Colombia’s calling: beaches rivaling those of the Caribbean and some of the world’s most alluring cities – it’s no wonder this alluring country is South America’s new hotspot.

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Deep in Tayrona National Park on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, a 10-foot caiman raises its gnarled snout out of the river, sending ripples toward fishermen who stand in waist-deep water and cast their fillets by hand.

“Isn’t that pretty dangerous?” » I ask Diva, our guide. “Ah, the caiman prefers to eat fish,” she replies. “But recently I saw one snatch a dog from the river bank.”

I glance at my sons, but even these two thrill-seekers aren’t willing to swim in alligator-infested waters.

The 60 square miles that make up Tayrona National Park are home to a menagerie of creatures, such as the anteater, sloth, ocelot and rarely seen jaguar. There is also abundant birdlife, including Santa Marta parakeet, sapphire-bellied hummingbird, red-headed nightjar and bright yellow-legged snowy egrets ‘Big Bird’.

Colombia, almost five times the size of the United Kingdom, is located on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It has white sand beaches that can rival any Caribbean island, pristine national parks and Cartagena as its main asset – arguably the most beautiful city in all of South America.

Bright views: Kate Wickers embarks on a tour of Colombia.  Above, a beach in Tayrona National Park, located on the eo

Bright views: Kate Wickers embarks on a tour of Colombia. Above, a beach in Tayrona National Park

And seven years after the government’s peace deal with paramilitary forces – and 20 years after the first military crackdown on drug cartels – there has never been a safer time to visit.

Most flights from Europe arrive in the afternoon, and a day or two in the capital Bogota is a good way to avoid jet lag. We stay at the BOG hotel, in the trendy La Cabrera district, bordered by the Zona Rosa restaurant hub, where we dine on citrus-marinated ceviche at Central Cevicheria.

We will visit the Museo del Oro, which houses more than 55,000 gold objects, take a street art tour in La Candelaria (the oldest and most bohemian district) and be charmed by the artist’s “chubby” figures Colombian Fernando Botero at the Museo. Botero.

From the capital, it’s a two-hour flight north to Santa Marta and another 30 miles of driving to our accommodations near Tayrona National Park.

Kate says Cartagena (pictured) is 'arguably the most beautiful city in all of South America'

Kate says Cartagena (pictured) is ‘arguably the most beautiful city in all of South America’

Boardwalks and forest trails lead to beaches where edible sea grapes grow and tamarinds peer from the palm fronds, Kate writes.  Above, a fruit seller in Cartagena

Boardwalks and forest trails lead to beaches where edible sea grapes grow and tamarinds peer from the palm fronds, Kate writes. Above, a fruit seller in Cartagena

Colombia, almost five times the size of the United Kingdom, is located on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

Colombia, almost five times the size of the United Kingdom, is located on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

Finca Barlovento is an eco-friendly lodge set among gardens of bamboo, palm trees and birds of paradise. Our suite has a shared deck and pool – the perfect place to spy kingfishers flying overhead and blue crabs scurrying along the river banks, avoiding lurking iguanas.

Marijuana cultivation was once the region’s main source of income, but since its demise, tourism is now crucial. The official custodians of the park are the indigenous Kogi people, who are highly respected and left to manage the park as they wish.

At the start of a ten-mile hike, we buy coconut juice from young Kogi men, who chop the nuts with a swing of a machete. “If they think the park is too busy, they close it like that,” Diva tells us, snapping her fingers. “The Kogi carefully monitor this ecosystem and decide when it needs rest.”

Boardwalks and forest trails lead to beaches where edible sea grapes grow and tamarinds peer from the palm trees.

At Cabo San Juan del Guia, a double horseshoe bay sheltered by a rock breakwater, we swim before feasting on red snapper, bought for five dollars from a grill on the sand.

For tubing (the gentle pursuit of floating in a rubber buoy), we head to the Don Diego River. We float past cashew trees riddled with howler monkeys and spot the caiman’s smaller cousins, the Cuvier’s dwarf caiman, blinking lazily at us from the river bank.

Barranquilla is Colombia’s fourth-largest city, famous for its carnival and its associations with writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez (fans should also visit his hometown, Aracataca). We stop here en route to Cartagena to take a driving tour of the university where Marquez studied, the street where he once lived, and for lunch at his favorite watering hole, Restaurante Bar La Cueva, where we spot the first editions of Love In The. Time Of Cholera locked in the shelves.

The walled city of Cartagena, founded in 1533, is full of pastel-painted 16th-century casas with huge wooden doors. These are adorned with gleaming knockers of curly fish, pretty mermaids and full-mouthed pelicans, all of which recall Cartagena’s maritime past, when Spanish conquistadors traded in ill-gotten gold. We stayed in one of these casas, now the Ananda boutique hotel, whose rooms open onto a central courtyard. In the moonlight, we stroll under geranium-filled balconies to hidden squares, where old men in straw hats play games of dominoes, and past the imposing Palacio de la Inquisicion de Cartagena (once the residence from those whose brutal job it was to eradicate heresy), to the Plaza de San Pedro, where bars spill onto the cobblestones and buskers play guitars.

Getsemani, just beyond the city walls, is a little rougher around the edges. Mojitos costing just a few euros are served in makeshift bars set up in living rooms, where Grandpa sits in his rocking chair and watches television.

Kate says a day or two in the capital Bogota (pictured) is a good way to start a trip to Colombia.

Kate says a day or two in the capital Bogota (pictured) is a good way to start a trip to Colombia.

In Bogota, Kate visits the Museo del Oro, which houses more than 55,000 gold objects, including the frog pictured above.

In Bogota, Kate visits the Museo del Oro, which houses more than 55,000 gold objects, including the frog pictured above.

Live music blares through the streets decorated with murals, adorned with flags and banners.

On Plaza Trinidad, we watch young rappers at work. “Sister, you’re bolder than Cameron Diaz” sounds good to me.

We end our trip with free time on the beach, heading by speedboat to the Islas del Rosario, 30 miles from Cartagena and named for their resemblance to a rosary, where moonlighting fishermen lead snorkeling excursions among schools of butterflyfish and butterfish. .

“Lobster for lunch?” No problem!’ » promises our guide once back on powdery sands. “Hold on here. I’ll be back.’

And in less than ten minutes, he brandishes four large lobsters which he cooks in his makeshift cafe.

” Delicious ! Delicious ! » as the locals say. Because when it’s really good, say it twice.

…AND IT HAS FABULOUS FOOD

Pictured is ajiaco, a traditional chicken soup.

Pictured is ajiaco, a traditional chicken soup.

Colombia’s Creole cuisine may not yet have achieved international fame, but as a food-concentrate travel is on the rise and may be about to change.

The best news is that if you want to eat at the best restaurants in Colombia, the meal prices are a bargain compared to other Latin countries.

In Cartagena, head to Celele for a contemporary twist on traditional dishes – the local chicken confit with sour guava and roasted bananas is a highlight. The restaurant is currently ranked 19th in the “Top 50 Latin American Restaurants” (celele.com).

In Bogota, at number five on the same list, is El Chato, which offers both a la carte and tasting menus. Classics include suckling pig with coffee, barley figs and vine leaves (elchato.co). At more traditional spots, dine inexpensively on local favorites of bandeja paisa – a gut of sausage, beans, rice, eggs and arepas (corn cakes), or ajiaco, chicken soup with corn on the cob, sour cream, potatoes and capers.

And on the Caribbean coast, try posta negra (black beef) – a casserole made from molasses and seasoned with bay leaf, thyme and cloves.

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