If you have any preconceptions about Colombia, leave them at home. This remarkable country will take you by surprise.
The second-most biodiverse nation in the world harbors vast swaths of wildlife-rich Amazon jungle in its interior, while coral-white beaches, dizzying mountains and leafy highland coffee plantations crown Colombia as a place of extraordinary natural contrasts.
But this thrilling corner of South America is much more than the sum of its natural parts. Its kinetic cities buzz with an upbeat energy that sets Colombia apart from most of the continent, proving that this once-troubled country has well and truly shed its history of conflict.
With adventure and infectious beats around practically every corner, picking the best places to visit in the country can be a challenge. However, thanks to plentiful domestic flights and long-distance buses, Colombia is a place where it’s easy to cover plenty of ground, even on a short trip.
To help you with the planning, here are the best places to visit in Colombia.
Best for architecture and atmosphere
At the top of most travelers’ bucket lists for Colombia is the sultry city of Cartagena, and it’s easy to see why. The stately old town is a magical walled complex of bougainvillea-slung cobblestone streets and shady squares where local performers shake, stamp and twirl, the living embodiment of the city’s famous energy.
Absorbing the atmosphere of Cartagena can be as spirited – or as languid – as you choose. Laze the day away on Playa de Bocagrande or sit down to long, leisurely lunches of sharp coconut ceviche at a family-run restaurant. At night, indulge in a sundowner on a rooftop bar and sample the energetic vibe of the city’s bars and clubs.
Planning tip: The heart of Cartagena – comprising the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego within the city walls – is best explored on foot so you can soak up the atmosphere.
2. The Amazon jungle
Best for wildlife encounters
Colombia lays claim to an extraordinary glut of flora and fauna that should place it on any wildlife lover’s must-see list. While it covers a third of Colombia’s territory, the Amazon jungle can be tricky to access, yet it remains the prime location for encountering tropical wildlife in vast swaths of untouched rainforest.
Book a tour into the rainforest from the remote outpost of Leticia and spend a couple of nights exploring one of the globe’s wildest places. Boat trips putter along the Río Amazonas, and remote trails across the forest floor promise encounters with inquisitive pink river dolphins, sluggish sloths and a cacophony of howler monkeys.
3. Zona Cafetera
Best for coffee lovers
If there’s one thing that keeps Colombia running, it’s coffee. Find out what all the fuss is about by exploring the Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s coffee heartland. Filling the lush hillsides of the departments of Risaralda, Caldas and Quindío are green plantations growing Colombia’s magic arabica beans. Many family-run fincas (farms) have opened their doors to curious tourists, with day tours and overnight stays offering a deep dive into coffee culture.
Planning tip: Organize your transport to coffee country from the regional hubs of Manizales and Pereira.
4. Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona
Best for combining nature and beaches
Home to palm-lined tropical beaches and secluded coves, Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is one of Colombia’s natural jewels. Set on the Caribbean coastline east of Santa Marta, this national park is a paradise of relaxation against the dramatic backdrop of the looming Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains.
Chilling on sun-soaked beaches or ambling along the jungle trails that edge the coastline are the flavor of the day here, as water currents at most beaches are too dangerous for swimming. To avoid the crowds, head by speedboat to Playa Cristal, an isolated island with pristine waters and gleaming beaches.
Planning tip: Time your visit to Tayrona outside of January or February, when the park typically closes for maintenance. And consider tacking on a visit to Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in the Zona Cafetera, as part of an ambitious four-day itinerary.
Best for street art
Once the stronghold of Colombia’s most infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, modern Medellín is a city reborn. Backpackers will find fun in the city’s plethora of hip music venues, while travelers seeking a more sophisticated stay can enjoy well-heeled neighborhoods that court visitors with shady restaurant terraces and slick bars. Known for its perennially spring-like climate, Medellín holds a boundless appeal, making it one of the best cities to visit if you’re short on time, and it’s also a gateway to the Zona Cafetera.
For art lovers, the imprint of Colombian heavyweight, Fernando Botero, is visible throughout the city, with his emblematic, engorged statues adding humor to rowdy market squares. To get deeper under the city’s skin, visit the urban regeneration projects at Comuna 13 and Moravia to see how street art and innovative forms of transport are injecting life into formerly down-at-heel neighborhoods.
Planning tip: For a change of pace, a ride on a modern cable car will spirit you up and out of the valley into Parque Arví, a nature reserve with pre-Hispanic trails through forests adorned with orchids.
6. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Best for archaeological adventures
For a tantalizing glimpse into the past, head to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a mountain range that slices across the northeast of Colombia. After a tough three-day hike through thick jungle, you’ll reach Colombia’s finest archaeological site, La Ciudad Perdida.
The stone terraces of this once-crowded city were built around 850 CE along a steep-sided ridge, and the site was only reclaimed from the jungle in the 1970s. Accessible only on a tour, La Ciudad Perdida remains remote, untouched and blissfully free of tourists.
Planning tip: Book tours to La Ciudad Perdida through agencies such as Expotur in Santa Marta.
7. La Guajira Peninsula
Best for learning about Indigenous culture
Wild expanses of desert sit alongside the splendid blue of the Caribbean Sea in one of Colombia’s most remote and unique corners. The Indigenous Wayuu people who call the Guajira Peninsula home have defied invaders throughout history, and still live here in secluded villages, following their own unique rhythms.
Planning tip: To appreciate the dazzling wildness of Colombia’s northernmost point, you’ll need to organize a tour from Riohacha. Aim to spend at least one night on the peninsula and head out to Playa Taroa – often touted as Colombia’s most beautiful beach – where sand dunes empty of visitors slide straight into the glistening sea.
Best for party people
Few places in South America love to party as much as Cali, Colombia’s buzzing capital of salsa. The city’s addiction to rhythm is infectious, and a visit to Cali will see you glued to the dance floor until dawn. Polish your moves at one of the many dance schools before hitting the dance floor with the locals in Zaperoco, a standout salsa club.
Planning tip: For the most iconic – and explosive – introduction to Cali’s obsession with salsa, get your hands on a ticket to Delirio, a salsa and cabaret showcase of epic proportions. It takes place on the final Friday of every month.
Best for museums and culture
Rainy and cold thanks to its lofty perch in the Andes Mountains, Bogotá might feel like a mere jumping-off point for Colombia’s more temperate destinations. Yet those who give it a chance will find the capital city a place with a cosmopolitan atmosphere and a rich array of museums.
Gourmet dining rubs shoulders with rowdy nightlife in the city’s increasingly trendy neighborhoods of Zona Rosa and Chapinero. But for a more sedate and educational visit, spend a day marveling at the tremendous riches on display in the Museo de Oro, one of the continent’s finest collections of pre-Hispanic metallurgy. Another highlight is the Museo Botero, which comprises a significant collection of modern and Impressionist art, including 123 pieces by Botero himself.
Best for an island escape
Situated some 1240km (770 miles) north of Colombia in the balmy waters of the Caribbean Sea, the idyllic island of Providencia is one of the country’s most beautiful places to visit. Picture-perfect, golden-sand beaches – often practically devoid of visitors – and a laid-back atmosphere are all part of the appeal of this remote and sun-kissed patch of paradise.
Divers can splash into crystal clear waters alongside huge stingrays, turtles and reef sharks along a 32km (20-mile) stretch of the world’s third-largest barrier reef. If you prefer to keep your head above water, blond sands, beachside restaurants and 25ºC (77ºF) water temperatures will more than cater to your needs.
11. Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de La Macarena
Best for natural spectacles
Due south of Bogotá, Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de La Macarena is one of the most incredible places to visit in Colombia. Just a short drive from the town of La Macarena, Caño Cristales is a river that runs vivid pink. Dubbed the “liquid rainbow,” this remarkable stretch of water gains its rhubarb hue from the riverweed that grows here between July and October. Pack a bathing suit – you can swim in designated areas of the river.
Planning tip: Caño Cristales only became accessible to visitors in 2010 as it lay in formerly FARC-occupied territory, but it has become a victim of its own loveliness. Visitor numbers are now capped at 200 per day, and you’ll need to book your ticket with a local tour operator in advance.
12. San Gil
Best for thrill-seekers
Adrenaline junkies should look no further than Colombia’s capital of adventure, San Gil. Water sports are one of the main draws here, with white-water rafting or hydrospeed tours buffeting you through scenic canyons along Class I to Class V rapids.
If you’re keen to get off the ground, abseiling excursions down gushing waterfalls, paragliding over rugged mountain peaks and bungee jumping will get adrenaline levels soaring. Caving, mountain biking and canyoning are more popular activities.
13. Parque Arqueológico Nacional de San Agustín
Best for lost kingdom vibes
In the far southwestern department of Huila lies Parque Arqueológico Nacional de San Agustín. This remarkable place comprises a network of ceremonial sites and burial grounds dotted with fantastical stone statues whose semi-human faces grin through fanged mouths with dizzyingly wide eyes. While their purpose remains largely a mystery to archaeologists, many believe the area to have been a place of pilgrimage and ancestor worship built more than 2000 years ago.
Planning tip: The archaeological park sits 2.5km (1.6 miles) from the town of San Agustín; colectivos (shared vans) run out to the park gates. Pick up a local guide at the entrance to learn more as you explore the site.