Enjoying the culture, cuisine and colorful cities of Colombia

By Sherry Hutt
This article appears on page 44 of the February 2016 issue.
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View of Cartagena from its old city wall.

For my husband, Guy, and me, Colombia was one of the last places in South America we had not yet visited, but we had been seeing positive news about the country.

Former drug lords are now benefactors of schools, and improved infrastructure has made cities like Medellín places of pride for Colombians. Further, the FARC political guerillas have concentrated themselves in the Amazon, in places where travelers have little reason to venture. So we decided to devote three weeks in July 2015 to exploring Colombia.

Making plans

We had no difficulty creating a list of places to see. Beyond touring the main cities of Bogotá, Cartagena and Santa Marta, we decided to include visits to the archaeological parks in the southern highlands and to the intriguing Las Lajas Sanctuary in Ipiales, located near the border with Ecuador. 

To avoid any problems with language, we traveled with our daughter, Lisa, a Peace Corps veteran of Central America who is fluent in Spanish. 

The difficulty in planning our trip came when trying to arrange the logistics of travel between sites. 

Outside of the big cities, there are few highways. Although comfortable large buses are offering increased service between regional airports and larger cities, to reach all the stops on our itinerary we would need to either rely on chivas, the colorful converted school buses used by locals, or arrange for a private vehicle. 

Packaged tours were available, but none included all the places on our list.

The highlands

For the first week of our trip, we employed Kensington Tours (Wilmington, DE; 888/903-2001, kensingtontours.com) to make all the arrangements for our tour of Colombia’s southern highlands. They arranged for us to be picked up at the airport in Bogotá, booked our internal flights, made hotel reservations in places with few options and hired our wonderful local drivers and guides. We paid $350 per person per day, all inclusive. Hiring them was a wise choice. 

We found our guidebooks to be out of date when describing adventurous travel through Colombia, so having the knowledge of locals was an asset. Driving on Colombia’s roads is an art, and travel there is still best done in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. 

Our drivers knew the best places for a pit stop and the best eateries.

Our first stop was the Akawanka Lodge in San Agustín. This colonial town, founded in 1752, is threatened by the building of high-rise hotels to accommodate visitors to its archaeological park, which contains some 600 megalithic statues. These monuments are the guardians of the tombs of elite members of, according to UNESCO, “one of the earliest complex societies in the Americas.”

From Pasto, southwest of San Agustín, we traveled to Las Lajas Sanctuary, where a century ago a young, mute girl told her mother that the Virgin had spoken to her. The miracle of her healing was accompanied by the vision of the Virgin embedded deep in the wall of a rock canyon. Over the years, successive chapels have been built into the canyon, each preserving the wall as the altar’s backdrop.

Independent explorations

Once Kensington flew us back to Bogotá, we were on our own. We stayed five nights in the charming Abadia Colonial Hotel ($75 per night, single, or $110, double) in the historic Candelaria district, within walking distance of museums and historic sites. 

Carved tomb guardians at San Agustín.

In Bogotá, the museum of the national artist Botero and the Gold Museum are not to be missed. The Gold Museum houses the 19-centimeter-long gold sculpture of the Muisca ceremonial raft found in a cave south of the city. The museum’s coffee bar is the best in the city. 

We hired day guides for visits from Bogotá to the Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral, Lake Guatavita and a coffee plantation. David and Andrés from Destino Bogotá (Bogotá, Colombia; destinobogota.com) were knowledgeable and great fun. Andrés took us to his favorite neighborhood restaurant, La Embajada del Pacifico, which was a treat we would not have found on our own. 

Travel consultant Sebastián advised us on which days to visit our chosen sites to avoid crowds. They made our trip a success. 

The cost for three people for two days of touring was $760.

An hour north of Bogotá, Lake Guatavita awaits those willing to climb above the clouds. The Salt Cathedral and coffee plantations in the area are visitor favorites. 

In Bogotá are the Museo Santa Clara, the city’s gold-adorned church and the Iglesia de la Tercera (an equally impressive chapel decorated with carved wood sans gold). 

At the home of Bolívar, decide for yourself whether the garden path is lined with the vertebrae of cows or his enemies.

For our final week, we divided our time between Santa Marta and Cartagena. We flew from Bogotá to Santa Marta, where we stayed in an Airbnb property, Casa Celta ($140 per night for two rooms, with breakfast), with its French hostess, Gwendoline. Walking through one of the oldest port cities in the Western Hemisphere was an experience in local life as it has always been. 

The key historical sites in Santa Marta were close to the main square and easily visited on foot. 

On Plaza de Bolívar is the Gold Museum in the old Customs House. It was there that The Liberator lay in state before his first burial in the cathedral on the next square. The cathedral, completed in 1799, is situated amid some of the oldest grand homes in the city.

During our stay in this area, we hired a cab for a day trip to Aracataca, the childhood home of Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez, and to the estate of San Pedro Alejandrino, where Simón Bolívar spent the last days of his life in exile. On the grounds is an impressive monument to The Liberator of Gran Colombia. 

Although Santa Marta is known for its proximity to the beaches of Taganga and Tayrona National Natural Park (where you can sleep overnight in a hammock), we found the heat intense and opted instead to visit the Gold Museum, 18th-century churches and wonderful restaurants, including the popular Ouzo (ouzo santamarta.com) and the French newcomer, Casa Ratatouille (Calle 21)

Cartagena

Cartagena is a picture-postcard-perfect place. The walled city is filled with shops, restaurants and hotels, from quaint and historic to new, large and air-conditioned. We opted to stay at Hotel 3 Banderas, the 18th-century home of the Consulate of the Netherlands. We recommend this modestly priced hotel ($70 single or $100 double per night) with its 22 rooms situated around courtyards. 

At the end of our street, we enjoyed dinner and the spa at Sofitel Santa Clara, the exquisite former convent — now a modern hotel — offering exceptional dining around an inner courtyard. Dining at 6:30, we were treated to the chanting of hooded monks as they performed the ritual lighting of the candles on the tables. 

We also recommend La Comunión (Calle de las Bóvedas 39-116), a new restaurant offering inventive, updated traditional dishes using local ingredients. 

View of Las Lajas Sanctuary.

While in Cartagena, visit the Palace of Inquisition and Castillo de San Felipe Barajas, the largest Spanish fort in the colonies. Then walk the perimeter wall to gain a perspective on the lovely city before choosing among the numerous restaurants and mojito bars.

Some final thoughts

In Colombia we enjoyed experiencing the blend of cultures that Colombians might take for granted. Our daughter’s Spanish fluency was almost useless in the coastal cities, where life is distinct from sophisticated Bogotá and Ecuador-leaning Pasto in the highlands. 

We loved the coconut rice, corn-and-cheese arepas (flatbread) and aguá aromática (a hot drink made with a blend of fresh fruit and mint steeped in boiling water and served with panela, or unprocessed brown sugar). 

We found American dollars shunned everywhere except on the beaches of Santa Marta and in Pasto, which identifies itself more closely with Quito than Bogotá. 

Since guidebooks still make an issue of the military presence in Colombia, a comment is due on why there are so many soldiers everywhere. Travelers’ safety and FARC, I understand, are not factors. Rather, Colombia has compulsory military service for young men — one year for those who finish high school and two years if they leave school early. 

Only so many young men serve on the big bases; many soldiers serve close to home. Their main task is to manage a major national problem: vehicle traffic. 

While the government is building roads to keep pace with the growing number of visitors and provide smooth access to popular sites, families on motorbikes compete with gasoline tankers and buses on the 2-lane highways. 

It is still advisable to leave jewelry at home.

We enjoyed every moment of our time in Colombia.    

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
View of Cartagena from its old city wall.

For my husband, Guy, and me, Colombia was one of the last places in South America we had not yet visited, but we had been seeing positive news about the country.

Former drug lords are now benefactors of schools, and improved infrastructure has made cities like Medellín places of pride for Colombians. Further, the FARC political guerillas have concentrated themselves in the Amazon, in places where travelers have little reason to venture. So we decided to devote three weeks in July 2015 to exploring Colombia.

Making plans

We had no difficulty creating a list of places to see. Beyond touring the main cities of Bogotá, Cartagena and Santa Marta, we decided to include visits to the archaeological parks in the southern highlands and to the intriguing Las Lajas Sanctuary in Ipiales, located near the border with Ecuador. 

To avoid any problems with language, we traveled with our daughter, Lisa, a Peace Corps veteran of Central America who is fluent in Spanish. 

The difficulty in planning our trip came when trying to arrange the logistics of travel between sites. 

Outside of the big cities, there are few highways. Although comfortable large buses are offering increased service between regional airports and larger cities, to reach all the stops on our itinerary we would need to either rely on chivas, the colorful converted school buses used by locals, or arrange for a private vehicle. 

Packaged tours were available, but none included all the places on our list.

The highlands

For the first week of our trip, we employed Kensington Tours (Wilmington, DE; 888/903-2001, kensingtontours.com) to make all the arrangements for our tour of Colombia’s southern highlands. They arranged for us to be picked up at the airport in Bogotá, booked our internal flights, made hotel reservations in places with few options and hired our wonderful local drivers and guides. We paid $350 per person per day, all inclusive. Hiring them was a wise choice. 

We found our guidebooks to be out of date when describing adventurous travel through Colombia, so having the knowledge of locals was an asset. Driving on Colombia’s roads is an art, and travel there is still best done in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. 

Our drivers knew the best places for a pit stop and the best eateries.

Our first stop was the Akawanka Lodge in San Agustín. This colonial town, founded in 1752, is threatened by the building of high-rise hotels to accommodate visitors to its archaeological park, which contains some 600 megalithic statues. These monuments are the guardians of the tombs of elite members of, according to UNESCO, “one of the earliest complex societies in the Americas.”

From Pasto, southwest of San Agustín, we traveled to Las Lajas Sanctuary, where a century ago a young, mute girl told her mother that the Virgin had spoken to her. The miracle of her healing was accompanied by the vision of the Virgin embedded deep in the wall of a rock canyon. Over the years, successive chapels have been built into the canyon, each preserving the wall as the altar’s backdrop.

Independent explorations

Once Kensington flew us back to Bogotá, we were on our own. We stayed five nights in the charming Abadia Colonial Hotel ($75 per night, single, or $110, double) in the historic Candelaria district, within walking distance of museums and historic sites. 

Carved tomb guardians at San Agustín.

In Bogotá, the museum of the national artist Botero and the Gold Museum are not to be missed. The Gold Museum houses the 19-centimeter-long gold sculpture of the Muisca ceremonial raft found in a cave south of the city. The museum’s coffee bar is the best in the city. 

We hired day guides for visits from Bogotá to the Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral, Lake Guatavita and a coffee plantation. David and Andrés from Destino Bogotá (Bogotá, Colombia; destinobogota.com) were knowledgeable and great fun. Andrés took us to his favorite neighborhood restaurant, La Embajada del Pacifico, which was a treat we would not have found on our own. 

Travel consultant Sebastián advised us on which days to visit our chosen sites to avoid crowds. They made our trip a success. 

The cost for three people for two days of touring was $760.

An hour north of Bogotá, Lake Guatavita awaits those willing to climb above the clouds. The Salt Cathedral and coffee plantations in the area are visitor favorites. 

In Bogotá are the Museo Santa Clara, the city’s gold-adorned church and the Iglesia de la Tercera (an equally impressive chapel decorated with carved wood sans gold). 

At the home of Bolívar, decide for yourself whether the garden path is lined with the vertebrae of cows or his enemies.

For our final week, we divided our time between Santa Marta and Cartagena. We flew from Bogotá to Santa Marta, where we stayed in an Airbnb property, Casa Celta ($140 per night for two rooms, with breakfast), with its French hostess, Gwendoline. Walking through one of the oldest port cities in the Western Hemisphere was an experience in local life as it has always been. 

The key historical sites in Santa Marta were close to the main square and easily visited on foot. 

On Plaza de Bolívar is the Gold Museum in the old Customs House. It was there that The Liberator lay in state before his first burial in the cathedral on the next square. The cathedral, completed in 1799, is situated amid some of the oldest grand homes in the city.

During our stay in this area, we hired a cab for a day trip to Aracataca, the childhood home of Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez, and to the estate of San Pedro Alejandrino, where Simón Bolívar spent the last days of his life in exile. On the grounds is an impressive monument to The Liberator of Gran Colombia. 

Although Santa Marta is known for its proximity to the beaches of Taganga and Tayrona National Natural Park (where you can sleep overnight in a hammock), we found the heat intense and opted instead to visit the Gold Museum, 18th-century churches and wonderful restaurants, including the popular Ouzo (ouzo santamarta.com) and the French newcomer, Casa Ratatouille (Calle 21)

Cartagena

Cartagena is a picture-postcard-perfect place. The walled city is filled with shops, restaurants and hotels, from quaint and historic to new, large and air-conditioned. We opted to stay at Hotel 3 Banderas, the 18th-century home of the Consulate of the Netherlands. We recommend this modestly priced hotel ($70 single or $100 double per night) with its 22 rooms situated around courtyards. 

At the end of our street, we enjoyed dinner and the spa at Sofitel Santa Clara, the exquisite former convent — now a modern hotel — offering exceptional dining around an inner courtyard. Dining at 6:30, we were treated to the chanting of hooded monks as they performed the ritual lighting of the candles on the tables. 

We also recommend La Comunión (Calle de las Bóvedas 39-116), a new restaurant offering inventive, updated traditional dishes using local ingredients. 

View of Las Lajas Sanctuary.

While in Cartagena, visit the Palace of Inquisition and Castillo de San Felipe Barajas, the largest Spanish fort in the colonies. Then walk the perimeter wall to gain a perspective on the lovely city before choosing among the numerous restaurants and mojito bars.

Some final thoughts

In Colombia we enjoyed experiencing the blend of cultures that Colombians might take for granted. Our daughter’s Spanish fluency was almost useless in the coastal cities, where life is distinct from sophisticated Bogotá and Ecuador-leaning Pasto in the highlands. 

We loved the coconut rice, corn-and-cheese arepas (flatbread) and aguá aromática (a hot drink made with a blend of fresh fruit and mint steeped in boiling water and served with panela, or unprocessed brown sugar). 

We found American dollars shunned everywhere except on the beaches of Santa Marta and in Pasto, which identifies itself more closely with Quito than Bogotá. 

Since guidebooks still make an issue of the military presence in Colombia, a comment is due on why there are so many soldiers everywhere. Travelers’ safety and FARC, I understand, are not factors. Rather, Colombia has compulsory military service for young men — one year for those who finish high school and two years if they leave school early. 

Only so many young men serve on the big bases; many soldiers serve close to home. Their main task is to manage a major national problem: vehicle traffic. 

While the government is building roads to keep pace with the growing number of visitors and provide smooth access to popular sites, families on motorbikes compete with gasoline tankers and buses on the 2-lane highways. 

It is still advisable to leave jewelry at home.

We enjoyed every moment of our time in Colombia.