It’s unfortunate that the mention of Colombia makes people think of kidnappings and drugs, because the country has a lot to offer the tourist. My tour started in Bogota and included touring the Gold Museum, the Palace of Justice, the Cathedral, Bolivar’s Square and Bolivar’s country house.

We took a cable car to the top of Monserrate for a panoramic view and visit to the 17th century church and monument to the “Fallen Christ.” Bogota, a city of more than 7 million people, has a temperate climate and is situated at 8,630 feet above sea level. Colombia is an equatorial country with no real seasons and has coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean.

The Pan-American Highway led us to Zipaquira to tour the underground Salt Cathedral, where salt is still mined. We then flew to Cartagena, a colonial city on the Caribbean. The Old Town walls and fort are magnificent for touring and it’s safe to walk around, but use common sense about valuables.

Stroll through the maze of cobbled alleys of tropical colored buildings with bougainvilla-shrouded balconies. Relax at an outdoor cafe or take a horse-drawn carriage ride. Tour Castillo de San Felipe, La Popa Hill and visit the stretch of high-rise hotels, condos, casinos, restaurants, bars and shops in the Bocagrande district and the quieter residential Castillo Grande.

On the beach local women give massages for as little as $12, but vendors abound trying to sell you everything so be prepared to say “no gracias.”

Our tour included a visit to the beautiful Rosario Islands for lunch and time to snorkel. A Chiva Bus is a must-do activity: Meet new people, party, drink, laugh, sing and enjoy non-stop “papayera” live music on these colorful 48-passenger buses that start rolling at 8 p.m. and pick up at various hotels.

Another unique option is to visit the Volcan del Totumo about 30 miles away. Take a taxi early in the morning to avoid the tourist rush and you’ll arrive at what looks like a dirt hill about 55 feet high. Wear a swimsuit under your clothes and don’t bring valuables.

You climb the wooden stairs to the top and then lower yourself into the crater of mud that looks like gray cement. Men gently massage you as you bob around getting completed coated with the thick stuff that exfoliates your skin. Then you climb back out and walk down to a lagoon where women clean your suit (which you have to remove). This is such a hilarious adventure; you shouldn’t miss out!

Colombia’s handicrafts are marvelous, along with coffee, gold and emerald purchases. I found the foods delicious, the people intelligent and friendly, and the culture interesting. Colombians dislike arguing and are laid back regarding race issues. They have the mannerism of pointing to things and people with their mouth, because pointing with a finger can be considered rude.

Always say “please” and “thank you” — the people tend to be very polite and formal. All in all it’s a fascinating country.

By Claudine Dervaes , Gainesville.com