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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Colombia.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Colombia.
Canada – Bolstered by the wave of positivity unleashed by its energetic new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and with dynamic cities that dominate global livability indexes – plus its reputation for inclusiveness and impeccable politeness – the world’s second-largest country will usher in its sesquicentennial in 2017 in rollicking good health. Marking 150 years since confederation, the birthday party promises to be heavy on bonhomie and highly welcoming to international gate-crashers. The weak Canadian dollar means visitors should have plenty of pocket money to spend on Canada’s exciting fusion food and mysteriously undeerrated wine.
Colombia – Decades of civil war and violent crime meant Colombian passport stamps were once for hardcore travellers only. Fast-forward to the present day, and the lost years seem but a dust speck in Colombia’s rear-view mirror. There are no world wonders here, but the country’s mix of vibrant culture, nature and hospitality is a rich tapestry woven by welcoming arms. More than a decade into its dramatic about-face, this South American jewel is even expecting a visit from the world’s No. 1 Catholic. When Pope Francis kisses Colombian soil in 2017, it will mark the Andean nation’s first papal visit in 30 years.
Finland – Long fought over by Russia and Sweden, Finland finally gained independence in 1917, The Finns will celebrate their centenary with gusto: expect everything from outdoor concerts and communal culinary experiences to sauna evenings and vintage travel poster exhibitions. There’s even anew national park: 27,000 acres around the village of Hossa, studded with pine forests and crisscrossed with rivers. With the country also playing host to the World Figure Skating Championships and the Nordic World Ski Championships in 2017, there’s never been a better time to discover Finland’s proudly unique culture and landscapes.
Dominica – Locals joke that if Christopher Columbus rose from the grave and returned to the Caribbean, Dominica is the only island he would still recognise. One glimpse of its prehistoric ferns and deserted shores, and you’ll see what they mean. For decades, an absence of shiny white beaches has helped keep at bay the resort development that has swept through other parts of the Caribbean, Coconut palms are the only skyscrapers you’ll see here. Visit before Dominica gets its first large-scale chain resorts in 2018, which will pave the way for anew era of tourism.
Nepal – Even natural disasters can’t keep Nepal down for long. The 2015 earthquakes caused devastation, but what is most striking from a traveller’s perspective is not how much was lost but how much remains. Landmark temples crumbled, but others came through with just the odd tile out of place, and whole swathes of the country escaped serious damage, including most of the popular hiking trails, Nepal has all the skills required to repair monuments and infrastructure, but what it does need is income. By visiting Nepal now and supporting local culture and people, you could help a nation rebuild and bounce back even stronger.
Mongolia – In 2017 Mongolia will raise the curtain on a b rand- new capital – city airport, a state-of-the-art facility that symbolises the rapid modernisation of this country of steppe nomads. Ulaanbaatar has been the biggest beneficiary of an economic boom – the capital’s transformed skyline bristles with glass and steel towers. At the centre of this development is a £380 million Shangri-La hotel complex, to be completed by 2017. Beyond the city lies Mongolia’s stunning and sparsely populated countryside. Lake Khovsgol, known as the Blue Pearl of Asia, is an undoubted highlight. In 2015 the lake was connected to Ulaanbaatar by paved road, cutting driving time by 10 hours.
Mynmar – Change has been a long time coming in the nation also known as Burma, but the election of the first civilian government in half a century has all eyes on the future. No-one is pretending that all of Myanmar’s problems have gone away, but things are moving in the right direction, and Southeast Asia’s most secretive country is now poised to receive an influx of travellers. Visiting comes with challenges, but the reward is a window onto a vanishing Asia, where the difficulties of travel are part of the appeal. You’ll find a land with more stupas than office towers, where life moves to the timeless rhythms of chanting monks and monastery bells.
Ethiopia – With its own calendar (where else can you get 13 months of sunshine?), timekeeping, script, language, cuisine, church and coffee, Ethiopia is as exotic as countries come. And whether you’re hiking through the Simien Mountains to see wildlife that roams nowhere else on Earth, climbing to a church carved into a remote cliff face in Tigray, or boating across the waters of Lake Tana to visit an age-old monastery, you’ll be overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape. In 2017, new airline links will make the country more accessible than ever; be one of the first to get on board.
RAIN BEGINS TO FALL over the market town of Salento. It starts as a gentle drizzle, soon evolving into a fearsome downpour: giant droplets bouncing off the pavements and up trouser legs; drumming on the corrugated-iron roofs and gurgling in the gutters. Lithe shelter of his cafe by the town square, coffee-evangelist Jeshs Bedoya sits by the window looking up at grey clouds, and then into the espresso on the table before him. ‘A good cup of coffee is like a fine wine’, he says contemplatively ‘You can taste the terra: the land where it is created. When I drink coffee I think about the family that grew it – the work, love and pain that has gone into each bean’.
Volcanic soil and high-altitude farmland make much of Colombia prime territory for the cultivation of arabica beans, but nowhere more so than the Zona Cafetera Here, heavy year-round rainfall destroys umbrellas, turns roads into part-time waterfalls and serves as the magic ingredient for the most flavour some cup of coffee in the Americas. Since the 19th century, coffee has been the lifeblood of the Zona Cafetera: served with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and given to children from the age of five upwards (though local parents disagree whether or not this is a good idea).
The son of a coffee farmer, Jeshs Bedoya left his job as a lawyer eight years ago to embark on a messianic mission: to open a cafe selling premium-grade, locally produced coffee in the coffee-farming town of Salento. It may sound like a coals-to-Newcastle business model, but in Colombia almost all locally consumed coffee is low-grade, with all the best beans exported for use in the espresso machines of Europe and North America.
‘We’re one of the biggest coffee producers in the world, but we don’t know what proper coffee is!’ insists Jeshs, ‘When Colombian people try the real thing, it’s like a conversion. They say, “what the hell was I drinking before?'” Just as coffee shapes lives in the Zona Cafetera, it shapes the landscapes, too. Coffee plants cascade down the contours of the hillsides. Snug in the folds of the hills are farmhouses, with canvas sacks full of beans arranged on the verandas. And careering down the single-track roads of the Zona Cafetera are the Willys Jeeps – vehicles exported to Colombian farmers by the US after WWII.
They are beloved for their off-roading skills and also their coffee-carrying abilities (a Willys Jeep fall of coffee is a legitimate unit of measurement for sale). Hopping aboard the back of one such Jeep is the way to reach one of the highest viewpoints in the Zona Cafetera: the Valle de Cocora. Here, tracks wind among Andean peaks, patches of cloud forest clinging to the slopes. Below, plantations appear as a green blur. Rising up above are the Quindlo wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world, growing up to 60 metres high and presiding like antennae over the landscape. The wax palms are so tall that their tree tops can vanish from sight: lost in the rain clouds that brew over the mountains, before pouring their contents over the Zona Cafetera.
Bogota is at its most colourful on a Sunday morning. Once a week, city highways are closed to motorised traffic and transformed into a blur of fluorescent lycra as thousands of cyclists, children on tricycles and teenagers on rollerblades whoosh past. This motley Tour de France passes under the stem gaze of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America, whose statue presides over the main square. They steer under the bell towers of the two-century-old cathedral, where the last hymns of morning mass reverberate inside, congregations in their Sunday best stepping out into the Andean sunshine. They pedal past the market at Paloquemao, where weekend shoppers wander among roses, sunflowers and lilies, flowers that only hours before were snipped from the surrounding countryside, soon to decorate weddings, funerals, birthday parties and dinner dates across the capital.
Not so long ago, Bogota was a city in the same league as Mogadishu, Baghdad and Lagos – synonymous with drug cartels, crime and terrorism It was a place where no sane tourist ventured and few residents would potter between neighbourhoods on a Sunday stroll. Bogota’s problems are far from fixed, but safety has improved and one of South America’s liveliest cities is blooming. Former no-go areas are now sewed by cycle superhighways; streets once avoided because of drive-by shootings, no w busy with artisan coffee shops.
The face of the city is constantly changing, especially just after Sunday lunchtime, when security guards are taking a siesta and Bogota’s street artists are often at work. Just over a decade ago, local authorities in Bogota took steps to partially decriminalise graffiti, with some hoping to reverse urban decay by transforming neighbourhoods into open-air galleries. Today, like almost no other city in the world, artworks can be found on almost every surface in Bogota. Some are legal, some not quite so legal. Some are vast murals of Colombian landscapes commissioned by corporations; some are very small – little stencils of cats and dogs sitting patiently on street comers.
‘Street art is a celebration of our culture’, explains artist Ecksuno (real name Juan Sebastian Garcia), embarking on a graffiti tour of the city. ‘Colombia has so much variety to inspire us, it is almost like a collection of different countries, each with its own styles and colours.’ Bogota’s street art can be a way to gauge Colombia’s political temperature, Juan points to murals advocating rights for indigenous communities, others protesting against deforestation of the Amazon, And it works as a helpful introduction to the country’s natural and cultural riches, too, Juan points to one of his own creations: the frozen peaks of the Sierra Nevada on the country’s Caribbean coast, rising over a sunny plaza where families are taking Sunday picnics.
‘In Bogota there is a particular quality to the light,’ says Juan. ‘We are high up in the Andes. Somehow the clouds don’t feel very far away, and wherever we go in the city we have the mountain watching over us.’ The mountain in question is Monserrate – Bogota’s urban peak, like Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, It is a Sunday afternoon tradition for pilgrims to climb the 1,500 steps to the church on the summit (everyone else cheats and takes the cable car or the funicular). Ascending to 3,152m above sea level, the smog recedes and the colours of the city become more intense still. There is the deep-blue dome of the sky, the bright orange of the cable car. And beyond the city rises a range of green hills, on whose slopes roses and sunflowers grow for the Sunday market.
Colombian national carrier Avianca is currently the only airline offering direct flights to Bogota’s promisingly named El Dorado airport from the UK. Airlines such as Air Canada, American Airlines, BA, Delta and Iberia fly with a stop-off. British nationals do not currently need a visa for Colombia for stays of up to 90 days.
Colombia is a big country, so distances can be vast. With a growing network of budget airlines it’s worth flying between major cities if you’re pushed for time – there are regular, affordable flights between Bogota and Pereira, and Cartagena. Car hire is available in major towns, and can be a good idea if you’re Looking to explore more rural areas at your own pace. Most visitors to Colombia choose to travel via comfortable long- distance coaches, which run between all major destinations (Bogota to Cartagena, 12 hours, from £25).
The itinerary for our feature can be done in around 12 days, but two and a half weeks will allow you to explore the country at a more Leisurely pace. To extend your trip, consider dropping by the second city of Medellin or the mountainous EL Cocuy National Park.
Recent years have seen Colombia’s internal security situation improve dramatically, helping trigger a boom in tourism. However, problems are far from over. Though a ceasefire was in place at the time of writing, the FARC rebel group remains active in Large swathes of the country, along with some smaller rebel groups. All the d estimations in this feature are far from areas of rebel presence – for advice on where specifically to avoid. Crime remains an issue, particularly in larger cities like Bogota. A number of neighbourhoods in the south of the capital are best avoided, and it’s advisable not to walk alone after dark.
Colombia is a very affordable country to visit – expect to pay between £2-£4 for a hearty meal in rural areas, with dining at top-end restaurants rarely costing more than £15. Mid-range lodgings will come in at around £30, while luxury hotels cost £70-£100, barring a few exceptions in Bogota and Cartagena.
Colombia’s peak season runs from December to March, when most of the country enjoys clear skies and dry weather-though this means prices also peak, especially around Christmas. Shoulder season runs from March until heavier rains fall on the And es and the Caribbean in October.
I worried before my visit to officially on-the-map Cartagena de Indias. Who hasn’t ‘done’ — doesn’t want to do — it by now; even cruise ships are stopping in. How would that mesh with the sultry, heady mix of high and low, the grand and squalid port I’d loved on sight, years ago? Too much movement in either direction might break the spell.
But then I’d enter a lush, verdant courtyard through some ancient, studded doorway. Overhear a fusillade of wild street gossip in Creole Spanish. Or revel in golden sunlight, amid birdsong, flowers and brightly hued arcades. The new seduction was immediate and complete. Simply put, there can be few places in Latin America more beautiful and romantic, so venerably urbane, as the walled city of Cartagena at the midpoint on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. If you’ve done it, no worries — do it again.
Compact bordering on tiny (at least the two neighbourhoods of most interest to visitors, the Centro and gentrifying Getsemani), you could probably ‘see it all’ in a day or two.
There are museums and landmarks, plus a rich history of marauding corsairs, yellow fever, slave trading and the Holy Inquisition. A fusion of European, African and ‘ native Colombian influences, the city is supremely cultural.
Not so much for relics as for the way you live it, along narrow streets en route to lively, well-kept public gardens; past shops and hotels, from down-at-heel to soigne; or in awe of countless palaces, smothered in bougainvillea. Make time to sit in plazas, bursting with colour, energy, music, life. Plus not all change is bad. The design hotel, restaurant and nightlife scenes are burgeoning. In-your-face vice-peddling is no longer an every-block affair.
Only the stroppiest visitor won’t make friends. In contrast to the more formal vibe in highland cities, Colombia’s coastal melting pot more recalls Havana or New Orleans. Everyone from store clerks to cab drivers has time for a chat. Someone always wanted to talk, even when I dined at tables for one. Maybe no one can really be alone in Cartagena.
SEE & DO
Walk: Every lane promises vivid street life and marvellous architecture. People-watching (vociferous locals and a brace of terribly sexy, terribly chic flâneurs) reaches a zenith around plazas like Bolivar and Santo Domingo or nights at Getsemani’s newly hip Plaza Santisima Trinidad. Sunset strolls atop city walls, overlooking the Caribbean, are kicky, romantic or philosophical, depending on company and mood.
Museums: Surprisingly good for a city this small. The Museo de Arte Moderno always intrigues; the stately Palacio de la Inquisition conjures spectres of the city’s swashbuckling, slave-trading past (skip the cheesy audio). The Convento e Iglesia San Pedro Claver, though somewhat dusty, features an impressive, jungly cloister and a peek into the ascetic life of its namesake saint, canonised for his ministry to Cartagena’s black population. Just outside the city walls lies Casa Rafael Nunez, once home to a 19th-century Colombian president, with an open-air dining room whose mix of luxe and rustic is true realismo magico. The petite Museo del Oro Zenu glistens, indeed, with a special focus on arts by the region’s pre-Hispanic peoples.
Fortress: Pirate attacks led the Spanish to construct imposing Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, with great city and ocean views. Poke around its ghostly (if not downright claustrophobic) tunnels.
Food tour: Foodies’ enthusiastic guides lead participants on strolls to insider holes-in-the-wall for tasty street treats — or on a tour of the food-related settings that figure in novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works.
Kite-surfing: Cartagena’s waterfront offers neither turquoise seas nor white sands. But kitesurfers love the windy coves above the city.
Botanical gardens: Thirty minutes out but worth the trip (negotiate hourly rates with cabbies) is the Jardin Botanico Guillermo Pineres. A former private estate, it’s now a compelling window onto the region’s awe-inspiring trees, exotic flowers and mineral springs, plus home to monkeys galore. Post-tour, try lunch at adjacent Selva Negra or family-friendly Los Lagos, complete with gardens and swimming pools.
Downtown: Cartagena’s good-looking, well-scrubbed gentry puts even the tight-fisted in a mood to shop and there are beguiling, if pricey, boutiques on every street downtown. Keep eyes peeled for swank leather goods and gorgeous, tropical threads in every imaginable hue, especially at St Dom and at Silvia Tcherassi’s mind-blowing couture shop.
Colombia artesanal: Brightly coloured, duffle-style handbags, hand-woven by Wayuu artisans, are on offer in tourist-heavy plazas. But their higher-class cousins at Colombia Artesanal evince a breathtaking refinement that justifies higher tariffs. The shop also features a selection of jewellery, objets d’art and books celebrating the city and its culture.
Kolora: Gents may consider snapping up a guayabera shirt in crisp linen and in shades from sober to flaming. The winsome seamstresses at Kolora will prepare a bespoke number at surprisingly reasonable prices if you’ve got a day or two to spare.
LIKE A LOCAL
Nice & slow: Cartagena’s climate can be brutally hot and humid, so take things slow; hustling to gobble up sight after sight will leave you drained, drenched and peevish. Hit destinations early mornings and late afternoons (many shops, museums, etc. shutter-up for an hour or two at midday anyway); plan on leisurely lunches and consider a siesta or some pool time when the sun is high — at that hour you’ll miss nothing on rarely trod, sun-baked streets.
Arepas: The starch-bombs known as an arepa (griddled, white-cornmeal patties buttered and filled with cheese and other, never healthy, ingredients, topped by a variety of sauces) are not only delicious but seemingly available on every corner. But not all arepas are created equal. Look for purveyors who’ve added cheese to the dough (rather than sprinkling it into a sliced specimen); get to know the best vendors’ corners. A cluster of hometown aficionados around the vendor is usually an excellent sign.
Few cities of Cartagena’s size could offer such a variety of charming, often gorgeous hotels. Well worth the splurge, most lie in the city centre and include some dazzling high-end cribs occupying old mansions and convents. Getsemani is also witnessing a rapid hostel-to-boutique transition.
Friends to be: This rustic-chic hotel is cheap(ish) and very cheerful. The essence of still-sexy Getsemani, it’s also close to nightlife. Big rooms and a pool add value. Calle del Espiritu Santo.
Alfiz Hotel Boutique: Tucked away in a stately townhouse, this intimate hotel is a refined oasis whose staff are as helpful and chop-chop as at any five-star joint.
Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara: If you’re itching to get your grand hotel on, the Sofitel Santa Clara is still the reigning queen. Arrayed around a magnificent 17th-century cloister, the cocktail lounge and spectacular 1621 restaurant are citywide destinations.
Food in Cartagena reflects the city’s indigenous, African and European roots, with emphasis on seafood and tropical fruits, corn and cassava. Posh, coruscating dining rooms have mushroomed in recent years — but don’t forget the street-level fare, also delicious (and gloriously caloric).
Donde Magola: This down-home spot adds a dose of the real when gentrification starts to cloy. Take your pick of meat or cheese carimanolas (cassava-flour dumplings), the full arepa portfolio and sundry other deep-fried fancies.
Restaurante Maria: A madly colourful, altogether splendid dining room that shares a kitchen with famed sister restaurant Don Juan. Regional surf-and-turf based on the freshest local ingredients attracts a chatty, table-hopping crowd.
Marea: Meanwhile, the high-end dining scene is on fire. Dramatic, impeccable salons abound, but this time I loved Marea for top-notch fin-fare, with mid-century chic and romantic harbour views.
After-dark choices have expanded recently to reflect more sophisticated tastes. Meanwhile, earnestly trashy and no less diverting pubs and gin joints thump away every night. Weekends start late and go late, often till sunrise.
Dance: Everyone (natives, visitors, hippies, hipsters, Hillary Clinton) loves sweaty stalwart Cafe Havana for riotous Cuban music and dancing. Its once-dodgy district is newly awash in fashionable boites like clever-cool Demente.
LGBT: The LGBT set parties nightly at Le Petit and at the Ibiza club — with its straight-gay-otherwise crowd, it’s unstoppable for boogie and flirt.
Cocktails: Haute mixology (twee ingredients, oh-la-la decor) has hit; dress up and bring money. Cosy and maybe smartest of all is El Baron; Alquimico is friendly and great for pre-dinner drinks. Cartagena’s highest-karat jeunesse doree currently adores vintage-to-a-fault La Jugada.
Before you arrive
Located on a high plateau at the very centre of Colombia, Bogotá is the natural gateway to this wild but wonderful country. Dating back to 1538, when it was founded by Spaniard Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, Bogotá grew slowly. But what started out as a collection of just 12 huts has transformed over the centuries into the sprawling capital of eight million inhabitants that stands today.
At the airport
Bogotá’s Eldorado International Airport is located 15km west of the city centre. This modern hub is Latin America’s third largest airport and provides an easy entry point into Colombia.
All the facilities you’d expect are present: free Wi-Fi, ATMs and currency exchange booths (though rates tend to be better in the banks of Bogotá). There is also a tourist information office though it’s often closed.
Getting into town
The best way to transfer to the city centre, particularly for those unfamiliar with Bogotá, is by taxi. In a bid to protect visitors from unscrupulous taxi drivers, there’s an official taxi counter in the baggage hall that will issue a printed estimate of the cost of your journey; this should be shown to the cabbie. Journey time to central Bogotá is 20-50 minutes depending on traffic. Late-night arrivals offer the speediest transfer time.
Special Aeropuerto buses are also available.
Other ways to arrive
Those travelling by bus from elsewhere in Colombia – or from further afield – are likely to arrive at the busy central bus station, La Terminal, close to Avenida de La Constitucion, around 5km from downtown Bogotá. You’ll find a number of restaurants, luggage storage and even shower facilities here. As with the airport, there’s a tourist information stand and an official taxi office that can help determine fares. Taxis are available outside the station.
Something is brewing in the small Colombian town of Minca. It smells of caramel, bark, charcoal, and chocolate. The source? Coffee beans, fresh from backyard roasters, their sharp burnt odour cutting through the humid tropical haze. Here in northern Colombia, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range rises straight from the shores of the Caribbean. Long left undeveloped due to political troubles, this now peaceful area draws urban Colombians and savvy international visitors to the palm-fringed beaches of Tayrona National Park, the ancient archaeological site of Ciudad Perdida, and the birding paradise of the jungles around Minca. Recently Minca and the Sierra Nevada have begun to attract coffee-loving travellers, a collection of connoisseurs and curious backpackers eager to discover what Juan Pablo Campos, general manager of the Lohas Beans trade group, calls “the most important Colombian region for organic coffee.”
While coffee is not native to Colombia, the plant has flourished for centuries on the country’s steep, shade-covered mountains, with rainfall, altitude, and temperatures ideal for growing the mellow, medium-bodied arabica-style bean. Colombia has been exporting coffee since the early 1800s, and in 2015 alone shipped 8,40,000 tons of coffee beans. A senes of advertisements in the 1950s featuring fictional characters Juan Valdez and his trusty mule, Conchita, propelled “Cafe de Colombia” to fame.
Colombia’s better-known “coffee triangle”—the Caldas, Quindio, and Risaralda departments in the country’s west—now supports a well-trod tourist track between luxury lodges and standardized plantation tours. But it is the Sierra Nevada that offers an authentic journey into the past—and a taste of the future of Colombian coffee. In remote highlands, indigenous tribes of Kogi and Arhuaco lead the way in organic coffee production, developing a sustainable farming network that combines traditional spiritual beliefs with modern planting knowledge.
These farms embrace generations-old techniques and tools to produce sought-after organic blends, with many beans “triple certified” as organic, fair trade, and rainforest-friendly. The gateway to the region is the sunny Caribbean seaside city of Santa Marta, where the bitter street blend of tinto (from the Spanish word for ink) black coffee is sweetened with spoonfuls of sugar. Coffee aficionados will skip the tinto, as well as the ubiquitous Juan Valdez chain stores, and head to Santa Marta’s smaller shops, such as Ikaro Cafe.
Exploring the area’s coffee culture is best done during harvest season, from about November through February, and can be as simple as hiring a taxi for the approximately 40-minute, 24-kilometre bumpy ride from the sea to the hills. Visits to tribal lands require special permission or an organized trip from an approved local operator such as Wivva Tour. A stop at Hacienda la Victoria above Minca is like travelling to 1892, when the farm was founded.
Husband-and-wife owners Micky and Claudia Weber provide a bean-to-brew education on growing, processing, and roasting coffee. Visitors will see the same well-oiled machinery in use since the farm’s beginnings: water-powered generators, gravity-driven sorters, and hand-cranked presses. Tours conclude with a tasting of their blends, often accompanied by home-made apple pie. Other local farms promote scheduled and drop-in tours and tastings of high-end coffees—a difference from only a few years ago when Colombia had an unofficial policy of “export the best, and drink the rest.”
Drinking a good cup of coffee is just the beginning of a trip to Minca, where swathes of coffee beans dry on street side tarps in season. Hiking trails wind through Sierra Nevada rainforest to the Marinka and Pozo Azul waterfalls. Hundreds of butterfly and bird species native to the area include “parrots so plentiful they’re like pigeons,” according to one visitor.
Minca plantations may flash back a few generations, but indigenous Kogi farms (or those of the more remote Arhuaco), located deeper in the mountains, are a journey back centuries. The tribes live without electricity in traditional adobe huts with thatched roofs. They often carry their mochila (handwoven knapsacks) and wear homespun cotton clothing, white to symbolize the purity of nature.
Their traditional conical headgear represents sacred snow-capped mountain peaks. Their mamos (spiritual guides) perform purification ceremonies of prayer and song prior to planting and harvesting the beans. It all works in harmony with the land, their neighbours, and modern markets, nurturing a future model not only for growing coffee but for ripening Colombian tourism itself.
WHERE TO STAY – Two blocks from the Botero Museum sits Hotel Casa Deco, a modern inn that stands out with its color-themed rooms, deco style, and—for lovers of live music-proximity to Casa de Citas Cafe Arte; from $101. In the middle of La Candelaria but on a quiet street you’ll find Italian-owned Abadia Colonial, cast from a traditional Colombian residence. Rooms, simply furnished in period style, look out on a courtyard. Also notable: a glass-roofed dining area. From $68. Closer to the Plaza de Bolivar you’ll come upon the luxe Hotel de la Opera, in a grand, colonial-era stone edifice with its own thermal spa; from $209. Those staying outside La Candelaria should try the homey Hotel Casona del Patio, in Chapinero, a quarter known for its bars; from $67.
WHERE TO EAT – Stylish dining and expansive views make Restaurante Casa San Isidro, on Monserrate and reachable by cable car, a fine bet for an introductory meal in Bogota; the menu, on the pricey side, runs from French classics (bouillabaisse, duck ten-ine) to Colombian favorites. The folksy, popular Casa de Citas Cafe Arte draws big weekend crowds with live music, salsa dancing, and Peruvian dishes; try the seviche with hot aji pepper sauce.
Looking for a romantic hideaway? Head to El Gato Gris, just off Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo, and order empanaditas paired with absinthe, which, the menu says, will help you “see things as you wished they were.” Playful and intimate El Patio earns kudos for its candlelit ambience and Italian fare. You will taste country cooking the way it was prepared in Bolivar’s day at La Puerta Falsa, founded in 1816. If it’s full, check out two like-minded eateries nearby: the Antigua Santa Fe and La Puerta de la Tradieion, where you can sample Bogotano favorites such as ajiaco, a chicken-based stew.
WHAT TO KNOW – Temperate weather reigns in Bogota; the driest conditions occur from December into March. Many newcomers feel the effects of Bogota’s altitude (8,660 feet); common symptoms include shortness of breath, difficulty sleeping, and mild dizziness. Acclimation usually occurs within a few days; limiting alcohol consumption aids the transition.
From the lookout atop 10,341-foot-high Monserrate this summer evening, Bogota resembles a glittering crazy quilt tessellated with flickering lights and obsidian shadows. The vista, magnificent in scale, awes. My eye searches for the Botero Museum, somewhere directly below, in the Candelaria quarter, the city’s colonial heart. Only 15 years ago Bogota was being convulsed by a decades-long civil war. Left-wing guerrillas, many from Colombia’s working class, were gunning down officials and seizing government buildings; right-wing paramilitaries were killing leftists. And, of course, revenues from narcotics enriched a few beyond all imagination; think Pablo Escobar, the now deceased chief of the Medellin cartel, with his Learjet, submarines, and zoo. “Things are different now, very different,” says my Bogota friend Carla Baquero, a 33-year-old graphic artist, as we walk along the lookout’s steep path to the cable car for the ten-minute descent to the city.
The car sways to life, and we slide almost vertically toward the darkest part of the otherwise bright cityscape: La Candelaria. The quarter, she tells me as she brushes aside a stray black curl, “is where Colombian poets have always lived and where you still feel the Bogota of Simon Bolivar,” the heroized 19th-century liberator of Colombia. The larger-than-life art of Fernando Botero couldn’t find a more appropriate home. Baquero and I reach the entrance to the Museo Botero, which occupies a colonial residence on Calle 11. I’m intent on seeing a Botero painting that has long intrigued me: “Pareja Bailando” (“Couple Dancing”). It depicts a duo mid-step, she with horselike haunches and a mane of reddish hair, he paleskinned and rotund.
We find the artwork in a room devoted to Botero (the museum also shows works by other modern artists, including Pablo Picasso and Robert Motherwell). Like most Botero subjects, the two appear obese. However, the artist wouldn’t term them so: For him, they’re possessed of a volumen hinting at a surfeit of sensuality, a Colombian trait. All appears normal in the scene. Then I notice that neither figure is reflected in the mirror behind them—a vampiric portent of perdition? — and that the man is unshaven, suggesting this may be a brothel. Things are only superficially as they should be, intimating layers invisible to a casual observer.
“In his work,” Baquero says, “Botero hints at the problems in our history, the corruption, the falsity in our private lives, the violence beneath the surface.” We stop at “Una Familia,” a portrait of what appears to be a normal family, though the wife, husband, and two children look humorously corpulent. (They can’t be obese, Baquero notes; no folds crease their body fat, confirmation, perhaps, of Botero’s explanation of “volume.”) Then Baquero points to telling details. “The man has two wedding rings, which suggests he may be cheating. The woman seems to have a wandering eye, which for some Colombians means she can’t be trusted, so she too may be cheating.
And look at how ugly the family dog is; we think a dog’s character reflects that of its master.” I notice a scarlet snake in a tree behind them, poised to bite the woman. “That’s Catholic iconography,” Baquero observes, another implication that the two are sinners. Bogota, Botero gives us to think, is, like the rest of Colombia, Catholic yet sensuous. Much is concealed for religious propriety’s sake. Yet gazing at his lighthearted “Man on Horseback” (the man looks as heavy as the horse), I sense a playfulness, a Colombian passion for outsize moments and distrust of seriousness. Botero paints so deftly, even daftly, that his oeuvre, like Bogota, occupies a middle area between beaux arts and pop art, or, in culinary terms, between an elegant tarte tatin and Pop-Tarts.
I HAVE ALWAYS FELT BOGOTA was in my blood. Maybe it’s ascribable to a familial tie to the city: My mother spent a few years here as a teenager, in a grand casa senorial somewhere on a mist-mantled mountainside above town, where, she told me wistfully, she was never happier. In 2009, I began visiting Colombia to research a book about Bolivar, the flamboyant liberator of five countries from Spanish rule. With “El Libertador” I felt a visceral bond: His life was as peripatetic as my own, his wanderlust as insatiable, his sense of history as tragic. I fell in love with Bogota, set dramatically beneath the steep-sloped Andes, its climate often forlornly cool and rainy, its people, emerging from decades of terror, eager to learn about the world and have others learn about them.
Most of all, I fell in love with the colorfully painted Candelaria neighborhood, cradle of Colombia’s most recent renaissance, where poncho-clad campesinos share sidewalks with stylishly dressed (and newly relaxed) elites, and horse-drawn carts rattle alongside sports cars. By immersing myself in its life on this visit and meeting Candelarianos who are helping revive their city, I am hoping I will find my own place in this proud Latin culture—and derive inspiration for another book, which would come from deeper within me. I’m hoping, in other words, that maybe some of Colombia’s rebirth will rub off on me—and that I will make the city my own.
The city originated here, either at the stately Plaza de Bolivar— where Colombia’s capitol and supreme court preside—or by the quaint Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo, with its marijuana-scented alleys and folksy raconteurs. Today mostly a picturesque warren of cobbled streets and low, gable-roofed homes and businesses, La Candelaria long suffered infamy as a dilapidated, dangerous no-go zone sheltering El Cartucho, one of Bogota’s biggest drug markets (now a public park). The area’s renaissance as a hub of cultural life, at once laid-back and sophisticated, blends the Old World and the 21st century. This is what Bolivar, who envisioned Bogota as a world-class capital, would have wanted. Born in Caracas, capital of present-day Venezuela, and a European-educated scion of its upper crust—he was an unabashed Europhile—Bolivar made a gallant insurgent.
His cherished refuge, shared with Manuela Saenz, a comrade-in-arms and his mistress, was the Quinta de Bolivar, his estate in La Candelaria’s upper reaches, today a museum dedicated to the Liberator. Wander the low-slung manor house, stocked with antique chandeliers and gilt-framed mirrors, or the neoclassical gardens abounding with such regional botanical curiosities as Andean blueberries, and you may understand Carla Baquero’s feelings about the place. “I’m always overwhelmed by the Quinta,” she tells me. “I think of Bolivar and his Manuelita, and how happy they were here. But it didn’t last.” Bolivar would depart for self-imposed exile, and Manuelita eventually was exiled by the new government.
BOLIVAR WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE much of the city he helped put on the map. The ride in from the airport had whipped me down an expressway toward Bogota’s phalanx of skyscrapers, their windows aflame with the midday sun, set against the green mass of Monserrate. As we shot beneath bridges streaked with graffiti, I felt short of breath from the 8,66o-foot altitude. But the clarity of the light washing over the scene, enriching all the colors, infused me with optimism. One morning I have a meeting with a young man who, from what I’ve read, is doing all that he can to change Bogota for the better. On my way to our appointment I manage to get lost in La Candelaria’s tapestry of streets, and soon am hurrying down sidewalks, sidestepping manholes, dodging roaring buses. Miguel Uribe greets me in the courtyard cafe of the peach-colored Hotel de la Opera, a throwback to colonial times.
At 28, Uribe is the second youngest deputy on Bogota’s City Council. He also happens to be a grandson of former Colombian president Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala. Uribe knows more than most about Colombia’s grievous past. In 1990, drug lord Pablo Escobar ordered the kidnapping of his mother, television journalist Diana Turbay. Five months in captivity ended with a botched police rescue attempt and, in 1991, her death during a firelight. (Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez immortalized the tragedy in his nonfiction masterpiece, News of a Kidnapping.) Uribe, who was four at the time, professes no bitterness; he prefers to focus on the encouraging changes he’s seen recently. “In the 1990s, we were prisoners of narco traffickers and guerrilla groups in our own city. Now, it’s no more dangerous here than in other urban areas.” He sips a soda before adding, “Bogota has been modernizing, but La Candelaria has kept its identity, with its houses restored, security improved, excellent bars and restaurants opening, and lots of good new hotels.”
He’s light about hotels. I’m staying at the Abadia Colonial, a sleepy inn fashioned out of a colonial home, with an Italian restaurant in the courtyard. The Italian owner, Paolo Rocchi, proudly describes to me La Candelaria’s burgeoning artistic community and the French and Italians who are moving here to enjoy it. “It is like living in the center of San Francisco—the San Francisco of South America.” La Candelaria’s revival has incorporated touches of the cosmopolitan, which are welcome in a Colombia that has only recently ended its relative political isolation. “A night out in Bogota was once about arepas [flatbreads] and rum,” says Yolima Herrera, one of two Bogotanas who join me for dinner at the neighborhood restaurant El Patio. “Today, people also can order wine, goimnet cheeses, and hams.” We toast the evening with a South American Cabernet Sauvignon as good as any from France and pore over a menu of Europe-inspired dishes. “Tourism has been vital to our revival,” adds my other dinner companion, Angela Garzon, who works in city government. “We were on the blacklist of nations.”
HOWEVER MUCH LA CANDELARIA is changing, reminders of Colombia’s turbulent past remain. As light floods down from a sun burning brighter here in the tropics than anything I’m used to, I walk, still a bit short of breath from the altitude, across Plaza de Bolivar. On this spot in 1817, Spaniards put to death Policarpa Salavarrieta, a seamstress who spied for the movement for independence from Spain. Now honored by a plaque, she is her country’s revolutionary heroine; at her execution, she refused orders to kneel and turn away. Instead, she defiantly stood and faced the riflemen as they fired.
Just steps away, on pedestrian-only Carrera 7, I find an example of Bogota’s more ludie spirit. A man is playing, simultaneously, a drum on his back, a flute attached to his chin, and a guitar hanging from his neck. He manages, with contortions, to produce a salsa tune that couples dance to, skirting concrete flower planters painted with wry sayings such as “Si eressabio, rte— If you’re wise, laugh” and “Los feos tenemos mas estilo—We ugly folks have moi-e style.” Just south of the square, at the artisanal market Pasaje Rivas, vendors greet passersby with figurines of the Virgin Mary—and the Simpsons.
Then there is Bogota’s resurgent, and spirited, cafe life. I’m immediately drawn to Mitho Cafe, a wood-paneled space warmed by a freestanding fireplace, which I nestle next to one drizzly afternoon with a crema de whiskey and a crusty picada of chorizo sausage and baby potatoes. Another afternoon I experiment with absinthe at El Gato Gris, which dubs itself “Bohemia in Bogota.” El Gato’s menu of cocktails features, appropriately, a sketch of surrealist Spanish artist Salvador Dali with his signature pencil mustache. Sitting at a small table under a wrought iron chandelier, watching a failing sun gild rococo church belfries, I sip from my chalice of absinthe, which has been sweetened with chocolate and a stick of cinnamon. My favorite drink, however, will turn out to be a Colombian standard: a shot of aguardiente (“fiery water”) preceded by a quick chomp on a slice of lime. My final night in Bogota, I return to a nocturnal haunt in La Candelaria I’ve come to love above all.