CNN) — There was a time when few travelers visited Colombia, when the country was synonymous with drug lords, when the only English you heard on the streets was spoken by American Marines.
That Colombia — a country of conflict and cartels — has largely disappeared, replaced by a rejuvenated capital of Bogota and a resilient culture that refuses to be bogged down by the dark days.
Premonitions and stereotypes should be swept aside before visiting this South American country of spectacular scenery. Today’s Colombia is much more than the ugly Escobar legacy or its famed Andean coffee — though a cup of café will most certainly reach your hands during a trip.
Here are some important things to keep in mind before visiting the country with the third-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world (about 46 million), after Mexico and Spain.
Jutting out of a mountainside packed with russet cinder-block slums, the three black shards of Medellin’s Espana Library stand out in a sea of shanties.
Completed in 2007, the Espana Library has become a calling card for the revitalized city, just one of the examples that led the Washington-based Urban Land Institute to name it the 2012 “Innovative City of the Year” in a competition co-sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and Citi.
“Medellin is a city that works hard to tell the world of its capabilities and broadcast its impressive tourism opportunities,” said Maria Claudia Lacouture, president of trade group Proexport Colombia.
Drop your ideas of a coke-soaked land still lost in the days of the Escobar gang.
The coca leaf is still chewed in some rural communities, and coca leaf tea is stocked for tourists, but suggesting that Colombia hasn’t moved on from its inglorious past is considered ignorant and rude.
Colombia has persevered, though unfortunately so has the drug war, migrating closer to its end market — the U.S.-Mexico border.
3. Bogota must be seen from Monserrate
Every big city has a perfect vantage point from which to appreciate its immensity. For Bogota, that magic spot is Monserrate.
From the summit, Bogota’s vast gray and red concrete expanse absorbs the green valley that frames it; the sight puts the sprawling proportion of this megacity into perspective.
4. Security has dramatically improved
The country’s new image has led to a rise in tourism, with bus trips (albeit on select routes) now considered safe for foreigners.
5. Real Colombians drink cafe tinto
Colombia is synonymous with coffee, so it’s little surprise that the morning beverage is in such high demand that leagues of women walk Colombian cities serving it.
At first glance, these women may appear equipped to snuff out pests, but their mobile packs aren’t meant for exterminating bugs, they’re meant for pouring hot coffee.
A real Colombian, you’ll inevitably be told, takes the stuff black, or cafe tinto.
6. Salsatecas are best when hot and sweaty
7. Pueblitos are favored weekend destinations
Outside Bogota, Guatavita is a small town near Guatavita Lake that offers idyllic views of casitas, the small houses that exemplify Colombia’s countryside.
8. Nothing is more Colombian than aguardiente
9. Colombian climates vary wildly