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It is lamentable that Colombia, crowning the continent of South America, has earned a reputation for violent civil unrest and is seen as a hotbed of criminal 'bounty' kidnappers, drug overlords and gangsters. As a
consequence of this, both the US State Department and British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise against travel to Colombia. This means that only the most intrepid travellers and tourists venture forth into what is undoubtedly the most diverse destination in South America. It is a fusion of shabby, colourful towns, Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Andean valleys, Amazonian jungle, and wide plains.


There are in fact many tourists that do still travel to the capital, Bogota or to the legendary resort town of Cartagena and the duty-free offshore island province of San Andres. Most visitors enjoy a fascinating, exciting and trouble-free experience and usually make the trip as part of an organised package tour.


The fortunes of modern Colombia had their foundations laid in the coffee plantations, but the onset of political violence and civil war in the 1950s effectively cauterised the industry. The exception to this can be found in the pretty hilly Quindio province, where many former farmers have turned their traditional red-tile roofed homesteads into good quality bed and breakfast establishments, set among exotic gardens and rows of leafy coffee bushes.


Urban Colombia centres on Bogota, home to about 20 percent of the country's inhabitants. This ancient city was the pre-Columbian capital of the Chibcha Indians and remains a blend of old and new, teeming with Spanish colonial buildings and plazas alongside modern skyscrapers. Beggars rub shoulders in the streets with smartly dressed business people, while mule trains wind their way through the traffic jams.


A major drawcard for tourists is the Spanish colonial port of Cartagena with its spectacular walled old town, a medieval wonderland of palaces, monasteries, plazas and overhanging balconies. To the south of the town are Colombia's major seaside holiday resorts with excellent beaches and scuba diving opportunities.


The country's equatorial rainforests clothe the river valleys, riddled with magnificent airplants, vines, creepers and brilliant flowers and birds. The Los Katios National Park in Choco contains hundreds of species of plant and animal life that have yet to be listed. The country's jungles also shelter wondrous archaeological treasures, like the ancient city of La Cuida Perdida and the monuments, tombs and burial mounds at San Augustin and Tierrodentro.


Colombia is a gem of a destination that as yet has to be explored by modern travellers as it slowly struggles to shed its unpalatable reputation to reveal its unique beauty.