The Skinny On Colombia

Our fearless expeditioneer enlightens us as to the improving situation in South America's most notorious state – either that or he's showing off again...

Feature by Ally Brown | 03 Aug 2012

For much of the latter part of the 20th century, and the first three years of this one, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world. Such an awful and recent claim to fame is hard to forget; for ordinary Colombians, it’s a persistent source of shame. But after a decade of improvements that rate has now halved, other violent crimes are becoming rarer, and the country is opening up to tourism. Now, backpackers across South America are quietly raving about Colombia. They’re enthusing about the genuine warmth of the people, the relative lack of other tourists, and the huge variety of places to go and things to see and do. As the shadow of violent crime lifts, it reveals a country brimming with attractions.

Of course, any visitor to Latin America needs to pay more attention to their personal security than any traveller in Europe or Asia. It’s not wise to be drunk and alone at night in Bogotá, to wander into any of the poorer parts of Medellín, or to venture into the FARC-controlled jungles of the south-east. Colombia is off-the-beaten-track; don’t push it. Keep your head screwed on, follow any advice you’re given, and understand that the overwhelming majority of Colombians are good and the overwhelming majority of tourists will go untroubled.

Bogotá is Colombia’s capital, its largest city (pop: 8 million), its cultural and educational centre, and the main entry point for anyone flying in from Europe or the US. The weather is often chilly and overcast, there’s not a lot for tourists to see, traffic congestion is a problem, and downtown is often hectic, strewn with litter, and full of beggars. Many people don’t warm to it and quickly plan their exits, but if you have time, Bogotá is a grower. La Candelaria, the near-downtown old colonial quarter, is full of charm, thanks to 17th century buildings, stunning street art, the students of the nearby universities, and the shops and bars that cater to them. Nightlife in Bogotá is as exciting as in any city of its size, and it’s a good idea to meet some locals to show you around. It’s easy to enthuse about 'friendly locals' anywhere in the world, while indulging in generalisations based on brief meetings with tourist-trained locals. But the warmth of ordinary Colombians, especially apparent if you speak a little Spanish, is inspiring. Go to La Villa’s Tuesday language-exchange night, or any of the regular Couchsurfers’ meet-ups or parties, and you’ll meet young Colombians who appreciate that you’ve looked past Colombia’s bad reputation, and are keen to fill your open mind with reasons to love their country. Don’t miss the Museo del Oro [Gold Museum] either.

Two hours outside of Bogotá is Zipaquirá, where the owners of a massive salt mine have built a dramatic underground cathedral into the salt, more for religious tourists than for the miners, as it happens. Three hours from Bogotá is beautiful Villa de Lleyva, founded by Spanish colonialists in 1572. Don’t bother with the tour of nearby dinosaur prints; just relax in the beautiful gardens and coffee shops of the village itself.

Colombia’s second city is Medellín, nine hours from Bogotá by bus. Medellín’s recent history is dominated by Pablo Escobar, the extraordinarily wealthy kingpin of the Medellín drugs cartel until his death in a police gunfight in 1993. Medellín enjoys better weather and prettier community parks than Bogotá, some of the latter funded by Escobar’s cartel. Tours of the city based on Escobar’s life and influence are popular, but you’ll be supporting his family if you take the expensive tour run by Pablo’s brother. Medellín used to be the most dangerous city in the world, and its murder rate is still more than 30 times that of Glasgow. Almost all tourist accommodation is concentrated in the rich area of El Poblado, a short walk from the main nightlife zone, Parque Lleras. There’s a bewildering variety of bars and clubs around Parque Lleras, and you’ll spot a few dolled-up, plastic-enhanced (ass implants are not uncommon) girls fawning over suited, sunglass-wearing men. Escobar has gone, but the entourage has not. Be sure to save a few days for Guatapé, a gorgeous village 90 minutes from Medellín surrounded by rivers and lakes, where you can also climb a 200m high monolithic rock to see magnificent views of the area. It has to be seen to be believed.

West of Medellín is the Zona Cafetera [Coffee Zone], roughly surrounding the line drawn by Manizales, Pereira and Armenia. Close to the latter is the picturesque village of Salento, where it’s easy to get stuck for longer than you intended, because of the beautiful setting, gentle way-of-life, the atmospheric old bars, and the cheap and comfortable accommodation. From Salento a day-trek in the Valle de Cocora is a must, where you can first arrive at a jungle hamlet surrounded by flocks of hummingbirds, before ascending to a glorious valley full of 100m-high wax palm trees.

South of Salento, the nation’s third biggest city Cali receives mixed reports: it’s no more than functional by day, but its salsa-based nightlife is world famous. Popayán is a beautiful and quiet old colonial town, entirely painted white, like Bolivia’s Sucre. Further south, right on the border with Ecuador, is a magnificent church called Santuario de las Lajas, built 60 years ago in an extravagant gothic style and perched 100m above a dramatic ravine.

On the north coast, on the Carribean sea, is Colombia’s biggest tourist destination, Cartagena. Tourists don’t see the vast majority of this 1 million population city, because the walled old town, founded in 1533, is so beautiful. A long beach on the mainland is backed by soulless modern hotels, but a much better beach is easily accessed by boat. Ignore the painfully slow and expensive tourist boat to Playa Blanca in preference for the local jetboat-taxi which leaves from behind Mercado Bazurto. On arrival, turn left towards the less-developed end of the beach for a quieter and cheaper stay. The water is warm and crystal clear and you’ll be surrounded by little yellow fish just a few metres out; it looks a lot like paradise.

Further east along the coast is Santa Marta, which again features a pretty historical centre, but is mainly used as a jump-off point for the nearby Tayrona National Park. The NY Times advise getting there with a $50 taxi; The Skinny suggests you jump on a bus for $2.50 instead. From the entrance it’s a two-hour walk to the best beaches, through lush coastal jungle where spider monkeys and giant blue butterflies live. La Piscina is, as its name suggests, the best beach for swimming, but the double arch of El Cabo is the most spectacular, and you can sleep in a hammock or a tent just yards away.

Lots of travellers talk of under-budgeting for time in Colombia, because there’s a huge variety of places to go, and everyone seems to get stuck somewhere. I unexpectedly spent two weeks in Bogotá, and could’ve easily stayed longer in Salento, Guatapé and on the Carribean coast. The beautiful ancient village of Barichara and nearby adventure capital San Gil will have to wait til next time, as will gringo diving resort Taganga, the remote Carribean islands of San Andrés and Providencia, the six-day jungle trek to La Ciudad Perdida [The Lost City], and many more places. Few countries on earth can offer so much; Colombia’s reputation will soon soar.