When I told friends that I was going to Colombia, the reaction was predictable: watch out for the guerrillas. Stay away from Colombian ‘marching powder.’ Come back alive. When I told them that I was flying from Amsterdam, one of my friends suggested that I didn’t even need a plane to reach the required altitude.
There’s no doubt that Colombia has a troubled reputation to shake. This is a country that for most of the last 50 years has been synonymous with violence and bloodshed. Arriving into Bogotá’s El Dorado Airport after eleven hours of comfort aboard KLM’s newest 787 Dreamliner, I was expecting armed soldiers and a general vibe of suspicion and menace. Instead, I found an impressively modern airport and an air of efficient calm that wouldn’t seem out of place in Switzerland.
“Bienvenido a Colombia,” smiled the officer at passport control. “Is it your first time visiting us?”
It was indeed. I’d been put off in the past by the civil war that turned the cities into militarised zones and huge parts of the countryside into no-go areas. But the government and FARC signed a peace deal earlier this year that put a putative end to the fighting; amid the general post-conflict excitement I even heard of plans to launch guided tours of former FARC jungle camps – led by demobilised guerrilla fighters.
Cities are always that bit more attractive if the threat of bombing or kidnapping is negligible, and so it is with post-treaty Bogotá, the huge sprawling capital set on a high plain cradled by the Andes. It’s a city so big that getting from one side to another feels more like migrating than commuting. To get a sense of just how big 1700 square km is, I took the cable car to the top of Monserrate mountain – home to a white-topped monastery that is a popular pilgrimage and incredible views of the whole Bogotá valley, spread out in all its glory; on clear days, you can see volcanic peaks of Los Nevados, 135km to the west in the Cordillera Central, the highest part of the Colombian Andes.
Monserrate aside, most of the tourist action is concentrated in La Candelaria, the cobbled historic centre full of rows of colonial-era houses and most of the most important official buildings, including the heavily guarded presidential palace.
I could see it from the windows of my hotel room, a gorgeous colonial house once lived in by Simón Bolívar, national hero of Colombia and much of Latin America besides. All the way down the street I could see clusters of armed soldiers, smoking and chatting, and everyone else just going about their business, occasionally stopping to join in the conversation.
Peace may have broken out, but Bogotá isn’t about to stop being vigilant just yet: elsewhere in the centre, most public buildings are guarded by private security guards and their fierce looking bull mastiffs. And, because this is a Latin American megalopolis, I was told to keep a close on my belongings and to avoid the area at night. So, I kept my wanderings to daylight hours, visiting the excellent Gold Museum – home to more than 50,000 pieces representing all of Colombia’s pre-Hispanic cultures – and taking a fascinating tour of the city’s political murals.
I suspect that Bogotá is one of those cities that gets more interesting the longer you stay. I was there for only a couple of days so I never got past the ‘on edge and intimidated’ phase – even the knowledge that the greatest threat was robbery rather than kidnapping or murder was only scant consolation.
If Bogotá is big and overwhelming, the contrast with Cartagena couldn’t be starker. Smaller, safer and far more chilled out, this colonial city of less than a million people is the country’s most popular tourist destination and one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to.
The bulk of the attention is on the Unesco-protected old town, a gorgeous maze of narrow streets lined with colourful houses fronted by trellised balconies draped in bougainvillea.
It’s Havana meets New Orleans, wrapped in a 13km bow of colonial stone walls.
Across the harbour on the Bocagrande peninsula is the modern city, a mini-Miami of gleaming skyscrapers where moneyed locals live in fancy apartments and dine in the city’s hippest restaurants.
Before the peace treaty, getting here by road from Bogotá was a 12-hour trip few dared make for fear of being kidnapped by FARC. Instead, it’s an easy 45-minute flight from the capital: as well as almost hourly flights with national carrier Avianca, KLM’s service continues onward to Cartagena from Bogotá before making the transatlantic crossing back to Amsterdam.
Cartagena is a cinch to explore on foot. Best thing to do is wander aimlessly about the old town and the working-class neighbourhood of Getsemaní, getting lost in the streets that spill out onto handsome squares where locals take shade from the tropical sun and play chess or listen to salsa.
And drink coffee. Cocaine might be the country’s most infamous and talked about export, but by far its most profitable powder comes from the Arabica coffee bean, of which Colombia is the world’s biggest grower. Colombians drink coffee by the bucketload, generally opting for a basic shot they call a ‘tinto,’ but their overall appreciation of how to make a decent brew would leave even the most pretentious barista in the ha’penny place.
At Café San Alberto, in the old town, I took a quick half-hour course in the history and secrets of Colombian coffee – and walked out with eight bags of beans that should keep me in caffeine heaven for the next few months at least.
Much like Dublin is intimately connected with James Joyce, so Cartagena is closely linked with Nobel-Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez, who harnessed the complicated reality he observed in the city and transformed it into the magical realism of novels like 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.
100 Years of Solitude was a rite of passage for most of us when I was in university, but it remains the only one of his books I’ve ever bothered reading. Still, the highlight of my time in Cartagena was a three-hour Márquez-themed food tour, where we’d stop at food stalls that Márquez had written about and sample local dishes like cheese arepas (flatbreads), patacones (twice-fried green plantains with garlic) and bollos (boiled taro wrapped in banana leaf).
For a proper feel of the Caribbean, I headed offshore about 10km to the Islas del Rosario, a necklace of coral islands where I tried stand-up paddle-boarding for the first time (I only spent the first half of the session falling off and getting back on again) and ate grilled red snapper caught minutes earlier by a smiling fisherman who insisted that it was “muy bueno.” It was.
On my last night in Colombia I got an email notification telling me that series 3 of Narcos was now available on Netflix. For a moment, I felt a little strange: I loved the first two series, which told the bloody story of Colombian narco-boss Pablo Escobar, but I never imagined that I would be watching it in the very country where it all took place, albeit 30-odd years ago. I’d been told that Escobar had owned a house on one of the islands off the coast, but nobody could tell me which one. Instead, I was left to imagine it, and as I sat down to watch the first episode of series 3 later that night, I thought that Gabriel García Márquez would have appreciated the strangeness of it all.
KLM (klm.com) flies three times weekly to Bogotá and Cartagena from Amsterdam from €859 return in economy, €2202 in business class.
Where to Stay
Hotel de la Ópera (Clle 10 No 5-72; hotelopera.com.co; rooms from €113)
Hotel Armeria Real (Clle del Pedregal No 25-28, Getsemaní; armeriarealhotel.com; rooms from €140)
Things to Do
Bogotá Graffiti Tour (bogotagraffiti.com; free but tips are encouraged, usually around €10)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Food Tour (foodies.com; €66)
Islas del Rosario (day tours from €20, not including lunch)