Colombia markets itself as offering “magical realism”, and we couldn’t agree more. From soaring mountaintops to roaring beaches, from raging city life to engaging people, there truly is something for everyone in this beautiful country.
Here I pick my top places to visit and what to do, eat, see and experience in each place. You’ll never look at Colombia the same again. I sure won’t.
Stay: Hotel La Opera
Located in Bogota’s colonial Candelaria district, Hotel La Opera is right next to the presidential palace and is made up of two restored building – one colonial and the more recent republican part. With rooms featuring views over the Plaza de Bolivar and Monserrate mountains and a Thermae spa and Turkish bath, this hotel is the perfect way to ease yourself into the beauty of Bogota.
Do: Take part in Ciclovia
Ciclovia is an event not to be missed on Sundays in Bogota, where the streets are closed to cars and everyone – man, woman and child – gets out on their bikes. The best way to take part is to sign up to a cycling tour, which can be arranged through holiday experts like Chameleon Worldwide. They will be able to arrange everything for you, but make sure you ask for Nico as your guide. He’s an enthusiastic street artist who will show you all his work and make you love his city as much as he does.
Eat: Hot Chocolate & Cheese
They call it Santafereño and we ain’t lying – the Colombians really do dip cheese in their hot chocolate. It may sound odd at first, but once that rich, slightly salty flavour melts into your creamy cup of cocoa, you’ll never look back. Try Pastelería Florida where they’ve been serving this classic since the 1930s.
Stay: Hotel Deep Blue
Voted best boutique hotel in Colombia a couple years back, Deep Blue recently underwent a complete renovation and is now more luxurious than ever. Surrounded by verdant tropical forest with a splendid view towards Crab Caye and the dreamlike Caribbean sea, it’s your go-to paradise hotel and everyone paradise island needs at least one of those.
Do: Private Boat Tour
The private tours can be arranged with your hotel, through Chameleon Worldwide. You will visit Crab Caye, Morgan’s Head and snorkel off the boat among the beautiful coral reef. You decide where you go and how long for. Fancy a stop at Roland’s Root Bar for a Coco Loco? Not a problem. Your friendly skipper will wait for you in the boat.
Eat: Crab Toes
With islands called Crab Caye, it’s hard to move without bumping into some crabs – either in the sea, on your sun-lounger or on your dinner plate. Sea Star Food Gourmet Restaurant cooks up some mighty fine crabs, covering them in a rich garlic sauce. Looking out over the sea as you crack the claws and get deliciously messy only adds to the appeal.
Stay: Hacienda Castilla
Featuring traditional architecture which evokes the flavour of La Colonia, the history of the hacienda is surrounded by 10,000 m2 of parkland with old mango, mandarin, orange, loquat, lychee, sapodilla and guava trees. No need to guess how recently your breakfast juice was squeezed. As you walk right outside your bedroom’s double doors, you are likely to spot toucans, iguanas and tiny squirrels playing in the gardens.
Do: Valle de Cocora
Valle de Cocora, about an hour’s drive away from Pereira, is a protected area in Quindío near the backpacker haven of Salento, known for its surreal, striking landscapes pegged with the slender, towering Colombian national symbol, the wax palm. Chameleon Worldwide will be able to arrange an all day tour for you. Tell them you want Yohany to be your guide, a passionate bird photographer who will help you spot parrots as you look up at the sky-scraping trees.
Do not leave without planting your own wax palm tree baby. You will learn the best Colombian tradition of all – hug from your left, it’s where your heart lives. Also, be sure to stop in Restaurante Donde Juanb for trucha, a specialty fresh water trout caught right in the rivers you’ve just hiked over.
Eat: Mama Flor
A well-known restaurant institution in downtown Pereira, this place sits proudly on top of the city wafting out smells of meat like it’s going out of style. Don’t miss the Parrilladas – an insane platter of grilled meats and offal, brought to your table still sizzling away on a barbecue. If that wasn’t enough flesh for you, the chicken wings are big, juicy and also a must at this gut-busting joint.
Ideally situated within Cartagena’s historic walled city, Alfiz is a comfortable and charming small hotel in a building dating from the 17th century. There are just eight rooms and suites, all decorated in a style relating to a different historic period of Cartagena. A small pool provides a welcome place to cool off after exploring Cartagena’s colonial streets.
Do: Walk the colourful streets
Perhaps the most colourful city in all the land, Cartagena is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean. It’s a place of romance and tradition, kept in utter magnificence within its 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls.
The old town is a Unesco World Heritage site and it’s easy to see why. Walk down the maze of cobbled streets and look up at the bright flowers that cover even brighter buildings. The city is hot – scorching hot – so seek out the shade in one of its massive churches and stop for a popsicle in Le Paletteria.
Eat: La Cevicheria
It gets a lot of press (hey if it’s good enough for Anthony Bourdain, it’s good enough for us), but all for good reason. This is some serious ceviche business. Offering all sorts of different varieties, from Colombian to Peruvian and everything in between. Try the Colombian Ceviche Temptation, made with fresh prawn ceviche in lime and lemon juice with small plantain slices “in temptation”, or cinnamon, sugar and Kola Roman. Spectacular.
Stay: Casa del Farol
Casa del Farol is small high quality boutique hotel in the historic centre of Santa Marta. Each of the spacious rooms is totally different, paying homage to a different city of the world ranging from the classicism of Rome to the New York avant-garde.
Do: Tayrona National Park
Located on the Caribbean coast, about a 45 minute drive from Santa Marta, the park stretches along the coast from the Bahía de Taganga to Río Piedras.
Whatever you do, take the hard way in. Chameleon Worldwide will be able to arrange a guided trek through the jungle for you. Its five hours of intense work, up and down steep inclines, rocky terrains and places where you just won’t know where to step next.
The scenery of this trek makes the pain you’ll feel and the sweat you’ll drop worthwhile. As you manoeuvre mountains and dirt, you’ll spot incredible sandy beaches, vast green rainforests, imposing mountains, coconut palms on the shore and even monkeys playing in the trees above you. It’s a day out not to be missed.
Eat: All the fruit
To be honest, you should be eating fruit throughout your Colombian adventure. There are fruits you’ve never heard of, or that look like nothing you’ve ever seen. All over the country you’ll find different varieties, and the selection can be as mind-boggling as it is overwhelming. Don’t miss Lulo – a cross between passionfruit and lime and a firm Colombian favourite.
Stay: Hotel Diez
This modern, 115 room hotel is well situated in Medellin’s upmarket district of El Poblado. Each floor of the hotel is designed based on a region of Colombia. Massages, sauna and a hot tub are available, as is a rotating sushi bar and restaurant if you’d had your fill of empanadas.
Do: Salsa Dancing
True to its paisa (people of Antioquia) roots, Medellín is a virtual maze of where to eat, drink and dance next and there is simply no better club night than one that involves getting up close and personal with salsa. You can even get Chameleon Worldwide to arrange salsa lessons for you. You’ve got no excuse not to get a full bottle of rum (hey, you’re in Colombia after all) and hit the floor.
Truth be told, you can’t move for picadas in Medellin, or anywhere in Colombia. A giant platter which normally consists of steak, pork, chicharrones, yuka, potatoes, morcilla, plantain and arepas (the Colombian version of cornbread), this is not one for the faint hearted. Wear your elastic pants and head down to the Eco-Bar where you can sit outside on tree stumps while you stuff yourself silly.
Chameleon Worldwide offers an array of Colombia trips to suit any traveller.
Its most popular package is “Highlights of Colombia” which starts from £2,150 per person, including accommodation. Prices are based on two people travelling together and include flights from the UK.
To book, contact Chameleon Worldwide: