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|Introduction to Colombia
With dramatically beautiful rainforests, mountains and beaches, lovely cities and enchanting people, Colombia should be a magnet for travellers. Unfortunately, the activites of guerillas and cocaine thugs have pushed 'Locombia' (the mad country) somewhat off-limits.
For most, Colombia is unknown territory - a land of myths and threat, thick with thugs, drug dealers and treasure. It's generally seen as a place to avoid rather than as a place to visit. Throughout its stormy history, it has hosted innumerable civil wars and has endured South America's longest guerrilla insurgency.
However, visitors to the country are often struck by how normal and orderly everyday life is, despite all the problems the country is going through. Most leave Colombia safe and inspired. Few experience security problems. If you take the necessary precautions, you'll find Colombia one of the world's most sensual, wild, complex and fascinating countries.
Overall, while internal security in the country is on the up, Colombia can be a dangerous place to travel. Theft is the most common danger, so take every precaution to keep belongings secure.
Officially, there are 3000 abductions per year. Tourists aren't targets specifically, but cases have been reported. The police have a mixed reputation, so avoid them unless absolutely necessary. Be aware that criminals may impersonate police. On a more positive note, there is an increased number of tourist police.
Areas of reasonably safe travel are limited due to military activity. The entire area east of the Andes (except Leticia and its environs) should be avoided, as should off-the-beaten-track travel. Avoid demonstrations and political gatherings. Drugs, especially cocaine and its derivatives, are prevalent and you should never be found in possession of them. Don't accept drinks or cigarettes from strangers as they may be laced with borrachero, a tasteless, odourless soporific drug.
There is also a risk of yellow fever along the coastal region of the northern state of Magdalena.
Full country name: Republic of Colombia
Area: 1.14 million sq km
Population: 45 million
Capital City: Bogotá
People: 58% mestizo (of European-Indian descent), 20% European descent, 14% mulatto (African-European descent), 4% African descent, 3% African-Indian descent, 1% indigenous
Religion: Catholic (95%), with the remainder a mixture of traditional, Episcopal & Jewish faiths
Head of State: President Álvaro Uribe Vélez
GDP: US$809 billion
GDP per capita: US$1,820
Major Industries: Textiles, coffee, oil, narcotics, sugar cane, food processing.
Major Trading Partners: US,EU
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Visas: Visitors from Australia and New Zealand do not need a visa if staying less than 30 days as a tourist. Visitors from most Western European countries, Japan and the USA do not need a visa if staying less than 90 days as a tourist. Other passport holders should check visa status with Colombian consular representation before departure.
Health risks: altitude sickness, cholera, hepatitis, malaria, rabies, tetanus, typhoid, yellow fever
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -5
Dialling Code: 57
Electricity: 110V ,60Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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The Colombian calendar is awash with festivals, carnivals, fairs and beauty pageants. Some of the biggest events include: Carnaval de Blancos y Negros (Pasto; January); Semana Santa (Holy Week; most prominent celebrations are in Popayán and Mompós; March or April); Feria de las Flores (Medellín; August); and Carnaval de Barranquilla (Barranquilla; February or March).
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|Best time to Visit
The most pleasant time to visit Colombia is in the dry season, but there are no major obstacles to general sightseeing in the wet period. Most Colombians take their vacations between late December and mid-January, so transport is more crowded and hotels tend to fill up faster at this time.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Currency: Columbian Peso
Colombia is not an expensive country. Budget travelers can get by on around USD15-25 per day; while those staying in more comfortable hotels, eating at restaurants and taking a flight from time to time will spend around USD25-45 per day. Splurgers should budget on USD50-70 a day.
Some banks change cash and/or travelers' checks, but others don't. Some branches of a bank will change your money while other branches of the same bank will refuse. This seems to vary constantly from bank to bank, city to city, day to day, and can be further complicated by a myriad of local factors, eg, the bank may have reached its daily limit of foreign exchange. On top of that, the banks usually offer foreign exchange services within limited hours, which may mean only one or two hours daily; your best chances are in the morning.
You can change cash (and sometimes travelers cheques) at casas de cambio (authorised money-exchange offices) found in almost all major cities and border towns. Avoid street dealers excpet for where there's no alternative. You can use credit cards (Visa is the most widely accepted) for car rental, air tickets and in most top-end hotels and restaurants. Plastic money is also becoming popular for purchasing goods and payment for services in many other commercial establishments. There are an increasing number of cajeros automáticos (automatic teller machines); these accept Visa and MasterCard and pay out in pesos.
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Bogotá, the country's capital, is the quintessence of all things Colombian: a city of futuristic architecture, a vibrant and diverse cultural and intellectual life, splendid colonial churches and brilliant museums. It is also a city of beggars, shantytowns, drug dealers and traffic jams.
Walking the city's streets and observing the mad to-ing and fro-ing, the avalanches of busetas, the extravagant stores and roadside stalls, is as fascinating as contemplating the serene atmosphere of the city's colonial churches and museums, so give yourself plenty of time for exploration.
Caribbean Coast (Columbia)
The Caribbean Coast around Cartagena features a handful of impressive Spanish forts, including the 17th-century Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, undoubtedly the greatest and strongest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies.
The Islas del Rosario, 35km (22mi) offshore southwest of Cartegena, have magnificent coral reefs and abundant marine life, making them popular with snorkellers and scuba divers. The L-shaped peninsula south of the old town contains the upmarket holiday resorts of Bocagrande and El Laguito.
Cartagena de Indias is legendary both for its history and its beauty. It has been immortalised on countless canvases, glorified in hundreds of books and photographed a zillion times - and, as Colombia's most fascinating city and a World Heritage Site, it deserves every one of these tributes.
The walled old town of this fortified Spanish colonial port is a gem. It's packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and noble mansions with overhanging balconies and shady patios. It pays just to wander through the old town, but some of the highlights are the Palacio de la Inquisición; the informative Museo del Oro Arqueología; and Muelle de los Pegasos, the lovely old port of Cartagena on the Bahía de las Ánimas.
The less touristy Getsemaní, the outer walled town, also has charming pockets but is not so well-preserved.
The northwest is made up of two large regions: the Chocó department (an extensive stretch of tropical rainforest, sparsely populated, and including the lovely Los Katiós National Park); and the departments of Antioquia, Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío (a mountainous region, predominantly white, and the location of the dynamic industrial and commercial city of Medellín). The oldest town in the northwest is Santa Fe de Antioquia, about 80km (50mi) northwest of Medellín, which still retains much of its colonial architecture and atmosphere.
The two biggest attractions in the southwest are the archaeological sites of San Agustín and Tierradentro, and the colonial city of Popayán. Both San Agustín and Tierradentro are littered with ancient statues, tombs and burial mounds, while Popayán has many churches, museums and streets lined with colonial mansions. Cali, Colombia's third-largest city, is noted more for its laid-back atmosphere than its tourist attractions.
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