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Wheelbarrows brimming with papayas, guavas and mangoes and 50-cent cups of fruit are familiar, but fresh aloe vera, lulos and tree tomatoes? Colombia’s exotic side is mirrored by its unusual fruit. In fact, fruit is so abundant that hardly anyone drinks water in Colombia — only fresh-squeezed, blended juices. Welcome to the Caribbean as you have never experienced it before: Colombian-style.
For many, Colombia still conjures images of steamy jungles, the infamous drug war and cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, but these scars on Colombia’s history could not be further from its modern reality. Now, for the first time, Colombia’s tourism industry is gathering steam and drawing visitors to its safe city streets, desert-island beaches, hot springs, friendly locals and stunning national parks.
The most logical starting place for a visit to Colombia’s Caribbean coast is Cartagena, a well-preserved colonial city. Women in bright red tops and swirling skirts give nightly dances, horses pull carriages across the cobblestones and, of course, fruit vendors perch on every corner. The old city is beginning to take a modern turn with new boutique hotels popping up to offer a luxurious place to lay one’s head after a day visiting churches, spotting Botero sculptures and shopping for traditional items.
One of the most noteworthy Cartagena accommodations is The Tcherassi Hotel + Spa, a boutique hotel designed by Silvia Tcherassi, a famed Colombia fashion designer. For large groups, a good option just outside the old city is the Armeria Real, Luxury Hotel and Spa. It offers a large number of guestrooms, and groups will also enjoy the rooftop Terrace Bar and a pool with 360-degree views.
The next stop on the Caribbean tour is a six-hour bus journey north along the coast to the city of Santa Marta, which also boasts its own airport with short and affordable flights from Cartagena, Bogota and Medellin. Santa Marta is situated within one hour of the tiny backpacker-friendly town of Taganga, a jumping-off point for visits to Tayrona National Park.
Once a commercial port town, Santa Marta has begun to embrace tourism within its pedestrian-only streets and exquisite colonial plazas. New boutique hotels include two properties owned by Brian Sutcliffe, who also owns a hotel near Tayrona National Park called Villa Maria. The boutique hotels emphasize individuality and the history of Santa Marta, with a focus on modern comforts, including iPads on loan to guests and an Apple TV in every room.
If clients wish to stay closer to the park, they can continue inland to Villa Maria. The small property offers a main house with a kitchen and a dining room and a separate large circular guestroom that has 360-degree views of the ocean and jungle. The hotel staff will arrange visits to Tayrona Park where guests can enjoy its sugar-white beaches, private boat rides and lush hiking.
How to Get There:Colombia is only a short flight with a minimal time change from many U.S. cities. Direct flights are available on Avianca, Spirit Airlines and JetBlue.
Getting Around:The bus system is the best way to travel around Colombia. It is well developed and extensive.
When to Go:Colombia has two seasons — wet and dry. The dry season is the best time to visit, December to March and July and August.
Where to Stay:
Armeria Real, Luxury Hotel and Spawww.armeriarealhotel.com
Casa de Isabella, Villa de Leda, and Villa Maria57-5-431-2082, 484-679-6305
The Tcherassi Hotel + Spawww.tcherassihotels.com