For so long Colombia spent time in the news for all the wrong reasons. In fact when I first moved to the U.K and people asked where I was from, "Colombia", was usually quickly followed by, "oh gosh, poor you, must have been so dangerous with the mafia and the drugs". I soon developed a canned response highlighting all the other exports it was famous for; flowers, coffee (its Eje Cafetera, or central coffee growing region, is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site) and emeralds to name but a few! I'm genuinely over the moon to say that in the last decade there has been an incredible turnaround in the country, both economically and socially and perhaps equally importantly, how it is perceived internationally. Its daring tourism campaign, "The only risk is wanting to stay", was a huge success and piqued an interest with people. As its political climate improves, so has its economy and it's fast becoming a very real player on the world stage. These days when asked where I'm from, it's more common for people's reaction to be, "wow, I'd love to go there / it was my favourite place when travelling / my little brother is heading there on his gap year." So when I came across an article yesterday stating that Colombia has been named "Lonely Planet's 2nd best place to visit in 2017", I was delighted but definitely not surprised.
I feel incredibly lucky that I got to experience my early years in South America. Firstly in Ecuador, on a large farm in Maglaralto, then in Colombia, in the colonial city of Cartagena. About 6 years ago mum and dad moved back to Colombia full time and my love affair with the place continues; the biodiversity (it's the second most biodiverse country in the world), the people... I may be biased but I CANNOT say enough about the people; they are so welcoming and as full of vibrancy as their surroundings. Then of course there are the festivals, the music, art and the climate; they are all infectious.
There is a particular place in Colombia that has a very special place in my heart and that is Barichara. It was there, in the main square in the midst of ear-popping (mainly home made!!) fire works, live music and perhaps one too many aguardientes that my now husband proposed to me, on one knee on New Year's eve 2006.
Walking along the paths of red and yellow earth leading up to it, as you catch a glimpse of the palm trees and cathedral dome, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd somehow ended up in the movie set for Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone! But this is no movie set, it's much much better; a town that has been here since the time of the Spanish conquistadors.
It is very rare these days to be able to arrive in a place and to feel, even if only for a few minutes, that you could be the first non local to set foot there, that you could quite possibly be the first to discover it!
Well, that's the beauty of Barichara. The streets, cathedrals and churches are made from stone, while many of the houses are constructed from compressed mud painted white. It is so loved by Colombia that it has gained National Heritage Status.
Many artists have moved to Barichara as a result of its unique atmosphere and tranquility. Craft workshops and galleries are now part of the town's draw. There are so many wonderful places to stay for visitors to this little town. Houses with beautiful internal courtyards that embody and promote all Barichara is famous for; art, history and a sort of serenity. La Nube Posada is one of these places. The house was once owned by a rich landowner who kept horses in the internal courtyard, which is now surrounded by guest rooms. Its current owners have created a wonderful retreat where less is more.
If you are ever lucky enough to visit Barichara and the surrounding areas you cannot miss the Cascadas san Curi; an incredible cluster of 200 meter high waterfalls.
You follow a series of wooden ladders and ropes, which would almost certainly not pass health and safety here in the U.K (but life's too short to worry about all that) to reach the pool of the waterfall where you can swim. These waterfalls really have to be seen to be believed, such an incredible piece of natural beauty and climbing them an utterly thrilling experience.
Colombia also boasts the second largest canyon in the world, “The Chicamocha Canyon”. There is a fantastic National Park there, with a cable car, water park and plenty of activities for young and old… But for me, the true gem of the canyon is Jordan, (which could again, easily be mistaken for a film set for an old country and western or an Indiana Jones movie); an old town nestled in the canyon itself. You can get a bus from Bucaramanga to Los Santos and take the 900m descent to the river and the canyon by foot. It takes a good two hours, but it’s a breathtaking view and an exhilarating experience. In fact it’s now quite common to see tourists and locals alike making the descent on a mountain bike, with many organized rides!
Of course it's not all rustic remote villages and jungle... there are also incredible cities. Take for example Colombia's capital, Bogota, or Medellin, its second largest city, both buzzing with cosmopolitan restaurants, nightlife, boutiques, galleries, museums (and traffic to match!). Then there's Colombias "green city", Bucaramanga, renowned for its world class education and health care and, of course, green spaces. There is a buzz in Colombia right now, its almost tangible. A whole new wave of young entrepreneurs are excited about the future, and when you're there, sipping a cold beer and eating an empanada, it's impossible not to feel excited too. So, if you have the travel bug and you're feeling adventurous, take Lonely Planet's advice and go visit Colombia... you won't regret it.