Why you should travel to Colombia
By Larissa Obolensky
Over the years, Colombia has shaken off its tumultuous past and its kaleidoscopic character has come to life. Alongside the ancient cities, paradisiacal beaches and lively street art, Colombia has warmth and hospitality running through its veins. The outdoors are your playground here: float idly along crystalline Caribbean waters, conquer the Andean peaks and blaze jungle trails in Ciudad Perdida.
In this friendly corner of South America, you’ll encounter a mix of cultures which are unapologetically close to their roots. Whether you’re stepping back in time exploring the colonial streets of Barichara, or learning the basic steps to salsa in Cali, Colombia is a prismatic country thumping with energy. It’s just waiting to be discovered. With the help of our local experts, we’ve picked out some highlights to help inspire you in planning your trip.
The boundless culture
Colombian culture is not a single entity, it is a tapestry of interweaving stories, quirks and colours. A huge part of the country’s charm is down to a culture which refuses to be defined: it is split into six geographic regions with separate dialects, food, music and customs, meaning the travel is satisfyingly varied.
The capital is a good starting point for an exploration of Colombian culture. Bogotá is booming with life - it has over forty museums for every type of traveller. If you’re an art fanatic, browse the distinct works of renowned painter and sculptor Fernando Botero in Museo Botero del Banco de la Republica. Afterwards, pop your head into the modern art museum which exhibits fine Latin American artistry. If ancient history isn’t your cup of canelazo, it will be after a visit to the Museo del Oro. A must-see, the three floors contain 55,000 twinkling pieces of gold from Colombia’s pre-hispanic past. Bogotá is also a city of contrasts with resplendent colonial buildings making up the margins of political street art. The walls of the city are a great outdoor canvas riddled with stories - take a guided graffiti tour, wind your way around narrow street corners and experience the expressive testimonials of Bogotá’s people throughout time.
Food and dance are the real cornerstones that fuse together cultures here. The city of Cali has a proud caleño culture, built upon the blend of indigenous, African and Spanish traditions. Music ties these strands together and Cali’s electrifying atmosphere is something you’ll need to experience for yourself. Rich variations of the salsa beat can be heard all over the city. As the sun begins to set, a handful of Cali’s hidden gems start to glimmer. Watch the passion unfurl in a live show, join a salsa workshop or get swaying yourself at the Zaperoco Salsa Bar. Be sure to try the local tipple lulada - made up of lulu fruit, ice and sugar with a shot of vodka - should you feel like a kick before tearing up the dance floor.
Colombia is a nation famed for its coffee. Venture up to a coffee plantation in the hills of the Tierra Paisa to learn about coffee production, sample flavoursome local brews and drink in the verdant landscapes beyond. Lace up your walking boots and explore the incredible hiking routes which weave in and around the Zona Cafetera, discovering scenic highlights such as Salento, a quaint coffee village soaked in tradition, and Valle de Cócora, home to the largest palm trees in the world. Don’t miss the endearing coffee towns of Pijao and Filandia, which boast a relaxed atmosphere, thinner crowds, and an offbeat appeal.
Its fascinating history
Before the Spanish inquisition in 1500, Colombia had a flourishing indigenous Amerindian population and was home to several hundred tribes. Founded 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu, is the ancient city of Teyuna. Also known as Ciudad Perdida, or ‘The Lost City’, it was built in 800 AD by the Tayronas who inhabited this area. Reaching it involves an intrepid five day hike into the heart of the Sierra Nevada, from white sands, through leafy jungle, across rushing rivers and up a steep stone stairway. At the top, over 211 ancient terraces are elevated 1,100 metres above the ground, forming part of the city. The challenging hike is well worth this utterly breathtaking reward. On the way, cast your eye to the treetops - you’re bound to spot the odd toucan. The Museo del Oro in Bogotá is home to the glistening array of gold found on this site.
When ambling around Colombia’s more populated cities, the colonial influence is vivid. Cartagena is the country’s most striking colonial district. Run your fingertips along the 400-year old stone walls encircling the city as you pass through La Puerta Del Reloj, and your senses will be ignited by all that Cartagena has to offer.
The city’s past is evergreen: splashes of colourful paint cascade through the cobbled streets which are delicately lined with 16th century houses and ornate balconies. It was the first stop of the Spanish inquisition, and its architecture melds with more modern republican structures, such as the Cathedral’s bell tower.
Wander up to the Inquisition Palace and learn about Colombia's sobering past. Whilst the Old Town is an enigmatic testimony of this history, it is far from sleepy. For a slice of local artistry visit the nearby pop-up market, Calle de la Gobernación. Here you can peruse handmade jewellery and charming knick knacks. Afterwards, enjoy an expertly mixed mojito at Café del Mar atop the city walls, and watch the sun dip into the Carribean ocean.
The great outdoors
Colombia has 42 national parks, and the ones that were once considered unsafe for travellers are now thriving eco-tourism hubs. One of the most stunning is Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona - trek through an enchanting kingdom of emerald rainforest, and marvel at thundering waterfalls on the way.
Move further towards the coast, and stumble onto white sands and shimmering waters. Chat to the costeños (people from the coast), and embrace a more laid back lifestyle. Palm fringed coves are dotted with bamboo shacks selling cold beers and fresh ceviche - this comes as a welcome treat after a taxing hike. If you’d rather scale soaring peaks, the dramatic Sierra Nevada mountain range is north of the park and promises jaw-dropping escapades.
Though not famous for its beaches, Colombia has over 2,900 miles of breathtaking coastline bursting with marine wildlife. The Islas del Rosario embodies this allure, and is easily reachable from Cartagena. Nestled in this archipelago are unspoilt Caribbean shores, majestic mangrove tunnels and a turquoise sea which sprawls into deep azure beyond. The preserved coral reefs and wrecks under these oceans are a diver’s dream. After admiring an unbeatable sunset, head to Isla Grande’s water lake at nightfall and discover the spellbinding phosphorescent plankton. As you swirl around in the water, the plankton emanate a green glow, giving the lake a mystical appeal.
The undiscovered wonders of Colombia
As a fast growing travel destination, the lesser known delights of Colombia can become stifled under the hype. The country has 730 annual festivals, the most famous being Carnaval de Barranquilla in February. The Rio carnival can step aside, as this debaucherous rum fiesta is quite the party. Cali’s annual Petronio Alvarez Festival is a proud celebration of the musical heritage of Colombia’s African descendants. The bustling five day affair draws in international artists, whose love for this culture is exuded through lyrics, drums and dance. For theatre lovers who don’t fancy another trip to the Edinburgh Fringe, the Ibero-American Theatre festival in Bogotá is one of the largest performing arts festivals in the whole world, with unforgettable shows from all five continents.
Countless off-grid cobblestone colonial villages are scattered around the country; the streets are uncrowded, the artistry is captivating and the pace of life is calmer. Whilst Cartagena sets the precedent for architectural beauty, the lesser known Barichara is quite the rival. Enjoy aimlessly ambling down picturesque alleyways, listen to the stories of local artisans and, if you’re feeling daring, head to Color de Hormiga and sample their local delicacy: filet mignon in ant sauce, topped with fried ants - it’s surprisingly tasty. From Barichara, you can trek two hours to the tiny village of Guane, and get a feel for rural life. Just north of Bogotá is the village of Suesca. Its lake was a meeting point of the pre-colonial Muisca Civilization, who would carry out religious rituals on the banks of the water. The town has a distinctly indigenous impression.
Though Brazil takes the crown for biodiversity, Colombia is also home to sensational wildlife; much of this can be found in the eastern plains of the Los Llanos. Hop in a jeep or mount a horse and hurtle across the plains in Colombia’s answer to a safari. Keep a watchful eye out for deer, anacondas, capybaras and - if you’re extremely lucky - jaguars!
And whilst the country's Caribbean coast hogs the limelight, the lesser known Pacific coast waits in the wings. No roads lead there, making Chocó an uninhabited sanctuary where you can spot humpback whales and radiant coral reefs.
Make it happen
It comes as no surprise that this uncharted wonder is becoming more popular, and in this article we’ve barely scraped the surface of what’s on offer. The nation has a fire to it - the people are spirited, the cultures are soulful, and the nature is dazzling. Whatever you’re after, Colombia has it in spades. Get in touch with our local experts out there and they will craft your bespoke trip to Colombia. To speak to someone at the TravelLocal office, call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.