Put aside your preconceived notions about Colombia, which may center on its bloody drug battles and dangerous gangs, and you'll see a country full of hope and optimism as it plunges forward toward a brighter, safer, and more wealthy future.
The Andes, the Amazon, the Caribbean, and two deserts bask in the sun in this region of opposites. From the mystique of Cartagena to the energy of Medellin, and even to the tranquil colonial villages of Salento and Mompox, you'll find a wealth of beautiful sites along the way.
Above all else, it is Colombians' legendary warmth and welcome that will have you longing to return. Our guide to the greatest tourist destinations in Colombia will help you plan your trip.
Cartagena, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, is a stunning colonial city that has been remarkably well-preserved. It's possible to have the impression that you've traveled back in time when you take a stroll through the ancient walled city.
It may be the 13 kilometers of walls that have stood the test of time, or the vibrant colonial buildings that have been lovingly restored to become restaurants and five-star hotels. Maybe it's the Catholic chapels that rise majestically above each plaza or the bougainvillea-draped balconies that line the winding lanes. Whatever it is, there's something irresistible about this Caribbean paradise.
Getsemani, a more relaxed neighborhood, can be found beyond the city's historic core, and Bocagrande, a more modern district, can be found along the oceanfront, where high-end condos and hotels compete for views of the water. The islands and beaches that can be reached in under an hour by boat are perfect for weekend getaways or day visits.
While Bogotá is the official capital of Colombia, most tourists find that the more manageable Medellin is where they end up falling in love with the country. A quarter of a century after being labeled the most dangerous city in the world, Medellin is now known for something very different: inventiveness.
Some of the city's poorer areas are served by cable cars that transport residents to a sophisticated metro system in the valley below, and the city as a whole features a greenbelt of lush "eco-parks" and beautiful libraries and community centers.
Medellin's Old Quarter is a terrific place to begin a day of touring, thanks in large part to the 23 rotund sculptures that renowned Colombian artist Fernando Botero generously gifted to the plaza. The plaza is flanked by the impressive Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture and the equally fascinating Museum of Antioquia. Take the modern escalator up to Comuna 13 in the hills above town to see the brightly painted residences and intricate murals that decorate its streets.
El Poblado, the hippest neighborhood in Medellin, is where you should spend the evening because it is home to many of the city's hotels and most popular restaurants.
Located in South America, Colombia is the world's third-largest producer of coffee beans and a great destination for coffee excursions and tastings. West of Bogota, in the small communities of Armenia, Pereira, and Manizales in the subtropical Andean hills, is where the bulk of the country's output is manufactured. In recent years, an increasing number of coffee estates in this area, known as the Eje Cafetero (or Coffee Axis), have opened their doors to the public for tours, tastings, and luxurious farm stays.
The farmer-owner of one of these modest (and usually organic) farms might take an hour out of his day to show you around and tell you all about how a simple "cherry" becomes a coffee bean that gets roasted and ground into a latte back home.
Salento, a tiny resort town, is ideally located, with easy access to a number of neighboring attractions and activities, including farm excursions. Cocora Valley, home to the world's tallest palm trees, is also not far away. Rent a bicycle in Salento and pedal your way about the area, or hop in one of the town's many vintage Willy jeeps, which operate as taxis.
A third of Colombia has been covered in its thick (and often impenetrable) jungles, although the country may not immediately come to mind when you think of the Amazon. Leticia, a sleepy border hamlet on the banks of the Amazon River between the borders of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru, serves as the de facto capital of the Amazon Basin.
Eco-tours, wildlife safaris, and expeditions into the Amazon rainforest to see the local Indigenous communities can all be launched from Leticia. You can take a plane from Bogotá to get here and then travel farther down the river to Manaus, Brazil, or up the river to Iquitos, Peru.
Within Tayrona National Natural Park is noted for its palm-shaded coves and crystal-clear coastal lagoons, you'll find some of Colombia's best beaches. The rainforested hills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which can be seen from many of the region's beaches, are worth seeing on their own during any beach vacation.
Snorkeling is excellent in Tayrona, particularly in the protected regions close to La Piscina beach and Cabo San Juan. Even though these beaches are out in the middle of nowhere, they aren't exactly a secret, so if you want to avoid the crowds, the best time to go is during the off-season (February through November). Expect to sleep in a tent (or hammock) at one of the numerous coastal campgrounds unless you can afford opulent Ecohabs Tayrona.
Bogotá, the capital and largest city in Colombia, also serves as the country's economic and cultural hub. Some people hate it because of the traffic and the rain, while others can't get enough of it because of the special blend of colonial elegance and modern sophistication it offers. Either way, if you give this city of eight million a chance, you might find up loving it.
You should start your exploration of La Candelaria at its historic core, where you can witness some of the city's most impressive architecture along Plaza de Bolvar and visit must-see cultural landmarks like the dazzling Museum of Gold. Then, visit the posher areas of North Bogotá to dine at some of the finest restaurants and shop at the most unique boutiques in the country.
The four-day, 44-kilometer climb to Ciudad Perdida, a lost city buried deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains and only found in the 1970s, is the most popular trip in Colombia. One of the greatest pre-Columbian settlements found in the Americas, this ancient metropolis was built and populated by Tayrona Indians between the eighth and fourteenth centuries.
The present Indigenous people of the area have prevented excavations, so most of the site is still covered under a thick jungle blanket, but the stone terraces and stairways are in remarkably good condition. To hike legally, you must sign up with a licensed tour company that can provide a guide and food. Tours departing from Santa Marta can be scheduled in advance. Be ready for a challenge if you decide to go through with it; it's not a picnic in the park. You should expect extreme heat, oppressive humidity, rain, muck, and insects. Although the path is well-marked, you should be prepared to either climb or descend at all times. It's not all boring, though. You can stop and swim in rivers and ponds or see the breathtaking scenery of the jungle on the route.
The coolest time of the day is utilized by beginning hikes at an early hour, typically around 5 am. In the authorized camping areas, you can choose between a hammock and a mattress, both of which come with their own mosquito netting. The average person can walk for seven to nine hours, or 12 to 14 kilometers. As part of an agreement with the local Indigenous people, the trail is off-limits during the month of September. January and February have the fewest rainy days and are therefore the ideal months to visit.
Many tourists to this unusual Caribbean island are baffled by its peculiarities. To begin, it's physically closer to Nicaragua than it is to Colombia. In addition, the local language is not Spanish but rather English Creole. Once you're basking on Colombia's most beautiful beaches, none of it will matter anyway.
This tiny island with its glistening shores and swaying palms is the crown jewel of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, a marine preserve under the protection of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. To get to Providencia from the more popular San Andrés Island, you'll need to take either a brief hopper plane journey or a three-hour catamaran ride. Aguadulce, a tiny village on the island's breathtaking western coast, is home to the greatest concentration of hotels and homes.
Mompox's drowsy appeal will win over fans of magic realism and Gabriel Garcia Márquez's works. It is widely believed that the fictional town of Macondo from the Nobel laureate's most well-known novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was modeled after this location.
When neighboring Venezuela was fighting for its independence from Spain, "El Libertador" Simón Bolvar gathered his army in Mompox, a once-prosperous hub along the commercial route between the Caribbean coast and the Andes. This colonial relic on the muddy banks of the Magdalena River now feels like a town that has been forgotten by history.
Despite its lack of attractions, many tourists spend more time than expected wandering the town's cobblestone alleys and admiring the colonial architecture or taking boat tours of the Pijio Swamp, a haven for birdwatchers.
It's natural that the northern point in South America is also the most different from the rest of the continent, and La Guajira is no exception. Located where the orange-brown La Guajira Desert and the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea meet, this distant and under-visited peninsula is a tranquil sanctuary of rolling sand dunes, bird-covered mangrove swamps, and large stretches of unoccupied land.
The peninsula is home to the staunch Wayuu people, who were never subdued under Spanish authority and whose culture thrives to this day, making indigenous beliefs the law of the land.
Remember that tourism in La Guajira is still in its infancy, and that getting there from Riohacha, the regional seat, needs patience and a willingness to try new things. Cabo de la Vela, known as the "Windsurfing Capital of the World," boasts excellent visitor services and is the finest place to begin exploring the area.
Pablo Escobar, the drug lord turned millionaire, is the most notorious figure in recent Colombian history. Few know that Escobar's magnificent Puerto Triunfo mansion, located roughly 110 miles east of Medellin, is open to the public.
After Escobar's death in 1993, the huge compound, known as Hacienda Nápoles, fell into disarray. In the middle of the 2000s, however, the property was acquired by the local government, which has since developed it into an ever-expanding amusement park including a wide range of attractions, including themed areas, hotels, a water park, and a zoo designed in the form of a safari.
There are fewer reminders of Escobar now that new hotels and attractions have opened. A Cessna plane that he used to bring drugs into the United States was removed from its position atop the entry gate, and the remains of his previous residence have been destroyed (as is the gate). Some of his old automobile collection sits quietly decaying in the sun, while a modest museum tries to make sense of his legacy.
There's also a wild hippo herd that, because of years of prolific reproduction, has expanded from four individuals to forty, making it the largest herd outside of Africa, and a Jurassic zone complete with the life-size dinosaur models he bought for his son.
After being closed off for decades due to guerilla activity, Cao Cristales is once again open for business and seeing a surge in visitors. Most tourists in the Orinoqua region travel to this river canyon to swim in its natural pools and take in the scenery of the region's many waterfalls.
The canyon is beautiful year-round, but between July and November, an algae bloom makes the riverbed a kaleidoscopic array of hues. Cao Cristales expeditions begin and end in La Macarena, a remote outpost accessible only by air from Bogotá or Villavicencio.
Each and every one of Colombia's cities is alive and full of history, and you should visit each and every one of them. In Bogota, the country's capital, sightseers may take in colonial-era elegance with contemporary cafes, boutiques, and murals.
Visit the Caribbean port city of Cartagena, known for its exciting Old Town and proximity to San Basilio de Palenque, the first free town in the world. Medellin also hosts a flower festival in August, which is a great time to visit.
Getting out of the cities, tourists may enjoy Colombia's beautiful landscape in a variety of ways. You may go mountaineering and swim at Tayrona National Park on the coast, trek in the beautiful cloud forests of Cocora Valley, and explore the coffee-growing region of the Central Andes, known for its snow-capped peaks, ice sheets, and forests. In Costa Rica, you may do all of these things and more. To unwind, take a mud bath at Totumo Volcano.
The fact that Colombia is so close to the equator has a major bearing on the weather there. Spring seems to stay forever in Bogota, while summers can reach dangerously high temperatures in Cartagena. The weather is pleasant and tropical close to the Caribbean Sea, but it gets hot and muggy as you get closer to the Amazon Rainforest. During the dry season (December–April), Colombia is an excellent place to spend a vacation, especially in the months of July and August. Even though it rains heavily during the wet season, the dry season sees its fair share of wet weather, too.