Long troubled by political turmoil, Colombia has entered a new era of peace—and with it has come a rebirth of its tourism industry. Visitors are discovering one of the most biologically diverse nations in the world, a country filled with natural beauties, infectious music, rich cultural traditions, and a fascinating history.
I traveled to Colombia on an eleven-day tour with Artes Latinas, a company owned by Karin Stein, a third-generation Colombian who is now an Iowa-based musician specializing in Latin American music. During the winters she leads small group tours of Latin America that include visits with her friends and extended family as well as more standard tourist destinations.
“I only lead trips to countries where I have family and friends,” Stein told our group of eight as we prepared to fly to Colombia. “And during this trip, I hope you’ll feel like you’re traveling with friends.”
That was certainly the case—and if you’re Karin’s friend, that means you’re going to be surrounded by music. Almost every day included some sort of musical or dance performance, usually by people Karin knows personally. Thanks to them, we had our own personal soundtrack to this complex, intriguing nation.
Our tour began in the Caribbean city of Cartagena. Founded in 1533, it served as the main port for the Spaniards and the northern gateway into South America. The city’s wealth made it a tempting target for invaders, as we learned on a tour of the Castillo de Felipe de Barajas, a massive set of fortifications that overlooks the city and harbor. One of Latin America’s most important battles took place here in 1741, when just 3,000 Spanish troops defeated 23,000 English soldiers attacking from 186 ships. If they hadn’t prevailed, there’s a good chance that South Americans would speak English today instead of Spanish.
After touring the fort, we immersed ourselves in the vibrant street life of Cartagena’s old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site encircled by centuries-old stone walls. Balconies overflowing with blooming flowers and busy open-air cafes line its narrow, winding lanes. As we strolled, street performers enticed us to linger, music from their guitars, drums, and flutes filling the warm, humid air.
On a horse-drawn carriage ride later that evening, we passed by a TV crew setting up lights in a park. “Cartagena has a reputation for being the most romantic city in Colombia,” explained Stein. “They’re probably filming a scene for a telenovela.”
After two nights in Cartagena we took a short plane ride to Medellín, which at 4,900 feet in elevation has a spring-like climate throughout the year. More than any other place we visited, this city shows the remarkable transformation Colombia is undergoing. Situated in a deep valley surrounded by the Andes Mountains, Medellín was one of the world’s most violent cities in the early 1990s. Today the turn-around has been so remarkable that some call it the “Medellín Miracle.”
The most colorful engine for rebirth has been art, which we learned about on our first afternoon during a graffiti tour of Comuna 13. Once one of the most troubled neighborhoods in the city, it’s now a magnet for tourists.
“People come here from around the world to see our amazing street art and experience firsthand the transformation of Medellín,” said Santiago Agudelo, a guide with Casa Kolacha, a local non-profit initiative.
The next day, we visited the Museum of Antioquia to immerse ourselves in the works of Colombia’s most famous artist. Born in Medellín in 1932, Fernando Botero is a sculptor and painter known for his rotund portrayals of people and animals. The plaza outside the museum displays nearly two dozen of his bronze sculptures, while the museum showcases his paintings, which include a range of fanciful, often satirical, and oh-so-plump figures, from Marie Antoinette to drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
The next morning, we traveled outside the city to visit the horse farm owned by Stein’s cousin, Angelika Koeppel. Sitting on the front porch of her charming, Spanish Colonial-era home, we talked about the unique character of Colombia and her experiences during the years of unrest.
“Colombia today is a very different place than it was two decades ago,” she said. “But what hasn’t changed is the remarkable strength and warmth of its people and beauty of its countryside.”
After an afternoon tour of the brightly painted village of Guatapé, the next day we soaked up the sun on a rafting trip on the crystalline waters of the aptly named Rio Claro, which winds through the dense vegetation of a nature preserve. Then it was time to board a plane to Bogotá.
Saving the capital city for later in our tour, we set out to explore the surrounding countryside. We first visited another set of Stein’s relatives, this time her aunt and uncle, Liese and Fernando Garcia, owners of a hacienda outside the city. After an outdoor lunch and folk dance performance by local young people, we spent the rest of the day enjoying the farm and visiting with the family. At night, we slept in their home, parts of which date back 400 years.
The next morning, a three-hour drive brought us to Villa de Leyva, an exquisitely preserved Colonial Era town in a high alpine valley. Its cobblestone streets, whitewashed buildings, artisan shops, and picturesque central plaza made this my favorite of all the towns we visited in Colombia.
After two nights we returned to Bogotá, which at 8,660 feet in elevation sits in a highland basin surrounded by the Andes. On a walking tour of the Candelaria historic district we visited Colombia’s impressive government center, which includes the Presidential Palace, Congress, and Palace of Justice as well as the nation’s largest cathedral.
Another highlight was the city’s Gold Museum, which contains more than 55,000 dazzling, pre-Columbian artifacts. What we saw in the museum is just a small fraction of what once existed, because during the Spanish Conquest many pieces were melted down and shipped back to Spain.
Finally, on our last afternoon we took a funicular to the top of Monserrate, a mountain that offers the best views in Bogotá. After touring a church that’s a popular pilgrimage destination, our group sat in an outdoor café and savored cups of hot chocolate, a sweet ending to our trip. As I sipped, I realized that this trip had indeed felt like traveling with friends—and that Colombia, which had seemed so foreign at first, had welcomed me like I was part of the family.
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