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Soaring Andean summits, unspoiled Caribbean coast, enigmatic Amazon jungle, cryptic archaeological ruins and cobbled colonial communities. Colombia boasts all of South America's allure, and more.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Colombia.
Bogotá's most famous museum and one of the most fascinating in South America, the Gold Museum contains more than 55,000 pieces of gold and other materials from all of Colombia's major pre-Hispanic cultures. The collection is laid out in logical, thematic rooms over three floors; descriptions are in Spanish and English. Second-floor exhibits break down findings by region, with descriptions of how pieces were used. There are lots of mixed animals rendered in gold (eg jaguar-frog, human-eagle); note the female figurines indicating how women of the Zenú in the pre-Columbian north played important roles in worship. The 3rd-floor 'Offering' room exhibits explain how gold was used in ceremonies and rituals. Some of the displayed tunjos (gold offerings, usually figurines depicting various aspects of social life) were thrown into the Laguna de Guatavita; the most famous one, found near the town of Pasca in 1969, is the unlabeled gold boat called the Balsa Muisca. It's uncertain how old it is, as generally only gold pieces that include other materials can be carbon dated. There's more to understanding the stories than the descriptions can convey, so try taking a free one-hour tour (11am and 4pm Tuesday through Saturday; in Spanish and English) – tours vary the part of the museum to be highlighted. Audio guides (COP$8000) are available in Spanish, English, French and Portuguese. The museum gets exceedingly busy on Sunday, when entry is free.
Also known as El Peñon de Guatapé, thanks to the fierce rivalry between the towns it straddles, this 200m-high granite monolith rises from near the edge of the Embalse Guatapé. A brick staircase of 659 steps rises up through a broad fissure in the side of the rock. From the top there are magnificent views of the region, the fingers of the lake sprawling amid a vast expanse of green mountains. Medellín–Guatape buses can drop you off at 'La Piedra.' Take the road that curves up past the gas station (1km) to reach the parking lot at the base of the rock. Taxi drivers and horse owners will try to convince you that it's a long, exhausting climb but while it's steep, it's not far. From Guatapé, moto-taxis to the rock cost COP$10,000. At the base there are tourist shacks selling knickknacks and numerous restaurants serving lunch (from COP$8000 to COP$12,000). At the top of the rock, snack shacks sell fruit juice, ice cream and salpicón (fruit salad in watermelon juice).
This 78-hectare archaeological park is 2.5km west of the town of San Agustín. There are over 130 statues in the park in total, either found in situ or collected from other areas, including some of the best examples of San Agustín statuary, with human or animal features, or a mixture of the two. Don't miss the carved tombs either. Reputable guides congregate around the museum. At the entrance to the park is the Museo Arqueológico, which features smaller statues, pottery, utensils, jewelry and other objects, along with interesting background information about the San Agustín culture. Beyond the entrance, you'll stroll along the statue-lined Bosque de las Estatuas before ascending the four funeral hills – mesitas A, B, C1 and C2 with their respective tombs and clusters of statues. Many of them are anthropomorphic figures, some realistic, others resembling masked monsters. There are also sculptures depicting sacred animals such as the eagle, jaguar and frog. Archaeologists have also uncovered a great deal of pottery. Mesita B's statues are the best known. Besides the mesitas is the Fuente de Lavapatas. Carved in the rocky bed of the stream, it is a complex labyrinth of ducts and small, terraced pools decorated with images of serpents, lizards and human figures. Archaeologists believe the baths were used for ritual ablutions and the worship of aquatic deities. From here, the path winds uphill to the Alto de Lavapatas, the oldest archaeological site in San Agustín. You'll find a few tombs guarded by statues, and get a panoramic view over the surrounding countryside.
Cartagena's old city is its principal attraction, particularly the inner walled town, consisting of the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego. It's one of finest examples of preserved colonial architecture in the Americas, packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and mansions with their famous overhanging balconies and shady patios. The best way to experience the Old Town is to wander in leisurely fashion, savoring the architectural details, street life and local snacks along the way. Nighttime adds a whole different dimension.
This harrowing museum dedicated to the urban conflict in Medellín is a must-visit for travelers wanting to fully understand the city (and Colombia). There are interesting displays on the geopolitical origins of the conflict, but the most moving parts are the life-size video screens, where survivors recount their experiences as if they were standing in front of you, and the Wall of Memory outside, which pays homage to local residents killed in the violence, their names etched onto the bricks.
One of Colombia's most spectacular national parks, PNN El Cocuy is mostly made up of a diverse ecosystem known as the páramo. This glacially formed, neotropical system of valleys, plains and mountain lakes includes the largest glacier zone in South America north of the equator. The park has 15 peaks that are at least 5000m, the highest being Ritacuba Blanco at 5330m, and is an outdoor playground popular for trekking, mountaineering, camping and climbing, although many activities are currently restricted. Established in 1977, the park covers 306,000 hectares. The western boundary begins at the 4000m elevation line; the eastern half of the park drops to just 600m elevation to the Colombian llanos (plains). Among the park's most famous features is an unusual rock formation called the Púlpito del Diablo (5120m; Devil's Pulpit), but it's just one of many spectacular peaks. Sadly, the park's glacier fields are rapidly melting due to climate change. Park officials believe that if melting continues at the present rate, the glaciers will be gone within 20 to 30 years. Despite the harsh environment, PNN El Cocuy is home to diverse species of flora and fauna. Animals you might encounter include the spectacled bear (also called the Andean bear), deer, eagles, condors, mountain tapirs, chinchillas and the beautiful spotted ocelot. The mountaintop plains are covered in a variety of shrubbery, the best known being the yellow-flowered frailejón that's native to the area. PNN El Cocuy was occupied by ELN guerrillas from 1985 until early this century, when the Colombian army moved in. Today the park is once again safe for visitors (though the little-used eastern-plains area in Arauca and Casanare is still risky). Colombian soldiers have a base in the mountains and regularly patrol the trails. This peace quickly brought visitors back to the peaks: in 2003 fewer than 100 people climbed PNN El Cocuy; that figure jumped to an estimated 9000 in 2010 and a whopping 14,147 in 2013, according to park officials. However, the park's popularity has proved problematic. In 2013 the main attraction, the Güicán–El Cocuy Circuit Trek, was closed by authorities. Depending on whom you ask, the reason was that park officials didn't like dealing with the added workload that tourism brought; the U'wa people along the route became fed up with tourists trekking through their land; or the popularity of the trek and all the associated infrastructure were doing too much damage to the park, its trails and the surrounding environment. The reality is likely a combination of the three, but, whatever the reason, at research time in mid-2018 the circuit was indefinitely closed. In 2016 the park was totally closed to visitors while the government negotiated territorial boundaries with local indigenous communities. It was eventually reopened to visitors in early 2017, but with even more restrictions. It's no longer possible to touch any of the glaciers in the park, making climbing the peaks impossible, and overnight stays within the boundaries are no longer permitted. These restrictions will be reviewed in the near future and could be lifted or made even tougher. Check before your journey to see if the situation has changed by the time you visit.
Once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellín, the Comuna 13, which clings to the mountainside above the San Javier metro station, has undergone an impressive transformation in recent times and is now considered safe to visit. The focal point of a trip to the comuna is the area around the escaleras electricas, the outdoor escalators that provide access to homes in marginalized barrios that were formerly isolated from the city below. A taxi from the metro costs COP$5500. Alongside the Metrocable lines, the escaleras electricas are one of the icons of the rebirth of Medellín. The area surrounding the six sets of escalators is awash with murals and graffiti, while at the top there is a lookout and a boardwalk offering fine views of the bustling city below. In order to fully understand the violence and difficulties that have plagued the area and its impressive reformation, it's a great idea to hike the comuna with a local guide. Recommended guides can be arranged at Casa Kolacho near the San Javier metro. Alternatively, check out the barrio's artwork with the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour, departing twice daily from the Poblado metro. To reach the escaleras take either bus 221i or 225i from the stop by the traffic lights on the right as you leave the San Javier metro. Buy an integrated ticket at the station where you board the metro.
The greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas still dominates an entire section of Cartagena's cityscape. It should definitely be the first fortress you visit. The original edifice was quite small. It was commissioned in 1630, and construction began in 1657 on top of the 40m-high San Lázaro hill. In 1762 an extensive enlargement was undertaken, which resulted in the entire hill being covered with this powerful bastion. It was truly impregnable and was never taken despite numerous attempts to storm it. A complex system of tunnels connected strategic points to allow provisions to be distributed and to facilitate evacuation. The tunnels were constructed so that any noise reverberated all the way along them, making it possible to hear the slightest sound of an approaching enemy's feet, and also making internal communication easy. Some of the tunnels are lit and are open to visitors – an eerie walk not to be missed. Take an audio tour (COP$10,000 in English) or hire a guide (Spanish/English COP$15,000/20,000) if you want to learn more about the curious inventions of Antonio de Arévalo, the military engineer who directed the construction of the fortress. The fortress is a short walk over the bridge from Getsemaní.
Even if you've never heard of Fernando Botero, you'll probably recognize some of his highly distinctive paintings of oversized (read: chubby) characters, including dodgy dictators, fleet-footed dancers, dogs and birds. Colombia’s most famous living artist is also a prolific sculptor and his curvaceous bronze statues display equally generous girth. The museum, which belongs to the Banco de la República de Colombia, was founded in 2000 when Botero donated more than 100 of his own works, along with 85 from his personal collection of other artists' work – a haul that includes pieces by Picasso, Monet, Matisse and Klimt. The painter curated the museum himself. Botero paintings to look out for include a parody of Di Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1978), the wonderfully intimate Pareja Bailando (1987) and the haunting studies of Colombia’s drug-cartel violence in the 1980s and '90s. Audio guides (COP$10,000) in English, French and Spanish are available from the museum complex's main entrance on Calle 11. Other than that, there’s no cost.
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