Go to Colombia, Where Guns Have Given Way to Golf and Glee

Your One Week Golf Travel Itinerary to Colombia

map_colombia

A stunningly beautiful South American country that should be the dictionary definition of the word diversity. Its people come from a slew of ethnic origins, ranging from Spanish colonists, African slaves, the local indigenous population and 20th c immigrants from Europe and the Middle East. Its richly varied landscape does not lose out to its people, with the Andes highlands, grasslands, lush rainforest and Caribbean and Pacific coastlines.

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A jaunt through Valle del Cocora. Source:2nomads1narrative.com

Thanks to its rich ecology, it’s been named one of the 17 most megadiverse countries in the world and the most biodiverse per square capita. It is also home to 60% of the world’s emeralds and some of the best coffee in the world. Better yet, the fifty-odd golf courses are as untouched by droves of tourists as the rest of the country itself and are ripe for the playing. While many of them are remote and private, they are well worth the effort to get into for the sheer assortment of challenges and settings you can choose from. Try not to hit a drive into the Caribbean Ocean or off an Andes Peak, it’s your choice. 

Source: Wikipedia
Tayrona National Park. Source: Wikipedia

Political History

Source: Picture Aliiance/DPA
FARC guerillas. Source: Picture Aliiance/DPA

Unfortunately, while Colombia boasts many offerings, it sadly possesses the longest history of ongoing violence in all of Latin America. In 1948, the Liberal Party’s presidential candidate, Jorgé Eliécer Gaitán, was assassinated and since then, the Liberal Party and the Conservatives have been each other’s throats. A decade long period tellingly dubbed “La Violencia”, claimed the lives of at least 5,000 Colombians. Following this period was the emergence of Communist and left-wing guerrilla organizations struggling to overthrow the government, all reportedly financed by the drug cartels wreaking havoc upon the nation. The most prominent of these groups is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was largely responsible for the killings, kidnappings and tortures that terrorized the country.

Women soldiers were integral to FARC. REUTERS
Women soldiers were integral to FARC. REUTERS

They fought the paramilitaries, originally formed by the government to combat the guerrillas, but who became major players of the drug trade. For more then five decades since then, the war has raged on despite several negotiation and ceasefire attempts. However, under the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, peace talks in Cuba and Norway have been underway and there have been significant breakthroughs made in demobilizing the paramilitary organizations and guerrilla groups, reintroducing FARC members to civilian life and making reparations for victims. Colombia is closer to peace that it has been in years.

Golf history

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La Cima Golf Club. Source: teetimes.info

As you might expect in a country with such a tumultuous past, golf is a relatively recent addition to Colombia’s list of pastimes. Most courses are private and accessible only to the country’s ruling elite. As a tourist, you can arrange to golf at one of the private clubs through a travel agency, but no such arrangements are available to the average Colombian. Even green fees on public courses are prohibitive, costing 60,000 pesos, which is only $35 for Americans. However, the number of golf players has seen an encouraging rise in recent years, giving us reason to believe that golf’s emergence as a mainstream sport is only just beginning.

Golf Tourism Agencies

Famous Colombian Golfers:

  • Camilo Villegas
  • Óscar David Álvarez Orrego
  • Marisa Isabel Baena
  • Mariajo Uribe
  • Eduardo Herrera

Safe?

For the most part, Colombia is no longer the drug-trafficking inferno it was in the 80’s and 90’s. You are unlikely to get kidnapped or killed, unlike many unfortunate tourists of the past decades. But you would still do well to steer clear of very rural areas, “red zones” and paramilitary/guerrilla controlled areas. The Australian government provides a list of areas you should exercise caution in and keep well clear of. Also, street crime is a problem, so we would advise you to be careful when withdrawing money from ATM’s on the street, traveling solo/at night or even taking a taxi, as many passengers end up getting robbed. Do not accept food or drink from strangers, as they are often spiked with a colorless, odorless derivative of scopolamine that is meant to disorient you and leave you vulnerable to violent crime. Fly as much as possible between cities to avoid public transport.  

Now, the fun stuff….

What to do for a week in Colombia…

Day 1: Bogotá

Source: Raymond Patrick
Llama rides in Plaza de Bolívar. Source: Raymond Patrick for National Geographic
  • Head to the Museo de Oro
  • Eat Bogotano street food
  • Explore La Candelaria
  • Check out Bogotá’s political graffiti

Bogotá doesn’t exactly drip with storybook romance. But that’s not why you’re here anyway. You’re here to sample Colombian urban life in all of its variety, sophistication and grit. If you’re just here to be a tourist, visiting the world’s best gold museum, meandering through snug bohemian neighborhoods like La Candelaria and exploring the Andean peaks that cradle this sprawling metropolis are just some of your options. But that’s just the surface-level stuff. Our guide will take you into another Bogotá, the one that has only just started to rebuild itself from the horror and violence of the last sixty years. Learn where Bogotá has come from and where it is today, weep for what it had lost and feel hope ignite as it rises phoenix-like to face the promise of the future.

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La Candelaria’s sloping streets. Source: colombianproject.com

But first, catch your breath. Bogotá is one of the 25 largest cities in the world and the third-highest capital city in South America. So whether it is from altitude sickness or from sheer astonishment at the size of the city, you’re sure to be a little short of breath. Take a taxi from the airport to Hotel Casa Deco, a lovely terracotta-hued building owned by an Italian emerald dealer. With just 21 cozy rooms that come in seven bright colors and come filled with art-deco furniture, you could not ask for a more intimate, budget-friendly boutique hotel experience. Since the hotel is centrally located between the Museo del Oro and Las Aguas metro stations, you know what to do next.

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Striking interior of Museo de Oro. Source: coopsifront.com

The Museo de Oro is home to the largest collection of pre-Columbian artifacts in the world and is an attraction you can’t get away with missing, even if you’ll be competing with hordes of other obnoxious tourists for the best views. You’ll get to see pre-Hispanic artifacts according to region and learn how gold was an integral part of ancient rituals.

Bogota Foodie/Bogota Food Tours
A cornucopia of Bogotan street food. Source:Bogota Foodie/Bogota Food Tours

Afterwards, take advantage of the fact that Bogotá is the capital of Colombia in more than name. It is also home to some of the best street food in Colombia: fluffy arepas (best described as grilled cornmeal bread, often topped or filled with cheese), empanadas (white or yellow cornmeal pockets filled with spicy beef, chicken, potatoes or even rice) and hamburguesas (burgers filled with everything from beef to Colombian mayonnaise to quail eggs). After you’ve sated yourself, you can either do the done thing by exploring La Candelaria, the city’s beautiful historic center where you’ll have to do battle with more tourists, or do what we would do and sample Bogotano street art.

Source: Bogota Graffiti
Decorative graffiti. Source: Bogota Graffiti
Source: Bogota Graffiti
A motley array of steampunk dwarves. Source: Bogota Graffiti
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Politicians in Colombia are Hungry Like The Wolf. Source: anticap.wordpress.com

Graffiti has become something of a fine art in the city and while a lot of it is genuinely decorative, it is almost always unabashedly political. Every mural will be brightly-colored, bold and unflinchingly satirical (check out this one of the ruling elite drinking from a skull). Want to read them like a book? Book a graffiti tour. If you didn’t before, head to La Candelaria at night for dinner. Try Civitas Restaurants for sumptuous, innovative New Colombian cuisine.

Day 2-Bogotá

  • Drink santafereño
  • Play at Los Lagartos Golf Club or La Cima
  • Volunteer at Bosa, Cazucá and Soacha, the city’s slums
Source: eatyourworld.com
Some cheese with your chocolate? Source: eatyourworld.com

If you hadn’t already done this, start your day off with a uniquely Colombian concoction, santafereño. This is just a fancy way of saying hot chocolate with cheese. Yes, you read that right. A slab of mild cheese sits atop a bowl of thick chocolate like a yellow marshmallow, adding a salty chewiness to every sip of rich, dark cocoa. Whether you end up liking it or not, you can now safely say you’ve eaten like a Colombian. Next, head to the golf course. Surely, you haven’t forgotten why you’re here, have you?

Source: Enrique Berardi/PGA Tour
Los Lagartos’ hallowed golf course. Source: Enrique Berardi/PGA Tour

Ideally, you’d be golfing at Los Lagartos Golf Club, which has been described as the most scenic course in the country with impeccable greens, views of the city and waterfalls galore. Unfortunately, it is very much members-only, so you’re out of luck if you don’t have a Colombian oligarch on speed dial. Never mind then. Off the beaten path again to La Cima, the best public golf course in the country located in a town called La Calera in the surrounding peaks. At 3,000 ft above level, it’s a challenging course where you will have to be judicious about both driving too far and wasting too much breath.

Source: thedepanneur.ca
A bowl of ajiaco. Source: thedepanneur.ca

Return to Bogotá and get lunch at one of the many ajiaco joints along Plaza Bolivar. Ajiaco is pretty much the national dish and is a hearty chicken soup laden with three kinds of potato, corn, cream, guascas (a grassy herb) and avocado. It’s comfort food with a melange of flavors, with the salty capers adding a savory edge that’s tempered by the mellow richness of the avocado. Fortified by good food, you’re now ready to do half a day’s good work at the city’s slums, Bosa, Cazucá and Soacha.

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A panoramic view of poverty. Source: borgenproject.org
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Single mothers in Republica de Canada slum. Source: en.a-c.dk

It is likely that you will not encounter other travelers here, as most of them are frightened away by warnings of the dirt, the danger and the dowdiness of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Don’t follow suit. There are a variety of charities and NGO’s that are always looking for volunteers to venture into the slums and collect data on the inhabitants so they can better serve them. This will by no means be a chore. You will spend your afternoon talking to the Colombians who aren’t featured on the tourist brochures and whose daily lives are a constant struggle to overcome poverty, gang violence and a lack of opportunity to escape their circumstances. It will not be an easy experience, but it will be a humbling and a life-changing one that is as essential to an intimate understanding of Bogotá’s heart and soul. Reflect on your day over an evening meal at Mini-Mal in Chapinero, a neighborhood that is as far removed from the nearby slums as the North Pole is from the South.

Day 3-Bogotá to Salento (Zona Cafetera)

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The verdant hills of Zona Cafetera. Source: aliciariosg.wordpress.com
  • Play at the Armenia Country Club
  • Explore Salento
  • Sample regional specialty trucha del ajillo
  • Take a tour of coffee plantation, Finca Don Elias

Sadly, we must bid Bogotá adios today. As beguiling as it is, we do have a large fascinating country to cram into one measly week. To save time, catch morning plane to Armenia, capital of the Quindío Department and the very heart of Zona Cafetera, the country’s renowned coffee region. Armenia itself is of little interest, but it is the gateway into coffee country and home to an 18-hole golf course, the Armenia Country Club. This is unfortunately a private club, but if you do so happen to get invited in, you’ll be able to enjoy a round amongst lush highlands splashed in every shade of green on the color spectrum.

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Salento’s crayola-colored main street. Source: taringa.net

After you’ve worked up a sweat (and an appetite), it is only a 30-minute bus ride to Salento, the real reason we’re here. This idyllic little town with its brightly-colored paisa architecture, neighboring coffee plantations, trout farms and proximity to the splendid Valle de Cocora is a jewel-like microcosm of the best the Zona Cafetera has to offer. Since we’ve been patient, there is no reason not to gorge on fresh trucha del ajillo, or trout cooked with a rich creamy garlic sauce and topped with copious amounts of cheese. Dig in, it’s delicious, unabashedly hearty and worth the extra layer of blubber you might gain.

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La Serrana Hostel. Source: laserrana.com.co

When you’re done, it’s time to head to La Serrana Eco Farm and Hostel, a 15 minute walk from town and the very best hostel in the region. Aside it being a homey, comfortable hacienda set in the rolling Los Nevados mountain range, it’s also a working farm where coffee and organic vegetables are grown and served to guests. From the hostel, you’ll be able to book a tour without any prior arrangements to Finca Don Elias, where you will learn firsthand how coffee is grown and roasted and taste it at its very freshest. You’ll wonder why we so often drink coffee in a frenzied rush from home to work when we could just sip it like this, looking out upon glowing green hills with all the time in the world. When you go back, no dinner arrangements have to be made. Just show up at La Serrana’s dining room and you’ll be treated with farm-to-table produce.

Day 4 – Zona Cafetera to Medellín

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Medellín at its most picturesque. Source: themanual.com
  • Explore the unforgettable Valle de Cocora
  • Man/woman up for some tripe soup
  • Fossick around La Plazoleta de Las Esculturas in Botero’s hometown
  • Go on a Pablo Escobar tour
  • Par-tay till dawn at one of the city’s many reggaeton or salsa clubs

You won’t have the full day to do this, but there is no way you can leave Salento without ever seeing the Valle de Cocora, the highlight of the protected Los Nevados region. This is one of the most picturesque regions in all of the country, with tall, spindly wax palms (the largest palms in the world and Colombia’s national trees) lending their tall, spindly silhouettes the the conical slopes of the mist-laden hills. Named for the daughter of a Quimbaya chief, Cocora means “star of water” and you really would be hard-pressed find a more precious sight in the whole country.

Source: Barbara Galewska
Valle de Cocora glowing emerald. Source: Barbara Galewska
Source: seecolombia.travel
Wax palms are the perfect accents to a misty day. Source: seecolombia.travel
Source: seecolombia.travel
…Or a sunny one. Source: seecolombia.travel

Most people recommend the 5-6 hour hike, but you can take a shortcut to the very best part of the valley. Just take a jeep there as early as possible and take in the gangly palms and emerald green cloud forest at your leisure. Head back after an hour or so and take the bus back to Armenia, where you will catch a two-hour flight to Medellín.

Source: Wikipedia
Medellín’s vast urban sprawl cradled by mountains. Source: Wikipedia
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The splendid Palacio de la Cultura. Source: hotelpark.com.co
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Medellín between the towering skyscrapers. Source: dekaro.com

Once known as the “Most Dangerous City in the World,” Medellín has shed its sordid past like an old, dirty skin. The former stomping grounds of infamous Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel, the City of the Eternal Spring has become the place it was always meant to be: a peaceful metropolis with pleasant weather, the first metro system in all of Colombia, discotecas, parks and plazas and some of the most beautiful people in the country. It’s no surprise that many foreigners end up settling down here for good. Yes, the most dangerous city is now the most livable.

Drop your baggage off at the Art Hotel Boutique, an arty enclave in El Poblado, Medellín’s wealthiest neighborhood. From your posh digs, head to Mondongos, a basic, unpretentious eatery known for just one thing. Mondongo, or tripe stew, is a local specialty served with avocado, fried plaintains, lemon and arepa. No, you may not have anything else for lunch. Are you an Intrepid Golfer or what? When you’ve filled your guts with guts, it’s time to explore Medellín’s offerings. For the most part, the city is the opposite of Bogotá in that most of its attractions are to be taken in slowly.

Source: colombia.com
Botero’s hefty creations people la Plazoleta de Las Esculturas. Source: colombia.com

Head off to explore the Plazoleta de Las Esculturas, a public space filled with sculptures by renowned local son, Fernando Botero. Botero was an artist and sculptor known for his rotund people and figures whose voluminous silhouettes with both satirical and humorous in nature. You could follow that with a visit to the Museo Antioquia right by the Plazoleta or by scheduling a Pablo Escobar tour.

Source: Reuters/CORBIS
Pablo Escobar in real life. Source: Reuters/CORBIS
Source: Netflix
Pablo Escobar on the small screen. Source: Netflix

Another local son whom the city might be less eager to claim as its own, Escobar was a Colombian drug lord who was responsible for 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the US. If you’re a fan of Narcos, the new Netflix series on his life, you might feel the urge to see where it all happened. It’ll be an entertaining, educational way to get prepped for dinner at Carmen, known for its Colombian cuisine with a Californian slant. Your next logical step would be to head to Parque Lleras, a slew of bars, clubs and restaurants around a park that is very close to your hotel. Don’t miss aguardiente, a local anise-flavored tipple drunk straight as a shot. After sampling all the reggaeton and salsa you can handle, crash.

Day 5 – Medellín to Cartagena

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Cartagena’s jewel-bright streets. Source: ovationdmc.com
  • Golf at Club Campestre de Medellín, Camilo Villegas’ home club
  • Jump off a cliff, but make sure your paragliding equipment works first
  • Get hopelessly lost in Cartagena de Indias’ enchanting cobbled streets
  • Eat as much ceviche as you can handle at El Boliche Cebicheria
  • Hope on and off the town’s endless selection of chivo buses

There is no better cure for a hangover than a shot of adrenaline. Golfing at Club Campestre de Medellín, a par 72 private course that is home to PGA Spiderman Camilo Villegas, is one of them. Give yourself the kick of motivation you need by literally jumping off a cliff.

Paragliding is one of the best ways to start a morning in Medellín and you will get to soar over all the city for at least 20-30 minutes. Just take an hour’s bus ride north of the city from the Caribe bus terminal and enjoy a period of blissful, terrifying solitude in the air. But you’ll have to come back down to earth because that’s not the only flying you’ll have to do today. Today, you’ll be off to the city of Cartagena on the Caribbean Coast.

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Cartagena is capped with roofs of all shapes and sizes. Source: viajeros.com
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Colombia or Croatia? Hard to tell. Source: taringa.net

Cartagena de Indias is the romantic beauty of Colombia, with pristine beaches and a sensuous colonial old town that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Throughout the years, it’s been a pocket of safety in a region of ceaseless unrest where locals go about their day blissfully unaware of the surrounding turbulence and foreigners lounge in sleek chain hotels lining the beaches. To the south are the Bocagrande peninsula, Cartagena’s very own Miami beach, and the chaotic working-class parts of town. Not much to see there and you’re not likely to want to leave the old town anyway.

You’ll be staying at the Casa La Fe, a charming B&B at the very heart of the city. Its rooms are arranged around a central courtyard as dense and verdant as any Caribbean jungle, where you can enjoy breakfast among the surrounding foliage. Grab lunch at La Cocina de La Pepina, famous for its sancocho. Sancocho is a Cartagenan specialty which consists of a soup made of fresh seafood, plaintains, yucca and corn on the cob. When you’ve had your fill, get lost. We mean this.

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Vendors strive not to be outdone by their vivid produce. Source: nytimes.com
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A typically balmy day in Cartagena. Source: peterktravels.com

The cobbled alleyways, Caribbean-bright colonial architecture dripping with bougainvillea and old stone walls make the Old Town the perfect hive to just never emerge from. Be sure to stop of at one of the many open-air cafes or sample local tropical fruit sold by street side vendors.

After you’ve had your fill of golf/not knowing where you are, recharge at El Boliche Cebicheria, where you can get the city’s most innovative ceviche. Chef Oscar Colmenares, an alumnus of Michelin 3-star restaurant Martin Berasatagui in Spain, uses only fish caught by artisanal fisherman to concoct creations like spicy tamarind ceviche. Your tingling tastebuds will only whet your appetite for more adventure and it’ll be right at your doorstep.

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One of Cartagena’s fabled party buses. Source: alterra.cc

Cartagena’s chivo buses are a party in and of themselves. Get aboard one of them and you’ll be serenaded by musicians and plied with food until you are dropped off in front of the next stop, which will be one of the city’s best bars. The chivos do a circuit of Cartagena’s finest nightlife offerings and whether you choose to do so on the buses or off them, you will be partying.

Day 6 – Cartagena

  • Sample Cartagenan street food and compare it to Bogotá’s
  • Walk the city walls
  • Cruise along on the course at Karibana Beach Golf Condominium
  • Have popsicles for afternoon tea
  • Visit a former torture chamber if you’re not kite-surfing
  • Take a horse carriage ride around the city
  • Cry into your mojito at Café Havana

Cartagena’s the best kind of city to be nursing a hangover in. It’s absolutely gorgeous and slow-paced without being boring, with low-key, but exquisite offerings at every corner. You could have breakfast at the hotel, but why not try your luck out on the streets? Like Bogotá, Cartagena abounds in street food, but adds its very own tropical twist to Colombian staples.

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Tropical fruit cups for breakfast, anyone? Source: stylehiclub.com
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Fresh coconut on every street corner. Source: ohthepeopleyoumeet.com
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She knows she’s got a good thing going here. Source: ohthepeopleyoumeet.com

Gorge yourself on carimañola de queso (cheese-filled yucca) or papas rellenas (potato balls stuffed with farmer’s cheese). Afterwards, walk along the fortifications jealously enclosing the city and marvel at the colonial splendor splaying out beneath you on one side and the blue Caribbean waters on the other. Lunch at La Mulata, whose Cartagenan specialties include cazuela de mariscos, a lush coconut milk and seafood stew and camarones al ajillo, shrimp in a garlic and white wine sauce.

Never once losing sight of why you’re here, you might want to test out those clubs at the Karibana Beach Golf Condominium. It’ll be your first oceanfront course in Colombia and is likely to be a literal breeze compared to the others. Back in the Old Town, take afternoon tea at La Paletteria, which specializes in water, yogurt and cream ice pops flavored with tamarind, coconut or Milo (a popular chocolate malt drink). We’d spend the rest of the afternoon idling on the beach, possibly dabbling in a few kitesurfing lessons.

Source: atlasobscura.com
The Torture Palace’s deceptively romantic facade. Source: Luke J. Spencer/ atlasobscura.com
Source: Luke J. Spencer/Atlas Obscura
One of the grisly “delights within. Source: Luke J. Spencer/Atlas Obscura

But if the relaxed pace is making you restless, you could while away some time at the Palace of the Inquisition, a splendid colonial building where Spanish inquisitors tortured and brutally murdered scores of prisoners. The most commonly punished crimes were not, as you might expect, murder or rape, but magic, witchcraft and blasphemy. All kind of hard to prove, wouldn’t you say?

For dinner, we’d recommend La Perla for some kickass Peruvian food. Tiraditos are the piquant Peruvian answer to a very Cartagenan specialty, ceviche. Afterwards, indulge your inner tourist by catching a horse carriage around the Old Town. Don’t groan.

Source: Esteban Sosnitsky/WSJ
Cafe Havana is straight out of a Hemingway short story. Source: Esteban Sosnitsky/WSJ

As kitschy as it sounds, it’s the perfectly old-fashioned way to say goodbye to a city crystallized in some sort of magical era and the warm glow of lamps on the ornate edifices will only heighten the romance.  The last thing on your list is Café Havana, which is a Hemingway-esque dive where locals and tourists alike vie for mojitos and shots of aguardiente to get prepped for the jazz bands at 11pm. Cry into your cocktail and wonder why good things always have to come to an end.

Day 7 – Cartagena to Home

  • Stock up on all the candy your baggage or sugar levels can handle at Portal de Las Dulces
  • Try to sneak in one last beach visit before you’re once again a cog in the machine

Wake up late and miss your flight. No, just kidding. Book a late afternoon flight so you can spend the morning saying goodbye to Cartagena properly. We’d recommend stopping off at Portal de Las Dulces and stocking up on Colombian candy so your departure is more sweet than bitter.

Source: Nicole Vargas/Food and Wine
Portal de las Dulces’ candied temptations. Source: Nicole Vargas/Food and Wine

Specialties include tamarind balls, cocadas (chewy coconut candy) and cocadas de guayaba (cocadas flavored with guava juice). Time permitting, catch a long motorboat to Isla Barú fifty minutes outside the city. Its pristine beach, Playa Blanca, is a little slice of sun-baked bliss flanked by a mangrove forests and shady palapas. Swim, sunbathe or build sandcastles to your heart’s content until it’s time to head back for the airport.

Here ends your journey, brave traveler.

The best thing about Colombia is that it’s never been for the faint of heart. We’ve lost count of the things about it that will have your heart racing: its blood-soaked history, cautious steps towards a brighter future, burgeoning new economy, salsa, heart-stopping scenery and warm, infectiously friendly people. It’s certainly not a place where the soul goes to die. This is why we believe it sets the perfect stage for a new generation of golfers who don’t go to a country to forget they’re abroad, but who want to experience it at its most vivid, uncertain state as it stands poised over the beginning of a peaceful new era.