Visit the Colourful Coastal City of Cartagena, Colombia

Columbia is a country of contrasts in many different aspects and Cartagena is one of these places that adds to it. Located on the Caribbean side of the country, it is classified as a port city, however, it is a popular beach destination. Places like Isla de Barú and Islas del Rosario – reachable by boat, are well known for their white-sand beaches, palm trees and coral reefs.  Look deeper though, and you will find a place rich in culture and a pleasure to explore.

I would agree that Colombia has not always felt like the most obvious place to go on holiday. Although it's been safe to visit for years.  A highly contested 2017 peace deal put an end to the country's civil war - the longest running in the western hemisphere - and Colombia is now emerging as a tourist destination. With its colonial mansions, horse-drawn carriages and UNESCO World Heritage-listed walled town and fort.

Cartagena is nicknamed "The Heroic City", because it survived siege after siege, including a particularly brutal attack by Sir Francis Drake in 1586. Today it welcomes a mixture of people: it’s home to glassy apartments own by footballers and Russian oligarchs.  Then there's the sprawling, crumbling San Felipe castle; then, further away, you can see tower blocks, then the sea.

What keeps the old town interesting, though, is that while it looks like a chocolate box, it doesn't feel like one. In a famous square is a serious group of statues, turns out to be a homage to drunken pissing; and right outside the Emerald Museum, every Miss Colombia ever her image grimily preserved for eternity on the ground in the Parque de Bolivar.

One of the city's best restaurant is called Inferno (which translates as 'inmate'). It’s a narrow strip of an overcrowded women's jail that has been converted into a restaurant. The bars across the door are painted pink. Plates of sticky beef and fluffy coconut rice are being cooked and served by prisoners.  It's part of an initiative to reconcile the city's prison and civilian populations - one of Cartagena's former mayors has himself recently been released from jail, so this relationship is a complex one.

The scheme has had extraordinary results: only one women who has gone through the programme has reoffended, which is a practically unheard of success rate, and almost every former inferno is currently employed in a restaurant on the outside.  But the women - who have an impulsive, exuberant warmth that is distinctively Colombian.

From Cartagena, you can easily take a boat to one of the Rosario Islands - the only National Park in Colombia that is predominantly underwater - or drive to any beach town on the coast.

One of the most mind-boggling things about this country is the violent contrasts in its climate: lush, jungle-covered coco in the west is one of the wettest places on earth; Bogota, the frenetic capital, is one of the world's highest: at 2,640 metres above sea level, walking uphill can leave you gasping. Rincon is boiling, and the pace of life is slow. Children play in the sea, occasionally someone will stop to introduce themselves on the beach, there's reggaeton at night (people dance constantly here, often in unexpected places). 

Colombians, unsurprisingly, are evangelical about their coffee - which is drunk without milk and has a distinctive fruity note. Possibly the most extraordinary place you can stay; here high up in the Andes, in the coffee-growing district around Manizales. To get here, you have to catch a plane to Pereira, or drive eight hours along stomach - churningly winding roads from Bogota. At night it's eerily quiet, the starlight so bright you can see by it.

The Hacienda el sedan, a big whitewashed coffee farmer's villa surrounded by palm trees a good place to stay. Half the day it's blinding sun forcing you to sit by the pool. Around 2pm it pours with rain. Afterwards, it's cool enough for you to go out riding on the farm's horses. There's a hammock on the balcony - swinging here, all you can see are lush green mountains thick with red coffee fruit spreading out towards the horizon. Enough to make you want to stay.