Glass checks out a resurgent Colombia

COLOMBIA is a big country but perilous discord in the past hindered the development of a tourist infrastructure across the land. Travellers still tend to stick to a familiar itinerary, spending some time in Bogotá before heading north to the Caribbean coast, but nowadays there is scope to safely include more of the country and stay in some lovely accommodation.

The walled city of Cartagena remains Colombia’s most popular destination and it’s not hard to see why: cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, superb restaurants and luxury places to stay like the ochre-coloured Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa. It was built as a Carmelite convent but by the 1970s had become the city’s police station before being converted into a glamorous hotel where you can happily imprison yourself on a voluntary basis. The interior makes stunning use of marble flooring and a huge atrium offers instant relief from the 300C heat outside, as does the rooftop pool. From the hotel, it is a five-minute walk to enjoy haute cuisine at Don Juan under giant woven lightshades and twirling fans.

Looking out at Cartagena from the rooftop pool at Hotel Charleston, Santa Teresa.
Courtesy of: Hotel Charleston

The ultimate Colombian getaway is a Isla Pelicano, called a private island but best visualized as a large rock in the Caribbean. A one-hour boat ride from Cartagena, privacy is broken only by pelicans flying overhead when you’re sunbathing or frolicking in the jacuzzi on the roof of  your  three-bedroomed villa. The only sounds you hear are the gentle lapping of waves and a member of staff checking on your food preferences. Robinson Crusoe never had it so good.

The splendid atrium at Hotel Charleston, Santa Teresa. Courtesy of: Hotel Charleston

From Cartagena it takes little over an hour to fly south to Medellin where, with the temperature averaging around 220C, its epithet – the city of eternal spring – is well earned. Walking is not an exhausting activity and, combined with the integrated public transport system, there is plenty to see and do. The La Sierra Barrio tour is recommended for the story of Medellin’s transformation from a place ruled by narco gangsters to one of Colombia’s most progressive and colourful cities.

It’s easy to spend time getting to know Medellin and an attractive alternative to familiar brand-name hotels is a luxury rental at Apartahotel Loma Verde. The décor in the apartments is ultra-modern and everything in the rooms, from kitchen appliances to the mattresses, is brand new. The location is a quiet neighbourhood but there are restaurants within walking distance and Uber is always just a click away on your phone.

Classy living at Aparthotel Loma Verde. Courtesy of: Aparthotel Loma Verde

Cali is another city that was below the traveller’s radar for many years and, also like Medellin, sits tightly in a valley, this one bordered by the mountains of the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordilleria Central. Cali is the undisputed capital of salsa and it is not just the annual festival devoted the dance and music that makes it so. Come sunset, clubs devoted to salsa open their doors: some are strictly for expert dances but you’re welcome to watch; others offer lessons or welcome newcomers who want to try out some steps for themselves.

Another good reason for coming to Cali is Colombia Birdwatch, the country’s foremost birding company, and their just opened lodge provides a great opportunity to spend a day or two in the countryside with humming birds outside your window.  Bespoke tours allow you to set your own pace and agenda and a city tour can be built into your program. Be sure, too, to include a visit to El Paraiso de los Colibries (Hummingbirds’ Paradise), close to the lodge, where you’re guaranteed to see some dazzlingly polychromatic birdlife. For birdwatching, the two-volume set of Birds of Northern South America (Helm Field Guides) tells you all you need to know.

Colombia Birdwatch’s new lodge. Courtesy of: Colombia Birdwatch

Bogotá can prove disorientating at first – I was there three days before getting a sense of its layout and how to navigate it – but there is a lot worth seeking out and guided walking tours will help establish your bearings. GetYourGuide has a range of tours and transfers for the capital and Colombian Buddy is a lively company with a mission to make Colombia a fun place. Compact La Candaleria, filled with street art, craft shops and attractive coffee shops like Casa Galleria at the end of cobbled Funnel St (Callejón del Embudo), is one neighbourhood where you don’t need a guide. It is home to Museo Botero, full of paintings by Colombia’s most famous artist and what was his private collection of modern art before he donated it to the city.

A painting typical of Fernando Botero’s style. Photographer: Sean Sheehan

Some hotels in the city centre are upping the ante for a curated stay in the capital and one of them is B.O.G. Hotel. The 55 rooms and interior design is by Nini Andrade, one of the world’s most prestigious designers and such is the splendour of the hotel’s breakfast spread that I suspect she may have had a hand in that too. It’s a sight to behold, overflowing with tropical fruits which you will never recognise if South America is a new experience for you. A rooftop bar and spa add to its attractions.

The trendy W Hotel is in the eastern part of Bogotá, which makes it a long way from La Candaleria but close to the flamboyant nightlife of Zona Rosa. The hotel flaunts extravagance, witness the mini waterfall in the lobby and the golden tiles in the bathroom, but purely by way of style and it’s an easy place to relax into. One of the food outlets is a pub serving local craft beers and fish and chips. If French cuisine is more your liking, step into La Provence Andrei for moules provencales, escargots à la bourguignonne, chateaubriand and prices listed in euro. For tranquil but informal fine-dining and classic cocktails, Castanyoles is hard to beat.

“Looking at you” in Bogota’s Gold Museum. Photographer: Sean Sheehan

Apart from on Sundays, traffic is a nightmare in the capital – there is no metro – and taking time out for an excursion becomes essential. Riding Colombia are the experts in horseback trips and they also handle a day trek in Chicaque Park that starts at 2,700m and drops to 500m. To make the most of Colombia as a whole, a guidebook is necessary and the Rough Guide is full of ideas for a visit to a country that is reinventing itself as a holiday destination.


by Sean Sheehan