Colombia used to be singled out by travelers as a nonviable travel destination in South America. Its drug and violence-laden past of yesteryear remains vividly seared in the memories of Colombians and the rest of the world. It is impossible for either group to forget or play down the turbulent reality of Colombia's recent past. So naturally, my decision to visit Colombia for 10 days in 2012 took many people by surprise.
Colombia was one of the most dangerous places in the world in the 1970s and 1980s. At one point, it was reportedly responsible for up to 80% of the world’s cocaine production. The infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar spearheaded violent accept-a-bribe-or-die campaigns. While the crime rate dropped not long after his death, his terrorizing legacy reminds the older generation of Colombians of Medellin's reputation once as murder capital of the world. Then factor into this concern persistent media reports about the warfare between Colombia's largest guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the Colombian government. Such a landscape only delivers a foreboding forecast for Colombia’s future. In recent years however, cocaine production in the region has decreased, as reported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. And with crime down, tourism is up.
Proexport Colombia, one of the country’s major tourism offices, attracted 3.7 million foreign travelers into Colombia in 2013. Colombia has capitalized on its excellent location on the Caribbean Sea to become a leading destination for cruise tourism. Remarkably, even the country’s coffee plantations are making a name for themselves as tourist destinations. Visitors can catch a glimpse of Colombian plantation life with its old houses and cool verandas surrounded by luscious gardens and jungle.
Apart from its gold, emeralds and coffee, Colombia has much more to offer its visitors from near and far. A large portion of the country’s rich history, vibrant culture, and diverse entertainment can be tied down to three cities: Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin. Cartagena, located on Colombia’s northern coast, is the most popular destination as it is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Latin America. Cartagena is also one of the world’s few remaining walled cities. It combines the best of old Spanish America with the exquisiteness of the Caribbean; the narrow streets are reminiscent of old Spain while the bright colors of the houses reflect a Caribbean personality. The pride of Cartagena: Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The fortress was built in 1657 by the Spanish to protect the city from pirates. The views from up top are splendid, but the best views of the city can be seen from Cerro de La Popa.
Bogota, the country’s largest and capital city, while only an hour away by plane, is a world apart from Cartagena. Sprawling views of the metropolis can be viewed from the mountain of Monserrate 11,000 feet above sea level. Bogota is also a culture-filled gem. The Gold Museum and the Botero Museum are undoubtedly its star attractions. The Botero Museum, opened in the colonial neighborhood of Candelaria in 2000, features over two hundred donated works from Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous painter and sculptor. The Gold Museum is every bit as spectacular, with a rare collection of jewelry and art that should not be missed. And between the trips to the museums and 400-year old churches, be sure to recharge with a hearty plate of bandeja paisa, a Colombian favorite consisting of assorted meats with fried egg, fried plantain, avocado and lemon.
Medellin has had to play a game of catch-up with Bogota and Cartagena. Its reputation was more than just tarnished by Pablo Escobar’s decades long campaigns of extortion and murder. But Medellin, nestled in a lush valley enveloped by rolling mountains, has since developed in a manner befitting a growing metropolis. In the mid-90s, the city completed the construction of an elaborate metro system which has garnered recognition and praise in the region. Up until the mid-2000s, Medellin’s public transportation system failed to integrate the poorer members of the city who largely resided in the hillside slums on the metropolis’ periphery. However, the completion of the Metrocable (cable car) system changed that. The aerial tramway also provided tourists a unique opportunity to marvel at the cityscape against a backdrop of luscious green mountains. Other notable attractions in and around Medellin include Plaza Botero and El Peñol de Guatapé. The Botero Plaza, named after Fernando Botero, features 23 of his larger-than-life-size bronze sculptures. Visitors can be seen not only taking pictures with the sculptures, but rubbing them for good fortune and love too. Then there is El Peñol, a titanic 10,000,000-ton rock in the Antioquia region of Colombia. A steady stream of Colombian and foreign tourists ascend the 649 stairs which culminate in breathtaking views of the glittering man-made lakes and beyond. While the climb is no small feat, once travelers complete the round-trip, they can proceed to the open-air market one hundred some feet from the base of the rock and satiate their hunger with a delectable array of Colombian treats.
So what does Colombia have to offer? A significant reduction in violence and crime, an extremely hospitable Colombian population, and a booming tourist industry. Travelers interested in visiting the country, now is the time. A revived Colombia awaits you!