Things to See and Do in Colombia
As the flight descends into El Dorado Airport, Bogota, the passengers erupt into a rapturous applause. Colombians are proud of their country. Diversity comes in all dimensions; people, culture and landscape. This is imprinted into the Colombian way of life and embedded in the Colombian flag; yellow for gold riches, blue for the seas, and red for the blood spilled for Colombia's freedom. It's a country much maligned and stigmatised for its violent past. Today, this has proved a protective shield to an unspoilt 'authentic Colombia' hidden from the world.
Bogota is a youthful student city. With its abundance of universities and libraries it has become known as 'The Athens of South America'. Its eerily humid atmosphere owes to Bogota's high rainfall, which itself derives from its high altitude at 2,625 metres, and provides an apt ambiance for a city with the faint inklings of rebellion in the air. A stunning panorama of the city can be seen by a cable car journey into the surrounding mountains at Cerro de Monserrate. However, the capital's heart and soul lies below in the colourful streets of La Candelaria district; it is where the voice of youth spills onto the streets in a bright cacophony of graffiti art. A unique graffiti tour of this district will take you through all the famous mesmerising grafiteros artwork. From spray painted political messages, to vast urban wall canvasses of Colombian history, you'll learn more on this living tour than in any Bogota museum.
Villa de Leyva
A four-hour bus journey north of the capital will lead you to the photogenic colonial town of Villa de Leyva in Boyaca. By day lazily walk the cobbled streets set alongside Plaza Mayor, one of the largest town squares in the Americas, a plethora of colonial architecture and unique museums. As dusk falls, the street paths alight with the stunning interior decoration of boutique Andean-Latino restaurants, wineries and bars. Looking inside, you'll see a stunningly paved seating area, decorated with an artful flowered trellis and populated by a diverse crowd buoyed for salsa dancing after taking communal shots of the Colombian favourite alcoholic liquor Aguardiente. Meanwhile, in the Plaza, the stunning Iglesia Parroquial lights up the community social gatherings.
Cartagena is the astonishing port city on Colombia's north coast. It is where Latin and Caribbean culture attempt to blend, formulating the city's loud, bright and vibrant character. In the old city, a UNESCO world heritage site. Each side street offers a photo opportunity with the colourfully painted walls of houses and flower laced balconies above providing the suitable foreground for its Iglesia dominant skyline. Wander through the maze of streets and lose yourself in one of several bustling plazas. Amaze yourself at the merging contemporary and traditional styles of boutique shops, cafes and bars, such as El Bistro, while narrowly avoiding the marauding horse and carriages. Grab the Caribbean sea breeze at Cafe del Mar on the city's fortified thick walls before venturing to the imposing Castilla de San Felipe de Barajas fortress, which offers contrasting panoramic views of the old city and rising skyline of contemporary Colombia. Return to the old city at night and revel in its Afro-Carribean and Latin salsa vibes at the caved interior of Tu Candela.
A chaotic confusion infused speedboat crossing from the boat harbour in Cartagena can see you arrive at the sparkling white beaches of Playa Blanca, on the island of Baru, in an hour. Its pristine shoreline is set aside wooden beach huts and shacks run by islanders, offering beers and a deluge of refreshing Caribbean fruits. It is impossible to escape the beach's local touch; unspoilt by the trodden footprint of tourism. Feast on their steamed fish, rice and dried mangos and spend the night sleeping above the crashing waves on hammocks, after huddling around the lone fuzzy television set to watch the Colombian national football team.
Volcan de Lodo el Totumo
Truly one of the most bizarre experiences in Colombia. Just 40km from Cartagena, the 15m 'volcano', looks rather like a giant ant mound. Inside the crater is a thick, gooey and seemingly infinite depth of mud. As people clamour in, holding on to whatever and whoever to find some semblance of balanced buoyancy, the locals scatter you around in the crater offering mud massages. Laughter of derision is common as everyone comes to terms with the randomness of the situation. Then you are guided to a lake where the mud is expertly rinsed off you by local women in a style more befitting an exorcism.
In Zona Cafetera, set high in the green topped Andean mountains lies Salento, about 30km from the town of Armenia, devastated by the 1999 earthquake. Shack like housing and a Colombian army presence lines the valley route toward the town. Each winding view unveils a panorama of contrasting greens atop mountains. A hazy fog gathers around the moss green surroundings and a line of wax palm trees, the Colombian national tree, juts through the mirage. Hidden cosily in the valley is Salento, with its artesanias, or craft shops, which fill at night alongside the town square with a vibrant community spirit. Take a jeep up into the mountains following the scent of fincas, or coffee farms, and make your own cup of coffee from scratch at Don Gustavo farm.
If you're interested in heading to Colombia on your gap year then head to our Colombia country section for some advice and information.
Also, check out Ewan Dinwiddie's guide to Colombia to find out exactly what to do when you're there.
And finally, don't forget to jump on the message boards to talk to some other travellers!
About the Author: Tej Parikh
Tej Parikh is a freelance writer specialising in travel and economic development. He has written articles for various NGOs, social think-tanks and the Guardian. His travels to Cuba, the Middle East and Colombia have in part been funded by his job in the City, but inspired by his passion for the written word and learning about different cultures. His unique prose is to illuminate conventional thought and societal trends by drawing on his experiences travelling. This is showcased in his blog Tej Parikh where he raises debates on issues from Facebook to the economics of happiness.