When friends heard I was going to visit Colombia several of them asked, "Isn't it dangerous?" Some said, "What about the drug trade?" Other people I met who had traveled to Colombia recently said that Bogota was very interesting, and Cartagena was a wonderful resort city with its own unique personality, in part thanks to its ancient walls. I was told that both were well worth seeing and completely safe for travelers.
I had trepidations but kept them to myself before setting out. But, after a week-long visit to this South American country I have to agree with the travelers who've visited Colombia before me. Things have changed, and travel has gotten much safer there. It is a place that is far different from the one we saw on the news in the 80s and 90s. For adventurous travelers, it is worthy destination that offers a lot to get excited about.
Sitting in an open-air bar atop the wall surrounding the oldest part of Cartagena's, which now a UNESCO Heritage Site, we watched the sun turn the clouds into flames as it sank into the sea. Turning our heads we caught the rosy afterglow lighting up streets lined with Spanish Colonial buildings that made it seemed we had stepped out of time. I was glad I got on that plane, and should you choose to visit, you will be too.
Here are a few things to do once you get there.
Outdoor Adventures Await the Active
Rugged and dramatic terrain for hiking, biking, climbing and other outdoor adventures await active travelers to Colombia. You can bicycle around coffee country and visit organic coffee fincas, go climbing in tumbled rocky terrain near Suesca, or hiking among the towering Quindio wax palms in the Valle de Cocora.
For those looking for a true adventure, consider heading to El Cocuy National Park, a wild and untamed wilderness that offers excellent hiking, camping, and climbing. There are even showcapped peaks for mountaineers to explore, including some that reach higher than 17,000 feet. If you're looking to experience Colombia's wild side, this is a good place to do it.
Trek to a Lost City
One of the most alluring activities for adventure travelers visiting Colombia is the trek to the an ancient lost city hidden away in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Santa Marta. The trek requires three days to complete, but more than delivers on its promise.
The walk is strenuous but not especially hard, although it dose involve climbing more than 1200 steps. But the Lost City itself, which was once home to the Tayrona people, offers some respite from the busy tourist hotspots, not to mention an amazing look at the rainforest while en route.
Want to make the trek for yourself? Expotur can help make that happen.
Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its walled city center and rustic Spanish Colonial buildings, has long been a vacation spot for South Americans. But now, it is attracting visitors from much further abroad too, luring them in with its rustic charm and historic roots.
You can walk, bike, or dine on the wall for spectacular views of the Caribbean. Stay in the heart of the city in hotels, such as the Santa Teresa, which was once a convent, and wander along narrow streets where bougainvillaea spills over the second-story balconies above shops and apartments.
One of the most popular historical sites within the city is without a doubt Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This sprawling fortress was built by the Spanish to protect the port city from invaders and still stands as an imposing image to this day.
Reefs and Wrecks Greet Snorkelers and Divers
Colombia's Caribbean coast features miles of beaches, coral reefs, and sunken shipwrecks to keep divers busy and happy. On the country's Pacific Ocean coastline, travelers will discover more reefs populated by large fish and even humpback whales, which are most common between the months of July and November.
Adventurous divers and snorkelers will want to head to Malpelo Island, which is home to one of the largest shark populations on the planet. At times, the fearsome underwater predators will swim in schools of up to 200 and may include the scalloped hammerhead sharks, which swim in great numbers here but are rare in other parts of the world.
You might want to wear sunglasses when looking at some of the displays in the Banco de la República Gold Museum, or you'll be blinded by the glitter of so much of the precious metal.
This museum in Bogota has an astounding collection of pre-Hispanic goldwork that reveals much about the lives and beliefs of societies that lived on the land that is today called Colombia. It was the over abundance of gold in Colombia and throughout South America that drew the Spaniards, many of whom came in search of their own fortunes.
Bogota Displays Both Today and Yesterday
The capital city of Colombia - home to some eight million people - sits at 8,646 feet above sea level, on a high plain in the Andes Mountains. The sprawling city is a hodgepodge of communities, including chic zones where upscale families reside, areas where modern buildings stand side-by-side with colonial churches, and historic zones that house everything from open-air food markets to trendy restaurants.
Driving on some of the steeper roads between the various city-sectors allow you to catch glimpses of some of the descendants of the original inhabitants in this region, many of whom are still farming small sections of land while tending to their cows.
If you're looking to stretch your legs while visiting Bogota, take a stroll to the top of Monseratte, a nearby mountain that overlooks the city. The trek requires a three to four hour commitment, but upon reaching the top you'll be treated with stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Historically, this hike was an important one for pilgrims, many of whom came to visit religious sites at the summit.
It's on the Caribbean
Waves so gentle they roll onto the sand, without a sound. Snorkel around coral heads right off the shore, scuba dive in deeper water, or just lounge on a beach chair in the sun. That is life in the Caribbean, and Colombia can offer that to visitors too.
Take a boat ride from the docks in Cartagena and within two hours it's easy to escape to an island resort for a day or overnight. We stayed at Punta Faro, a low-key, environmentally friendly resort on Isla Mucura and found it to be a wonderful escape.
For More Information...
The official tourism Web site for Colombia is a good place to start. The site is easy to navigate and offers insights into place to visit if, for example, you're interested in a hiking, biking or adventurous vacation; simply sightseeing, or want to spend your time out on the water.
You can book a variety of activities, from city tours on foot or by bike, to horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking on Viator.
I enjoyed the visit to Colombia and - thanks to a strong police and national guard presence in all of the places we visited - I felt safe. But, keep in mind that the U.S. government does have a current and ongoing travel warning out for this country.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, TripSavvy believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.