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  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 5:25am

Colombia calling

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 July, 2011, 12:00am
 

What a difference a few years can make. 'Are you mad?' was the reaction travellers used to get when heading to Colombia. Nowadays, the response - at least from those in the know - is one of envy. People who have kept up with reports from this oft-misunderstood country realise that guerillas no longer control the cities and it has many attractions to make for an incredible trip.

Colombia has one of the fastest-growing tourism markets in the world: international arrivals grew by 16 per cent in the first half of this year, according to a May market intelligence report. In June, it received an extra boost when the Zona Cafetera (coffee region) became the latest addition to Unesco's list of World Heritage Sites. From Bogota, it's less than an hour's flight to visit plantations and trek through cloud forests.

Bogota itself is a fast-evolving, sprawling city with no shortage of history or culture. The hotel scene has some catching up to do. But it seems to be on its way, with one of the newest openings, Hotel Avia 93, making a sophisticated and luxurious base. A modern, glass-fronted structure with minimalist rooms, it could feel cold were it not for the extra touches, such as rose petals for your bath and an aromatherapy spray for your pillow.

The hotel's real selling point is its breakfast. This is served like a fine dinner, with an impressive ?la carte menu and bow-tied waiters serving bread rolls with tongs. Dishes, which include eggs Benedict and maple pancakes, may not be very Colombian, but there are plenty of more traditional foods to come. The first stop of the day should be the historical neighbourhood of La Candelaria. Take a taxi to Plaza Bolivar, where you'll find a bronze statue of independence hero Simon Bolivar, a huge neoclassical cathedral, the English-style congress building and the Palace of Justice. After soaking up the grandeur, spend some time enjoying the surrounding colonial streets, with their wealth of inviting cafes and little shops. Sights to look out for range from the 1792-built Teatro de Cristobal Colon to the 21st-century cultural centre named after the country's celebrated novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

There are many museums in this area. The two standouts are the Gold Museum, housing the world's biggest collection of pre-Hispanic gold artefacts; and the Botero Museum, an homage to the artist Fernando Botero, best known for works featuring overinflated people and horses. Near the Botero Museum, take a detour to La Puerta Falsa, a cafe dating back to 1816. Wood-beamed and atmospheric, this is the place to try a rather bizarre snack: chocolate completo, a cup of hot chocolate into which you dip cheese until it melts.

In the afternoon, head up Cerro de Monserrate, a hilltop with panoramic views of the city. It's 1,500 steps to the top, although your calves may thank you if you opt for the teleferico (cable car) or funicular.

For dinner, try La Macarena neighbourhood. Leo Cocina y Cava gives traditional dishes an experimental twist, such as raw tuna with Santandereana ants or octopus cerviche served with yam. Alternatively, head to the Zona G (gourmet zone) for Peruvian restaurant Astrid y Gaston. Earlier this year, the original Lima branch made an entry onto the San Pelligrino Top 50 Restaurants list.

The next day, get ready to see the city on two wheels. Bogota is, much to people's surprise, an incredible city for cycling. There are more than 300 kilometres of bike paths and a project that sees major avenues closed to cars every Sunday. Local bike experts Cyclota offer great bespoke tours, if you book ahead (www.cyclota.com, US$55).

Afterwards, head to the Sunday market in Usaquen, to find souvenirs like silver jewellery, carved ornaments and woven hammocks.

For dinner, if you want something easy and close to the hotel, there are bars and restaurants in the Parque 93 area, just across the road. Or head to Zona T, a nearby pedestrian area. Book in advance if you want a table at high-end steakhouse La Brasserie.

'The only risk is wanting to stay,' says the tourism board. Those who have been don't doubt it.

AT A GLANCE

Getting there

Continental flies from Hong Kong to Bogota via the US for US$2,000 (www.continental.com). To visit the Coffee Zone, fly from Bogota to the town Armenia (www.avianca.com).

Where to stay

A room at Hotel Avia 93 costs about US$210 a night (Calle 93, No 11a-31, www.hotelavia93.com).

Safety

Colombia still has some problems with guerillas, but they are now contained within certain areas, mainly in the depths of the rainforest. In the cities, 'don't give papaya', as the Colombians say, meaning don't tempt thieves with attractive fruit like cameras and jewellery. Order taxis after dark.

Eat

Astrid y Gaston
Carrera 7, No 67-64, Zona G
www.astridygaston.com

La Brasserie
Carrera 13, No 85-35, Zona T
+57 1 257 6402

Leo Cocina y Cava
Calle 27, No 6-75, La Macarena
+57 1 286 7091

Cafe

La Puerta Falsa
Calle 11, No 6-50, La Candelaria

Tienda De Cafe
Calle 119, No 6-16, Usaquen

Culture

Botero Museum
Calle 11, No 4-41, La Candelaria
www.lablaa.org/museobotero.htm

Gold Museum
Calle 16 No 5-41, City Centre
www.banrep.gov.co/museo

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