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Wild Charm and Historic Cities: Discover Colombia from the Mountains to the Coast

Colombia has been notorious for its drug cartels and civil war for a long time. However, since the peace agreement, the country has opened up to tourism again. The magnificent colonial buildings, the green mountains and the picturesque port city of Cartagena have even convinced Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

March 19, 2024

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Dawn is breaking. Our car, a shiny Suzuki Vitara with a friendly driver and an almost perfect German-speaking guide, lies battered and dirty in the ditch. We are on the road in the northernmost part of the Andes, in an area that is considered to be the main place where Colombia's famous emeralds are found. It's a classic kidnapping situation - the guerrillas are about to emerge from the bush. But fortunately, the days when up to 35,000 kidnappings were recorded in Colombia every year are over.


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The civil war is history. We march a few kilometers to the nearest village, Samacá, where the men meet in front of a small pub for an evening beer. Soon, helpful villagers have pulled our car out of the mud.

The six zones of prosperity

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In Colombia, one of the richest countries in South America, many things are different than you might think. When you arrive at Bogotá airport, you feel like you've landed in Europe - except that the immigration controls are a lot more rigorous here. The airport, the streets, the buildings, everything is tip-top, no third world feeling at all. And high above the city, on the Cerro de Monserrate, a white basilica from the 17th century sits peacefully at an altitude of 3300 meters - Bogotá itself is already at 2600 meters. The pilgrimage site on the mountain is the city's landmark and can be visited by funicular. So everything's fine?

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Of course, appearances are a little deceptive. As everywhere in South America, the gap between rich and poor is enormous. Bogotá, the metropolis of a country three times the size of Germany, has eight million inhabitants. There are even 13 million in the greater metropolitan area. The Colombian capital is officially divided into six zones from rich to poor, and even the price of electricity is based on this.

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It's a good thing that our hotel is in Rosales, a sought-after district, where you can stroll to the nearest gourmet restaurant in the evening. Our accommodation, Casa Medina is a beautiful so-called colonial hotel where many stars stay, for example Miley Cyrus. Casa Medina, which is now managed by Four Seasons, was built in the 1940s by a Colombian architect who had previously lived in Paris for two decades. At that time, Casa Medina was located outside the city and Bogotá only had 600,000 inhabitants; today there are ten times as many.

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The old town of Bogotá, known as Candelaria, is a treasure in itself, and it also holds one: the largest gold museum in the world, the Museo del Oro. For just 5,000 Colombian pesos (one euro!), you can travel back to the time before the Spanish colonization of South America. The collection comprises 35,000 objects of pre-Hispanic goldsmith art and is rightly visited by more than half a million tourists every year. Incidentally, all the labels can also be read in English.

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You should also not miss the Mercado de Paloquemao, the large flower and food market in the north of Bogotá. Colombia is the second largest flower exporter in the world and sells two billion dollars worth of carnations, roses, chrysanthemums and other cut flowers every year.

Most beautiful colonial city


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You can find Colombia's most popular tourist destination by the sea: the famous fortress and colonial city of Cartagena. The Spanish used to ship silver and gold from here, which is why the city, surrounded by a mighty wall, was also a popular target for pirates. Today, it's not pirates who storm the magnificent old town, but tourists, especially from Florida - there are direct flights from Miami to Cartagena. In the old town you'll find horse-drawn carriages, classy stores, many first-class restaurants and excellent pastry shops. Another big surprise: Colombian pastries can compete with ours, whether it's cream cake, carrot cake or Torta María Louísa. The latter is the Colombian Sacher cake, so to speak, and consists of fluffy sponge soaked in orange juice and orange marmalade or caramel cream.

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Cartagena is considered one of the most beautiful cities in South America and the old town is probably the safest and best guarded place in all of Colombia (apart from the presidential palace). Maybe that's why Amazon founder and multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos likes to come here. He spends the night in the Casa de la Renta, a luxurious palace in the old town that can be rented for 5,000 US dollars per night.

Where you'll meet Zorro

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But Cartagena is just one of many highlights in Colombia. You shouldn't miss a visit to the so-called coffee triangle: There are many coffee tours around the picturesque town of Salento and in the Cocora Valley, dotted with palm trees and coffee plantations: After all, Colombia is one of the three largest coffee exporters in the world. The Zipaquirá salt mine with its cathedral of salt, 48 kilometers from Bogotá, is also well worth a visit. So far, 13 million visitors have gone 180 meters deep to experience the fantastic art in the world's largest rock salt mine. Villa de Leyva is also an unforgettable place: About three and a half hours' drive from Bogotá, the municipality is like a big time machine - very little has changed here in 400 years. The completely intact Spanish colonial architecture is reminiscent of old Zorro films. We are certain: Zorro is at home here, in Villa de Leyva. And he's just around the corner ...

Read more: Are these the best hotels and restaurants in Colombia?

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