Having read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, listened to stories from friends and clients and read the tourist board slogan "Colombia - the only risk is wanting to stay" I was longing to see and experience the country for myself and when the opportunity arose I therefore jumped at it. What a magical country! Although I had my own ideas of what to expect, my expectations were more than met in many different ways. Highlights included the wonderful museums, art galleries, markets and restaurants of Bogotá, the small, colourful towns and stunning scenery of the Cocora Valley in the coffee region, and of course Cartagena, a must for anyone who visits Colombia!
I flew into Bogotá on Air Europa, via Madrid, on one of their very comfortable Dreamliners. The airline offers daily flights that arrive in the early evening and, as the city is on a high plateau at 2,640m, things do need to be taken easy at first. Arriving in the evening therefore worked well and also gave me the excellent opportunity to meet Oli Ford, ex member of staff at LF who now lives in Colombia. After a beer and sampling a selection of Colombian specialities (including arepas) in one of his recommended restaurants I headed to bed. No flight delays and catching up with Oli was a great start for the exciting week ahead.
I stayed in the very comfortable Sofitel Victoria Regia in the residential district of Zona Rosa, in the north of the city. There is a good choice of hotels in this area and it is pleasant to walk around with plenty of choice for evening entertainment in restaurants, bars and cafes. Three nights was perfect and allowed time to appreciate the city and some of its many highlights.
The Salt Cathedral at Zipaquirá (about 1 hour, 15 minutes from the city) was fascinating. It was a lovely drive, across a green plateau with a mountain range on each side, and passing many greenhouses - flowers are an important export. The cathedral is built in the old tunnels of a large salt mine and walking through, past the 14 beautifully-lit Stations of the Cross, brings you to the main chamber. In the central nave is the main altar with a cross above it that measures 16m in height and 10m in breath – the largest cross made from salt in the world!
I had an excellent afternoon walking around the historic centre of La Candelaria set around Plaza Bolívar with its cobblestone streets, multitude of churches, museums and brightly-painted colonial houses. My visit to the Botero Museum, a colonial house exhibiting some of Fernando Botero’s works of art, and the impressive Gold Museum, with a permanent exhibition of some 32,000 pieces of gold, 20,000 stones, ceramics and textiles all precious to various cultures, were fascinating. I was also lucky enough to see the city on a clear day from the top of Monserrate Hill, reached by funicular or cable car, and the views were spectacular.
Other highlights for me were visiting the local market at Paloquemao, one of the biggest and most recognised local markets in Bogotá (which appeared to sell just about everything!) and Usaquen, a residential area in the north of the city where there is a local Flea Market every Sunday.
The Coffee region
From Bogotá I flew to Pereira, the gateway to the coffee region. Lying at 1,400m it is the perfect place to unwind and enjoy the natural beauty amongst productive coffee plantations, green fertile valleys, colourful towns and national parks.
I stayed in the charming Casa Sazagua, an excellent base and where I couldn’t have been made to feel more welcome. A new find in the region for Last Frontiers was the very stylish and comfortable Casa San Carlos Lodge, a unique property which opened in February this year.
For most people visiting the ‘Coffee Triangle’ a visit to a plantation is on their list. I visited Hacienda San Alberto, a coffee estate near the tiny town of Buenavista Quindío - the guided tour was excellent and one of the best I have experienced. After an introductory talk about coffee and its preparation, toasting, characteristics, harvesting, conditions etc. I walked through the plantations with things being explained throughout. It was then back to the main house for tasting and buying some of the best coffee in Colombia - 100% Arabica.
The small towns of Filandia and Salento were a highlight with their beautifully coloured colonial houses, narrow streets and wonderful laid back feel. From Salento it's a 10km journey through rolling countryside into the stunning Cocora Valley and the entrance to the Los Nevados National Park – travelling in the back of a Willys jeep made the journey even more impressive, but in an ideal world I would have been on the back of a horse! The valley is one of the best places to see the impressive Quindian wax palm, the national tree of Colombia which can reach a height of 60m. There are also a huge number of birds to be spotted and I was lucky to see a beautiful highland motmot.
Finally I flew to Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, and a magical place to spend the last couple of days. I stayed in Ananda, one of our favourite small hotels in the heart of the old walled city, a rabbit warren of cobbled streets and beautifully-preserved colonial architecture. It’s a wonderful city just to wander around, soaking up the history and trying not to get lost! I visited several of the main sites of interest within the walled city and also went to the very impressive San Felipe Fortress, built on San Lazro hill to defend the city from pirate attacks, with superb views.
To put the icing on the cake I went on a sunset cruise on my final evening on board the yacht Ocean Phoenix. Sailing back into Cartagena harbour in the evening, as the sun was going down, was a very memorable moment.
All in all a wonderful trip and great introduction to Colombia. I can't believe how much I saw in a week and, if you haven’t had the opportunity to visit yet, I recommend adding it to your list. I’m definitely hoping to return one day as there is so much more to see!