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20 Best Places to Visit in Colombia, According to Locals and Experts

These are 20 of the best places to visit in Colombia, from colorful villages to stunning beaches.

colombia places to visit

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A hypnotizing mix of charming coastal cities, world-class cuisine, and lush landscapes hiding immense biodiversity have made the bicoastal country of Colombia one of the most sought-after destinations in the Americas. Spending a long weekend in Cartagena or a few days in Bogotá isn't enough; even after spending months living in Medellín, I felt I barely scratched the surface of all Colombia offers.

With the help of Medellín-based Travel + Leisure A-List advisor Boris Seckovic and locals who work at some of the country's most incredible accommodations, like Bio Habitat Hotel and Casa Pestagua, we've assembled a list of the best places to visit in Colombia. Read on to find the country's most scenic trekking trails, untouched white-sand beaches, and where to get the best cup of Colombian coffee.

Meet the Expert

Boris Seckovic is a T+L A-list advisor and Colombia specialist living in Medellín.

Carolina Bernal is the general manager at Casa San Agustin and Casa Pestagua, luxury hotels located in Cartagena. 

Related: 25 Best Places to Visit in South America

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Few destinations have done a better job rebranding themselves than Medellín, a vibrant metropolis whose rapid transformation has made it one of South America's most sought-after cities for travelers and digital nomads alike. Laureles was recently named the coolest neighborhood in the world , though travelers might be more familiar with El Poblado as home to some of Colombia's trendiest cafes, restaurants, and bars. Medellín's impressive public transportation network includes several cable cars, making the journey to green spaces like Arvi Park one of the best ways to enjoy breathtaking views of a city that crawls dramatically up the mountainsides of the Aburrá Valley.

Valle de Cocora

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Don't be surprised if the Valle de Cocora (Cocora Valley) in the heart of Colombia's coffee country looks familiar. This magical area served as the real-life inspiration for Disney's “Encanto,” so you'll be sure to hear the soundtrack's most famous song as you pass through the nearby village of Salento. Despite its new claim to fame, the Valle de Cocora has long been famous for its impressive forest of wax palm trees, which tower high above the valley, growing up to 200 feet tall.

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One of the best cities in South America , Colombia's bustling capital city of Bogotá is much more than just a stopover after an international flight. As soon as you arrive, take a funicular or cable car up the Cerro de Monserrate to take in the city views and get your bearings before exploring the historic neighborhood of La Candelaria. Visiting the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) is a must, as is experiencing the city's increasingly impressive culinary scene at spots like the award-winning El Chato, one of the world's best restaurants .

Stay at the luxurious W Bogotá , named by T+L readers among the best hotels in South America last year, or stop by for their beloved night brunch. The hotel's bold design is a modern interpretation of the legend of El Dorado.

Amazon Rainforest

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"Colombia's slice of the Amazon rainforest isn't as well-known as the Amazon in neighboring countries, but it's almost better that way," says Seckovic, who heads Amakuna , the leading specialist for luxury travel in Colombia. "You'll see far fewer people here and have a much better chance of encountering wildlife because of it." Explore the jungle by starting in the regional capital of Leticia, hidden among forest canopy and accessible only by airplane. From there, head to one of the region's ecolodges for biologist-led excursions into the wilderness, where colorful butterflies dart above waters where pink Amazonian river dolphins play.

Santa Cruz de Mompox

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Set along the Magdalena River that winds towards Colombia's Caribbean Coast, the colonial village of Santa Cruz de Mompox "feels like what Cartagena used to be," says Seckovic. An important stop along the river used by the Spanish to extract gold, the UNESCO-protected town still retains all its historic beauty, and an artisan filigree jewelry industry points to its golden past. First-of-their-kind cruises along the Magdalena River with AmaWaterways will kick off in 2024, offering a new way to experience the region on routes that twist through the countryside between Cartagena and Barranquilla.

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Cartagena is officially Colombia's worst-kept secret. Whether by cruise ship or via newly added flight routes from major U.S. cities, travelers now flock to Colombia's buzziest and most colorful hotspot year-round. A walk along age-old Spanish colonial walls at sunset with glimpses of the glimmering high-rises of Bocagrande in the distance is all you'll need to see why. 

Carolina Bernal, general manager at Casa San Agustin and Casa Pestagua , recommends staying in a restored mansion for a look into the city’s past. Longtime Cartagena favorite Casa San Agustin is a gem; its sister property, Casa Pestagua, is a meticulously restored and luxurious 17th-century mansion colloquially known as the most beautiful home in Cartagena.

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Until recently, Isla Barú was mostly a destination for day trippers looking for the best beaches near Cartagena. The recent addition of the Sofitel Barú Casablanca Beach Resort changes all that, making this "island" just 45 minutes from the city an increasingly popular destination all its own. Travelers can also enjoy a beach day or book an overnight at one of the six new cabana-style bungalows at Acasi Private Beach, a luxe extension of Casa San Agustin and Casa Pestagua on the sand.

Eje Cafetero

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Colombia's idyllic coffee-growing region is known as the Eje Cafetero , the "Coffee Axis." This verdant landscape is peppered with grand haciendas and tiny, shaded cafetales where families have long worked the land, and even passersby enjoy the aroma of the world's best coffee. Explore the countryside in a colorful, open-air Jeep Willy, visiting historic villages like Salento, Jardin, and Filandia along the way.

One of the region's coolest places to stay is Bio Habitat Hotel , where luxurious free-standing accommodations are enveloped in rainforest flora and fauna and offer views across the Andes. This eco-conscious, regenerative hotel perched amidst the forest canopy feels a world away, though it's just minutes from the city of Armenia and some of the country's finest artisan coffee farms.

Ciudad Perdida

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Tucked within the lush, tropical Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, Colombia's Ciudad Perdida ( or “Lost City”) is among the great ancient ruins in South America. There's no easy way to reach Ciudad Perdida; visiting this hidden settlement demands a four-day mountain trek with numerous river crossings. The payoff is well worth it: Just a few dozen intrepid travelers reach this expansive site with its terraced hillsides and circular plazas every day, meaning you'll get to enjoy it almost uninterrupted.

Only a handful of Santa Marta-based tour operators are certified to guide visitors to the site, still cared for by the descendants of the Tairona people who built the settlement centuries ago.

Guatapé and El Peñol

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It's impossible to miss El Peñol, a massive monolith towering many stories over the countryside of Antioquia as if dropped from the heavens by a giant. If the climb to the top doesn't take your breath away, the 360-degree views from the top certainly will. Just minutes down the road, the small town of Guatapé has its own flavor of fantasy, with a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns covering the facades of its historic buildings. These twin destinations are an easy day-trip distance from Medellín, but an overnight stay at some of the country's coolest glamping spots is even better.

Caño Cristales

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Known as Colombia's "river of five colors," Caño Cristales is home to unique aquatic plants that give it a liquid rainbow effect you must see to believe. When the colorful effect is at peak vibrancy between July and November, the river seems to run green, magenta, purple, maroon, and canary yellow simultaneously. The river is located in the relatively isolated Serranía de la Macarena National Park, though locals attest it's well worth the trip to see one of the world's strangest natural wonders.

Related: Visiting Caño Cristales, Colombia's Liquid Rainbow

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The village of Barichara is arguably Colombia's prettiest. Barichara is a bit further from the country's major cities than other historic gems like Villa de Leyva, so "it's stunningly beautiful, but still not too touristy," says Seckovic. The town made T+L's list of the best hidden gem destinations to visit last year and is conveniently located just a stone's throw from San Gil, the undisputed capital of adventure travel in Colombia.

Tayrona National Park

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In Tayrona National Park, Colombia's best beaches line untouched jungles with enough endemic flora and fauna to make any eco-conscious traveler swoon. Take a skippered sailing excursion to the park directly from Santa Marta, with stops at spots like Bahia Concha and Cabo San Juan for swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing. More adventurous travelers can trek through the park and camp in hammocks perched directly over white sands.

Rosario Islands

“The Rosario Islands, or Islas del Rosario, are known for coral reefs and year-round diving and snorkeling opportunities," says Bernal of this perennially popular destination located off the coast of Cartagena. Hop on a speedboat in town and escape to eco-friendly boutique hotels tucked away on sandy shores, offering some serious rest and relaxation far from the crowds. It's an affordable and laid-back alternative to the built-up Caribbean islands where you would spend your days fighting for beach chairs.

Barranquilla

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Among the cities on Colombia's Caribbean Coast, Barranquilla can't compete with buzzy, beautiful Cartagena. However, for one week a year, Colombia lives and breathes to the rhythms of the Carnival of Barranquilla. Folkloric dance, music, and rich, regional food shine among a packed schedule of events including the Battle of the Flowers, the Great Troupes Parade, and the Death of Joselito Carnival, each more vibrant than the last. It's such an essential spectacle that it made the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity .

Related: T+L's Guide to Colombia's Caribbean Coast

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The small city of Popayán still flies under the radar of most travelers, but it's all the better for it. Known as Colombia's "White City" for its grand historic center's whitewashed facades, this laid-back town feels like a breath of fresh air for travelers with an itinerary packed with just the country's biggest highlights. It's a great first stop on a road trip north through cities like Cali and to the haciendas and villages that make the Eje Cafetero so memorable.

Tatacoa Desert

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The Tatacoa Desert is the second-largest arid environment in Colombia, after the dune-studded La Guajira at the northern tip of South America. However, Tatacoa isn't a desert at all, but a long-dry tropical forest where lush flowers bloomed a millennium ago. Its unexpected past makes fossil-hunting a perfect pastime on hikes through its dramatic red canyons. Tatacoa's remote location and ideal atmospheric conditions also make it one of South America's best destinations for stargazing .

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Known as the capital city of salsa, Cali is the best place to visit in Colombia if you want to settle into several days of lessons to truly master these sensual steps. Zaperoco Bar is one of Cali's most famous salsa clubs, while Siboney — its name pointing to the rhythm's original Cuban roots — has long been one of Cali's salsa institutions. Fill your dance breaks by exploring the city's historic center and with day trips through the Valle del Cauca for river tubing, ziplining, and waterfall hikes.

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Tucked away within Utría National Natural Park on a remote stretch of Colombia's Pacific Coast, the tiny beach town of Nuquí is known as one of the best places in the country for whale watching. Between July and October, humpback whales travel from Antarctica to these warmer waters to give birth to their babies in the region's protected lagoons. Whale watching is the undisputed highlight for most travelers visiting Nuquí, but adventurous travelers will love surfing near jungle-fringed shores and hiking to long-hidden rainforest waterfalls.

San Andrés and Providencia

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Search for the islands of San Andrés and Providencia on a map, and you'd be forgiven for thinking they were a part of Central America. These tiny, remote islands over 450 miles from the Colombian mainland sit within a stretch of sea so azure it's called the "Sea of Seven Colors," and they are home to some of Colombia's last truly untouched beaches. Livelier San Andrés and more unspoiled Providencia are little-visited, idyllic destinations worth considering for your next unplugged, unbothered Caribbean getaway.

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14 Best Places to Visit in Colombia

Last updated on February 5, 2024 by Carl Austin and Kaeylen McCrea - 7 Comments

Known for its world-famous Arabica coffee, Colombia is a place of passion, rich culture, and prosperous natural landscapes. The entertainment in Colombia is buzzing with life, where salsa dancing is celebrated as a part of its culture, and the nightlife is boisterous until the early morning.

As one of the biggest producers of coffee on the planet, Colombia is praised for its high-quality coffee. Its ideal regions, such as the Zona Cafetera or “Coffee Triangle”, are praised as the ideal environment for growing and harvesting coffee beans. It is home to famous cities such as Medellin, the City of Eternal Spring, and The Lost City, one of the oldest archaeological ruins discovered in the Americas.

Colombia features a biodiverse location with sections of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria Mountains, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Andes Mountains included within its territory.

Its landscapes are breathtakingly scenic, rich with life and impactful vistas. And these best places to visit in Colombia are the perfect way to experience the best of Colombia for an extraordinary trip to this wealthy and beautiful land!

Map of Places to Visit in Colombia

Map of Places to Visit in Colombia

In this post, we'll cover:

14. Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva may be a small town less than a four-hour drive from Bogota, but its Plaza Mayor is one of the biggest town squares in South America. At one time people were executed on this immense square, which is now used as a gathering place for celebrations and festivals, such as the onion beauty pageant.

Its architecture reflects Spanish and Moorish influences; indeed, Villa de Leyva reminded us of Andalucía because of the white buildings with wooden trim and balconies. Museums honor famous people who fought for Colombian independence. The first distillery in the region is located here.

13. Guatape

Guatape

In central Columbia, in the Department of Antioquia, is the picturesque resort town of Guatape. Famous for its vibrant colored walls, referred to as “zocalos”, Guatape has another iconic feature – the El Peñón de Guatape or “The Rock of Guatape”.

In South America, The Rock of Guatape is the second largest monolithic rock, with Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio, Brazil, beating it for first place. As a result, this natural formation has become one of the top activities for visitors to Guatape.

Visitors to the town can reach the top of the rock’s summit by taking the path of stairs winding to the top. And from the summit of The Rock of Guatape are breathtaking panoramic views of the area, including the Cauca River and the Guatapé Reservoir.

Walk the cobblestoned pathway of Calle del Recuerdo, one of the most colorful streets in Guatape. Then, grab a seat to listen to live music in the bright square of the Plaza del Zocalo. This plaza features an amphitheater-like outdoor sitting area for people to sit and savor the music as performers show off their talents.

12. Rosario Islands

Rosario Islands

A collection of 27 islands, the Rosario Islands are about an hour’s trip by boat from Cartagena, a port city on the Caribbean coast. The Rosario Islands are located within the San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park to protect its abundant biodiversity and coral reefs.

The Rosario Islands are a must-visit tropical paradise with stunningly clear waters and sugar-white sand.

While on the islands, dine at one of the restaurants to savor freshly caught lobster, shellfish, and other locally-caught seafood. Order a cocktail and lay on one of the hammocks to relish the rejuvenating ambiance of the salty breeze and awe-inspiring scenery. For adventure, go kayaking through the mangroves, snorkeling at the coral reefs, or fishing for a big catch.

One of the most unique activities at the Rosario Islands is the bioluminescent plankton. There are evening tours that take visitors to the islands through the waters to witness the natural wonder of the bioluminescent plankton as they light up the waters.

11. Ciudad Perdida

Ciudad Perdida

Nestled in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Ciudad Perdida, translated to “lost city,” is an archaeological site of an ancient city estimated to be founded in 800 CE. It was established around 650 years before Machu Picchu.

After the Spanish arrived in the area, the city was abandoned in the 16th century. The jungle swallowed it, keeping it hidden until 1972 when treasure looters rediscovered the city. It is considered one of the most significant discoveries in modern-day times.

In the present day, Ciudad Perdida is inaccessible by road. Instead, people travel worldwide to hike to the lost city on educational guided tours. The hike takes about four days, traveling up steep hills, narrow stone steps, and across the Buritaca River. The hike is completely rewarding to reach Ciudad Perdida, where trekkers can picture how indigenous communities once thrived in the area in ancient times.

10. Popayan

Popayan

One of Colombia’s most impressive colonial cities, Popayan, is situated in the Pubenza Valley in southwestern Colombia. Famous for its Holy Week celebrations, Popayan is a spiritual city full of vibrancy and history.

Termed La Ciudad Blanca, “the White City”, Popayan for the eye-catching white facades of its many historic colonial buildings. In 1537, the city was founded by Sebastian de Belalcazar, a Spanish conquistador and explorer. As one of the oldest cities in South America, a visit to Popayan is a trip back in time thanks to the city’s dedication to preserving the historic city.

The Puente del Humilladero is one such gem. The bridge was built in 1873 and extends over the Molino River. Underneath the bridge is a park that attracts locals and tourists alike to find some peace and refreshment in the beautiful outdoors of Popayan.

The Iglesia de Ermita is the city’s oldest church, built in 1546, while the Iglesia de San Francisco lays claim to being the most beautiful. Another is the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Assumption, a majestic cathedral paired with the equally eye-catching Torre del Reloj, the clock tower.

Leticia

Capital of the Department of Amazonas, Leticia is the tourist hotspot for access to the Colombian Amazon. It rests on the border of Brazil , Colombia, and Peru .

The bustling city of Leticia welcomes people from across the globe looking to experience its rich culture and experiences in the great outdoors of the prosperous Amazon rainforest.

The nearby Mundo Amazonico is a relatively small nature reserve with a diverse array of flora species endemic to the Amazon. The reserve also hosts a tea house, an aquarium for an up-close look at Amazonia fish, and accessible jungle trails to see local wildlife.

Less than an hour’s trip by boat from Leticia is Monkey Island, called Isla de los Micos. The river island is home to a natural reserve with species such as the squirrel monkey that have made the island home. A shorter boat trip from Leticia, less than twenty minutes away, is the Victoria Regia Natural Reserve which features the giant floating lilies known as the Victoria Amazonica.

8. San Andres & Providencia

San Andres

San Andrés and Providencia Archipelago are two island groups that are located closer to Nicaragua than Colombia in the Caribbean. San Andres is the largest island, and also the capital. Providence Island was initially settled by English Puritans who used slave labor on their plantations and took up privateering.

White sand beaches and palm trees are San Andres’ best features. The Caribbean is colored seven shades of blue and is rich marine life, making it a great place to snorkel and dive. Accommodations aren’t as luxurious as other Caribbean islands, and visitors travel around the island on old school buses.

7. San Agustin

San Agustin

San Agustin is a laidback little town surrounded by awesome landscapes and the remains of a forgotten civilization. One of the most intriguing ancient sites in Colombia, the archeological park of San Agustin is home to more than 500 monoliths, statues, petroglyphs and sarcophagi.

Most of the stone carvings at San Agustin were created between 100 A.D. and 1200 A.D. They include representations of human figures, smiling and sneering monsters as well as animals such as snakes, birds and jaguars. The pre-Incan culture that built the stone carvings is surrounded by mystery.

No one knows their actual name. Most of what is known about this society comes from the interpretation of the carved statues and other ruins.

6. Medellin

Medellin

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Medellín was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, home to Colombia’s infamous cocaine cartel. But when drug lord Pablo Escobar was snuffed out in 1993, Medellín began to bury its troubled past and rebounded tremendously.

These days, the increasing number of tourist who come here find an inviting, modern city with one of the country’s best climates. Located in the Andes in the narrow Aburra Valley, the city sports temperatures averaging 24°C/72°F throughout the year, making any time a good time to visit.

The city has fine dining selections for a romantic evening out, world-famous coffee to savor, and trendy bars to socialize with locals and fellow tourists.

Relish in the mountain backdrop views on the Medellin metro cable that travels up to Parque Arvi, an ecological nature reserve. Visiting Parque Arvi is one of the most popular things to do in Medellin. The green oasis is thriving with numerous plant species, hiking trails, and guided nature tours to learn about the species that live within the park.

Head to Plaza Botero, one of the key areas of Medellin. The plaza is decorated with paintings and sculptures by iconic Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Be sure to pay a visit to Comuna 13, a neighborhood that transformed itself from crime-ridden to a thriving artistic hub. You’ll marvel at the colorful murals gracing the walls, reflecting the resilience and warmth of the community.

5. Zona Cafetera

Zona Cafetera

Travelers who love their java will definitely want to visit Zona Cafetera (Eje Cafetero) where almost half of Colombia’s coffee crop is grown on the slopes of the Andes. Referred to as the “Coffee Triangle”, Zona Cafetera is situated between Bogota, Medellin, and Cali . It is here where the most prosperous coffee plantations can be discovered.

The coffee farms welcome curious coffee lovers wishing to peek into how these exceptional coffee beans are grown before people worldwide serve the coffee piping hot into a cup.

Hiking is another popular activity in the Zona Cafetera, specifically the Cocora Valley Trail. The endangered Quindio wax palm, the tallest palm tree in the world endemic to the area, can be seen on this route. There’s also the town of Jardin, nestled in the center of the Zona Cafetera. This quaint little town’s cobblestoned streets feature a welcoming atmosphere, brightly-colored buildings, and cafes serving local delicacies.

San Gil

Situated in the Department of Santander in Eastern Andino, San Gil is notorious for being the adventure sports capital of Colombia.

Founded in 1689, the town displays cobblestone streets, historic structures, defining architecture, and rich culture in one magnetic place. It has become a popular travel destination amongst backpackers, though it is not a crowded tourist spot. Nevertheless, San Gil offers plenty of activity and adventure for an unrivaled memorable trip!

Bungee jumping is one of the most popular activities in San Gil, which is well-known for its affordable pricing. Another hot activity in San Gil is whitewater rafting, which has one of the world’s rarest opportunities to raft Class 5 rapids. There’s also swimming at the two best swimming spots, Pescaderito and Pozo Azul. Closer to town, Pozo Azul is only two miles from San Gil and has a gentle current perfect for relaxing in the waters.

One of the tallest waterfalls in Colombia is only a thirty-minute drive from San Gil. The Juan Curi Waterfall, near the town of Palenque, is surrounded by rich greenery and makes for a rewarding hike!

Bogota

Sometimes referred to as “the Athens of South America”, Bogota was first settled by indigenous peoples, though the founding date is generally set at 1538 by a Spanish explorer. Today, the city is one of the largest cities in South America and Colombia’s capital.

Once considered a place to avoid, Bogota has cleaned up its act and is fast becoming one of the best places to visit in Colombia. Located at 2,640 meters (8,660 feet) in the Andes, Bogota has numerous attractions to entice visitors, including a planetarium, gold museum, botanical gardens, cultural events and a thriving nightlife.

The city’s historic district can be found at La Candelaria, a pleasant quarter of cafés, churches and museums. Take a cable car or hike up to the striking Monserrate Sanctuary. At 3,152 meters (10,341 feet) above sea level, this magical site offers you an unparalleled view of the entire city. Catch your breath, snap some pictures, and enjoy some local snacks at the top.

2. Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park is a must-see place for travelers who enjoy nature and exploring old ruins. Located on the north Colombia coast, the park offers a variety of ecosystems, from swamps to scrublands to cloud forests.

For many travelers, the park’s biggest attraction is its beaches , set in deep bays and shaded with coconut palms. In fact, Tayrona beaches are among Colombia’s most beautiful. The park is also popular with birdwatchers who come to see the Andean condor, a threatened species.

The park takes its name from the Tayronas, a native people, who left their mark on a number of archaeological sites, including Pueblito Chairama. Tayrona is a good place to snorkel, hike and see wild animals, including lizards and monkeys, in their native habitat.

1. Cartagena

Cartagena

Cartagena is the bustling city where Kathleen Turner’s character Joan Wilder begins her Colombian adventures in Romancing the Stone. Hopefully, travelers will get their visits off to better starts, though the city is just as busy as when it was one of the key Caribbean ports from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Fought over by various countries, Cartagena was one of the most heavily fortified cities in South America; these fortifications can still be seen today.

Cartagena Walled City

As you stroll through the maze-like, cobblestoned streets of Cartagena’s Walled City, you will be transported back to a bygone era when pirates roamed the seas and noble Spaniards called the shots. Under the shade of balconies overflowing with bougainvillea, you’ll encounter street vendors offering everything from handmade jewelry to refreshing cups of raspados – a delicious Colombian shaved ice treat.

See also: Where to Stay in Cartagena

The area of Bocagrande, a long strip of hotel towers and condos fronting onto the beach, is also very popular with tourists.

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Reader interactions.

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October 29, 2019 at 8:08 pm

The Guajira beaches are amazing. Palomino is pretty well deserted and gorgeous.Worth checking out.

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October 27, 2019 at 9:41 am

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September 26, 2019 at 9:42 pm

I am based in South Africa. Wish I could stay in Colombia forever and good. Am glad that despite the previous crime and violence the government are doing their best to fight it.

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May 25, 2019 at 4:35 pm

I personally enjoy Barranquilla. It’s the culture, musica, and great evening night life and a wide choice of restaurants and street food. Best in December thru The end of Carnaval.

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May 30, 2018 at 9:21 am

Great article! Colombia has several beautiful places to explore with so different landscapes! I would add to this list the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira because it is one of the wonders of the country!

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March 23, 2018 at 3:40 pm

Bogota as athens of the andes? According to what *objective* source… I live there. It is anything but.

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October 20, 2014 at 4:58 pm

One place worth at least an honourable mention in “best vacation spots Colombia” is Rodadero. Better beaches than Cartagena, close to Santa Marta (1.500 peso) bus ride plus close to Parque Tayrona….which I would put higher up on the list. Taganga is to be avoided.

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13 things to know before visiting Colombia

Jun 17, 2023 • 9 min read

colombia places to visit

From health and safety to etiquette, these tips can help you plan your trip to Colombia © Yuki Mao / Getty Images

Whether you’re drawn by its beguiling coastlines , untamed jungle or high-altitude national parks , Colombia is guaranteed to dazzle.

After decades of association with armed conflict and drug cartels, this South American country has moved well beyond those dark decades, emerging from that chapter of history as one of the continent’s most thrilling and welcoming destinations to explore . 

Travelers to Colombia should prepare for a trip that will leave them wishing they never had to return home, thanks to the country’s remarkably warm and friendly people and uniquely Latin spirit. Read through the following tips on planning and health and safety to ensure a truly unforgettable trip to Colombia.

1. Don't attempt to see all of Colombia in one trip

A big mistake that even seasoned travelers have made is to try and pack too much into a trip around Colombia. Before trying to squeeze every last corner of the country into a two-week itinerary, cast your eyes over the map. Yes, Colombia is about twice the size of France or Texas – and no, you won’t be able see everything on just one trip. 

Instead, stick to exploring one section of the country, and exploring it well: spend three weeks bouncing between sun-soaked, Caribbean beaches , or heading from Medellín deep into the Zona Cafetera . Your trip will match Colombia’s characteristic pace: slow and enjoyable. 

2. Domestic flights are affordable and quick

If you’re still planning to cram as many places as possible into a short trip, Colombia’s wealth of low-cost airlines offers the most efficient way of getting around (though you keep in mind the increased carbon footprint of traveling by plane). While nothing quite compares with the cultural experience of taking a regional bus (where you’ll be “entertained” by deafening music for the duration), increasingly cheap fares are available for domestic flights.

Don’t be fooled by headline prices, which typically don’t include checked baggage. Peak traveling seasons (December through mid-January, Semana Santa and June through August) will add a premium and can sell out rapidly, so book in advance if visiting during these months.

Storm clouds move in across high rises and mountains of Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia

3. Pack for all weather

Whether you’re hitting up the Caribbean coast or heading to the rainier climes of the capital,  Bogotá , you can expect to experience a full array of weather conditions. While Colombia officially has two distinct seasons – the dry season (December through February and July through August) and the rainy season (April, May, and September through November) – because of the country’s variation in altitudes and ecosystems, you’ll probably experience all four seasons in one trip. 

As a rule, the Caribbean coast is hot and humid, while Bogotá and the wider Andean regions receive a surfeit of rain. Come prepared with plenty of layers, including a warm, easy-to-pack rain jacket, and you’ll be primed to adapt to whatever the weather might throw at you.

4. A little Spanish will get you a long way

For a country so long enveloped by violent conflict, Colombia today is a remarkably open and welcoming destination for international travelers. Wherever you are, it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the owner of a restaurant, your taxi driver or just a local enjoying the sunshine in a city plaza. And they’ll be delighted if you do.

Knowing more than the basics of Spanish can go a long way, spurring engaging, fascinating conversations about Colombian culture, football, history and politics. Colombian Spanish, particularly in Bogotá and Medellín, is considered one of the easiest to understand in Latin America, so make the most of affordable language schools in both cities to get some practice in before you head out into the rest of the country.

5. There are checkpoints with a strong military presence

When traveling in rural parts of Colombia, it’s not uncommon to come across road checkpoints staffed by army personnel, who’ll often ask to see your documents before waving you on your way. In areas recently opened to tourism following the conflict, you might even spot tanks and other military vehicles stationed alongside roads. 

While it might seem intimidating, the strong military presence around the country is there for the safety of the local people – and you. Be polite and have the correct paperwork (either your actual passport or a photocopy of the main page and entry stamp) with you, and you’ll rarely have an issue.

A colorful chiva bus pulls into a street in Yolombó, Antioquia, Colombia

6. Don’t expect punctuality

Like much of Latin America, Colombian culture isn’t known for its strict adherence to the clock, and a punctuality-obsessed traveler is often a disappointed one. “Colombian time” is practically its own time zone, and you should leave any notions of timeliness at home. To avoid getting frustrated, relax and embrace being flexible – really, the only way to deal with the typically laid-back Colombian attitude toward life, the universe and pretty much everything.

While big, interregional buses and flights do tend to leave on time, tight schedules aren't followed in many other contexts. If you’re making an appointment with a Colombian person or waiting for a rural colectivo to depart, bring a book as you might well be waiting up to an hour beyond the agreed time. 

7. Drug-taking and talking about that Netflix show are big no-nos

If there’s one way to annoy Colombians, it’s to get onto a topic that many Western tourists, despite Colombian’s attempts to dissuade them, continue to associate with the country: drugs. Illegal substances are a taboo subject in Colombia, and despite (or more likely, because of) the country’s history, few Colombians take them. Residents of Medellín, in particular, are fed up with the city’s association with drug cartels and with tourists who go there to use cocaine, which is illegal and could see you getting into a lot of trouble if caught. 

When traveling in Colombia, don’t mention Narcos , either. Colombians are frustrated with the Netflix show’s portrayal of the country and what they see as the exaltation of a mass murderer. Show some respect and steer clear of the many Pablo Escobar tours, too. Chatting to local people about their experiences during the drug-war years is likely to be far more informative and accurate.

8. Taxis will help you get around safely

While safety is no longer the same overwhelming concern it once was, taking taxis when traveling between neighborhoods in big cities across Colombia is a sensible choice. Wandering around at night, particularly after you’ve had a shot of heady aguardiente or two, is often an invitation to opportunist thieves.

Taxis are extremely affordable and relatively painless if using a ride-share app, such as Cabify or Uber . Hailing a taxi can leave you open to scams or worse, so calling for a cab (or asking your hotel to) is recommended. Always confirm the price or check that the taxi has a working meter before entering the vehicle.

A drag queen dressed in a colorful rainbow-patterned dress draped with beads strikes a pose at an outdoor Pride event

9. Bogotá has a well-established gay scene

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Colombia in early 1980s, and the first same-sex marriage ceremony was performed in 2013 – evidence that this country has some of the more progressive attitudes toward LGBTIQ+ rights in Latin America. Bogotá has a well-established gay scene, with bars and nightlife mostly found in Chapinero, one of the city’s most dynamic neighborhoods . Some lodgings and restaurants are beginning to advertise themselves as gay-friendly.

Despite its progressive laws, much of Colombian society remains traditionalist, and many same-sex couples still feel unsafe showing affection in public. For more information specifically for LGBTIQ+ travelers, check out Guia Gay Colombia . 

10. Tipping isn’t obligatory, but it is appreciated

Dining out in Colombia is extremely affordable when compared with most places in Europe or North America. When you go to pay the bill at fancier or more upmarket restaurants, it’s likely you’ll be asked if you want to include the propina (tip), typically around 10% of the cost of the meal.

Service in restaurants, cafes and bars across Colombia is generally much better than in many other parts of South America , so unless you had a terrible experience, consider paying the tip to show your appreciation. 

A female cyclist rides through the Paramo in the Andes Mountains of Boyacá, Colombia, South America

11. Traveling is safe – but stick to the beaten track

Colombia has experienced an about-face in the past few decades, shedding its title as one of Latin America’s most dangerous countries and coming into its own as a worthy travel destination.

It all comes down to the history-making peace accords signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the FARC, which, after five decades of conflict, have led to many rural parts of the country finally shifting from no-go areas into welcoming places for visitors.

However, it still isn’t wise to go too far off the beaten path. Some rural areas remain dangerous because of their links with neo-paramilitary and drug-trafficking groups, particularly along the borders with Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador. Before traveling anywhere unusual, always research the situation on the ground as well as your government’s travel advisories.

12. Scams and muggings do happen

While safety has improved significantly, you should always “no dar papaya.” This delightful idiom – which literally translates to “don’t give papaya” – means you should always keep your wits about you, staying alert to those who would take advantage of you. In practice, this means following common-sense guidelines: don’t wander down dark, empty streets at night, don’t head out into neighborhoods you don’t know without checking their safety first and don’t flap about the city with an expensive camera or phone on display.

Travel insurance is essential because muggings are unfortunately still an issue in cities such as Bogota, Cali and Medellín; you should never resist if someone tries to rob you. Distraction techniques are those used most fruitfully by would-be thieves, so always be wary of people coming up to you in the street or being asked to show your money to scammers posing as police officers.

If things do go wrong, head to the nearest police station immediately to report the crime. The police will put together a report and give you a copy, which you’ll need to make an insurance claim.

13. Don’t let this country’s history scare you away

Colombia has come on leaps and bounds since the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s, and its residents are more than excited to show you their beautiful and wonderfully diverse country. The biggest mistake you can make is to let Netflix or historic newspaper headlines scare you away: this is a country that just about every traveler can’t help but fall in love with. The biggest danger when visiting Colombia? Finding yourself never wanting to leave.

This article was first published May 2022 and updated June 2023

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