Where to go

Bogotá

Like most capital cities, at least in Latin America, Bogotá is crowded, noisy, polluted and disorganized. Yet it is a proud, cosmopolitan city with impressive modern buildings and services. The historical centre, La Candelaria, has a wealth of fine colonial churches and buildings. For a great view of the city, take the cable car to the top of Monserrate. A visit to the Gold Museum, with its dazzling collection of pre-Columbian art, is a mind-boggling experience. There is excellent accommodation in all categories. Bogotá is the best place for information on the whole country and has comprehensive transport links. Places to visit nearby include Guatavita, Zipaquirá, the many towns down to the west towards the Río Magdalena, and the parks of Chicaque, Chingaza and Sumapaz (check for security). You may decide to spend the night in one of these places and there is plenty of good accommodation on offer. Midweek stays can be particularly good value.

Cartagena

Cartagena is more relaxed than Bogotá, though it is not without the problems of a big modern city. It is colonial Spain's finest legacy in the Americas, impressive in every respect. Spend several days here as there is so much to see. It is also the best base for visits to the Caribbean coast and the islands: check out the beaches and the watersports available. Beaches along the coast and on the offshore islands can be visited, as can the strange mud volcanoes nearby. To the northeast, Barranquilla has its own attractions, including a spectacular carnival, perhaps the finest in Latin America after Rio de Janeiro. Mompós is a superb colonial town that can be visited from either Barranquilla or Cartagena, but you will have to stay overnight. Cartagena is also the gateway to San Andrés, a popular island resort, and to the charming neighbouring island of Providencia.

Medellín

Medellín, with its recent history of over- industrialization and violent drug cartels behind it, is now a modern, vibrant city with many new buildings that complement the old, restored architecture. There is plenty of modern art to see, fascinating places to visit in the surrounding Department of Antioquia and friendly, outgoing people to meet. The
paisas
(as the locals are known) leave the city at the weekends and head for the countryside; tourists should follow their lead. Santa Fe de Antioquia, a remarkable, preserved colonial town, is an easy day trip but you will almost certainly want to stay the night. The journey to Rionegro takes you through some beautiful countryside, and to the west of Medellín, El Peñol, the towering black rock overlooking Guatapé and its huge lake, should not be missed. There are many delightful places with lakes and waterfalls in this region. To the southwest of Medellín is Jericó and particularly recommended for a visit is Jardín, truly a garden village. Medellín is also the jumping-off point for Quibdó, the Chocó and the northern part of Colombia's Pacific coast.

Cali

The 'capital' of the south, Cali is about the same size as Medellín and has a similar unhappy past. However, it is now reinvigorated and has an attractive, lively atmosphere, which springs from its interesting mix of inhabitants. The locals have combined to make this the finest popular music centre of the continent and this is well illustrated by their passion for salsa.

The Farallones National Park is a few kilometers to the west. To the north is Darién; with its Calima museum and lake it is a recommended trip. Buenaventura is accessible from Cali, as is the central section of the Pacific coast and the island of Gorgona.

The rest of Colombia

A quarter of the population live in the four cities listed above, but to find the heart of Colombia you must look elsewhere. The country is strongly regionalized and this stems from the rugged terrain and its early history, when many different indigenous groups lived separately. All roads do not lead to Bogotá; hence the importance today of the
departamentos
and their capitals. In the 19th century some were independent countries for a short time (eg Antioquia) and these were often Spanish settlements. The fierce pride of the later inhabitants ensured the preservation of their heritage and virtually all are worth a visit, but of particular interest are Popayán, Tunja, Pereira, Neiva and Bucaramanga.

Smaller places that express even better the feel of colonial Colombia are spread around the western part of the country. They include Villa de Leiva, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Mompós, Monguí and Barichara. If you are looking for fine scenery, it is all here: from deserts (La Guajira and Tatacoa) to the wettest area of the Americas (Chocó); from one of the hottest places in South America (Norte de Santander) to the snows of the Nevados.

For beach lovers, Colombia has two long coastlines that give access to plenty of palm-fringed tropical paradises. Thanks to increased security, the Darién's Caribbean coastline has opened up to visitors and isolated villages such as Capurganá and Sapzurro are rewarding destinations for the intrepid traveller, as are the villages of Bahía Solano and Nuquí on the Pacific coast. Offshore are many coral islands. Further afield, the island of Providencia is full of culture and laid-back charm, and its Seaflower Bioreserve barrier reef offers some of the best and most extensive diving in the Caribbean. There are deep river gorges (Chicamocha), high mountain chains (Cocuy and Sierra de Santa Marta) and many areas of fine
páramo for walking and trekking. Colombia also has its own stretch of Amazon, and Leticia is recommended as a good, well-organized place to experience the jungle. In addition to all this, there are 55 national parks spread throughout the country.

Some particularly outstanding attractions that it would be a pity to miss are: the archaeological sites of Ciudad Perdida, San Agustín and Tierradentro; the wax palms above Salento; the flamingos near Riohacha; the mud volcanoes near Arboletes; the wonderful rich green countryside of the Zona Cafetera; the Gold Museum in Bogotá; the walled city in Cartagena; El Peñol rock; Parque Botero in Medellín; Las Lajas sanctuary; and the Zipaquirá salt cathedral.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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