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Colombia is no slouch as a tourist destination, but it's had a tough time persuading the rest of the world to come see for itself. Unfortunately, the legacy of previous decades - when drug cartels ruled, paramilitary groups roamed and violence was rife - still casts a shadow, diverting attention from the likes of the Andes, colourful festivals, well-preserved colonial towns, pristine national parks and Amazonian forests featuring a biodiversity that's second to none. Plus, the most welcoming people you're likely to meet anywhere. Despite a strengthening economy, a peace accord with leftist rebels and a major reduction in drug-related violence, Colombia has remained off the traditional tourist trail.
Sometimes, it's hard to distance yourself from the past. While drug lord Pablo Escobar has been dead for 25 years, his legend is far from buried, resuscitated in documentaries, feature films and TV series like Narcos. It's not all quiet on the criminal front but the cartels are lower profile and the reality is the country's murder rate is significantly lower than in many popular destinations. There is also a relatively stable political structure in place (a newly-elected president takes office next month).
The tourism authorities always knew it was going to be a struggle, but themed marketing campaigns have helped to gradually increase visitor arrivals from one million in 2006 to 5.7 million in 2017. There is also a growing belief that after decades of being locked out of the tourism business, Colombia is asserting itself as a premium travel destination.
Infrastructure and service standards are not always up to scratch but on the flip side, Colombians are not jaded from the over-tourism that acts as a blight on some places. A decade ago, commercials touting the country's natural and cultural wonders attempted to lure visitors with the slogan, "The only risk is wanting to stay." Next came the catchphrase "Magical Realism", a strategy tied to the writings of Colombia's Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A current campaign identifies the country as the Land of Sabrosura, in reference to the intangible-yet-distinctive qualities that make the country special: the Colombian DNA, as it were. Visitors who take the plunge will be handsomely rewarded.
Colombia's capital city is high (2,644 m) and mighty interesting (as capital cities go), with a good concentration of art and culture, more dedicated bicycle lanes than any city in the Americas (to offset hilly neighbourhoods and wildly uneven sidewalks) and views to die for - especially from Monserrate, the mountain (3,152 m) that looms over the centre of the city.
A good place to start is Plaza Chorro de Quevedo, a modest square in La Candelaria historical district that stands over the spot where Bogota was founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1538. A narrow cobblestone lane leads towards a large plaza (named, inevitably, for Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century military leader of the independence movement against Spanish colonialists) surrounded by the city's main cathedral and various government buildings. The main attractions in this bustling-by-day, eerily-quiet-by-night part of town are the Gold Museum (showcasing a splendid collection of pre-Columbian jewellery and artifacts) and the neighbouring Botero Museum, which houses works donated by the artist and native son Fernando Botero. His paintings and sculptures, depicting inflated figures and objects with cartoon-like dimensions, are ubiquitous in all the country's major cities, especially his home town Medellin and the resort city of Cartagena.
There's a strong possibility that Botero fatigue will set in before you leave, so treat the affliction by shopping for local handicrafts at a nearby covered arcade such as Pasaje Rivas. When it's time for a coffee break, forego the obvious brew (Colombia may be one of the largest exporters of coffee in the world but quality varies and purists will need to be selective in their choice of establishment), duck into one of the hole-in-wall cafés around La Candelaria and order a chicha instead - a slightly sour, low-alcohol indigenous beverage made from fermented corn and sugar cane.
Together with Aguardiente (a stronger potion made from anise and sugar cane), downing a chicha or two is a sure sign of your ability to go native - just like Mick Jagger. Look for street vendors with "Mick Jagger obleas" on the menu - named for a popular caramel-filled wafer snack that the Rolling Stone munched on during a pre-concert stroll a couple of years ago.
For more upmarket fare, Bogota has a good selection of restaurants serving local and regional cuisine. The quintessential Bogota experience is defined by Andres Carne de Res, a meat-based culinary imaginarium. There is a branch in town but for the completo version, head to the nearby town of Chia where the 2,000-seat original is located. On the way, you will see signs for Zipaquira, a small town that is home to the Salt Cathedral, a vast underground church carved out of a salt mine. It's impressive enough to earn the title First Wonder of Colombia.
Cocora Valley and the Coffee Triangle
Pereira, tucked away in the central Andes mountains in the coffee-growing region of western Colombia, is a short flight from Bogota and the departure point for an exploration of the Cocora Valley, a verdant nature lover's paradise where visitors share the crisp mountain air with a spectacular number of bird species. "You feel you are alive," says Carlos Osorio, 26, an excellent guide whose encyclopedic knowledge of all things ornithological enables him to identify any of the 1,900 bird species that inhabit the country.
The walking trails may be a little wet - it rains a lot in these parts - but in this magical setting mud-streaked sneakers are a small price to pay. The sight of three bronze-winged parrots, flying in formation low through a grove of Quindio wax palms, then disappearing into the mist was just one indelible memory. The tall (up to 60 m), thin palm species is Colombia's national tree and grows only in the montane forest, at altitudes of around 2,600 metres.
Carlos first visited the valley when he was 15. "It was the most beautiful place I had seen in Colombia," he says. "The terrific views, the rare palms, the way the clouds blend with the trees. It's also the people that make the Central Andes special - we don't have the ocean here, we have an ocean of green instead."
As a pleasant diversion from all that greenery, head to the charming, colourful mountain towns of Filandia and Salento, where just about everyone walks around with a sombrero (if you're missing yours there will be plenty for sale). In Salento make a beeline for Café Jesus Martin, named for the man dedicated to bringing quality coffee to a country that once exported all its good stuff.
Salento sits within the Coffee Triangle, an area declared by Unesco as a heritage site called The Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia. Many plantations are open to visitors, but views from the in-house café at Hacienda San Alberto, overlooking the picturesque hilltop town of Buenavista, are hard to beat. Skilled baristas will put that rich terroir to good use, resulting in a smooth, aromatic and well-rounded Colombian cuppa.
Once tagged the murder capital of the world, Medellin - Pablo Escobar's home town - is now the recipient of titles like "world's most innovative city", "South America's Silicon Valley" and rated one of the best places to live in South America. Thanks to a progressive local government, Medellin is now a global poster child for urban development.
Its stunning transformation from a city dominated by one of the most dangerous men in the world to a much-admired modern and efficient metropolis in less than two decades is an achievement that almost defies belief. What's more, the city makes no attempt to conceal its painful past while focusing on the present.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the hillside neighbourhood known as Comuna 13, once an impoverished and marginalised community on the crowded slopes overlooking the city, where business was conducted primarily by gang leaders and drug dealers. In recent years it has undergone an about-turn, thanks to a public transport system that services the hard-to-access district and an outdoor escalator that serves as a convenient connector to the lower levels.
These days, Comuna 13 is largely free of the violence that once defined it. Its pathways are clean, its public walls serve as canvases for graffiti artists and visitors are likely to encounter street vendors, hip-hop musicians and video crews. Hipster cafés sell 'Aroma de Barrio' coffee beans and backpackers flock into the district for a taste of gangsta chic. The art within this open-air gallery depicts both the horrors of the recent past and the hope for a better tomorrow.
"The last 15 years have been very important," says Santiago Lopez, an architect who was hit by a stray bullet while walking through the neighbourhood more than a decade ago. The bullet remains lodged in his back even as he takes visitors on tours of Comuna 13. "The culture we call paisa culture is about people looking to recover from the ashes of the past and trying to do something better," he says. "Medellin has suffered the stigma of something real that happened. The wounds from the violence are still open and what's happening in this district is part of the transformation - it's about how the violence affected us and how we are managing it."
There is a youthful dynamism to Medellin, with music venues, art museums and modern restaurants all contributing to a tasty cultural pot. There are also automobile assembly plants, banking headquarters and a bustling textile industry. The signs of the city's troubled past may be less evident, but the spectre of its most notorious native son still looms large. At his peak, Pablo Escobar held the keys to the city - literally. He owned dozens of properties around town and more than 400 throughout the country. Curious tourists will be able to visit some Escobar sites and listen to tales of his exploits. In today's dollars, he was worth over US$50 billion. He was often quoted as saying he preferred a graveyard in Colombia to a prison cell in the US. In December 1993, he got his wish.
Founded by Spanish colonialists in 1533 and fronted by a wide bay leading to the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena de Indias is the last of Colombia's unofficial Big Four destinations and - judging by the concentration of visitors sporting American accents, resort wear and wandering its cobblestone streets - probably the most touristy place in the country. You'll have plenty of practice fending off the touts (offering girls, cocaine and pizza - not necessarily in that order) but on the plus side, there are quality restaurants and many stores selling reproductions of pre-Columbian jewellery and locally-mined emeralds (Colombia is the world's largest exporter of the gemstones) to keep you out of trouble.
This city with the film set looks is still impeccably preserved. Its extensive 16th-century fortifications remain mostly intact: the compact Old Town was designed to withstand pirate raids and naval sieges. Everything is within walking distance, but you'll require headgear (straw hats are de rigueur) to fend off the intense tropical heat. A tour of the walled complex, various bastions and nearby San Felipe de Barajas Castle will give an idea of just how secure the city was. Beyond, the neighbouring Getsemani district is a haven for street art and music bars.
South of the city beyond Cartagena Bay, the white sand beaches and azure waters of the El Rosario archipelago beckon. The islands here were once a favoured playground for drug lords ("Pablo was here" is a common refrain) - and the proximity to open waters (where "product" could be smuggled in and out undetected) was a useful feature.
About 250 kms north of Cartegena, past the municipal capital Barranquilla (hometown of pop star Shakira) and extending from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Caribbean coast, Tayrona National Park is an irresistible lure for eco-warriors. Its rainforests and coastal lagoons are home to indigenous tribes and abundant wildlife while its many trekking and horse-riding trails make good practice runs in case you're planning to tackle the four-day hike to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City several centuries older than Machu Picchu that was discovered in the 1970s.
- The writer's itinerary was organised by Latin America specialist A2A Journeys (www.a2ajourneys.com)