Drug cartels, bribery and kidnapping…this is what tourists think of when they hear the word Colombia and while it does have a turbulent past, tourism is at an all-time high. People are flocking to this beautiful country to experience the splendors it has to offer.
Not so long-ago Colombia had been in the world’s eye for its crime and corruption. During the 90’s, Colombia had been ranked one of the most unsafe countries in the world with Medellin and Bogota both being the murder capitals of the world. With some tough legislation, Colombia is back and better than ever. Tourism is growing everyday with more people beginning to feel comfortable with the idea of visiting this beautiful country.
South America had been on my travel bucket list for a long time, with Colombia peaking my interest the most. I was hosted by Voyage by Frosch, a Latin American destination specialist company that specializes in creative journeys throughout Colombia. They gave me a small glimpse of what the country has to offer and to show me it’s a safe and beautiful place to visit.
I was only there for seven days, visiting Bogota, the Coffee Zone and Cartagena. In that short amount of time, I have a new appreciation for Colombia. The lush green jungles, the intense coffee culture and the beautiful smiles of the locals make me long for another visit.
This thriving metropolis city that sits at 8,600 feet above sea level has an intoxicating atmosphere that oozes Latin flair with an air of sophistication like that of Manhattan. I arrived on a Friday night, so the streets were teeming with activity in the local restaurants and bars near my hotel, Sofitel Bogota Victoria Regia. I was seamlessly checked in and escorted to my room. As much as I wanted to lounge in the plush bed, I headed to the Four Seasons Casa Medina, a Spanish colonial-style property in the financial district to meet my travel colleagues. We had a lovely dinner hosted by the Four Seasons sales team and learned of our adventure to come. We were hosted in a private room lit by small lamps and candlelight giving me the impression this could be the perfect place for a private dinner.
While, I only spent a day in Bogota, I was able to see the heart and soul of the city with every step. If you only have a short time to explore, here are my recommendations:
1.Distrito Chocolate La Tienda de los cacaocultores colombianos…This is an unassuming chocolate shop located in La Candelaria managed by Nicolas Urbano. Nicolas’ family were part of a group of farmers that lived in the jungles growing coca plants for the drug cartels. They endured many hardships and lost family members to the violence from the drug trade. Nicolas’ father who was notoriously shy became the spokesperson for the farmers when the government started fighting back against the cartels. The family wanted to get out of the drug business and start growing a product that could be legal. They all agreed the cacao (chocolate) plant would be the logical agricultural crop. Not only, would it be legal and if they did well with it, they could sell it to other countries. They did so well in fact, Nicholas’ father was invited to Belgium to tour chocolate factories and shops. While there he got an epiphany, he should open his own shop in Bogota. Since its opening and being featured on Shark Tank Colombia, it’s one of the best shops in the city to get hot chocolate or small sweet treats to take home.
2. Take a graffiti tour – While some may view graffiti as not attractive, many artists in cities around the world have taken to the streets to showcase their artistic abilities. The artists of Bogota are no different. They paint with passion to show their happiness, pain, opinions and social issues past and present. During the tour, one will learn about the influences, artists and history of the artwork while seeing unknown parts of the city.
3. Visit Candelaria – This is the oldest part of the city with beautiful colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, clothing stores, museums, small restaurants, coffee houses and grand plazas. This area is still a bit unsafe with the occasional pickpockets during the day and must be avoided at night. However, I had a trusty guide who led our group around the Candelaria telling us stories of the past.
4.Museo del Oro or Gold Museum – This is the most important museum in all of Colombia and receives around 500,000 tourists a year. It contains the largest collections of Pre-Hispanic gold pieces in the world. This museum is best for viewing with a private guide as they will know the folklore and history surrounding each display.
5.Andrés D.C Bogota – Bogota is filled with wonderful restaurants and cafes, but the one place that keeps a steady flow of repeat customers is this quirky restaurant. The moment I checked-in downstairs, I was greeted by Cirque du Soliel type characters handing out, Aguadiente, the national alcohol of Colombia. Upon entering the restaurant, the intense energy of the music, decorations, entertainers and the general public was stimulating. I felt as if my head was on a swivel at all times. The décor was a mixture of a circus and a thrift shop. Imagine if the culture of New Orleans was in Bogota and Cirque du Soliel was the theatrical entertainment, this perhaps would be the brainchild of these two worlds colliding. It’s five stories high with odd decorations on every level, filled to the brim with tourists and locals alike. Reservations are recommended and are definitely required on the weekends.
6.Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira – Located on the outskirts of Bogota, this is an easy half-day journey that must be seen in person. Salt Cathedral or Catedral de Sal is a Roman Catholic Church located in a salt mine and is the most famous church in Colombia with a massive following of church goers. As we entered into the darkness to descend to the location of the church, 200 meters or 656 feet underground, I felt a bit unnerving. The paths were dimly lit and slippery from the condensation seeping from the ceiling of the mine. Around every curve a different station was carved out of halite salt depicting the birth, life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The entire tour took about an hour to get through and depending on your fitness level and the amount of time you prefer to spend in the mine, it could take more or less time.
Pro tip: if going on a Sunday, make sure to go early as they host mass starting at noon.
Armenia, Colombia or best known as the Coffee Zone is an hour flight west of Bogota. My group landed in a tiny airport with locals bustling about grabbing bags and heading to their next destination. We hopped in van with our guide, Diego, to the beautiful estate of Hacienda Bambusa deep in the jungle of banana and avocado trees and fields of cacao. Upon arrival to the 8-room hacienda, we were promptly greeted by the lovely hotel staff.
I was shown to my beautiful room on the first floor that was equipped with a small patio surrounded by lush vegetation, a cozy hammock and humming birds zipping back and forth taking little sips of their sugar water. For solitude and relaxation, Hacienda Bambusa is a perfect getaway from the noise and pollution of the city. Fortunately, it is also quite close to many places to visit short distances away.
1. Salento – This small, colorful town is a short drive from Hacienda Bambusa and serves as a gateway to Cocora Valley. Here you can grab supplies for trekking and pick up a Willy’s Jeep for the next adventure. There are adorable little shops filled with souvenirs to take back home and small eateries to relax in.
2. Cocora Valley – Hands down one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The mountains were a vibrant green topped with fluffy, white clouds that moved ever so slowly across the peaks. Donkeys and horses dotted the fields and tall palm trees grew the entirety of the valley. There were mule trail riding options or for the more adventurous, trekking up the mountain on foot.
3.Finlandia – Another small and colorful town, but with less tourists than its neighbor, Salento. Beautiful shops blanketed the streets while a lovely restaurant called, Helena Adentro should not be missed. This restaurant is frequented by tourists as the menu is unique and the ingredients are sourced from the local region. The atmosphere is welcoming, playfully artsy and humble while providing some of the best food in all of the Coffee Zone.
4.San Alberto Coffee Plantation – For the coffee lovers or those who are interested in how coffee is created, this is a perfect stop. Owned by two brothers, this plantation distributes Colombia’s best coffee beans globally. The guide explains the history of the plantation, how coffee beans are grown, hand-picked, washed, dried, roasted and finally bagged for distribution. The class ends with a coffee tasting much like a wine tasting, but with more emphasis on picking out the flavors and smells from each cup.
The final stop on the tour was Cartagena and for me, it was very short stop. For years, tourists have been flocking to this tropical city due to cruise ship industry. With incredible character mixed with cultures such as Middle Eastern, African and Spanish, this city has a different flare compared to the other cities I visited. Colorful architecture dotted the streets as music not quite African and not quite Colombian, echoed through the alleys. Women in multicolored dresses walked the streets with baskets of fruit balanced on their heads, locals sold coconut water from little trolleys and Wafuu purses adorned the sidewalks.
Cartagena is one of those perfect cities where you can walk aimlessly for hours admiring the architecture and easily get lost in your thoughts without a care in the world.
While taking in the sights, you will need some nourishment. One of the best meals I had on my entire trip was at the Tcherassi Hotel and Spa. I ate on the rooftop and even though the weather was quite hot, the amazing food and my fellow travel companions made for a memorable lunch. I enjoyed a salmon filet placed on mashed potatoes with a beurre blanc sauce which was cooked absolutely perfect and with every bite, I longed for the meal to never end.
Finally, the dessert came which was a divine little treat - avocado ice cream. The cold, creamy delight was the perfect ending on a hot day.
And while I’m on the subject of the Tcherassi Hotel and Spa, this is a beautiful, boutique hotel in the center of town and an obvious choice for accommodation. The hotel is designed by, Silvia Tcherassi, an icon in the world of fashion. With a cool, beachy vibe, the rooms are inviting and unassuming. The staff are incredibility accommodating and of course the food is heavenly.
Colombia must be on everyone’s bucket list as the country can offer so many different adventures. I understand there is a stigma to this beautiful country, but with the correct tour operators, guides, drivers and accommodations, there will be no issues.
I loved every second of my visit and I know you will too, if you just give it a chance.