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Frommer: Colombia abuzz with tourist activity

Juan Manuel Santos, a graduate of the University of Kansas and Harvard Graduate School who was recently elected president of Colombia, is widely regarded as a new kind of South American statesman, capable of bringing both safety and prosperity to a country that for years was associated in the public mind with death squads, guerrilla violence and drug trafficking.

From my own narrow preoccupation with tourism, his selection as president also confirms that Colombia is now acceptably safe and pleasant to visit. Under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, narco-violence has been on the wane even in such formerly notorious cities as Medellin. Threats from guerilla forces, including FARC, have been reduced to remote areas of the interior little visited by tourists.

As security has improved, so has the economy, and virtually all major centers of tourist interest -- from the capital Bogota on down -- have been buzzing with activity and groundbreaking progress, such as Bogota’s new Transmilenio bus system and “bicycle Sundays.”

The city of Cartagena has long been Colombia’s the main tourism magnet. Its 16th-century walled old town is one of the hemisphere’s foremost gems. It is both larger and more architecturally diverse than its counterparts in San Juan and Panama City, and visitors happily share the streets and cafes with locals.

There is also plenty to see and do, including the Palace of the Inquisition; San Felipe fortress; La Popa monastery; a museum devoted to Colombian emeralds; baroque colonial churches and plazas; and the colonial walls themselves, atop which you can stroll and enjoy a bite or a beer. The nearby new-city beaches could be better, but you can book a day excursion to the Rosario Islands for a better strand.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of lodgings and other tourist facilities here in all price ranges, including budget. They’re concentrated in Getsemani, a neighborhood just south of the walled old town, but also include more central possibilities such as the delightful boutique Hotel Cochera de Hobo (from U.S. $80); apartment rentals are another good option.

Bogota, once largely the province of business travelers, has also been seeing a marked increase in foreign vacationers. It’s an exciting place these days (in a good way), and home to one of the hemisphere’s most overlooked colonial quarters, called La Candelaria, with fine museums including one devoted to artist Fernando Botero and another to pre-Columbian gold, with some quite spectacular pieces; you can also tour the presidential mansion, Casa Narino.

Farther north, the picturesque old Usaquen neighborhood is well worth a visit, especially on Sundays during its street fair, and I recommend taking the funicular up Monserrate Hill with its Virgin Mary statue, church and sweeping views over the city.

Other worthwhile stops in Colombia include Zipaquira, a cathedral carved from an underground salt mine; Santa Marta, the hemisphere’s oldest city (1525), with plenty of historic sites and fascinating pre-Columbian ruins, ecotourism, beaches and budget-oriented facilities; and even once-feared Medellin. The “city of eternal spring” in the mountains has seen a renaissance, adding cutting-edge fine architecture to its colonial jewels; you can visit coffee plantations nearby, and August’s spectacular Flower Festival is one of the hemisphere’s great spectacles.

As Colombia’s tourist commission puts it: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”

Article taken from The Miami Herald, July 07, 2010.

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