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Why your next vacation should be in Colombia

Clock Tower gate sits between Plaza de Independencia and Plaza de los Coches in Cartagena; the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Clock Tower gate sits between Plaza de Independencia and Plaza de los Coches in Cartagena; the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. (iStock/Getty Images)
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This story has been updated.

Where: Colombia

When to go: June-September and December-February, for consecutive days of sunshine.

Why to go: Colombia is the only South American country with coastlines on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It also has the world’s highest number of bird species, clocking in at nearly 2,000.

Logistics: El Dorado International Airport in Bogota is the main airport and offers the most frequent service from the United States. International passengers can also fly into Medellin, Cartagena, Pereira and Cali but will likely have to connect in Bogota. For domestic travel, you can fly, drive or catch a bus, but there are no trains. Road conditions are adequate in the major cities, but prepare for white-knuckle traffic. Avoid roads in rural areas.

Money: The currency is the Colombian peso. The bigger cities accept credit cards, but you will need cash in smaller towns. ATMs are pervasive in the more populated areas, but be careful of rigged machines and loitering scammers.

Paperwork: No tourist visa is required for stays of 90 days or less.

Language: You should learn some basic Spanish phrases to get around (see Reading List, below), but you will typically find English speakers in more tourist areas, such as Cartagena and Bogota.

Health: The U.S. Embassy in Colombia recommends travelers between the ages of 1 and 60 receive a yellow fever vaccine at least 10 days before traveling to high-risk spots; some airlines and national parks may request proof of vaccination. The tap water in the major cities is technically potable but visitors might find the taste and overchlorination off-putting and should drink filtered or bottled water. The water in the Andean region is cleaner. In more rural environments, use a water filtration system or buy bottled water. The country is experiencing a dengue outbreak, so coat yourself in bug repellent spray and sleep under mosquito netting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccinations for hepatitis A and typhoid, in case you are exposed to contaminated food or water.

Prevailing myth: As soon as you leave the airport, you will be kidnapped, mugged or murdered, or will bump into a cocaine dealer. The reality: Security has significantly improved since the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace accord in 2016. Nearly 3.8 million people visited in 2018, a 1.6 million increase from 2012.

Itinerary for first-timers: Start with the cities: Bogota, known as the Athens of South America, and Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the Caribbean coast. And, of course, when in Colombia, you must drink coffee. Sip it straight from the source in the Coffee Triangle, the coffee production region in Pereira, Manizales and Armenia.

Itinerary for repeat visitors: For monkeys, pink dolphins and petroglyphs, head to Guaviare, an emerging tourist destination between the plains and the Amazon. Experience a Colombian safari with giant anteaters and crocodiles, plus cowboy culture, in Casanare.

Eat this: Bandeja paisa, a traditional lunch of rice, beans, fried egg, avocado, pig belly, beef and chorizo; the Pacific and Andean cuisines in Popayan, UNESCO’s first Creative City of Gastronomy; and West African-influenced dishes of the Palenque people in San Basilio de Palenque, the first free-slave town in the Americas.

Reading list: “My Cocaine Museum,” by Michael Taussig; “Colombia a Comedy of Errors,” by Victoria Kellaway and Sergio J. Lievano; “The Robber of Memories,” by Michael Jacobs; and “Colombian Spanish: Phrases, Expressions and Tips to Help You Speak Like a Local,” by Peter Low.

Playlist: “Sunshine” (Alejo García & Elkin Robinson, from Providencia), “Mi medio queso de luna” (Cholo Valderrama, from the Llanos), “Malvada” (Canalón De Timbiquí, from the Pacific) and Dame la Mano Juancho (La Jagua, from the Pacific; Caribbean fusion).

Cultural sensitivities: Use the correct vowel: It’s Colombia, not Columbia. Don’t crack jokes about Pablo Escobar or drugs. The country wants to move past its dark history from the 1980s and ’90s.

Souvenirs: Coffee; sombrero vueltiao, the palm hats that are a national symbol; and Wayuu bags, or mochilas, which are woven by women from the Wayuu tribe.

Fun quote: “It’s ludicrous this place exists and everybody doesn’t want to live here,” uttered by the late Anthony Bourdain while strolling through the streets of Cartagena in 2008.

The caption in an earlier version of this story misidentified the area pictured as Plaza Dan Pedro Claver. In fact, the photo depicts the Clock Tower gate, which sits between Plaza de Independencia and Plaza de los Coches.The story has been updated.

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