When we told people we were travelling to Colombia for our holiday, we got the usual responses – “don’t buy any headphones”, “is it safe?” etc. But our recent month-long trip to this beautiful country, with its diverse environments and friendly generous people, well and truly dispelled the stereotypical images of Colombia.
We flew with Qantas/LAN via Santiago where we spent 3 nights to adjust our body clocks. Our first destination in Colombia was the capital Bogotá. With an altitude of 2640 metres we had been warned to prepare for “soroche”, altitude sickness, but luckily we were not affected by it.
Bogotá is a large city of 8 million inhabitants and terribly congested traffic (fortunately, taxis are cheap) but it also has some large parks and the appealing Cerro (hill) Monserrate where we took the funicular to the top and the cable car back down. At the top there are beautiful gardens, a church, market and a fantastic view of the entire city sprawled across the Andes plateau.
There’s also a wonderful restaurant where we continued to enjoy the view and some delicious comida tipica (typical local dishes), such patacones (a sort of pancake made out of green plantain), lengua con alcapparras (tongue with capers) with yucca, empanadas and Bandeja Pais (a version of a mixed grill that is large enough to feed two people) and the chunky soups that are like a meal and always garnished with slices of avocado. Colombian emeralds are said to be the purest emeralds in the world so we were keen to visit the emerald museum that is next to the Gold Museum – it features a large selection of pre-Columbian gold artefacts.
Near Bogotá are some excellent destinations for day and overnight trips. We took a tourist steam train to Zipaquirá to visit the unique underground Cathedral constructed within the tunnels of a salt mine 200 metres underground. It was akin to a softly lit underground town with the Stations of the Cross leading to a cavernous cathedral. Another overnight trip was to the region of Boyacá to visit the beautiful colonial village with cobbled streets of Villa de Leyva and the pueblo of Ráquira, the ceramics capital of Colombia, where they still produce terracotta pots, mobiles etc.
One of the most scenic places that we visited was the Eje Cafetera (coffee zone) in the foothills of the Andes, where they cultivate delicious coffee. We stayed in a gorgeous little town called Salento; it has colourfully painted buildings, a town plaza that is made for people watching and many jeeps fondly called “willys” that are constantly coming and going, overloaded with tourists. Highlights of the area were our hike in the Valle de Cocora where the extremely tall Wax Palms grow (Colombia’s national tree) and our visit to a coffee finca where we experienced a special coffee tasting “lesson”.
Medellin is a city that was once most well known for its connection with the infamous drug lord and politician Pablo Escobar. This “city of eternal spring” (due to its temperate climate) has since been transformed with its metro, cable cars and electric escalators that connect poorer neighbourhoods with the city. It also features works of the Colombian sculptor and painter Botero who specialises in creating chubby figures.
On the Caribbean coast, Cartagena was a different world to the Colombia that we had experienced up to that point. It is hot and humid and 90% of the population are descendants of slaves – Cartagena was the main port at the time of slavery. Apart from its rich history, the old city comes alive at night with salsa music, dancing, fun and great restaurants.