The skies over Cartagena’s Manga Bay cast hues of purple, pink, and blue over the beautiful colonial city.
Nearby, along the bustling promenade of Avenida Miramar, luxurious yachts and sailboats dock in front of modern oceanfront buildings that coexist alongside historic colonial forts in the Old Walled City.
Being surrounded by beauty has bred restless creativity, and few visitors to Colombia are surprised that magical realism — the literary genre most famously exemplified by Gabriel García Márquez — was born in this outrageously beautiful country.
I was born and raised here, looking out at this bay, and have seen first-hand Cartagena’s transformation from a quaint, little-visited historical city, to a coveted destination that’s quickly developed into a global hotspot.
Sixteen years ago I moved inland, to the capital, Bogotá, where I’ve also witnessed how creativity and aesthetics — in the forms of urban design, gastronomy, and culture — can deeply impact a nation’s morale - and its ability to reinvent itself, both domestically and abroad.
These are some of the things I love most about Colombia:
Colombia’s Bright & Vivacious Colors
From Cartagena’s vibrant pink flowers that cascade from colonial balconies, to the facades of center city homes splashed in shades of lavender, mint green, and sky blue, Colombia is characterized by a distinct brand of chromatic liveliness.
Of course, much of Colombia’s intense visual stimuli is provided by nature and can be found in the variety of exotic produce available for purchase from street vendors, the orchid trees that produce a fruitful blossom, or encountering birds (like the guacamaya) that might fly right over you.
However you spend your time in Colombia, make sure to carve out a few nights to marvel at the tropical sunset as it paints the sky breathtaking shades of reds, purples, and pinks - the most magical way to end the day.
Colombian Food & the Culinary Scene
Colombian cuisine includes a wide range of traditional dishes, and you can expect many to include a variation of national staples like corn, plantains, rice, turmeric, and coconut.
But since Colombian food is not yet very well-known, one of the first things that surprises food-loving visitors is the sheer eclectic variety. Considering Colombia’s diversity, it’s not very surprising, and the cuisine has been influenced by the culinary stylings of the Spanish, African, indigenous, and various other populations present in Colombia.
From platano maduro (fried plantains) and tostones con queso (where the plantain is smashed, fried, and topped with irresistibly fresh cheese), to sancocho de pescado (Caribbean-style fish soup) and bandeja paisa (an insanely delicious and filling dish), dishes vary greatly throughout the country. The variety of recipes have evolved over the centuries to gradually create a distinctly Colombian cuisine.
Today, a new wave of innovative young Colombian chefs is transforming Colombian cuisine, with an eye to the future while paying homage to traditional recipes. Bogotá, Cartagena, and Medellín — to name a few — are all undergoing culinary renaissances, with a mouthwatering array of modern and traditional restaurants (not to mention great bars).
Colombia’s Innovative Fashion & Design
In recent years, Colombia has become a player in the global fashion industry.
Given the current creative climate in Colombia, you can now expect to find a ruffled off-the-shoulder top by Johanna Ortiz between the pages of an issue of Vogue, or a pair of statement earrings designed by Mercedes Salazar becoming the topic of conversation in Paris.
Colombian designers have made their way onto the racks of some of New York’s most iconic retail locations, such as Bergdorf Goodman, and luxury e-commerce retailers like Moda Operandi. Prior to its recent closure, the highly esteemed Parisian boutique, Colette, collaborated with Colombian designer, Esteban Cortez, to host a pop up shop showcasing Colombian brands like Mola Sasa to bring attention to the country’s up-and-coming design talent.
Cartagena is quickly becoming a destination for the fashion elite, with figures like Linda Fargo seen walking the colonial city’s cobblestone streets. Concept stores such as St. Dom, with locations in Cartagena and Bogotá, carry every designer that Colombia’s couture clientele should know.
Traction continues to build for Colombia’s emerging scene, as fashion events are now held on a weekly basis, and Colombian designers are gaining global awareness as celebrities wear their collections on the red carpet.
Colombia’s Incredible Nature, Landscapes & Biodiversity
Colombia is by far one of the world’s most diverse countries, and this applies both to its nature as well as its culture. Right behind the much larger Brazil, the relatively small Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on earth.
You can see Colombia’s biodiversity everywhere you turn: from the colorful flora and fauna found in both rural and urban environments, to its gorgeous national parks and stunningly varied landscapes.
A quick journey within the country can lead you to a dramatically different landscape and climate. For example, Bogotá is perpetually cool and gray, while Anapoima — an easy drive away — is a steamy tropical escape for rolos (Bogotá residents) seeking sunshine, hammocks, and swimming pools.
Read more about the best times of year to visit Colombia.
It’s not just the climate and environment that vary as you criss-cross the country - it’s the people, cuisine, and culture, too. The eclectic communities throughout rural Colombia vary dramatically, and also stand in beautiful contrast with the tropical towns along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, rich with the traditions of Africa.
Colombian Spanish is widely considered to be relatively clear and easy to understand, and as you travel around the country you’ll also begin to pick up on different accents and slang terms between the regions, noticing the nuance that exists in each area’s dialect.
Colombian Craftsmanship: Arts & Crafts
Colombia is brimming with highly skilled artisans and traditional craftspeople, and the artisanal work you’ll find while exploring the country includes beautifully handmade hats, hand-painted pottery, ornate jewelry, and home decor carefully crafted by expert hands.
While traveling around Colombia, you’ll frequently encounter brightly woven bags known as mochilas. These colorful bags are made over several days by native Wayuu women from La Guajira, in the northernmost part of Colombia.
Pick up a sombrero vueltiao, a traditional hat that originates from the Zenú indigenous people, from the region of the Sinu River Delta. These hats can take anywhere from three to thirty days to make.
If you can time your visit, lovers of crafts should seek out major events such as Expoartesanias Bogotá. Otherwise, seek out stores like Artesanías de Colombia (with locations throughout Colombia) and Galería Cano, where you are sure to find many treasured pieces that reflect the beauty of Colombian craftsmanship.
Colombia’s Festive Spirit: Parties, Festivals & Dancing!
Simply put - Colombians know how to party.
A wedding in Cartagena is often a three-day celebration, with beautiful dinners in colonial mansions, pool and beach parties, and of course dancing.
Music lovers worldwide have taken note of Colombian music, which ranges from global pop stars (Shakira, Carlos Vives, Juanes) to modern beats (Bomba Estereo, ChocQuibTown), and classic salsa and cumbia (too many to name!).
Dance-filled venues abound, from La Troja in Barranquilla — stacked with massive record collections — to the legendary salsa clubs of Cali.
Unsurprisingly, Colombia is home to countless festivals, including Barranquilla’s UNESCO-recognized carnival, and the small southern city of Pasto’s multi-day Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (Blacks and Whites' Carnival).
No matter how or where you spend your time in Colombia, you’ll quickly come to realize that joyful dancing and late nights are part of the Colombian experience.
Vanessa Rosales is a Colombian writer and consultant based in Bogotá, Colombia and one of the local experts we work with to design unique shopping experiences and studio visits of emerging artists and designers in country. She studied History and Theory of Fashion at Parsons in NYC, is the author of the book Mujeres Vestidas, and is a regular columnist for one of Colombia’s most well respected newspapers, El Espectador.