"I'd like you to promise me just one thing, Tom", my dad pleaded before I left for South America, "promise me that you won't go to Colombia?"
At the time I think I deftly dodged the question, but it made me even more intrigued about this infamous country. Was it still the cocaine-fuelled, crime-ridden no-go zone of 10 years ago? Was the climate of fear suppressing the emergence of a new Colombia?
It's been 3 weeks since I nervously crossed the border, desperately trying to avoid becoming an unwilling drugs mule. Large cities, especially capital cities, always seem fairly similar to me and so I left Bogota after a couple of days to begin exploring this hugely varied country. First port of call was Medellin, a city synonymous with cocaine, kidnapping and one man, Pablo Escobar. This was once the world's most murderous city, now it is the most live-able city I've visited in the last 3 months. The cosmopolitan central plaza, lined with ritzy restaurants, brimming bars and expensive shops wouldn't look out of place in any rich Western country, and hints at a new Colombia. Not that the old one has been forgotten.
It's still possible to visit the old headquarters, one of the houses and even the grave of Medellin's most famous son; this was an opportunity too good to miss. Pablo Escobar was once the world's most notorious drug dealer, and as a result was the wealthiest criminal in the world. Despite this illustrious career path and his fearsome reputation, he is still idolised in Medellin by the poor, for whom he built houses, schools and hospitals. He was eventually killed in 1993 and it's taken 20 years to quell the country-wide chaos which erupted following his death.
After feeling like we'd begun to get under the skin of this chequered country, and feeling very worse for wear having sampled the wild nightlife, we headed to the coastal city of Cartagena. This walled colonial city, surrounded by the warm waters of the Caribbean, was like nowhere else I've visited on this continent. The old city bounces to the incessant Afro-Caribbean beat, whereas the new part feels like Miami with a personality; they combine to create an intoxicating vibrancy. We sampled delicious street food by day, watched the stunning daily sunset from the old city walls, before indulging in Colombia's favourite past-time, partying the night away. The most surprising, and most pleasing thing about Colombia´s big cities is the open door policy – literally. Even at night, the residents all leave their front doors open, and so it creates a wonderfully bustling and friendly community – a far cry from the threatening atmosphere I was expecting.
Next we headed to Isla Baru, an island paradise an hour's boat ride away from Cartagena. The brilliant turquoise water, pure white sand and freshly caught seafood equaled anything that an expensive package holiday could offer, yet we stayed for less than £2 a night. In a hammock. On the beach. Bliss. We finally managed to drag ourselves away from paradise, but we didn't have to wait long for another. In 2007, Tayrona National park was voted the 2nd best beach area in the world, and it's not hard to see why. The pristine coastline, abundant wildlife and idyllic sleeping arrangements combined to make this one of my favourite places on the planet, and definitely the best place I've ever woken up in.
Just as Istanbul is the mercurial melting pot connecting Europe and Asia, Colombia is where the Central American and South American continents collide. What emerges is an irrepressible concoction of Afro-Caribbean, indigenous Indian and colonial Spanish cultures, unparalleled on this continent. From an aesthetic perspective, the country is spectacularly varied too, as it contains Andean mountains, the Amazon jungle, coffee plantations and the pristine Caribbean beaches. The Government's tourism slogan is "The only risk is not wanting to leave", and so I finally agree with my dad, Colombia is a very risky country to visit.