A compelling concoction of varied landscapes, nightlife and cities that is perhaps South America’s best kept secret, writes Shane Murphy
Cocaine, Pablo Escobar, Shakira, Fauntino Asprilla, and coffee are just some of the images mentioned when Colombia comes to mind. It is a country that has never failed to grab headlines, mainly for the wrong reasons. Long periods of civil strife, punctuated by terrorist atrocities, have at many times paralysed the country, keeping it off-limits for travellers. However, less commented-upon in the world press has been Colombia’s economic resurgence over the last decade. There is no time like the present to explore this enigmatic nation before it becomes part of the ‘Gringo Trail’.
San Agustin, an archaeological treasure trove set amidst the shimmering emerald foothills of the Andes, is one of Colombia’s – if not South America’s – most alluring attractions. The area, home to one of the more colourful civilizations that populated the continent before Spanish colonisation in 1499, has an estimated 500 burial statues depicting people set admist spectacular mountainous scenery. Think Easter Island in the Andes.
Getting to San Agustin is a rather difficult undertaking unfortunately. It takes seven hours by bus to reach the town from the nearest city, Popoyan, which is only a distance of 110km away. This is due in no small part to the condition of the ‘road’ – or, more specifically, the lack of one. The important archaeological sites are housed in three main parks: the Parque Arqueologico, Alto de Los Idolos and Alto de Las Piedras. The latter two are best reached on horseback through spectacular gorges punctuated by coffee and the odd cocoa plant. The trails are steep and in many places quite dangerous, especially if it rains, but the rewards are magnificent.
At nighttime, San Agustin can be quite tame and dull, with little options for nightlife owing to its size. Most travellers visit primarily to see the sights and relax in the enchanted surroundings. A few of the more intrepid come to sample the local varieties of mushroom before embarking on visits to see the statues, something which is not entirely recommended.
Due to the mild climate, with temperatures rarely dropping below 25˚C, much of the nightlife ends up on the streets, with impromptu salsa being the predominant form of traffic after dark.
In Colombia they often say that climate defines character. If that is true it’s fair to say that Cartagena, the so called jewel of the Carribean, is sweltering. Cartagena is radically different from many areas in Colombia; its climate, culture, and people offer yet another distinctive flavour to the Colombian cocktail. This tropical city, centre of the Afro-Columbian community, is a heady mix of cultural influences that pervade all forms of life. The city is an architectural gem of grace and style.
Inside the towering bluffs that surround the city lies a fascinating medievality of colonial mansions, horse drawn carriages, towering spires and great restuarants. This beguiling mix however is much more expensive than many other areas in Colombia, with pesos being stretched to the limits. Most backpackers will not actually stay in the old walled city because of the cost, but rather in the historic and gritty neighbourhood of Getsemani just outside the walled city. At night, Cartagena can be a bit prosaic during the week (especially in the old town), but at weekends the city comes alive to the infectous rhythms of reggaeton and vallenato where young and old dance until dawn.
With its dizzying array of landscapes from the the Caribbean to the Amazon, great cities with thriving nightlife, and people with a zeal for life, Colombia is a country that will beguile visitors with so much more to offer other than outdated sterotypes and bland generalisations.