If one place in all of Colombia symbolizes how far the country has come since its founding, it is The Vaults in the gorgeous Caribbean city of Cartagena. These age-old archways once housed armaments and, later, prisoners. Today, they brim with color and vibrant energy, a thriving artisans’ center overflowing with creativity, life and handicrafts lovingly made by locals so that their culture can endure.
Wandering the colorful shops and stalls of the The Vaults, it’s easy to see how a long and sometimes tumultuous history has given way to life everlasting, how past civil unrest has blossomed into creative freedom. Such is life in all of Colombia. We’ll come back to Cartagena in a moment; it is, after all, the perfect place to begin and end any discussion about this remarkable, phoenix-like country. But first, join us in this edition of Connections as we delve more deeply into this South American success story.
Bogota: Athens of South America
“Mi casa es su casa.” It’s a greeting you’re likely to hear wherever you go in Colombia with Gate 1 Travel. Indeed, surrounded by warm and welcoming people, you’ll quickly feel at home here. The truth is, it’s a place that surpasses all travelers’ expectations – full of eye-opening surprises and lush, emerald green valleys and mountains. These days, locals and visitors alike are fond of saying that there is only one risk in traveling to Colombia, and that’s the risk of wanting to stay.
The bustling capital city of Bogota provides a great introduction to Colombian traditions and culture. Often called “The Athens of South America,” it boasts many universities and libraries and more than 60 museums and galleries. Its heady mix of old and modern make it one of the most dynamic and engaging cities in the world.
The historic La Candelaria colonial district is a great place to peer into its rich past. Spanish Colonial, baroque and Art Deco architecture span the centuries here. Home to half a dozen universities, it is also the proud host of the Botero Museum, dedicated to the work of Fernando Botero, who made a name for himself by creating humorous political critiques. The Gold Museum is also here, a collection of more than 36,000 pre-Columbian pieces, one of the largest of its kind. One of its highlights is the diminutive Muisca Raft, believed to have ties to the legendary lost city of El Dorado.
To mingle with Bogotanos, take a walk around the Bolivar Square, or step into a game of Tejo, the national pastime that you’re likely to witness throughout the city. The game originated with the ancient Chibcha people and involves throwing a metal disc across a 60-foot-long playing space at a target that’s been marked on a board.
Zona Cafetera: Land of Coffee and Incredible Beauty
Colombia is a country of breathtaking beauty, and few places prove this like the Cocora Valley. Soaring mountains, sweeping valleys and vast swathes of coffee plants dominate the landscape of Los Nevados National Park here, supporting a rich array of bird life from tiny hummingbirds to yellow-eared parrots. But one feature in the valley stands tall above all others: the towering wax palm trees. These are the tallest palms in the world, reaching up to 200 feet.
The town of Salento is nearby and visiting here is like stepping back in time. There was a time when the main route to Bogota passed right through here. But when the road was diverted elsewhere, development stopped, leaving Salento to make a name for itself around its untouched architecture and its relaxed way of life. It beautiful buildings and colorful balconies invite you to linger a little while.
Once you arrive in Manizales, you’ll want to linger a long while … over its perfectly roasted coffee. Here, in the heart of Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, you’ll learn that there’s more to java than what you drip into your pot. Our tour of a coffee plantation reveals the subtle aromas and flavors that go into the perfect cup. It may be no surprise that Manizales produces so many coffee beans; this is a dramatically fertile place, a verdant patchwork of green parks, mountain views and flowing rivers. During your visit, you can visit the massive Cathedral of Manizales and admire its elaborate gold canopy and huge stained-glass windows.
Medellin: City of Eternal Spring
Earlier, we mentioned Cartagena’s Vaults as a symbol of Colombia’s turnaround from its darker days. But nestled in the Aburra Valley, surrounded by steep-sloped mountains, the city of Medellin is the true success story. It has not only rid itself of undesirable factions; it has re-imagined itself into an innovative city that serves all its citizens amidst a landscape of green parks, public art and contemporary architecture. Its most distinct feature is the public transit system, part below ground and part above. Look upward, and you’ll see gondolas – locally known as the “metrocable” – floating in the mountain air, conveying commuters between their mountainside homes and the city below. Without them, it would take hours for many people to get to work on zig-zagging byways and congested, exhaust-filled streets. This lofty transportation system has been heralded by the United Nations as an example of smart adaptation to growing populations. You can experience the metrocable for yourself when you ascend into the hills to visit two of its small colonial towns: Santo Domingo, home to an ultra-modern library complex, and St. Elena, where the city’s rich Silleteros tradition endures in its still-thriving flower production.
It is a fascinating city that’s worth a closer look, made all the more pleasant by its temperate climate that has earned it the nickname “The City of Eternal Spring.” Its main plaza, the Parque de Bolivar, is anchored by the Metropolitan Cathedral, a vision of Romanesque wonder. Botero Plaza celebrates the city’s native son, adorned with the artist’s huge metal sculptures. And in the upscale Poblado district, known locally as Las Manzanas de Oro, or the Golden Apples, you can explore tiny shops and green parks.
Cartagena: Colonial Caribbean Treasure
Cartagena is quite distinct from the rest of Colombia, with its scenic setting on the Caribbean Sea. It is arguably one of the continent’s cultural treasures, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site for its intact historic walled city and maze of cobbled alleys. Tropical and colorful and full of life, it is rich with incredible architecture. Its sprawling fortifications that once protected it from marauding pirates are the most extensive in South America. The city’s colonial district is graced by colorful balconied buildings, the Santo Domingo Church (with its unusually wide central nave and stunning baroque altar) and the Plaza de Bolivar, a haven of large shade trees. The city’s Gold Museum boasts a significant collection from the pre-Hispanic period.
Then there are The Vaults, known locally as Las Bovedas. The history of these arcaded dungeons dates back 200 years, when Spaniards built them as storage units for munitions and supplies, only to have them converted to prisons. At high tide, prisoners had sea water up to their knees. They embody a fascinating story of Colombia, reflecting a country that was founded by conquest, bolstered by coffee, tarnished by conflict, only to rise up as one of the world’s most intriguing destinations, rich with a welcoming and vibrant culture, magnificent architecture and spectacular beauty.
Our Tour Managers Know Colombia Because They ARE Colombian
There’s nothing like a local to show you around. When you join Gate 1 Travel in Colombia, you’re in the good hands of some of the most welcoming and knowledgeable Tour Managers in the world. Simply spend an hour with any of our experts onsite and you’ll quickly see that the only thing they love more than their country is introducing Gate 1 travelers to it. They know their cities and towns inside out, and will lead you to the most fascinating corners where Colombian culture comes to life.
And of course, you’ll enjoy the signature Gate 1 value as you settle in to comfortable, centrally located accommodations, savor delicious Colombian cuisine and participate in a generous array of included activities.
Join Gate 1 Travel in Colombia and experience its colorful culture, genuine hospitality and rich history firsthand!