Planning a trip is exciting and overwhelming at the same time, especially when your destination has so many different experiences to offer. Colombia is just that. The country is the second-most biologically diverse place on earth, allowing travelers to immerse themselves in the Andes mountains, the Amazon Rainforest, the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Coast, and the largest coffee growing region in the world.
Not to mention the fact that Colombia is also home to some of the most culturally rich cities in Latin America: Cali, Cartagena, Bogotá, and Medellín. Colombia truly has something for everyone, no matter what style of travel you prefer. You’ll step out of your comfort zone without even realizing it. The people and culture of this country are so hospitable, you’ll feel at home from the moment you take your first taxi ride. Here are ten different places that I recommend including in your itinerary.
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Tayrona National Park
Tayrona is the place that rewards you for getting off the beaten path. If you put in the effort to arrive at one of the four major places to stay (Cañaveral, Arrecifes, La Piscina, and El Cabo), you’ll experience some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The difficulty of arriving eliminates the large crowds so often found at other beautiful beaches in the country. I hope that I’m not intimidating you too much.
The easiest way to arrive is from Santa Marta, where a bus leaves every hour from the corner of Calle 11 and Carrera 11 (not too difficult to remember). From the entrance to the park, you will need to figure out how to knock out the 4 km to Cañaveral. There is a bus, which costs 3,000 COP, but some travelers prefer to walk in order to experience the natural beauty of the place. Inside the park, there are a variety of accommodation options. In Cañaveral, there are luxury eco-huts that allow for comfort and intimacy with nature. Budget travelers will prefer camping, which is offered at many different spots in Tayrona National Park.
The beaches in Tayrona are the true highlight of the park. Be very wary of the water, however, as tides can be dangerously strong. La Piscina is the most popular beach for water sports because of the rocks that break up the strong waves. The clear water and quantity of wildlife make it an excellent place to snorkel. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot sea turtles, blowfish, or small sand sharks. Cabo San Juan de Guía is one of the most popular beaches because of how accessible amenities are and the incredible view it has. You can camp on the beach without completely roughing it.
There are restaurants and bars nearby! My last recommendation for Tayrona is to do some hiking/ wildlife watching. There are monkeys, frogs, lizards, snakes, and hundreds of species of birds. Two popular hikes, The 9 Piedras and Pueblito allow for a nice blend of wildlife and archaeology. Tayrona National Park is a remarkable place to visit, and if you are coming to Colombia to experience nature or beaches, it should be included in your itinerary.
Bogota’s chaos is a stark contrast to the tranquility of Tayrona National Park. Bogota is the second largest city in Latin America, making it a destination for all sorts of travelers. The major tourist center is La Candelaría, the oldest part of the city that is filled with history and museums. The Gold Museum chronicles the impact that the precious mineral had on the country’s development. It’s one of the most renown museums in all of Colombia.
Another museum in the area that I recommend is the Botero Museum. Fernando Botero is arguably the most popular Colombian artist known for depicting people as chubby and grotesque. His art is impressive, but what will really take your breath away is the street art in Bogota. In fact, Bogota is regarded as the world’s best street art city. I recommend doing a street art tour in order to understand the magnitude of street art and its impact on the city. After the tour, you’ll have a much greater appreciation for art not only in Bogota but throughout the rest of your time in Colombia.
For a terrific panorama view of the city, head to Monserrate. You can hike to the top, but I recommend taking the funicular and saving your energy. At the top, there are two luxury restaurants and a cheap food stand. Natives from Bogota will drink hot chocolate with sweet cheese, a weird concept to foreigners, but actually a delicious and warm treat. Bogota is a high altitude city, and once the sun sets it can get quite cold. However, when the sun sets the city really comes alive.
Bogota has the best nightlife in the country, especially in Zona T. Theatron is considered one of the best clubs in Latin America for a handful of reasons. First, there are 13 different rooms with different themes and music genres. Also, the cover of 30,000 COP gets you a bottomless drink until 2 pm. My advice? Don’t plan any tours for the next morning. Bogota can be overwhelming, but you’ll never be bored in this incredible city.
San Andres is Colombia’s coveted paradise, even though it’s located 800 km away from the mainland. Flights are available quite cheap from all of Colombia’s major cities. Though transportation may fit in your budget, things tend to be much more expensive on the island itself. That being said, most of your time will be spent relaxing on the beach. The three beaches that I recommend are San Luis, Playa Charquitos, and Spratt Bight. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can take day trips to other islands nearby, like Johnny Cay and El Acuario.
If you want to snorkel or scuba dive, San Andres has plenty of different places to do so. The water surrounding the island is crystal clear, allowing for good diving year round. Don’t come to San Andres expecting a big adrenaline rush. At its core, San Andres is relaxing. Unless you are visiting during Christmas or Easter, you won’t have to worry about large crowds. San Andres is unique a blend of Colombian and Caribbean culture that should be in your itinerary if you want a relaxing vacation.
Cartagena is the most famous place in Colombia, and for good reason. Not only is this city the most accessible Colombian city from the United States, but it also has history, culture, art, and beaches. The Old Town is a walled city where most of the tourist activity takes place. At the entrance is a massive clock tower, a great meeting and reference point for travelers. Inside the walls is the tangible history of Spanish colonization. San Felipe Castle is a major testament to this. As Cartagena grew from a small settlement to a large metropolis, the Spanish built the castle as a way to defend their important territory.
The Spanish brought the Catholic Church along to further their colonization efforts, which is why you’ll find a large number of churches and convents in the Old Town. San Pedro Claver is a notable one that I recommend visiting not just to see incredible architecture, but to learn the story of San Pedro Claver himself.
The Walled City is also home to a large number of plazas that are buzzing with activity. You can drink a coffee at one of the bordering cafés or pick up souvenirs from street vendors. The Plaza of Santo Domingo is an excellent place to spend the evening and really immerse yourself in the Cartagena’s vibe.
There are other areas of Cartagena that are also worthy of a visit. Getsemaní is home to the hipster crowd of Cartagena. Backpackers gather here to immerse themselves in a vibrant art scene. Off the coast are the Rosario Islands, a place to escape the city of Cartagena. Do a day trip here, enjoy the beach, and come back to Cartagena in the evening to dance some salsa. Colombians love to dance, and I recommend doing a nightlife tour of the city to get a feel for how Colombians party. If a Chiva bus is included, even better! Cartagena may be full of tourists, but it’s a great place to experience the diversity of Colombia.
Salento and the Cocora Valley
Colombia may be home to some of the most spectacular cities in Latin America, but it also has its handful of idyllic villages, especially in the coffee growing region. Salento is one village that has really taken off in regards to tourism due to the proximity of the Cocora Valley. It’s ready at any moment for a wave of visitors, but it still holds onto the authentic charm that brought people here in the first place. The cobblestone streets are lined with colorful homes, storefronts, restaurants, and cafés. At night, the town plaza comes alive with food vendors, musicians, and kids playing football. During the day though, travelers leave the city and head to Cocora Valley, the real attraction near Salento.
The Cocora Valley is home to the tallest palm trees in the world. These wax palms grow over 60 meters tall and are bound to take your breath away. Hikers will never want to leave the area surround Salento. The Cocora Valley sits at the entrance to Los Nevados National Park, which is home to much more challenging and impressive treks. In one day, you can experience a multitude of different ecosystems and environments as you climb in altitude to one of the few places to camp out or stay in a dorm in the park. If you are feeling ambitious, you can try to summit one of the 5,000-meter peaks in the park.
Salento will feel even more comfortable after a stint in nature. I recommend Brunch, one of the most popular restaurants in town, for your first meal back in society. The portions are huge and they likely serve a dish that will feed your nostalgic desire for a meal from back home. Salento is a town that waits with open arms to all types of travelers. If you want to experience Colombia’s coffee region, Salento should be your launching point.
San Agustin is famous for the archaeological sites accessible from the town. However, there is much more to this place that makes it a great place to include on your Colombian itinerary. The Magdalena River, the largest in Colombia, runs next to San Agustin. The narrowest point in the river is a cool spot to visit, where you can get a real sense for the power of the river. There are a few tour companies in town that offer white water rafting excursions on the river as well. If you plan to stay for a few days in San Agustin, chances are you will want to do something other than just seeing ruins.
The river is host to a few different activities, but I also would recommend hiking to Colombia’s tallest waterfall, El Salto de Bordones. There are simply so many things to do in and around San Agustin that you’ll never feel bored. The most popular attraction through is the San Agustin Archaeological Park. This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to hundreds of Pre-Columbian artifacts, like statues, carvings, and burial mounds. The place can be overwhelming, which is why I always recommend booking a tour or going with a local guide.
Doing so will give you much more context and understanding on the importance of each historical artifact. The main park is not the only place to experience Pre-Columbian artifacts in San Agustin. Alto de Las Piedras and Alto de Los Idolos are two other places near San Agustin that tourists love to visit. Oftentimes the charm of San Agustin itself gets lost in the reputation of the ruins, but this colonial town is a spectacle in itself. The place is rich with coffee-growing culture, the main work of the town and its surroundings. History buffs will flock to San Agustin, but there really is something here for everyone to enjoy.
Medellín has a story to tell. What was once the most dangerous city in the world is now one of the most progressive. The change that Paisas, locals to Medellín, have experienced is remarkable and they are eager to share the new and improved Medellín with the world. You’ll feel like a movie star with how hospitable and friendly locals are. The longer you spend in Medellín, the more you’ll fall in love with it. Although the city is home to 3 million people, the vibe feels like a small town. Most travelers stay in one of three areas, Poblado, Laureles, or the City Center.
Poblado and its skyscrapers are referred to as “the Miami of Latin America”. Amid the luxury of this neighborhood, you’ll find some of the best nightlife in the world. Poblado is impressive in every way, but if you want to experience the rich Medellín culture, I would recommend staying in another neighborhood. Laureles is the place to be if you want to dive into the local experience of Medellín. While Poblado is built into the side of the valley, Laureles is right in the middle, making it much flatter and more friendly to walking. You could walk all day around Laureles and not be bored. Here, small family-owned restaurants are found next to Starbucks. It’s hip, but still has a local feel.
The City Center is where you should stay if you are only planning to be in Medellín for a short time. A large majority of the tourist attractions are located in the Center, like Plaza Botero, Parque Berrio, and El Hueco. Like I said earlier, Medellín has a long, complex story to tell. Netflix made the story of Pablo Escobar known world-wide. However, there are large portions of this narrative that were romanticized, exaggerated, and flat out wrong. Pablo’s story is an important one to share, but there are other ones that are more important to locals. Take Comuna 13 for example, which is a neighborhood that best demonstrates the social change the city has seen.
The place is now alive with street art, music, and civic engagement projects. There are a large number of tours that come here, which tell the transformation story in-depth. I love Medellín and recommend it to everyone visiting South America. One major draw to staying in the city is the climate. Medellín is called the “City of the Eternal Spring” because of its perfect climate. If you are planning to travel to Colombia for a few weeks, Medellín and its surroundings should be included in your itinerary.
However, if you are going to stay in Colombia for longer than a few weeks, Medellín is a great city to use as your local base. You can find affordable Spanish classes to give yourself a solid base for your time in the country. It’s also the most popular place to live for digital nomads, which has made the city more internationally cultured and communal. Everyone is happy to be in Medellín, and the sentiment is contagious. Come visit and you’ll see why its one of the best places to visit in Colombia.
San Gil is the capital for adventure sports in Colombia. The challenge here is not finding something to do, but rather deciding how you are going to get your blood rushing. You can white water raft, paraglide, go canyoning, go caving, kayak, or go rappelling. There are multiple tour agencies located all around the town that make booking an adventure easy and affordable. Once you arrive in town, head to Parque de la Libertad to find all the information you need to plan out your time.
The town center is over 300 years old and is home to a magnificent cathedral. One way to experience local culture here is to play some Tejo, Colombia’s popular sport. The game is similar to horseshoes, except you are throwing lead weights onto a gun-powder filled clay pit. When you hear an explosion, you know you’ve done well. Just outside of town is Parque El Gallineral, which sits on the banks of the Fonce River.
The park is a good place to wander around and get a feel for the biodiversity of the region. There are over 100 different species of plants and trees located within. If you want to get out of the city without spending much money, it’s a really nice place to come relax. San Gil is a good base for some day trips as well. Barichara is a colonial village only an hour away that features a popular hike to Guane.
It’s a typical colonial village that draws a lot of domestic tourists. Another place to visit is one of the world’s largest canyons, Chicamocha Canyon. While hiking here is also popular, my favorite activity is rock climbing. El Refugio de la Roca is a hostel that makes rock climbing affordable and accessible to all types of travelers. The national park also has a 6 km long cable car that provides spectacular views of the canyon. San Gil draws mostly adventure tourists, but you’ll find something to do here no matter how you like to travel.
Leticia and the Amazon Jungle
The Amazon Jungle either excites you or terrifies you. It’s on so many of our bucket lists for good reason. Leticia is where to go in Colombia in order to launch yourself into an experience of the Amazon. The easiest way to arrive in Leticia is via plane from Medellín and Bogotá. If you happen to be down south, you can also take a boat into Leticia. Even though Leticia is the main Amazon hub for western South America, the town itself is quite small. Most travelers will arrive in Leticia and spend a few days getting their bearings. Those who are seeking a more intense experience will stay at one of the eco-lodges in the area. These may be more expensive, but you’ll feel completely immersed in nature.
There is one major tour that is sold by most operators in town. On the tour, you will visit Water Lily Island and learn more about the famous pink river dolphins. A lot of tours also include a visit to Tarapota Lake, which is a great place to spot the dolphins. Chances are you’ll see many more animals than just dolphins. There are monkeys, parrots, butterflies, frogs, and other jungle species. You’ll also learn about the large variety of plants found in the world’s most diverse ecosystem. The tour also has a large focus on the human beings who call the Amazon Rainforest home.
You’ll visit an indigenous village with the intention of cross-cultural education. Puerto Nariño is another spot on the tour where you’ll wonder in awe at how humans are able to flourish in such an intense environment. In Leticia, there are a variety of places to stay. From boutique hotels and Eco-lodges to hammock and camping spots, you won’t have much trouble finding accommodation to fit your travel style. If you are really serious about immersing yourself in the Amazon, catch a boat from Leticia to Amacayacu National Park.
This park is much more intense, but there are still a few places to stay near the entrance of the park. Make sure that you are prepared before coming to the Amazon. You must have a yellow fever vaccination to fly into the area. Be prepared to deal with mosquitoes unlike ever before. You can stock up on bug spray if that’s your thing, but I always recommend people to pants and a long-sleeve shirt at all times. Yes, mosquitoes suck. However, if you are properly prepared you won’t have much of an issue with the little nuances.
In Leticia, you’ll feel quite isolated and immersed in nature. However, the region of El Chocó is arguably the most off-the-beaten-path destination in Colombia. It used to be really difficult to arrive but has gotten much easier in recent years. There are two main options, flying or taking a boat from the port of Buenaventura. Taking a boat may be more affordable, but the journey is long and uncomfortable. If you have the cash, take a flight from a major city into Bahía Solano. From here, you can take a water taxi to the place you plan to stay at.
Eco-lodges are popping up all around El Chocó, and I recommend El Chantil and Choiba. If hostels are more your vibe, then I would check out the Humpback Turtle. The main reason that travelers come here is to see humpback whales. Each year, from June until October, the marine beasts flock to El Chocó to mate and give birth to their young. You’ll see whales jumping throughout the day, especially if you take a boat out onto the water. There are other animals that you’ll also be able to see while you are in El Chocó, specifically frogs, birds, and sea turtles. Going out in the middle of the night to witness sea turtles laying eggs is a powerful experience that I’d highly recommend.
If you take a boat up the river, you might just spot some river otters as well. Because tourism is just beginning to develop in the area, prices are affordable and experiences intense. Chances are you’ll be in a small boat with a handful of strangers wondering why nobody is talking about this spectacular destination. The beaches of El Chocó are another reason why tourism is booming in the area. While they may not have the crystal clear waters and white sand beaches of the Caribbean, you’re likely to have the whole beach to yourself. If you like to surf, you’ll also likely be the only person out in the water.
The Humpback Turtle hostel is the surf-center of the area, and I’d recommend checking it out if you are coming to El Chocó to catch some waves. Come to El Chocó sooner rather than later. Chances are this place will be completely different once the secret gets out. It’s one of the best places to visit in Colombia that still remains a secret.
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