As I wrote back in December, Colombia was high on my travel wish list for 2009. After a recent two-week visit, I am happy to report that I liked the place as much as I had hoped. In fact, it has quickly jumped on to my favorite destinations list and I am hoping to get back to Cartagena around the same time next year. What made it such a great trip?
First of all, the people are incredibly friendly and welcoming; they are aware that to many outsiders, the country is marred by its reputation for crime and cocaine instead of its beautiful natural attractions and wonderful hospitality–and they are quick to make an excellent impression as well as share their favorite spots with you. Then there was the sophisticated hotel and restaurant scene with its wonderful food and converted colonial spaces. Add in that the salsa music was some of the best I have ever heard, the temperatures (especially in Cartagena) balmy, and that the place was a real deal (the Colombian peso seemed to devalue daily). What’s truly exciting is seeing its transformation from one of Latin America’s most blighted countries to a revitalized urban and gastronomic center. If you can only make it to one of the two cities, go with Cartagena, the sexy Caribbean hot spot by the sea. There is plenty to entertain in the capital, as well. Read after the jump for things to do if you find yourself in this rising star.
*  Visit the recently reopened Gold Museum in Bogota, which has one of the most incredible collections of precious metal in the world. The way the exhibits are curated and hung make it a sublime experience
* Head to André Carne des Res in the capital’s outskirts for dinner on Friday or Saturday night. It’s like falling down the rabbit hole with free flowing mojitos, locals dancing on the tables, and succulent grilled steak. You’ll be forgiven if you don’t remember much the morning after
* Get to know the fat-bottomed ladies of Botero; the country’s most famous artist donated his own work and a great collection of contemporary art, not to mention his former home, as a museum in Bogota’s historic center that’s free to the public
* Do a restaurant crawl of Bogata’s “G Zone” (for gourmet). Stops should include Peru transplant Rafael‘s, the scene-y Harry’s Bar (Calle 70 #5-57; 57-1-321-3940) and the brand new Clos, a hip wine bar with fantastic food (Calle 69A #5-60; 57-1-321-2586)
* Lay in the pool at hip hotel La Passion in Cartagena and marvel at the city’s skyline while working on your tan
* Bar hop and salsa your way through Cartagena on a Friday night. Start the evening with dinner at La Vitrola (reservations are a must) where live music gets people dancing between courses (2-01 Baloco; 57-5-664-8243) and then head to the atmospheric Café Havana, where the party spills out onto the street. Want to keep going? Quiebra Canto, which Gabriel Garcia Marquez likes to frequent when he is in town, goes until dawn (Parque Centenario; 57-5/664-1372)
* Sample ceviche at La Cevicheria opposite Cartagena’s Hotel Santa Clara; one bite and you’ll see why foodies like Anthony Bourdain worship at its altar
* Book a room at Cartagena’s Agua. This Colonial building brilliantly restored into a boutique hotel epitomizes the city’s new style
* Looking to rent your own colonial retreat? I stayed for two nights in a gorgeous private home with five bedrooms (the master suite has one of the best views) and a series of plunge pools, not to mention a fabulous onsite chef. Contact if you want more info