As a veteran of the adventure travel industry, I’ve always prided myself on keeping an open mind about destinations that haven’t yet caught on among North American travelers. I see now that my pride has been misplaced: it took me until two months ago to visit Colombia and to fully appreciate the magnitude of my oversight!
It’s easy to get caught up in the euphoria of traveling and to quickly draw exaggerated conclusions. But I find that I’m still enthusiastic about Colombia. I was particularly impressed with Cartagena which, along with Antigua, Guatemala, is the most impressive and well-preserved Spanish colonial city in all of the Americas. Cartagena has an unmistakable Caribbean “tropical” vibe along with attractive 16th century fortifications, narrow cobblestone streets, cathedrals, palaces, and brightly painted houses made from hard coral and stone. Eclectic restaurants, interesting museums, courtyards and lovely plazas add to the charm. Those looking for nightlife may enjoy live Caribbean Colombian music, Colombian Rum and/or festive rides in a Chiva, a typical wooden open-air party bus!
If history is your thing, then you’ve also come to the right place: a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cartagena was founded almost 500 years ago as a principal port city of the Spanish empire. It housed gold and silver stolen from the Inca and other indigenous people, withstood waves of attacks from pirates and later became a major slave trading city. You’ll probably want to stay long past your half day walking tour of the old city. Personally, I’d rank Cartagena as my third favorite city in Latin America after Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.
Another gem was Tayrona National Natural Park, an incredibly beautiful park that boasts the highest coastal mountain range in the world, with two peaks reaching 19,000 feet! Tayrona lies three hours east of Cartagena. Though situated on the mainland, Tayrona reminded me of one of the Seychelles Islands, Praslin, because of its crystal clear water and it chain of pristine sandy beaches interspersed with unusual and impressive rock formations. Lining the beaches is dense tropical rainforest, including tall palm trees. Birds and monkeys are plentiful. There is also the incredible backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, something that Praslin lacks. Though lounging by the beach is an option, the scenery is so impressive that most people feel compelled to hike, as I did.
I’d recommend spending 2 nights at idyllic Ecohabs lodge on one end of Tayrona and then hiking from Canaveral (Ecohabs) to Arrecifes beach and then continuing on to San Juan de Cabo. You can hike (on your own or with a private guide) through coastal tropical rainforest and/or along the beaches, climbing over several rock formations. The hiking is generally easy to moderate, the scenery is spectacular and there are a couple of spots to stop for a tasty lunch. Assuming that you linger at each stop to swim, take photos, grab a bite to eat or relax, the round trip hike can take you a full day. You won’t want to rush it once you’re there.
About 1 hour west of Tayrona – in between Cartagena and the national park – lies the attractive coastal city of Santa Marta. The colonial downtown and lively beach promenade are worth exploring. History buffs should visit Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the place where the great Liberator Simon Bolivar died, an event that is commemorated with an impressive colonial house/museum/monument. Quinta remains, even today, a virtual pilgrimage site for many South American political leaders. If sports are of greater interest, then you can visit the memorial to Colombia’s most famous soccer star, Valderamma (“El Pibe”), a native of Santa Marta (as is current soccer sensation Falcao).
Barranquilla doesn’t have the charm of Cartagena or Santa Marta but is well worth seeing for a day. Home to the word’s second largest Carnival celebration, birthplace of singer Shakira and vitally important to the writings of Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Barranquilla is a sophisticated cultural center as well as an industrial port city. Take the time to visit the highly entertaining and interactive Carnaval House Museum which provides colorful exhibits, costumes and videos on all aspects the festival. If Carnival is not your bag, then visit the superb Museum of the Caribbean. Make sure to dine at La Cueva, an impressive restaurant/bar/art gallery/nonprofit foundation that memorializes the many Colombian intellectuals, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who used to write, paint, drink, debate and eat there. Full of character, it is the sort of hangout that Ernest Hemingway would have loved! Bullet holes adorn the establishment’s main fresco – because of an insulting comment by the painter – and the locked front door was once bulldozed at 4am by an elephant who was brought over from the nearby circus by a regular who decided that he had not yet had his fill of whiskey. An in-house movie theatre plays a documentary on La Cueva’s history and contributions to Colombia’s culture.
One last option in Barranquilla is to take an interesting tour of the main school supported by Shakira’s nonprofit Barefoot Foundation.
Many other places in Colombia beckon as well – the Coffee Triangle, Bogota, Medellin, Cali and the Amazon. I will return soon to explore more of the country but for now I am happy to have sampled Colombia’s Caribbean coast. I must say that, despite Colombia’s turbulent modern history and the continuing US State Department Travel Warning, I felt quite safe and would recommend the country to others. Many thanks to the last two Presidents, Uribe and Santos, who achieved great progress in improving the security situation.