Colombia is not usually the top travel destination for Americans. But after living in Colombia for six months, David Lee shows us why it should be.
[singlepic=1545,200,,,right]Colombia is not the first, second, nor even the third destination most travelers have in mind when planning a trip to South America, which is exactly why it can be so rewarding to visit. While the rest of the world remains scared away by outdated stereotypes and Hollywood movies, curious travelers can explore a variety of dynamic cities, traditional pueblo towns, and undeveloped tropical beaches.
Safety is the primary concern on everyone’s mind when considering Colombia as a tourist destination. President Uribe, currently in his second term, is widely credited with marginalizing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and opening up the country’s main roads for safe travel. While visitors should continue to guard against robbery and theft, the likelihood of being kidnapped around any of the main tourist destinations is minimal. Drug and gang-related violence tends to be targeted, thus you are unlikely to be affected unless you are purposefully hanging out with the wrong crowd. Feeling better?
Colombia’s capital, and by far its biggest city, is situated 2,500 meters above sea level, ensuring cool temperatures year-round. Bogotá may not be the most attractive city in the country, but it is considered the most cosmopolitan, with the widest array of dining options, a lively nightlife scene, and a host of worthwhile sights to see.
Popular activities include visits to the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral) and Museo del Oro (Gold Museum), a walk through the historic La Candelaria neighborhood, gondola ride up Cerro de Monserrate for sweeping views of the city, and a night out at the pubs and discos of the city’s Zona Rosa.
[singlepic=1546,200,,,right]Nicknamed the City of the Eternal Spring, Medellín sits in a valley surrounded by beautiful green mountains. Situated at a lower elevation than Bogotá, the unique microclimate is a main draw for travelers and American retirees who often stay longer than planned, or return home only to move back to Medellín for good.
Colombia’s second largest city features a modern, clean metro system with two lines, and two cable cars designed to improve the quality of life and safety within Medellín’s poorest neighborhoods. An abundance of yellow, metered taxis make getting around the city even easier, while the local buses offer the cheapest option for the truly adventurous.
Popular activities include visiting the Museo de Antioquia, posing for photos with the iconic sculptures of Fernando Botero in Parque Berrío, city views from Pueblito Paisa – the model of a traditional Colombia pueblo town which sits upon a hill, paragliding, salsa lessons, and partying with the locals in the bars and clubs around Parque Lleras.
Cartagena de Indias
[singlepic=1544,250,,,right]The romantic and charming colonial city of Cartagena has long been on the cruise ship circuit as a safe destination to unload tourists. Partly as a result of the old city’s listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, the tourism industry is more developed in Cartagena than elsewhere in the country. Whether this is seen as a plus or a minus depends on the traveler.
Narrow, cobbled alleys are perfect for getting lost and Caribbean breezes do their best to counter the tropical heat and humidity. Beaches are easily accessible by taxi or bus, though the prettier ones such as Playa Blanca, which are frequented by Colombians more so than tourists, are a little farther out.
Popular activities include walking tours of the old city, admiring the Spanish colonial architecture, catching some sun on the beaches, scuba-diving, and boat trips to the nearby archipelago of Islas del Rosario.
Santa Marta is a popular jumping off point for more remote, Caribbean coastal communities and parks, including the small fishing village of Taganga, beautiful Parque Tayrona, and the pre-Hispanic Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) which requires a multi-day jungle trek to reach.
Cali has developed a world-renowned reputation for two things: salsa dancing and plastic surgery. If either appeals to you, then consider a stop in Colombia’s third largest city, which is notably hotter than Medellín due to its proximity to the Equator and not quite as safe (yet).
Popular activities include sharing the floor with world-champion salsa dancers and the Cali Zoo, which features approximately 1,200 animals, many of which are endemic to Colombia.
Photographs by David Lee. All rights reserved.