(This article first appeared in the April 2012 edition of Golf Canada magazine)
When I tell people I'm travelling to Colombia, the first question back usually is: "Will you need a bodyguard?" On my last trip, I was invited to this South American country (spelled with an "o," not a "u") to golf. When I told friends, family—and even fellow golf writers—I was met with a surprised look and a further question: "They have courses there?"
As someone who has visited this South American country five times in the past seven years, I can answer both these queries with confidence. No bodyguard is necessary. As long as you travel smart, the majority of Colombia is as safe–if not safer–than many North American cities. And, yes, there are great campos de golf.
Despite a healthy economy, and a democratic government that has continually fought to reduce the strength of the guerrillas, mainly the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia)—who have terrorized citizens since their formation as a military wing of the Colombian Communist party in 1964—the public perception is that Colombia is a dangerous country. If the country was not safe, would the Canadian government have signed a free trade agreement with this South American neighbour last summer? Would Scotiabank have invested $1-billion to buy a majority stake in Banco Colpatria last fall?
So, be not afraid. Visit this Eldorado with an open mind and an adventurous spirit and here are just a few of the wonders you'll discover: smiles three-lanes wide, the smell of a tinto (small, dark coffee) wafting from a sidewalk café and Sunday mornings when major roads are closed to cars—allowing cyclers, joggers, roller bladers and even families pushing strollers, to enjoy a few peaceful hours along the tree-lined calles.
Colombians are a friendly people, full of patriotic passion and a zest for life; they exhibit a joie de vivre, which, despite hardships, allows them to stay positive and share a smile. The untold story includes a country that is rich in coffee, culture, jewels, and golf.
Thanks largely to Camilo Villegas' success on the PGA TOUR—the 30-year-old, born in Medellín (Colombia's second largest city), has won three times since his rookie year in 2006—golf in Colombia is gaining ground. The PGA TOUR's investment in the region with The Nationwide Tour season-opening event (the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship) at The Country Club de Bogotá–now in its second year–has also helped.
Still, outside the country, the golf scene is not that well known; yet, famed architects such as Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones, Gary Player, and Canada's own Stanley Thompson (with a pair of designs) have all left their mark here.
Colombia is home to more than 50 courses, spread throughout the country. The Andes mountain range splits into three in the middle of the country, which makes for an otherworldly golf experience surrounded by breathtaking landscapes—from row-upon-row of coffee trees and native flowers such as the false-bird-of-paradise, to deep valleys and verdant mountains.
Villegas is all too familiar with the negative image many people have of Colombia. When I interviewed the affable athlete earlier this year, he offered this advice to try to change people's perceptions about the place where his heart is, and where his family still live. "Visit with an open mind and see it for yourself," said the winner of The 2010 Honda Classic. "Don't be scared, go and enjoy, and have fun. Everyone from around the world that has had the chance to visit Colombia sees how the reality differs from what the media focuses on."
When it comes to golf in Colombia, the only risk is that you'll have so much fun discovering the various campos and soaking in the postcard-a-minute vistas, you'll want to linger on the links longer.
BOGOTÁ and its surrounding savannah: Colombia's capital and the surrounding savannah feature the most courses. Here are some of the top tracks: El Country Club in Bogotá, Los Lagartos (a brand new 18 holes designed by American Scott Miller is set to open in 2012), San Andres Golf Club (designed by Stanley Thompson), and La Pradera de Potosí Club.
TRIANGLULO DEL CAFÉ (The Coffee Triangle) PEREIRA: Club Campestre de Pereira.
MANIZALES: The capital of the department of Caldas, Manizales is in the center-west of Colombia, located in the Central Andes. Club Campestre de Manizales.
CALI: Club Campestre Cali.
MEDELLÍN: Where Villegas was born and first learned to swing a golf club at the Club Campestre Medellín. Another course the PGA TOUR player likes is La Macarena (Medellín).
IF YOU GO
WEATHER: Another misconception about Colombia is that it's hot everywhere. That's not the case. Colombia is one of the most bio-diverse countries—it has everything from high mountain ranges to valleys and rainforests so the weather ranges from tropical to temperate. Due to its elevation Bogotá and its surrounding savannah see average temperatures of 14 Celsius. The average in other regions is anywhere from 22C to 36 C.
AIRLINES: Air Canada flies to Bogotá direct several times per week (flight time from Toronto is six hours). Other major airlines that service Colombia include American, Continental, and Delta (all fly from Toronto with connections in Miami or New York). Discount airlines Jet Blue out of Buffalo and Spirit airlines out of Detroit are other options. For flights within Colombia, try Avianca.
WHEN TO VISIT: Anytime. Colombia's climate makes it a year-round tourist destination since there are no true seasons—other than summer (the dry season) and winter (the rainy season).
SAFETY CONSIDERATIONS: No different than travelling anywhere–be smart. Don't look like a tourist (i.e. camera around your neck, talking English loudly, carrying around a map, flashing your wallet, wearing expensive jewelery, etc.), and stick to the major metropolitan cities. The national police protect Colombians and visitors alike; don't let these armed men and women you see on the streets or the side of the highways intimidate or scare you.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Colombia offers everything from major-chain American hotels such as Radisson and Marriott to small, boutique hotels in the big cities and rustic hacienda-style accommodations in the countryside and smaller towns. If travelling to Pereira, check out these boutique hotels: Sazagua, where you can get a massage at its full-service spa to recharge those golf muscles, or Hacienda San Jose (founded in 1888), where a hammock awaits your stay.