Colourful Colombia: part two

By | Category: Travel destinations

Kaye Holland finds heaven in Colombia – a country that is finally getting the attention it deserves, having swapped its troubles for tourism

Continued from yesterday

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When you’ve had too many cups of tinto (black coffee), shake off your caffeine jitters by venturing to the beautiful Valle de Cocora by Jimmy Jeep. Often described as a tropical version of Switzerland and famed for its palma de cera (wax palm), arriving at Cocora is akin to stepping into a fairytale. The scenery – all dramatic green mountains and picturesque pastoral fields  – is the stuff that landscape artists must kill for. There are no roads or shops and the only views you’re unlikely to see are high rise skylines and bright city lights, for Cocora is all about outdoor adventure. Make no mistake: nature and hiking aside, there’s not a lot to do here but then that’s the attraction. Valle de Cocora is the kind of place where everyone seems to have nothing to do except sit in the shade…

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Not so in Medellin – the city of Colombia’s proudest residents – whose hedonistic clubs are mentioned in the same breath as Berlin and Ibiza.

Scared by Medellin’s sinister reputation after watching Paradise Lost? (Hollywood recently released a romantic thriller about cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar, who famously played out his crimes in Medellin). Don’t be. Sure Medellín may have been off-limits once upon a time (as anyone who has seen the Benicio del Toro film or read Mark Bowden’s book, Killing Pablo can attest) but today Medellín  has emerged from the shadows of Bogota and Cartagena (more of later) and is very much back on the menu. So much so that if you weren’t au fait with the fact that Medellín was once the world’s murder capital, you’d never believe that the city was demonised for decades.

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Medellin has experienced a see of change in recent years – for the better – and people are living here now not because they have to, but because they want to. Take my Airbnb host Paul, an Essex boy, who gave up his home and job in Chelmsford to move to Medellín (via Bogota) and says, save for the Premier League, there’s not much he misses about his old life in England…

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Paul and the other paisas (residents) I met, waxed lyrical about Medellin’s metro system (the only one in Colombia) which they go to great lengths to keep spotlessly clean, the plethora of parks and gardens, year round spring like climate    not for nothing is Medellín nicknamed the ‘City of Everlasting Spring’ – and superlative shopping, dining and drinking options in the El Poblado barrio. Trust me: if good nightlife and shops filled with glittering goodies to make any magpie happy are your thing, you’ll dig this former international pariah. Other cities in Colombia may have more history, but nowhere delivers as much sheer, unadulterated fun as Medellin.

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Got an extra day to kill? Go to Guatapéa pretty lakeside town that’s within easy day tripping distance of Medellin. A popular weekend getaway for paisas, this little corner of Colombia is chock full of impossibly photogenic, pastel painted houses – if you really want to impress your Instagram followers, this is the place to do so.

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Then continue onto Cartagena – or Cartagena de Indias as it was originally, and romantically, called. Without a doubt Cartagena is one of the most beautiful and seductive places I’ve ever visited – think cobbled alleys, flower bedecked balconies (a prize is awarded every year for the most beautiful balcony), horse drawn carriages, statues (saluting the heroes who helped defend Catargena against British and French colonialists, pirates and ultimately from Spain) and elegant plazas, all of which combine to help the city maintain a unique unspoiled identity.

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You could spend days wandering around the walled old town – where every budget from top end to backpacker can find a home –  putting your bargaining skills to the test by purchasing sweets from El Portal de los Dulces (featured in Gabriel Garcia Maquez’s Love in the time of Cholera), before loosing yourself in a labyrinth of sights, sounds and smells.

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However determined to return home with a tan, I went in search of Playa Blanca – a beach about 20km south west of the city on Isla de Baru. It didn’t disappoint: all the trappings of mass tourism – the jet skis, banana boats and babble – were conspicuous by their absence. Instead I enjoyed a classic combination of white sand, turquoise seas and the smell of coconuts on the breeze, while being served ridiculously  cheap cocktails (it’s a fact that drinks taste better on a beach) by friendly vendors.

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I’d have happily stayed there forever, but a final night in Cartagena was calling. Fittingly it was a magical one full of fabulous food like Arepas de huevo (fried corn cakes filled with egg) and Papas rellenas (potato balls stuffed with cheese), mojitos and music, that had me pinching myself in disbelief: what was a little girl from hum drum Watford doing in colourful Colombia?

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The perfect mix of winter sun and loud and proud Latin culture, there is nowhere better to end the year – or start the new one – than Colombia, so pack away your prejudices. The only danger is wanting to stay – it’s just taken the world a while, to figure this out…

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

To read part one of Kaye’s Colombia article, please click here

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