Colombia is a land rich in emeralds, coffee and history. Although this is the oldest democracy in Latin America, its recent history has kept many would-be travelers away. Those willing to look past the headlines and stereotypes will find enchanting cities and some of the most beautiful landscapes anywhere.

Colombia is the only nation in South America with Caribbean and Pacific shores. The Caribbean coastline is particularly blessed, with sparking beaches and a near-perfect climate. The central section of this coast is also the setting of one of the most beautiful colonial cities in the Americas. Founded in 1533 by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia, Cartagena was the first Spanish port in South America. It is often said that the Cuidad Amurallada (or old city) looks more Spanish than Spain. Here you’ll find 16th-century churches, castle walls, cobblestone streets and colonial palaces.

Just twenty nautical miles (50 minutes by boat) from Cartagena is the Islas del Rosario archipelago. A national park since 1977, this delicate chain of 43 islands lures visitors with amazingly clear waters; during the dry season divers enjoy visibility for more than one hundred feet. The park’s coral reefs, mangrove habitats and lagoons support more than 1,300 species, including dolphins, sea turtles and sea horses.

Some of the country’s finest coastline is found even farther out to sea—400 miles from the mainland on the Caribbean islands of San Andres and Providencia. Here, English is the primary language and duty-free shopping is a favorite pastime. The larger of the two islands is only eight miles long, but the white sand, coral and turquoise waters seem to stretch forever.

But not all of Colombia’s charms are tropical. Bogotá, the nation’s capital is spread on a fertile plain in the eastern Andes at 8,700 feet above sea level. The city was founded on the site of a Muisca village destroyed by Spanish conquistadors in 1538. Two centuries later, Bogotá became the capital of a huge Spanish colony known as New Granada, which included Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador.

Today Bogotá’s administrative importance is complimented by its cultural significance. Its Museum of Gold safeguards over 30,000 Pre-Colombian artifacts and the world’s largest uncut emerald. Iglesia Museo Santa Clara houses colorful frescoes masterfully painted by 17th-century nuns. Some of the country’s modern treasures are on display at the Donacion Botero, gifted to the city by iconic Colombian artist Fernando Botero. The museum includes a large collection of works by Mr. Botero, as well as paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Monet and Chagall. If you are more interested in natural beauty, take the cable car to the peak of Cerro de Monserrate for spectacular views.

Colombia straddles the equator, so it can be visited year round. Sunny weather predominates from December to April and from July to September.