Colombia has made all the headlines recently, but, yet again, for all the wrong reasons. And before this bout of bad press, what else do we associate with Colombia, aside from romantic but tourist-laden Cartegena? Perhaps you might say security concerns -- at least that's what you find when you search for Colombia on TripAdvisor where there's a "travel advisory" banner scrawled atop the page based on State Department warnings.
On my last trip to Colombia, my neighbors couldn't wait for me to return, worrying the whole time that I'd bump into drug lords or terrorists or become a victim of a kidnapping. Instead I spent my time drinking fine wines, enjoying cappuccinos at scenic cafes, sampling creative Colombian cuisine, stopping in edgy art galleries and lounging beside heated swimming pools. There are countless reasons to visit Colombia. Here are 20 just to get you started on discovering this sometimes misunderstood country.
1. The often mist coated peak of Montserrat, an almost 11,000-foot mountain topped with a prominent church, is one of Bogota's signature sights. It's a long slog to the top for those few who decide to tackle it on foot. But the civilized way is via the cable car, a mere five-minute journey from the base in downtown. But an even more civilized experience is to make a reservation at the peak's elegant restaurant, Casa San Isidro, a whitewashed chalet serving fine French cuisine. Their lobster preparations are so well crafted that the restaurant holds a Lobster Festival every fall. On the cable car up, you'll be handed a glass of brandy and creme de cacao as a warm up beverage -- you are at altitude, after all -- and then a hot alcoholic welcome drink (canelazo that's a combination of aguardiente, cinnamon water, lemon, cloves and sugar) that's sure to put you in the mood for dinner.
2. In Bogota's La Candelaria neighborhood, interior designer Martin Ramirez created El Botanico as a restaurant with a botanical garden theme. Potted plants and terreria pepper the interior that's light filled. The designer retained many of the original features of this colonial house, including the wooden stairwell that curls up to the second floor where you can sip a glass of white wine and nibble a thin crust pizza topped with rare tuna and anchovies, or another with salmon, arugula and capers.
3. In the bohemian Macarena neighborhood in downtown Bogota, Rafael and his wife Marcela opened Lachoco Latera, an upscale chocolate shop and cafe brimming with artisanal chocolates that she crafts. Here, customers sit with open laptops beside well-stocked bookshelves, dipping cheese into hot chocolate, a Bogota tradition; sampling truffles filled with sea salt, coriander, passion fruit or black pepper; and drinking hot cocoas flavored with mint, coriander or ginger.
4. Bogota's Botanical Garden is so extensive that it can take an entire afternoon to wander through the myriad sections that are categorized by ecosystem, plant type and use. Probably the most noteworthy are the plants of the Paramo, the often referred to as "sponge-like eco system" that contributes to the watershed of the mountains and rivers by collecting water and then releasing it into the environment. After spotting thick lichens that absorb 40 times their weight in water and then release it, you'll wander myriad trails through a cloud forest where an isolated stone bench sits under a canopy of towering foliage. Nearby, palm groves display the world's tallest, the towering wax palm that grows up to 260 feet high.
5. It's all about sausage at the appropriately named La Xarcuteria in Bogota's lively Zona Rosa. The owner, who hails from San Francisco, created a simple menu -- and an equally simple interior with communal tables -- of house-made chorizo, bratwurst, Thai beef, andouille and other sausages. These are perfectly complemented by homemade toppings, such as sauerkraut, mustard and hot sauces. http://www.laxarcuteria.com.co/
6. Bogota's Usaquen neighborhood retains much of its small town charm from the days when it was a village beyond the boundaries of Bogota. Houses from the 19th and early 20th century have been converted to cafes, bars, restaurants and art galleries. Independent shops dot the cluster of streets in this neighborhood that's also an enclave for gastronomy. Oliveta is a gourmet pizza restaurant while Mediterranea de Andrei is a whitewashed eatery with an old world European feel. Noted for their Kobe beef, 7-16 is home to an impressive wine selection -- the sommelier stocks more than 150 bottles from Chile, Argentina and Europe.
7. Visit on a Sunday, and you'll find that Bogota closes miles of streets to motorized traffic, referred to as La Ciclovia. Walkers, cyclists and bladers flock to this network of avenues -- you can bike a 25-mile loop -- that attract a welter of food and beverage venders serving everything from arepas to exotic fruit smoothies. A series of streets leads cyclists all the way from the Presidential Palace in downtown to Usaquen. Bogota Bike Tours rent bikes and provide guided tours of different Bogota neighborhoods, including those laden with green spaces and others scrawled with street art.
8. Towering high above the village of Buena Vista, San Alberto (a coffee farm and terrace cafe) may be a perfect venue to savor and learn about coffee. During the 2+ hour tour, visitors climb the steep slopes covered with rows of coffee bushes to observe the different stages of the process, from the nursery where the seedlings are nestled in bamboo planters to the fields where workers hand pick the berries. In the cupping room, you may have the opportunity to watch the official taster who can reject an entire load of coffee beans if even one out of 13 cups that she tastes doesn't make the grade. You'll have the opportunity to experience being a cupper yourself as you sniff, swirl and spit coffee, learning how to judge the aromas, fragrances and flavors of the beans and the brewed cup. After all this work, the glassed-in terrace cafe awaits, perched with views of the pastoral Quindio Valley.
9. The 16th century town of Villa de Leyva a three-hour road trip from Bogota, is a bastion of another era. Colonial-style buildings are transformed into authentic eateries, creative galleries and atmospheric accommodations cluster around flora-filled courtyards. One of these houses, La Guaca, is outfitted with a rooftop terrace restaurant, Antique that specializes in Nuevo-Colombia cuisine, such as their signature dish: beef with tamarind sauce. This open-air perch provides views over the town's red tile rooftops, making it a prime venue for New Year's Eve fireworks.
10. Facing one of the prettiest squares in Villa de Leyva, La Posada de San Antonio is a charming inn housed in a 19th century building. Chock full of collectibles -- from antique tables to a suit of armor -- this accommodation is, however, not stuck in the past. Cubist paintings, and contemporary ceramic and metal sculptures decorate the public spaces, including the central, open-air courtyard where olive trees grow and dried local peppers hang. Adjacent to this light-filled space, their restaurant serves up meals with locally sourced ingredients, such as trout from a nearby mountain stream.
11. A surprising finding in Villa de Leyva is the Paris Croissant Pasteleria that's easily overlooked, considering it's set on the very edge of town. But the aroma of fresh baked goods, and the mini Eiffel tower topped with a baguette beside the door, will draw you in. The French owner gets to the shop at 2 am to bake some 100 different French and Colombian pastries. Relax over a cup of robust espresso, gaze at the walls covered in black and white photos from Paris, and, after awhile, you might think you crossed the ocean.
12. For a closer look at the fossil legacy left behind from the millennia when Villa de Leyva and surrounding environs were covered by seawater, Museo El Fosil presents an array of artifacts. A 23-foot-long crocodile-like marine fossil is displayed within a sand-laden box on the floor. And glass cabinets overflow with specimens of petrified brains, vertebrae of Ichthyosaurs, piranha-like fish heads, invertebrates related to the octopus, and the spiral shells of ammonites, ancestors of the nautilus.
13. Fans of gardens will be captivated by the Botanic Garden of Quindio in Colombia's Coffee Triangle. After all, it's the only such garden in the country that's home to an original natural forest. With so much native flora, no wonder a guide is required for anyone strolling through this expansive, tiered garden that can take more than two hours to experience. Should you hear screams emanating from the Butterfly Garden, don't worry. It's simply children and teens startled by the giant owl butterflies alighting on their heads and shoulders. The dense forest is the most bucolic sector of the garden. Among the 1,000-some native plants are cinnamon trees, ficus (the tallest tree in the garden, at some 100-feet tall), and guadua, the ultra sturdy form of bamboo that's covered by thousands of minute needles when its young.
14. A protected area within Colombia's Coffee Triangle, the Cocora Valley is a lush, undulating landscape where Colombians and visitors alike escape into nature. Horseback riding, hiking, walking, camping, and visiting a trout farm are a few of the many activities in this verdant land framed by jagged peaks. However, many Colombians simply come for an afternoon of eating, drinking and socializing at Donde Juan B., the valley's oldest restaurant and one constructed of guadua bamboo. From the wraparound patio, you'll have views of green-coated hills and, beyond, the massive Central Andes as you dine on grilled trout. Nearby is Cafe Jesus Martin, a coffee shop housed in a wee shack with spacious windows overlooking the placid fields. Order a cappuccino spiked with Bailey's or amaretto or a glass of white wine. Just beyond the valley, trails criss-cross the landscape through an almost 8,000-acre nature reserve that includes a diverse cloud forest and, farther along, the National Nature Park of the Nevados, regions that are both protected from development.
15. The brilliantly hued colonial town of Salento is one of the most picturesque and vibrant around. Here, centuries-old buildings with shuttered windows and ornate balconies are repurposed as restaurants, cafes, bars and shops. Even the town's major bank and courthouse are housed behind colonial facades. Mankala Cafe is a two-story coffee shop and gallery with murals of nature covering the walls on the top floor. From one of the balcony seats you'll be able to do some serious people watching along the town's main thoroughfare, Camino Real.
16. Art and crafts appears in the unlikeliest places in Salento where, at the Donde Laurita restaurant, the backs of the wood chairs are elaborately painted with portraits of notable citizens as well as iconic Salento buildings. Outside the town sits a spacious lawn ringed by a handful of colonial houses making up Aldea del Artesano. The families living in this community are all artists with galleries, shops and ateliers, many which are open to the public. This is one of the places in the Coffee Triangle where you're guaranteed to find authentic crafts, whether earrings made of feathers or candleholders constructed of guadua bamboo.
17. Set in a century-old house on a placid side street in the busy city of Calarca, two-year-old Restaurante Bakkho is a bastion of creative cuisine. With its backyard herb garden, nature-based murals, and vines dripping from the ceiling, it's easy to figure out the restaurant's sensibility. At the helm is Chef Luz Andriana Martinez who uses herbs from the garden and incorporates native fruits, from guanabana to lulo and nispero, into her French-style cuisine. Named for the god of wine, Bakkho has a very well stocked wine cellar in the basement with bottles from all over the world. Those who dine here are invited into the cellar to select a wine to pair with their meal.
18. Driving for an hour on a mostly narrow, pothole-laden roads bordered by farmland hardly seems like an entree to Eden. But that's what awaits guests who arrive at the doorstep of Hacienda Bambusa, a stylish seven-room inn set amidst a plantation of plantain, bananas, ginger, cocoa and tangerine. The name of this property couldn't be more apt, given that it's the scientific name for the family that includes guadua bamboo that's used to construct the hacienda itself and much of the furniture. Art is a cornerstone of the décor, given that the owner, Santiago Montoya, is a well-respected artist who has created many contemporary works in mixed media and acrylic. The simple, whitewashed guest rooms are each outfitted with a giant terrace overlooking the sun-heated swimming pool. The only sounds waking you in the morning will be the chirping of blue-headed parrots, house wrens and other birds. Pry yourself away from serenity to experience any of the myriad hands-on experiences offered that include a day with the chef of Restaurante Bakkho (you'll be able to go to the market and cook with her), a trek in the forest, bird watching, and a visit to the plantation to watch bananas picked and to inspect the cocoa nursery.
19. Hacienda Combia, not far from Calarca, has a setting that can't be beat. A pale yellow painted dwelling, surrounded by a tranquil garden of orchids, including the national flower, looks out to the Western Andes. A waterfall tumbles beside the infinity pool, and the nearby spa offers plenty of water treatment options, whether in the Turkish bath, sauna or steam bath. The cuisine, such as sweet and sour bass topped with a sauce of lulo fruit and aguardiente, is sure to satisfy gourmands.
20. With its subdued lighting, Sazagua, a 10-room inn outside Pereira, radiates a romantic vibe. Couples walk along a lighted path across the vast lawn to a pavilion where they sip wine or sway in a hammock. Another lane winds to the pool and the spa with its natural stone, fountains and couple's treatment room. Orchid decorate the interior as do antiques and artifacts representing both the indigenous Quimbaya people and Mexico. (The owners have Mexican roots.) Guests can snuggle by a roaring fire that's adjacent to the restaurant, or retreat to a private courtyard patio that extends from the hotel's junior suite. The best suite in the house is hung with custom artwork and outfitted with a hot tub and a two-head rain shower.