Andes peaks, coffee hills, Medellin...
When people who’ve never been to South America talk about it, they are wont to mention mountain peaks, salsa music, great coffee, bananas, sunshine, beaches, monkeys, parrots and butterflies.
Colombia, more than any other South American country, boasts all of these, and then some. What about former guerillas now promoting tourism? A cathedral made of salt? Flower factories working to the hip-shaking sounds of Shakira? Colombia has these, too.
Few countries have managed the kind of rebrand achieved by Colombia, in a time-frame of about 15 years. Formerly feared as a crime-ridden pariah nation, it has been transformed by political amnesties, improved trade and an ever-improving tourism sector.
After five decades of war, the tourists are indeed returning as the country experiences an expanding economy, a peace deal, and the disbanding of FARC rebel groups and right-wing paramilitary groups.
Colombia packs its pleasures and treasures into a relatively tight space. It has Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, a spread of urban centres and rural areas, amazing topography – at this latitude, the Andes divide into three distinct ranges – and the ecosystems that implies.
Flights between the key centres rarely take more than an hour, and each time you hop off you’ll see and sense a different Colombia.
Colombia surprises visitors. The people are stylish and sophisticated. They’re also rather bookish. It has odd quirks – crazily coloured chiva buses, for instance – and these add more colour and character. If Europe sometimes feels done and dusted, this European-influenced country is everything else.
Check in at the Hotel de la Opera (hotelopera.com.co), which occupies an elegant townhouse built in the local Republican style and is superbly located for a lot of the sights found in the historic La Candelaria (old city) area.
After a rest, head out to Bolívar Square, the main plaza and home to the national congress, city hall, palace of justice and cathedral. Walk a few blocks south to see the Palacio Nario, the presidential palace. Also nearby is the Gold Museum (banrepcultural.org/bogota/museo-del-oro) and a museum of works by Colombia’s best-known artist, Fernando Botero (born in 1932).
Bogotá lies 2 600m above sealevel, in the eastern range of the Andes, so walk slowly and drink plenty of water. For a light lunch, walk over to Calle 11 and Quinua y Amaranto (quinuayamaranto.com.co), which does good vegetarian food. On the same street, the Gabriel García Márquez Cultural Centre (fce.com.co) has a nice café and bookstore.
Sunday is a special day in Bogotá, as 121km of streets are closed to traffic and thousands of Bogotanos get on their bikes from 7am until 2pm. The ciclovía concept of car-free days originated here in 1974. Hire a bicycle from bogotabiketours.com at Carrera 3, corner Calle 12B, and spend four to five hours gently pedaling as part of a small group towards the modern north side of the city, taking in trendy Parque 93, pedestrianised Zona T and colourful flea and food markets at Usaquén. There are plenty of branches of Juan Valdez (juanvaldezcafe.com/es-co), the national coffee chain, en route.
In the evening, have an early dinner in one of the small restaurants around the pretty Chorro de Quevedo Plaza close to the hotel, or go to the venerable La Puerta Falsa (established 1816) near the main plaza for tamales (corn, peas, egg and meat mush wrapped in a banana leaf ).
Fly to Pereira (one hour) in the middle of the so-called eje cafetero – coffee triangle or axis – that it forms with the cities of Armenia and Manizales.
Of all Colombia’s regions, this one is perhaps the easiest on the eye, thanks to the backdrop of hazy mountains, gentle slopes clad in coffee bushes, paso fino horses, and small Willys Jeeps whizzing around carrying beans, bananas and workers.
Spend your first day visiting the Flora and Fauna Sanctuary of Otún Quimbaya with a birding guide – book through Manakin, a specialist firm run by naturalist Luis Uruea (manakinnaturetours.com).
En route, pop into Salento, enjoying a coffee break at the pretty Jesús Martín café – expert baristas can create any type of coffee you fancy using beans from their own finca.
In the evening, book into Sazagua (sazagua.com/en-gb), a 15-room rural hotel set in beautiful tropical gardens, with a pool and excellent restaurant.
Drive slowly northeast towards Manizales, arriving for lunch at Hacienda Venecia (haciendavenecia.com), which will be your lodging for tonight. Surrounded by coffee plantations, this gorgeous country house was made using the bahareque technique, with walls of clay and bamboo and redtiled roofs. You’ll be served a traditional lunch of ajiaco (chicken and potato soup).
Colombia’s coffee landscape is listed by Unesco and there’s nothing like sipping a fine single estate brew surrounded by the glossy, dark-green plants sagging with ripe beans.
Manizales is just 20km away if you fancy a dinner out or a few glasses of aguardiente while shaking your salsa soul.
Today involves a longish drive – four to five hours on slow roads – as you take in the agricultural heartland of Antioquia. Combined with the coffee region, this area is known as the home of the Paisas – a nickname for country-dwellers, perceived across Colombia as hardworking, honest folk.
Make sure you try the bandeja paisa, a celebrated protein and carb power-dish of beans, pork, fried egg, plantain, sausage, black pudding and rice.
Check in to the Hotel Jardín (hoteljardin.com.co) on the main plaza of Jardín, one of the quaintest towns in the country. As the name gives away, this is the “garden” of Antioquia, and above the town are emeraldgreen mountains.
A birding guide will take you to nearby orchid-filled upland forests in a Willys Jeep to see euphonias, hummingbirds, cotingas and, with luck, the endangered yellow-eared parrot.
Drive to Medellín, a city once known as the world’s murder capital and power base of notorious cartel boss Pablo Escobar, but which is now one of the most forward-looking, creative cities in South America.
Check in to the Charlee Hotel (thecharlee.com/home) for two nights. This imposing tower, in the hip Parque Lleras neighbourhood, has designer bedrooms and huge balconies. Ask for an upper floor to enjoy big views over the city.
Spend the day exploring the open-air Botero sculptures on downtown Botero Plaza, Parque Berrío and Plaza de San Antonio.
On the latter you’ll see two bronze birds: one was blown up in 1995, allegedly by a Farc bomb, and has been left here as a “homage to the barbarians”.
Less ominous are the sensitively conceived civic spaces around the science museum, including a Barefoot Park where locals go to hug trees and soothe their office-worn feet in fresh fountains. The modern art museum is also well worth a visit.
In the evening, stroll around Parque Lleras, which has dozens of independent boutiques, cool cafés and restaurants. If you want Colombian food, including traditional tripe soup, head for Mondongos (mondongos.com.co).
Explore the wider city using the Metrocable gondola lift system, built in stages since 2004. Three lines – known rather prosaically as J, K and L – link the city centre to the poorer outlying districts. The system is credited with unifying the city and reducing pollution and commuting times.
Visit the Biblioteca de Espaa in the Santo Domingo Savio district: three huge geometric structures housing a reference library, set in a park.
Fly to Cartagena de Indias on the Caribbean coast. Check in to the Sofitel-run Santa Clara (sofitel.com). Like much of the city, the hotel building dates from post-Columbian times. Its single-lane streets are lined by pastel-splashed churches, monasteries and palaces, restaurants, craft shops and small hotels.
Spend the first day wandering around town, seeing the interiors of churches and the grim collection at the Inquisition Museum, and doing a walk round the outer bulwarks around dusk.
You’ll see a lot of locals doing the same, stopping at the Café del Mar (cafedelmarcartagena.com.co) for a sunset cocktail. Dinner options are many, but you should definitely try the food at your hotel on one evening.
Hire a bike after breakfast and ride over to Getsemani before it gets too steamy. This area is a smaller, less-polished version of Cartagena proper, and has a certain charm.
Try the street food or bike back into the walled city to have crab nachos and ceviche at Harry Sasson’s (harrysasson.com) in the Charleston Santa Teresa hotel (hotelcharlestonsantateresa.com). Alternatively, do a cooking class with cartagenaconnections.com for 200 000 pesos (about R940) per person.
Dedicate the afternoon to seeing Cartagena’s art galleries.
Pop back to Getsemani after dark to dine on good pizza or tasty tapas at Demente, before enjoying the vibe at Café Havana (cafehavanacartagena.com), where a live band plays big salsa until the small hours.
Fly home via Bogotá. – Telegraph Media Group
PACKED WITH TREASURES: Travel into the eastern Andes to Bogota and see the lamas at the Plaza de Bolivar in La Candelaria (the old town), before going through Colombia’s ‘coffee triangle’ where harvested beans are commonly transported by farmers in Willys Jeeps. Then go on to Medellin, a city restored from the ravages of drug cartels, and see the Plaza Botero, left, where work by the sculptor Fernando Botero is on display, before heading to the colourful coastal city of Cartagena de Indias with its large Afro-Caribbean community