Colombia has been on my mind for years simply because I have so many Colombian friends, and every time I meet a Colombian my impression is always so positive. In general, the Colombian disposition is highly upbeat, personable, and always fun. What I like to call “good people!”
With decades of drug cartel violence and bad press, Colombia was not on many travelers radar, but that is most definitely a thing of the past and the country has completely opened its doors to tourism, and what is waiting for those that go is a fantastic surprise!
Colombia is incredibly sophisticated, organized, and clean–making it an enjoyable destination while offering fascinating history, culture, nature and wild life, and cities with spectacular gastronomy, shopping, and nightlife. Even better, Colombia is still a great value, but that will inevitably changes as everyone catches on the secret!
Bogota is by far the largest city, but equally if not more interesting are it’s much smaller cities Cali, Medellin, Barranquilla and one of my new favorite cities in the world – Cartagena!
The fact that two new Four Seasons properties are opening in the Bogota this year is testament enough to how the country is transforming, as there is more demand from the luxury consumer. And has often happens with Four Seasons in many destinations, when they open the doors, the loyal clientele follows. In Cartagena, a new Viceroy property is opening in the San Diego zone, which will add to the already charming and special boutique offerings in this stunning city!
CHAPTER ONE – BOGOTA de SANTA FE
Our journey began in Bogota, a lively capital city with some fantastic neighborhoods.
Bogota is definitely worth a day of sight seeing with stops at the Museo de Oro (the Gold Museum) which tells the story of the gold and it its use from Pre-Columbian times through the arrival of the Conquistadores and later the Republic. If you are a fan of the Colombian artist Botero who paints and sculpts exceptionally rotund characters as his signature look, the Botero Museum is a lovely visit. A walk through the gorgeous Candelaria neighborhood, Plaza Bolivar and the seat of government is a must. There is much in the way of artisanry and entire area of town devoted to leather making. If you are in the market for Emeralds, they can be found all over Colombia and they are beautiful!
There is always time for a coffee break in Colombia!
Having an exceptional guide allows you to get all of the sights in in a day and most importantly gets you the insider access with arrivals to sights at just the right time: Before everyone else! We took the tram to the top of the Montserrate Monastery first thing in the morning, and as we were departing saw a two-hour line already formed. For those wanting to work their lungs out at 8,ooo feet, a 30-minute climb to the top of the monastery may be just the ticket. Either way, you will get to walk the 14 stations of the cross plus 1 more as you make your way to the top. Sip a bit of local tea of coca leaves to help you acclimate to the altitude and if you are adventurous try a crunchy fried ant or two from a local vendor!
We stayed at B.O.G. walking distance to the Zona Rosa and the fun bars and restaurants in the T-Zone. Dining in the capital is not as late as some Latin Countries so dinner at 7 or 8pm is perfectly normal and salsa and drinks definitely follow especially on the weekends. We loved the 5-story Andres Carne de Res DC where our table was right next to the live band and salsa dancers. Food and drink was great and the servers were fun. Another trendy spot, where you literally enter through the kitchen, is Juana La Loca where I had a great night out with and old friend and new Director of Marketing for the two new Four Seasons hotels taking over existing historical properties in the Zona Rosa and in the financial district.
The other benefit of a local guide is to be taken to a completely local lunch spot where Bogotanos dine. We had a fabulous meal enjoying the most typical dishes at De Nuestra Tierra and spent about $20 including a beer and dessert!
A second day in Bogota is definitely worth the house drive out to Zipaquira to walk through a marvelous underground cathedral made 100% out of salt in the salt mine. Again, the 14 stations of the cross are visited as you make your way down and deep into the mine, each station represented artistically and symbolically with a cross made from the salt.
Following our salt mine visit, we stopped for a coffee on the lively main plaza in the town of Zipaquira. One of the highlights of the day was stopping for a barbecue lunch at the Chia location of Andres Carne de Res. This is an enormous and lively place with a ton of character and great food. Andres Carne de Res is a very fun lunch stop for a group of friends or a large family outing for the quintessential Sunday brunch.
The main meal of the day is definitely lunch and being in Bogota on the weekend was fun because everyone was out enjoying. This also worked well to avoid the notorious mid-week business traffic!
CHAPTER TWO – THE COFFEE TRIANGLE (or Coffee Axis)
We flew into Armenia, one of the three cities that make up the most important coffee “triangle” of Colombia (Armenia, Pereira and Manizales).
Flying in, we knew immediately that we were leaving the cool climate of Bogota behind as we noticed almost every house and ranch below had a pool. This is the area where many city-dwellers have their vacation homes. The area is lush and beautiful, the air is fresh, and gardens, roads, and homes of all types are kept picture perfect. Even the rest stops are stunning with outdoor seating, complimentary wifi and spotless bathrooms. I was told that the best roads in the country are in this area which tells us that coffee is indeed king.
We were met at the airport by Andres, a genuine and friendly young man who had a promising pro-soccer career a head of him, until he broke his knee. This turn of events propelled him into the tourism industry and you can see his passion for his work overseeing the activities and touring for guests at the rustic and beautiful guest ranch, Hacienda Bambusa. We were warmly welcomed to Bambusa, a 7-bedroom ranch owned by the same family of Colombian Nascar champion, Juan Pablo Montoya.
The charming staff took us under their wing showing us a friendly and casual ranch experience. Meals are served al fresco, one night with two local gentlemen who played the guitar and sang Colombian ballads and love songs to the small group of guests. The primary activity in the region is…you guessed it…learning about the coffee production. Our first afternoon was spent at La Morelia where we toured the ranch to see how the coffee grows, how it is picked, washed, dried, sorted, hand selected, roasted and finally how it is served. We used all of our senses in blind tastings to determine which was the farms regular brand, their reserve brand what was a commercial mass-marketed brand like you might find at a grocery store or a Starbucks. We looked at the myriad of machines and gadgets that you can make coffee with, finally indulging in some espressos and lattes. The Colombian way to drink coffee however is a large, very black cup, maybe with a bit of sugar.
After a great nights sleep, I awoke to a cacophony of singing birds. Colombia, I am told is only surpassed by Brazil, in the number of bird species you can see – a real birders paradise! After a hardy breakfast we headed with our guide, Diego, to the beautiful 200-year-old town of Salento to shop for artisan goods and of course taste some more coffee at a gorgeous boutique producer called Jesus Martin.
This area is known as the Valle Del Cocora and we enjoyed a spectacular hike up the mountain with lush views surrounded by the tallest Palm trees in the world!
The typical lunch in this area is “trucha” or farm-raised trout served whole either grilled or fried on top of a giant patacon – smashed and fried green plantain. In fact, just about everything one eats in Colombia is served with patacon.
The charming historic town of Salento makes for a great visit!
Some more coffee tasting, this time at delicious boutique producer, Jesus Martin in the town of Salento.
CHAPTER THREE – CARTAGENA de Indias
The best way to travel is always to leave the best for last, and Cartagena did not disappoint! This is a gorgeous city dating to 1533 with Spanish, Moorish, Italian architecture right off the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel (100 Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera). This is the town of the famous Nobel prize winning author and I can could feel his stories as I strolled this impressive walled city.
Cartagena’s old town is the largest walled city in the Americas. The streets, architecture and colors are alone worth the visit. We were met by our lively guide, Eddy, a 72-year-old Cartagenago who was a ball of energy both in body and mind, and he passionately showed us the city he loves and has been sharing with tourist for 50 years. We adored Eddy’s wit and humor and quickly adopted him as our temporary grand father!
Our favorite stop was exploring the San Felipe de Barajas Castle, considered the greatest fortress that the Spanish had ever built. I have never seen such an intricate, well-preserved and spotless fort. We could tour inside, the corridors with all of it’s hiding places, ramps, and strategic walls and Eddy explained how all was designed to allow the Spanish to foil any attempts at invasion – it was a fascinating tour! We checked out the many neighborhoods old and new, visited the Yacht Club and had a look at the vantage point of the city from the top of the Monasterio de La Popa. It was a great day!
We stayed at a gorgeous hotel inside the city wall – La Casa de San Augustin. We loved the location of the hotel and had a fabulous two bedroom bi-level suite overlooking the main street. This is a great option for a family to spread out or a group of friends. I personally loved hearing the energy of the city with the clickety clack of horse drawn carriages and the 7am arrival of all the university students to the school across the street, however, for guests wanting a quieter side of the hotels, we can request courtyard room.
The weather throughout Colombia is consistent year round due to its proximity the equator. While in Bogota, there is eternal Spring with year round average temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit, in Cartagena it is an average of 80 degrees. The mid days are full sun and hot but an incredible breeze picks up around 4pm and everything is exceptionally pleasant each evening.
Cartagena has a very sophisticated and special scene from the quaint hotels, to the spectacular dining scene, but what also impressed me was the unique shopping. The artisanry is of a very high level and the locally made products are gorgeous and appealing. There are many very high-end boutiques with lovely clothing made by Colombian designers and I realized that Cartagena is an exceptional destination for a ladies’ trip! The shopping is top quality and the pricing is at least half of what you would pay in the US or Europe, with special finds you just would not uncover anywhere else.
Combine that with the such welcoming people, beautiful weather, stunning architecture, history, excellent service and absolutely wonderful restaurants, bars and coffee shops, Cartagena is a no-brainer. Something even I did not quite realize is that Colombia is only a 4-hour flight from Atlanta! Cartagena does not have many non-stop flight options, but I can bet you this is only a matter of time. My only fear is that the secret may get out!
For those needing a bit of beach time, Casa San Augustin has a sister property located 50 minutes by boat on one of the nearby Rosario archipelago, on Baru island. Guests can plan to stay at the hotel for a few nights or even just arrange a day trip by private boat. Cartagena is located on the Caribbean coast, however, you will want to get out to the islands to do any swimming or snorkeling in the blue calmer waters located there. We visited the Rosario Islands and enjoyed a fish lunch, some drinks and a massage before returning for night out on the town in Cartagena.
Our last day, we found our selves truly sad to go. There was just not enough time in this magnificent gem of a city. We did have a final lunch at one of the best and most lively restaurants in the city, La Vitrola where the food and service were excellent. At night the Cuban band plays from 8pm onward – you will most definitely need a reservation.
Yes, we perused the many shops on our last afternoon –
Pre-colombian replica gold jewelry – Colombia Artesanal
Colorful leather and locally made goods at – Colombia Artesanal
Bathing suits are everywhere and not what you will find at the mall – Onda de Mar
Hand knitted dresses at – Claudia Moreno
Unique and great value, though if I had anymore time here, I think it could get dangerous!
Our trip was seamless, from touch down to take off with incredible guides and drivers who assisted us every step of the way. With our partners, we make seeing Colombia an absolutely seamless experience where you can take it all in from the perspective a local! Let me know when you are ready to go, and HURRY!
If you need an airport hotel – The Bogota Marriott is less than 10 minutes from the airport and is an excellent airport hotel option with a Colombian restaurant and a sushi bar, full gym and spa, and excellent service – makes a lay over painless)