A year ago if anyone had told me that Colombia would be one of my favourite countries I probably would have laughed, thinking that they were being sarcastic.
Today, however, I can say without a doubt that Colombia is my favourite country in South America and maybe the best I have ever been to.
Luckily if you need a second opinion nearly every traveller you meet in South America will be happy to tell you the same thing.
If you haven’t heard anyone raving about Colombia yet it’s not surprising. Since the early 1900’s the country has moved from one civil war and crisis to the next which has left it with a lasting terrible reputation.
The most famous of these is the war on drugs and resulting cartel wars which meant that until a few years ago the country was too dangerous for even the bravest travellers.
A change in government around ten years ago was what many locals credit as the turning point for the country. They came to power with a tough stance on the cartels, a focus on education, negotiating with the guerrilla groups and urban renewal programs which slowly began the transformation.
It wasn’t long before the backpackers heard about the change in fortune and now there are over 2.5 million tourists a year.
Of course like everywhere in South America there are still the unsafe areas but a bit of common sense and asking questions will keep you safe.
So Why Should You Visit?
For me the people of a country are the difference between liking and loving it. The moment I knew I was in a special place was the first morning I’d arrived.
Just walking through the old town of Bogota I had two old men come up to me and say ‘welcome to Colombia,’ then they shook my hand and carried on with their day. There’s nowhere else that’s ever happened.
They are also happy to make you their friend, share their culture, food, dancing and show you around their area. I asked a few of them why Colombians are so friendly and the answer was always the same; after all of the terrible history just by being in the country you are showing a lot of respect and it’s a sign that the country is moving on.
Colombia is a country that is really hard to be bored in. From the Amazon in the East, the mountains of the centre and the beaches of the North the place has everything.
There is a well-trodden path that everyone seems to follow going north or south and it’s very likely that you will run into the same travellers everywhere. The upside of this is that your friend group will get bigger the more places you visit.
For future info the route goes something like this:
- Arrive by boat or plane in Cartagena, enjoy the historical Spanish old town and party for a couple of nights.
- Move onto Santa Marta and use it as a base to explore the Tayrona National Park and do the Lost City Trek. The hostels here are great and the town really goes off over the weekend.
- Take a bus to Costeno beach and relax there or take surf lessons for a few days.
- Spend a night in Palomino and tube down the Palomino River.
- Either keep heading east to the desert or backtrack to the mountain town of Minca which is behind Santa Marta. Here you can spend some time in the jungle, swim in some waterfalls and visit coffee plantations.
- Head south to San Gill and do some adventure sports or trekking.
- Spend a bit too much time backpacking Medellin enjoying the famous year round Spring weather, getting a lesson on the history, partying, paragliding and a day trip to Guatape.
- A mountain getaway in Salento where it’s possible to trek, see the incredibly tall palm trees and visit a coffee plantation.
- Explore the old town of Bogota, making sure not the miss the cable car ride to the mountain overlooking the city.
- Before heading down to Ecuador take time for some salsa lessons in Cali.
Like anywhere else the culture is a product of its past, and the mix of ancient traditions, Spanish influence, Caribbean vibes and the recent trouble make it like nowhere else.
I can’t really think of a way to put it into words but the simplest I can manage is to say that it’s almost too much fun.
Sadly there is a downside to how good the country is and that is how tourism is going to affect the place over the next few years.
In the space of five years some areas have gone from being off limits to the police and army because of how dangerous they are to having hostels built and swarming with gringos.
The risk is that while the development is awesome for Colombia and the locals, all of us who were travelling could see that there is a chance that it could lose the rough edges and culture which make it so unique.
Who knows if it will happen, but if I were you I’d visit now before it becomes the next hot spot of South America full of tour buses.
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