Colombia has enchanted a steady stream of visitors for years. Now, with peace on the horizon and travel even more affordable, 2016 could be the breakthrough year for this beautiful and welcoming South American country. Here are seven reasons you should drop everything and head to Colombia right now.
1. You get more bang for your buck
The recent fall in oil prices has affected the Colombian currency more than most. In fact, of the major currencies, only the Russian ruble has plummeted further. Back in July 2014, the Colombian peso stood at 1,850 to the U.S. dollar; today, it tops 3,300, meaning visitor spending power has almost doubled from a year ago. Predictions suggest this rate will last well into 2016.
2. Colombia is like 10 countries in one
Colombia is classed as one of the world’s megadiverse countries in terms of its ecology, and its landscape never gets old. Venture into the Coffee Zone in the Central Andes for a hypnotic kaleidoscope of greens, with pine-shaded plantations sewn onto the shimmering emerald-and-sage mountains. On the Pacific Coast, Jurassic Park–like jungle shoots up from murky teal waters, home to calving humpback whales and sea turtles who come ashore at night to lay their eggs.
On the northern coast, ocean meets desert in Guajira’s barely believable landscape, where the waves sizzle as they hit the rolling tangerine sand dunes—best explored by Jeep. On the island of San Andres, floating manta rays are visible through absinthe-colored waters, and from July to November, underwater plants in Caño Cristales turn the river red, black, and orange in a unique natural phenomenon. Colombia even has snow. Those who hike the white-tipped mountain range of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are rewarded with jutting mountains, varied bird species, and a view of the Caribbean Sea.
3. You can learn the science behind the perfect coffee bean
Colombia produces the finest coffee beans on the planet. For years, connoisseurs have visited its vast plantations, learning how to grow the perfect Arabica bean, exploring the picking, drying, and fermentation processes, and consuming enough caffeine to keep them soaring for a week. Recently, the coffee plantation experience has developed a new angle, as growers have begun demonstrating the science behind Arabica beans, and conducting tasting sessions that encourage visitors to identify subtle flavors like strawberry, chocolate, and even honey. Tour companies like La Mesa even venture into laboratories where experts roast tailor-made gourmet beans.
4. A peace deal might be on the cards
On September 23, 2015, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and the leader of FARC, the country’s largest left-wing rebel group, shook hands in Havana. The significance of this cannot be overstated. For more than 50 years, Colombia's government and the Marxist fighters have been entangled in an armed conflict—the longest in the country’s history. During the historic meeting in Cuba, both sides agreed to sign a peace agreement by March 2016. If the deal goes through, some reports suggest visitor numbers to the country, which are already increasing, could soar from 4.5 million to 5.2 million next year. Predicting the boom, tour companies are clamoring to offer new trips, from cycling the car-free mountain roads in the Coffee Zone to trekking Santa Marta’s Lost City, and from sampling experimental food culture in Medellín to exploring the Pacific Coast through fishing, eating, and dancing with indigenous communities.
5. Colombia’s colonial towns are exquisite
While Colombia’s cities are undergoing something of a construction boom, its smaller, colonial towns are keeping a lower profile. A few years ago, the government created the Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonio (National Network of Patrimonial Towns) to help preserve the culture of the country’s most valuable towns. Included in the list of 17 is Santa Cruz de Mompox, which appears in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel The General in His Labyrinth and whose center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This northern colonial town is a good base for bird-watchers seeking out rare species, and enchants religious tourists with its elaborate Easter processions.
In Barichara, Santander, whitewashed buildings with terra-cotta roofs line the pristine streets. Those who stroll along the orange stone slabs proclaim this Colombia’s most beautiful town. Alternatively, Santa Fe de Antioquia charms those with a weakness for palm-shaded plazas and pastel-colored churches. Its annual international film festival spreads onto the cobblestoned streets and into the graveyard at night.
6. You can explore landscapes many locals don’t know about
The recent filming of the stunning nature documentary Magia Salvaje highlights the country’s largest national park: Chiribiquete. Spreading over some 5,000 square miles, the park contains tropical forests and savannas, mountains, vertical granitic domes, and rivers that boast towering waterfalls and gushing rapids. The area, roughly the size of Belgium, remains largely unexplored, with only a few companies offering helicopter tours and visits to neighboring communities.
At first glance, Malpelo Island, lying 310 miles off Colombia’s west coast, seems like a barren rock. However, dive into the surrounding Pacific Ocean to find shimmering coral, hundreds of silky and hammerhead sharks, and even the rare smalltooth sand tiger shark. Over in the eastern grassland of Los Llanos, horses’ hooves pound the land as cowboys chase herds of cattle. The few people that visit can encounter pink dolphins in the Meta River, 19-foot-long anacondas, and, with a dash of fortune, pumas roaming the night.
7. Colombians are beyond friendly
Do an Internet search for the world’s kindest people, and Colombia will be among the first results. However such things are measured—DNA sampling? psychological profiling? measuring high fives per capita?—it’s true that Colombians deserve their friendly reputation. When you arrive, you’ll be welcomed like a long-lost cousin, invited out dancing, and plied with enough shots of aguardiente (a sugarcane liquor) to get your hips snaking in no time. Salud!
>>Next: Where to Go in 2016
© 2017 AFAR Media