After all, he was at one time associated with the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and credited with the apocryphal saying ‘Following the light of the sun, we left the old world’. So it might come as something of a surprise to learn that the intrepid explorer never set foot there, which is a pity because he would have found a wealth of discoveries, all contained in a country which – some 500 years later – is now making its debut as a tourist destination.
Colombia has had a chequered history, from colonisation by the Spanish in the 16th century to its struggle for independence in the 19th. But it didn’t stop there. Tensions erupted during the 20th century onwards, resulting in conflict fuelled by illegal activities. From 2002 onwards the Colombian government began to enjoy some success in tackling these issues and the country is now emerging as a destination for tourists.
So what are some of the highlights that are attracting visitors to this fascinating country? Perhaps one should start in the capital city of Bogota, with its mountain sanctuary of Monserrate, rising up to the east providing breathtaking views of the city. The city itself is a mixture of colonial and modern, the main square – Plaza Boliva – named after the general Simon Bolivar who was instrumental in the struggle for independence. One of Botoga’s most famous attractions must be the Gold Museum with its extraordinary collection of some 13,000 pre-Hispanic gold artefacts. These glittering treasures are on view along with thousands of other exhibits from these cultures. In addition to being beautiful, they offer a glimpse of Colombia’s past civilisations and the treasure that fuelled the lust of the Spanish invaders and their search for the mythical gold city of El Dorado. Sadly, the rest is history.
Culture often goes hand in hand with tradition and one of South America’s great traditions must be coffee. Colombia is one of its biggest producers and travellers to the city of Armenia in the west will find themselves in the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Coffee plantations, mountainous backdrops, the towering Quindio wax palms and coffee haciendas populate the area, along with towns such as charming Salento, noted for its craft stalls and its views of the Cocora Valley and cloud forests.
Colombia is a diverse land. Its countryside ranges from mountains to coastal plains, rainforests to desert, while its towns and cities range from controversial Medellin to colonial Cartegena. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Cartegena was founded in 1533 and looks out over the sparkling Caribbean sea. Its famous fortifications and city walls (around 11 kilometres long!) were built from the 16th to the 18th centuries when it was an important port for Europeans competing to control the ‘new world’. The city is divided into a series of districts, with plazas, palaces, narrow streets and colourful houses to be found within its historic district. If your taste tends towards smaller towns, Colombia has plenty of these too. Villa de Leyva is a National Monument, colonial charm almost oozing from its cobbled streets and whitewashed buildings. It’s also where you’ll find the Plaza Mayor – an extraordinary town square, bounded by colonial buildings overlooking its paved expanse with a distant backdrop of hills. At around 120 square metres (larger than many football pitches) this sublime space is only interrupted by a solitary fountain, and constitutes the ‘heart’ of the town. Another National Monument town is Barichara to the north, which lies in the region of Santander. Santander was originally occupied by the indigenous Guane people, who had disappeared by the late 16th century. Their legacy lives on in the name of Barichara, which in Guane means ‘place of relaxation’. Rich in colonial architecture and atmosphere, it is perhaps aptly named.
Of course, Colombia is a BIG country – the fourth largest in South America – and like all big countries, it has a wealth of ‘sights’ and ‘sites’. Of these the salt cathedral must be one of the most unique. Take a trip to Zipaquira to the north of Bogota and descend 180 metres below ground into what was a salt mine, where you’ll find a unique three-nave underground cathedral. Then there’s the breathtaking Chicamocha Canyon, especially impressive when viewed from a cable car, the Amazon region, the Caribbean coast … the list goes on.
So if you want to go one step further than Christopher Columbus, perhaps Colombia is a destination to put on your list.