Colombia: Colonial heritage... and jungle landscapes
Little-visited compared to other Latin American destinations, Colombia is home to an exciting mix of colonial heritage and spectacular natural landscapes. Find out more with our guide.
The term Latin America typically conjures up images of tango dancing in Buenos Aires, of lost Inca cities in Peru, and of classic American cars rolling through the streets of Cuba. But in amongst these famous Latin American destinations are a wealth of lesser-known gems, including Colombia, which boasts a fascinating mix of colonial heritage and wild natural landscapes.
While its wealth of heritage and beauty makes it a wonderful place to explore, compared to other Latin American destinations it is little-visited, particularly by European holidaymakers. We spoke to Cox & Kings' very own Melanie Brimson to find out more about its dual attractions of history and nature.
Latin America: What makes Colombia stand out?
Location and culture
First of all, however, let's take a look at what makes Colombia stand out from other Latin American destinations. Melanie stressed that its location has a huge impact in this area, explaining that the fact the north coast sits on the Caribbean Sea means that the country has been strongly influenced by Caribbean culture, particularly in terms of music and cuisine.
Similarly, its Spanish heritage has a similarly important part to play. She notes that the traditions of this colonial past mingle with Caribbean cultural elements to make something new – and utterly unique.
This combination of colonial heritage and Caribbean flavour bleeds through into what travellers can experience here. Indeed, Melanie explains that it is a rare example of a Latin American destination that gives you the chance to enjoy picturesque, Caribbean-style beaches with exploring culturally-rich cities.
Language and ease of visiting
And there are other advantages of visiting Colombia too – even in practical terms. For example, again thanks to the nation's location, the vast majority of the local people speak excellent English. Add to this the fact that they are extremely friendly, and it's immediately clear that this is a great place for people who are keen to explore Latin America but are concerned about the language barrier.
It's also possible to take direct flights from London to the capital, Bogota, which is a huge advantage – especially when considering that so many other Latin American destinations require a change.
Another interesting thing about Colombia is how peaceful it feels compared to some of the more visited destinations, such as Peru. In addition to having the effect of making your holiday feel more relaxing, because there are fewer crowds, it also lends the place a more authentic feel. "You do feel like you're in a more undiscovered place; it does feel quite special," commented Melanie.
Colombia's colonial attractions
The Spanish colonial period in Colombia ran from the mid-16th century to the early 19th century. Over the course of these several hundred years, some remarkable sites were created, which now rank among the most fascinating places to visit in Colombia; Melanie cites Cartagena, Bogota and Villa de Leyva as among the finest sites to explore.
A Unesco World Heritage Site, Cartagena is a spectacular historic city to visit. Home to some of the nation's most extensive fortifications, it is where you will find the old Spanish fort San Felipe, which overlooks the city and "gives some great impressions of old Spanish domination". Colourful architecture, narrow cobbled streets and characterful squares add to this destination's charms. Melanie recommends spending a little time at the city walls, which hem in Cartagena and overlook the ocean, drinking in the view and sipping cocktails.
The capital city, Bogota, also boasts some fine heritage attractions – and these are made all the more interesting by the fact that, here, they mix with the hustle and bustle of a modern city, creating a stark contrast. Lying in the heart of the city is the old town which, with its old churches and historic streets, is a joy to explore. Bogota also possesses a fantastic array of museums, most notably the Gold Museum, which houses the world's largest collection of gold from pre-Hispanic times.
Villa de Leyva
Contrasting beautifully with Cartagena is Villa de Leyva. Unlike Cartagena, which is known for its colourful buildings, Villa de Leyva is a whitewashed colonial city, creating a very different look. Dating back some 500 years, it is home to a variety of architecture, and among the colonial buildings are plenty of customs and traditions dating from those times too.
It's also interesting to see how this heritage, and the destination's altitude, makes it markedly different from Cartagena. The Spanish influence paired with the cooler environment, for example, means that the food is much more European in style - with lots of hot chocolate, cheese and other rich foods – than at its coastal cousin.
The finest natural landscapes in Colombia
Moving on to natural landscapes, there are two main destinations to include in your Colombian itinerary.
Tayrona National Park
Melanie's favourite natural destination in Colombia, Tayrona National Park is situated on the Caribbean coast – something that makes it possible to combine wonderful nature walks with relaxing on the beach. Recommending a stay of three or four days, Melanie notes that you can opt to explore independently or with a guide, with the latter being particularly conducive to learning more about the local environment.
Either way, a visit here allows you spend your time meandering through landscapes filled with beautiful flowers (which are one of the park's key attractions), stop by scenic bays for serene swims before setting off for a walk once more - all with the backdrop of mountains meeting the Caribbean Sea.
The Coffee Region
Another marvellous natural landscape is the Coffee Region, the undulating valley of which is dotted with the world's tallest palm trees. Taking a walk or horseback ride through this landscape is a wonderful way not only to appreciate the nation's beautiful natural environment, but also to learn more about one of the country's biggest exports – both in terms of the production of coffee and the impact it has had on the local people and culture. And indeed, Melanie stresses that this is one of the biggest draws to the Coffee Region – the chance to enjoy natural and cultural discovery simultaneously.
In addition to a walk or a horseback ride, you can visit a coffee farm, find out more about the processes that surround it and, best of all, taste some of the finest coffee in the world.
"Everything's centred around the coffee export now, so it's really interesting to go and learn about it – even though it's a natural attraction, it's got a lot of culture as well," Melanie concludes.
Blending colonial heritage and nature in your itinerary
If you are planning a holiday to Colombia, it's great to include a combination of colonial heritage and natural attractions in your itinerary. Recommending a three-centre itinerary, Melanie suggests going to Bogota first to explore the world-class museums and admire sights like the Salt Cathedral, before heading up to the Coffee Region and then moving on to Tayrona National Park for landscape and beaches.
Treasures of Colombia, she mentions, is a brilliant new group tour that certainly achieves this combination of heritage and landscapes. A ten-night tour, it includes Bogota, the Coffee Region, Medellin (Colombia's second most important city) and Cartagena. Read more about our Colombia holidays >
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