Synonymous in the minds of many westerners with constant gun battles, drug-running and guerilla warfare, Colombia has managed to clean up its act considerably in the past few years, making it as safe for tourists as anywhere else in South America, or at least some parts. With a Pacific and Caribbean coastline, it’s blessed with great beaches and a mountainous interior typified by the capital Bogotá, which sits at more than 2,500 meters above sea level.

Why You Should Go

What’s Cool: Andean cities, scrumptious coffee and hot chocolate, hot volcano mud baths, the lard lovers treat that is buñuelos (deep-fried cheese balls) and Latino dancing at any time of day or night.

What’s Not: Ongoing guerilla conflicts, off-limit areas, high crime in some areas, the huge number of road toll gates, making jokes about drugs.

When to Go

Colombia straddles the equator, meaning temperatures vary little, but can stay remarkably high given the high altitude of many parts of the country. Mountainous areas tend to have two dry seasons, between December and March, and July and August. The southern Amazonian areas tend to remain wet throughout the year.

Getting There & Away

Getting into the country is becoming increasingly convenient with international flights to big cities including Bogotá, Barranquilla and Medellínn arriving from all over the Americas and selected European destinations. Crossing the border by land can be problematic because of instability but remains possible via Ecuador and Venezuela.

Most internal travel is by bus, but roads are awful and scary in certain rural and mountainous areas. Train services are extremely limited and metro services are only available in Medellín. Taxis and buses in particular are cheap including within the capital, and very convenient. For the cheapest ride in town, get in a colectivo, but expect a very numb behind by the time you get to your destination.

Health & Safety

Unless you plan to join Colombia’s guerilla insurgency, which remains mostly confined to the south, you are unlikely to face the country’s main problems head on, especially given that the armed opposition is reportedly dwindling.

Crime remains a problem, but again, things are improving and the war on drugs, with help from the US, is showing results. Remain cautious in rundown urban areas, especially at night.

Altitude sickness is a worry in the highest areas of the Andes although it only usually affects those who ascend too quickly. All the same, Colombia is one of those destinations where you take a travel insurance and leave a will before departing, it aint a walk in the park.

Food & Hospitality

Colombia serves up a unique variation on the style of food most westerners would identify as Mexican. The country specializes in fresh fruit and vegetables and remains the home of the humble potato which is served up in a number of varieties.

Colombian coffee needs very little introduction, of course. Travelers will get good value at private guesthouses, small hotels and hostels throughout the country. In Bogotá, the upscale hotels and restaurants are centered around the central and northern districts, the latter becoming particularly fashionable.

Itineraries

A holiday in Colombia could stretch into years rather than days for those with time and money to burn, but more realistically, two weeks is a good amount of time.

  • Four days in Bogotá, taking in the various museums, shopping and nightlife as you should in any capital worth its salt.
  • Three days in Cartagena, a city some call the most beautiful in the world which is stacked full of history, including a 500-year old fort right on the Caribbean.
  • Two days in Barranquilla, the country’s premier port city and home of an annual carnival that is renowned across the region.
  • Two days in Medellín, formerly controlled by drug warlord Pablo Escobar, but now free and revived as the Colombian city of ‘eternal spring’.
  • Two days in Santa Cruz de Mompox, a laidback town on an island out on the Magdalena River. This town has managed to avoid the tourist masses.

Extra time

  • Two days in Santa Marta, a city right on the beach featuring great diving and all-round beach bum potential.
  • Two days in San Gil rafting, caving and all manner of other outdoor pursuits in this small town beside the Rio Fonce River.
  • Two days in Pasto, an Andean city encircled by mountains and at the foot of a volcano.

Highlights

Cartagena: the most beautiful and well-preserved testament to the country’s past and a UNESCO World Heritage site that is rightly a must during any trip to Colombia.

Bogotá: sometimes unsavory but never boring, the Colombian capital is the ultimate assortment of old and new, and poor and rich which has become increasingly gringo-friendly.

Barranquilla: the golden gate to Colombia as it is often referred as, is a fully-fledged party town with great seafood and friendly locals.

Medellín: fresh out of rehab, this city has cleaned up its act. A street city of modern art and parks, it remains the only Colombian city with a metro system.

Santa Cruz de Mompox: sounds like a disease but feels like a refreshing breeze beside the cool Magdalena River.

Pasto: Colombia’s answer to Naples, Pasto sits under the Galeras Volcano yet is still at over 2,500 meters above sea level.

San Gil: a small town by Colombian standards and a gateway to the Rio Fonce River.

Santa Marta: a raucous beachfront city that relaxes by day and rocks after dark as all good Caribbean resorts should.

Activities

Sightseeing: Colombia has perhaps in the past earned more of a reputation for its slums than its stunning architecture and historical monuments, but this is rightly changing, not least because of picturesque cities like Cartagena.

Dancing: its all about salsa at the many nightclubs and festivals across the country, with western music increasing in prominence in the more trendy areas.

Trekking: with mountains in the Andes nearing 6,000 meters, Colombia has some great trekking and climbing routes.

Rafting: hit the Rio Fonce for some hair-raising whitewater rafting on an unspoiled stretch of river.

Learning: Colombians speak the clearest Spanish outside of Spain which makes the country a good and very inexpensive place to learn the lingo.

Festivals & Events

Colombia has literally hundreds of big festivals, some of which are renowned throughout the region.

January: Carnival of Blacks and Whites in Pasto kicks off the Colombian festival season in style, amid parades and feasts held over five days.

February/March: Barranquilla serves up the largest carnival on the planet after Rio, a tradition stretching back more than 100 years.

August: the capital city Bogotá turns into one big party, and pulls its annual festival off in some style.

October: Rock at the Park, one of the largest rock festivals in the region held in Bogotá, attracts bands from Europe and North America.

December: Cali Fair runs right up to New Year’s Eve and features salsa marathons and horse parades that last a week, sometimes longer.