Colombia is stunningly beautiful, great fun and an amazing place to visit as a traveller or backpacker. However, as it’s such a large country, planning a trip there can be overwhelming, with so many options for places to see and things to do. A lot of people have asked me what places I would recommend travelers visit on a trip to Colombia, so I decided to put together this list to help narrow down the options.
So if you’re planning a trip to Colombia and wondering where to go, here’s my pick of the top 10 places to visit in Colombia:
Cartagena is a fantastic entry point to Colombia as it’s everything you expect this tropical country to be; colourful, full of energy, pulsating to the beat of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and stunningly beautiful. Enjoy the colonial Old Town before setting off on a day trip to the magnificent Rosario Islands, where the water is so bright and clear, you really won’t believe your eyes.
Medellin is the epitome of a city that has completely reinvented itself; now proudly positioned as one of the best places to live in Colombia, with a rapidly growing number of foreign expats, and voted as the ‘Worlds Most Innovative City’ in 2012, it’s come a long long way from its drug cartel days.
With beautiful and refreshing weather all year round, this ‘City of Eternal Spring’ has so much to offer, including a blossoming arts and culture scene, thriving science and education institutions, and plenty of museums, galleries and other public spaces designed with the citizen in mind. Make sure you also experience the Medellin nightlife as ‘Paisas‘ are famous in Colombia for their partying habits!
El Peñol and Guatape
Just a few hours from Medellin, Guatape and El Peñol are definitely worth a visit if just to witness the stunning views (above).
Guatape is a small town with big character, as the kaleidoscopic streets overflow with colorful buildings, local art and homely restaurants. Set against a lake, it is the perfect place to spend the weekend away from the bigger cities.
A short drive outside of Guatape is El Peñol, a gigantic rock mysteriously placed in the center of a sprawling piece of land dotted with several lakes. Climb all 659 steps to the top for the best views in Colombia!
Salento and the Coffee Triangle
The laid-back, ‘campesino’ town of Salento is located in the middle of Colombia’s famous Coffee Triangle; consisting of the regions Caldas, Quindío and Risaralda. Set amongst the mountains, the climate is cool and refreshing with local restaurants serving up hot soups and, of course, coffee to battle the soft chill.
Local coffee farmers, known as campesino’s, walk around in poncho’s and ‘sombreros vueltiaos’; a typical, traditional hat worn by Colombian farmers. Spend a few days exploring the coffee region, taking day trips to the beautiful Valle del Cocora, the fun Coffee Park, or one of several other towns within the coffee triangle.
Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira
Hard to get to, but totally worth it, Cabo de la Vela is like nowhere else in Colombia. Situated in the most northern part of the country, the Guajira Peninsula, Cabo de la Vela is a desert wasteland, home to the fascinating and talented Wayúu indigenous people and, frankly, not much else.
A unique landscape where the desert meets the sea in peaceful harmony, Cabo de la Vela is an adventure travelers dream destination. While you’re there, take it one step further by visiting Punta Gallinas; officially the most northern tip of Colombia and the entire continent of South America!
Read more about Cabo de la Vela and how to get there in this post.
Tayrona National Park, Santa Marta
Tayrona is paradise on earth! This national park, containing tropical rainforest, snow-capped mountains and hugged by the Caribbean Sea is the most picturesque area in Colombia, in my humble opinion. Full of beautiful beaches, mostly isolated, and free from any major development apart from eco-friendly huts, Tayrona is a place for relaxing, unwinding and getting away from the everyday hustle of life.
Grab a tent, walk two hours into the jungle until you reach the pristine white sand beaches, hang up your hammock and relax for a few days in Caribbean bliss!
Often overlooked in favour of its larger counterparts, Bogota and Medellin, Cali may not be as popular with tourists but it’s got its own secret weapon that can’t be ignored, or replicated; salsa! The World Capital of Salsa buzzes with an infectious energy for life, as its friendly residents sing and dance their way through the hot, aguardiente-fuelled nights.
If you’re a fan of salsa dancing, you can’t pass up the opportunity to visit the World Capital of Salsa, where the World Champions are treated like Olympians and everybody….yes, everybody dances!
Every year during the first and second week of January, the city of Pasto becomes the world’s biggest playground and pure madness ensues! The Carnaval de Negros y Blancos is the most fun event I have ever attended in Colombia; yet hardly anyone outside of the country has ever heard of it.
From colorful street parades, to epic foam fights on the streets with strangers, the atmosphere in Pasto during the carnival is truly amazing. If you’re in the south of Colombia during the New Year, make sure you get to Pasto on time for the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos!
For lots more colorful photos from the Carnival, check out my photo post here.
The religious capital of Colombia during Easter Week, Popayán impresses thousands of visitors each year with its magnificent street processions during Holy Week. Thousands of Colombians and foreign visitors descend on ‘The White City’ to watch, participate in and gaze in awe at impressive ‘pasos’ that pass through the town every night from Tuesday to Saturday of Easter Week. The effort, dedication and devotion to the processions that is displayed by the locals of Popayán is really admirable.
The city itself is beautiful, consisting almost entirely of white colonial buildings in the center of the city. Bring some rain gear though, as it rains almost every day here!
Read more about Popayan during Easter Week here.
Like a town taken straight from the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Mompox (Mompos) is a sleepy, swelteringly hot and quiet town situated on an island on the Magdalena River. Admire the colonial buildings, chat with the locals swaying on their rocking chairs in the shade, or visit one of the workshops where they produce the countries finest filigree jewelry.
A visit to Mompox is laid-back and relaxing, offering another glimpse into life in the more remote and lesser-known areas of Colombia.
To see more photos and read about this town, check out my second ever post on the blog, direct from Mompox.