With extra airlift and a host of new hotels, Colombia is a country on the up, reports Katie McGonagle
Flights are a bit like buses – wait for ages, then two come along at once.
At least that’s the case in Colombia. National carrier Avianca launched a direct four-times-a-week service from Heathrow to Bogota on July 4.
The flights not only avoid the need to connect through a hub such as Madrid, but will be on board Dreamliner 787s by the end of the year, and will feature lie-flat beds in business-class.
Coming hot on the heels of TAP Portugal’s new service via Lisbon, which started on July 1, there is no doubting the growing demand for one of South America’s most up-and-coming destinations.
Colombia has enjoyed a 13.9% increase in UK arrivals in the past year, with visitor numbers rising to 27,101 in 2013.Hoteliers are responding with a swathe of development. Openings this year include the Hotel Casa Carolina in Santa Marta, InterContinental Cartagena De Indias, Holiday Inn Express Cartagena, and another Holiday Inn Express in Bogota. There is more to come, with big hitters Marriott International and Accor already building in Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena. Radisson, Melia, Iberostar, Hyatt and Starwood are also planning developments.
Security concerns still linger for some clients, but Proexport Colombia director Juan Guillermo Perez says: “The security situation has ceased to be a major issue for international travellers for some years. UK agents should emphasise that Colombia is not a dangerous country to visit, and travelling here is no more dangerous than in any other country.”
So with all these changes, perhaps it is time to take another look at what Colombia has to offer.
With most international travellers arriving in capital Bogota, this vast city – the fourth-largest in the Americas with a population rivalling London’s – is a good starting point.
Colonial district La Candelaria is as packed with history as it is brightly coloured buildings and winding streets. Make time for the world-famous Gold Museum, which showcases a staggering collection of gold artworks that pre-date Spanish settlement, and the gallery of works by Colombian sculptor Botero.
For incredible cityscapes, take the funicular railway to the shrine at the top of Monserrate. Just don’t bring a boyfriend – local legend says if women bring their beau, they will never get married.
Contiki’s new 11-day itinerary, Hola Colombia, includes a cycling tour of the city and a free day to explore Bogota. Prices start at £1,644, excluding flights.
For somewhere to sleep, Bales Worldwide recommends Hotel Salitre for stopover clients, as it is near to the international and domestic airports. Cité Hotel, Sofitel Bogota and Hotel de la Opera offer alternatives in the heart of the Zona Rosa and La Candelaria.
Second city Medellin, which is about 250 miles northwest of Bogota, has probably experienced the most dramatic change in the past 20 years. Once notorious for drug-related violence, it is now packed with public art, most notably Botero’s signature sculptures, and was named the world’s most innovative city by the Wall Street Journal last year.
A little less forward-thinking – albeit in a good way – one of the best-preserved colonial towns is Villa de Leyva. It was declared a national monument in 1954, so its cobbled streets, whitewashed buildings and Spanish-influenced architecture remain untouched. Travel 2 has added an optional three-day Essential Villa de Leyva extension to its 12-day Treasures of Colombia & The Coffee Triangle.
No visit to Colombia is complete without learning about its most famous export. Intrepid Travel guests get hands-on with the production process at a coffee plantation in Armenia on the 15-day Complete Colombia tour (from £1,585, excluding flights).
For tailor-made stays, Cox & Kings recommends Hacienda San Jose near Pereira, which offers plantation tours, coffee tastings and horse riding. Rainbow Tours suggests Casa de Huéspedes Sazagua near Pereira and Hacienda El Delirio near Armenia.
Once visitors have explored the heart of Colombia, it is time to head to its northern beauty spots.
Tim Fearn, Americas expert at Exodus, says: “Cartagena is the jewel in Colombia’s crown, crammed full of colourful colonial buildings with a lively Caribbean atmosphere. There is nothing better than strolling the winding streets of the old town while tucking into fresh tropical fruits sold by cheerful street vendors.”
Most tourist resorts are in Bocagrande, but the boutique hotels inside the walled city offer more sense of the city’s history.
Popular options include the 23-room Ananda Hotel Boutique, mid-range Alfiz Hotel highlighted by Sunvil Traveller, and converted 17th-century convent Sofitel Santa Clara, where Journey Latin America recommends its guests use the tranquil spa.
Active clients need not despair – Tucan Travel advises taking a snorkelling trip to the Rosario Islands or to make a beeline for Santa Marta, the gateway to Colombia’s most adventurous spots. Squeeze in some sightseeing – the botanical gardens at La Quinta de San Pedro and white Catedral de Santa Marta are beautiful – then grab your hiking boots and cameras and head for Tayrona National Park.
The park combines verdant jungles, towering mountains and stunning beaches. Hammocks inside so-called ‘ecohabs’ allow guests to get back to nature.
Bales Worldwide product development manager Sue Livsey says: “They are possibly the best rooms with a view I have experienced. Sleep with the panoramic shutters open and you will awake to sweeping views over the beach and rainforest.”
Several Colombia tours feature this experience, including Tailor Made Adventures’ new 15-day Colombia Discovery. G Adventures’ 12-day Colombia Highlights (from £1,299, excluding flights) and Intrepid Travel’s nine-day Colonial Colombia (from £880, excluding flights) which all include an overnight stay.
But this is all the softest of soft adventure compared with trekking all the way to Ciudad Perdida (the ‘lost city’).
This settlement was built by the Tayrona people between the 11th and 14th centuries, but disappeared from maps until it was rediscovered in 1975 – not surprising considering it is accessible only on foot.
Explore’s guided trip, Trek to the Lost City, is a good way to get there. But advise clients to read the account by Explore head of product Simon Grove on the operator’s website first – they will either book straightaway or know it is not for them.
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