Where to go in Colombia, South America: I was recently invited by our Virtuoso partner, ProColombia, or the Colombia Tourism Board, to their trade show and experience the country through some touring. I packed my suitcase and threw away my preconceived notions born of remembered newspaper headlines of my youth and fueled by Narcos, and headed off for an adventure.
Where to Go in Colombia, South America: The Big Three of Colombia – Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena
I will call this report the Big Three of Colombia, because I visited Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena.
These are the essentials to cover in Colombia, one of my top travel destinations, on a first trip. And, as I learned, the country is so big and diverse, there is plenty of reasons to return again and again, and never repeat a step, except to change planes at an airport.
Bogota in the Andes
I started in Bogota, an immense city high in the Andes.
Although I didn’t experience it myself, some visitors do take a while to adjust to the high altitude. The one place I did feel it was when climbing up to Montserrat, the high point overlooking the city with a spectacular cathedral. The mountain top is also reachable by funicular, so there isn’t a need to test your lung capacity with a climb. I am moderately fit and that steep climb was a challenge!
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The Four Seasons Casa Medina in the G Zone
As a luxury traveler, I stayed at the Four Seasons Casa Medina, a beautiful property with Spanish accents and arched doorways in the high end residential district.
The property had belonged to a wealthy family at one time. A typical central courtyard that keeps the home’s interior quiet and cool is enclosed by the older mansion and a newer tower, typical of many historic hotel properties in the city. My room, #207, overlooked the leafy courtyard from its floor-to-ceiling windows.
The hotel is in the G (for gastronomy) zone where many of the best restaurants are located it is near the upscale neighborhoods of Bogota and the financial district. The spa was small but well-appointed.
The Four Seasons Bogota in the T Zone
I also saw the Four Seasons Bogota in the T Zone. This is a lively district of shops, cafes and entertainment. The hotel had a newer feel and modern design in a typical box structure. The spa here is bigger than at Casa Medina. The rooms had a recent refurbishment. I would suggest the action-lovers and families here; romance, quiet-seekers, those who like to feel “of” the destination should choose Casa Medina.
Touring the City
I woke up early in the morning to discover the city with a great guide, Freddie, and our driver, Manuel, both of whom were spectacular. It was like having friends in the city to take me to around and show me the way of life in Bogota, so much more than just the tourist sights.
When began our day in the all-important flower and food markets (sampling all the way) and satiated, made our way to the old La Candelaria section of town, the political epicenter of Colombia from Colonial to modern times.
Social Structure of Colombia
We traveled through various neighborhoods where I got a primer on the social structure of Colombia. Society is divided into 6 strata, 1 being the poorest and 6 the uber-wealthy.
The tax system is designed to support those in the lower (1 and 2) strata; the wealthy pay more in taxes so that utilities such as electric and water are available to all.
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Visiting the Gold and Botero Museum
After a typical lunch at a local restaurant, we went to the astounding Gold Museum for a fascinating lesson in pre-Colonial history, and to the Botero Museum, where many of the famous painter and sculptor’s works are (there are more important works in Medellin, for which the Master had a special affinity.) All the time I got history, culture and social structure lessons in an easy-going and digestible manner, thanks to Freddie.
Hotel L’Opera in La Candelaria
Sidebar: another hotel I will highly recommend for those who want to be in the old section of town to be near to museums, main attractions, the seat of government is Hotel L’Opera in La Candelaria.
It is a lovely old palazzo with its own more modern tower and features two restaurants, one in a leafy courtyard and one on the rooftop with great views over terracotta rooftops to the grand Cathedral spires.
Medellin, the Beautiful Phoenix Risen from Devastating Ashes
My next destination was 45-minute flight to Medellin.
Medellin is a wonderful city despite its past reputation. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and in the hands of a great local guide like Mauricio, you will not have a worry.
You will be a witness to its beautiful Phoenix rise from devastating ashes.
Once known as the most dangerous city in the world 20–plus years ago, today it has been designated as a city of culture. It is clean, modern, efficient. It has tremendous infrastructure; a great Metro system includes a funicular to neighborhoods that climb the mountains that surround the city in the valley, and allows the poorer population to travel with ease to work.
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Supporting the Poor
The poorest communities are well-supported now by the government, where once they suffered in violence and its citizenry caught between rebels, FARC and governmental forces.
A museum dedicated to the “disappeared” of that era is the newly-opened Museum of Violence and Remembrance, a story-telling place that doesn’t hide the truth of kidnappings and disappearances but is also a place of healing for victims and surviving family members. Much like the Holocaust Museum in DC, it is a place to educate and inform.
My time in those neighborhoods proved to be inviting and friendly. This is particularly so in the infamous Commune 13, which, at the time the city was the most dangerous in the world, was probably its most dangerous quarter.
If you want to learn about that time of guerrillas and FARC, the government’s solution, and the suffering of its inhabitants, then you MUST take a graffiti tour here.
Going on a Graffiti Tour
I was so profoundly moved by our experience, led by a local graffiti artist, Biko, he grew up in the neighborhood. Any member of Casa Kolacho could be your tour guide, whether he or she be a hip hop or rap artist or a graffiti artist.
The purpose of this school/studio/touring center/street artist community center is to foster better relationships among the people and provide a space for the youth to go to learn the various arts and stay off the streets.
Besides being emotionally connective, the actual graffiti and colorfully painted houses of the Commune 13 district were beautiful. The tour was my most transformative experience of the whole trip (in addition to realizing Colombia is awesome).
Art and Culture in Medellin
The Medellin city center is terrific particularly on a weekend when the families are out to play, children frolicking in the water parks. And there is the square with Botero bronzes and the art museum with the Botero exhibit curated by the Master himself.
Hotels and Nightlife in Medellin
The hotels in Medellin that stood out here were the Movich properties and the Intercontinetal. There are other perfectly nice hotels that can suit your needs. Nightlife in Medellin is plentiful. There are some zones that are better than others and you should have a good guide or concierge to give you recommendations. Here are wonderful restaurants and best of all salsa clubs with live music.
Medellin’s Flower Festival
Medellin is also known for its flowers and the Flower Festival in August is a cultural experience not to be missed.
Adventure & Experiential Travel
It is an adventure capital as well; in the surrounding mountains of both the central and eastern Andes there are active and adventure activities galore, from mountain biking and hiking to paragliding to bird watching.
Artisans in Medellin
I went on a circular route to villages surrounding Medellin in the local Sunday ritual of the city-dweller, to get out of town for a bite to eat. There are several artisan shops selling wares from all over Colombia, and a shop guide led me throughout the country and its many ethnicities through their handicrafts.
Another day in Medellin I attended a lunch with a famed local chef Francisco Rodriguez of Herbario who also took me to the market beforehand (with many tastings as well). There were fruits I never heard of before and they all were delicious, especially when made into juice, which is very much a local “thing”.
Herbario (# 1030, Cra. 43d, Medellín) is one of the best restaurants in Medellin, but besides its food I like it for two other reasons.
First, it supports the deaf culture by inviting deaf interns to learn how to be in a kitchen and be part of a cooking team. Second, it pays fishermen a fixed rate to fish for their tuna with rods, rather than nets, to keep the tuna from bruising before they get to the restaurant. It is a far more sustainable fishing practice as well.
My last stop in Colombia was Cartagena
The city really has a Caribbean feel in its climate and tropical weather (it is right on the Caribbean Sea) and in its people rooted in Spanish and African heritage.
Exploring the History and Culinary of the Old City
The city is best experienced in the Old City, the inner walled town, consisting of the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego. It is a real gem of colonial architecture, packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and colorful mansions with their famous overhanging balconies and shady patios.
I spent time with the scholarly guide Roberto during the morning, before the heat of the day to show me the city and its attractions and on a street food walking tour with the engaging Federico in the evening, which was a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.
Ladies in colorful skirts and headdresses carried fruits on their heads, and sold mixed fruit slices in icy cups.
Men in cut off pants sold grilled meats on sticks.
My favorite place was a stand in the shape of a sombrero that sold the tastiest shrimp cocktail I ever had.
For another great food-related experience I requested a cooking class in a local home, and was treated to a social enterprise where local tourism students served as interpreters for the family. I cooked with the mother and grandmother while young children played in the home’s interior shaded courtyard. The grandfather sat in the shade reading his newspaper. We all ate together at a large table. This was a highlight because I learned how regular families live – and came away with some great recipes.
The food in Cartagena is fresh and plentiful, and it is a wonderful place for street food and seafood. Being right on the Caribbean, seafood is exceedingly fresh.
Don’t Miss El Boliche Cebicheria and La Cevicheria
Around the main square, two local restaurants I can highly recommend in order of my favorites are El Boliche Cebicheria (17, Cra. 8 #38, Cartagena), owned by a young husband/wife team, and La Cevicheria (Cl. 39 #7 14, Cartagena).
Both serve outstanding ceviche, a seafood dish typically made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with ají or chili peppers.
Variations are made by adding additional seasonings, such as chopped onions, salt, and cilantro, and the dish is accompanied by select sides to enhance the flavors. I loved the interior of Boliche and its wonderful staff. It looks like a hole in the wall until you enter its brightly painted interior with lovely funky furnishings and cool lighting. The bar is wonderful as is their signature drink, an “aromatic” of fresh fruit-infused light rum.
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Modern Hotels in Cartagena
There are modern hotels in the city of Cartagena, but I preferred the Old City with its historic buildings surrounded by the protective walls that withstood pirate attacks, and invasion efforts of foreign governments.
Many palazzos have become luxury hotels.
Casa San Agustin
Casa San Agustin is perhaps the most luxurious of them all.
It is a spectacular hotel made up of 3 palazzos which surround that typical – and in the hot and humid weather, necessary- shaded inner courtyard- this one with a pool. It has all sorts of places to gather, from afternoon tea in the Library, to quiet nooks throughout, to a lovely rooftop garden and bar.
I ate a delightful dinner in its renowned restaurant, Alma, a real place to see and be seen. The rooms are well-appointed and the deluxe ones open onto a private leafy space with private plunge pool.
Nearby is a boutique property, Ananda Hotel in a smaller palazzo with courtyard dining and restaurant, a walled pool, and a rooftop with Jacuzzi and lounging beds. The rooms are spacious and the tiled bathrooms quite luxurious.
Where to Go in Colombia, South America: Highlights and Takeaways of My First Trip
Part of Colombia’s fame lies in its coffee.
There are many coffee-centered experiences to have. One is to go to a coffee region to stay, learn about growing, harvesting and processing the bean; another is in coffee tastings. I had two tasting experiences; one in Bogota’s Gold Museum, and another with my Medellin chef-host at an acclaimed coffee shop. Each experience focused on the brewing process in different devices and methods which brought out different tones and levels of smoothness from the ground beans.
it is easy to get into the countryside from both Bogota and Medellin.
From Bogata you can go explore Colonial towns and the famous Salt Cathedral, but you can also head to quieter mountainous areas where ecolodges and wellness centers welcome you to rest and respite.
From Medellin, I headed to Guatape to climb this ridiculous rock and major tourist attraction that sticks up on its own it thelandscape. The area is one great big reservoir that filled up a valley and meanders around the green, green land. It is a vacation location for the wealthy who own “farms” there and for campers and other holiday-makers as well. It also is a sportsman’s paradise for boaters and sailors, any water sport (though the water is COLD), and outdoor enthusiasts. But the relocated town of Guatape is so charming as to border on sweet. Its happy tradition of brightly colored houses and wainscoting frieze art lifts the soul- and to be taken around in their taxis which are motorized tuktuks was great fun.
The Weather is Different in Each Part of the Country
Medellin, the City of Eternal Spring has delightful weather that for the most part is in the 70s all year round.
Bogota, on the other hand, is a bit of a mix; one day could be sunny for a while, but clouds and rain or hail will come. There are definite seasons here.
Cartagena is very warm and Caribbean in climate and atmosphere.
The Cost of Things in Colombia
Did I mention your money goes far in Colombia?
Unless you are buying quality gold (best place: Gold Museum) or emeralds (the Emerald Museum in Cartagena has good vetted sources), you will be pleasantly surprised at the modest prices. If you are serious about buying gold or gems in Colombia, ask your guide for guidance as to where, for quality can vary.
The Elephant in the Room, Addressed
Now I want to address the elephant in the room (and the reason some will not read this report, maybe): The perceived danger of Colombia.
Are there drugs? Yes.
Are the areas where there is drug trafficking dangerous. Oh, yes.
But, remember, just as you would advise visitors to your country about areas to avoid, it is the same in Colombia. The drug trafficking areas are far from these three cities.
By working with a good Travel Advisor with knowledge of the country and access to reputable guides and services, you will have a safe and marvelous time.
You Do Immense Good by Visiting Colombia
Colombia needs the support of well-placed monies in tourism.
It has the structure in place for you to feel comfortable. It is not by any means a Third World country. Its culture and nature offerings are as varied as you can imagine.
The Country is Far Bigger and Its Culture More Varied Than You Think
Perhaps the most surprising about Colombia: it is a very large country and these three cities are only a small part of its vast cultural richness.
From east to west, its geography stretches from a savannah, across mountains, to the Pacific, and from the Caribbean in the north to the Amazon jungle in the south. I feel I have only scratched the surface of this diverse land, steeped in history and a gathering and mixing place for indigenous cultures and those from all over the world.
I wish to thank my partners Metropolitan Touring, a luxury travel service in Colombia for hosting me in Bogota and Cartagena and Papayote, a boutique travel-planning company based in Medellin with reach throughout Colombia, for providing the accommodations and touring in Medellin and surrounding area.