Mention Colombia and many people’s first reaction is “unsafe, kidnappings, drug lords, and gangs” — not necessarily in that order. That was true two decades ago. Today, for those in the know, Colombia is best represented by “climate, biodiversity, affordability, historic, and welcoming” — a complete opposite to how many still perceive South America’s most northerly country. In fact, Colombia is one of the best countries to retire according to the Global Retirement Index published by U.S. platform Global Living. Reputations – especially poor ones it seems – take a while to lose. But Colombia is emerging from a negative perception and is not only attracting ex-pat retirees, but also tourists from all over the world.
Here are just some of the reasons tourists are re-discovering Colombia.
1. Murders To Murals: The Transformation Of Medellin’s Comuna 13
Colombia’s second city, Medellin (pronounced Medejin), comes with a reputation. And it’s not a good one. Back in the 1990s, Time magazine dubbed Medellin “the most dangerous city on earth,” yet in 2013, the Urban Land Institute hailed Medellin as “the most innovative city in the world.”
Less than 500 miles from the equator, this mile-high city, surrounded by hills and nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring” for its year-round temperate weather, is a great starting place for exploring this colorful, rich country. The epicenter of gang-related violence in the early 2000s was the poor neighborhood of Comuna 13. It had grown up the sides of very steep hills and as space ran out, migrants made their ramshackle homes from tin and cardboard higher and higher up the slopes. There were no roads, just alleyways, and access was up long series of stairs. Once the gangs and paramilitaries were evicted by government forces in 2002, social conditions began to improve and a cable car was installed to access the top of one of the neighborhoods. In 2011, the first of six innovation award winning outdoor escalators was installed eliminating the need for people to trudge up 350 steps. Locals had never seen an escalator before and had to be shown how to ride one! In an attempt to bring a shred of light and happiness into this downtrodden area, a local artist (known as Perrograff) began painting murals, and today, Comuna 13 is a riot of color with wall after wall filled with bright murals each telling its own unique story. Artists from all over the world now come to add their own brand of creativity.
We gazed at the murals, visited a small art gallery, enjoyed a libation or two (the limoncafé is a must-try), and watched locals hawking their goods to visiting tourists. Before COVID hit, up to 3,000 people a day visited Comuna 13. The change is both remarkable and heartwarming, and Comuna 13 is now firmly on the tourist map.
Pro Tip: It’s wise to book a graffiti tour with a professional, preferably one who lives in the Comuna, as they are able to explain the meanings of the exquisite art. Beware of non-official guides who are locals just looking to make a quick buck.
2. Climb La Piedra For Stunning Views Of The Lost El Peñol
If you still have energy after climbing the steep ways of Comuna 13, head 50 miles east of Medellin to the “new” town of El Peñol. The “old” El Peñol was purposefully flooded in the 1970s to create a dam for hydroelectricity generation. For a once-in-a-lifetime view, you can climb the 704 stairs to the top of La Piedra – a 600-foot-tall granite rock that is literally the biggest tourist attraction around. Since the 70s, the view from the top of La Piedra has changed forever – the tops of former rolling hills now poke out of the water like a thousand islands. Separate external staircases were constructed to allow a one-way flow of visitors up and down the rock. The stairs are numbered every 25 steps (which is a good thing if you don’t pay attention until you’re past the 450 mark). A steady climb with many stops for photographs (and deep breaths) took about 20 minutes. Halfway up, there is a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary – never was a Hail Mary so earnestly prayed!
Pro Tip: Since Guatapé is over 6,000 feet above sea level, pacing yourself is always a good idea. Bring sturdy shoes.
3. Discover Escobar’s Hideaway On The Lake
Little remains of the original town of El Peñol – in fact, there is just one 200-year-old building that was high enough to escape the flooding – but the man-made lake has since attracted the rich and famous (along with the infamous) to build waterfront properties here. A boat trip around part of the lake takes you to one of famed drug lord Pablo Escobar’s former haciendas. It was destroyed in a bombing, but the ruins still hold a ghoulish fascination. Famous Colombian soccer stars have mansions here, and a large cross in the lake stands on a 95-foot concrete plinth at the spot where the original town church once stood.
Pro Tip: Look out on the hillsides where you might see large tarpaulins covering shrubs. Flowers are a key export industry in this part of Colombia, and these tarps are to protect hydrangeas from the occasional hail.
4. Check Out The Zócalos In Guatape
Head down the road into Guatapé, named after the king of the indigenous people who inhabited this area before the Spanish arrived, and you feel as though you have been thrown into a kaleidoscope. Each building is brightly painted in striking colors with the lower parts of their façades adorned with Zócalos – brightly colored 3D tiles each about two square feet and telling its own story. Every house has one (or more), and they are all different depicting scenes from life, the area, religious symbology, or simple motifs. We wandered along the steep, winding, cobbled streets trying to figure out what each unique Zócalo represented. What started as one couple’s idea to decorate their home has turned into a community-wide project and one that draws in thousands of visitors – and photographers – annually. It’s no wonder Guatapé has been called the most colorful place in Colombia.
5. Cartagena – Colombia’s Northern Playground
On Colombia’s northern coast sits Cartagena — the city with everything. The walled “old town” dates back to the 16th century, and its historic cobbled streets, superb architecture, and brightly colored, eclectic neighborhoods resulted in the area being designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984. A stone’s throw away in the “new town,” modern touristy hotels, restaurants, and sandy beaches welcome the flood of national and international visitors who come to relax or explore the coral-rich archipelago just off the coast.
As you might expect, the Old Town is home to many historical gems including a fort, churches, and colonial buildings, but the eclectic neighborhood of Getsemani, with its history and brightly colored houses, is arguably the most interesting.
Cartagena was an important port for the Spanish to bring slaves from Africa to Colombia in the 17th century. Pedro Claver was a Spanish Jesuit priest who tended to thousands of arriving slaves – in fact, he is the patron saint of slaves. Today you can see his remains which lie in a glass coffin behind the altar at the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver. Fascinating, ghoulish, or sacred? You decide.
The west-facing wall of the Old Town is a gathering place at sunset. At the Café Del Mar, you can book a table and enjoy a drink as you (and the hundreds who will be joining you) watch a spectacular sunset dip below the Caribbean sea.
- There are lots of places along the wall to see the sunset, but the place does get crowded, so if you want a good, unobstructed view for that Instagram shot, come early.
- Hire a local guide to point out the many fascinating details that you would otherwise miss; there is a reason a tunnel entrance in the fort is large (but once inside it gets smaller), why there are five different types of door knockers on the colonial buildings, and why there are some “relatively poor” people living in houses worth millions.
6. Chill Out At The Protected Coral Islands
The Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario) are a string of small islands located off the Caribbean coast of Colombia, approximately 60 miles from Cartagena. It was declared a Natural National Park in 1988 to protect one of the most important coral reefs of the Colombian Caribbean coast.
There are numerous tours available from the pier in Cartagena. The journey to the islands is aboard an overgrown speedboat — twin engines propel you and 49 other seafarers across the water at 37 miles per hour, reaching the Islands in about 45 minutes depending on the weather.
We landed at Hotel Isla del Encanto’s very private marina and white sand beach where sun loungers were already lined up waiting. Although only visiting for a few hours, snorkeling and diving were available, or you could choose to just lie back on your lounger with a colorful drink in hand and listen to the gentle lapping of the waves. Our tour ticket also included lunch and was a great way to wind down after a few days of speed sightseeing.
Pro Tip: Avoid sitting at the back of the boat as you will get soaked as the boat skims over the waves.
So don’t let fading reputations get in the way of discovering this vibrant and charming country and enjoying arguably the best coffee in the world with its friendly and welcoming people.
For more of our coverage on Colombia, be sure to check out these articles: