Discover the Top-rated Destinations to Explore in Colombia
Leave behind any assumptions you have about Colombia, because this remarkable country is full of surprises. As the second-most biodiverse nation in the world, Colombia boasts vast expanses of Amazonian jungle filled with wildlife, as well as dazzling white-sand beaches, soaring mountains, and verdant highland coffee plantations that create dramatic natural contrasts.
But it's not just Colombia's natural splendor that sets it apart. The country's bustling cities pulsate with a unique energy that distinguishes it from much of South America, demonstrating that Colombia has moved beyond its history of conflict.
With adventure and lively music found around every turn, it can be a challenge to determine the best places to visit in Colombia. However, thanks to convenient domestic flights and long-distance buses, exploring Colombia can easily cover significant ground on a short trip.
Here are the top 13 places to explore in Colombia.
Enchanting Cartagena is on most travelers' must-see list for good reason. This sultry city's delightful old town holds a magical walled complex of cobblestone streets draped with bougainvillea and shady squares where local performers move to the infectious beat of the city's famous energy. Experiencing Cartagena can range from spirited adventure to languid relaxation, with everything from long, leisurely lunches of tangy coconut ceviche at a family-run restaurant to absorbing the city's vibrant nightlife atop a rooftop bar.
2. The Amazon Jungle
Colombia's incredible array of flora and fauna place it on every wildlife lover's bucket list. While the Amazon jungle covers a third of the country's territory, most of it is inaccessible to tourists. However, Leticia, a remote outpost, provides a jumping-off point for tours into one of the wildest places on earth. Boat trips along the Río Amazonas and exploration of remote trails that cut through the forest floor enable visitors to see the inquisitive pink river dolphins, sluggish sloths, and hear the cacophony of howler monkeys for themselves.
Planning Tip: Book a tour into the jungle from Leticia and spend a couple of nights exploring the Amazon.
3. Zona Cafetera
Coffee is at the center of Colombian culture, and Zona Cafetera is the place to learn why. The region, which includes the departments of Risaralda, Caldas, and Quindío, is home to lush hillsides cultivated with arabica, the country's famous coffee bean. Families run fincas, or farms, and offer tours and overnight stays to curious tourists.
Transport tip: To reach Colombia’s stunning national gem, Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, arrange transportation from one of the regional hubs such as Manizales and Pereira. The park’s stunning palm-lined beaches and intimate coves along the Caribbean coast near Santa Marta draw visitors in search of relaxation with jungle trails for hiking. Although swimming is too dangerous at many of the park’s beaches, the isolated island of Playa Cristal offers unspoiled stretches of sand and the pristine waters appeal to beachgoers arriving by speedboat.
Visiting tip: Avoid the park’s annual maintenance shutdown, which occurs during January and February. For a four-day itinerary, consider including a visit to the Zona Cafetera’s Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados.
4. Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona
Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, nestled between the Caribbean coast and the looming Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, is a natural paradise of relaxation. The park’s pristine beaches, where water currents can be dangerous, are the perfect place for sunning or walking the trails along the coast. However, for an isolated swim, choose Playa Cristal, which is only accessible by speedboat.
Medellín was once known as the stronghold of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, but it’s since emerged as a regenerated city welcoming visitors with trendy music venues, upscale neighborhoods, and shady restaurants. As a gateway to the Zona Cafetera, the city offers something for everyone, from art lovers admiring Fernando Botero’s iconic sculptures to those seeking regeneration projects like Comuna 13 and Moravia, where street art and modern transportation have revitalized once rundown neighborhoods. Take the modern cable car up to Parque Arví, a nature reserve with pre-Hispanic trails through forested valleys and orchids.
6. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Delve into Colombia's rich history and take a journey back in time at the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the rugged mountain range that towers over the northeast. Meandering through lush forests on a challenging three-day trek, you'll eventually stumble upon La Ciudad Perdida, the most prominent archaeological site in the country dating back to 850 CE. Resting on a steep slope, hidden from view for centuries and only reclaimed in the 70s, the remnants of the long-abandoned stone city will leave you in awe, isolated and free from tourists.
7. La Guajira Peninsula
Immerse yourself in the serene beauty and stark desolation of La Guajira Peninsula, an untouched paradise nestled between the Caribbean Sea and vast stretches of windswept desert. Here, you will find the proud Wayuu tribe, who have lived in seclusion, warding off attempts at colonization for centuries. To explore this region fully, book a tour to the buzzing Riohacha after which spend at least a night on the peninsula. Don't miss the chance to soak up the tranquillity of Playa Taroa, renowned for its pristine expanse of sand and clear blue waters.
Colombia's salsa capital, Cali, is a city that knows how to let loose and have fun. Pick up some moves at the many dance schools, then hit one of the scintillating salsa clubs like Zaperoco, humming with locals eager to show off their skills. For a truly unforgettable salsa experience, snag a ticket to Delirio, a monthly salsa and cabaret show of epic proportions that will leave you enthralled and invigorated.
Bask in the warm, crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean at Providencia, the stunning island paradise situated 1240 km (770 miles) to the north of Colombia. The idyllic, golden beaches are perfect for a relaxing getaway, and the tranquil atmosphere is ideal for a stress-free holiday. Observe the island's vibrant, multicultural heritage, and take a rejuvenating break from the urban hubbub while you admire the island's lush natural beauty.
Venturing into the depths of crystal clear waters alongside enormous stingrays, turtles, and reef sharks along the 32km (20-mile) stretch of barrier reef, the world's third-largest, is a must-do activity for divers. For those preferring the solace of the shoreline, the 25°C (77°F) water temperatures and the plethora of beachside restaurants are more than sufficient to cater to your needs.
The Museo Botero in Bogotá boasts one of the most essential collections of works by the Colombian maestro. Situated on a lofty perch in the Andes Mountains, Bogotá can appear to be a mere jumping-off point for Colombia's milder destinations. But those who give it a chance will discover that the capital city is a place with a cosmopolitan ambiance and a rich variety of museums.
Gourmet dining blends with raucous nightlife in the city's increasingly fashionable neighborhoods of Zona Rosa and Chapinero. However, for a more peaceful and educational visit, take a day to marvel at the vast riches on display in the Museo de Oro, one of the finest collections of pre-Hispanic metallurgy in the continent. Another highlight is the Museo Botero, featuring a notable collection of modern and Impressionist art, including 123 pieces by Botero himself.
Adrenaline junkies need search no further than San Gil, Colombia's capital of adventure. Water sports are one of the primary draws here, with white-water rafting or hydrospeed excursions pushing you through picturesque canyons along Class I to Class V rapids. If you're looking to take off, abseiling journeys down gushing waterfalls, paragliding over rugged mountain peaks, and even bungee jumping are available to provide that adrenaline rush. Additionally, caving, mountain biking, and canyoning excursions are available.
Just a brief drive from the nearest town of La Macarena, Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de La Macarena is one of the most exceptional locations to visit in Colombia. Dubbed the "liquid rainbow," Caño Cristales is a river that runs pink. This remarkable stretch of water flushes rhubarb thanks to the growth of riverweed that occurs between July and October. Pack a bathing suit because you can swim in designated areas of the river.
Expert Tip for Planning: Despite the fact that Caño Cristales only became open to visitors in 2010 due to being previously occupied by FARC, the stunning beauty of this site has made it a victim of its own success. As a result, the daily number of visitors is now limited to only 200 people, and advance ticket booking through a local tour operator is necessary.
13. San Agustín National Archaeological Park
Located in the southwestern department of Huila, the San Agustín National Archaeological Park is a network of ceremonial and burial sites featuring fascinating stone statues with semi-human faces, fanged mouths, and wide eyes. Archeologists remain puzzled about their purpose, but evidence suggests that the area was a place of pilgrimage and ancestral worship over 2,000 years ago. Be sure to hire a local guide at the entrance to gain insight into the site's history and secrets.
This piece was originally published in February 2022 and revised in January 2023.
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