Viva Colom­bia

An­des peaks, cof­fee hills, Medellin...

Daily Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

DAY 1

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.

DAY 2

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 ).

DAY 3

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.

DAY 4

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.

DAY 5

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.

DAY 6

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).

DAY 7

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.

DAY 8

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.

DAY 9

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.

DAY 10

Fly home via Bo­gotá. – Tele­graph Me­dia Group

Pic­tures: GETTY IM­AGES

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

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