We have a similar theory as Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain’s new show on CNN. If we’re headed to a destination that people don’t normally go or ask, “Where is THAT?”, we’re ecstatic. We were interested in creating a handy Colombia travel guide because it’s definitely a less touristy** spot on the map and we want to go. We chatted with Columbia-native and travel expert, Luis German Restrepo, executive director of Proexport Colombia (Colombia’s tourism/exports/investments office), for the best beaches, souvenirs, eats and adventures to do in Colombia:
How would you describe the spirit of Colombians?
Luis German Restrepo: Colombians are a welcoming, happy, and spirited group of people who have a strong sense of national identity. Colombians love to celebrate, which is apparent from our many festivals and parties throughout the year. In a recently poll released in 2013 by WIN/ Gallup International Association, Colombia ranked first as the happiest country in the world.
When most people think of Colombia, they think of drug trafficking. How safe is it to travel there now?
Nowadays, tourism to Colombia is booming. A record numbers of 1.7 million tourists visited the country in 2012. The business environment has also improved remarkably, making Colombia the second country with the friendliest environment to do business in Latin America. Colombia has one of the most stable economies in the region, which has resulted in significant growth of top international companies establishing their operations and service centers in Colombia. All of these factors are just a sign of a healthy and secure country that offers an attractive environment to do business with unique tourism experiences for leisure and corporate visitors alike.
What are your favorite 3 sites to see/things to do in Colombia?
- Cartagena de Indias, a colonial city right on the Caribbean Sea. It is one of the oldest cities in the Americas.
- Bogota, the capital of Columbia, which offers everything from luxury accommodations to exciting sight-seeing to world-class cuisine.
- The Coffee Region. It is a UNESCO Heritage site and offers coffee tastings, touring coffee haciendas or visiting the plantations.
When is the best time to travel to Colombia?
Colombia is a tropical country with the same warm climate all year round. Tourist can visit the country any time of the year. Our “Rainy Season” lasts from December to March, and “Dry Season” from July to August. Most of our festivals take place during this time, such as Holy Week, Carnival of Barranquilla and the Medellin Flower Festival.
Which unique hotels or bed and breakfasts would you recommend staying at in Bogota?
Bogota offers alternatives for visitors of any budget. Over the last years, international hotel chains like JW Marriot, Sofitel, Hilton, Marriot, among many others have opened new properties in the city. For some unique, boutique hotels, consider Morrison Hotel 114 or Blue Suites Hotel, which is located in trendy Parque la 93 and boasts an amazing nightlife. For additional information, visitors should check out the Bogota hotel guide.
Things to eat or drink when in Colombia?
Every city in Colombia offers authentic dishes that showcase the culture of the region. While in Colombia, enjoy the wide variety of exotic fruits and fresh juices. Because of the climate, the country produces exotic fruits like passion fruit, granadilla, soursop, and gooseberry.
Here are my picks for specific dishes:
- While in Colombia, don’t miss out on drinking traditional Tinto – our freshly brewed Colombian coffee.
- In Bogota, try the famous Ajiaco, a potato-based soup loaded with juicy chicken, capers, and creamy avocado— it’s like Colombia’s answer to chicken soup, but with a decidedly Latino edge.
- Try Arepa, something that you will likely find in almost every breakfast. It is a corn cake that is a side to many dishes – our version of a Tortilla.
- Tamales or steamed cornmeal cakes, are stuffed with savory goodies and are a must-eat in Bogota.
- For dessert, order a Tres Leches – a light cake topped off with sweet cream.
Top 3 most unique/adventurous things to do?
- El Totumo – The therapeutic volcanic mud baths are a known to rejuvenate the skin and offer an experience you’ll never forget.
- Go trekking – While Colombia has a wide variety of luxury accommodations, our mountain ranges offer an incredible opportunity to hike and camp in unusual settings. The Sierra Nevada, for example, is a snowy mountain range right on the coast!
- Live the coffee lifestyle – Many coffee plantations now offer visitors the chance to stay and experience the wonder of Colombian coffee from bean to bag to breakfast. It’s a more creative way to enjoy the world’s favorite drink.
Best 3 beaches?
- Tayrona’s National Park has virgin beautiful beaches in Santa Marta
- San Andres island showcasing white pristine beaches with clear waters
- Del Rosario Islands located in Cartagena de Indias
Is there a national spirit or cocktail in Colombia?
Yes, in Colombia our national spirit is Aguardiente, which tastes of anise. Each region makes its own version.
Best souvenirs to bring home from Colombia?
Authentic Colombian souvenirs include coffee; woven items such as ruanas (the Colombian name for ponchos), hammocks, baskets or mochilas (backpacks); a type of needlework from the Cuna Indians, leather products, pottery and emerald jewelry. Colombia produces more than half of the world’s emeralds.
Do you need a visa?
Colombia does not require most western countries to have a visa unless you’re staying more than 90 days.
More Colombia Travel Guide Resources
- Our friend, Max Hartshorne, editor of GoNOMAD, writes Colombia: Safer than Before, a New Energy in the Air
- BBC Travel’s Colombia’s Spiritual Center
- Outside Magazine’s Why Colombia May Become the Next Adventure Destination
**Colombia as an undiscovered destination is quickly changing. It was recently named one of the “25 Must-See Destinations for 2013” by Virtuoso, a leading luxury travel agency and also recognized as one of Travelzoo’s “Wow Deal Destinations for 2013.”
Photos courtesy of ProExport Colombia.