Colombia by region: where to go
The highlands, and valleys between them, have always been the most populated since pre-Colombian days. Santafé de Bogotá, the capital, nestles under a spur of the Andes, and the rest of Boyacá state is dotted with fine colonial towns and villages, the most visited being Villa de Leyva, with its markets and pretty cobbled streets. South towards the Ecuadorean border, Popayán is one of Colombia's most traditional cities. Santiago de Cali and Medellin are important commercial cities on the western spur of the Andes, while Mañizales and Armenia are good stepping-off points for tours of the coffee region.
Santafé de Bogotá was founded in 1538 and lies at about 9,000 feet. The old centre, know as La Candelaria, still preserves fine colonial architecture and historical buildings such as the cathedral, Casa de Moneda and other palaces, churches and convents. A funicular railway and cable car lead up to Monserrate hill, with fine views. North of the city, the famous Salt Cathedral at Zipaquirá (built in the old tunnels of a large salt mine) is well worth a visit, and Lake Guatavita was one source of the El Dorado legend: a ceremonial site of the Muiska Indians where gold and emerald ornaments were thrown into the water.
The coffee region is spread over the central spine of the Andes and covers an area of huge natural diversity, which drops from the snow-capped peaks and Andean paramo of Los Nevados National Park through lush cloud-forest to the Cocora Valley, home to the wax palm (ceroxylon quindiuense), the tallest palm tree in the world. With temperatures ranging from 8 to 24 degrees, and fertile valleys between 1300 and 1700m above sea-level, the area provides perfect conditions for the production of coffee. Huge plantations and colourful haciendas define the landscape and Colombia has become the second largest exporter of coffee in the world behind Brazil specialising in the higher grade Arabica coffee bean. Spanning three departmental states, the coffee triangle is accessed from the regional capitals of Mañizales, Pereira and Armenia, though outside of the cities, there are a number of traditional coffee fincas which provide the perfect base to explore the area.
Villa de Leyva
Around three hours drive north of Bogota, Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s prettiest colonial towns, founded in 1572 and home to the largest plaza mayor in South America. Surrounded by hills, the town’s rich colonial history is reflected in the distinctive white-washed buildings, traditional wooden balconies flowing with bougainvillea, cobbled streets, red-tiled roofs, and picturesque churches. It is best explored on foot, many of the townhouses offer captivating glimpses into their colourful gardens and courtyards.
Popayán and San Agustin
In the southern Andes, Colombia's "White City", Popayan was founded in 1537 and is a charming colonial city with countless churches which in its heyday rivalled the likes of Villa de Leyva and Cartagena. Much of the city was destroyed in the devastating earthquake of 1984 though huge efforts have been made to restore it to its original grandeur. Today it is a fascinating city of cobbled streets and colonial architecture, easily explored on foot, made famous for its Holy Week celebrations. Away from the city, the Purace Volcano and National Park is a short drive away while further afield are the remarkable archeaological sites of San Agustín and Tierradentro.
From the isthmus of Panama, 1,600km of coastline stretch east to the arid Guajira peninsula. Cartagena de Indias is a coastal city whose beautiful walled colonial centre makes this perhaps the most popular tourist destination in the country. Nearby, the Islas del Rorario make a popular day trip, with good snorkelling. Further east, the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta reach 5,770m, and in their northern shadow the Tayrona National Park hides not only some of the most remote and enchanting beaches in the world, but also the famous Lost City (Ciudad Perdida). 700km from the coast lies the archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia. Once a useful haunt for pirates and buccaneers, today it attracts visitors for the beaches and marine activities.
Cartagena de Indias is a World Heritage site and its walls and fortifications are a monument to its rich but often violent past. Founded in 1533, it was once the most chief centre of trade for the Spanish in Latin America. As a major port and storage site for much of what was plundered from other areas of South America, it was alluring to pirates and buccaneers, and during the 16th century Cartagena suffered sieges by pirates, the most infamous led by Sir Francis Drake who sacked the port in 1586, and only agreed not to level the town after he was given a ransom of 10 million pesos! In response to these attacks, the Spaniards built a series of forts and walls around what is now the old city. 9km of the walls remain, as do most of the historical buildings and squares preserved within, while the sprawl of the modern city spreads into the surrounding hills. Nearby, the Islas del Rosario make for a popular day trip, with good snorkelling (it is also possible to stay on the islands).
San Andrés and Providencia
Set in a clear turquoise sea, the reef around these islands is the third longest in the world and a wonderful diving and snorkelling destination. Tourism as yet is very undeveloped and this allows a relaxed and authentic local experience. The mix of Creole and Spanish culture is charming and the food (lots of lobster, crab and fresh fish) is a delight.
Santa Marta and Tayrona
Santa Marta was the first city founded by the Spanish in the Americas, in 1525. It is 4 hours east of Cartagena, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Just south of Santa Marta proper (whose colonial centre has ambitious restoration plans) is Rodadero, a suburb with several resort hotels. In a bay to the north-east is Taganga, a small fishing village at the western extremity of the Tayrona National Park. An asphalt road continues towards Riohacha, capital of Guajira state.
The Tayrona National Park stretches 85km along the Caribbean coast, and encompasses both coastal forest and coastal reefs - an area of extraordinary natural beauty. Various park entrances give access to trails, either to the beaches or to Pueblito (a Tayrona archaelogical site).
Colombia has 1,300km of Pacific coast, with Buenaventura the main port, and high rainfall contributes to the greenery of the region. The Serrania del Baudó in the north is very biologically diverse, while the south is flatter, with mangroves. Gorgona and Gorgonilla islands, 56km from the coast, are visited by Humpback whales between August and October.
Sadly off-limits for the moment to international tourists, the headwaters of the various tributaries of the Orinoco cross vast plains, or Llanos, covering 20% of the country. Serrania de la Macarena in the south-west of the region has a particularly wide biodiversity due to its range of habitats.
35% of Colombian territory (420,000km²) is in the Amazon basin, Leticia is the state capital and region's gateway. Nearby, several jungle lodges offer a comfortable way to experience the wildlife and flora, and connections can be made to Brazil and Peru.