Ten years ago, Colombia was the kidnapping country of the world, and its second largest city, Medellin, was the murder capital of the world. When I made my first of many journeys to South America ten years ago, I was warned not to go to Colombia. Ten years ago, people who rode with their arms sticking out of a cab and would get their jewelery or watches stolen. I’d also heard of tourists and over innocent family members being taken from their streets and held in captivitiy.
Ten years ago, Colombia was a different place: a crime-ridden, drug-infested nation with a bad reputation for danger. However, when Alvaro Uribe took office back in 2002, the country quickly turned around. Within a few years, the drug cartel and paramilitary threats to civilian safety were halved — and when I stepped foot on Colombian soil in 2007 I was both curious about what the country had to offer and also wary of the threats and potential danger that still lurked.
What I came to find that winter, however, was a country full of vibrant life and rich in natural resources and wonderfully travel-worthy destinations. From its Sierra Nevada mountain range to its Caribbean-induced coastal towns like Cartagena, and the salsa-infused cities of Medellin and Cali as well as the coffee rich cloud forests near Bogota, Colombia has months worth of amazing travel delights.
Here is a sampling of some of the Colombia’s top travel itineraries:
Treasure Hunt: With its pirate past, pre-Colombian history, and indigenous presence, Colombia has some of the most fascinating cultural and archaeological sites in South America. Traveling through this country can be like embarking on a treasure hunt. To ground yourself in Colombia’s rich past, begin your journey in Bogotá, visiting such emblematic museums as the Museo Nacional, Museo del Oro, and Donación Botero. Hop on a bus and head one hour north to Zipaquirá, where the nation’s largest supply of salt is found in a mine so immense that, in 1995, a cathedral was erected underground, inside the mine. The world’s largest underground cross is here. Next stop: Villa de Leyva, a short four hours farther north, where a fascinating pre-historic alligator is on display in the Museo Paleontológico. The Saturday market in town is also a colorful sight to behold. Make your way southwest now by bus or plane to Popayán, which only a few years ago was named one of the world’s gastronomical centers. Here, delight yourself in tasty Colombian cuisine, or try out the Italian, French, and vegetarian restaurants around this gorgeous white city. Two hours away is adorable Silvia, where on Tuesdays you will find a fantastic indigenous market full of traditional wares and goods. Head to Tierradentro from here. One of Colombia’s most fascinating pre-Colombian burial tombs are found under the ground. Spend at least one full day touring many of these cave-like tombs still have their original colorful decorations. Finish your treasure hunt in San Agustín, exploring its gorgeously preserved Parque Archaelógico, where life-size zoologic statues protect burial mounds on the hillside.
Hips Don’t Lie: Shakira, Colombia’s very own pop-rock queen, says it best in her salsa-enfused song, “I am on tonight and my hips don’t lie and I am starting to feel it’s right. The attraction, the tension. Baby, like this is perfection.” Colombia is a lively center for nightlife and pure fun. It’s not too surprising if you’ve come here more for play than for cultural exploration. If that’s the case, head to the country’s major cities for a taste of the good life: Latin dance and clubbing. You might as well start off in what many consider the Latin American capital of salsa dancing – Cali. Avenida Sexta is full of crazy Vegas-like salsa bars and clubs. The Cali girls, many say, are the prettiest in the country. However, Medellín girls are a bit more sophisticated and this city, the second-largest in Colombia, really knows how to throw a party. The Zona Rosa in El Poblado lights up at night, and foam parties or other crazy, late-night antics are a part of weekend nightlife. If you’re looking for something with a more colorful, Caribbean flair, then you won’t have to look any farther than Cartagena. The best bars and clubs are found along Avenida del Arsenal. If you timed your visit right and are in the area in January, then bus your way to Barranquilla for the city’s crazy four-day Carnaval. With just a little more energy left in that dancing body of yours, head to Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. The city’s really modern and hip Zona Rosa in the north is packed with chic lounges, bars, and clubs.
A Country of Contrasts:
Colombia is certainly a country of contrasts. You may find yourself paragliding off an an enormous mountain one day and sunbathing on the beach the next. If you’re searching for a blend of both, try some of these pairings:
- Desierto Tatacoa & Isla Gorgona - Do you prefer dry or wet conditions? You’re in luck, because Colombia offers both extremes. Tatacoa offers a rare glimpse of dry desert with cactus, sand, and wildflowers, while Isla Gorgona, the country’s largest Pacific island, is covered with lush, tropical rainforest and humpback and sperm whales can be spotted.
- Salento & Coveñas – Both of these small towns are perfectly secluded, and offer tourists with privacy, but in very different settings. In Salento, visitors delight in the crisp air and gorgeous Valle de Cocora, where the hillside is dotted with “palmas de cera,” the Colombia’s tall, skinny national tree. Then, in Coveñas, the warm, tropical beach is yours for the taking.
- Ciudad Perdida & Parque Tayrona – Three full days of hiking in the northern Sierra Nevada will take you to an abandoned pre-Colombian town in the clouds, Ciudad Perdida, or the “Lost City.” At 1000 meters above sea level, tourists who have endured the trek will bask in the glory of old times. Then, at sea level, on the way back to Santa Marta is the equally lovely and relaxing Parque Tayrona, another home to the Tayrona Indians, set in calm bays and palm trees.
- San Gil & Barichara – One of the country’s centers for eco-adventure is San Gil, where repelling, whitewater rafting, and paragliding over the stunning Chicamocha Canyons shouldn’t be missed. Just twenty minutes by bus from San Gil is the sleepy colonial town of Barichara, where the buildings are perfectly painted white with green trim and walking along the cobblestone streets, listening to the patter of horse hooves and observing the men donned in cowboy boots and bush knives leaves little to the imagination of how life used to be.
- Leticia & Providencia – The most extreme of contrasts is the immense Amazon jungle setting in Leticia with the small, Caribbean island life in Providencia. There’s nothing more Colombian about both: in Leticia, you laze around in small villages camped along the Amazon River; in Providencia, you walk or bike your way around, chatting it up with locals. The opportunity to interact with locals abound, and both are great ports to further exploration of Latin America: Leticia borders both Brazil and Peru and Providencia is a very short plane ride to Nicaragua.
The best places to begin and/or end your journey to Colombia would have to be the cities of Bogota and Cartagena. These are the two major international ports that service Avianca flights from all over South America and abroad. If possible, try to fly into one airport and out of the other. Then, depending on your preferred type of travel, head along the Chicamoya canyons to experience the best of Colombia’s natural scenery or through the Zona Cafetera, stopping along the countries biggest cities for a more urban experience.