Discovering Colombia: A Country Back from the Brink
Featured destinations: Central & South America
Published 30 March 2016
Tell someone you’re visiting Colombia and your words will generally be met with wide-eyed astonishment or sudden advice on travel insurance.
Thanks to the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel, Colombia was the murder capital of the world in the nineties. Even after Escobar’s dramatic death in 1993 – shot down, guns blazing, from his suburban rooftop – his legacy of violent crime and corruption rocketed homicide rates for years.
But after a largely successful security drive, Colombia is striding into an equatorial spring of safety and economic growth. It’s this fascinating story, set against a backdrop of breathtaking natural beauty, which means intrepid travellers are arriving in their droves…
An introduction to Colombia
Rich in variety, Colombia is packed with hikes and adrenaline sports in verdant Andean valleys, fantasy Caribbean and Pacific coastlines and a sweltering slice of Amazon jungle.
San Gil and Barranquilla are burgeoning white-water hotspots while Valle de Cocora, with its alpine views disrupted by needlepoint 50 metre wax palms, is a supernaturally-gorgeous valley alongside pretty Salento’s coffee plantations.
The wildlife is exotic to the point of fantasy. Thanks to its varied terrain and tropical climate, it is home to an enviable wealth of animal and bird life, providing a crucial biodiversity hotspot. To drive one hour is to witness panoply of curious fruit and fauna.
And that’s before you find the real action: in the cities.
The big draw, Medellin, holds an inspiring tale of a population that has transformed its fortune. Combine free walking tours around downtown, with a paisa (farmer) van ride through Escobar’s cocaine-stained life and legacy. You’ll get a vivid picture of Colombia’s challenges, past and present. Next ride the city cable car (almost free) for a powerful example of a government pulling its people from the trenches, helping those who live in the hillside slums feel part of the city community.
To the north there’s Santa Marta, gateway to a host of deserted beach towns and on the doorstep of two flagship attractions: Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, a tropical forest of monkeys, vultures and deserted Caribbean sands; and Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), a punishing five day hike through mosquito-bothered rainforest to reach an ancient city, some six centuries older than Peru’s Machu Picchu.
You can lose weeks in mesmeric Cali: it is to salsa what Buenos Aires is to the tango.
Imperious Cartagena de Indias stares down Central America and the Panama Canal.
Ipiales boasts the confounding Santuario de las Lajas, a church suspended across a deep river gorge, and a politically-charged bike tour followed by world-class Museo de Oro, all of which will fire you up for capital Bogotá. Flanked by frozen Andean peaks but as hot as Colombia’s signature tipple, Aguardiente (fire water), Bogotá is the country’s beating heart.
Colombian food and drink
While Colombian cuisine is a little square – think fried meat with a beige rainbow of carbohydrate – famous street food names like empanadas and tamales, not to mention barbecued meats, are frequently tasty.
If you drop into little restaurants offering menu del dia (usually two or three set courses), you’ll be furnished with hearty soups, tangy fish dishes and panela pastries. Fussier eaters might want to avoid the bandeja paisa (fried pork, fried egg, fried beans) and certainly the mondongo (offal stew).
Apart from the amazing fruit on offer, vegetarians will have a tough time finding a solid meal in this largely-carnivorous country. Bogotá, Cartagena and Medellin offer some great meat-free grub though, particularly in big chain restaurants like world-famous Crepes & Waffles.
In the bar, it’s a similar story of local twists on familiar favourites. Aguardiente, a light sambuca, and sweet Caribbean rum will super-charge your evening. For the morning after, make a trip to central Zona Cafetera for a naturally sweet coffee.
For all its delights, there’s no escaping the fact that Colombia’s cartel past is its most intriguing aspect.
In truth the drug trade is the latest unhappy result of long-standing inequality between the common classes and their unscrupulous leaders. As with much of Latin America, such a climate has bred violent dissolution.
Colombians are well aware of their country’s stigmatised image and many feel distant from the outside world. It’s why travellers make fast friendships here – they represent new-found safety, and are sounding boards for local struggles.
Drug networks press cracks of corruption through all social strata. Still there is tension in the rural south, and guerrilla hideouts in the jungle and coast. Whatever anyone tells you though, cocaine in Colombia is avoidable. With a little common sense most travellers won’t run into any but the most minor issue and will leave with a thrilling addition to their stamp collection.