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Steeped in colonial history and home to a staggering diversity of natural landscapes, Colombia is a microcosm of South America’s most enchanting attractions. Trek the Amazon to discover lush rainforest and abundant wildlife … sip coffee in the Zona Cafetera, the country’s famed coffee-roasting region … explore the vibrant art scenes in cosmopolitan Bogotá and resurgent Medellín … or simply relax on a Caribbean beach in coastal Cartagena. Wherever your travels in Colombia take you, you are sure to be greeted by a warm and colorful people who are fiercely proud of their energetic country.
Colombia’s long history stretches back to pre-Columbian times, and ancient ruins—whose origins still puzzle archaeologists—dot the country’s dense jungles. More recently, Colombia served as a key colony in the Spanish Empire: Silver, gold, cacao, chile, and other exotic South American wares passed through the colony on their journey back to Europe. The Colombia of today is an exciting mix of old and new, as cutting-edge culinary innovation and a spirited nightlife mingle with elegant colonial architecture and centuries-old Spanish cathedrals. And while Colombia still struggles with a large divide between rich and poor, all Colombianos are united in their love of family, fútbol, and the seductive salsa, whose foot-tapping, hip-swaying beat can be heard throughout this charming South American country.
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Bursting with Caribbean charm, carefree Cartagena marches to the beat of its own salsa-playing drum. This tropical city on the Colombian coast is a treasure trove of well-preserved colonial architecture, romantic cobbled lanes, and festive plazas that lure the cartagenos out to play.
The jewel in Cartagena’s glittering crown is the Ciudad Amurallada, or Old Town. Built by the Spanish in the mid-16th century, Cartagena’s Old Town and port once served as a strategic gateway to South America, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The thick walls (Las Murallas) that give the city its name were added as a defense against the plundering pirates who were drawn to the city’s prime location. In addition to being the first colony in the Americas, Cartagena also provided one of the first sanctuaries for freed African slaves in the Americas, and the city’s long history is reflected in both its gorgeous architecture and diverse genetic makeup.
When you’ve had your fill of colonial history, venture to Bocagrande. This swanky oceanfront neighborhood stretches along a white sand beach and offers a vibrant nightlife scene. Beat the heat with a swim and feel the warm Caribbean breeze on your cheek as you soak up Cartagena’s year-round sunshine.
36 Hours in Cartagena
Sample Cartagena’s culture, featured on our post-trip extension—from traditional cuisine to beloved art.
Produced by Fritzie Andrade
©2014 The New York Times
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Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
In its colonial heyday, Cartagena was a bustling port and crucial stop along the trade route from Europe to the New World—making it an attractive target for pirates and invading armies. In 1536, the Spanish solved this problem by building the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a mammoth stone fortress that sits atop the San Lázaro Hill; from this strategic vantage point, the Castillo and its cannons could ward off attacks from both the land and sea.
The fortress's design was a modern-day feat of engineering. An intricate system of tunnels in the Castillo’s underbelly linked key points, allowing weapons and provisions to be easily transported within. These tunnels also boast impressive acoustics: The slightest sound travels far, alerting the Castillo’s guardsmen to the footsteps of an approaching enemy. With its architectural ingenuity and impregnable ramparts, the Castillo is considered the greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies.
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- Colombia's Colonial Jewels & the Coffee Triangle
- Post Trip:Colonial Cartagena, Colombia: The Emerald of the Caribbean on Panama Canal Cruise & Panama: A Continent Divided, Oceans United
Surrounded on all sides by forested mountains, Medellín is nestled like a precious jewel into the Aburrá Valley. Colombia’s second city—once decried as the most dangerous on Earth—is in the midst of a sweeping cultural and economic rebirth: Hailed as a nucleus of creativity and innovation, Medellín has in recent years even begun to rack up awards for its architecture and eco-friendly design.
Medellín natives, known locally as paisas, are fiercely proud of their city, and they know how to make the most of it. Thanks to its year-round temperate climate, “The City of Eternal Spring” has a wealth of public parks and outdoor art installations that are packed with paisas from morning until night. In the well-heeled El Poblado neighborhood, visit the Parque Lleras to watch a fútbol game on open-air big screens amidst cheering crowds, then wander the Milla de Oro (“Golden Mile”) to hear the mesmerizing beat of reggaeton spilling out of the nightclubs.
A recent focus on development has improved Medellín’s infrastructure, to the benefit of locals and visitors alike. A ride on the city’s new cable car system takes you from the historic center to the hillside shantytowns in 10 minutes, a journey that used to take two hours, and affords spectacular views of the entire valley.
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Bogotá is Colombia’s capital in the clouds: At 8,660 feet above sea level, it is the world’s third highest capital city. Situated on a high plateau known as the Bogotá Savannah, the city was originally settled by the indigenous peoples who dwelled in the surrounding Andes Mountains; by 1550, Bogotá was a fully-fledged Spanish colonial outpost.
Vestiges of this colonial legacy can be seen and felt throughout the capital city, from the graceful balconied homes that line the cobblestoned streets of the historic La Candelaria district to the neoclassical Catedral Primada in the popular Plaza de Bolívar. In Bogotá’s east, high atop the Monserrate Mountain perches a red-roofed white church dating from the mid-17th century; this conspicuous symbol of the Spaniards’ presence here has become a helpful point of reference and is a popular site for pilgrims—some of whom ascend the winding path to the top on their knees.
Just outside Bogotá is another impressive, if quirky, religious site: a church made entirely of salt. The Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral was built by carving more than 250,000 tons of salt out of the mountainside and is now a unique house of worship. Descend 650 feet below the earth’s surface to explore this fascinating creation.
My City: Bogota
Catch a glimpse of contemporary Bogota, where centuries-old tradition meets modern flair.This film was produced by the BBC and Jonathan Wells, and was first published on BBC.com Travel
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In the heart of Colombian coffee country, high above the Quindío River and surrounded by foggy verdant mountains, sits Salento, a 19th-century village nestled deep in the Andes.
Coffee roasting is a major industry in Salento, and the village is known as a mecca for latte art. Stop into one of the many coffee shops along the Caller Real to sample a latte; don’t be surprised if your order comes complete with astrological symbols, faces, or animals in the light, creamy foam which sits on top.
Unlike the rest of Colombia, there is little colonial influence to be seen in Salento. In fact, it is one of the few places in Colombia in which the indigenous building technique bahareque—a process of stacking wooden canes and packing them with mud—still dominates. While walking past these brightly-colored homes and storefronts, you will probably smell a dish beloved by locals: fried trout on top of patacones, or fried plantains.
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Only two hours from bustling Medellín, the small village of Guatape feels worlds away. Perched on the shores of a sprawling man-made lake and presided over by the looming figure of El Peñol—a 650-foot tall jutting granite monolith—laidback Guatape hums with a creative spirit that can be felt as you meander along its brightly-colored lanes and plazas.
The town is home to a thriving community of artists, who have put their stamp on Guatape with their signature zócalos, colorful bas-relief mosaics that adorn houses and the town’s church. Take a walking tour of Guatape to see these intricate fresco-like creations up close, or whizz through the town’s narrow streets on the back of a moto taxi to see small-town Colombia like a local.
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Most Popular Films
Films featuring Colombia from international, independent filmmakers
La Ciudad Vieja
Let locals help you uncover the spirit of colonial Cartagena as you discover its history and explore its quiet streets.Produced by Darrell Hartman
Chasing the Legend of El Dorado
Set off on a treasure hunt for the gold of legendary El Dorado.This film was first published on BBC.com Travel. Produced by Aric S. Queen.
36 Hours in Medellín
Allow Medellin surprise you with a reborn city brimming with restaurants, art, and design.Produced by Fritzie Andrade ©2015 The New York Times
Immerse yourself in Colombia with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Expand your palette with Colombia’s unique culinary landscape, which includes native ingredients like guasca.
Get your caffeine fix with this in-depth look at Colombian coffee.
Bounty in a Bowl
Colombia’s beloved national dish
by Max Krafft, for O.A.T.
The most famous dish of this region as a whole is its eponymous chicken, corn, and potato soup, ajiaco bogotano ...
The cuisine of Colombia is as varied as its landscape. On the Caribbean Coast—in cities like Cartagena—the local people have long thrived off the bounty of the sea, as well as tropical fruits like bananas and coconuts that flourish in their warm climate. Farther inland, in the fertile and mountainous region around Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, meat, corn, and potatoes are the culinary staples, and the latter come in a variety of species, some of which are found only in Colombia’s Andean plains.
The most famous dish of Bogotá—and perhaps of Colombian cuisine as a whole—is its eponymous chicken, corn, and potato soup, ajiaco bogotano (also known as ajiaco santafereño). Commonly called ajiaco, this stew-like soup features three kinds of potatoes—red, yellow, and white—one of which, papas criollas, is a variety of yellow potato found only in the Andes Mountains. These tiny potatoes—around one inch in diameter—have a thin skin and buttery interior, and when cooked to make ajiaco, they dissolve into the broth, helping to give the soup its signature creamy texture.
The second most important ingredient in ajiaco—and the one that’s said to really give the soup its distinctive flavor—is guasca. This aromatic herb—indigenous to Colombia—now grows throughout the Americas, but it is still commonly used only in South American cooking, as it’s generally considered to be an invasive weed in other parts of the world.
The third notable feature of this soup is the large chunks of corn on the cob that are left whole in the broth. The variety of corn (more properly called maize) used in Colombia is slightly tougher than the sweet corn that is common in the U.S.
Finally, the name ajiaco itself is thought to come from the native Taino people’s word for “hot pepper,” ají, which today is the generic word for spicy peppers in South America (similar to chile in Mexico). While peppers are notably absent from the soup, it is almost always served with aji picante (a Colombian hot sauce) on the side, as well as crema (Latin American table cream), capers, and slices of avocado—all of which should be added to suit the diner's individual tastes. White rice sometimes accompanies the soup on the side, as well.
While other soups are served alongside an entrée as part of a normal Colombian lunch (the biggest meal of the day), ajiaco is such a filling dish that it is usually served as a meal in its own right. Rich enough for celebrations but delicious enough to eat any day, whatever the setting, ajiaco bogotano earns its place as the national dish of Colombia.
Colombia’s beloved national dish
Home of the Cafeteros: Colombia’s Coffee Triangle
by Tom Lepisto, for Dispatches
Far removed from the big-city bustle of Bogotá and Medellin, a serene landscape of lush green hills rolls across Colombia’s rural highlands. Here, the air is refreshingly clean and the elevation of 4,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level moderates the heat and humidity of the tropics. Commonly called the “Coffee Triangle,” the special character of this pastoral region led to its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the “Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia”—in 2011. But perhaps it is best described by its Spanish name: Eje Cafetero, meaning the “coffee-growers’ axis.”
It is an agricultural expanse that includes the Colombian departments of Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío in the west-central part of the country, surrounding their respective capitals of Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia. Since these cities form more of a north-to-south line than a true triangle, the Spanish name is apt, and doubly so since this area is home to tens of thousands of cafeteros (coffee growers).
A land of family fincas
To the east of the Eje Cafetero rise volcanic mountains topped by the snow-capped 17,457-foot peak of Nevado del Ruiz. Although those Andean heights are not visible from the valleys where the coffee is grown, the fertile soil created by ash from their past eruptions has made this one of the best places in the world for cultivating coffee. So if you have even the slightest appreciation for a great cup of joe, this is the place to see where it originates. And while this part of Colombia offers beautiful vistas, a look into the heart of the country’s coffee-growing industry, and colorful expressions of rural culture, very few American travelers have yet ventured here—so that local people still get excited at the unusual sight of an American visitor.
Many of these local people are members of families that have been cultivating coffee for generations. They live in the countryside on fincas (farms or plantations) that average about five acres in area, with some 95% of Colombia’s coffee farms being less than twelve acres in size. There are about 500,000 of these small operations in the country as a whole, and their relatively modest scale has made it possible for coffee growing to remain a family-centered activity here.
On a typical finca, carefully tended rows of coffee trees snake across the hillsides from a hacienda—the main house—that is a focal point of the plantation. Traditionally the residence of the family that owns the finca, many historic haciendas have Spanish Colonial architectural features, from their tile roofs to their central courtyards. The facilities where coffee tree seedlings are raised and where harvested beans are brought in for hulling, washing, drying, and packing are usually located within a short walk from the hacienda.
Why you need a Jeep to make Colombian coffee
On many fincas in the Eje Cafetero, one common sight is a small fleet of World War II-style Willys Jeeps. Although the icon of Colombian coffee is Juan Valdez transporting sacks of coffee beans on his donkey Conchita, the use of pack animals represents the practices of an earlier time. In the post-WWII era, the Coffee Triangle’s cafeteros found that 4x4 vehicles gave them more rapid access to the rugged terrain where the coffee grows.
Jeeps were originally brought to Colombia by the military, but it didn’t take the farmers long to notice their usefulness. So the typical coffee-picker today heads out on a bumpy ride along rough, hilly roads in a vehicle he calls a yipao—the local term for Jeeps that have been adapted for use on coffee fincas.
With a dash of Latin American verve, some residents of the Coffee Triangle’s Quindío department celebrate the role that their yipaos play in their lives with periodic parades. These feature vehicles painted in bright colors and festooned with decorative small statues, with some competing to see which yipao can carry the biggest load—whether it be sacks of coffee, bunches of plantains, or a precariously tall stack of wooden furniture. A record-setting parade in the town of Calarcá, in Quindío outside of Armenia, featured some 370 of these vehicles.
Back at work, the yipaos make many trips from the hacienda to every corner of the plantation as the cafeteros plant, tend, and harvest the coffee trees that produce the approximately 2,600 pounds of beans per year that come from a typical small plantation—an output that requires picking more than five million “cherries” (as ripe red coffee beans are called). Like any form of agriculture, coffee cultivation requires regular attention to fertilization, weeds, pests, and diseases, so the farmers are always keeping an eye on the trees. And the harvest is particularly demanding, because all the beans on a coffee tree do not ripen at the same time. On many of the Coffee Triangle’s small plantations, the owners are committed to producing coffee of the best quality by ensuring that only beans at the ideal stage of ripeness are picked, which can require more than a dozen visits per year to the same tree. Multiply that by thousands of trees—and you can see that these cafeteros have their work cut out for them. And in the Coffee Triangle, it is the local people who work in the fields doing the harvesting, not migrant workers from other countries.
Keeping it “100% Colombian”
To ensure that the economic benefits of all this effort remain with the Colombians who perform it, in 1927 the country’s coffee farmers formed the Colombian Coffee Grower’s Federation (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, FNC for short). This nationwide community of cafeteros has branches in each of the country’s coffee-growing departments—including the Coffee Triangle’s Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío—and blends a family-centered, Latin American sensibility with the business needs of a modern agricultural industry, such as branding, marketing, research, and quality control.
Most Americans recognize Juan Valdez, who, though fictional, is the international face of the FNC and whose image is a logo used to mark the authenticity of coffee from Colombia. Portrayed in advertising for many years by actor Carlos Sánchez, a real cafetero from just west of the Coffee Triangle, the Valdez icon has helped Colombia’s coffee farmers by maintaining the distinction between their product and coffee grown in other parts of the world. Live actors continue to play Juan Valdez at various coffee-related locations in Colombia today, including the Colombian National Coffee Park near Armenia, although somewhat ironically, “Valdez” is not a particularly common name in Colombia.
The FNC’s accomplishments go far beyond making Juan Valdez famous, however. Its success at supporting its members in areas from scientific agricultural research to establishing consistent size and quality standards for coffee beans has become a model for other coffee-growing countries around the world. Most of all, the FNC has given Colombia’s coffee growers the strength of working together—extending the community spirit of a rural Colombian village to a national scale and helping local farmers compete in a global marketplace. And that is something that the hard-working cafeteros of the Coffee Triangle appreciate as they pick each ripe “cherry.”
A tale of three cities
While coffee-growing has become the defining activity in the Eje Cafetero since the late 19th century, the region’s history goes back to pre-colonial times, when this area was inhabited by the indigenous Quimbaya people. Their culture reached a peak between the fourth and seventh centuries AD, a period when they created impressive gold artifacts, some of which are on display in the Gold Museum in Bogotá. They were also skilled workers of guadua, a South American type of bamboo that is still used for crafts and construction.
Spanish settlement of the region began in 1540 with the establishment of the town of Cartago, near present-day Pereira. The three cities that define the “triangle” today originated in the 19th century. Pereira was founded in 1863, but its name harkens back to earlier in the century when Simón Bolivar was leading campaigns for independence in Spain’s South American colonies. Two brothers, Manuel and José Francisco Pereira, had fought for Bolivar, but had to take refuge in the Colombian hills following a defeat in an 1816 battle. In Pereira’s central plaza today, Bolivar is also remembered with a statue that combines historical reverence with a bit of Latin American sensuality—the Bolívar desnudo, which portrays the great liberator nude, riding on horseback.
Manizales, founded in 1849, is the highest—at 7,000 feet—and hilliest of the “triangle’s” three points. It is home to six colleges and universities, including the National University of Colombia and the University of Manizales, and includes some 30,000 students in its total population of about 440,000. The city’s hilly topography gives it a remarkable range of microclimates, where it’s frequently possible to go from warm, sunny weather to cooler, rainier conditions within a short distance.
Armenia, established in 1889, is the southernmost point of the “triangle” and the smallest of the three cities, with a population of about 330,000. Like many Colombians, Armenia’s residents have a passion for beauty pageants, and they have put a regional spin on one they hold each October which is well-known across the country: The Chapoleras Festival. This celebration, which commemorates the founding of the city, includes a competition in which contestants wear traditional dresses and carry baskets of local crops including coffee and orchids.
The best is in the countryside
Although each of the principal cities of the Coffee Triangle contributes to the region’s history and culture, many travelers find that the essence of the Eje Cafetero lies in the rural countryside and the small villages nestled in the hills. Outside of Armenia, Salento is one such place, a town of tile-roofed buildings where children play volleyball between the houses and verdant hillsides rise at the end of many local streets. In the town center, artisans sell totumos—dried, hollowed gourds colorfully painted and made into maracas or decorative objects. And as you might expect, it is easy to find a coffee shop here, where you’ll often encounter skilled practitioners of “latte art.” This is the technique of turning the milk foam atop a cup of fine Colombian coffee into designs that range from intricate abstract curves to an amazingly realistic dog or even a human face.
Salento is also the starting point for excursions into the Corcora Valley to experience the natural side of Quindío’s tropical landscape. A ride in an open-topped yipao, allowing for unobstructed views of the many shades of green that carpet the hilly terrain, brings visitors to a part of the valley that is protected as a national park. Here, high in the watershed of the Quindío River, a short hike will bring you to the tallest palm trees in the world: wax palms, Colombia’s national tree. They can grow to be 200 feet tall, and are being conserved here after having nearly been rendered extinct by being cut down in times past for use on Palm Sunday.
From its natural endowments to the distinctive way of life of its cafeteros, the Coffee Triangle is a truly remarkable part of Colombia. And beyond the geographic Eje Cafetero, there is another kind of “coffee triangle” in the form of three commitments made by the Colombians who live in this verdant region: To sustain the family values of the coffee-farming tradition, to maintain the high quality of the coffee crop itself, and to participate in the national community represented by the FCN for the advancement of their country’s well-being. And at a time when the people of Colombia are looking toward their future with both humility and hope, that might just give them a solid three-legged foundation for achieving their dreams.
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Small Group Adventure
6 NIGHTS FROM FROM $1,995
POST-TRIP EXTENSIONNEW! Colombia: Bogotá & Medellín
DAYS IN COLOMBIA
- Soar above Medellín on a metro cable ride
- Play a round of Colombia's national pastime, tejo—a fiery game of explosive lawn bowling
- Explore Medellín's elegant, historic Plaza Botero
- Sail across Lake Guatape and behold El Peñol—a looming granite monolith
NEW! Colombia: Bogotá & Medellín
3 NIGHTS FROM FROM $845
POST-TRIP EXTENSIONColonial Cartagena, Colombia: The Emerald of the Caribbean
DAYS IN COLOMBIA
- Soak up Cartagena's colonial charm
- Visit the quaint fishing village of La Boquilla
- Explore Cartagena's "Walled City"
- Take a walking tour of the Plaza de los Coches and the Plaza de la Luna
Colonial Cartagena, Colombia: The Emerald of the Caribbean
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