• Three different cities, clearly representing the range of contrasts that makes Colombia so fascinating.

Bogota, the capital city. Pereira, in the heart of the coffee-growing region. And Cartagena, the coastal walled city. Three different cities, clearly representing the range of contrasts that makes Colombia so fascinating.

Colombia, at the northwestern corner of South America, borders both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Its population of just over 45 million speaks primarily Spanish, but there are also approximately 65 indigenous languages. It has the second-highest economic growth rate in South America, trailing only Brazil, but about 45% of the population lives below the poverty line. Yet the nation’s literacy rate is over 90%, and life expectancy is 75. And while it is known for its excellent coffee, that crop represents only 10% of the gross domestic product, and production places it only fifth in the world.

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Bogota, with nearly 8 million residents, is a typically large, sprawling main city but with two distinguishing features: It is built on a huge plateau some 8,500 feet above sea level, making it the third-highest metropolitan city in the world, and it’s right up against one of the even higher peaks of the Andes.

It’s a city that is undergoing modernization with new hotels and other buildings, offers an expanding restaurant and nightlife scene and is shedding its seedy and dangerous reputation (although there are bomb-sniffing dogs in the heavily patrolled hotel and office building areas).

Plaza de Bolivar is the city’s central location, surrounded by the Palacio de Justicia (Justice Palace), Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) and Museo de la Independencia (Independence Museum). Naturally, the plaza is adorned with a big statue of the country’s liberator and hero, Simon Bolivar. Not far from the plaza is the core of la Candelaria, the bustling tourist area. Two must-visits are the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) and the amazing Museo Botero, dedicated to the works of Fernando Botero but just one part of the free museum complex sponsored by the Banco de la Republica. On Saturday nights, the scene is in the Zona Rosa neighborhood, full of cafes and bars and, seemingly, all of Bogota’s young people. On other nights, it’s a great restaurant area.

colombia-ZipaquiraBBQHigh up on the hill overlooking the city is Monserrate, a huge church that attracts pilgrims from all over the country (it’s a mob scene on Sundays). An almost mandatory side trip from Bogota is the nearby colonial town of Zipaquira with the one-of-a-kind Catedral de Sal. Built into a huge, active salt mine, this is an underground 25-acre cathedral carved almost 100% out of salt. There are salt-carved rooms showing the 14 Stations of the Cross, and the main cathedral, 394 feet long and 72 feet tall, can hold several thousand worshippers. There’s even a large room with a sound-and-light show.

Starting from Pereira, whose main square features a famous “naked” Bolivar-on-horseback statue, it’s a beautiful winding-road ride through the country’s coffee-growing region, with terrific views of rolling hills full of coffee plants. Tours of the region can be organized by Living Trips.

At the Hacienda Combia, visitors get an expansive demonstration of how coffee is properly brewed and an educational/spiritual tour of the coffee-plant area that is worth the time, including the chance to make a wicker harvest basket and ceramic mug.

The nearby town of Salento is quite charming with colorful homes that have avoided modernization. At the Cafe Jesus Martin, there’s an outstanding talk about the different kinds of coffee beans (including an explanation as to why the best coffee is shipped out of Colombia to other countries, while hotels and restaurants inside the country get a lesser grade of coffee to serve both locals and tourists; exporting brings higher profits). The cafe’s expert also demonstrates how to make designs in the frothed milk on the top of a cup of cappuccino.

A church in Cartagena
A church in Cartagena

While in the region, a tour by jeep or horseback to the Cocora Valley features Colombia’s national tree, the Quindio wax palm, the tallest palm tree in the world, a very skinny tree that grows to more than 200 feet straight up and can live for over 100 years. There’s even a chance to plant one of these palm trees, hosted by the area’s resident “Juan Valdez,” portraying the fictional character who has represented Colombia’s coffee growers in advertisements worldwide.

Cartagena, along the Caribbean Sea, is certainly the country’s most well-known tourist city, largely because of the cruise industry. The main feature is the old town, a warren of narrow, colorful streets and small plazas (including the ubiquitous Bolivar statue) built within massive fortress walls that front the water. It’s a great walking area but does get crowded when ships are in port; in late afternoon and in the evenings, the true charm of the city comes through.