It got a poor press, to say the least, from its drug wars, so now the South American country is doing its utmost to present a new image. From stunning landscapes to a hidden ancient culture, ROSITA BOLANDfound plenty to admire
COLOMBIA, WHERE Gabriel García Márquez created magic realism, is a surreally beautiful country. It has emerald mines, cloud forests, volcanoes, warm people, fabulous music, salsa and a landscape that ranges from the Caribbean coast of the north to the mountains of the south, with lush coffee plantations in between.
Colombia now seems like the Australia of South America, as so many backpackers are on the road here. Large numbers of them are Irish. Given its poor press during its drug-war years, the country is extremely keen to promote itself as a tourist destination, so the slogan on billboards everywhere is: “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.”
Is Colombia dangerous? It certainly has an edge. It still produces more than half of the world’s cocaine, and its political system is volatile. The drug is difficult to miss – not least because other backpackers constantly tell you that it costs just $2.50, or €1.75, a gram.
Soldiers and private bodyguards are in evidence everywhere. Gated communities are commonplace, as are civilians carrying guns, and houses that aren’t gated are done out like Fort Knox. As in any other country, you need to be streetwise, but in three weeks of backpacking by myself – and I travelled around a lot – I never had a moment’s trouble.
I mostly stayed out of the cities, although I vaguely regretted staying only one night in Medellín. The city was infamous as the base of Pablo Escobar, the late billionaire drug lord, who operated his cartel from here. I was tempted to stay and go on a wonderfully tasteless Escobar tour, on which you can see the house where he grew up, the place where he was shot dead and his utterly unremarkable suburban grave.
Instead I went to the nearby colonial mountain town of Santa Fe de Antioquia, which was deliriously pretty and hot, all wood and high ceilings and tumbling flowers. From here it was on to Salento, in the coffee-growing zone; a lovely place, surrounded by plantations, which you can do tours of, and beautiful old houses with verandas.
Near Salento is Cocora, a lush mountain valley where wax palms – the world’s tallest palm trees – grow. There are plenty of great hikes, and if you’re not looking at a waterfall you’re looking at the hummingbirds that are so common here.
The white-painted southern colonial city of Popayán was almost levelled by an earthquake in 1983; it has since been carefully restored. From here I went east, to the cloud forest of Tierradentro. This is where you leave the paved roads behind – the bus broke down five times in six hours – and where jungle covers everything.
The village of Tierradentro is famous for a series of painted tombs, discovered in the 1940s and thought to be about 1,800 years old.
Men here go to work in the fields on horseback, wearing ponchos and carrying machetes – and mobile phones. No other country in South America is so wired up as Colombia. Most people seem to have at least two phones, one permanently clamped to an ear, even in the remotest parts of the country.
I spent a day walking to four of the five sites around Tierradentro. All were up steepish trails, and all were guarded by men who wait all day for people who almost never come. I examined the register I had to sign when buying my ticket at the museum, and an average of six people a week visit this extraordinary site. I saw nobody all day.
At each site a guard unlocked a gate to the tombs. I descended steep steps, often in darkness – bring your head torch – and the experience is rather like going down a series of mines, or wells.
These tombs were amazing places full of atmosphere, with interiors painted red, blue, white and black in patterns of chevrons and diamonds, some with carved heads that look like the Boa Island man.
Most of the tombs haven’t yet been opened, or even excavated. At one of the four sites I visited only one tomb out of 90 is open to the public.
The greatest archaeological site in Colombia is near the remote village of San Agustín – its statues give the moaiof Easter Island a run for their money.
San Agustín is effectively a staggeringly impressive open-air archaeological park. It is almost impossible to describe how beautiful, strange and potent the place is. Hundreds of huge, mysterious statues stand around the village, for a radius of about 15km. Nothing is known about the people who carved them, but archaeologists estimate they date from 3,300 BC; they were discovered only 80 years ago.
The biggest concentration of statues is about four kilometres out of the village, at a spot where a park and museum have been created around five main sites where statues cluster. Walking trails link the five sites, each of which is weirder than the next.
Tombs were found at all these locations, and each is covered with huge carved-stone slabs. Since they were discovered the slabs have been erected, so that they are now vertical.
All have one striking thing in common. Whether the statues and carvings are of people, animals or imaginary creatures, they all look utterly ferocious. Every mouth has bared teeth, two of them filed like daggers, every expression looks almost malevolent; all is latent and strange and haunting, especially in such a bucolically lovely setting as this.
This unforgettable place was my stand-out highlight of Colombia, and to my shame I’d never heard of it before arriving in the country. It’s not easy to get to, and the unpaved road is often blocked by landslides, but it is so worth the journey.
My charming hotel, El Jardín, where I was the only guest, was an old colonial building with wooden floors, green shutters and pink geraniums outside my window, with a resident ever-awake parrot in the courtyard that screeched “ Buenos” at me every time I came and went.
The parrot at least was alive: nailed to the wall outside my door were the remains of 12 birds, reptiles and other creatures, among them an anaconda skin, a turtle shell, a caiman skin, a buffalo’s head and a puma skin.
I also walked to two other isolated sites – you can rent horses if you don’t want to walk – on the other side of the village. One of these was La Chaquira, a huge boulder with figures carved on three sides.
It was halfway down the most beautiful gorge I have seen, a place where a chain of four waterfalls throw themselves downwards, where a river carves its way through the floor of the valley, where the sun is burningly hot and the air alive with secrets.
“Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.” It was true for the dozens of backpackers I met who had overstayed their two-month visas and had no intention of leaving any time soon.
Where to stay, eat and go
Iberia (iberia.com/ie) flies to Bogotá and Cartagena from Dublin via Madrid. Air Avianca (aviancaeuropa.com) also flies from Spain. Delta (delta.com), Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com) and Continental (continental. com/ie) fly via the United States.
Where to stay
Sofitel Cartagena Santa Clara. Calle del Torno 39-29, Cartagena, 00-57-5-6504700, hotelsantaclara.com. Upmarket hotel in the port’s historic walled centre. Excellent food. Rooms start at $180 (€125). Finca Hotel El Bosque del Samán. Alcalá Vereda
La Caña, 00-57-6-3365589, fincahotelelbosque.com. Simple, lovely colonial plantation house with zip-wire rides through the jungle. Doubles from $66 (€45).
HostelTrail Popayán. Carrera 11 4-16, Popayán, 00-57-2-8317871, hosteltrail popayan.com. Pristine hostel whose helpful owners can give you oodles of information. Doubles €11.
El Jardín Casa Colonial. Carrera 11 4-10, San Agustín, 00-57-8-8373455, hosteltrail.com/eljardin. 10 simple rooms near the archaeological site. Doubles €7.
Where to eat
Colombia’s fabulous roadside juice stands are constantly busy, whizzing mangoes, lulos, blackberries, oranges, pineapples and more into delicious juices for no more than 50c for a large glass.
Guinea pig, or cuy, is a popular traditional dish.
Casa Vieja. Avenida Jimenez 3-57, Bogota, 00-57-91- 3348908. Famous for its ajiaco(potato soup), fritanga(mixed meat), and mazamorra chiquita(tripe, rib and pea soup).
Where to go
Forget Peru’s Inca Trail. Trek to the ruined Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) instead, in Tayrona National Park. Discovered in 1975, the 1,300-year-old city, which covers 400 hectares, is on a tough five-day, 20km trek – don’t be fooled by the seemingly short distance – through humid jungle, chest-high rivers and
voracious mosquitoes. Even though the military guards the route, you must trek with a guided group. One recommended organiser is Turcol (turcol.i8.com); its groups leave from Santa Marta and Taganga. Book locally.
You can take a bus from Ecuador or Venezuela when the border is open; always find out the latest political situation locally before travelling.
Don’t even think about crossing the Darién Gap from Panama. One of the world’s most dangerous borders, it is a notorious drug route.
Private yachts sail between Panama and Cartagena, often stopping at islands en route. Advertised locally.
Don’t go alone.