How Colombia got its groove back

Colombia has finally shaken off its shady reputation and swapped its troubles for tourism. TNT shows you the way to go

Cartagena credit: garytog

Colombia has long been synonymous with trouble and tragedy. For the past few decades, the South American country has been affected by cocaine cartels, cor-ruption and civil war but, fast forward to December 2016, and Colombia - an in-toxicating mix of South America with a shot of the Caribbean - is finally back on the travel map following the signing of a peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rebels ending what was the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere.

Need proof that Colombia is a hot ticket? Look to Lonely Planet. The travel bible has hailed Colombia the second best country (behind Canada) to visit in 2017. And for good reason for, while the media may have focused on the fracas and fighting in recent years, there is more - so much more - to Colombia than the legacy of drug lord Pablo Escobar and civil war.

Today Colombia is as safe as any South American destination, accessible (in only two weeks you can revel in an overload of experiences from pristine Caribbean beaches to lush rainforests, Insta-perfect colonial towns and world class coffee plantations), utterly invigorating and full of friendly locals who will extend a welcome as warm as the weather to help you.

  • Providencia island credit: diegocardini

  • Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) credit: benedek

Better still, your budget will go a long way here - Colombia is remarkably cheap when compared to many of its South American cousins - even in Bogota, the capital city.

Speaking of which, Bogota typically serves as the entry point to Colombia. Often called the Athens of South America, Bogota will - quite literally - take your breath away perched as it is at 2,600m above sea level. Translation? Altitude sickness can (and will) occur…

Bogota’s biggest draw is arguably the impressive Museo del Oro (www.banrepcultural.org/museo-del-oro). One of the most famous and fascinating museums in South America, it’s home to the largest collection of pre-Colombian gold artefacts in the world. More than 55,000 pieces of gold are laid out over three floors while English and Spanish language descriptions tell the story of these objects through the eyes of those who created them.

Another mustn’t miss museum is the Museo Historic Policia (www.policia.gov.co) - gringos (foreigners) and rolos (residents) alike are not only able to see inside the former headquarters of Bogota’s police force, but are also able to get up close and personal with local guides who are serving a one year compulsory service with the police. All of which means you’ll leave with lots of lively tales with which to regale your mates with, when back home in Blighty…

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Bogota credit: alicenerr

When you’ve had your fill of museums, make a beeline for the bohemian neigh-bourhood of La Candelaria – whose charming, salsa sound-tracked cobble-stoned streets are lined with quaint cafes, tea houses and theatres straight from the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. La Candelaria – a fantastic example of colonial architecture in Latin America - is also where the lion’s share of Bogota’s budget accommodation is clustered. Recommended hostels include Masaya Bogota Hostel (www.masaya-experience.com) and La Pinta (www.laplinta.com.co)

Need a break from the hustle and bustle of Bogota? Escape to the 3,150m Cerro de Monserrate (www.cerromonserrate.com/en). More than just a mountain, it’s a symbol of pride for rolos owing to its gorgeous views of the capital. You can reach the summit via funicular railway, cable car or by climbing the 1,500 steps to the top - just don’t forget your jumper as it gets cold at the apex – even in the height of summer.

Alternatively seek out the Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral (www.catedraldesal.gov.co). Situated approx 50km north of Bogota, it’s one of the wonders of South America consisting, as it does, of an immaculately preserved collection of tunnels, chambers, stalactites and cascadas – all carved, somewhat incredibly, out of salt.

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The Catedral de Sal, Zipaquirá credit: ChandraDhas

Back in Bogota proper, head to Andres Carne de Res (www.andrescarnederes.com) for a dinner you’re unlikely to forget. This legendary 2.76 mile square steak-house can accommodate up to 2,000 of Bogota’s movers and shakers who flock here to take advantage of the 19 page menu before dancing on tables to vallenato (Colombian accordion music). Then strut yourself in a salsa club - preferably in La Zona Rosa, Bogota’s hottest, hippest, drinking destination. And if you’re dancing skills resemble those of Strictly 2016 contestant, Ed Balls, put the panic on hold… simply neck some aguardiente (an anise flavoured local spirit) and you’ll soon find yourself shimmying like Shakira…..

When you get bored of Bogota, pop to Pereira - the gateway to the spectacular Valle de Cocora. Famed for its palma de cera (wax palm), Valle de Cocora is all dramatic green mountains and pretty fields, which comes as a relief after the bright city lights of Bogota. Make no mistake: there’s not much to do in Valle de Cocora - often described as a tropical version of Switzerland - but then that’s the appeal of the place….

From Pereira it’s also possible to tour a Colombian coffee plantation for Pereira is located in the foothills of the Andes - aka Colombia’s celebrated coffee-zone. (Colombia is the world’s third biggest exporter of coffee). A tour of a Colombian coffee plantation should feature on every traveller’s itinerary and TNT can rec-ommend Finca Don Eduardo (www.theplantationhousesalento.com/coffee/coffeefarmtours). English tours take place every morning at 9am with Tim – an amiable Englishman who swapped the grey shores of the UK for colourful Colombia 15 years ago - and gives an insight into the various stages of the coffee production process, as well as providing an opportunity to taste no fewer than four varieties of coffee (called tinto): Arabico Tipica, Caturra, Variety Colombia and Bourbon.

Then shake off your caffeine jitters by moving onto Medellin - Colombia’s second city - that is most definitely having a moment. Bogota may have more history and Cartagena more romance, but no Colombian city delivers anywhere near as much fun as Medellin. Make no mistake: partying is paramount to the paisas (Medellin residents) who can be found cutting loose in El Poblado - a buzzing barrio packed full of hedonistic bars and clubs that are mentioned in the same breath as Berlin and Ibiza - on any given night.

Partied out? Push onto Cartagena. Here horse drawn carriages, cobbled alleys, flower bedecked balconies (a prize is awarded every year for the most beautiful balcony) pretty plazas and statues (saluting the heroes who helped defend Catargena against British and French colonialists, pirates and ultimately from Spain) come as standard. It’s the perfect place from which to salute the sun and, over a Mojito or too, start planning your return…

  • Colourful street in Medellin credit: DC_Colombia

  • San Pedro Claver Plaza, Cartagena credit: DC_Colombia

Essentially Colombia is what a holiday should be - exotic but manageable – much more so than Latin American giants like Brazil, Peru and Argentina. The country is made even more inviting by its people who are happy to share their world with you, having triumphed over adversity…

Our message? Cast aside any preconceptions you may have, pack the t-shirt and sunnies and get going: there’s no better place to start the New Year than colourful Colombia…

Words by Kaye Holland