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East of the city of Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast of Colombia lies the gorgeous, rugged Parque Tayrona, a true feast for all of the senses. The park doesn't have roads--you have to hike or go by boat in order to get past the entrance--so we had a local fisherman drop us off via boat on the beach at Cabo San Juan del Guia, where palm trees drop coconuts at regular intervals. We went to work right away and cracked one open on a nearby rock, quenching our thirst with its juice and perfect meat.
When I flew from New York to Bogotá, I didn't really have plans to visit the city's neighboring towns and villages. As I quickly found out, that's a huge part of Bogotá's charm. If time permits, definitely take a day trip to Zipaquirá to see their famous Salt Cathedral. I opted to join an organized tour which cut down on the language barrier but if you're on a tight budget, you can reach the city by bus. The Salt Cathedral is exactly what its name suggests - an underground cathedral lit up with lights and constructed with salt and other materials. Built in 1995, the cathedral depicts the stations of the cross and is undoubtedly one of Colombia's most impressive architectural achievements. Entrance is open to the public and costs around COP 17,000 (roughly US $9-10)
Despite a dreary, rainy day - the art throughout the old neighborhood of La Candelaria brightened the visit. Vibrant colors down every street. Spent the day walking through the neighborhood, viewing the 14 churches that are sprinkled about and visiting the Botero Museum. Travel There. http://travelthere.tumblr.com/
El Valle del Cocora, a national natural park in the central cordillera of the Andes, is the main attraction of the colorfully-painted town of Salento. The valley is known for its towering, skinny wax palm trees, which are the tallest in the world. One can hike the forest by foot or on horseback. The end of the lush trail leads to the 'Santuario de Calibris,' or hummingbird sanctuary; an area where the small, hurried birds fly freely and abundantly. The typical way to arrive at the park is to take a Willy, an old jeep from WWII times, from the Plaza Bolivar in Salento. They leave at various times in the morning: show up early to ask the drivers when they leave. It's well worth the 3.000 Colombian pesos ($1.50 USD) each way to reach this lush and mysterious valley in the clouds!
Latin America’s unique flair and passion is epitomized by Medellín, with its parks and plazas the heartbeat of this culture. Parque Lleras in Poblado is popular among tourists, and it’s easy to see why. Winding streets laden with bars, restaurants and clubs are descended upon every weekend by the fashionable and fancy free. Music from salsa to reggaeton, from electro to pop pulsates around every bend, while wandering bands create a traditional vibe in the center of the tropical park. On a Sunday head to the north-east of the city and to Parque de los Deseos (Park of wishes). Here families devour snacks from street vendors such as ice cream and popcorn— the perfect accompaniments to the Sunday evening movie which is projected outside.
For a great place to start the evening in Cartagena, head to Café del Mar, located directly on the wall in the Old City. It's a favorite for lounging and watching the sunset.
That church hiding back there in the clouds is Cerro Monserrate, one of the most famous (and highest-altitude) landmarks in Bogotá. Perched atop one of the highest mountains ringing the city, the church and refugio are one of the most popular sites for tourists and locals alike. On weekend mornings, the route up the mountain -- yes, you can walk -- is packed with people in sneakers, making their pilgrimage up to Bogotá's highest restaurant. On sunny days, it offers a spectacular view of the entire city -- on cloudy days like this one, it looks just as haunted as I imagine it to be. Photo taken from the Plaza Bolívar in the historic La Candelaria district.
One of the best things to do in Cartagena is to wander the streets at night. The city comes alive with music and laughter. La buena vida!
A trip through the Coffee Triangle, the coffee- growing region of central Colombia, takes you into the small towns and wildlife-rich mountains of the Caldas, Quindío, and Risaralda departments. Base yourself at the Hacienda Bambusa, an eight-room, family-run hotel hidden among 445 acres of orchids, palms, and banana and cacao fields. To book a tour of the region, contact Betty Jo Currie at (404) 254-5677. Photo courtesy of Hacienda Bambusa. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
At the Museo Botero, you’ll find two levels filled with paintings including a plump Mona Lisa and full-figured fruits from Colombia’s best-known artist, Fernando Botero. Calle 11 No. 4-41, 57/(0) 1-343-1212. Photo by megavas/Flickr
When the temperature rises and the Caribbean beckons, a day trip to a nearby island beach is a must. Catch an early-morning tour boat to Isla de Baru, where you can snorkel with iridescent blue fish. Feeling adventurous? Hire a fisherman to cross the bay to the island of Tierra Bomba, where white-sand beaches face Cartagena’s modern Bocagrande strip. After a morning in the sun and sea, replenish your energy with a whole fried red snapper and icy Aguila beer, served to you on the beach. —Milena Damjanov Photo by Juan Vinasco. This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.
The city of Cali, Colombia, is experiencing a renaissance, thanks to its title as the country’s capital of salsa dancing. Cali, home to just over 2 million people, brims with salsatecas, or salsa clubs, to suit any style or age, as well as salsa-savvy residents who graciously share the fun. The genre first arrived in Colombia around 1930, when sailors brought salsa from the Caribbean back to Cali, and Caleños made it their own. “Cali salsa has a unique flavor. The dancers make it work by really moving, picking up their feet, and putting their mark on the music,” says Luz Aydé Moncayo, an award-winning salsa dancer who runs the studio Son de Luz, in the working-class Alameda neighborhood. Dance lessons with Moncayo start at about $10 an hour. Once you’ve mastered the basic 1-2-3 step, take a taxi across the Cauca River to the gritty Juanchito neighborhood, known for its cavernous clubs reminiscent of those in 1940s mobster films. Bow-tied bouncers guard the doors at Changó, where red leather banquettes surround a dimly lit dance floor. Share a bottle of aguardiente (anise-flavored cane spirits) as you watch couples spin, and then get on your feet. Or head over to Tin Tin Deo, a more bohemian salsateca closer to the city center. Here, all sorts of dancers, from pairs in sequins and silk to students swaying with their own style, take to the floor. On Sunday afternoons, don’t miss the viejotecas or “old folks’ dance clubs,” a Cali institution. The liveliest is Poliactivo, located behind the bus station. It’s open to all ages and features salsa classics from the 1960s and 1970s. Ask someone here to dance, and you might also get a lesson in the city’s salsa history. —Annie Murphy Photo by Cristian Delvalle. This appeared in the May/June 2010 issue.
Definitively, Parque Tayrona is a magic place blessed by the sun. Is a perfect mix of nature, cultures, climates and people. In the morning you can explore the paths of the park watching monkeys, birds or butterflies. Then, take a bath in a multi colored sea with withe sands. Have a great lunch with pescado con patacones or ceviche. After a nap, you can enjoy the sunset walking across the beach. Finally, you spent the night playing cards, chating with friends from everywhere or resting in a hamaca listening the waves...
On Playa Bello Horizonte, cart vendors roll by and will crack open a coconut for you anytime you wish. Ask them to stop by on their way back down the beach, and they'll carve out the inside so you can eat it :).
From Cartegena we caught a boat to Playa Blanca and enjoyed a grilled-fish lunch with delicious crispy skin and a lemony flavor. For $5 we rented a tarp-cabaña to beat the sun and ordered fresh piña coladas, mojitos, and margaritas from a wheelbarrow-wielding vendor. After being strong-armed into accepting (and paying for) beach side massages, we watched the sunset and caught the final boat back to town. Nothing but sun, sand, and simple food/drinks to waste away a day.
When it's election season in Colombia, the sell or purchase of alcohol is prohibited the day before and day of election - except at Cafe San Pedro! Not quite sure on those legalities, but regardless - beautiful atmosphere and wonderful menu right in the heart of Cartagena, next to Convento de San Pedro Claver.
Near Plaza de Bolívar in the colonial Candelaria quarter, the city’s historic core, swing by La Puerta Falsa, a bakery and restaurant that has been run by the same family since 1816. Order the chocolate completo, a cup of hot cocoa mixed with water and melted cheese that comes with buttered bread and an almojábana (biscuit). Calle 11 No. 6–50, 57/(0) 1-286-5091. Image: William Neuheisel/Flickr.com
For a sense of Cartagena’s colonial past, take two short taxi rides from the old city. Built in the 17th century, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was an impregnable, tunnel-filled Spanish fort that kept both pirates and the English Navy at bay. On a nearby hill, the 400-year-old Convento de la Popa makes a great spot for getting the lay of the land—then watching the sun set into the Caribbean. —Milena Damjanov Pie del Cerro; Cerro de la Popa, 57/5-666-2331. This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.
The Macarena district is the center of the city’s art scene. La Peluquería not only offers edgy haircuts but also exhibits contemporary paintings. At the Alonso Garcés Galería (pictured), installations and photographs decorate a former church. After your art hop, pair tri-tip carpaccio with rioja at the restaurant Donostia. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: courtesy of Alonso Garcés Galería
Every Sunday for the last 35 years, Bogota has closed about 75 miles of city streets to regular traffic. The streets fill with bikers, runners, skaters, walkers, food vendors and other hawkers. Open spaces offer free yoga and aerobics classes. It's a hugely popular event and people from all over the city participate. Bike rentals and tours are available from Mike Ceasar at Bogota Bike Tours which is conveniently located in La Candelaria.
Snack on street foods and regional dishes with Colombian culinary blogger Diana Holguín. She leads a three-hour Eats & Drinks walking tour in the food-centric Chapinero neighborhood. Five stops include a dessert shop that serves oblea (a caramel-filled wafer cookie) and a produce market where you can try pitaya, a fruit that grows on desert cactus. From $50. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: Fernando Decillis
Colombian-born fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi’s first hotel is set in an 18th-century colonial mansion. There are just seven rooms, but each is unique and includes bedspreads and pillows with Tcherassi’s touch of texture and whimsiness. From $400. 57/5-664-4445. Photo courtesy of Tcherassi Hotels.
The Museo del Oro houses more than 34,000 pre-Columbian gold relics, the largest collection on earth. The focal point is the 8,000-piece Offering Boat room, which holds the spectacular Balsa Muisca, a miniature model of a gold-and-copper raft bearing figurines that depict the initiation ceremony of a new ruler on Lake Guatavita. Legends say that each new chief would cover himself in gold dust and dive into the water to become “El Dorado,” or the gilded one. Carrera 6 No. 16–58, 57/(0) 1-343-2222. Image: courtesy of Museo del Oro
The signature dish of Salento, Colombia, is trucha con patacones— trout with mashed, fried plantains—and the most delicious version in town can be found at El Rincon de Lucy. The cozy, family-run eatery serves huge, inexpensive set meals with the star attractions accompanied by soup, rice, beans, cheese, eggs, arepas, fresh juice, and desserts. The basic elements stay the same, but matron and chef Lucy routinely tweaks the dishes, which keeps customers returning day after day. Located in the Zona Cafetera, or coffee-growing region, Salento draws Colombian tourists each weekend, when its streets fill with foods tents and music. Most of the food stalls serve the town’s signature dish, but my wife and I opted for paper-thin, crispy patacones with cheese, beans, tomatoes, and onions one Sunday night. While we delighted in the nachos, we experienced one of the auspicious occurrences that occasionally happen when traveling. A man approached us from across the tent, beaming and welcoming us to his country in broken English. He was all smiles and gestures, pointing to his family who waved enthusiastically. Then he told us not to pay for our meal. We protested, of course, thinking he was offering to pay, but he cut us short—he had already paid for it before coming to our table. We were astonished, humbled, and grateful at the generosity and goodwill toward strangers. It was the most memorable of many moments of hospitality and graciousness we experienced throughout Colombia.
Watch the sunset from the rooftop pool lounge at this year-old hotel. The bar (pictured) serves quibbes (beef or lamb croquettes), carimañolas (stuffed corn-and-yucca fritters), and cocktails that feature such ingredients as Andean blueberry. Carrera 11 No. 86–74. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue. Image: courtesy of B.O.G. Hotel
All those in the know know that Colombia has recently shed its illustrious past, emerging as a hotspot for the sophisticated traveler. And for good reason... from the grand colonial Spanish architecture to the charming cafe & boutique lined streets, the glorious private villas with balconies streaming with bougainvillea to the street plazas alive with salsa dancing & music, and the sultry Caribbean sunshine- Cartagena has something for everyone, all while maintaining its own identity. ... and then there is the wall. A rock-solid symbol of Cartagena's past - be it the conquoring of the Spaniards, the invasion of the Pirates, the days of Noriega or the endless people who have walked it over the past 400 + years, this wall has remained strong. And a sure way to be a part of this history is to bring your yoga mat to the wall at sunset and sweat it out...its also a sure way to get lots of attention, but, as you will quickly find out, the Colombian's are up for anything, anytime!
Street vendors sell the best regional crafts. At Plaza Santo Domingo, look for artisans displaying beaded necklaces made from small chirilla seeds. Or try on mochilas, handbags that indigenous Colombians weave from natural and brown-dyed wool. High-end imitations were featured in Vogue; here you can get them from the source. —Milena Damjanov Photo by Stephanie Trapp. This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.
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