by David A.G. Fischer,
If you consider yourself to be the variety of traveler who is willing to crawl out on a limb and assume a few extra risks for the sake of acquiring memorable life experiences, then Colombia is most definitely the destination for you. The problem with traveling to this country of endless scenic beauty is not so much the avoidance of violence and guerrilla warfare, but deciding on how long to make your stay and which destinations to highlight on your itinerary.
Since truly knowing a country is becoming familiar with its people and cultures, the inclusion of at least a moderate level of spoken Spanish will be found as indispensable. Also, like any other destination, a handful or two of common sense will help maintain a safe distance from trouble.
So, once you have made the decision to come to Colombia, what are Colombia’s hot vacation spots? Well, first of all, the answer to that question depends on what the adventurer is in search of. This country offers something for every breed of traveler. Whether the objective is relaxing beach time, scuba diving, whale watching, rain forest exploration, mountaineering, municipal integration, small town enchantment or indigenous curiosity, Colombia will satisfy your cravings.
Because most travelers arrive via the friendly skies, orienting your travels around a central location may be the most practical approach. The welcoming, capital city of Bogota can be used as a hub for excursions throughout the country, either by bus or national charter flights. Upon arriving to Bogota, a tourist visa will be issued for up to 90 days. If you decide to postpone your return flight home, visa extensions are easily obtained.
Bogota offers a plethora of sites and activities, many of which are accessible with the city’s public transportation system (El Transmilenio), thousands of independent buses (colectivos) and swarms of taxis. In the downtown center area, there is the must see colonial center of La Candelaria. This colorful and generally well-preserved sector is where the capital city got its start. The narrow, cobblestone streets lined with houses, shops, restaurants and bars of various rainbow chromatics, beckon a visitor’s afternoon stroll or twilight exploration.
From this district you can go to Bolivar Plaza where famous government buildings like the Palace of Justice and the National Capitol surround the historic plaza. Nearby is the Museum of Gold which displays the country’s countless collection of indigenous, gold artifacts. While in this vicinity it would be worthwhile to visit the Museum of Modern Art and the Archaeological Museum, all within walking distance of the plaza.
This sector of the city also houses a splendid collection of churches and chapels which date back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, after the destructive earthquake of 1785, several had to be rebuilt and the original versions were forever lost to history. The current architectural designs, though, are just as inviting to discover.
On the outskirts of the city a traveler can also choose to explore a couple different natural areas like the Laguna of Guatavita and Chicaque Park. These areas provide hiking trails with an abundance of high altitude flora and fauna to observe. A visitor may find it hard to believe that a bustling city with roughly 8,000,000 inhabitants is in such close proximity.
To the north of the city sits the small Muisca indigenous community of Zipaquira. Although the town itself is appealing with fine examples of colonial architecture, the salt mines which lie underground to the west are the main attraction for visitors. These mines house the world’s largest underground cathedral which was excavated from the mineral deposits and opened to the public in 1995. Its unusual intrigue certainly merits a visit.
Although the capital city offers much more than can be mentioned at this point, visitors will find it to be an inviting environment with friendly and hospitable Colombians who are willing to point a tourist in the right direction. Some other popular urban areas worth traveling to are Medellin in the heart of the more tropical coffee region; Cali in the hot valley of Cauca; the white, colonial city of Popayan; Pasto with its guardian volcano Galerias; and the city of parks in Bucaramanga. Around all of these major centers lie pleasant little towns, each with their own particular charm, and each destination promises to offer something different than the other.
One other urban area worth mentioning in some detail and noting on your itinerary is the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena, certainly the most famous tourist destination in Colombia. Cartagena of the Indies, as it is formally called, should not be missed. Listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, Cartagena is home to over a million inhabitants who are largely of Afro-Caribbean descent. Cartagena has a rich history as the Caribbean’s busiest port city. It is most noted for its Old City district which is protected by a huge stone wall built as an impressive structure of military engineering. Its construction was initiated at the end of the sixteenth century following an attack by Francis Drake, and was not completed until nearly 200 years later in 1796 as a result of delays due to tropical storms and pirate attacks. Today, it stands simply as a historical monument which encapsulates the most touristy and attractive part of the city.
This is the area of Cartagena to which visitors from around the world flock annually by the hundreds of thousands. Within the confines of the Old City are the most colorful, colonial buildings with plazas, museums, statues, shops, restaurants and live music. The tropical climate and palm trees are positive contributions to the city’s Caribbean ambiance. A visitor will undoubtedly enjoy the old, colonial atmosphere present
Some of the not-so-positive elements are the intrusive vendors who are incessantly trying to push their goods on the people that they consider wealthy tourists. Get used to declining their offers, and be careful with your possessions as thieves run amuck throughout the city. Not advertised in most travel guides is the social dilemma of poverty. While the Old City is a welcoming place for visitors, the remainder of Cartagena is predominantly impoverished yet well secluded from what visitors will see. Prostitution has also become an increasingly widespread issue.
From Cartagena, visitors can charter day-trips to some of the surrounding islands. One of the most popular excursions is to the islands of Rosario. Here a visitor will enter the natural realm of the Caribbean’s notorious septi-colored sea which beckons one to take a plunge. The waters are warm and inviting with unimaginable visibility. Its refreshment is difficult to match.
A couple of the more well-known and extensively-visited islands further off the coast are San Andres and Providencia. These are reached by charter flights departing from any of Colombia’s major urban centers. While both islands are situated in the middle of that famous seven-colored sea, the prior is mainly for resort bound travelers who are looking to relax with their family or friends. Most people remain in the confines of their resort, as the island itself and the city thereof is quite impoverished and lacking in appealing sights.
Providencia on the other hand, is a paradise for divers and anglers, alike. Smaller, more intimate lodging can be found on this island, as hotelchains have not intruded to the same extent as on San Andres. This island, however, is quite a bit pricier, but also more attractive, therefore worth the extra financial expenditure. Activities can be arranged on the island.
While Cartagena and its nearby islands are certainly the most popular, hot vacation spots in Colombia, they are by no means the only ones. In fact, the country offers so many locals for memorable vacationing that it can be hard to keep track of them all. Cartagena is beyond a doubt the most high-lighted and well known, but there are other regions that swing on the same par with the UNESCO city.
On the country’s western extreme, the Pacific coast offers the whale-watching island of Gorgona, which was once used as a Colombian prison. This island, referred to as Devil’s Island, sits 56 km from the port city of Buenaventura. While the island is inhabited by surreal beauty, the venture required to arrive is recommended only for the truly committed traveler. Flights or buses can be booked from Bogota, or any other major city, to Cali. But the remainder of the journey from Cali to Buenaventura, can only be reached by road.
Once the port city is reached roughly eight hours after departing Cali, a turbulent, 12-hour boat ride must be booked to reach the island. Reservations for accommodations must be made in advance. It is worth looking into, especially during the peak humpback whale season from August to October. This journey will take a traveler to the middle of nowhere, provided that is what you are seeking.
The Amazon Basin is undoubtedly one of the other most popular natural destinations in the country. Located in the southeastern corner of Colombia, bordering with Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, the Amazon is a must see for any nature enthusiast. Flights depart daily from Bogota and arrive to the Colombian city of Leticia in a matter of less than three hours. Reservations for lodging should be made in advance for any number of the small communities resting on the banks of the tributaries that feed the world’s largest, freshwater river system. Accommodations from small, basic cabanas to more moderate hotels with modern amenities can be arranged.
Go online and do your homework. Whatever your tastes may be, you will find this excursion to be one of the best experiences of your life. The Colombian portion of the Amazon has managed to avoid the extensive deforestation that has taken place in neighboring Brazil. Small indigenous communities still use small, hand-carved, wooden canoes as their primary form of transportation in the basin. Community visitations, camping and hiking excursions can be arranged by local guides. Getting into the heart of the Amazon is obligatory for any lover of nature.
These constitute just some of the hot vacation spots in Colombia. While there are countless other great places to explore and experience while in Colombia, a traveler can only take on so much during one visit. Decide for yourself what your principle interests are and use the Internet to study up and determine what is best for your schedule. Try not to rush your trip and plan too much, as you can always come back for additional servings of what this spectacular and diverse country has to offer.
One thing is for certain, after you have been here once, the country’s infectious power of attraction will leave a visitor wanting to come back for more. But that is not a problem, with safety measures being taken by the government in the past several years, tourism is doubling nearly every year. So, educate yourself to the possibilities that abound in this country, and devise your itinerary around some of the countless, hot vacation spots in Colombia.