Ah, Colombia! Land of beautiful people, mountains, beaches, vibrant cities, music, coffee, chocolate, scrumptious food and good times. Warm and welcoming, charming, easygoing, colorful and energetic. These are the words that describe the Colombia I visited just weeks ago.
Colombia beckons travelers to experience a Latin American culture heavily influenced by European and African roots. From food to music, architecture and religion, Colombia’s deep heritage and history unfolded before me in Bogota, in coastal Cartagena and in the interior coffee region of Armenia. While these fascinating destinations opened my eyes to a broad cross section of Colombian experiences, the Colombians I met along the way convinced me to plan a return trip shortly—next time a journey longer than nine days—to take a deeper dive along some of the less beaten paths and discover an even more intriguing country.
An easy destination for U.S. travelers, Bogota is a 3.5-hour flight from Miami and an 8-hour flight from LA. Its time zone matches the Central United States. The city is easy to navigate, and walking and exploring in the hotel zones seems as safe as any U.S. city. A large city of 9 million residents, it is best conquered in the hands of a capable local guide and driver to absorb as much of the city’s character as possible. From the soaring peaks of Mount Montserrate overlooking the city, to the popular, funky La Candeleria district with its eclectic street art, Bogota invigorates the senses through historic public squares and vibrant open air markets, art and history museums and cathedrals. A number of small, boutique hotels, quaint eateries, and entertaining bars thrive throughout the city.
A short flight from Bogota, the district of Quindío is a center for Colombian coffee and cocoa plantations. These small plantations, often only 15 or 20 acres in size, dot the mountainous landscape and form a key export for Colombia and a comfortable means of living for generations of Colombian farmers. The placid, easy going lifestyle on the plantations and the small villages that serve the surrounding locals contrast significantly from the hustle and bustle of the city. I stayed three nights in a cocoa and cattle plantation to enjoy hiking, horseback riding, paragliding, a robust cooking class with the hacienda chef, and a visit to a coffee plantation. There, we learned about the extensive manual process of growing and cultivating coffee and shared a traditional home cooked meal with the farmer and his extended family. Our young guides introduced us to local vendors, invited us into their homes and shared laughs and experiences over beers well beyond the call of duty. A favorite experience was horseback riding along bamboo forests, through river crossings, up steep slopes through the plantations and breathtaking scenery led by a local gaucho and his two faithful hounds.
Cartagena, bordering the Atlantic Ocean is a city of nearly 1 million residents. Part of Cartagena is referred to as Little Miami, with skyscrapers and office buildings towering through a concrete jungle. The only time you might wander into Little Miami is when the Chiva party bus exits the charming Old City of Cartagena, enclosed behind ancient stone walls, to pick up young revelers who didn't get the memo about where to stay in Cartagena. Boutique hotels hidden behind old wooden doors that hide spectacular gardens and private pools are abundant in Cartagena—though these are best navigated by someone with inside knowledge, as each has its unique character and ambiance. Converted from mansions and single-family homes, most hotels have 8-15 suites and a definite feel of home away from home. Nightlife, restaurants, horse drawn carriages, street vendors, performers and musicians are all part of the Cartagena scene. But no trip to Cartagena is complete without a visit to the Rosario islands, where the best bet for a great experience is a chartered private boat. An overnight stay in the islands can also be arranged to explore and relax on pristine beaches—a getaway from the crowds of day tripping speed boats filled will exuberant partiers. A trip to the local market and biking though the neighborhood of Getsemani are also fine ways to enjoy local culture and capture some great photographs and memories.
Ah, Colombia! I look forward to my return visit: to learn, to share, to laugh and to simply Live Out Loud!