Bogot√°, Colombia‚Äôs largest city and one of South America‚Äôs most happening metropolitan areas, is a Capital District unto itself, between Colombia‚Äôs Huila and Cundinamarca Departments. This enormous metropolis has everything‚ÄĒthe nation‚Äôs most comprehensive museums, bohemian and trendy nightlife, artisan shops and mega-malls, international restaurants and ones from the country‚Äôs many regions, and other attractions. Both art and business are booming in this capital, and, although crime and violence is still a part of life here, so are rapid development and tourism. The locals are the most cosmopolitan in the country, and are some of the friendliest and most helpful. As an essential port of international arrival and departure, the city is a sophisticated, increasingly safe and hospitable place to spend a few days. The city itself is situated on the Sabana de Bogot√°, the nation‚Äôs highest plateau, making for cool year-round climate and wet conditions in the winter. After you‚Äôve had a proper introduction to the country with a visit to its impressive National Museum, escape from the quick urban pace of Bogot√° and a taste of slower-paced small-town life. Head an hour north to Zipaquir√° to tour the underground cathedral and salt mine, where the country still gets most of its salt. Or search for the legendary El Dorado at Guatavita, or get in some rock climbing at Suesca.
The Valle del Cauca is situated between the Pacific Ocean and the western ridge of the Andes, basking in a climate that is perfect for agriculture. The heart of this region is Santiago de Cali, Colombia‚Äôs third largest city and often-considered salsa capital of Latin America. Visitors regard Cali as a shocking mixture of a maze-like streets, as a happening home to some of the prettiest girls in the Colombia, and, finally, as the mecca for some of the most coordinated hips in the southern hemisphere. If Colombia were three bears and Cartagena is hot and Bogot√° is cold, then Cali is ‚Äújust right‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒboth in terms of the climate and the people. There‚Äôs a general feel-good nature to this part of the country. At night, Cali‚Äôs Avenida Sexta lights up like the Las Vegas Strip. Yet there are plenty of opportunities to relax and enjoy down-time by the R√≠o Cali, which runs its way straight across the city. If you prefer something more tropical, though, head to the San Cipriano jungle and enjoy a ride on a unique open train car. Or, if you‚Äôre looking for a place to cool off, then take the tourist train inland towards the hills, stopping off in the small towns of Buga and La Tebaida to snap photos of colonial churches and architecture.
Colombia‚Äôs Zona Cafetera (Coffee Zone) is the newest and fastest growing tourist attraction in the country. Comprised of three lush regions‚ÄĒRisaraldas, Quind√≠o and Caldas‚ÄĒit stretches across mountainous terrain at over 1,000 meters (3,280 ft) above sea level. Raspberries, coffee, potatoes and oranges grow naturally among green bamboo and dense forest. This region‚Äôs Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados also offers some of the most postcard-perfect scenes of high altitude fauna and natural life. The strange-looking frailejones only survives in the most arid and cold high-altitude climates. On the other end of the spectrum, the national tree called palma de cera (wax palm) gracefully towers over the Valle de Cocora near Salento, where the river microclimate explodes with bird and plant life. The coffee zone‚Äôs three major cities‚ÄĒPereira, Armenia, and Manizales‚ÄĒall buzz with urban life, while tranquil nature is just a short bus ride away.
Inhabitants of Medell√≠n and Santa Fe de Antioquia are referred to as paisas. They are known throughout Colombia for being a hardworking bunch and are bold in nature. A perfect example is the country‚Äôs former president, √Ālvaro Uribe V√©lez, who had, within one decade, turned crime-ridden and struggling Colombia into a far safer and prosperous place. Indeed, paisas have proven to be the country‚Äôs most industrious, business-oriented and wealthy members of the nation. At the same time, paisas know how to have a good time and share a unique lingo. For instance, when asking a fellow paisa how it‚Äôs going, one would say, ‚ÄúQu√© hubo pues?‚ÄĚ Medell√≠n is really the heart of Tierra Paisa. In the 1980s this violent city was the murder capital of the world, taking center stage as the home to the infamous Pablo Escobar and, along with him, the shady underpinnings of the drug cartel. Within a mere decade, however, Medell√≠n has almost completely reversed its image, highlighting its artistic and vibrant cultural life. In recent years, paisas have actively promoted their land for tourism, and for good reason: the region is spotted with delightful, white-washed colonial towns and conservative yet accommodating citizens with a desire to maintain their cultural heritage. There are several sites worth visiting in Tierra Paisa, such as the colonial masterpiece of Santa Fe de Antioquia.
Isolated by the Cordillera Occidental from the rest of the country, Colombia‚Äôs Pacific coast is difficult to reach and a world unto itself. The region‚Äôs rich cultural biodiversity rewards those travelers who undertake the rigorous journey to this area. Tumaco, easily reached from Ipiales or Pasto, has one of Africa‚Äôs purest expressions in the New World, and several mangrove reserves like Parque Nacional Natural Sanquianga, with great birdwatching, and relaxing beaches at Bocagrande. Buenaventura is the jumping-off point for two other national parks: Malpelo and Gorgona. The Choc√≥, along the northern coast, presents whale watching at Juanchaco and Ladrilleros, surfing, birdwatching and other outdoor adventures. Here the Embera indigenous maintain their culture. Those with guts, time and patience can undertake a coastal journey by local chalupas (boats).
Shaped by the Magdalena River and stretching over 1,500 kilometers (900 mi) across the interior of Colombia from south to north, the Magdalena River Valley runs from the southern extremes of the Andes (at the river‚Äôs source in Huila), through the arid badlands of the Tatacoa Desert, past the towering snow-capped mountain of Nevado del Tolima in Ibagu√© and the hot and sticky swamps of Momp√≥s to the Caribbean seaport of Barranquilla. Willing travelers to this area will be pleasantly surprised by the contrasts and the differences in each town. Starting at Honda, known as both the City of Bridges and Cartagena of the Interior (thanks to its narrow colonial streets), travelers can venture on to Ibagu√©, Colombia‚Äôs music capital. Here you can explore verdant canyons nearby and try to catch a glimpse of a spectacled bear. Then, follow the main cattle route to the Caribbean coast, passing through humid, hot and flat terrain where cattle farming remains the dominant tindustry. Enormous ranches extend out from towns along the Magdalena River and any journey will undoubtedly be delayed by a passing cattle train ambling along a major byway. At Puerto Berr√≠o or the petroleum capital of Barrancabermeja, hop a boat down the Magdalena to Momp√≥s. You won‚Äôt want to miss the smoke stacks, nodding donkeys that dot the horizons, or the Nazarenes on procession in the austere Semana Santa of Momp√≥s, a sleepy UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the great spirit of regionalism that defines Colombia, most people along the Caribbean coastal area are referred to as coste√Īos. These coastal dwellers are full of a zest for life. The low-lying Caribbean is certainly Colombia‚Äôs tropical heart and soul, and coste√Īos take to the pursuit of leisure with great ease and delight. Whether you visit Tol√ļ, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta or Valledupar, the pace of life is slower than the urban centers in Colombia‚Äôs interior. Yet the area is equally as vibrant as metropolitan areas. This coast is, after all, where colonization started back in 1525 with the first European settlers arriving on the shores of Santa Marta. For three centuries, pirates plagued these Caribbean cities, and slavery was a part of life. Impressive stone walls and fortresses were built to protect important ports. Cartagena remains one of Colombia‚Äôs best-preserved colonial cities. To immerse yourself in the region‚Äôs vibrant rhythms, Barranquilla‚Äôs Carnival and Valledupar‚Äôs vallenato festival should not be missed. Of course, Parque Tayrona near Santa Marta is a tropical paradise like no other and a place where many choose to spend their entire vacation relaxing in hammocks or private bungalows beside the tranquil sea. A five-day trek to the archeological ruins of Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) is a rare opportunity to see an ancient city in the middle of a cloud forest and to meet the indigenous Kogis who live in thatched huts and live as they had centuries ago. Finally, get out to San Andr√©s Islands for a taste of Raizal culture, or way off the beaten track to Sapzurr√≥ and other jungle villages near Panam√°.
The arid plains and indigenous Wayuu culture of the Guajira Peninsula create a remote yet rewarding travel destination. Its capital, Riohacha, is surrounded by the desert and Caribbean Sea, and is the launching point for the rest of the region. The southern section of Guajira reaches the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and has heavy farming, cattle raising and the world‚Äôs largest coal mine. Manaure, the major town in the Media Guajira (Middle Guajira) glitters with salt flats and beaches fine for birdwatching. The northern region, the Alta Guajira, includes the scenic deserts of Cabo de Vela, Nazareth and Punta Gallinas. The eastern oasis of Macuira is a cloud forest that even the most adventurous travelers have difficulty reaching. To be certain, the heat and lack of good roads in the Guajira make it Colombia‚Äôs ‚Äúno-man‚Äôs land.‚ÄĚ
The central Andean regions of Boyac√°, Cundinamarca, Santander and Norte de Santander are at the geographical, cultural and historical epicenter of Colombia itself. The gold-worshipping pre-Columbian Muisca Indians played an important role in forging Colombia‚Äôs national identity. It was near Tunja, one of the nation‚Äôs oldest cities, that Bol√≠var defeated the Spanish army in 1819, clearing the way for independence. Just two hours from Tunja is Villa de Leyva, a well-preserved colonial town that is a weekend hotspot for city dwellers. The town center boasts the largest cobblestone plaza in the country. Just outside of town, there are an important archaeological site and an amazing pre-historic crocodile on display in a museum. Farther east lie San Gil, the nation‚Äôs adventure capital, and the impressive Chicamocha Canyon. Both places provide adrenaline junkies with whitewater rafting, rappelling, kayaking and paragliding. Then, just 20 minutes by bus from San Gil is charming Barichara, a small colonial town with colonial architecture. On the border with Venezuela lies C√ļcuta, where ties were forged between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela in 1821. Up deep in the Andes is Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy, with trekking circuits around 21 snowcapped peaks.
Lovely, colonial Popay√°n, Colombia‚Äôs joya blanca (white jewel), serves as the perfect launching point for grand adventures in the must-see archaeological sites, San Agust√≠n and Tierradentro. You will have to endure a rough and bumpy six-hour bus ride to either locale, but the rewards upon arrival are worth the pain in the neck. San Agust√≠n‚Äôs enigmatic stone monoliths‚ÄĒsome twice the size of humans‚ÄĒare scattered throughout the surrounding hills. Tierradentro‚Äôs fascinating subterranean burial tombs, decorated with symbols of moons, salamanders and human faces, provide yet another intriguing glimpse into pre-Columbian times. Both locales are steeped in myth and legend, and situated among gorgeous mountains. Travelers often spend weeks hiking and horseback riding in the cloudy mists and exploring the rolling hills. Midway between Popay√°n and the San Agust√≠n is Parque Nacional Natural Purac√©, where condors soar over p√°ramo plains and volcanoes. Further south are Pasto with nearby Laguna de la Cocha, whose shores are dotted with eco-farms, and Ipiales, the last town before hopping the border into Ecuador. Southern Colombia has many traditional villages, like Silvia and Cumbal, and nature reserves perfect for hiking and birdwatching.
Llanos and Selva
Just over the Cordillera Oriental‚Äôs brow from Bogot√° is Villavicencio, gateway into the Llanos. Here you can savor a different Colombian culture, of coleos (rodeos) and BBQs. Capybara, the world‚Äôs largest rodent, roam the plains where anaconda slither and roseate spoonbills glide. Adventuresome souls can explore three remote national parks: Sierra de la Macarena ,Tuparro and Sumapaz. Just south of the Llanos begins Colombia‚Äôs Selva. On the western edge is Mocoa, capital of the Putumayo. In the extreme southeast is Leticia and its surrounding Amazon jungle, a stone‚Äôs throw from Brazil and Peru. Only reachable by plane from Bogot√°, Leticia is adjacent by land to the Brazilian town of Tabatinga and by boat to the Peruvian village Santa Rosa. Travelers seeking a unique Amazon experience don‚Äôt need to venture far to witness the jungle wildlife in action. Catch the monkeys in Parque Nacional Natural Amacayacu and the pink dolphins near Puerto Nari√Īo.
Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Colombia: Highlights, Highlights, Highlights, Highlights, Highlights, Colombia's National Parks And Reserves, Colombia: A Country Of Contrasts and Highlights.
Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...