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Colombia is enjoying a tourism boom, thanks to the buzz about its friendly locals, colonial and pre-Columbian heritage sites, and a dining scene that combines gastronomic sophistication with outrageous fun (as at Andrés Carne de Res, Bogatá's runaway cult favorite steak-house-meets-dance-club). Sightseeing highlights include the gold museum in capital city Bogotá, Cartagena's baroque 16th-century buildings and bohemian Caribbean coast, eco-tourism on the Rosario Islands and the pristine coast of Tayrona National Park, and jungle hikes to the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, six centuries older than Peru's Machu Picchu. Even Cali, a former drug cartel stronghold, is emerging as a destination, with Miami-worthy art galleries and boutique hotels.
Know the backstory:
Colombia earned its scary reputation in the 1970s and '80s, as drug cartels in the cities of Medellín and Cali gained power, sparking random violence, kidnappings, and assassinations. Many of the cartels collapsed in 1993 after the death of Medellín leader Pablo Escobar, and economic and political reforms begun in 1999 have lifted nearly half the population out of poverty. Meanwhile, cocaine production has decreased by more than 60 percent in the past decade.
Much of the country has become safe, accessible, even trendy, although travelers should be on guard against street crime in the cities and avoid rural areas known for the presence of narco-terrorists. In Bogotá or Cartagena, stay in one of the three well-located boutique hotels run by the architectural preservationist Charleston chain, one of which occupies a former 17th-century Carmelite convent inside Cartagena's old walled city.