Colourful Colombia

By | Category: Travel destinations

Kaye Holland finds heaven in Colombia – a country that is finally getting the attention it deserves

It’s been nearly 22 years since Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar was shot dead in December 1993. However judging by the concerned reactions I received upon announcing my intention to ‘check out’ Colombia – “Must you go on your own?” implored my Mum, while colleagues cried “Be careful!” – it seems that this colourful country, situated at the tip of South America, still suffers from a shady reputation.

But just because it was, doesn’t mean it is. Colombia may have once been associated with cocaine and kidnapping but fast forward to 2015 and it’s as safe as any South American destination, accessible – in only two weeks you can revel in an overload of experiences – utterly invigorating and full of friendly locals who will bend over backwards to help you. Better still, your budget will go a long way here – even in Bogota, Colombia’s capital city.

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Coffee, Colombia style

Chances are that Bogota will be first your introduction to  Colombia and as greetings go, it’s a memorable one. Often called the Athens of South America, Bogota will take your breath away – literally. The mega metropolis is situated at some 2,600m meaning altitude sickness is a reality for rolos (as residents are known) and gringos (foreigners) alike.

Bogota will take your breath away. Literally

Bogota will take your breath away. Literally

The tourist must-see is The Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) – home to the largest collection of pre-Colombian gold artefacts in the world. English and Spanish language descriptions tell the story of these objects through the eyes of those who created them, with additional information available on English audio guides.

After you’ve finished gawping at the gold, pop across to Plaza de Bolívar – the literal and metaphorical heart and soul of Colombia – to see the statue of famous South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, who helped Colombia achieve  independence from the Spanish Empire. The pretty Plaza is also the gateway to the bohemian neighbourhood of La Candelaria – a wonderful example of colonial architecture in Latin America. Expect to see charming cobblestoned streets lined with neoclassical churches (the Catedral Primada de Colombia gets my vote) and convents, quaint cafes, tea houses and theatres straight from the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez (aka Colombia’s most famous son) novel.

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Lovely La Candelaria

Tempting though it is to stay within the labyrinth like La Candelaria, it’s worth escaping to Cerro de Monserrate which, at 3,200m, dominates Bogota’s skyline. You can reach the summit via funicular railway, cable car or – energy permitting – via a trail that starts alongside the base station. But be warned: it’s a steep hike to the top because the basilica – step forward the Santuario de Monserrate – has been a site of pilgrimage since the mid 1600s. To enjoy unrivalled views of the city with the rolos – for whom the mountain is a symbol of pride – climb Cerro de Monserrate at weekends. And allow plenty of time: it’s easy to while away an afternoon here browsing the shops and stalls for souvenirs, and sampling Colombian cuisine at one of the many mountain-side restaurants. One caveat: it gets chilly at the top of the mountain – even in summer – so pack a jumper. And a brolly – rain is frequent in Bogota.

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Seek out the Salt Cathedral

Approximately 50km (roughly an hour’s drive) north of Bogota, the Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral – one of the wonders of South America – also rewards a visit. Opened in 1995 to much fanfare, the famous cathedral compromises an immaculately preserved collection of tunnels, chambers, stalactites and cascadas – all carved out of salt. Even if you’re aren’t religious, it’s a wonderful example of what can happen when engineering power and unbridled imagination collide.

Back in Bogota, head out for a gourmet dinner (modern day Bogota is a world class restaurant capital too) at a legendary restaurant like Andres Carne de Res, a 2.76 miles square steakhouse. Accommodating up to 2,000 people, the 19 page menu is popular with Bogota’s bright young things.

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Salsa time!

But every rolo loves to salsa and you can join them – it’s what Shakira would want – on the dance floor in the one of the many salsa clubs that line La Zona Rosa (which literally translates as pink zone). If, being a stiff upper lip Brit, you’re dreading the dancing bit, steady the nerves with a few slugs of aguardiente – a local alcohol spirit flavoured with anise. Trust JAT: after a couple of shots, you’ll soon find yourself shimmying and shaking with the best of them.

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Aguardiente – a much local alcohol spirit flavoured with anise

When the hustle and bustle of Bogota gets too much (as it will) board a bus to Salento – aka the heart of Colombia’s Coffee Zone. For while Colombia is synonymous with another substance beginning with ‘C’, the country is actually the world’s third biggest exporter of coffee.

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Stunning Salento

As a self confessed caffeine addict I was, ahem, full of beans about the prospect of visiting central Colombia’s coffee plantations – and even opted to stay on one. Take a bow Plantation House – the tiny town’s first and most reputable hostel where you can get the wow without the ow. Plantation House was set up by Tim – an amiable Englishman who swapped the grey shores of the UK for Salento, some 11 years ago.

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Get the wow without the ow by staying at The Plantation House

Tim met and married a Colombian lady called Chris but, amor aside, I can see why he’d want to stay. Standing at 1895m tall with a population of 5,000, Salento is fast becoming a popular backpacker hangout – everywhere that isn’t a home, is a hostel, a hippie cafe or craft shop – yet simultaneously manages to serve as a perfectly preserved example of Colombian country life. Pastel painted houses are packed around cobbled squares, which still work as public spaces and draw the locals in every evening to play billiards, sip aguardiente and refuel on rice pudding.

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Tim and Christina can arrange guided tours of local coffee farms including their own –  step forward Finca Don Eduardo. English tours take place with Tim every morning at 9am and allow an insight into the various stages of the coffee production process, as well as providing an opportunity to taste no fewer than four varietals of coffee: Caturra, Variety Colombia, Arabico Tipica and Bourbon.

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Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

To read the second part of Kaye’s Colombia article, don’t forget to log onto the Just About Travel website tomorrow!

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