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Colombia: beyond the Narcos

Interest in Colombia has surged since the release of Netflix’s critically acclaimed drama Narcos. Charting the rise and fall of notorious cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, Narcos has provided an insight into Colombia’s not so distant history during the turbulent years that Escobar was at large.

Although the drug raids, gun fights and man hunts depicted in the series may not inspire you to jump on the next flight to Bogota, the good news is that Colombia’s national security has rapidly improved, giving rise to a burgeoning tourist industry. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Colombian government have made large strides toward a safe and prosperous Colombia.

Urban Colombia

Cali and Medellin are now some of Colombia’s most tourist-friendly destinations. Picturesquely surrounded by the Andes, Bogota is a worthy capital city. Although the barrios on the city outskirts are still best avoided, the central areas surrounding Bogota’s colonial heart are beautiful and generally safe to explore. Cali and Medellin are also attracting increasing numbers of tourists.

Medellin’s celebrated cable car carries passengers high over the city centre and the mountainside favelas, giving a bird’s eye view over the city once famous for its cartel, and now the final resting place of Pablo Escobar. In Cali, salsa is the biggest draw; don’t leave the city until you’ve taken advantage of one its Latin dance schools, where salsa lessons are of little cost and open to all.

Las Lajas Sanctuary

No trip to Colombia would be complete without visiting the beautifully hidden treasure that is the Las Lajas Sanctuary. Located in the Southwest region of Nariño and less than seven miles from the Ecuadorian border, the Las Lajas Sanctuary is renowned for its stunning neo-gothic architecture.

Erected and solely financed by local churchgoers between 1916 and 1953, the Las Lajas Sanctuary is connected by a 130 feet tall bridge and sits in canyon where the Guaitara river flows. Whilst it may seem unusual to build a church in a canyon, the Las Lajas Sanctuary was built in an area rich in a series of mythological stories from as early as 1754. One of the stories say that in 1754 while two women were looking for refuge during a powerful storm, Maria Mueces and her deaf-mute daughter Rosa felt a strong force guiding them towards a cave. At this point, they were able to see the image of Our Virgin Mary on one of the walls with Rosa then shouting to her mother, pointing towards the image. It is believed that the apparition of the Virgin Mary cured Rosa of her deafness.

Cartagena

Once awarded the prestigious Travelers Choice award by Trip Advisor in 2015 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, Cartagena is a fairy-tale city of romance, legends and superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls.

Founded in 1533, Cartagena is divided into three neighbourhood zones: San Pedro, with the cathedral and many Andalusian-style palaces; San Diego, where merchants and the middle class lived; and Gethsemani, the 'popular quarter'. Cartagena's old town provides the perfect backdrop to take a leisurely stroll – day or night – through the maze of cobbled alleys, medieval palaces, monasteries, plazas and overhanging balconies. If you want an excursion away from the city, head south to Bocagrande – also known as Cartagena's Miami Beach. Along this long strip of luxury hotels and beach fronted apartments expect to find boutique retailers, upmarket coffee shops and a host of glossy restaurants to absorb the atmosphere that Bocagrande has to offer.

San Andrés

Just 800km northwest of Colombia you can find the seahorse-shaped Colombian island of San Andrés. Historically tied to England, and politically part of Colombia, San Andrés has fast become a hotspot for tourists to visit. San Andrés is part of an archipelago that includes reefs, atolls and sandbanks within an area of twenty square miles - what San Andrés Island lacks in size, it makes up for with its beautiful and pristine appearance.

The island's biggest attractions can be found under the sea. Cantil de Villa Erica is the perfect spot to dive with turtles, manata rays and eagle rays, whilst Palacio de la Cherna offers an exciting wall dive that drops from 12m to over 300m, with reef and nurse sharks, lobster and king crab among its denizens.

Food and Drink

Colombian food is very diverse with each region of the country having its own characteristic dishes. The national dish is the bandeja paisa – an enormous platter of ground beef, chorizo, beans (frijoles), rice, fried banana (plátano), a fried egg, avocado and fried pork – usually found at inexpensive market stalls (fondas). In the city of Cali, the most traditional dish is sancocho de gallina - a soup composed mostly of chicken, plantain, corn, coriander, yuca root, and other seasonings – Colombian food is anything but light.

No trip to Colombia would be complete without trying the national drink, Aguardiente. Simply translated by the locals as ‘firewater’, Aguardiente is derived from sugarcane and flavoured with aniseed. Aguardiente is derived from sugarcane and flavoured with aniseed. Like all alcoholic drinks, it should be enjoyed in moderation especially as its alcohol content hovers around 29%. With a wide selection of perennial classics including Águila, Pilsen and Costeña you’ll be spolit for choice with the wide offering of national beers.

Safety and Security

The political situation in Colombia can change rapidly so check the DFA website for the latest travel advice. Certain areas within Colombia are not recommended for tourists, so plan your trip carefully to ensure you stay safe.

Always ensure you book tours and transfers in advance with reputable tour agencies.

Always take out fully comprehensive travel insurance before you travel and make sure it covers all of the activities you plan to take part in during your trip.

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