Colombia’s Top Three…
There is something about Colombia that gets under your skin. ‘Colombia es Pasion’ boldly states one of their tourist board’s slogans and after spending just a few days there, it is hard to disagree. Writers, conquistadors and travellers alike have all fallen deliriously in love with this land over the years, yet with a lengthy guerrilla conflict and a reputation for drug production tainting its image, Colombia had fallen off the travel radar for a while…until now!
With the ink soon set to dry on a lasting peace deal between the government and the Farc rebels, and an educated and ambitious population emerging to take over, there has never been a better time to travel in Colombia. Snow-capped mountains, lost cities, wild jungles and the friendliest people in the world await you in this paradise-found. Now that the secret is out, make sure you buy your ticket as soon as possible and experience this extraordinary country while the magic is still in the air.
Drawing on some of my favourite experiences from various trips there, I have compiled my top three of the best things about Colombia, but please feel free to add your own at the end. Que te vayas bien!
- Popayan – This sleepy town in the south of Colombia is an absolute favourite of mine. Every house in the centre is painted pearl-white and with a church on every corner and a university on every street (so it seems!) Popayan is a smart, clean and appealing colonial choice.
- Cartagena – Not much more needs to be said about the most romantic destination in South America that hasn’t already been written in a thousand other heartfelt words. Certainly spend several days here to enjoy the architecture, history and seafood, and make sure to reserve a space on the military ramparts to watch the sun dip behind the Caribbean sea after a long day’s sightseeing, maybe even sipping a cocktail to take the heat off the day.
- Villa de Leyva – This charming colonial town is only a few hours to the north of Bogota and is well worth a visit to enjoy its cobbled plaza (maybe the biggest in South America), colonial restaurants and the surrounding hills. Rent a bike for the day and cycle through sleepy hamlets and farms, waving to everyone you pass and condemning yourself to a lifetime of nostalgia.
- La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) – A sweaty three day hike through winding forest trails and sloshing rivers will lead you to the ‘Lost City’ ; a huge complex of tumbled down ruins half-hidden by cloud and jungle creepers. A civilization once thrived here yet abandoned it to the Spanish Conquistadors. Forgotten for many years, it was ‘rediscovered’ by a local farmer in the 1970’s and it still remains a fabulous trip for anyone visiting South America. After the muddy trek back to civilization, relax on a pristine beach in Tayrona or Santa Marta and take in the sea breeze, swaying palm trees and Caribbean rhythm in this beautiful corner of Colombia.
- 2. Tierradentro – This curious and often overlooked historical area can only be reached via a bumpy and winding road through lush green hills to a valley unchanged in hundreds of years. A lot of mystery still surrounds the people that built the tombs and burial sites that dot the surrounding hills, yet the extraordinary scenery and the reflective tranquillity you get by wandering around the sites alone will make the journey worthwhile.
- 3. Bogota Gold Museum – One of the genuine highlights of Bogota, as well as one of the best museums in South America, the Museo del Oro in Bogota’s colonial district is a must-see. The intricate detail and stunning designs of the jewellery, swords, cutlery and costumes illustrates the astonishing skill and development of pre-Columbian America. A Tour of this museum can be combined with a visit to the Botero gallery as well as the various plazas and markets that make up the old district of Bogota.
- 1. Andres carne de res (Bogota/Chia) –This world famous restaurant/disco/experience is an absolute must when visiting Bogota. Sing and dance into the early hours before emerging into the cool morning air wearing random hats, badges and flags with a dozen new-found friends. The restaurant is decorated in whacky colours with hundreds of crazy pictures, drapings, sculptures and mirrors to entertain you, as well as enough beef steaks, salsa music and aguardiente to last you until the following Saturday night!
- 2. La Menga (Cali) – A vast, industrial area a short taxi ride from the centre is Cali’s party central, with neon nightclubs karaoke bars and all- night drinking dives! Don’t arrive until after midnight and dress smart if you want to visit the best clubs.
- 3. Parque Lleras (Medellin) – Famous with gringos and locals alike, this central strip is full of every type of bar, club and restaurant you can imagine. If you don’t have the mafia-mullet or funds to enter every establishment, just grab a bottle and watch every shape and colour of local life go strutting by.
Off the beaten track
- 1. Trekking in Boyaca – From verdant, rolling hills to jagged, snow covered peaks, Boyaca Province is a trekker’s paradise! It seems that the deeper you travel into this lost world of ponchos and ox-pulled ploughs, the further you go back in time. One of the top highlights of this amazing area is El Cocuy national park, where you can spend a week scrambling over icy passes and through boggy valleys before returning to the local town of Guican to join the cowboys crying into their beers to the mellifluous tones of Vallenato.
- Tatacoa Desert – A bizarre yet stunning desert of Martian landscapes of orange and red rock, carved and shaped by the weight of millennia stand like statues as you wander through the hundreds of twisting trails in this national park. The handful of Colombians that live out in this desert are always quick to offer a weary traveller a refreshing drink and a plate of delicious food. At night you can lay on your back and stare up at a sky heavy with shining stars with only the sound of the wind and the hoot of an owl to add to the ambience.
- 3. Playing Tejo in Chia – Although not strictly out in the wilds of Colombia, this choice is still quite off the Tourist trail and will reward you thoroughly for the effort of getting there. You can get a bus to Chia from Suba la Campina in the north of Bogota or take a taxi. Get off around any of the main streets and ask around for the nearest place to play tejo. Even if it is 10 in the morning there will undoubtedly be a few blokes having a game and enjoying a crate of beer or two. Take an open mind and hollow legs if you want to keep up with the boys: They say that the more Aguila beers you drink the better you will play. But just remember that the loser pays for the crates of beer consumed at the end, so make sure you concentrate hard!