The joys of visiting Colombia are no longer to be sniffed at

Lifestyle

The joys of visiting Colombia are no longer to be sniffed at

Whatever you feel about last night’s match ...

Chris Leadbeater

Colombia played England in the World Cup last night and whether you were raving about the result or terribly disappointed by it, there’s no denying that since Netflix’s Narcos series the South American country has been on the minds of travellers looking for a different experience.
Colombia has suffered dark times, but is also a fascinating (and secure) destination for those who fancy wandering a few footsteps from the beaten path. And whether you’re happy or sad about their standing in the beautiful game after last night, it will remain a great place to visit for the following reasons:
1. It’s the comeback kid
You don’t need to be a huge expert in the sociopolitical history of Latin America in the last half-century to know that Colombia has not always been a country you would consider as a holiday option. You may have heard about the internecine conflict between guerrilla groups and the government that has rumbled on since the mid-1960s.
You will certainly be aware of the wars between drug cartels in Medellin and Cali that made both cities hugely dangerous murder hotspots in the 1980s and 1990s. But you may also have registered the fact that, since the turn of this decade in particular, Colombia has become much safer, resolving many (although admittedly not all) of its thornier issues.2. The fifth biggest city is first-rate
Cartagena is a case in point. For many tourists, it is the reason to visit Colombia. Pitched roughly midway along the country’s north-west coast, it still sings of the Spanish Empire, under whose acquisitive eye it was founded – on the orders of conquistador Pedro de Heredia – in 1533. Echoes of the 16th century are many – from the 11km of walls (first laid down in 1586) which protected the fledgling citadel from predators at sea, to the canary-yellow flanks of the cathedral (officially the Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Santa Catalina de Alejandría), which dates to 1577.3. Bogota is an El Dorado of sorts
The Spanish who flocked to the new horizons of Latin America in the 16th century did so partly because they believed it contained El Dorado – a city of gold. Although the conquistadors searched across the continent (and into Central America), Colombia was always deemed one of the most likely locations for this far-fetched financial fantasy.
In some ways, it still is. The Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) in Bogota looks at the country’s traditonal links to this most shiny of metals, and the role it played in the rituals of the Calima, Quimbaya, Zenú and Muisca peoples (among others). In total, it contains 55,000 artefacts – more than enough to send an average magpie-eyed Renaissance Spaniard into tremors of joy.4. And Bogota is a surprisingly pretty city
Perhaps tarnished by the difficulties of the past – such as the attack on the Palace of Justice (the Supreme Court) by Marxist guerillas in 1985 – Bogota has not always enjoyed a most perfumed reputation. It is rarely listed alongside the likes of Paris, London, Rome or Buenos Aires as one of the great capitals of the world. And yet it deserves greater respect as a city of remarkably picturesque contours.
Indeed, its setting is among the most dramatic of the planet's major urban enclaves. It sits in the shadow of Montserrate – a peak which hits 3,152m immediately to the east of the centre. It can be climbed via a funicular railway and a cable car – both of which whisk locals to the top for weekend strolls and spectacular views (cerromonserrate.com/en).5. It is a place for active escapes
Monserrate is part of the Andes. As, indeed, is much of Colombia – the great mountain range of South America runs up it like a spine. This, for those who are so disposed, can make for adventures in high places. Travel Local (travellocal.com), for example, sells a 15-day Active Colombia break which begins its journey in Bogota – but also ventures to Chicamocha Canyon, a chasm which plunges 2,000m at the heart of Chicamocha National Park in north-easterly Santander province. Travellers can trek down the side of a scar in the soil that is deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
6. It has two coastlines
As well as being remote and intriguing, the Darien isthmus also performs a specific role – dividing the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean, thus ensuring that Colombia can boast a coast on two major bodies of water. This means that beaches are a far more significant part of its appeal than many travellers appreciate.
- © The Daily Telegraph

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