Colombia isn’t the kind of country you can skip through in a couple of weeks and consider it “done”. From the bustling, artistic vibe of the cities to the unspoiled beauty of its coasts, forests, deserts and mountains, Colombia’s cultural and natural riches are almost infinite.
With so many wildly varying destinations, planning a trip to Colombia can be overwhelming! To give you some inspiration, we’ve compiled a list of 10 places in Colombia worth of any traveller’s bucket list. Some have become tourist hotspots, while others are only just being discovered. Together, they’re proof of just how diverse Colombia really is.
1. THE COFFEE AND COUNTRYSIDE OF THE ZONA CAFETERA
Colombia is synonymous with coffee, renowned for the quality of its hand-picked arabica beans. In the evergreen Andean hills of the Zona Cafetera, coffee bushes blanket the steeply sloping sides of valleys with their distinctive, glossy foliage. Basket-toting harvesters can sometimes be seen, silhouetted against the morning mist.
The main cities of Pereira, Armenia and Manizales generally serve as gateways to picturesque country villages. With brightly coloured buildings and a spectacular mountain backdrop, once-sleepy Salento has become backpacker central. Coffee plantations run daily tours from the main square, and it’s a good base for arranging hiking trips to the nearby national parks. Far less touristy and arguably more authentic, Filandia is a tiny, laidback pueblo, nestled amid rolling green hills and blessed with some of rural Colombia’s best preserved architecture. You can also arrange to stay on a working coffee farm. Accommodation ranges from rustic to luxurious, but amazing views are guaranteed.
2. THE COLONIAL CHARMS OF CARTAGENA
Cartagena is Colombia’s premier tourist destination and it’s easy to see why. One of the most exquisitely preserved colonial cities in South America, the Caribbean port was founded in 1533. Cartagena’s trademark pastel-painted Spanish buildings and cobblestone streets are concentrated in the old quarter of the city, surrounded by 11km of fortified stone walls. Around every corner is a piece of history, be it a humble stone church, a richly ornamented cathedral or a gothic-style bell tower.
Cartagena is famous for its sunsets, attracting romancing couples who perch atop the ancient ramparts for the best views in town. As evening fades, the night air fills with the sounds of cumbia and salsa, and there’s as much dancing in the streets as in the city’s famously lively clubs.
3. THE MYSTERIOUS RUINS OF CIUDAD PERDIDA
1,200 years ago, the Tairona founded a great city in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was an ingenious feat of engineering, with intricately cut stone buildings, a network of tiled roads and over 250 circular terraces carved into the mountainside. When the Spanish arrived, the Tairona fled and their city was lost to the jungle for 400 years.
Getting to Ciudad Perdida (the “Lost City”) is a test of physical endurance. The ruins can only be reached by a four day, 44km trek through dense jungle. Hikers battle treacherous ravines, relentless humidity and swarming mosquitos. Accommodation is in forest camps and bathing is done beneath waterfalls. It may lack the ornate splendour of Machu Pichu, but what Ciudad Perdida offers is the chance to be one of the few adventurous souls to have laid eyes on the last traces of a civilization whose secrets remain almost entirely undiscovered.
4. THE GIANT WAX PALMS OF THE COCORA VALLEY
Found only in the montane forests of the Colombian Andes, the Quindío giant wax palm is the world’s tallest palm tree. With curiously skinny trunks up to 60m high, these surreal, prehistoric-looking plants have become one of the most iconic images of Colombia’s natural beauty. Nowhere are they more abundant than along the verdant green slopes of the Cocora Valley, in the heart of coffee country.
The best way to explore the valley is via a 15km round trek. The trail traverses through cloud forest with abundant waterfalls and a series of river crossings over rickety wooden bridges. The final few kilometres climb steeply to almost 2,400m before descending into the valley, the breathtaking panorama of the palms providing a worthy pay-off after an exhausting (but beautiful) six hour slog.
5. THE BEACHES AND WILDLIFE OF TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK
Ruggedly scenic Caribbean coastline forms the northern border of Tayrona National Park. Here, a series of rainforest hiking trails lead to pristine golden sand beaches, set against the emerald green backdrop of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal mountain range.
An important sanctuary for wildlife, the park protects one the last remaining populations of cotton top tamarins. While you can visit on a day trip from Santa Marta, the best way to experience Tayrona is to hire a tent on one of the park’s designated camping beaches. Tayrona is sacred to the indigenous Kogi, and the park occasionally closes to limit the impact of visitors and allow the Kogi guardians to perform their protective rituals over the land.
6. THE KALEIDOSCOPIC COLOURS OF CAÑO CRISTALES
Considered off limits for years due to guerrilla presence, today travellers can safely venture off the beaten track to marvel at Caño Cristales, a river that every year is transformed by a spectacular biological phenomenon.
Known as the “River of Five Colours”, between July and November, algal blooms turn the shimmering cascades of Caño Cristales’ into liquid rainbows of yellow, green, blue, black and red in every shade, from hot pink to deep maroon. Within the Serrania de la Macarena National Park, reaching the river requires a guided excursion by boat and on foot. While there’s no swimming in Caño Cristales, there are nearby natural pool for cooling off after the humid two kilometre hike.
7. THE TROPICAL ISLAND PARADISE OF PROVIDENCIA
Far off Colombia’s northern coast lies the remote archipelago of San Andres and Providencia. San Andres is the largest and easiest to reach of the two main islands, but Providencia is the very definition of a “paradise island”, with far fewer tourists, no cars and a population of only 6,000.
The island is ringed by mangrove forests, coral reefs and clear turquoise waters, perfect for snorkelling and diving. The local Raizal people maintain a strongly Afro-Carribean identity and speak an English-based creole.
8. THE SNOW-CAPPED PEAKS OF SIERRA NEVADA DEL COCUY NATIONAL PARK
One of Colombia’s most pristine wilderness areas, El Cocuy commands some of South America’s most impressive mountain scenery. A vast expanse of snow-capped summits, glacial lakes and wildflower carpeted valleys, there are 15 peaks above 5,000m, making Cocuy a legendary stomping ground among mountain climbers.
Not a climber? It’s still possible explore the park’s numerous day trails, or embark on Colombia’s most epic high altitude hike, the five day Cocuy Circuit. This tough but enormously rewarding trek involves crossing several passes over 4,000m to some of the most remote and beautiful stretches of the park.
9. THE WILDLIFE OF THE COLOMBIAN AMAZON
While most travellers head for Brazil or Peru to fulfil their Amazon adventure fantasies, the Colombian Amazon remains largely off the tourist radar. Hemmed in by impenetrable jungle terrain and without road access. the Department of Amazona is essentially cut off from the rest of the country. The only practical way in is by flying to Leticia, a surprisingly bustling port town a stone’s throw from the Brazilian and Peruvian borders.
Leticia serves as a springboard for boat access to remote eco lodges in the middle of the rainforest. Here you can get a glimpse into the daily lives of Amazona’s indigenous communities, go on wildlife walks to spot monkeys, sloths and macaws and try your hand at piranha fishing. There’s even the chance of an unforgettable encounter with pink river dolphins who are known to playfully accompany canoers on occasion.
10. THE COASTAL DESERTS OF LA GUAJIRA
The isolated Caribbean outpost of La Guajira is South America’s most northerly point – a desert landscape that possesses a strange, mesmerizingly simple beauty. After a few days here, city life feels like a distant memory. Scorching sand dunes tumble down to striking aquamarine bays. Beyond cactus-strewn badlands is a green mangrove oasis harbouring flocks of showy pink flamingos.
The Wayuu are the traditional custodians of La Guajira, a region completely distinct from the rest of Colombia, with its own language and culture. La Guajira remains relatively undeveloped for now, attracting a small but growing number of travellers. Some come for the excellent kite surfing, others simply to unwind and appreciate life’s simple pleasures – eating a humble meal of grilled fish on the beach, sleeping on hammocks beneath the stars, or contemplating the sunset from a deserted cove.
Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)