Colombian vendor women © Luz Adriana Villa
Colombia is rapidly changing its negative image as a hotbed of criminals, kidnappers, drug lords and gangsters, and travellers are returning to this rewarding country that crowns the continent of South America. While both the US State Department and British Foreign and Commonwealth Office still advise against travel to parts of Colombia, the country is statistically safer than most countries in the region. Those intrepid and curious travellers who do venture here are rewarded with the most diverse destination in South America: an exhilarating fusion of shabby, colourful towns, Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Andean valleys, Amazonian jungles, and wide plains.
Most visitors flock to the capital, Bogota, the legendary resort town of Cartagena, or the duty-free offshore island province of San Andres. In recent years Cali and Medellin are also popular stopovers. But wherever one chooses to explore, a fascinating, exciting and trouble-free experience is likely to be had.
The fortunes of modern Colombia had their foundations laid in the coffee plantations, but the onset of political violence and civil war in the 1950s effectively cauterised the industry. The exception to this can be found in the hilly Quindio province, where many former farmers have turned their traditional red-tile roofed homesteads into good quality bed and breakfast establishments, set among exotic gardens and rows of leafy coffee bushes.
Urban Colombia centres on Bogota, home to about 20 percent of the country's inhabitants. This ancient city was the pre-Colombian capital of the Chibcha Indians and remains a blend of old and new, teeming with Spanish colonial buildings and plazas alongside modern skyscrapers. Beggars rub shoulders in the streets with smartly dressed business people, while mule trains wind their way through the traffic jams.
A major drawcard for tourists is the Spanish colonial port of Cartagena with its spectacular walled old town, a medieval wonderland of palaces, monasteries, plazas and overhanging balconies. To the south of the town are Colombia's major seaside holiday resorts with excellent beaches and scuba diving opportunities.
The country's equatorial rainforests clothe the river valleys, riddled with magnificent airplants, vines, creepers and brilliant flowers and birds. The Los Katios National Park in Choco contains hundreds of species of plant and animal life that have yet to be listed. The country's jungles also shelter wondrous archaeological treasures, like the ancient city of La Cuida Perdida and the monuments, tombs and burial mounds at San Augustin and Tierrodentro.
Colombia is a gem of a destination slowly starting to shed its unpalatable reputation to reveal its unique beauty.