Colombia has become a bit of an “it” destination over the past few years. There was a period in the not so distant past when you’d have been considered crazy for planning a visit, and even now, many people still question whether it’s a safe destination to explore. Despite these reservations, there is endless adventure to be found and countless incredible places to visit in Colombia if you give it a chance!
In recent times it’s started to shed its reputation as one of the most dangerous places on earth, rife with drugs cartels and the associated violence, and is now enjoying something of a moment. Once you get past the outdated preconceptions, there’s a world of awesomeness to be discovered in this diverse and colourful South American hub. Need more inspiration? Check out these 10 unmissable places to visit in Colombia, and if you’re feeling hungry, check out this amazing food guide to Colombia.
PRO TIP: If you’re planning to travel in Colombia for a few weeks, I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to have decent travel insurance – especially if you plan to tour by bike or scooter. I always use World Nomads, as they’re known as the best insurer for backpackers and long term travellers.
Top 10 Places To Visit in Colombia
Trek to the Lost City
The Lost City is an old, native settlement built high in the hills of the Sierra Nevada mountains by the tribes that still live there to this day. It was long whispered that there were large reserves of treasure buried in the area, and in the 1970s hunters from the towns found those rumours to be true when they uncovered the remains of this vast ancient city.
The 5 day trek to reach it takes you high up into the Sierra Nevada mountains through thick, lush jungle that’s peppered with eye catching wildlife. You’ll spot colourful toucans high up in the canopy, graceful hummingbirds playfully flitting about, and all manner of insects among the dense vegetation surrounding the red clay paths. The hike is broken up by regular dips in gorgeous, natural freshwater pools which are a welcome relief from the tropical temperatures.
Climb El Penon de Guatape
Despite its numerous names, which include the Stone of El Peñol, La Piedra, or just El Peñol, this towering lump of granite is unquestionably one of a kind. You reach the top of this giant, 385 meter high rock by climbing a precarious looking, zigzagged set of staircases built into a crack in its side.
The 740 plus steps that take you to the top are well worth the effort, and you’ll soon forget about your aching limbs once you’re feasting your eyes on the breathtaking views. There’s a lookout tower at the peak, and from here you can enjoy the panoramic vista over the hundreds of islands that dot the surrounding lake.
Check Out Colonial Cartagena
Cartagena is undoubtedly one of Colombia’s most popular tourist destinations, both with domestic and overseas visitors. This is in part thanks to it being within easy flying distance from the U.S. But the real reason that so many people descend on this small town on the Caribbean coast each year is because of its quaint, colonial architecture.
The colourful buildings of the Old Town, their balconies overflowing with pretty pink and red flowers, line the narrow cobbled streets and make for Instagram gold. Walk along the walls surrounding the Old Town and you’ll pass original canons and watchtowers harking back to the days of Spanish rule. Though it’s undoubtedly busy, Cartagena’s charm will win you over. Definitely one of the most colourful places to visit in Colombia!
Hit the Beaches of Tayrona National Park
The Tayrona National Park on Colombia’s Caribbean coast is graced with countless exquisite golden stretches of sand, flanked by untamed jungle. The seas are rough here meaning that not all beaches are suitable for swimming, but their rugged beauty alone will draw you in.
Though Cabo San Juan is probably the most popular area in the park, feel free to head to some of the more remote beaches for a more rustic experience. Sunrises in the park are something to savour, and you should keep an eye out for the families of monkeys that live in the surrounding jungle.
Explore the Valley de Cocora
The Valley de Cocora is the main draw for the many visitors that make the trip to the colourful, Andean town of Salento. Peppered with impossibly proportioned palm trees that are so tall and spindly they look as though they’d snap at the first puff of a light breeze, there are some remarkable hikes throughout the valley.
Humid cloud forest, pounding waterfalls, and phenomenal scenery are the order of the day here, regardless of whether you take a short route or one of the longer more demanding ones. You’ll also come across plenty of wildlife on your tramp through the jungle making it a must for nature lovers.
Visit the Island of San Andres
Not many people know that Colombia lays claim to a number of alluring Caribbean islands off its North Western coast. San Andres is one of these and will give you a totally different experience of a little known aspect of this country. Stepping off the plane you can immediately feel the difference from the mainland and start to sense a more laid back vibe to go with the tropical scenery.
This tiny island is surrounded by clear turquoise waters, perfect for snorkelling and scuba diving thanks to the clear visibility and range of wildlife on offer. It’s also a bit of a surf haven with many beaches boasting kick ass breaks. But if adventure sports aren’t really your thing, feel free just to kick back on one of its golden sand beaches with a rum in hand. Of all the amazing places to visit in Colombia, this is where you will find absolute paradise on earth!
Eat All the Food
Colombian food gets a bit of a bad rap, and it’s definitely overshadowed in the worldwide fame stakes by some of its South American neighbours’ cuisines, like Peruvian and Brazilian. However, there are plenty of culinary gems to get your taste buds going here and many of the dishes are hearty and packed full of flavour.
The national dish (more of a platter) of bandeja paisa is a gut busting combination of various meats, rice, beans, plantain, avocado, and egg, and is guaranteed to fill a hole. Other foods to try are stuffed arepas, a kind of corn bread packed with your choice of irresistible fillings, and bunuelos, a kind of savoury, cheesy donut.
Bogota Bike Tour
Due to being located at an altitude of over 2,500 meters, the weather in Bogota is cold and the skies more often than not shrouded in grey cloud. But despite the slightly depressing climate, Colombia’s capital city is one of the coolest in South America and has an edgy, artsy, creative vibe to it.One of the best ways to see the city is to book yourself onto the multi award winning Bogota Bike Tour.
Knowledgeable, passionate local guides take you on a whistle-stop ride around the city’s most important areas and sights, taking in parks, local street art, historic buildings, street food, and even a coffee factory. It’s informative, political, and highly engaging, and you get around far more of the city than you could in the same time by foot.
Ride the Cable Cars in Medellin
Medellin is Colombia’s second largest city, and most associated with the the drug lords who reigned supreme here for decades. Though you can still clearly see the physical scars of the explosive battles previously fought openly in the streets, the city has recently undergone a complete regeneration. In its new incarnation it’s been labelled as one of the continent’s most modern in both infrastructure and outlook.
The ambitious project to build the long cable car lines that now link the surrounding, less well off mountain suburbs with the prosperous city centre are an embodiment of that journey. Spend an afternoon riding the cable cars to the top of the line and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views over the whole of the sprawling city.
Salsa Dancing in Cali
For those with rhythm in their bones, or perhaps who just want to watch some amazing dancers flaunting their moves, Cali is a must visit city. Nicknamed “the salsa capital of the world”, you’ll find clubs dedicated to the city’s number one passion, and music seeping out of speakers everywhere you go.
Beginners can book themselves a lesson or two at one of the numerous academies dotted around the city during the day, and then get ready to hit the clubs until the early hours come nightfall. There are many beginner-friendly spots so there’s no need to feel intimidated either, get your dancing shoes on and give it a whirl.
James & Sarah of TheWholeWorldOrNothing are full time backpackers and part time thrill seekers. It all started with a conversation about wanting more from life and a desire to travel the world. Now they are living their dream and hope to inspire you to put your fears aside and go follow yours. Follow them on Facebook or Instagram to keep up with their journey and awesome travel tips.