Colombia has emerged from its sketchy past with a bright-eyed new attitude and a distinction as the world's happiest country.
Happiness, I realize on my fourth day in Colombia, is earned. In this case, that joy exacted 1,000 vertical feet on Emerald-City-green mountains sprouting the world's tallest palm trees - soaring mops rooted in steep glades. Hike ventured, summit gained, I face the descending velvety slopes with playground-worthy elation and an urge, recklessly heeded, to run straight down to the bottom of the Cocora Valley.
Colombia, the South American surprise now emerging on the tourism map after decades of travel-deterring drug-related violence, offers cultural capitals, some of the continent's earliest colonial history, beaches on two oceans, and rugged Andes highlands. But perhaps its greatest revelation is the aforementioned happiness.
Last year, for the second year in a row, Colombia was named the world's happiest country based on a WIN-Gallup poll of 65 nations. Here, 86 percent of Colombians responding claimed to be happy, a puzzling statistic that begged the question: How can a country so recently synonymous with corruption and drug-dealing get happy virtually overnight?
As recently as 2000, guerrillas and paramilitary groups, some still fighting for leftist causes dating back to the Cold War and others formed by drug cartels that arose in the 1970s to protect their lucrative trade in cocaine, terrorized the countryside with roadblocks, kidnappings, and bombings. It took rightist hard-liner Alvaro Uribe, president from 2002 to 2010, to curtail crime and restore order. With newfound security, the economy flourished, growing more than 4 percent annually in the past decade, outpacing most other major South American countries, a political and economic victory that perhaps explains the national sense of exhilaration.
By blending the miraculous and the ordinary, Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, progenitor of magical realism, first hooked me on Colombia as a college student reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. The country's tourism office has seized on the genre, using magical realism to attract 3.7 million travelers in 2013, up 8.5 percent over the year prior.
It's one thing to be the hottest destination in Latin America; but given the country's nascent travel industry, limited roads, and sparse luxury hotels, it's another issue to navigate it. For that, I turned to Cox & Kings, a high-end tour operator established in 1758. From Los Angeles, Latin American destination manager Ignacio Vallin designed a unique weeklong overview of Colombia's rich variety: exciting cities, colonial gems, and unique landscapes. He promised personal attention, memorable hotels, expert guides, and "a few surprises" along the way.
Hormiga culona, or big-butt ants
Freddy Ruiz, my guide in the capital of Bogotá, expertly navigates among the estimated 40,000 who visit Monserrate, a mountaintop church, each Sunday. Here, young mothers patiently teach toddlers to climb steps, and teens snap selfies with the panorama of Bogotá's Andes-ringed basin at their feet. Beside the church, an open-air market hawks souvenir T-shirts, wine skins attached to calf hooves, and indigenous products from brown-sugared panela tea to the big-butt ants - which are salty, crunchy, and unsettlingly creamy - that Freddy insists I try.
"Today we do what Colombians do," beams Freddy, tucking the remaining ant snacks into my bag.
What Colombians also do on Sunday is throng the Gold Museum, a cultural highlight that makes Bogotá a natural chapter-one introduction to the country. The colonizing Spaniards' thirst for gold lured them from their initial outpost in coastal Santa Marta inland to Bogotá, drawn by the legend of El Dorado (the Golden Man). The actual El Dorado was a native Muisca shaman who made offerings of gold to the sun, a ritual simulated in the immersive sound-and-light choreography of the museum's Offering room.
"Gold represents the richness of the country," explains Freddy, connecting the ancient practice to the modern Colombian flag that's dominated by a wide band of gold, underlined by narrower stripes of blue for the oceans and red "for the blood of the patriots."
Led by Venezuela-born Simon Bolivar, Colombia won independence from Spain in 1819 as Gran Colombia, encompassing both Venezuela and Ecuador. The great patriot's statue appears in virtually every town I would visit, acquainting me with his official biography as a visionary leader and his colloquial reputation as a lover of women.
From magazine covers featuring Modern Family actress and Colombian native Sofia Vergara to curbside Madonnas posted to protect motorists, women dominate the country's popular culture. At the downtown Botero Museum, filled with paintings by Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero of voluminous subjects, mainly women, I join art lovers reveling in the splendor and hilarity of enormity, the surrealist disproportion of figures that seem to glow with an internal light.
"Botero only appears simple on the surface," says Freddy, noting references to Renaissance paintings. "You can see a cartoon, or look deeper and see more."
Absurdity and beauty define the day, capped by dinner at the lively meat-centric restaurant Andrés D.C., a 5-year-old, four-story party palace where red glass hearts inscribed with the names of García Márquez characters glow above the tables, and a quartet of musicians brings the fiesta to me, as a first-time visitor to the country, in the way of confetti butterflies and a sash worthy of Miss Colombia. "Bienvenidos!" they sing. "We're happy you're here."
The amity of moonshine
The next morning, when a crush of heedless drivers merges from three directions into one lane, I buckle up and thank the next roadside Madonna we escape Bogotá alive.
"Driving laws, like stop signs, are a suggestion," shrugs Freddy, as we set out in a chauffeur-driven Chinese-made SUV for Villa de Leyva, a pristinely preserved colonial town about four rural hours' drive from harried Bogotá. It's the best-comes-last stop in a diverting road trip to an underground cathedral in the Zipaquirá salt mine, and the pottery-making village of Ráquira, where the tinkling of ceramic wind chimes fills the streets.
Ráquira-made flowerpots line the windows of Villa de Leyva's handsome haciendas. Founded in 1572, the Andalucía-inspired town of whitewashed adobe buildings with terra-cotta-tiled roofs and balconies painted hunter green was once a respite for Spanish troops that assembled in the 150,000-square-foot cobblestone field of a central plaza. Now it's a high-desert weekend escape with historic courtyard houses carved up into hideaway restaurants. We will yet hike to a famous fossil site nearby and tour a 16th-century monastery. But for an agenda-free pause, Villa de Leyva - with its fire-lit cafés and bench-ringed square where locals invite us to share bottles of local liquor - is like the Bolivar of romance.
THE WONDER OF DAYS THREE AND FOUR
Pereira, the capital of Colombia's highland coffee country in the central Andes, and our next destination, is just 138 kilometers from Bogotá, according to the in-flight map. But the fact that Cox & Kings recommends flying illustrates both the challenging topography and poor infrastructure that ensures a whole new world lies just 100 miles away. Replacing Bogotá's arid chill, Pereira is warm and wet, orchestrated by a nocturne of chirping crickets and bass-note frogs. In the morning, a rainbow spectrum of bird-life descends from the ancient sampan and towering mango trees on the lush grounds of Hacienda San Jose, an 1888 estate-turned-hotel.
"We're first for birds," proclaims John Agudelo, my encyclopedic guide in these highlands, claiming a record 1,880 species nationally and modeling an optimism and resiliency that seem characteristically Colombian. Cataloging the nation's natural wealth, he notes Colombia's biodiversity is second only to the four-times-larger Brazil. "Despite the corruption of 20 or 30 years ago, we still say how very rich we are."
John aims to show me another first, the world's tallest palm. Colombia's national tree, the Quindio wax palm, native to high altitudes, grows up to 230 feet in the Cocora Valley, an Edenic 150,000-acre trench in the Los Nevados National Natural Park. Here, the soaring trees gently sway, tickling the cottony clouds that graze velvety, grass-knit peaks - a mirage of Hawaii, except for, perhaps, the Guernsey cows mowing the slopes. Forget-me-nots line our path to 8,400 feet on an exhilarating hike with recovery pauses to forage among thickets of wild blackberries.
Rare yellow-eared parrots spread the palm seed naturally, helped by volunteers who cultivate seedlings at the park base. "There are three things you should do in your life," instructs grandfatherly Marco Fidel Torres, who oversees the planting program, offering his prescription for happiness as we prepare a palm bed. "Write a book, have a child, and plant a tree."
A spoonful of sugar makes the Juan Valdez go down
Man-made terraces sculpt the terrain that comprises Colombia's coffee country, a 550-square-mile region inscribed by UNESCO as a Cultural Landscape in 2011. The organization hailed the unique adaptation of cafeteros, or coffee farmers, to slopes that plunge to 55 degrees, and their distinctive villages that blend native bamboo construction with Spanish colonial style detailed in color-wild tangerine-to-turquoise trim paint.
Not far from Cocora Valley, Instagram-ready Salento - population 8,000 - models the architectural charm of the region. From the central square - commanded by a statue of Bolivar, of course - bilevel storefronts, trimmed in sun-soaked oranges, pinks, and sky blues brightly picket the main street, Calle Real.
Proving all surprises are not necessarily good, I learn Colombia exports almost 90 percent of its coffee, saving some of the poorest for local consumption, disguised by heaps of sugary compensation. "We make one of the best coffees in the world, but we don't know how to drink it," admits John.
We continue our coffee country tour at Hacienda San Alberto in the tiny village of Buenavista, where guide Yeimy Polania Martinez leads me up a precipitous hillside. Here, pickers swathed in rain-repelling plastic pluck ripened red berries from trees soaked by an early morning shower. Afterward, she conducts a blind tasting of two coffees: one dark and muddy, the kind regularly drunk here; the other bright and smooth, the refined house brew. "Colombians are still learning the difference," she says.
Throughout Colombia, barista culture may lag, but it's no reflection on the food. In cities small and large, exotic fruits pile market stalls and stock juice bars. Soup recipes found in local magazines call for specific potato varieties among the hundreds grown here. Street vendors from urban to rural sell grilled corn cakes known as arepas. The local diesel fuel ACPM is a ready acronym for the dietary staples of human fuel: arroz, carne, papas, and maduro, or rice, beef, potatoes and plantain, respectively.
Before leaving coffee country, I dine at Hotel Boutique Sazagua, where manager Maria Amelia Ocampo, who also hosts a local TV cooking show, prepares the classiest take on rustic fare I would have in the country: ropa vieja, or shredded beef, with homemade ice cream made from a tangy fruit called pitaya. "We want people to come to the coffee country and experience it in an exciting and unforgettable way," she explains, offering the warmest hug I've ever had from an acquaintance of under an hour.
The reality of magic
The next evening, having jetted from the cool verdant mountains to sultry coastal Cartagena, I take a seat among cocktailing tourists atop the ancient city walls as a full moon rises behind them. Until this humid evening, I hadn't heard much English. Nor Brazilian, nor Dutch, nor Japanese. But Cartagena has been Colombia's front door since the Spanish first settled it in 1533, a top-of-the-continent port for shipping gold out and slaves in. The modern cruise industry pioneered international tourism here decades ago. Now, after a conflict-imposed hiatus, those ships are back and the charismatic colonial city is booming with new roads, cafés, and hotels (both Four Seasons and Viceroy hotels are reportedly in the works).
That accounts for the colorfully dressed women who pose for tips balancing fruit on their heads, for the cumbia dancers in (again) Bolivar Square, and for the sunset-watchers who crowd Café del Mar atop the wide city walls. Popular though it is, Cartagena remains authentic. School kids run screaming through the tunnels in the 17th-century San Felipe de Barajas fort. Passersby ogle the tiled pictures of past beauty queens paving an old town arcade. Families play stickball in the narrow alleys. And two elderly Colombian women lunching next to me at homey La Mulata restaurant insist I try their fruit juice - a cranberrylike drink called corozo.
"But you don't know me," I stammer.
They insist in Spanish, then to ensure I understand that sharing trumps hygiene, switch to English. "Es wow!"
The Caribbean coast, more than any region, is the land of García Márquez; the late Nobel-Prize-winning writer hailed from the tropics. I had been rereading his Chronicle of a Death Foretold on this trip, until I misplaced the book somewhere near Bogotá. I could replace it, of course, but the hardcover had been my mother's, her insights scripted in the margins. On my last afternoon in Cartagena, a Cox & Kings representative arrives at my hotel with the book, and my very own magical realism moment, in hand.
"It's a happy mystery, no?" she winks.
Indeed, a final surprise, in a trip full of them.
• Cox & Kings designs custom, private trips to Colombia beginning at about $5,500 for eight days, excluding flights. 800-999-1758; coxandkingsusa.com
• Avianca, the national airline of Colombia, has direct and connecting flights to Bogotá and Cartagena from 11 American gateways. 800-284-2622; avianca.com