Colombia’s addictive charm

Formerly known for its drug cartels, the country has gained some serious Latin class.


By Daralyn Danns, December 30, 2008
Follow The JC on Twitter
Cerro de Monserrate, the Bogotá hilltop offering superb views of the spectacular city

Cerro de Monserrate, the Bogotá hilltop offering superb views of the spectacular city

Colombia has to be South America’s best-kept secret. To me it instantly conjured up coffee and emeralds; for my friends, kidnappings and cocaine spring to mind. The country used to have a reputation for violence and drugs, but when Álvaro Uribe became president in 2002, he cracked down on the drug traffickers and armed gangs. 

Now Colombia is mainly safe for tourists, although it is best to avoid areas around the borders with Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru.

Bogotá, the capital, is a vibrant, modern city where high-rises and universities fuse with colonial houses and shanty towns. The Bogotanos are extremely welcoming and even going through immigration was easy because the staff were so helpful.

Perched in the Eastern Andes, Bogotá is around 8,700ft above sea level and basks in year-round spring-like weather, with warm days and chilly nights. 

Once you acclimatise to the altitude, you will find that the city’s grid system of carreras and calles makes getting around easy.

There is a great café culture here. The smell of coffee wafts through the streets and you will find plenty of places to people-watch and get your caffeine fix. Juan Valdez is the best local coffee chain, where often in the mornings you will find Bogotanos not only drinking their espressos, but dunking cheese-bread in their hot chocolate.  

I began my sightseeing tour wandering round the La Candelaria. This old part of Bogotá has narrow streets crammed with wonderful colonial buildings, museums, market traders and restaurants as well as the Hotel Centro Plaza, which has a kosher kitchen.

Of the city’s museums, take a look at the new Gold Museum — or Museo del Oro — in Banco de la República which was due to reopen in November – and the Museo Botero in Calle 11, named after the Colombian artist Fernando Botero and housing some of his renowned works of voluptuous figures.

Bogotá’s eye-catching Santurio Nuestra Senora del Carmen church

Bogotá’s eye-catching Santurio Nuestra Senora del Carmen church

After I had done the culture bit, I took a cable car ride up Cerro de Monserrate. There is a church on the top of the hill, but the main attraction is the spectacular views of the city. The Santa Clara restaurant is the perfect place to stop for lunch, offering both permitted fish and vegetarian dishes on the menu.

Shopping is great in Bogotá as there are plenty of names you won’t see at home. The Centro Andino, El Retiro and Atlantis Plaza are good malls and not to be missed is a stroll down so-called Fashion Street — Zona T — which is a showcase for the top Colombian designers.

The food in Colombia is delicious, fresh and full of flavour. There is good fish and a wide selection of fruit and vegetables and plenty of excellent restaurants in the city serving dishes that the kosher-observant diner will find acceptable. Parque de la 93, Zona Rosa and Usaquén are all hot areas for dining.  

Harry Sasson, I was told by a local friend, is Jewish and Colombia’s most famous chef. He owns some of the city’s coolest restaurants though, sadly, none of them is kosher. We had an enjoyable meal at Harry’s Bar which was handy for my hotel, the luxurious Charleston Casa Medina. Located in the financial centre, the hotel offers a perfect combo of old world charm and all mod cons.

If you have time, go see the Salt Cathedral, carved out of a salt mine, at Zipaquirá, just north of the city.

For a complete change of pace, I headed to Cartagena de Indias, a hot and steamy city on Colombia’s Caribbean, which beats to the rhythms of salsa, cumbia and vallenato.

Cartagena is surrounded by stone walls, built to protect the city from plundering invaders, including Sir Francis Drake, who wanted to get their hands on the city’s treasures. Inside the walls is a well-preserved, colourful old town, now a Unesco world heritage site, with beautiful colonial buildings, bougainvillea-filled balconies and pretty squares.

My base in Cartagena was the Sofitel Santa Clara where an eclectic bunch of past guests includes the King and Queen of Spain, Mel Gibson and Bill Gates. Originally built in the 17th century and a former convent, it is known as a holiday magnet for the Panama Jewish community.

With superb seafood restaurants (most also serve permitted fish), such as the Club de Pesca overlooking the sea, it is easy to see why Cartagena is so appealing. 

If you prefer the beach to the pool, Bocagrande, Cartagena’s answer to Miami, is only a short cab ride from the hotel. The beaches are not as beautiful as the ones you usually find in the Caribbean, but Cartagena’s culture and pulsating nightlife offer so much more than the average Caribbean island. 

An hour’s boat ride from Cartagena are the Rosario Islands, an archipelago of pretty coral islands. Sailing out of the bay through the open sea, the colour of the water changes from dark blue to an eye-ravishing shade of turquoise.

My base was the San Pedro de Malagua Hotel and my guide told me people stay there to escape the world and it is easy to see why. Rooms in this tranquil spot have no TV or phone and guests are encouraged to switch off mobiles and BlackBerrys.

Besides walking along the beach, trying some watersports or going to the spa, there is little else to do — just eat, chill out in a hammock, watch the sun set and gaze at the stars. If you want to take a trip, you can take the short boat ride to the open-water aquarium to see the dolphins and shark perform.

Back in Cartagena, the late afternoon, when the sea breeze cools the air, is the best time to explore. A ride in a horse-driven carriage around the old town is the perfect way to see it. Though it may sound cheesy, it is rather nostalgic and romantic which is what Cartagena is all about.  

Afterwards, explore the cobbled streets where Afro-Colombian women carry fruit balanced on their heads, a reminder of the cultures that have left their mark on this city.

The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas — considered the finest fortress built by the Spaniards in the colonies — is a must-see as is the city’s own Gold Museum on Plaza de Bolivar. And for unmatchable views of old and new Cartagena, take a cab up to the mountain-top monastery of Convento de la Popa. 

Travel facts

Last Frontiers (www.lastfrontiers.com; 01296 653000) offers tailor-made holidays throughout Latin America. A seven-night trip to Colombia, spending three nights in Bogotá at the Charleston Casa Medina and four nights in Cartagena at Sofitel Santa Clara on a bed and breakfast basis, costs from £2,365 per person (based on two sharing). This includes international flights (Iberia via Madrid) and internal flights, private transfers and private city tours of Bogotá and Cartagena. For more information about Colombia visit www.visitcolombia.com

Jewish Colombia

Jews arrived in Colombia in the 16th century from Spain, fleeing the Inquisition. Many were Conversos, who concealed their identity.
The next wave of Jewish immigrants came from Jamaica and Curacao in the 18th century, followed by a huge influx from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century
There are 5,000 Jews in Colombia, half of whom live in Bogotá.
Cali, Barranquilla, and Medellín also have Jewish communities.
There are four synagogues in Bogotá, as well as a Chabad House (0057 5 360 2279)
Hotel Centro Plaza, Carrera 4 No 13-12B, La Candelaria (0057 124 33818)

    Last updated: 2:58pm, December 30 2008