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Facades and balconies in Cartagena - Thinkstock/maomejia

Colombia: An Undiscovered Gem

By Bridget Kapinus

The Harper Way | February 9, 2017

Despite previously being dead last on most travelers’ bucket lists, Colombia has become a rising star in the travel world. With its colonial cities, gorgeous beaches and pristine rainforests, it’s not difficult to comprehend why.

But Colombia hasn’t always been a fashionable destination, of course. The country has a well-documented history of unrest, from brazen crimes carried out by its violent guerilla movement (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to extreme narco-terrorism (à la Pablo Escobar). Within the last 10 years, however, most of these issues have been put to rest. The rebels and government agreed on a ceasefire in 2016, and even years before that, tourists walked the streets in peace. Nowadays, more and more of them are doing just that, and Colombia is making its way to the top of travelers’ must-visit lists.

But why Colombia?

It has a rich history and natural beauty: For visitors interested in art, architecture and history, Colombia is an undiscovered gem. Numerous Spanish colonial churches and fortresses remain remarkably intact and are just waiting to be explored. Important museums and galleries showcase Latin American art, and modern street art provides a colorful contrast to the historic buildings. For those who prefer the outdoors and nature, both the Amazon rainforest and the national parks offer some of the most stunning scenery and wildlife in the world. In fact, every time I see or smell a beautiful bouquet of flowers, I am reminded that those stunning blooms by and large come from Colombia.

Cathedral in Colombia, surrounded by flower-filled balconies Thinkstock/DC_Colombia

It has great weather: While Colombia is close to the equator, Bogotá’s high altitude makes it pleasantly cool throughout the year. Cartagena, on the coast, has a more tropical climate, with a dry season between mid-November and early April.

It’s easy to get to: For most travelers in the U.S. and Canada, getting to Colombia is simpler than you might expect. Avianca has direct flights from most major U.S. cities, while Latam, American, United and Delta offer select direct flights as well. Even better, the flights are seven hours or less from anywhere in the continental U.S., making Colombia a perfect getaway.

Exploring the capital: Bogotá

Nestled against the misty-green Andean foothills, Bogotá is the heart and soul of Colombian culture and an ideal place to begin your journey.

Pre-Colombian artifact at the Museo del Oro in Bogota - Flickr/tijszwinkles
Aerial view of Bogota and the Andes Mountains - Thinkstock/DC_Colombia

Take your time exploring the capital by foot, particularly the historic La Candelaria neighborhood, which offers museums, galleries, restaurants and cafés along its cobblestone streets. Don’t miss the remarkable Gold Museum, located in Santander Park. Though it may be unassuming from the outside, it holds the world’s largest collection of pre-Hispanic gold artifacts, over 30,000 in total. And be sure to make time to mingle with the locals. Colombians are some of the most welcoming and friendly people in the world. A now-dear Colombian friend of mine once told me he would be insulted if I ever visited and did not stay with him.

View of Bogotá from the Monserrate cable car Thinkstock/leomadvr

No visit to Bogotá is complete without taking a cable car to the top of Monserrate, a mountain you can see from anywhere in the city. From its peak you can view the entirety of Bogotá.

Where to stay: The Four Seasons Casa Medina has long been a Harper favorite. Located in the pedestrian-friendly Zona G, the 62-room property was renovated in 2015 and is within walking distance of some of Bogotá’s most acclaimed dining establishments, such as the Peruvian Rafael and the French Criterión (a nine-course tasting menu with wine pairing can be had for less than $100 here).

Deluxe Suite at the Four Seasons Casa Medina - Felipe Quijano

The Coffee Plantations of Pereira

While the city of Pereira isn’t much of an attraction itself, the area surrounding it certainly is. Better known as the Coffee Triangle, this region is now officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors here can hike, bike and horseback ride their way through dozens of coffee plantations while, of course, enjoying samples along the way. A two-night stay is enough to get a taste of the region, especially considering that Mr. Harper has yet to find a hotel to recommend.

Coffee plantation in Pereira, a part of the Colombian Coffee Triangle Flickr/triangulodelcafe

Cartagena

From Pereira, Cartagena is a quick 80-minute flight, and it seems to have something for everyone. This 500-year-old walled city, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is poised on the edge of the Caribbean and offers guests a unique opportunity to soak up history and sunshine at the same time.

There is certainly no shortage of monuments here, ranging from abandoned fortresses, like the massive Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, and Las Bovedas military dungeons, which are now tourist shops. But Cartagena is much more than monuments. The city is also a great place to sample authentic Colombian rums and chocolates, for example, or enjoy a brilliantly fresh seafood dinner (Bohemia Cocina En Evolución is a Harper guest favorite).

Las Bovedas shops in Cartagena - Flickr/joeross
Elaborate dish at <em>Bohemia Cocina en Evolución</em> - El Marqués
Tayrona National Park, Cartagena - Thinkstock/DC_Colombia

For those who prefer to swim and relax, an abundance of beaches fringe the city all the way up the northern coast. Adventurous types can take a four-hour drive along the coast to Tayrona National Park, which offers an amazing display of Colombia’s biodiversity. In this little surfers’ paradise, it’s not uncommon to spot titi monkeys, iguanas and jaguars, as well as more than 400 species of birds.

Where to stay: When the sun begins to set, head over to the beautiful Casa San Agustin, a romantic boutique hotel located in the heart of the old city and an Andrew Harper guest favorite. I can tell you firsthand that the staff are genuinely thrilled to assist you in any way possible.

Deluxe room at Casa San Agustin Casa San Agustin

For more information about Colombia, read about Mr. Harper’s journey there in 2014.

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