On the Road to Colombia

Senior Corporate Consultant Pina Azzaro just returned from the Republic of Colombia, bordering Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil and the Caribbean Sea. This once-feared South American country has blossomed into a full-fledged tourist destination as of late. After decades of violence and negative publicity, today Colombia is thriving with thousands of hotel rooms currently under construction. Colombia is certainly a country on the verge of a new phase of existence.

Q: After all the guerilla drug wars, kidnapping and social inequality violence, I’ll ask first and foremost the question everyone wants to know. Did you feel safe? Has the perception and reality of visiting Colombia as a tourist changed?

I felt very safe and never had any hesitation or apprehension whilst in any area of Colombia. The people were universally friendly and welcoming with such sincere smiles and genuine natures. Regardless of Colombia’s sinister past, the people are craving to evolve as a country and culture. The only place our tour guide told us to be mindful was in Cali’s poorer areas for fear of pick pocketers – however, this can occur anywhere in the world.

Q: Overall, how would you characterize the country?

An undiscovered treasure! Colombia is a tropical country of incredible diversity and charm – very vast, lots of valleys, canyons, mountains. Its ever-changing geography, history loaded with mystery and adventure, its people and cultures, have fascinated the world for centuries. People are beautiful and sincere, very friendly….you can tell that the people want to move forward and embrace tourism. Everyone we met was truly accommodating.

Q: Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world after Brazil, and its proximity to both the Atlantic and the Pacific, four mountain ranges and vast plains, as well as thousands of miles of rain forests leads to experiencing drastically different regions in one trip, or even one day. So you started in Cali in the famed coffee region, then transferred to the Corcora Valley in ‘willys’ to conquer the rough mountains via jeep to Salento…

Cali, tucked in the fertile Valle de Cauca, lies on the west bank of the Cauca River. To the west, the city is guarded by the Farallones de Cali, which is part of the western Andes mountain range. An important agricultural centre, Cali is responsible for a hefty portion of the country’s sugar, coffee and corn exports. The city’s elevation of 1003 metres contributes to the year-round springlike temperatures. Calenos are known for their love of salsa dancing, and Cali is regarded as the South American capital of salsa. The climate of Cali is tropical HOT. The west branch of the Andes blocks the cool, humid air coming from the Pacific Ocean. Average temperature is about 26 degrees C.

To learn about the history and understand the main industry in the region, we visited the local sugar area. Our guided tour started at the Hacienda El Paraíso, a lovingly restored manor house, which has been converted into a museum. It provides an insight into Cauca life, complete with literary connections – it’s the setting of Jorge Isaacs’ romantic period novel María. We visited the museum to learn about the importance of the sugar industry in Colombia. Our visit took us past a colonial hacienda dating from the 18th century and examples of the typical houses and mills from all regions of the country.

The next day we transferred to the Corcora Valley in typical jeep or “willys” – VERY bumpy but so much fun with panoramic views of the valley if you stand up. The jeeps were introduced to Colombia after World War II and quickly became an indispensable tool to conquer the rough mountains. The Corora Valley, with its breathtaking landscapes, is one of the most beautiful valleys in Colombia. Here we found the impressive “palma de cera,” the official Colombian national tree and one of the tallest species of palm in the world, growing to a height of 60 metres. These palm trees are now protected and can live for up to 120 years. We went horse riding here in this beautiful tranquil setting and the people were so sweet!

Known as the cradle of the wax-palm, Salento (1,895m) is a paradise suspended in time, whose houses and balconies, ablaze with riotous colour from the flowers, remain untouched. The buildings in Salento are typical of the Antioquia style of the warm and friendly people there. A visit here is to truly appreciate rural Colombia. The town of Salento was a very beautiful, small town that comes to life at night with heaps of bars and restaurants and small local shops catering to the Colombian tourism industry.

Q: The next day you were off to visit Bogota, Colombia’s capital.

Bogota is a large and diverse city – I’d say my favourite part was the old area of ‘la candelaria’…great graffiti art and small cafes, bars etc.

With a population of about 9 million, Bogota is situated approximately 2,500 metres above sea level in the Andean region. Officially known as Bogotá D.C., the Colombian capital is located in the centre of the country, in the area known as the “Sabana de Bogota.” Bogotá is an important economic and industrial centre. Its important cultural offer is represented in many museums, theatres and libraries, some of them considered the most important in the country and the whole South American continent.

We enjoyed a tour of Bogotá starting at the Plaza de Bolívar (the city’s main square) and government buildings situated around it. We continued onto the old colonial part of the city better known as “La Candelaria,” the San Francisco Church, the Gold Museum and the Emerald Museum. Then we sought higher grounds by taking a funicular to the top of the Monserrate Hill which commanded amazing views of the city and surrounding garden area around the Cathedral.

Q: Day 6 & 7 you visited Bucaramanga, Chicamocha National Park and Barichara. Is it true you tried fried ants??

Yes, very crunchy and thankfully no flavour!

Bucaramanga at 1,000 metres is the capital of Santander province and one of Colombia’s undiscovered destinations. Lying in the scenic valley of the Río de Oro, its roots are deep in colonial history. Due to its location and the abundance of civic parks, it is called La Ciudad Bonita, the Pretty City. In addition to its natural attractions, Bucaramanga is a university city and combines culture, commerce, agriculture and technology with tourism. Not only does this city boast beautiful mountainous parks but it is famous for its local delicacy of large fried ants. Try them if you are game!

We also visited the Parque Nacional Chicamocha, also known as “Panachi.” The Park which opened in 2006, is famous for its spectacular setting in the Cañón del Chicamocha less than an hour from Bucaramanga. The centrepiece of the park is a six-kilometre cable car system, one of the longest systems of its type in the world. The park is also a base for outdoor activities such as rafting, fishing, hiking, caving and paragliding.

Barichara is a village full of history and beautiful buildings. The white-walled houses line the streets, the yellow stone walls and orange clay tiles with the red earth around are a stunning explosion of colour. Barichara is one of Colombia ́s prettiest villages and its good state of conservation earned it the distinction of being a National Monument in 1978. Strolling through the village, we came across various shops selling handicrafts, such as hammocks, rope sandals, clothing, necklaces and jewellery of ivory palm, figurines carved of stone, bags and mochilas and rugs made from sisal hemp.

I personally loved Barichara because it reminded me a lot of my parents’ town in Sicily…. a small sleepy town with 5 churches and heaps of hiking trails around the town.

Also spent one night in Villa de Leyva – a small town as well but very beautiful with old colonial houses and lots of flowers everywhere, small tourist shops, friendly people. A bit more happening than Barichara.

Q: Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is considered the Venice of Colombia and the country’s most romantic city.

Cartagena has one of the most impressive old towns in the Western Hemisphere. With just the right mix of sun, sand, and colonial charm, it’s likely to be the highlight of your trip. A walk through Cartagena’s inner walled city feels a bit like stepping onto the set of a 16th-century telenovela, complete with cobblestone streets and grandiose balconies overflowing with flowers. At night, the old fort walls contain a plethora of street performers and a festive atmosphere. The area reminded me of Cuba.

We spent our time enjoying a fascinating city tour of Cartagena visiting the Convent of La Popa (the highest point of the city) and seeing the Castillo de San Felipe, an immense fort filled with history and mysteries hidden in its stonewalled tunnels. Leaving the castle, we visited the monument of Zapatos Viejos, the “Old Shoes.” Certainly the most impressive monument is the gigantic defensive wall that surrounds the old city, and overlooks the sea and its well-preserved colonial architecture.

Also spent 2 nights at Isola Baru – a resort style beach area situated on the Caribbean Ocean. A bit too touristy for me but the beach was amazing.

Q: Speaking of food – the cuisine is supposed to be as regional as, for example, Italy….

The staples are fish, rice and tropical fruits with the specialty the banana plantation which is a fried flat banana that they serve food on, or break it up as chips and serve a salsa with it. Fruit juices are always served with lunch and dinner, never wine. Now there’s the difference with Italy!