In the north-western corner of South America, Colombia has remained largely undiscovered by the tourist crowds who flock to neighbouring Peru and Brazil, but that looks about to change as the country begins to welcome more overseas visitors than ever. Stretching from the sandy shores of the Caribbean to the snowcapped peaks of the Andes, Colombia is a land of diverse and surprising beauty, delightful UNESCO-listed colonial towns, rainforests teeming with tropical life, some of the finest coffee plantations on Earth and a flourishing cultural life, with festivals of all descriptions taking place throughout the year. So now is the perfect time to embark on an adventure to discover the ‘magic realism’ of this most beguiling country.
On Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Cartagena, or to give it its full name, Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena of the Indies, to distinguish it from its Spanish namesake), was founded in 1533 and the walled colonial old town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. With its brightly painted colonial mansions, its elegant churches, monasteries, wide plazas and neat cobbled lanes overhung by flower-laden balconies, it’s a ravishing and intoxicating place, and it’s no wonder the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez found inspiration for his ‘magic realism’ novels here. Márquez began his journalistic career in Cartagena, and though he only lived here permanently for a short time in the late 1940s, it clearly had a great impact on him, and he set one of his most famous novels, Love in the Time of Cholera, within the old town walls; fans of the author may even join a walking tour to follow in the footsteps of his memorable characters. The city’s literary credentials are on show each January, too, as the city hosts the annual Hay Festival Cartagena, modelled on the world-famous event for booklovers in Wales.
The Old Town is an agreeable place just to wander and get lost in and there’s something worth seeing around every corner. You can’t miss the imposing Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, dating from the 17th century and enlarged a hundred years later. Occupying a strategic hilltop position watching over the city, it was among the strongest and most impressive fortresses the Spanish built in the New World, and with reason, for Cartagena was a major port, from where ships laden with gold, silver, tobacco, cacao and other booty set sail for Spain. Such wealth attracted the attention of any number of privateers, pirates and enemy warships during what has become known as the ‘Golden Age of Piracy,’ and the port was attacked by both the French and the British over the years. Its defences were put to the ultimate test during the 1741 Battle of Cartagena de Indias – a large-scale amphibious engagement of the War of Jenkins’ Ear – when a British fleet of 186 ships and around 26,000 men under the command of Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon attempted to storm the city. The fortress proved to be impregnable and when the tropical rains came, malaria and yellow fever took hold, forcing the British to retreat. Considering its tumultuous history, the fortress today is in remarkably good condition, and visitors can enjoy superb panoramic views of the city from the top.
Among other noteworthy landmarks are the 16th century cathedral, badly damaged by cannonballs fired from the ships of Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and the Palace of the Inquisition, a fine colonial building which is now a museum, displaying some of the gruesome torture devices once used to persuade heretics to reconsider their beliefs. Not far from the city is the busy port of Santa Marta, the gateway to the spectacular Tayrona National Park, surrounded by the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and home to some 300 tropical bird species and 70 varieties of bat. The park encompasses 3,000 hectares of the Caribbean Sea as well as a land area four times that size, with landscapes ranging from golden, palm-shaded beaches to lush, wild rainforests. You may hear mantled howler monkeys, one of the largest monkey species in South America, wailing plaintively to each other across the treetops and spot bright flashes of colour as parrots flit between the branches, although the park’s most endangered creatures, such as the magnificent jaguar and the oncilla, a type of small wild cat, are likely to elude all but the most experienced – and lucky – jungle guide.
Further inland, on a high plateau of the mighty Andes which stretch like the continent’s spine right down to Chile thousands of kilometres to the south, sits the nation’s capital, Bogota. At 2,640m above sea level, it is one of the highest capital cities in the world and one of the largest in Latin America. It’s a growing and dynamic city with a thriving cultural life, while its historic Old Town, known as La Candelaria, has retained a charming collection of colonial houses, centuries old churches and elegant public buildings. One unmissable sight in the capital is the Museo del Oro – the Gold Museum – which houses a fabulous collection of pre-Columbian gold jewellery and figurines, as well as other archaeological artefacts offering an insight into the history and culture of Colombia’s indigenous population. Art lovers won’t want to miss the Botero Museum, based around a collection of more than a hundred paintings by Fernando Botero, donated by the artist himself. Also on show here are works by Monet, Renoir, Chagall, Picasso and others. Alternatively, take a break from the urban hubbub and enjoy a leisurely stroll through the vast Simon Bolivar Park in the city centre or the lovely Botanical Gardens, where you can see plants from every region of Colombia.
They say that there’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, but Colombia isn’t far behind, as you’ll soon find when you head out of Bogota to the so-called Zona Cafetera, with its numerous fincas, or plantations, many of which welcome visitors with guided tours. Colombia is the world’s third-largest exporter of coffee, and this region of the country with its rolling green hills is the perfect place to learn about the whole process of coffee production, especially during harvest time. And travelling higher still, you’ll reach the breathtaking Corcora Valley, lying up to 2,400m above sea level, a land of spectacular cloud forests, part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park and home to Colombia’s national tree, the Quindio wax palm, while Latin America’s only bear, the spectacled bear – the model for Paddington – is one of the area’s scarcer inhabitants, along with sloths, tapirs, condors and parrots. With so much to discover, this country, off the tourist trail for so long, offers a truly magical travel experience. Raise a cup of finest Arabica and prepare to embark on your Colombian adventure!