Check out a map of South America, and you'll spot Colombia stretching along the top of the continent between Ecuador and Venezuela. This story is about one of several popular vacation venues in Colombia.
A friend, or maybe your travel agent, told you about the latest “in” spot down in South America. That would be Colombia, and in particular the country's booming 1,000-mile-long Caribbean coast. That area, you're told, is packed with all the stuff of fantastic vacations. Like pristine beaches, old-world colonial cities, jungles, deserts, eco-parks and diving meccas. What's more, the American buck goes a long way there.
You're sold. There's only one hitch: You know nothing...nada...zilch about this country larger than California and Texas put together. Much less the culture of its Caribbean coast. It's like planning a vacation on Mars.
So it's no wonder that the local tourism folks came up with an idea to make you less of a stranger to the coast before you set out to see it.
What they did was to build a high-tech interactive museum called the Museum of the Caribbean, where visitors can get immersed in the culture and history of the area. It's in the regional capital of Barranquilla, a centuries old city of a million people roughly half-way along the coast.
The museum fills five floors and has five sections: Nature, People, Words, Action and Expression. Guides (including English-speakers) take visitors on tours of the museum in which you'll see and hear those five subjects come alive in everything from the early Indian roots of the region to the Spanish conquest to Colombia's fight for independence to its modern-day culture.
You'll notice the museum uses lots of ways to pep up your tour. For instance, you'll watch history unfold on a huge panoramic screen...you'll press buttons and tap icons to make the exhibits almost roll over and bark...you'll step into booths where you'll hear the different kinds of Caribbean music. You'll even get a chance to dance to the booty-shaking beats of tunes like bullerengue, chalupa and compas.
Other exhibits grab the attention of the museum's visitors using imaginative stagecraft. Check out the way arrangement and lighting liven up what might have been a less than exciting collection of hammers, spades, chisels and other historic working tools of the region.
So now you know all about the Indian-Spanish-African culture of the local folks and you're up to speed for some serious sightseeing. Up high on your list will likely be a tour of the walled city of Cartagena a couple of hours down the coast west of Barranquilla. There, you can huff and puff your way up the ramparts of a towering Spanish megafort overlooking a harbor where treasure galleons once gathered to sail in convoys to Spain.
After that you can get a taste of Cartagena's colonial elegance by wandering around an area of this city of a million-plus people called “Old Town.” You'll stroll through cobbled lanes lined with buildings painted in pastel blues, greens, yellows, reds, pinks and browns, many of them the mansions of shipping barons and bankers in the years of the treasure fleets.
Up the coast east of Barranquilla is the fast-growing resort area of Santa Marta (back in the museum you learned it was the first Spanish settlement in Colombia). Also waiting for you there are the nearby eco-treasures of two of the country's 56 national parks, Tayrona – once the home of prehistoric hunter-gatherers (you learned all about them, too) – and the virgin mountain wonderland of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (also spotlighted at the museum).
Staying there: Barranquilla, Cartagena and Santa Marta each offer dozens of tourist-class hotels in and around the cities.
Getting there: Flights from U.S. cities to the recently upgraded jetport at Barranquilla are typically scheduled by way of connections to nonstop hops from New York-JFK, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Bogota (Colombia), and Panama City (Panama).
More info: Visit Proexport, Colombia's tourism, foreign investment and export promotion agency.