Captivated by Colombia's many charms

Visitors are greeted by natural beauty and the warmth of the people.

By Lorraine Chittock, Special to the Times
Published August 28, 2007

CARTAGENA, Colombia - "Rome . . . with palm trees," I overhear the tourist say.

His sandals shuffle along the cobblestones in the direction of the walled fortress surrounding the historical section of Cartagena, while mine head to a plethora of museums and cafes.

Street lamps cast a soft glow on Spanish colonial-style buildings whose tones match the cantaloupe, papaya and mango drinks served at street stalls by dark-skinned women.

Inside trendy boutiques, mannequins are draped in chic suits, while mimes, faces painted black, stand still, waiting for coins from passersby. Two statues of Pegasus tower over what was once a slave port.

To those who have never visited, Colombia is probably less associated with statues and sophistication than with danger, drugs . . . and perhaps with reports of beautiful women.

But from recent visitors I had heard nothing but glowing reports. I came to see for myself.

Colombia is the 35th country in which I've traveled, but my ability to speak Spanish is limited. Fortunately, here there always seems to be someone who speaks at least a little English. And if not, Colombians are friendly, eager to reverse what they know is their country's reputation.

And they're succeeding. In 2006, the trusted Lonely Planet guidebooks placed Colombia as one of the world's top 10 destinations. Tourism almost doubled between 2005 and 2006. This October, U.S.-based cruise ships will again call on Cartagena.

However, the State Department still advises Americans to avoid traveling outside Colombia's urban areas at night, and warns that no one should consider himself or herself immune from kidnapping.

Yet more than 1-million tourists are expected this year, mainly because safety has greatly improved.

Since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, rebel groups have been pushed farther from major cities and tourist sites. In the capital of Bogota, the homicide rate has dropped more than 70 percent in 10 years. Military personnel are spaced intermittently along roads and on every bridge.

Determined to take in a country twice the size of France without bringing your preconceptions is difficult. I pictured endless cocaine and coffee fields tended by campesinos wearing ponchos.

And indeed, away from the cosmopolitan cities, plenty of caballeros on horses tend cattle, and endless plantations of bananas are cultivated.

But Colombia also is considered to be one of the most diverse countries in the world, offering tropical rain forest, snow-capped Andean peaks, the plains of the Amazon River Basin, desert and tropical seashore.

To sample this natural wealth, I toured Rio Claro Ecological Park. There I visited stalactite and stalagmite caves, while visitors from the nearest city, Medellin, floated down the exquisite Claro River on rafts.

The cost to sleep in a stilted cabana overlooking the Marble Canyon, within the park, is just $28 a night, including three meals.

Camping in the park is just $4 per night per person, and an hour's worth of caving is $4.

Such easily affordable natural beauty helps counter concerns over security issues and is one of Colombia's strongest attributes.

While driving to Bogata, the country's capital, I take a break in a remote village six hours from any large city. Mountain fog settles on rustic homes clinging to jagged cliffs.

I hike up a steep, rocky track wearing sensible shoes. Just behind me is a local mother, perhaps 30, wearing tight jeans and high heels - another indicator of Latin American women's love of fashion, alive and well even in this setting.

Colombia has coastline on both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. The temperature difference between the shoreline and that of the capital, Bogota, at about 8,000 feet altitude on Colombia's highest plateau, is drastic. Businesspeople dress in suits to match the crisp air. In restaurants in the financial district, stunning women are dressed in chic clothes, with makeup to match.

While walking near Museo del Oro in Bogota, said to house the world's largest collection of pre-Hispanic gold works, a man in a three-piece suit stops to admire my two dogs. After a short conversation with my limited Spanish, the man insists, "My house is your house."

This is not small-town hospitality - we're in South America's fourth-largest city. Nor does it turn out to be a pickup line.

It occurs to me, friendliness is another facet of Colombia's beauty.

Lorraine Chittock is traveling through South America with her two dogs. You can follow her adventures at www.OnaMissionFromDog.com/dogblog.htm.

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Getting there

U.S. travel agents don't generally have package tours to Colombia, but there are tour companies in abundance in Colombia with employees who speak English and which are accessible by e-mail.

You can get information from these sources:

In Miami: www.colombiatourssolutions.com

For Bogota: english.bogotaturismo.gov.co/

For Cartagena: www.cartagenainfo.net

Other sites with information and tour links:

www.turiscolombia.andes. com/colombia_travel.htm



Getting around

Among the auto rental companies you'll recognize are Avis, Budget and Hertz, all of which you can book online. There are many local options, too.

Don't forget Colombia is twice the size of France and distances between cities are greater than they may appear. For instance, it's a 12-hour drive between Cartagena and Medellin, and it's another 12 between Medellin and Bogota.

But it's difficult to get lost going from city to city, as the roads are well marked. If you do get lost, the locals seem happy to help. If you can't find anyone who speaks English, just a few words of Spanish should be all you'll need.

Road surfaces are generally good, though the pace of the traffic and style of driving can be nerve-racking for people accustomed to suburban living. City streets are usually on a simple grid, though the preponderance of one-way streets can be confusing. It's usually easier to take one of the inexpensive taxis.

Electricity is 110 volts, so there's no need to bring a converter.