Colombia: Out of the shadows

A beach in Tayrona National Park, Colombia. Photo / Thinkstock
A beach in Tayrona National Park, Colombia. Photo / Thinkstock

Being British, beaches didn't give me much to shout about in my formative years.

Blackpool had its fish and chips and funfairs, but its coast was a regular on the European roll of dishonour for the kind of nasties you won't want to read about over Sunday brunch. Cornwall had its moments, but the weather was unpredictable and the Atlantic Ocean bracing at best. New Zealand was a revelation. You could drive in any direction towards the coast and find fine strips of near pristine sand lapped by brilliant blue water.

So I took Colombia's boasting of being home to "the most beautiful beach in the world" with more than a pinch of saltwater.

The beach in question is El Cabo San Juan, in Tayrona National Park, on the country's Caribbean coast. You can't reach it by car, and my scepticism was bolstered by a substantial dose of grumpiness as I battled high humidity on the jungle trails that led there. To say the effort was worth it is like saying Paul Henry can be a bit controversial.

It's as if a committee of international experts have combined to create a beach for a Disney waterpark. Two rounded half-moon bays split by a narrow sandspit ending in a rocky promontory; clear, hot ocean punctured by perfectly rounded boulders on one side and fishing boats on the other; shady palms leading to dense jungle running up to cool mountains.

Not to mention fresh fish for dinner and rich red sunsets.

If you suggested holidaying in Colombia a few years ago, you'd be deemed to have taken too much of the drug that made it infamous. Murderous cocaine cartels ensured tourism was almost non-existent, and the war between FARC guerrillas and the government didn't help. Fast forward to 2010 and Colombia's not perfect, but it's safe if you avoid certain areas and show common sense.

Nowhere is the transformation more marked than in the capital Bogota. Once one of the world's murder capitals, the city now boasts a booming economy, huge swathes of affluent suburbs and a public-transport system that leaves anything in New Zealand for dead.

Plaza de Bolivar, named after the revolutionary who led South America's successful fight against the Spanish, is the heart of downtown. It's surrounded by fine stone government buildings and a 19th-century cathedral. Nearby is La Candelaria, a rabbit warren of streets containing the colourful old town.

Other key sites are the Cerro de Monserrate, a mountain offering a bird's-eye view of the city, and the lookout on the top floor of the 48-storey Colpatria office building, if you want a similar perspective with less effort.

Tourists are advised to keep their valuables hidden and watch for pickpockets, particularly on the excellent bus network, but I've felt in more danger avoiding drunken yobs on Queen St during the early hours of weekend mornings.

There were no such problems in the Zona Rosa, a compact grid of restaurants and night-spots in the moneyed northern suburbs.

Packed and pumped on the Colombian equivalent of Valentine's Day, it was pricey but trouble-free, a world-class party central and the perfect place to salsa until dawn.

Bogota is slap-bang in the middle of Colombia.

Although the threat posed by the cartels has diminished, tourists should avoid areas around the borders with Ecuador and Venezuela, where the government-guerilla war is rumbling on.

Most other places are safe, although some visitors may prefer internal flights to buses - overnight services are very occasionally targeted by bandits. My wife and I had only eight nights in Colombia as part of a three-month tour of South America, so flights were the only option.

From Bogota's modern international airport, we flew 90 minutes north to the city of Santa Marta. It's the city where Bolivar died and the gateway to the Tayrona National Park 30 minutes north.

You can stay at three beaches. El Cabo tends to be the choice of backpackers and younger travellers. It costs about $35 to enter the park. From the entrance you catch a minibus to the end of the road.

It then takes about two hours to walk to El Cabo, half in the jungle, half on the beach. Accommodation is in tents, hammocks, or (if you're lucky) one of two cabanas on the rocky outcrop.

Arrecifes, 30 minutes nearer the entrance, offers the same kinds of accommodation, although the cabanas are more plentiful and of a better standard.

If you don't fancy the jungle, you can reach the park in an overpriced boat from Taganga, a beautiful fishing village on the outskirts of Santa Marta.

Take a good book. Basic restaurants aside, there's nothing to do in the park except kick back at (possibly) the most beautiful beach in the world.

After the bustle of Bogota and tranquillity of Tayrona, Cartagena, a four-hour bus journey west of Santa Marta, offered another face of Colombia.

About the size of Auckland, most visitors eschew the skyscraper-fronted modern city and fast-developing seaside resort for the old, walled town.

Cartagenta de Indias was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and became the northern gateway to South America.

The fortifications, built to keep out pirates, are largely intact and the area retains the beauty that earned it a reputation as one of South America's most romantic cities. It's best in the evening when a sea breeze dispels some of the day's heat and the bars and restaurants on the streets and plazas come alive.

The best way to see the sights of Cartagena is just to wander.

Colombia is a hot destination among backpackers and there's every chance it could become so for more traditional travellers.

The Caribbean coast has high temperatures year-round. Most of the country has dry seasons January to March and June to August. It's vibrant, friendly and cheaper than New Zealand, although that could change as the tourist industry develops.

You should take precautions and ideally learn some Spanish, but it's a great choice if you want something different from your holiday. And did I mention the beach?

FACT FILE

There's much more to Colombia than Bogota and the Caribbean coast:

* The Zona Cafetera is an area of coffee plantations and volcanoes in the Colombian Andes.

* Leticia in the far south-east, near the borders with Brazil and Peru, is a gateway to the Amazon Basin.

* The area between Bogota and Bucaramanga offers mountains, valleys and adventure tourism. And back on the Caribbean coast, you can trek to Ciudad Perdida - ancient ruins lost in the jungle.

Getting there: Flight Centre offers a 12-day Colombia tour through Bogota, Cartagena, the Caribbean beaches, mud volcanoes, Tolu, Santa Marta and Tayrona National Park.

IF YOU GO

Currency: About 1350 Colombian pesos to $1.

Time zone: 18 hours behind New Zealand.

Language: Spanish.

Getting there: About 12 hours to the west coast of North or South America and two connecting flights to Bogota.

Chris Reed travelled with assistance from Flight Centre.

- Herald on Sunday

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