Trip tips: Colombia

Trip tips: Colombia

Colombia has a public relations problem.

Most people think the place is awash with drugged-up narco lords, high on cheap cocaine, just passing the time between beheadings by kidnapping the odd foreign tourist. But then again, most people don't even know how to spell Colombia (there's no 'u', folks!). So perhaps it's time you found out a bit more about South America's hottest new destination:

So how sketchy is it, exactly?

Not so very bad at all. There are parts of Bogotá or Medellín you wouldn't stumble around on your own at night, but then again that goes for London or New York too (not to mention any of our own lovely cities). And in certain remote jungle regions, the (right-wing) paramilitaries and (left-wing) guerrillas still duke it out over their coca farms. But almost anywhere that's anywhere near the beaten track is just as safe as can be. Hell, there's even wi-fi.

So there's jungle, right?

On the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, there's rainforest aplenty. All that jungle contains a massive amount of biodiversity (that's animals and plants to you and I), not to mention stunning white (or pink) sand beaches, challenging hikes and the stone ruins of ancient pre-colonial cultures.

And what else?

Colombia has got a bit of just about everything. Down the spine of the country, parallel Andean ranges provide snow-capped mountains, salt mines and alpine lakes. North-east of Bogota lie whitewashed colonial villages with cute cobbled streets and quirky restaurants, while the Caribbean coast is a riot of Afro-cuban music, brightly-painted houses and luscious tropical fruit. Not to mention the cities: Bogota is fast taking its place on the international dining and hotel scene, while stunning, walled Cartagena is a perfectly preserved colonial jewel, snoozing in the north coast heat.

So natural wonders and urban legends are covered. But one of Colombia's most attractive features is her people. Despite the country's turbulent and often traumatic history, you'd be very hard pressed to find a nasty Colombian. The tourist trade is so new here that no-one's got fed up with silly gringos yet, and tourist touts barely exist even in the most well-visited places. Colombians are party-loving, generous to a fault, patient as saints and just dying to meet you.

Not to be missed

Spend a few nights in Bogota for sure: this high-altitude, chilly city has myriad faces. Hang out in the graffiti-strewn, studenty heart of downtown, La Candalaria, and linger over a hot chocolate with cheese in a colonial cafe. Or head out to Zona Rosa in the north, where chi-chi shops meet boutique hotels and trendy clubs to rival Melbourne, Buenos Aires or Madrid. Make sure to spend a Sunday in the centre of town: the forward-thinking city government closes down all the major roads to traffic and opens them up to a flood of cyclists, strollers, dog walkers, rollerbladers and even wheelchair-bound nanas. It's a blissful day to walk around and visit Bogota's wealth of excellent museums, most of which are free.

Cartagena is also a must: one of the most stunning, stylish cities on earth. Horse-drawn carriages clop past fuschia-pink colonial facades and flower-laden balconies. Meanwhile, the beautiful people (yup, that's you) congregate to sip mojitos and dance to reggaeton and salsa in bars perched high on the 17th-century city walls.

Just three hours away down the coast is a hiker's paradise: the jungle-clad slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains stretch for miles, protecting what some are calling 'Colombia's Macchu Picchu': the Ciudad Perdida. That's 'lost city' in Spanish, and it means a massive collection of stone ruins dating from the first century AD. Couch potatoes need not apply: they're located three hard day's walk from — well, anywhere, and it was only discovered by outsiders in the 1970s. If that sounds a bit strenuous, string up a hammock instead on the spectacular white beaches that line the Tayrona National Park.

Further south, the pretty colonial town of Barichara provides photo opportunities galore, plus a wealth of trendy cafes, shops and restaurants. If you're feeling brave, sample the local speciality: hormigas culonas. That translates literally as 'ants with a big arse' and that's exactly what you get — a handful of bootylicious bugs, roasted to a crunch and sold in snack bags or sprinkled on a steak. We're told they're an acquired taste.

Is it pricey?

Nope, it's cheap as papas fritas. In Bogota, a private room at a hostel is around $50, while dorms are more like $20. Up north on the Caribbean, your $20 will get you a nice ensuite room with a fan. Or better still, buy yourself a hammock and hang it up at a beachside campsite for a mere $5. Bus transport is a bit rickety but perfectly serviceable, and taxi fares are about $2 for a ten-minute ride. An ice cold tinny of Club Colombia will set you back less than a buck.

How do I get there?

Grab a cheap flight to LA then hop south on a budget airline like Copa. Alternatively, fly via Buenos Aires if you'd like to add some Argentine-time to your itinerary. Once you're in Colombia, a recent boom in budget airlines means you can find a seat from Bogota to the Caribbean coast for about $50.

Do I need to speak Spanish?

Well, you don't have to, but your time in Colombia will be hugely enhanced if you make an effort to learn a few key words and phrases. Consider travelling with a Spanish-speaking local. Colombian Travels is an operator owned by an Australian/Colombian couple. They've got a real emphasis on getting out of the obvious tourist places and into the real heart of the country. Visit their site for more details on small group or individual tours to Colombia.

And what about that cheap cocaine?

Colombia's cocaine industry decimates the country's rainforests and pumps industrial chemicals into its waterways. It has forced peasant farmers from their lands and into refugee settlements, and caused whole villages to be slaughtered by narco lords. The drug trade has crippled the country's development and finances a worldwide network of crime and extortion.

Do a shot of aguardiente firewater instead, and future generations of Colombians will thank you for it.

User comments
I loved your article... makes me want to move back there.