It’s safe, it’s affordable, and it’s attracting travelers like never before. Colombia, the closest South American getaway to the United States, has seemingly appeared on just about every “hip new travel destination” list over the last few years, including the New York Times list of 31 Places to Go in 2010. So why is everyone raving about it? Here are ten reasons:
10. Medellin Named the world’s most dangerous city only two decades ago thanks largely to the exploits of Pablo Escobar, Medellin has cleaned up its act in a big way since the drug lord’s death in 1993. Nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, Medellin’s near-perfect climate, cosmopolitan atmosphere, and vibrant nightlife make it a must-visit Colombia destination.
If you can, schedule your trip so that you can witness Medellin’s one-of-a-kind Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) in early August. My fellow travelers who attended could not shut up about it. Check out Anthony Bourdain‘s thoughts on the city here.
9. Cartagena The word is out about Cartagena: it might just be the prettiest and best-preserved colonial city in South America.
Strolling the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, with its massive balconies covered in bougainvillea and church spires looming overhead, feels like something out of a fairy tale. If your significant other is overtaken by the city’s romance, take him or her to the Palace of the Inquisition to check out its vast collection of medieval torture instruments. That’ll stop all the marriage talk!
8. The food and drink Colombia does not have much of a culinary reputation, and in many small towns it’s not hard to figure out why. Much of the cuisine, as my trusty Lonely Planet notes, is “unseasond, unspiced food, prepared simply and ungarnished.” Exciting it is not. Fortunately, despite the blandness of some Colombian food, you’ll still find many things to tempt the ol’ tastebuds, like the ubiquitous arepas (buttery corn tortillas), patacones (plantains that are pressed flat and fried), exotic fruits like the lulo, and fresh fish on the coast. As the home of Juan Valdez, Colombia also serves up an above-average cup of coffee, unlike much of South America which relies almost exclusively on the execrable instant coffee Nescafe. Fresh, exotic fruit juice, or jugo, is widely available and incredibly tasty. Colombia’s national spirit is aguardiente, an anise-flavored white liquor that almost makes up for its godawful taste with its 29% alcohol content. Almost.
7. It’s safer thank you think! If you caught Ingrid Betancourt on Oprah the other day (hey, my remote was broken!), you might get the impression that Colombia’s still-dodgy reputation is well-deserved. Betancourt, you’ll remember, was the Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped by the guerrilla group FARC back in 2002 and held until 2008 when she was dramatically rescued by the Colombian military.
Yes, Colombia has long been associated with drug trafficking, kidnapping, guerilla groups, and violence, but those days are mostly behind it. Medellin, once the most dangerous city in the world with about 380 murders per 100,000 people, is now one of the safest cities in South America. The vast majority of Colombia’s dangerous areas lie in the country’s sparsely-populated eastern half, a region well off the tourist trail. (We didn’t go there and neither should you, with the exception of the Amazonian town Leticia.) Colombia’s big cities and small towns, as well as every attraction on this list, are as safe as anywhere in Latin America.
6. San Gil Far and away the adventure sports capital of Colombia, San Gil attracts travelers seeking cheap (and we mean cheap) thrills, whether it’s white-water rafting, paragliding, horseback riding, caving, or rappelling down a waterfall. The town itself, though admittedly short on culinary delights, is home to a pleasant tree-lined square which lies an easy walk from Parque El Gallineral, a beautiful ten-acre park perfect for an afternoon stroll.
5. Barichara For those travelers who are more Betty White than Bear Grylls, avoid the white-knuckle adventure (“these kids and their paragliding!”) and take a 45-minute bus ride from San Gil to the picturesque town of Barichara. This beautiful pueblo, with its cobblestone streets, colonial churches, and quaint cafés, makes a wonderful day-trip destination.
Its culinary scene is also surprisingly developed for a town of 10,000, with several restaurants offering regional dishes like cabro con pepitoria (goat with blood and organs) and the (in)famous hormigas culonas, giant ants that have been fried or roasted. Surprisingly tolerable!
4. Taganga Looking for a bargain-basement PADI course so you can finally learn what all the scuba diving fuss is about? Make your way to the fishing village of Taganga, where several operators offer four-day open water courses for about US$250. Taganga also makes a great base for trips to Tayrona National Park and Ciudad Perdida (see below), and as such, the town attracts gringo backpackers like moths to a flame. This means, among other things, that there are plenty of inexpensive and occasionally rowdy hostels in town, as well as some pretty good restaurants and coffee shops. Embrace your gringo-ness at the Swedish-owned Café Bonsai just a half-block from the waterfront. Cool music, tasty food, hot drinks, cocktail specials… Is there more to life?
3. Tayrona National Park Located on a small stretch of Caribbean coastline, this 93-square-mile national park offers an abundance of attractions for hikers, nature lovers and beach bums alike. Easily accessible from the towns of Santa Marta by bus or Taganga by boat, the park’s dense jungle leads to pristine white-sand beaches, some of the best in Colombia.
Spend lazy days bronzing on the beach and swimming in the warm Caribbean waters, or take advantage of extensive trails to see some of the park’s 300 species of birds and 770 species of plants. Swing yourself to sleep in a hammock at one of the many campgrounds in the park– just don’t forget the bug spray!
2. Bogotá More than just another noisy, crowded Latin American capital, Bogotá might just be the most pleasant surprise of your trip. Progressive and cosmopolitan, Bogotá was recently named the world’s third-most bike-friendly city after Amsterdam and Copenhagen. The original home of the now much-copied ciclovía concept, Bogotá closes 122 kilometers of roads to cars every Sunday for hundreds of thousands of cyclists to enjoy. Its walkable colonial neighborhood La Candelaria, home to the Plaza de Bolivar (pictured), boasts the world-class Gold Museum and the worthwhile Donación Botero, a museum with works by Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, as well as unknown dabblers like Picasso, Renoir, and Monet. La Candelaria is also a food-lover’s paradise, with top-notch international cuisine, tasty and inexpensive local fare, and scores of street vendors selling aromatica, a wonderfully addictive spiced hot tea.
1. Ciudad Perdida Accessible by a challenging five-day trek through the jungle, Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”) is, for me, Colombia’s top attraction. Dating from the 9th Century, Ciudad Perdida’s ruins were hidden for centuries beneath thick vegetation until grave-robbers discovered the site in 1973. But Ciudad Perdida is special not because of the ruins themselves, but because of the spectacular five-day hike required to get there. For more on this great hike, check out my recent should-have-been-award-winning Gadling piece on Ciudad Perdida.
For more wanderlust-inspiring articles about Colombia, check out a couple favorites from the Gadling vault: The rebirth of Medellin? and Coming attractions: Colombia. The New York Times has also been all over Colombia recently; check out their coverage here.
[All photos belong to the Colombia Board of Tourism or your humble correspondent]