Off the radar for many travellers, Colombia is a destination regularly overlooked by tourists who all too often veer towards its more prevalent South American neighbours. But there are plenty of reasons why you should give this country some serious consideration: it can be visited year-round, it’s the only South American nation to have both Pacific and Caribbean coasts and it is widely regarded as having the friendliest locals in all of South America.
With the country now flinging its doors wide open to tourism this a destination that should feature high on any intrepid traveller’s bucket list, and here are my top five reasons why:
Stroll around colourful Cartagena
The colourful streets of Cartagena are a must for anyone visiting Colombia. This picturesque city was built in 1533 and sits on the Caribbean coast, its beautifully preserved buildings a great example of colonial architecture.
Highlights include Plaza de los Coches (Carriages Square), the official entrance to the town Puerta del Reloj (Clock Portal) and the recently restored Santo Domingo Church. With an average temperature of 28 degrees all year round you’d be a fool to miss this one out.
Stay in a traditional haçienda
For an authentic South American experience, don’t miss out on spending a night or two in a haçienda. The beautiful, family-run Haçienda Bambusa is a real favourite and is located in the province of Quindío, right in the heart of Colombia’s coffee-producing region. It’s a fine example of traditional Colombian accommodation and the ideal base from which to explore the surrounding area and property, which are home to pineapple, plantain, ginger, orange and cacao plantations. This is rural Colombia at its best: a stay at Bambusa offers comfort and an undeniably relaxed atmosphere, where the food is excellent and the service very warm and personal.
Go in search of gold in Bogotá
While Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, is likely to always be a part of any trip to the country (it’s where most visitors will fly into), the city’s Gold Museum is an absolute must-see. Housing the world’s biggest collection of pre-Hispanic gold as well as stone, ceramic and textiles, the museum presents a real insight into the inhabitants of Colombia before its European discovery – those with a love of history will be in their element here. The museum’s most famous piece is its gold Muisca raft, which is believed to link to the legend of El Dorado, and for anyone who finds themselves in Bogotá on a Sunday, entrance into the museum is free.
Back to basics in Villa de Leyva
Deep in the heart of Colombia lies the perfectly preserved colonial town of Villa de Leyva. Declared a national monument in 1954, the white-washed walls of the town’s historic buildings and their stunning countryside surroundings are sure to leave a lasting impression. The town is just 177km from Bogotá but feels a world away from the capital’s busy streets, its cobbled walkways steeped in character and massive square with lone fountain in the middle a reminder of its history.
Located in a high altitude valley at 2,144 m, the area surrounding Villa de Leyva is a palaeontologist’s dream, where fossils from the Mesozoic and the Cretaceous abound. A great way to explore the adjacent area is on horseback.
Off the beaten track in San Agustin
A relatively new spot on the tourist trail in an already off the beaten path destination, San Agustin has recently been removed from the FCO’s list of areas to avoid in Colombia and as such tourism in the area is quite new. The infrastructure here is simple, but if you crave new and untouched places, this is definitely one you can sink your teeth into before visitors arrive in their droves.
The main reason to visit is the San Agustin Archaeological Park, the principal park in San Agustin containing the country’s most important and largest display of stone statues. Almost nothing is known about the exact history of the site or its primary uses, though it is believed that the stone carvings are in memory of the dead, probably the elders or chiefs or the region.