Colombia Handbook  By Peter Pollard


If ever a country has a serious image problem, then it’s Colombia. Despite the fact that it’s perhaps the most beautiful country in Latin America, with mountains, Caribbean and Pacific beaches, pre-columbian ruins and a vast swathe of the Amazon, most people associate it with drugs, guerrilla violence and kidnapping. Yet, ask any self-respecting lover of all things South American what is their favourite country and nine out of ten will immediately answer “Colombia”. That may just be the aguardiente talking, but there’s one thing for sure: this most notorious of places maintains a powerful hold on those who know it.

Colombia’s Capital, Bogotá, is as manic and exciting as any other Latin city. It’s a vast, sprawling urban nightmare of choking traffic, emerald sellers on street corners and legions of homeless kids living in the sewers. However, it also happens to be the cultural and intellectual hub of the country. The old colonial district of La Candelaria, in the heart of the city, must be the best-preserved historical centre of any major city on the continent. Here, you’ll find irascible old intellectuals in furious debate with writers and artists in cafés and in the narrow, cobbled streets theatres and universities jostle for space with elegant colonial mansions and churches. The city’s most valuable tourist asset, though, is the fabulous gold museum, which no one should miss, and only and hour or so away by bus is the remarkable Zipaquirá salt cathedral, a tasty prospect for even the most seasoned of travellers.

Worth its salt





Those not arriving in Bogotá will touch down in Cartagena, the finest colonial city in the Americas. Cartagena is also one of Colombia’s top Caribbean resorts, so if all that colonial architecture gets too much, you can head off to the beach and soak up some rays. To the east is Santa Marta, another historic Spanish port with wonderful beaches. Only 50km away are the highest mountains in the country, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which rise straight out of the Caribbean to over 5.000m. Santa Marta is the starting point for one of South America’s greatest experiences, the trek through beautiful rainforest up to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, centre of the ancient Tayrona culture who lived here a thousand years before Columbus was even a twinkle in his father’s eye. After the strenuous trek you can chill out in a hammock on the delicious beaches of Tayrona National Park, the ultimate Caribbean paradise.

Paradise found





Southwest of Bogotá, in lush sub-tropical valleys, lie the country’s most impressive pre-Columbian sites, around the little town of San Agustín. Here, in the Valley of the Statues, are hundreds of huge stone figures of men, animals and gods, some over 5.000 years old. Nearby is Tierradentro, a spectacularly beautiful area riddled with ancient burial tombs, where you can wander in the hills for weeks and not serr another tourist. The main city in the south is Cali, probably best known for its drug cartel which vied with Medellin’s for control of the country’s trade. Uninformed visitors are in for a shock, however. This is a vibrant, sexy city, with the friendliest, most fun-loving people you could ever hope to meet, A night spent drinking rum and dancing salsa in Cali is not forgotten quickly – or the following day’s hangover!

Sights for sore eyes





Colombia certainly has more than its fair share of stunning scenery and classic sights, but that’s only half the store. Its single greatest attraction is surely its people. Not for nothing is Colombia also known as “Locombia” – mad country. Its people are so terminally-optimistic, insanely exuberant hopelessly romantic, it’s impossible not to fall in love with them. For in common with all countries blighted by violence and civil war, Colombians are just happy to see anyone visit their country.

Living la vida loca



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