Colombian Calm

30th October 2015

Urging you to ignore all the stereotypes, Jennifer Lipman explores a beautiful coastline that is much safer and more peaceful than public perception...

“Fancied a bit of cheap cocaine, did you?” “Gosh, you’re brave?” “Where’s that again?”

These are just some of the comments you can expect to get if you book a trip to Colombia, the South American country most commonly associated with civil war, drug cartels and general strife, and rarely thought of as a place to take a well-stocked Kindle, some flip flops and a bikini. Yet as I found out when I visited with my other half earlier this year, those stereotypes are wildly off the mark. Colombia – or to be more specific, its luscious Caribbean coast – couldn’t be a more perfect destination for some winter sun and fun. 

Located at the top of the South American continent, but still in the northern hemisphere, Colombia’s chequered modern history has meant it is far less well trodden than countries like Brazil, Chile or Argentina. Even now there are parts that remain off limits for tourists: a legacy of the decades of conflict between the state and the leftist guerrilla group FARC, and of the years when pockets of the country were under the control of violent drug cartels. But South America’s fifth largest country has come a long way; drug lords like Pablo Escobar are long gone, and the country now enjoys relatively stable leadership.

And the northern coastline, in and around the cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla, is to all intents a world apart. Aside from a police search of our tourist bus one afternoon – hardly atypical for Latin America – questions of safety and security never really came up. We were far more preoccupied with our next cocktail.

So what does Caribbean Colombia have to offer? Delicious food, plenty of culture and history, and some phenomenal scenery. There are the tropical islands nestled between translucent turquoise waters that are every bit as magnificent as those elsewhere in the region (but with fewer moneyed British tourists to contend with), the vibrant cultural identity, the soaring temperatures throughout the year, or the healthy enthusiasm for rum-soaked leisure. In particular, there’s the fact that when you travel around the coast you are sharing an ocean with Richard Branson’s Necker Island and the punters of Sandy Lane in Barbados, but paying a fraction of the price, even for fairly lavish accommodation.

You fly in via Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, to Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena of the Indies), a bustling metropolitan area beside the sea, most famous for being Gabriel García Márquez’s stomping ground. Founded in 1533 and settled by the Spanish, the old part of Colombia’s fifth largest city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a fascinating combination of traditional Caribbean architecture and more European hallmarks. There are churches everywhere, and a large plaza shadowed by a clock tower, walled by high ramparts constructed hundreds of years ago to see off pirates and privateers – walking them at sunset is a must.

And yet despite the various vestiges of the city’s European conquest, Cartagena’s spirit is firmly Caribbean. In parts, including the historic Gethsemane neighbourhood, every building is painted a different colour – the fronts adorned with idiosyncratic door knockers, tapered windows and languid balconies or arches. The old city is unashamedly gaudy; the unruliness of the architecture matched by the chaotic street life, where fruit sellers catcall over the neighing of horses pulling carriages, and street dancers can be found performing to stirring Vallenato music, and every corner you turn yields a new pleasure.

There’s a fair amount to see in the city, from parks bearing statues of the great and good, to the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a castle that has glared down at the city below since the 1630s. For a muddy but merry day trip, head to nearby Volcán de Lodo El Totumo – not actually a volcano – and bathe in natural mud that leaves your skin glowing. At night, Cartagena is all romance, with endless bars and outdoor eateries serving fresh fish and fragrant rice dishes. 

Unless you have a particular hunger for sweaty clubs, crowded beaches and identikit resorts, you’re best off steering clear of the Bocagrande district. Instead, stay in the old city, which offers everything from boutique hotels to more minimal hostels. If you can afford it, book into the Santa Clara in the San Diego district, a glamorous, old-worldish hotel, where breakfast is served in the shaded courtyard of an old convent and the pool area is an island of calm amid the hubbub of the city.

Guide books may tell you that for the true Caribbean Colombian experience you should fly to Providencia and San Andrés islands. But from Cartagena you can easily get a boat to the Rosario and San Bernardo coral archipelagos, where the islands are pleasingly remote, bursting with palm trees, and excellent for snorkelling, paddle boarding and kayaking. The islands are reachable in a day trip, but boats return early, so better to stay a night or two.

We sailed a rather windy two hours to Mucura Island and stayed at the gorgeous Punto Faro hotel, which combines top-notch customer service and superb food and drink with a rustic low-key charm. Accommodation is in wooden cabins on stilts, with outdoor showers. Relaxing under the sun on the ludicrously picturesque shore, piña colada in hand and watching the waves dance about and fish dart underwater, I couldn’t have imagined a more textbook Caribbean experience.

If you’re anything like me, though, you can’t spend too many days flat out on a sunbed without becoming restless. For a more active experience catch a shared minibus a couple of hours up the coast towards Santa Marta, a town that has a few nice beaches but is in itself nothing special. Crucially, it’s the gateway to Tayrona National Park and – for the more intrepid amongst you – the Lost City Trek. The latter, Colombia’s answer to the Inca Trail but a good deal less established, is highly recommended but also hard-going and takes five days. We settled for a more relaxed hike in Tayrona, a magnificent rainforest that is popular with Colombians and tourists alike.

Nestled between the sea on the one side and the snow-glazed Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains on the other, Tayrona is one of Caribbean Colombia’s star attractions, home to an enormous number of animals and birds. The main trail is easy to follow and after a steep but manageable 45 minute climb, your reward is unencumbered views of truly spectacular natural coves and almost Jurassic scenery. The joy is in the surprise: one minute all you can see is trees and the occasional monkey or condor; the next you’re dipping your toes into soft sand or stripping off for a refreshing swim.

You can visit Tayrona as a day trip, or rent a hut, hammock or tent for an overnight stay (given the park closes early in the evening, this is recommended) but either way, bring a photocopy of your passport to the entrance at Cañaveral. And travel as lightly as possible, as the only way through the trees is by foot or on a horse.

After ten days in the region, the last thing I wanted to do was come home to a British winter. If you’ve got the time, there’s no question it’s worth visiting other parts of the country, from Eje Cafetero, the country’s Coffee Triangle, to the former cartel city of Medellín, or the Amazonian southern tip where Colombia meets Peru and Brazil. Given that direct flights to Bogotá from the UK are infrequent and pricey, it’s a long way to go to only explore a fraction of the country.

And yet it was worth it. Brits haven’t really discovered Colombia yet – most of our fellow tourists were Chilean or Argentinean – and as we moved around, there was a certain thrill in exploring a new place, in embarking on an adventure in paradise. Who needs Barbados anyway?

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