Colombia has long been tarred with negative headlines: violent drug cartels, violent revolutionary guerillas and little else. But things have improved enormously in the last decade, and it’s now no longer the most dangerous country on earth, but the happiest. Here are seven reasons why Colombia is finally coming up trumps, from football to food.
1. It’s no longer the most dangerous country in the world
Colombia has now dropped down the World’s Most Dangerous list to No.17, according to the 2015 Global Peace Index. Still not a great chart position, but a major improvement on the dark days of the 1990s when the country’s sky-high murder rate was fuelled by a toxic mix of drug cartels and guerrilla insurgency. Today, regeneration is the name of the game and Colombia’s infamous second city of Medellín is a prime example. It has cleaned up its act and is now home to a vibrant art scene to rival Bogotá, great clubbing and green space aplenty.
2. Two oceans are better than one
Colombia is the only country in South America to be lapped by two different oceans – the Pacific and the Atlantic (in the shape of the Caribbean Sea). And with 3,000km of beach to choose from, there’ll always be a patch of white sand to lay your towel on. If you really want to get away from it all, though, hop on a plane to Isla de Providencia in Colombia’s outlying San Andrés archipelago, some 800km north of the mainland, where snorkelling, diving and snoozing beneath the palm trees are the order of the day on one of the Caribbean’s best-kept secrets.
3. There are more gorgeous birds than anywhere else
No, we’re not talking about stunning songstress Shakira or Miss Universe runner-up Ariadna Gutiérrez. Colombia is officially the most diverse country on the planet when it comes to our feathered friends, with nearly 2,000 species identified so far. With so many different birds swooping across the skies from the Andes to the Amazon, the list of names is eclectic. So pack your binoculars and a copy of Birds of Northern South America, and keep your eyes peeled for a Fenwick’s antpitta or rufous-vented chachalaca.
4. It’s the happiest country on earth
It’s official: Colombia has been voted the happiest place on earth… again. In WIN/Gallup’s 2015 Global Barometer of Hope and Happiness, the country came top by miles with 87 per cent of Colombians polled saying they were happy, and only two per cent saying they were unhappy, giving them a ‘net happiness score’ of 85 per cent — a full 20 points above the global average and nearly double the score of the US. Great weather, great food, great people, great natural surroundings and a great vibe all help, as does the fact that Colombians enjoy more public holidays than almost anywhere else.
5. The coffee’s recognised by UNESCO
Protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Triángulo del Café (coffee triangle) in the steep-sided foothills of the Cordillera de los Andes is home to lush plantations, handsome ranches and sweeping mountain views as far as the eye can see. Coffee arrived in Colombia with the missionaries in the 18th century and left again in 1835 when the first bags of arabica beans were shipped to the US. The black stuff is big business here – the country is the world’s third biggest exporter (after Brazil and Vietnam) with some 570,000 individual producers and there’s even a Parque del Café theme park. After something a bit stronger? The local firewater, aguardiente (or guaro as the locals call it), kicks like a mule.
6. The food’s not bad either
With such a wonderfully diverse landscape, stretching from coast to rainforest to high mountains, it’s no surprise that Colombian cuisine is full of contrasts. Head to Medellín and you can tuck into Colombia’s equivalent of a full English – the bandeja paisa. This national, gut-busting dish includes beans, rice, ground beef, chorizo, plantain, arepa, avocado, fried egg and a slice of fried pork belly all on the same plate. Head to the coast and you can order fried mojarra fish with coconut rice. Wherever you are, though, you’ll find an arepa (corn cake) stall nearby. The country’s staple snack is stuffed with anything from cheese to avocado – however it comes, though, it’s always delicious.
7. Football is sacred
Few things invoke a more passionate reaction in Colombia than football and there have been plenty of larger-than-life characters over the years, from goalkeeper René Higuita wowing the world with his sublime scorpion kick save against England in 1995 to Carlos Valderrama and his precision passing skills (and famously imprecise hairdo). The biggest star in the side today is James Rodríguez who, at the age of 24, is already captain of the national team, the Golden Boot winner at the 2014 World Cup and a Real Madrid Galactico. In a country as divided as Colombia, Los Cafeteros have helped to unite the people. They’re currently ranked fourth in the world and, with global stars such as Rodríguez and Arsenal’s David Ospina in the line-up, the future’s looking bright for the team and the country.