12 Top-Rated Attractions & Places to Visit in Colombia
Cast all of your outdated ideas aside - like drug wars and gangsters - and you'll find that Colombia is a nation brimming with confidence and rushing headfirst into a more peaceful and prosperous future. In this land of contrasts, you'll encounter snow-capped Andean peaks, tropical Amazonian jungles, turquoise Caribbean coasts, and two sun-kissed deserts. You'll also find a host of spectacular attractions at the places in between, from the bustling cities of Bogotá and Medellin to the quiet colonial villages of Salento and Mompox. Above all else, the famous Colombian hospitality will undoubtedly find you coming back for more.
Bogotá might be the Colombian capital, but it's the smaller and more manageable city of Medellin that tends to capture the hearts of visitors. Medellin was dubbed the most dangerous city in the world in the early 1990s, but a quarter of a century later, it has earned a reputation for something entirely different: innovation. The city boasts cable cars linking the settlements in its hills to a modern metro system in the valley below, a greenbelt of lush "eco parks," and striking libraries and community centers in some of the poorest neighborhoods.
A great day of sightseeing might start in the Old Quarter at Botero Plaza, where you'll find a collection of 23 portly sculptures donated by the beloved Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Adjacent to the plaza is the must-visit Museum of Antioquia and the striking Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture. Then, head into the hills above town by riding the sleek escalator system through Comuna 13 to explore this neighborhood's colorful homes and elaborate street murals. Finish your day in Medellin's trendiest commune, El Poblado, where you'll find buzzing eateries, boutique shops, and the vast majority of the city's hotels.
2 Eje Cafetero
The world's third-largest producer of coffee beans, Colombia is a fantastic country for tastings and tours. The vast majority of production takes place in the subtropical Andean hills west of Bogota between the small cities of Armenia, Pereira, and Manizales. This region, known as the Eje Cafetero (or Coffee Axis), is home to a growing number of coffee plantations that have opened up their operations to the public in recent years for tours, tastings, and lavish farm stays. These small (and often organic) plantations are the kind of places where the farmer-owner might take an hour out of his day to explain the process of how a humble "cherry" turns into a coffee bean that will one day be roasted and ground into a latte back home.
The small resort town of Salento is easily the most attractive place to base yourself, with numerous farm tours nearby and plenty of things to do. You'll also have easy access to attractions like Cocora Valley, home to the tallest palm trees in the world. You can rent bicycles from Salento to explore the region under your own steam or ride on one of the old-fashioned Willy jeeps that serve as the town's de facto taxis.
Cartagena is the crown jewel of Colombia's Caribbean coast and one of the best-preserved colonial destinations in the Americas. Take a stroll through Old Town and you may feel as if you've stepped back in time to a different era. Maybe it's the 13 kilometers of centuries-old walls or the colorful colonial architecture. Perhaps it's the bougainvillea-covered balconies along the labyrinthine streets or the soaring Catholic churches that tower above every plaza. Whatever it is, visitors can't help but fall for this Caribbean charmer. Note that beyond the World Heritage-listed historic quarter lies a newer, trendier part of town along the Bocagrande peninsula, where upscale condos, open-air cafés, and top restaurants all fight for prime seafront real estate.
Picture the Amazon, and Colombia may not be the first country to come to mind - which is odd, because about a third of the nation is blanketed in its thick (and often impenetrable) jungles. The capital of the vast Amazon Basin is the small frontier town of Leticia, which sits along the banks of the mighty Amazon River, right where Colombia bumps up against Brazil and Peru. Leticia makes a great base for eco-tourism, wildlife safaris, or hikes into the Amazon to learn about the indigenous tribes that call this area home. The only way to arrive here is by plane from Bogotá, and you can continue onward by boat either downriver to Manaus, Brazil, or upriver to Iquitos, Peru.
5 Tayrona National Natural Park
You'll find some of the best beaches in Colombia within the protected Tayrona National Natural Park, which is known for its palm-shaded coves and crystal-clear coastal lagoons. Most beaches are set against the dramatic mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, whose rainforested hills make for a great side trip on any beach vacation. Tayrona is also a fantastic place for snorkeling at protected areas near La Piscina beach and Cabo San Juan. Though remote, these secluded beaches aren't exactly a secret, so it's best to visit in low season (February to November) to avoid the massive crowds. Also, unless you're paying for the lavish Ecohabs Tayrona, be prepared to sleep in a tent (or hammock) at one of the many beachside campgrounds.
Most visitors to Colombia will inevitably begin their trip in the nation's largest city - and beating heart - Bogotá. It's a city that often divides opinion, with some complaining of its gridlocked streets and dreary weather, and others falling head over heals for its unique combination of colonial charm and urban sophistication. Either way, this city of eight million tends to grow on people who give it enough time. Begin your sightseeing in the historic center of La Candelaria, where you'll find the impressive buildings lining Plaza de Bolívar and can't-miss cultural attractions like the blindingly bright Museum of Gold. Then, head over to the wealthier neighborhoods of North Bogotá for some of the nation's best boutique shops and chef-driven restaurants.
7 The Lost City
Colombia's most popular hike is undoubtedly the four-day, 44-kilometer trek to Ciudad Perdida, a lost city hidden deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains that was only rediscovered in the 1970s. Built and occupied by Tayrona Indians between the 8th and 14th centuries, this ancient city is said to be one of the largest pre-Columbian settlements discovered in the Americas. Much of the site remains buried beneath a thick jungle quilt - the modern indigenous inhabitants of the area have banned excavations - but you'll find that the stone terraces and stairways are in outstanding shape. It's not possible to visit this site alone, so you'll need to book a tour from Santa Marta in advance.
8 Providencia Island
This quirky Caribbean Island leaves many first-time visitors perplexed. For starters, it's far closer to Nicaragua than Colombia. Then there's the fact that its residents don't speak Spanish but rather an English Creole. Of course, none of that really matters when you find yourself sunning on the most stunning beaches under the Colombian flag. Little more than a dollop of golden sands and perky palms, this isolated island is the jewel of the UNESCO-protected Seaflower Biosphere Reserve with some of the world's greatest marine biodiversity just waiting to be explored. You'll need to first stop on the more popular San Andrés Island and catch a short hopper plane or three-hour catamaran ride to reach Providencia. Once there, you'll find the largest collection of cottages and hotels in the small hamlet of Aguadulce on the stunning west coast of the island
Lovers of magic realism and the writings of Gabriel García Márquez will fall for the sleepy charms of Mompox. It features prominently in the Nobel laureate's book The General in His Labyrinth and is thought to be the inspiration for the fictional town of Macondo in his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Mompox was once a prosperous cog in the trading route between the Caribbean coast and the Andes, famed as the spot where "El Libertador" Simón Bolívar recruited his army to gain independence for neighboring Venezuela. Now, this colonial relic along the muddy shores of the Magdalena River is truly a town that time forgot. Though it lacks a wealth of things to do, many visitors find themselves spending far longer than planned strolling through the cobbled streets; soaking in the ambiance of the colonial architecture; or taking boat trips through the Pijiño Swamp, a popular attraction for birders.
10 La Guajira Peninsula
It's the most northerly point in South America, so perhaps it's only fitting that La Guajira is unlike anywhere else on the continent. This remote and little-visited peninsula is a quiet oasis of sweeping sand dunes, bird-covered mangrove swamps, and vast stretches of empty land where the orange-brown La Guajira Desert meets the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Indigenous beliefs are the law of the land here as the peninsula is home to the proud Wayuu people, who were never subjugated under Spanish rule and maintain a vibrant culture to this day.
Keep in mind that tourism is still new in La Guajira, and the ride in from the regional capital of Riohacha requires both patience and a sense of adventure. The windsurfing Mecca of Cabo de la Vela has the most tourism infrastructure and will likely be your best entry point into the region.
11 Hacienda Nápoles
If there's one man who lingers large over Colombia's recent history, it's the billionaire drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. What few people realize is that you can actually visit the lavish estate built and owned by Escobar in Puerto Triunfo, about 110 miles east of Medellin. The sprawling complex, known as Hacienda Nápoles, fell into disrepair in the decade after Escobar's death in 1993. But the local municipality took control of the property in the mid-2000s and turned it into - of all things - an ever-growing amusement park with an eclectic mix of themed zones, hotels, a water park, and safari-style zoo.
The amusements and hotels may be new, but signs of Escobar are everywhere. His antique car collection sits on display next to the ruins of his former mansion, one of the Cessna planes he used to smuggle drugs to the US is perched atop the entry gate, and there's a small museum that grapples with his legacy. There is also a Jurassic zone filled with the life-size dinosaur replicas he purchased for his son and a wild hippo herd that, after years of heavy procreation, has grown from four to 40 and now represents the largest herd outside of Africa.
12 Caño Cristales
Caño Cristales was off limits for decades while in the grip of guerrilla fighters but is officially back in business and welcoming more tourists than ever before. Most visitors come to this remote river canyon in the Orinoquía region to hike between its waterfalls and bathe in its natural swimming holes. While worth the trip in any season, the canyon is particularly prismatic between July and November when an algae bloom turns the riverbed into a rainbow of colors. The isolated outpost of La Macarena is your base for trips to Caño Cristales and it's only reachable by air from Bogotá or Villavicencio.