South America's emerging hotspot, Colombia, is slowly making its way onto the adventure map for the socially, politically and culturally curious.
“For more than three decades I’ve travelled to and covered, politically and culturally, a conglomeration of countries in both South and Central America … [but] one South American country I’ve not only never covered as an international journalist is, would you believe, is Colombia,” says George Negus, one of Australia’s highly regarded media professional, who will be leading a trip to Colombia in August 2019 with his latest ‘Travel for the Mind’ itinerary.
“I’ve always believed that South America is such a unique chunk of the world that you’d be mad not, at the very least, to keep your eye let alone your mind on Colombia.”
While some areas may still be rough around the edges, the turn of this decade has seen the resurgence of cities like Bogotá and Medellín undergo an incredible metamorphosis making the country comparatively safer than it was 20 years ago.
Having turned over a new leaf, here are some very compelling reasons (with the help of veteran journalist George Negus) why you should start planning your next trip to Colombia.
1. South America's newest foodie hotspot
When in Latin America, you know the food won’t disappoint and Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, is no exception. The burgeoning food scene is making waves as it catches up with its southern neighbour, Peru.
Food festivals, including some of the largest in Latin America, dot the calendar annually, with new restaurants opening their doors to travellers enthusiastic for more sophisticated dining experiences. Some of Colombia’s chefs are also steadily driving the rise of some of the region’s best restaurants list.
An ideal way to try local dishes and sample its cornucopia of fruits are at its fresh produce markets. Street food carts are the epicentres for popular Bogotanian snacks, such as mango biche (salted green mango); maize arepas filled with egg, cheese and ham; caramanola beef pasties and mole de queso (yam and cheese).
It also isn’t hard to find a good cup of coffee in Colombia and there are young Colombian entrepreneurs earning reputations on the international stage with business ventures such as the La Palma y el Tucan coffee farm.
Bogotá could soon be the capital of cuisine in Latin America – you’ll just have to head there to be the judge.
2. Medellín: a city reborn
Few cities have transformed the way that Medellín has in the past 20 years.
As Colombia’s second largest city, Medellín is seen as the ‘greatest urban success story of Latin America’ and has been named as one of the most innovative cities in the world – beating New York and Tel Aviv as the finalists for City of the Year in 2013.
“Once off-limits to visitors due to security issues, Colombia is enjoying increased political stability and a rise in tourism following the collapse of the key major drug cartels that had previously created security issues that limited access for tourists,” says Negus.
Improving the mobility for citizens living in poor communities, steps toward environmental sustainability and its social development programs have allowed the city to move forward from its unsettled past.
Their modern underground metro system has greatly reduced pollution and alleviated crowding in the city’s main district, and the construction of gondolas and a giant escalator that shuttle citizens from the mountainside to its valley below reduced commuter time from 2 hours to mere minutes.
In addition, new museums and cultural centres have sprung up – and been embraced by locals and visitors alike.
“Medellín proves how to get a fresh start against the odds. Finally rid of the city’s most infamous resident, Pablo Escobar and the worst of its drug wars, one of its darkest suburbs now safely shares its barrio streets with travellers like us,” says Negus. “Now, that is a welcome change.”
3. Biodiversity and ruins older than Machu Picchu
Picture laidback Caribbean beaches, Pacific surf coast, snow‑capped Andes mountains, lush coffee plantations, spectacular national parks, abundant flora and fauna, misty green hills, the wild Amazon jungle, magnificent coral reefs and archaeological ruins and you are picturing Colombia.
Head to the country’s northern tip to the protected Tayrona National Park, which is possibly one of South America's most beautiful national parks. Home to coastal lagoons, a trove of rainforests, secluded beach spots and coconut palms, it’s a gorgeous slice of Colombia's Caribbean coast.
The islands of Providencia and Santa Catalina provide access to the third largest coral reef system on Earth, making it an excellent diving spot, and with a third of the country made up of jungle regions, the Amazon is always nearby.
Hidden deep in the Colombian jungle and after climbing 1,200 steps you’ll also find Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City of Teyuna. It’s a magical place full of relics and ancestral stories high in the Sierra Nevada mountains that was once home to a thriving civilisation and is thought to be around 650 years older than Peru’s renowned Machu Picchu.
This range of environmental extremes makes Colombia one of the world’s most biodiverse countries.
4. Authentic culture, art and historical insights
Colombia’s vibrant and fun cultural vibe means the country offers some of the best theatre, film and music festivals of the region.
In the last decade, Colombia has opened a tourism gateway allowing travellers to head to this place which has been off the adventure travel map for so long.
The stunning UNESCO listed jewel in Colombia’s crown, Cartagena, is an exquisite clash of past and present, boasting impressive colonial architecture, stunning beaches, colourful party buses and lively salsa scenes.
A journey down the Rio Magdalena river to the UNESCO protected site of remote Mompox takes you back to Colombia’s colonial character. The riverside town, famous for its architecture and history, actually inspired Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s magical realism novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Traverse the urban innovations that have caught the world’s attention in Medellín, the former home of Pablo Escobar’s notorious drug cartels, where you are never far from Fernando Botero’s art. Immerse yourself in the cutting-edge street art that offers a social and political commentary on this fascinating country’s turbulent history and gives travellers a real appreciation of the changes that have taken place since the 2016 historic Peace Agreement ended a half-century-long conflict.
“Explore, question and probe and ultimately leave these destinations with their own story to tell and a greater understanding of where they’ve been and the lives of those they have met,” says Negus on what travellers can expect in his ‘Travel for the Mind’ journey to Colombia and Chile.
“These journeys are like journalism without a television camera and a smaller but no less critical audience.”
Many people who go to Colombia often plan only a short visit but end up staying much longer, finding it difficult to leave, and with good reason.
As the infrastructure improves, Colombia will soon be the destination to visit, so now’s the time to head there, before the crowds catch up.