What a pleasant surprise!

As a result of the news media, Colombia is probably one of the most misunderstood countries of the world. Most would never consider Colombia to be a travel destination, but the situation is changing and the word is getting out.

The New York Times and Lonely Planet Travel Guide both list Colombia as one of the top 10 must-travel-to destinations of 2010.

The country’s long civil war has subsided and this has attributed greatly to the rise in tourism. Long known for its drugs, violence and danger, in recent years there have been drastic improvements in the security and economy of the country and people are returning to find a paradise mostly undiscovered. Significant poverty and unemployment still exists, yet major efforts are underway by the government, nonprofit Colombian organizations and other countries to help improve the quality of life of the Colombian people. Besides being friendly and amicable people, Colombians are also hard workers and some of the happiest people in the world.

Colombia is a tropical country of incredible diversity, beauty and only a 2 1/2 hour flight from the United States. The size of California and Texas combined, its geography includes glaciers, beaches, plains, rainforests and deserts; its history is loaded with mystery and adventure; its people and cultures have fascinated the world for centuries. Many of the latest fashions and styles originate there, modern architecture abounds in the major cities, the latest medical technology is practiced and there is diverse cuisine for anyone’s palate. Known for its multicultural society, Colombia has influences from Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Native American cultures. There is a population of about 45 million people, making it the 25th largest country and the second largest Spanish speaking population (after Mexico) in the world.

Although excellent coffee, high quality emeralds and exotic flowers have made the country famous, Colombia is also the homeland of the famous writer and Nobel Prize winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez; the world famous singer, Shakira and veteran race car driver, Juan Pablo Montoya. Coming to Colombia is discovering a completely new world and it can be difficult to choose from among the many destinations Colombia has to offer. With 32 departments (states), each has its own culture including food, music, accent, clothes and natural beauty.

Two examples of the major Colombian cities where Friends for Colombia works to support nonprofit organizations are Bogota and Cartagena.

Bogota: Colombia’s capital is a modern, cosmopolitan city located at more than 8,500 feet above sea level. Its 8 million inhabitants come from all over Colombia and make it as diverse as the whole country. The city boasts an efficient mass transport system, many parks and large open spaces, modern shopping malls, and architecture spanning four centuries of history. Bogota’s rich culture includes a plethora of museums, art galleries, universities, theatre, music, dance and wonderful restaurants representing cuisines from all over world. It is a hub for global business. One must visit Bogota many times to really get to know it.

Cartagena: Colombia’s pearl of the Caribbean is experiencing a rebirth with visitors from all over the world walking its colorful Spanish colonial cobblestone streets inside the 400 hundred year old wall encircling the city. Beauty pageants, music and dance festivals keep the city swinging after dark and white sand beaches and crystal-clear water abound. Large, new high rise apartment buildings are springing up and from the air Cartagena looks like Miami Beach. This seaport city of over 1 million residents received nearly 200 cruise ships during the 2009-2010 season.

Since Colombia is not a well known tourist destination, the goal of Friends for Colombia is to help others discover the reality of what Colombia is and has to offer. Wonderful opportunities also exist for visitors to get to know and help the many wonderful Colombians faced with poverty and social challenges.

As the Colombian Department of Tourism says, “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.” We think you’ll agree with the many visitors who have found this to be true!