Colombia is a South American country on the rise, filled with a rich and appealing culture, beautiful scenery, wonderful people, and some of the most incredible food. Though people may be concerned about the country’s dark history, tourism has been growing exponentially in recent years. If you give this country a chance, it will by far exceed your expectations. Here are some of the best places to visit in Colombia to tempt you to consider a trip.
Colombia is not the country that you may remember from the 1980s and 1990s, nor anything at all like what is depicted in Narcos. It’s a perfectly imperfect place, working hard to shed its reputation from its past to shine in a renaissance of sorts.
Colombia is a generally poor country and unfortunately for the typical Colombians, the land and weather provided a perfect place for growing cocaine. The violence stemming from the drug cartels and guerrilla groups devastated the country. But they have turned the page and while they will never forget their history, they look to a more positive future.
Colombians are a proud and strong people, and they are working hard to rebuild their country and shed the disastrous image of their past. Most welcome tourism as the lifeblood to rebuild their cities and the many broken families.
Most Colombians over the age of 25 have stories to tell and they are heartbreaking. It’s in their art proudly displayed on many walls in the cities and etched on their faces. And yet, they smile knowing how much better off they are now and that they are strong enough to survive anything.
You do need to be careful as you do whenever you travel. It’s important to do your homework before you go to know what areas are safe or unsafe and things to look out for. Nowadays, you’re more likely to come into contact with a pickpocket than you are with an armed rebel. However, there is still some gang activity and with it, some dangerous areas to avoid.
Three of the most popular cities to visit in Colombia are Cartagena, Medellín, and Bogotá. Here are some of the highlights of each.
The “jewel of the Indies,” Cartagena is a beautiful city on the coast. Its location gives it a unique feel and it has a quaint and historic walled old city that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Brightly-colored homes line the streets with beautiful balconies draped in flowers.
Walkthrough the Clock Tower gate and wander around the iconic Carriage Plaza where the carriages used to pick up and drop off passengers. Try some of the sweet treats of the Palenqueras, descendants from Africa, then explore the 15 squares in the old town area to watch local city life. The beautiful Plaza Bolívar is a great place to start, and Plaza Santo Domingo has Gertrudis, a statue made by the famed Colombian sculptor and artist, Fernando Botero.
Take in some of the historic sites like the Sanctuary of Peter Claver, who helped the African slaves when they first arrived. Head outside the city walls to visit San Felipe de Barajas Castle, a fortress overlooking the city of Cartagena. Visit the colorful local neighborhood of Getsemani, filled with creative street art, then feed a monkey or two at Parque Centenario. Cartagena is a city overflowing with beautiful scenery, charm, and vibrant colors.
The “city of eternal spring” is blessed with beautiful weather year-round. Once the most violent city in the entire world, Medellín continued to evolve through the resilience of its people to be one of the top places to visit in Colombia.
One of the top attractions in Medellín as well as all of Colombia is Botero Park, where the world-renowned sculptor and painter from Medellín donated 23 of his massive sculptures. Adjacent to the park is the Museum of Antioquia, which holds many of his paintings.
Communia 13 is another popular place to visit. It was once the most dangerous neighborhood in the city and has gone through a revitalization and transformation through art. You’ll be wowed by the incredible street art and you’ll probably get to enjoy some live performances from the city’s passionate youth.
Parque Lleras is an area buzzing with nightlife and there are lots of fun bars and dance clubs to choose from. Or, if you need some time in nature, the Botanical Garden is a beautiful oasis in the city to walk around and enjoy the local landscape. Medellín is a city of transformation with a rich heritage and it’s a great central location in the Coffee Triangle to visit some of the small villages and quaint towns in the region.
The capital city of Colombia is the most heavily touristed city in the country. Candelaria is a historic colonial neighborhood packed full of some amazing things to do. Wander the streets to appreciate its beauty along with the incredible street art and tour the Opera House. Also, visit the fun “Candy Cane Church,” Santuario Nuestra Señora del Carmen.
Then, visit the Botero Museum and the most famous museum in the country, the Gold Museum. It contains an impressive 55,000 pieces of gold artifacts, mostly from within the country. Botero is considered the most recognized and quoted living artist from Latin America. Plaza Bolívar is where the stunning Cathedral of Bogotá is located, as well as, many government buildings where the architecture is as interesting as the Botero paintings.
Head out to Monserrate, a pilgrimage site on a large hill over 10,000 feet high overlooking Bogotá. You can hike up if you’re inspired to or ride the funicular. There you will find restaurants, sculptures, Colombian goods and a most spectacular view of the city.
Take a day trip to the Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral, a large underground Roman Catholic church built in the large tunnels 600 feet underground created after the salt was excavated. The long, wide main walkway has 14 small chapels along the way representing stations of the cross which illustrate events of Jesus’ last journey. Each station has a beautifully lighted cross and the temple at the bottom has three sections representing the birth, life, and death of Jesus with a monumental cross at the main nave. The Cathedral is a functioning church with 3,000 visitors on Sundays. The huge domed area where services are held is lighted with breathtaking chandeliers and sculptures. It is an amazing marvel of architecture and definitely worth the visit no matter what religion you might be.
Bogotá is an exciting and cosmopolitan city and its transportation infrastructure makes it easy to visit. The city is full of small, restaurants serving tasty local cuisine and there are street vendors on just about every block selling hot snacks. If you are unsure where to eat ask your hotel concierge what you should try, they will be well versed in the many delicacies of the city.
Colombia’s cities may be very popular for tourism, but there are also some truly stunning natural areas and small towns to visit as well. Here are some popular ones.
There may be many beautiful islands off the coast of Cartagena that are quite popular, the most beautiful beaches to visit are in Tayrona National Park. It’s one of the most-visited national parks in the country.
This protected area near the city of Santa Marta has miles of beachfront property as well as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, offering biodiversity and a variety of climates. In the park, you’ll find hundreds of different animals and over 300 species of bird.
La Ciudad Perdida, Spanish for “Lost City”, is an archeological site of a ruined city believed to have been established in around 800 AD, earlier than Machu Picchu in Peru. It was found in 1972 and is accessed by climbing over 1,200 steps through a thick jungle. There are 169 terraces carved into the mountains. The only way to go is by a fairly strenuous four-to-five day organized hike, and you’re rewarded by seeing a place few have.
The charming small town of Salento is nestled in the mountains in the Coffee Triangle, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s around an eight-hour bus ride from Medellín. It has a traditional Spanish Colonial square and lots of brightly-colored beautiful buildings.
There are a number of coffee farms to visit where you can go on a plantation tour to see how they grow their coffee on impressively-steep hills. Climb the mirador to enjoy some stunning views of this beautiful area. Or for some excitement, play tejo, a fun game where you throw rocks at small explosive-filled paper packets while having a beer—what could be more fun?
As lovely as Salento is, one of the top draws is to hike Cocora Valley. Take a Willy jeep to this remote area for a hike through the rainforest and an intoxicatingly verdant valley. Enjoy a hummingbird preserve then walk through Bosque de las Palmas, a grove of wax palm trees. They are so narrow you can get your arms around them, yet they rise around 200 feet in the air! Appreciate a much slower pace of life in Salento in this backpacker enclave.
One of the most popular day trips from Medellín is to the stunning area of Guatapé. This small town is known as one of the most colorful towns in all of Colombia. The homes are brightly colored and in the Colonial Spanish square, many feature zocalos, carved 3D motifs of village life, each uniquely reflecting the owner.
Then, climb the 700 steps up el Peñol, a massive boulder, to enjoy some of the most stunning views of Guatapé Lake. Take a boat ride out onto the lake to learn its secret — there’s actually a town underneath the waters! The area was flooded to create a reservoir for hydroelectric power, destroying the old town of Peñol.
You can see a large cross in the center of the lake showing where the church stands under the water. Near the lake is a beautiful replica of the old town of Peñol’s square including the church and a number of other brightly-colored buildings. Guatapé, Guatapé Lake, and the area around el Peñol’s are a truly stunning area worth seeing.
Visit Colombia to see a country in the process of an impressive transformation truly come alive. You’ll enjoy the vibrant cities, quaint towns, and beautiful natural wonders as you explore. There are many truly amazing places to see and these are the best places in Colombia to visit.
Guest Author: Sam is a travel-obsessed animal lover with big plans to travel the world with her dog. When she’s not blogging about her travel adventures at My Flying Leap, you can find her volunteering with her pet-therapy cat and dog, on the top of a mountain, or enjoying a glass of bold red wine planning for her next trip.