If your only reference points for Colombia are Pablo Escobar, drug trafficking, and the Farc guerrilla conflict, it is time you took a fresh look at the country. While Colombia still has its share of struggles, cities have been revitalized, safety has improved, and tourism has revived in recent years. Additionally, the dollar remains strong against the Colombian peso, keeping travel costs down and allowing for more opportunities to explore Colombia in greater depth.
Here are three cities that will whet your appetite to visit Colombia.
Ascend to great heights in Bogota
Bogota is a sprawling capital of eight million residents located on a high plateau. As with most megacities, Bogota can be an assault on the senses but also has tremendous charm, from the preserved colonial buildings of the downtown neighborhood La Candelaria to the fashionable Zona Rosa, one of South America’s most exclusive neighborhoods. One of the best ways to appreciate Bogota’s scale is to join locals on the two-mile pilgrimage to the top of Monserrate, the mountain that overlooks the city. It’s a rewarding, if demanding, hike that climbs to an elevation of more than 10,000 feet — so bring water and take it slowly if you’re not yet acclimated to the altitude.
Alternatively, you can brave the lines and take a cable car to the top for sweeping panoramas of the city below. For more stunning views of the city, visit Torre Colpatria, Bogota’s tallest office building, which allows visitors up to the roof on weekends for an aerial view of the downtown buildings and surrounding neighborhoods.
Zip up the mountainside in Medellín
Once the seat of Pablo Escobar’s drug trafficking empire and among the most dangerous cities in the world, Medillín has since turned a corner and is now much better known for its art, innovation, and progressive policies. Urban renewal efforts have physically transformed Colombia’s second largest city and earned it numerous accolades, including a #11 ranking on the New York Times list of top places to travel in 2015.
To experience Medellín from a birds-eye perspective, take the Metrocable, aerial gondolas that connect to outlying neighborhoods extending up the lush mountainside. Transfer and continue on to Parque Arvri for miles of walking trails in lush green terrain.
Gaze out upon Cartagena and the sea
The port city of Cartagena is among the crown jewels of Colombia, with colorful colonial buildings, ornate churches, lush gardens and plazas, and ocean views from the old city walls. It’s a city that is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace — ambling along cobblestone streets, sampling local fare, soaking in a swimming pool, and watching the sun set over the water.
For an expansive view of the charming old town, as well as of the neighboring high rise towers in Bocagrande, head to the massive fortress Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Be forewarned, however, that the fortress has very little shade so avoid the hottest parts of the day if possible.