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Busting the Colombia travel myth

The initial reaction to my news was one of disbelief. "Why, of all places on Earth, are you going there?" It's true that most South American tourists stick to the familiar pleasures of Argentina and Brazil. Colombia, notorious for violence and drugs, is hardly considered at all. And what a shame!
For a long time, this neglect made sense. Armed conflict in the 1990s killed an estimated 35 000 people and has affected about one-third of the country's 46 million people in one way or another. But that is slowly becoming a problem of the past. Former President Álvaro Uribe's controversial campaign of Comunidad Segura (Democratic Security) led to increased police and military throughout the country. As guerrilla groups were demobilised, murder rates fell by 40% between 2002 and 2008. Lonely Planet even picked Colombia as one of its top 10 world destinations, which probably helped increase foreign tourist visits from 500 000 in 2003 to 1.8 million in 2011.



The world's highest city

With a population of almost 8 million people in the wider metropolitan area and bustling at 8500 feet above sea level (2600m closer to the stars, as the locals like to say), the capital, Bogotá, is the world's highest city of its size. Nowhere is this more apparent that on top of Monserrate, a mountain east of the city that comes complete with spectacular panoramic views and a chilly Andean breeze that will (almost literally) take your breath away.

In exploring the city, our first stop was to Plaza de Bolívar, the city's main square and pounding political heart. It's here that you can admire buildings like the Supreme Court of Justice, the Principal Mayor's Office, and Casa de Nariño (the president's home). In nearby La Candelaria, the historic and cultural centre of the city, there are also a number of universities, museums, and quaint houses beautifully preserved in the original colonial architecture from 17th-century Spanish rule.

Church on Monserrate

View from Monserrate

Some of the finest precious stones in the world

As expected in a country in which 90% of the population is Roman Catholic, a number of historic churches are sprinkled throughout the city. The oldest of these is the towering Church of San Francisco. It was built 400 years ago and is still adorned with an altarpiece that is the city's largest and most complex. But the honour of most unusual church would have to go to the Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá (Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá), situated 49km north of Bogotá. Initially built so the salt miners could pray for protection in their work some 200m underground, the church now accommodates up to 3000 visitors for Sunday services. The silently serene marble sculptures and the delicate details of hand-carved halite rock explain why it's often called a "Jewel of Modern Architecture".

With some of the finest precious stones in the world, no visit to Colombia would be complete without a tour of El Museo de Oro (Gold Museum), one of almost 60 museums in the city. Over 35,000 pieces of gold and 30,000 other archaeological finds make it the world's largest museum of its kind. Even non-lovers of history will be fascinated by tales of El Dorado, the city of gold that fuelled Spanish conquest and colonisation in the early 1500s, even though it proved to be nothing more than a myth.

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá

The heart of the coffee region

A 60-minute flight west of Bogotá brings you to Armenia, the heart of the coffee region. Even after the January 1999 earthquake killed over 1000 people and destroyed almost one-third of the city centre, Armenia has rebuilt itself and proven why it's often referred to as Ciudad Milagro (Miracle City). In addition to hiking or horseback riding through the lush Cocora Valley, home of the national wax palm tree, you'll get a chance to interact with artists in the bohemian markets of Salento and get to sample some delicious fried river trout.

And let's not forget about the coffee: hand-picked and among the best in the world. If you aren't up for a visit to a working coffee farm where you can walk through fields and pick beans with the locals, the brewing process is all explained at Parque Nacional del Café (National Coffee Park). This giant funfair includes an interactive Museum of Coffee and an unforgettable theatrical production that takes you on a memorable journey through the region's history and culture through song and dance.


Coffee Farmer (that's me)

Precious metals and slaves

A 90-minute flight north of Bogotá brings you to Cartagena and the Caribbean coast. Founded in 1533 and named after the city in Spain where most of the colonising sailors were from, it quickly became a main area for trade, including that of precious metals and slaves.

Unfortunately, the newfound riches made it an attractive destination for pirates. The city was held hostage in 1586 and ransomed for the equivalent of $200 million in today's terms. Spain, already investing heavily in protecting the city following severe plundering some two decades earlier, continued paying military engineers for construction that took over 200 years to complete.

The result was an imposing 11km wall surrounding the old city as well as Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a castle named after the Spanish king. Fully equipped with an elaborate system of underground tunnels that make it possible to hear approaching footsteps, the castle was never penetrated despite numerous attempts and, after the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, it hopefully never will!

Cartagena beach

Totumo Mud Volcano

Diversity and contrast

All this talk of history might fool you into believing that Cartagena is a sleepy old town. But much like the rest of Colombia, this city of 1 million people is another example of diversity and contrast. Sprawling property development has resulted in a number of modern skyscrapers while the ever-present and ever-colourful open-air chiva party buses, with their thumping reggaeton beats, make Cartagena a popular spot for anyone who loves fun.

If you still have any energy left after drinking shots of aguardiente (like tequila but more bearable) and dancing the night away in one of many popular clubs, the best way to relax is on the beach. Some of the best are found on Las Islas del Rosario, an archipelago of 27 small islands that has been declared a National Park. It's the perfect place to put your feet up, enjoy a lazy afternoon in the sun, and finally understand why the locals were right: the only risk in visiting Colombia is wanting to stay!

Mis amigos colombianos

Cultural festivals and religious holidays

When is the best time to go? The best time to visit Colombia is between December and March. This coincides with some popular cultural festivals and religious holidays, giving you a chance to interact with the friendly locals and understand why Colombia is ranked sixth on the Happy Planet Index. But make sure you book early as hotels will fill up fast.

What's the weather like? Temperatures in Bogotá never reach above 20°C throughout the year, but the weather can vary drastically throughout the day, a condition sometimes referred to as Sol de Lluvia (Rainy Sun). In Cartagena, temperatures are stuck at around 30°C throughout the year while humidity averages 90%. If you're ever without water, sunscreen, or a hat, rest assured that a number of eager vendors will come to your rescue.

Jungle Hike

Jungle waterfall

Traffic congestion

How do I get there? Colombia doesn't require a travel visa but does require a return plane ticket. Flights from Johannesburg to Bogotá connect through São Paulo (although my flight from Cape Town took me via Buenos Aires and Panama and another guy in our group flew via Madrid). Flights from Bogotá to Armenia, Cartagena, and other destinations in Colombia can be booked online with low-cost airlines like Avianca, Copa, and Aires.

How do I get around? Even with the TransMilenio Bus Rapid System and a weekly rotating restriction on private cars depending on plate numbers, traffic congestion in Bogotá can be severe. Getting around by taxi is quite affordable, but you could spend an hour trying to catch a cab since the locals may be trying to get one too. Leave early or call for a taxi ahead of time. Cabs are easier to get in Cartagena but tend to cost a little more. Be sure to negotiate the fair before you leave (particularly if the meter isn't working). Even though you'll quickly come to know how much a trip to a particular place costs, it's always a good idea to ask a local or the hotel to negotiate on your behalf so you don't get ripped off by paying the "gringo" price.

By Road

By air

Be vigilant

How do I stay safe? As with all travelling, be vigilant. Do as the locals do by wearing your backpack on your front and avoid going out with flashy jewellery or clothes. Don't accept food, drinks, cigarettes, or gum from people you don't know. Also, it's best not to talk or even joke about the drug trade. Colombia still controls 80% to 90% of the world's cocaine market and, judging by the full-body scan that everyone has to go through before leaving the country, it's something that the government takes very seriously! The only place you can safely (although still tactfully) discuss the topic is at the Police Museum in Bogotá, which, despite some squeamish photographs and tools of torture, offers an interesting tour that includes memorabilia from Pablo Escobar, the trade's most notorious kingpin.

Is there anything else I need to know? Colombia was named after Christopher Columbus even though he never set foot on its soil. Cool, huh?

(This article is based on a trip I took in December 2010.)

About Eugene Yiga

Eugene Yiga is a reformed accountant, now living it up as an entertainment writer (and Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards board member) in Cape Town. He also writes about personal development and is on a quest to read the 100 greatest books of all time before he turns 30. Follow @eugeneyiga on Twitter or by email to say, um, hello.
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