Colombia Rising

Unlike Tuscany, the Caribbean or Maui, you need a really good excuse to visit Colombia. Luckily, I had one. A friend of mine was traveling through South America – learning Spanish and seeking humanitarian volunteer opportunities – and had settled into Colombia’s “gringo trail” for a few months.

Unlike Tuscany, the Caribbean or Maui, you need a really good excuse to visit Colombia. Luckily, I had one. A friend of mine was traveling through South America – learning Spanish and seeking humanitarian volunteer opportunities – and had settled into Colombia’s “gringo trail” for a few months.

This was my opportunity to see a part of the world I never knew I wanted to see.
 

Telling people about the upcoming trip earned me unforgettable looks, led by furrowed eyebrows and glances that were at once cautionary and curious. It’s as though I saw the gratuitous images of blood-soaked cocaine farms, savage kidnapping plots and gruesome murder scenes race through their minds as a mystified gaze stared back. 

Photos above:  journey to Valle Cocora can be peligroso, or dangerous, but its natural beauty is worth the effort; photo below: national police secure a political rally in Bogota.

Understandably, much of the world possesses outdated, outwardly violent perceptions of the 200-year-old South American nation. Guided by books, films and television shows like Romancing the Stone, Clear and Present Danger, and even the HBO comedy Entourage, we’ve been fed a steady dose of storylines that paint Colombia with a particularly vicious brush.
 

But once considered the planet’s most dangerous destination, Colombia has spent the better part of the last half-decade employing national safety initiatives and re-introducing itself to the world like a rehabilitated convict vying for a clean slate. Its bold, new, tongue-in-cheek tourism campaign tells visitors that “the only risk is wanting to stay,” a message that greets travelers throughout the country at airport terminals, in-flight television monitors, bus stops and hotel lobbies.
 

While criminal drug trafficking and its associated violence remain major targets of Colombia’s anti-narcotic government forces, the country has made great strides luring vacationers and business travelers into its cities and rural areas. Former President Alvaro Uribe’s “democratic security strategy” – which significantly increased military strength and police presence and pushed rebel paramilitary groups away from major cities and transportation routes – is credited with much of the country’s recent rehabilitation. 
 

The number of tourists visiting Colombia during Uribe’s presidency (2002-2010) more than doubled from 1.1 million to 2.5 million. Its tourism bureau counts triple the number of visitors over the past six years, and in 2009, while tourism around the world fell by 4%, in Colombia it increased by nearly 11%. 
 

Despite its perceived dangers, my pre-visit planning sessions had already evangelized me as a Colombian apologist. “These are the nicest people we’ve met since we’ve hit the road,” my friend would tell me. “You’re going to love it. It’s absolutely beautiful here.”
And as promised, beneath Colombia’s waning veil of danger is the hint of one of South America’s most environmentally diverse and historically rich countries. From its north Caribbean coast to its sleepy, mountainous coffee region in the country’s heart, Colombia offers an experience that’s both exotic and delightfully ordinary. 
 

My Colombian arrival – highlighted by lost luggage and an overnight stop in one of capital city Bogotá’s less-desirable neighborhoods – was enlightening. After the 13-hour trek from San Francisco to Atlanta to Bogotá, I was without clean underwear or the technology to contact my friend, who awaited me 400 miles north in Cartagena. The next morning, after an ice-cold shower and a 5:30 a.m. cab ride back to Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport, my two-day-old outfit and I puddle-jumped to Cartagena. Unbeknownst to me, my bags were meticulously and systematically re-routed and arrived to me just hours later. My first Colombian crisis had been averted, and although their processes inspired very little confidence, Colombia’s aviation industry reminded me that simpler and slower don’t necessarily mean less effective. 

Cartagena, nicknamed the Capital of the Caribbean, naturally maintains an unhurried pace because of its humid climate and patient culture. Much of what Spanish settlers built here nearly 500 years ago remains as the city’s Old Colonial Center, a popular tourist tract with a time-transcending authenticity. Fortified behind thick stone barricades, Cartagena’s colonial center offers a glimpse into Colombia’s early history: Spanish-inspired architecture that hosts romantic courtyards and bougainvillea-draped facades, neighbored by shaded plazas and striking church towers. Slow, curling streets disappear behind brilliantly dyed buildings blasting with color. 
 

The works of Fernando Botero, the cherished Colombian figurative artist, are proudly on display throughout the city. For shoppers, native Colombian emeralds and jewelry are garnished in storefronts. If you need a rest from the sights, buy a cold Aguila (think Bud Light) from a street vendor and crash under a tree at Plaza Bolivar. We did. Or take a five-minute taxi ride from the historically rich Getsemani neighborhood to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, where you can experience life as a colonial Spanish soldier guarding Cartagena from English raids. The massive fortress’ construction spanned 200 years and cost 245 tons of gold. It features barracks with rooms the size of modern-day closets, an underground maze of tunnels and cannons perched out to the Caribbean. 
 

Most corporate business in Cartagena is conducted downtown, within modern skyscrapers and a more contemporary atmosphere. “If you’ve seen the Waikiki skyline on Oahu, you’ve seen downtown Cartagena,” my friend would aptly explain to me.
 

 

 

 

Photos above: The 45-minute walk to his finca, or farm, is majestic; Don Elias Pulgrin offers coffee tours for less than the cost of a Starbucks latte.

Nightlife in Cartagena is perhaps its most dependable experience. Local hangouts like Café Havana serve Colombia’s unofficial liquor Aguardiente and mix the infrequent young travel crowd with Colombian locals, creating a scene that’s energetic and educational.
After two days in Cartagena, we slowed life down even more and escaped to Salento, a lush and tucked-away gem in Colombia’s central coffee region. We arrived at night, so it wasn’t until the next morning that I realized how much this town felt like a movie set. Surrounded by hills of vegetation at every turn, Salento is a bustling pueblo that’s as much sleepy as it is nocturnal. Its town center is filled with shops and small restaurants, with workers who seemingly appear and disappear with your every arrival. 
 

The prize of Salento is Valle de Cocora, home to Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm, and perhaps one of the best day hikes the country offers. The town square is filled with jeeps that slog into the valley several times per day, and if you can manage to balance on a back bumper or pile in six-people deep with no seatbelt, then you can shuttle in for 10,000 pesos or about $6. Once at the base of the valley, you’re on your own to explore the range’s vast peaks, stunning prairies, wildlife and waterfalls. At the valley’s climax sits a small, family-operated hummingbird sanctuary where hikers sip bowls of warm soup and – if lucky – watch the clouds dissipate to reveal a breathtaking vista overlooking the Andean mountains. 
 

Don’t leave Salento without visiting one of its charming coffee farms or fincas. A winding, 45-minute walk from town will lead you to the home and business of Don Elias Pulgarin, one of Salento’s celebrated coffee farmers. For less than the cost of a Starbucks latte, Don Elias guides tourists through his vast backyard, which is really a mountainous garden of coffee trees, pineapple plants, orange trees and dozens of other native fruits. For Spanish-speaking visitors, the tour is a crash-course in organic coffee cultivation, from planting, maturation and picking of coffee plants to processing, drying and filtering its beans. For uni-lingual gringos, the pictures are simply worth a thousand words. The result for everyone is a cup of indisputably fresh coffee and a new appreciation for the word “barista.”
It was difficult to leave Salento, which is probably why we punished ourselves with a rain-soaked overnight bus ride back to Bogotá for the last leg of this whirlwind Colombian adventure. Security officials warn against overnight travel within the country, but six days of native warmth and hospitality had us feeling brave. 
 

Bogotá is Colombia’s largest city, with 8.5 million residents and a metropolitan structure that quickly jolts you from the lull of the more rural Quinidio Department. (Colombia is comprised of 32 departments, like U.S. states). Like New York City is to America, Bogotá is Colombia’s cultural, financial and industrial hub and is broken into more than 20 districts or neighborhoods that each claims their own personality. La Candelaria is Bogotá’s oldest neighborhood and perhaps its most satisfying. Besieged by violent, politically charged attacks less than 10 years ago, La Candelaria has cleaned up its streets and succumbed to a cultural reawakening; it now bustles with restaurants, live music and worldly museums.  

Bogotá’s Gold Museum boasts more than 35,000 pieces of gold, along with 30,000 objects in ceramic, stone and textiles, representing the largest collection of pre-Colombian gold in the world. And despite his wanton presence on the streets of Cartagena, for a more instructive experience, the Botero Museum offers donated collections of the native artist’s work, complemented by others from Picasso, Monet and Renoir.  

Cartagena, Salento and Bogotá are fascinating destinations, exacting experiences as diverse as the cities themselves. But Colombia offers much more, including the revitalized city of Medellin, once the stronghold of drug lord Pablo Escobar and now a buzzing, modern financial center that has gained an international reputation for its nightlife. Cali is the salsa-dancing capital of Colombia and home to what most visitors will swear are the most beautiful people in the world. And El Parque Tayrona, the national park that sits on the Caribbean coast near Santa Marta, presents a one-of-a-kind ecosystem with microclimates that transform the park from desert to tropical forest within the span of feet.  

Seven days after my fortuitous luggage reunion in Cartagena, I sat at a café in Bogotá preparing for my stateside return. As advertised, I was in danger of wanting to stay. Colombia doesn’t offer a singular signature experience – like a romantic dinner beneath the Eiffel Tower or sunset cruise around Phuket – and that’s why it wins you over. Like a humble, new friend offering nothing more than trusty companionship, Colombia tenders a unique proposition: greet it with earnestness and leave its history in the past, and you will find a country that offers a mutual respect.

Back home, the same stares that questioned my Colombian visit now meet my eyes with renewed interest. And while the narco-thug horror stories may still represent the popular opinion of Colombia, the country now counts one more social ambassador, a visitor who arrived with an open mind and left with a collection of treasured memories.


HOW 

Colombian airline Avianca offers the only direct flights from Los Angeles into Bogota. Delta and several other U.S. operators offer one- and two-stop flights into the capital. Once in Colombia, Avianca and Aires are your options for domestic travel, with daily flights to and from Cartagena, Medellin, Cali and nearly all other Colombian cities.

WHEN
 

Its location near the equator makes Colombia less prone to significant seasonal changes, but it does experience heavy rain seasons from May through July and October through December. January through March offers some of the best, most moderate weather, perfect for travel and sightseeing.

WHERE
 

With the right recommendations, it’s entirely possible to visit Colombia in style and on a budget. Hostal Casa Mara in Cartagena (casamarahostal.com) presents courtyard-facing accommodations with a swimming pool for about $15 per day. You’ll receive prompt service and warm hospitality, but don’t expect five-star amenities. In Salento, Hostal Ciudad de Segorbe (hostalciudaddesegorbe.com) offers the best of both worlds, a sophisticated and authentic setting for around $20 per night. One of the owners, Luis, may even make you his signature arepa. Throughout the country – from Bogota to Cali – Colombia is ripe with luxurious accommodations, as well as simpler lodging for the adventurous or budget traveler.

 

 

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