Colombia is rapidly changing its negative image as a hotbed of criminal 'bounty' kidnappers, drug overlords and gangsters, and travellers are returning to this rewarding country crowning the continent of South America. While both the US State Department and British Foreign and Commonwealth Office still advise against travel to Colombia, the country is statistically safer than most countries in the region. Those intrepid and curious travellers and tourists who do venture here are rewarded with the most diverse destination in South America: an exhilarating fusion of shabby, colourful towns, Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Andean valleys, Amazonian jungle, and wide plains.
Most visitors see the capital, Bogota, the legendary resort town of Cartagena, and the duty-free offshore island province of San Andres. In recent years Cali and Medellin are also popular stopovers. Wherever one chooses to explore, a fascinating, exciting and trouble-free experience is likely to be had.
The fortunes of modern Colombia had their foundations laid in the coffee plantations, but the onset of political violence and civil war in the 1950s effectively cauterised the industry. The exception to this can be found in the pretty hilly Quindio province, where many former farmers have turned their traditional red-tile roofed homesteads into good quality bed and breakfast establishments, set among exotic gardens and rows of leafy coffee bushes.
Urban Colombia centres on Bogota, home to about 20 percent of the country's inhabitants. This ancient city was the pre-Columbian capital of the Chibcha Indians and remains a blend of old and new, teeming with Spanish colonial buildings and plazas alongside modern skyscrapers. Beggars rub shoulders in the streets with smartly dressed business people, while mule trains wind their way through the traffic jams.
A major drawcard for tourists is the Spanish colonial port of Cartagena with its spectacular walled old town, a medieval wonderland of palaces, monasteries, plazas and overhanging balconies. To the south of the town are Colombia's major seaside holiday resorts with excellent beaches and scuba diving opportunities.
The country's equatorial rainforests clothe the river valleys, riddled with magnificent airplants, vines, creepers and brilliant flowers and birds. The Los Katios National Park in Choco contains hundreds of species of plant and animal life that have yet to be listed. The country's jungles also shelter wondrous archaeological treasures, like the ancient city of La Cuida Perdida and the monuments, tombs and burial mounds at San Augustin and Tierrodentro.
Colombia is a gem of a destination slowly starting to shed its unpalatable reputation to reveal its unique beauty.
The unit of currency is the Colombian Peso (COP), which is
divided into 100 centavos. Banks have no fixed policy on exchanging
cash and travellers cheques. Some provide the service, some not,
and different banks can differ on this from day to day. Generally
foreign exchange is only offered in the early morning. Cash can be
casas de cambio, or money exchange bureaux, located in
cities and border towns. US Dollars are preferred for both cash and
travellers cheque exchanges. Travellers cheques are difficult to
exchange outside of Bogota. Visitors are warned to beware of fake
US Dollars, which are printed in Colombia. Credit cards, especially
Visa, are becoming more widely accepted and are welcome at top
hotels and restaurants, travel agents and car rental agencies. In
the main towns and cities ATMs are becoming more prevalent, but
cards should be used with caution for security reasons.
|COP 1 =||US$ 0.05||Â£ 0.03||C$ 0.05||A$ 0.05||R 0.45||EUR 0.04||NZ$ 0.07|
Note: These currency exchange rates are not updated daily and should be used as a guideline only.
Mosquito borne illnesses like dengue fever and malaria are prevalent in Colombia. In 2007 there was a dengue fever outbreak, infecting 40,000 people. Travellers to Colombia must be sure to take preventative measures, pack enough mosquito repellent and wear concealing clothing. Malaria prophylaxis is recommended for several parts of Colombia so be sure to consult your doctor beforehand about whether you will need to take malaria medication. Vaccinations are recommended for yellow fever, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and typhoid. A vaccination for MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) is recommended if not previously given. Visitors should not drink tap water, unbottled beverages or drinks with ice. Fruit and vegetables should be peeled, cooked and eaten while piping hot. Avoid undercooked meat or fish. Medical care is adequate in major cities but varies in quality elsewhere. Medical insurance is essential. If you require prescription medication while travelling then it is best to take your medication with you into Colombia; make sure you have all the necessary documents from your doctor to help you get the medicine through customs.
All tourists visiting Colombia must hold valid passports, tickets and documents for onward or return travel, and sufficient funds to cover their stay. Those who plan to visit coffee plantations must apply to 'Vegetable Sanitary Control' at the airport on arrival, or to a Columbian consulate or embassy in advance. Extensions on visas are possible. We recommend that passports be valid for six months after intended period of travel.
Note: Passport and visa requirements are liable to change at short notice. Travellers are advised to check their entry requirements with their embassy or consulate.
Foreign Embassies in Colombia
Bogota is most visitor's first experience of Colombia, and in many ways this city encapsulates the attraction, history and modern reinvention of the continent's most tarnished tourism jewel.
Despite modest tourist numbers, Bogota is actually South America's fourth largest city, and Colombia's financial and industrial centre. Founded in 1538, the city occupies a glorious position 8,500 feet (2,600m) above sea level, in sight of the Cordillera mountain range. In the 1980s, Bogota's longstanding reputation for cultural glory and cosmopolitan life gave way to the corruption and violence of the narco-traffic era. It is only in recent years that Bogota has regained its appeal and now ranks as one of the safest cities on the continent, thanks to modern urban planning and a huge emphasis on urban security.
The best of the city is in a condensed area near the centre. La Candelaria is famed for its colonial architecture, culture and arts. The residential portion's distinctive wooden balconies and clay tiled roofs are very photogenic, while the many cafes, churches and museums reward exploration. The Plaza del Bolivar is ringed with handsome buildings and sites of interest, including the Palace of Justice, Capitol Building and Arzobispal Palace. The nearby Museo del Oro is a fabulous treasure trove of antique gold.
Bogota has a hugely vibrant modern side, too. Its gourmet scene and nightclubs are cutting edge, while boutique shops and design centres seem to open weekly. There is little doubt that Bogota has decisively shed its seedy image to become an essential and highly rewarding stop on any South American itinerary.
Visually, Cartagena is a paradise, with lush bougainvilla winding its way through a maze of cobblestone alleys lined by brightly-painted buildings. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city is a popular tourist destination for both Colombian and international holidaymakers. Cartagena's history goes back to 4000BC, and today its skyline is a blend of modern skyscrapers and colourful colonial facades.
Cartagena's colourful past is evident in the many historical attractions in the city. Most are located in the walled Old Town, which contains beautiful examples of colonial architecture and excellent shopping and restaurants. Neighbourhoods like Centre, San Diego, GetsemanÃ, and the more modern La Matuna all have unique personalities that delight visitors. Old Town is also home to the labyrinthine Bazurto Market, which is more of an opportunity to glimpse the everyday life of a Cartagenan than stock up on souvenirs.
The Palace of the Inquisition, the dungeons of Las Bovedas and the Cartagena Gold Museum are good places to get a feel for Cartagena's history, while the San Pedro Claver Convent and the Santo Domingo Church offer their own perspective. A number of stately mansions and fortresses (including the impressive Castillo de San Felipe) dot the area as well.
The most popular attractions in Cartagena are its sparkling beaches. However, the best beaches in Cartagena are to be found a little ways out of the city. Playa Blanca and Sportbaru are popular resorts that offer watersports, boat tours, and other activities as well as a selection of restaurants and bars. Ferries are also available for excursions to nearby islands, including the Islas del Rosario.
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