the quiet resorts of the northwest Caribbean, to mention a few. With more tour operators featuring Colombia and fewer safety issues than ever before, this is a great time to visit.
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. A few railway lines are in operation, but usually take longer than road transport.
Places to stay
Cartagena: La Passion Hotel, www.lapassionhotel.com
Punta Gallinas: Hospedaje Luz Mila, www.kaiecotravel.com
Cali: Casa Republicana, www.hotelcasarepublicana.com
Buga: Buga Hostel and Holy Water Ale Café, www.bugahostel.com