Possessing towering mountains and windswept deserts, untouched jungle coastlines and cloud forests, snow-capped active volcanoes and large swathes of Amazonian rain forest, Colombia’s natural setting could not be more dramatic. It is the second-most bio-diverse country in the world, trailing only its neighbour, Brazil.
While naturally stunning in the countryside, Colombia’s cities buzz with a non-stop energy that merit exploration as well. Set to a soundtrack of salsa, reggaeton and vallenato music, the country’s major cities are always on the move.
For a long time, Colombia was saddled with an unfortunate reputation for drug trafficking and violence, making the news for all the wrong reasons. Since the dark days of the mid-1990s, the country has undergone a transformation that has restored it to its rightful place as a thrilling and welcoming travel destination.
Colombia has an infectious vigour about it. The cities, beaches, mountains, music, dancing, and welcoming people all beckon you to join in the fun. Ready to jump on that flight? First, discover the best places to visit in Colombia.
1. Take in the preserved colonial city of Cartagena
Perhaps the perfect place to begin your journey is in one of the original and best-preserved Colombian cities, Cartagena. Founded nearly five hundred years ago by Spanish conquistadors, the city originally served as a fortress and base for Spanish incursions further inland, then soon after as an economic and political centre for the Spanish vice royalty.
Nowadays, the former wealth and importance of the city are on full display. A stroll around the old centre neighbourhoods of El Centro and San Diego reveals many opulent mansions housing restaurants, boutique hotels, and museums, all restored and brightly painted. Highlights include the shady Plaza de Bolívar, the lovely Casa de Rafael Nuñez, and the grisly Palacio de la Inquisición, which details the sordid activities of the Spanish Inquisition.
A can’t-miss just east of the centre across the lagoon is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a massive fortress built to protect the city and harbour. As the midday sun can be quite taxing and there is a lack of shade, we advise visiting early in the morning or around dusk for the most relaxed experience.
In the walled city just south of the centre is the neighbourhood of Getsemaní. Possessing a more bohemian vibe than the statelier centre, this is a great area for evening drinks and nightlife, and has many of the city’s hostels.
The dining scene in Cartagena is exceptional. One should not miss out on the local criolla cuisine, specialising in fresh seafood. Some great places to try include Alma, Doña Lola, and Restaurante Celele.
Nightlife is another big draw in Cartagena. For a rooftop sundowner, enjoy splendid views and cocktails at Mirador. For those keen on watching or joining in the salsa scene, head over to Donde Fidel or Café Havana. For pumping house, electronic and reggaeton, try Alquímico.
Discover other unmissable things to do in Cartagena with our comprehensive local guide and check out other activities beyond the Walled City with our article about the best day tours to take from Cartagena.
2. Beat the heat and relax in laid-back Minca
The perfect respite from the bustle of the coastal cities, the mountain village of Minca is home to a mix of locals, emigres from the city, and expats seeking a change of pace. An up-and-coming travel destination, Minca draws visitors for its organic coffee and chocolate, unparalleled bird-watching opportunities, and cooler temperatures.
The compact town is a good place to organise your activities, which should include a hike to a waterfall, birdwatching and a plantation tour to learn about the excellent local coffee and chocolate. The good people at Jungle Joe will coordinate whatever you are looking to do and have English-speaking guides.
For a relaxing stay, head to the gloriously situated Reserva Natural Tierra Adentro ($82 USD double), with its sweeping views across the valley and resident birdlife (including hummingbirds, parrots and even peacocks).
3. Hit the beach at Tayrona National Park
Just east of Santa Marta is the stunning Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. Covering a beautiful stretch of forested Caribbean coast under the towering Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Tayrona is dotted with hidden coves and secluded sandy beaches: the perfect escape from civilisation.
The most popular beach is the beautiful Cabo San Juan del Guía, which has a restaurant and camping site. A more upscale option is to stay at Finca Barlovento, on the beach at Los Naranjos at the east end of the park. A quieter choice for some time on the beach would be Playa Cristal, which is accessed by boat from nearby Neguange. Bear in mind when swimming or snorkelling that much of the coastline here has a strong undertow, so be sure to consult with locals about the currents before venturing out too deep.
4. Immerse yourself in a multi-day lost city trek to Ciudad Perdida
One of the great adventures of South America, the four-day trek to and from the fabled Ciudad Perdida is for many the highlight of their holiday. Known locally as Teyuna, the ‘lost city’ was rediscovered in the 1970s and has since been accessed only on foot and to a limited number of visitors to preserve the site. The city is thought to have been inhabited between the 11th and 14th centuries and housed up to four thousand people.
All guide companies are government-certified and will outfit travellers with necessary equipment, including camping gear, food and water. We recommend the professional Expotur, whose guides are indigenous and knowledgeable about the archaeological sites and surrounding region and peoples.
Tours leave from Santa Marta, and the hike begins at the end of the road in a village on the slopes of the mountains. Although the trek can be done all year except September – when the site is closed for maintenance – it is advised to make the trip during the dry season, which runs from mid-December through April. Make sure to bring strong mosquito repellent; local brand Nopikex is highly recommended.
5. Explore the remote Guajira peninsula
At the northern tip of the continent, La Guajira has always been a world apart from the rest of the region. Its indigenous people, the wayuu, were never conquered by the Spanish, and they retain a clear identity of their own. Their land is one of stunning contrast, framing untamed sand dunes against the deep blue Caribbean which surrounds them. This is a beautiful corner of Colombia, and one ripe for exploration.
All trips to La Guajira begin in Riohacha, the city gateway to the peninsula. When visiting the region, it is important not to be in a hurry as transport is irregular and can be time-consuming. Many visitors come for kite surfing, four-wheeling across dunes in the largest Colombian desert, or spotting flamingos at the Santuario de Fauna y Flora los Flamencos. The northernmost point on the continent is Punta Gallinas, which has perhaps the most beautiful beach in the country, Playa Taroa, sandwiched between the sea and a giant sand dune.
Because tourism is nascent here and few job opportunities exist for the inhabitants of the region, it’s essential to explore La Guajira responsibly. You can do this by taking a four-day tour with Macuira Tours and supporting the Wayuu community directly. Indigenous-owned, the guides at Macuira Tours really know the region and will give you a fascinating insight into the daily life of those who live in one of the most extreme environments in Colombia.
6. Get your adrenaline pumping in San Gil
Leaving the north coast, thrill-seekers will revel in visiting San Gil, the adventure-sports capital of Colombia. There is no shortage of things to do, as visitors can choose between zip-lining, abseiling, white-water rafting, kayaking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. The friendly folks at Macondo Hostel can organise any adventure you have in mind and have experienced and friendly guides who have tried all the activities.
San Gil is also a great place to relax for a few days. On the eastern edge of town is Parque El Gallineral, a wonderful, sprawling reserve on an island in the Río Fonce. A fifteen-minute drive northeast of town is Pescaderito, a series of five swimming holes on the stream above the village of Curití.
7. Experience Bogotá, one of the continent’s most influential cities
The capital city of Colombia is a microcosm of the entire country. Amidst the hustle and bustle, you’ll find the best food and museums, and see how the city is shaping the future of the nation.
The old centre, La Candelaría, sits directly beneath Cerro Montserrate and its shining white church, one of the most famous landmarks of Colombia. It’s also a great starting point for sightseeing in Bogotá. Although this metropolis of over ten million people has tons of neighbourhoods, restaurants and museums to explore, most of the best places are concentrated in the barrios of La Candelaría and Chapinero.
When traveling to Bogotá Colombia, a must-see is the Museo Botero, featuring the art of Medellín-native Fernando Botero as well as works by Picasso, Chagall and Monet. Another with excellent exhibits is the Museo de Oro, which has an amazing collection of pre-Columbian gold artefacts.
The capital city of Colombia also represents the cutting-edge of national cuisine. New restaurants are opening each year focusing on fresh, local Andean ingredients. For a gastronomic experience, head to Mesa Franca, El Cielo or the more traditional La Puerta Falsa.
8. Witness the transformation of Medellín, Colombia’s most comfortable city
Many travellers who have watched a certain TV series have gotten the wrong idea about Medellín. But most of them have a very different opinion after spending a few days in Colombia’s second city. For a start, the climate is ideal, with year-round daytime highs around 28°C (82°F) and lows around 17°C (63°F), meaning it’s always the best time to visit Medellín.
Many visitors choose to stay in the Poblado neighbourhood, which has many good hostels and restaurants catering to the backpacker set. Other travellers seeking more local environs opt to stay in the leafy, affluent neighbourhoods of Laureles or Belén, each one of the best places to stay in Colombia.
Visitors wishing to know the city’s painful past and subsequent rebirth should visit the Museo Casa de la Memoría, which details the origins of the conflict and individual experiences of those who lived through it.
Among the best activities are a full day at Parque Arví, where you can go hiking, bird watching, hire mountain bikes, or have a picnic overlooking Medellín. Getting there is half the fun, as the park is accessed by a cable car rising high above the city.
Visitors looking to eat local should seek out the Bandeja Paísa, a platter heaving with pork, avocado, arepa, rice, beans, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and more pork for good measure. PaloSanto in Laureles puts out a good rendition of the dish.
9. Visit the Eje Cafétero, Colombia’s prime coffee-growing country
South of Medellín between the three cities of Pereira, Armenia and Manizales lies the region where your morning cup of coffee may come from. The Eje Cafétero (Coffee Axis) is set in lush rolling hills beneath the snow-clad Nevado del Ruiz, the volcano that in part makes the region so fertile. The bucolic setting and down-to-earth local population make this one of the best places in Colombia.
Travelers should base themselves in the charming town of Salento, which is nearby the stunning Valle del Cocora, with its cloud forest and iconic wax palm trees. A trip to the area is of course incomplete without a tour of a local coffee-growing finca (plantation), and we recommend Café Don Manolo outside of Pereira for a tour led by the owner himself or stay overnight at one of the best hotels in Colombia, Hacienda Venecia, a coffee farm turned gorgeous guesthouse.
While in Salento, don’t forget to try Colombia’s national game, tejo, in which the player lobs a stone disc at small packets of gunpowder. It goes well with a local beer and is a great way to join in some local fun.
A great way to get around the area is in one of the many classic Willy’s Jeeps that bring locals and tourists alike from town to town.
10. Lose yourself in a well-preserved colonial village
The map of Colombia is dotted with beautiful colonial-era villages that are effectively living museums and should be on everyone’s list of what to see in Colombia.
Most of the country is within range of one, with the best examples being Barichara near San Gil, Villa de Leyva north of Bogotá, and Jardín or Santa Fé de Antioquía outside of Medellín. Each has a beguiling charm with a central plaza, stately church, and cobbled streets, surrounded by idyllic mountains, waterfalls and forests.
11. Trek the gorgeous Tatacoa Desert
South of Bogotá and the Eje Cafétero, next to Colombia’s main artery, the Magdalena River, is an unexpected micro-climate. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled onto the set of a Western film as you walk among the adobe-coloured rock formations and spiky cacti of the Tatacoa Desert.
While here, you can expect to see various bird species, scorpions and spectacular views of the distant mountains. At night, don’t miss a visit to Observatorio Astrosur, which offers outstanding views of the night sky.
12. Tap into your wild side on the Pacific Coast
While the Caribbean coast is on the well-worn traveller path, the Pacific coastline in the department of Chocó is remote, wild, and largely unpopulated. Access is difficult and mostly by small, chartered plane, but the rewards for visiting are rich indeed.
In recent years, more intrepid travellers have found their way to Bahía Solano, El Valle or Coqui for diving, surfing and river canoeing, respectively. Ankla Azul is a professional diving outfit in Bahía Solano, and dives regularly sight whale sharks and manta rays. The beach at El Valle has consistent two-metre swells, and good boards are available for hire.
For canoe trips upriver and visits to indigenous communities, make arrangements in the town of Nuquí or the nearby village of Jurubidá. Make sure to bring rain gear, strong insect repellent and a mosquito net when visiting the region.
13. Explore the rainforest along the Amazon
A huge portion of Colombia is covered in the Amazonian rainforest, so of course there are opportunities to explore one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet. Because much of the Amazon region is remote and security can be an issue, travellers must base their jungle adventures out of Leticia, in the southeast corner of the country along the border with Peru and Brazil. Access is by plane from Bogotá or boat from Peru or Brazil.
Within the small city of Leticia are the only trappings of civilisation in the region, and you may wish to visit the wonderful Mundo Amazónico gardens to learn about the local flora and fauna before beginning your trek. Amazon Jungle Trips comes highly recommended, with over thirty years of experience and English-speaking guides.
Leticia is also the place to organise trips into the hinterland. Amazon Jungle Trips can arrange expeditions to the outstanding Parque Nacional Natural Amacayacu, one of the best South American tourist destinations. There are very few roads here, so nearly all transport is by boat.
FAQs about Colombia
1. Where is Colombia?
Colombia occupies the northwest corner of South America, just south of Panama and north of Peru, with extensive coastline on both the Caribbean and the Pacific. It’s a two- or three-hour flight south from Miami and covers a wide range of climatic zones, from deserts and reef-fringed coasts in the north to endless wetlands in the centre; rolling farmlands in the heartland and endless tracts of untouched rain forest, all crisscrossed by three parallel ridges of the Andes mountains.
For more information on the best places in Colombia, check out our Colombia travel guide, filled with itineraries for every traveller.
2. Can I travel to Colombia right now?
Yes! Colombia is open to travellers from most countries, and all destinations are open to tourism with bio-security regulations in place, while visitors are required to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Tourism numbers remain reduced compared with pre-pandemic, meaning it’s actually the best time to visit Colombia.
3. Is traveling to Colombia safe?
For travellers who practice common sense, Colombia is a safe place to visit. Avoid being a target by being discreet with valuables such as phones, watches and money, and take taxis directly to your destination when out after dark. Some areas in the big cities of Colombia experience violent crime, but travellers rarely find themselves in these neighbourhoods.
4. Which places should I avoid in Colombia?
Since the end of the civil war and the disbanding of the paramilitary FARC, national security has improved dramatically. That said, there are still insurgents in remote corners of the country. Tourists almost never encounter trouble, as these groups are based deep in the jungle far from civilisation.