CARTAGENA, Colombia – Tell people you're vacationing in Colombia and some react like you're going to a war zone. Is it safe, they ask. But as Colombians are quick to point out, this country is very different from a generation ago. Pablo Escobar — the notorious drug kingpin who presided over a reign of violence — has been dead for over 20 years. Colombia still faces challenges, but it's made enormous social and economic strides.
Tourism is also rising, and the government has adopted the phrase "magical realism" to promote it. Magical realism is usually associated with the literature of Colombia's pre-eminent writer, the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But it also describes what I saw here, from pink dolphins in the Amazon to Medellin's dazzling Christmas lights.
At one time Medellin was practically synonymous with Escobar. His cartel was based here and he died here in a police ambush in 1993. But here's why tourists should visit Medellin now: Christmas lights. More than 30 million colorful lights drape churches, buildings, parks and even the Medellin River from late November through Jan. 12. The entire city feels like a carnival, the streets filled with families, vendors and sightseeing buses and cars. I hired a guide through LandVentureTravel.com to take me, my husband and sons ages 16 and 21 around last Dec. 25, and although we've spent many Christmases enjoying the holiday glitter of New York City, we agreed that Medellin was even more spectacular.
Cartagena is located on the Caribbean on the northwestern coast of South America. That location made Cartagena a key port in Spain's colonial empire. Attractions include 400-year-old stone walls along the coast and the spooky tunnels and cannons of the fortress San Felipe de Barajas. In the old city, you'll find a museum of instruments of torture in the Palace of the Inquisition and a church honoring San Pedro Claver, a priest who baptized thousands of African slaves brought here in the 1600s. Street vendors and tiny shops sell broad-brimmed hats and jewelry, all in distinctive local designs.
Our visit to the sleepy Amazon town of Leticia was nothing short of surreal, from the view out the plane window of a dense green jungle as far as we could see, to a nighttime ride on the river in the pitch dark, listening to a symphony of buzzing, whistling insects and birds. Silverfish leapt into our small boat, our jackets were covered with tiny green frogs and our guide pulled an alligator from the swamp with his bare hands. On a day trip, we saw pink dolphins and visited Isla de los Micos, where capuchin monkeys climbed on us and sat on our heads.
Our boat also stopped across the river in Puerto Alegria, Peru — no passport required — where indigenous women have a petting zoo. We held sloths like babies and saw a kinkajou, anaconda and tortoise. Just down the road from Leticia is the bustling Brazilian port city of Tabatinga — again, no passport needed — so we took a taxi there for a $25 one-hour tour, including stops to buy soccer shirts and empanadas, and to see a market selling colorful produce, river fish and live chickens.
All our adventures were flawlessly organized by the Amazon Bed and Breakfast in Leticia, where exotic breakfasts included bright purple and green juices made from fruits we'd never heard of. The B&B has no air conditioning, but ceiling fans and cool showers kept us comfortable.
We didn't get a single mosquito bite, but we came prepared. We brought DEET repellant and hooded mesh jackets from home, and got yellow fever shots and prophylactic malaria pills (beware the side effects — vivid dreams). Our doctor also gave us antibiotics in case of intestinal troubles, and we needed them. Our plastic rain ponchos came in handy in the periodic Amazon downpours.
Colombia's capital city felt grittier than our other destinations, with old-school graffiti, protests outside government offices in Bolivar Plaza and hotel security dogs sniffing our bags. In addition to the well-known Gold Museum, two other museums were worth a visit, both free. The Botero Museum houses work by Colombia's most famous artist, Fernando Botero, known for his rotund figures, including a plump "Mona Lisa" and curvaceous nude sculptures. The museum also displays other artists' work donated by Botero, from Picasso to Francis Bacon. Outside, street vendors sell beautiful mochilas — patterned shoulder bags.
At the National Police Museum, tours are available from English-speaking young Colombians doing their required national service stints. We enjoyed chatting with our 18-year-old guide about his aspirations and interests (including BMX bikes). The tour includes an extensive exhibit on Escobar, from artifacts like his watch and motorcycle, to details of how police ambushed him by tracking his cellphone calls.
It was ironic that our trip ended with a look at the man responsible for the outdated perception of Colombia as a place too dangerous to visit. His demise — and the positive changes that have happened since — are a legitimate source of national pride.
If You Go...
COLOMBIA: http://www.colombia.travel/en/ . Cartagena is three hours by air from Miami. Avianca recently launched nonstop flights from New York.
CHRISTMAS LIGHTS TOURS OF MEDELLIN: http://www.landventuretravel.com
AMAZON BED AND BREAKFAST: Leticia, Colombia, http://www.amazonbb.com/ . The hotel arranges excellent river tours.