Home to a traumatic but rich history, stunning scenery and some of the continent’s most welcoming and sophisticated people, Colombia is a natural draw for travellers to South America. Despite its four-decade-long civil war and reputation for violence, improved security conditions have led to a sharp increase in tourism.
Foreigners and Colombians alike are now far more able to explore this thrilling paradise of cloudforested mountains, palm-fringed beaches and gorgeous colonial cities. The only country in South America to border both the Pacific and the Caribbean, Colombia offers a huge range of ecosystems, from the Amazon rainforest near Leticia to the snowcapped mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the tropical islands of San Andrés and Providencia.
Population 46.3 million
Languages Spanish (official), plus various indigenous languages
Currency Colombian peso (C$ or COP$)
Capital Bogotá (population: 7.6 million)
International phone code 57
Time zone GMT -5hr
Cosmopolitan Bogotá is, like most capitals, a busy commercial centre, with a vibrant cultural scene and festive nightlife. The two other major cities, Medellín and Cali, are also lively but less overwhelming. Better still are the small towns scattered throughout the country that could turn out to be the highlight of your visit. Popayán and Mompox, for example, are famed for raucous Semana Santa (Easter week) celebrations, and Mompox has a timeless beauty to it. Colombia’s coffee-growing region, the Zona Cafetera, offers breathtaking walks in the foothills where the bean is grown, accommodation in authentic fincas (coffee farms) and excellent trekking.
Most visitors make time – and rightfully so – to head north to the Caribbean for the sun. Just a stone’s throw from the beach, the walled city of Cartagena is the biggest Spanish colonial port in South America. A few hours east, the less scenic Santa Marta and fishing village of Taganga are near Parque Nacional Tayrona, whose picturesque sandy beaches are unrivalled. The two are also great bases for a five-day trek to the archeological ruins of La Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City.
Almost un-Colombian in their feel, the remote Caribbean islands of San Andrés and Providencia both offer great diving, crystal-clear waters and – particularly in Providencia’s case – a unique Raizal culture.
As you head north from Bogotá through the Andes to Bucaramanga, picturesque colonial villages like Villa de Leyva give way to more tropical, river-fed bastions of adventure tourism such as San Gil.
In the southeast, Colombia’s stake of the Amazon, centred on Leticia, may not be as well known as Peru’s or Brazil’s but it offers a slice of jungle adventure and a gateway into the neighbouring countries. The southwest, near Popayán, boasts some wonderful scenery as well as the monumental stone statues and burial chambers of the forgotten cultures of San Agustín and Tierradentro.
Adrenaline junkies might hyperventilate when they discover Colombia. From almost every vantage point there’s a snowcapped peak to climb, an untamed river to ride or some sunken coral reef to explore.
Colombia’s waters are a good (and cheap) place to learn to scuba dive. All along its 3000km of coastline, but especially around Santa Marta and Taganga, and also on the islands of San Andres and Providencia – home to the world’s third-largest barrier reef – operators offer week-long PADI certification courses for around COP$650,000. Be sure to enquire about the reputation of dive operators before signing up, check their PADI or NAUI accreditation, the instructor-to-student ratio and ask for recommendations from other divers. Snorkelling is also particularly good on the islands.
There is a concentration of Class II–IV rapids among the many rivers in the departamento of Santander – three intersect near San Gil – that offer some spectacular challenges to white-water rafting enthusiasts, while the river near San Agustin gives you a somewhat tamer ride.
Hiking in Colombia is second to none: there are demanding week-long adventures in Parque Nacional de Cocuy, jungle treks to the spectacular ruins of Ciudad Perdida, and shorter but no less attractive rambles around Manizales and Salento in coffee country.
Football is the national sport and Colombians have a reputation for being some of South America’s most skilled players. Cycling is also a common passion – the mountainous land here is made for rugged biking – and Colombians regularly compete in the Tour de France.
Top image © Jess Kraft / Shutterstock
Colombia knows how to party and does so year-round. You can join in the following:
JanuaryCarnaval de Blancos y Negros. Pasto’s un-PC celebrations dating back to the days of slavery, with revellers with whitened and blackened faces throwing chalk and flour over each other.
FebruaryCarnaval de Barranquilla. Second-biggest carnival in South America, complete with parades, dancing, drinking and music, held forty days before Easter
MarchSemana Santa. Holy Week celebrated with nighttime processions by the faithful; particularly impressive in Popayán and Mompox
June/JulyRock al Parque. Massive free thee-day pop/rock/funk/metal/reggae concert in Bogotá’s Parque Simón Bolívar.
AugustFeria de las Flores. Medellín’s big bash, culminating in a parade of peasants bearing flowers down from the mountains.
SeptemberFestival Mundial de Salsa. Cali’s salsa festival, with the hottest moves on show at the Teatro al Aire Libre Los Cristales
NovemberReinado Nacional de Belleza. Cartagena crowns Miss Colombia amid parades, street dancing and music
DecemberFeria de Cali. Epic street parties.
On August 7, 2010, Juan Manuel Santos was inaugurated as the fortieth president of Colombia, following a failed attempt by former President Álvaro Uribe to run for an unprecedented third term in office. Uribe was first elected in 2002 on a platform of law and order and turned to the US for help in dealing with the country’s perpetual cycle of violence by tipping the military balance in their favour. Under Plan Colombia, the US has committed around US$7 billion in foreign aid, most of it to the military, to root out illegal drug trafficking and the guerrilla protectors that allow it to blossom. Largely intended to eradicate the growing of coca, Plan Colombia funded crop spraying on a large scale. Since the early 2000s coca production has declined dramatically – with the security situation improving as well – and Peru has now surpassed Colombia in coca production. However, coca farming has also adapted, for example by being planted in smaller areas, and the people who suffer the most from Plan Colombia have often been the impoverished farmers whose food crops have been sprayed alongside the coca plants and who have received no compensation from the Colombian government. Under Uribe drug-related crime declined and Santos has vowed to continue his predecessor’s hardline security policies.
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