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Juan Valdez, Shakira, cocaine: Erase any preconceptions you might have about Colombia. Here is a nation of vibrant modern cities and sweltering Caribbean beaches, high-altitude hiking and Amazon safaris, whitewashed colonial villages and crashing Pacific waves. Only a few areas of the country remain unsafe for travel, mostly border or certain mountainous regions; any local (or smart Google search) can advise you where to avoid. And the comida? From simple, savory fresh breads and hearty empanadas to rich seafood feasts, you won’t be disappointed. EYW’s coverage begins with some typical Colombian street foods and snacks that you’ll find nationwide.
Colombia’s lively capital city of around eight million, Bogotá has many gems, including a cobblestoned colonial heart (La Candelaria), excellent museums, a few party-filled nightclub districts, and a temperate climate (as one local puts it, “Bogotá gets four seasons in one day”). Located on a high plateau in the Andes, the city has an elevation of about 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) that can cause altitude sickness, so make sure you ease into that aguardiente. There are wonderful opportunities in Bogotá to try typical national foods and drinks, like moist tamales and warming canelazo.
Ahh, Cartagena: a sweltering Caribbean city that lives in the romantic imagination, all palm trees, blossoming flowers, and candy colors, with a colonial Old Town that proudly wears its history on the imposing stone walls that encircle it. Filled with vendors selling everything from coconut water to fake Botero paintings, the streets are lively by day and quiet by night, when everyone packs into bars and salsa clubs for cold cervezas and fast rhythms (except, of course, when the music spills onto the street). Seafood is king of la comida costeña (food of the coast), but don’t overlook the buttery street arepas, sweet coconut rice, and smooth local rum.
Santander is a mountainous department located in north-central Colombia, a great waypoint for travelers that’s roughly in the middle of Bogotá and Cartagena. This area is celebrated for its rich gastronomy, particularly in the Barichara area.
Barichara is a tiny, perfect colonial town of whitewashed houses, red roofs, wooden balconies, and sun-baked cobbled streets—so picturesque, in fact, that it was declared “prettiest village” and a national monument in the 1970s by the Colombian government.
San Gil, 30 minutes southeast of Barichara, is popular with backpackers seeking an adrenaline rush; its steep riverside location makes for ideal rafting, paragliding, waterfall-rappelling, caving, mountain biking, and more (it’s also home to the gorgeous, moss-hung sanctuary Parque El Gallineral).
Bucaramanga, the department’s capital, is a large, fast-growing city known for its prevalence of pretty parks; there’s great paragliding (parapente) plus an airport if you wish to skip the 8- to-10-hour bus ride to Cartagena or Bogotá.
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