Colombia is such a captivating country and one that will constantly surprise you. Two of South America’s giants, Peru and Brazil, sit at its feet but Colombia more than holds it own against these traditionally more popular neighbours. There is so much packed into its borders from the lush rainforest in the north down through its mountainous central belt to the vast waterways of the Amazon. In between you’ve got everything from vibrant cities and charming colonial towns to deep canyons, Caribbean islands and beautiful beaches. Colombia’s diversity is what sets it apart and on my recent trip I was lucky enough to discover some of its gems.
The Cities: Bogota
Colombia’s cities were once approached with a certain amount of hesitation but their transformation in recent years has been remarkable. My trip started in the capital, Bogota, which at 8,660ft above sea level is one of Latin America’s highest cities. It is big and it is busy, but there is so much to do. It’s great for art lovers and as well as wandering past the colourful street art of La Candelaria and visiting the MAMU, Museo de Botero, Casa De Moneda and the Gold Museum, I went on a tour of some of th city’s private galleries and studios with my local art guide. Most of these places you would have walked straight past so it was amazing to have someone to introduce me to them. The day ended with a cup of coffee and an empanada on the rooftop of one of the galleries with my guide, Angelina.
I also enjoyed a trip out to the Paloquemao food market where I got to try all sorts of tropical fruit and veg such as lulo, tamarillo and avocadoes as smooth as butter. Visiting markets is a great way to get a taste (quite literally) for day-to-day life and I love being in amongst the hustle and bustle. Colombia is big on coffee and a molecular coffee tasting was a really fun experience – as well as drinking it in its usual form, I was introduced to coffee as jelly, foam and in an incredibly moreish cocktail.
Colombia’s history is a complex one but this is not somewhere that wants to brush its past under the carpet. Medellin was where I got a real insight into what it meant to live in Colombia during such a dark time and a tour of the city’s notorious Comuna 13 district was a really eye opening but ultimately positive experience. Our guide talked about what it was like growing up in this neighbourhood in the 80s and 90s and how it has done a complete U turn. Street art covers the walls, social innovation projects are everywhere and there is even a slide in honour of one of the young boys that went missing during the guerilla war – people are encouraged to focus on the future and the slide brought a bit of relief at a time when things were at their worst. The city’s Casa de la Memoria is a moving tribute to the victims of Colombia’s past and well worth a visit.
The third city I visited was Cartagena and it could not be more different from Bogota and Medellin. It is Colombia’s coastal gem and has a distinctive Caribbean feel. Flowers tumble down from the balconies of its colourful houses, carts piled high with mangos are wheeled through the streets, colonial churches open up onto pretty plazas, and artwork and sculptures are dotted throughout the city. This is a really fun place to spend a few days – I took a salsa class, headed out to the Rosario Islands on a private yacht, enjoyed a cooking class and learnt all about the city’s naval and military history with my wonderful guide, Fernando.
Charming Colonial Towns
The drive north from Bogota to Villa de Leyva through the Colombian countryside was incredibly pretty. Lots of people I’d met in Bogota had said Villa de Leyva was one of their favourite places and I wasn’t disappointed. The cobblestone streets, whitewashed houses and hidden gardens were a joy to discover. The next stop was Barichara, another beautiful town with picturesque churches, houses with colourful wooden shutters and a laidback atmosphere which makes it the perfect place to chill out for a few days. From here I did a really nice walk along the Camino Real trail to the small town of Guane.
Colombia certainly isn’t lacking when it comes to natural beauty. One of the most dramatic sights was that of the Chicamocha Canyon which I paraglided over. It’s awe-inspiring but not for the faint hearted! I spent a few nights in Palomino on the outskirts of Tayrona National Park exploring the beautiful landscape. Drifting down the Don Diego river keeping my eyes peeled for howler monkeys and caiman was a really relaxing experience and the trip ended at a beautiful spot where the river met the Caribbean ocean. The last two nights were at a private house high up in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. My days were spent hiking through the forest and watching the birds flit through the canopy from the balcony. Having a private chef and ending each day with a glass of wine as the sun went down was the perfect finish to my Colombian adventure.
You might not immediately think of food when you think of Colombia but I had some great meals throughout my trip. Tracking down arepas (a sort of corn pancake) became a daily obsession, freshly pressed fruit juices were the perfect tonic in the heat, and both Bogota and Cartagena are home to some great restaurants where you can try excellent ceviche and wonderful fish dishes. I also discovered an amazing little sweet shop selling guava jellies, enjoyed beautiful ajiaco soup made with corn, potatoes, capers and avocado at a hacienda outside Medellin, and tried the local delicacy of hot chocolate and cheese just outside Bogota – don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!
One of the great things about Colombia is the variety of properties you can stay in. As well as luxury hotels, there is the option to stay in a private house, something that works really well in Barichara. There are a handful of beautiful villas in the town that offer a real sense of exclusivity – we can organise chefs to come in and cook for you and most of the houses come with private pools so you can just relax, explore the charming town, then come back to your own little hideaway. And you don’t need to worry about not having the services of a hotel, because you’ll have a local host who can help you with anything you might need. There are also private house options in Cartagena if you fancy feeling like you’re a real resident for a few days.