South America’s land of magical realism has undergone an almost magical reinvention in the past decade. Colombia’s days as a travel “no go zone” are long past. In its place has risen one of the most colourful, diverse, welcoming, and just plain enjoyable destinations South America has to offer. Uniquely positioned on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Colombia’s attractions read like a list of the continent’s greatest hits. Mysterious ruins, soft white sand beaches, exciting cities with superb views and fascinating museums, tasty cuisine (and coffee!), jungles teeming with colourful wildlife, nightlife that doesn’t stop, and perhaps most of all, friendly people, are all part of Colombia’s modern day story.
Not sure where to begin? Here are five highlights you won’t want to miss on Colombia travel.
Bringing together colourful colonial architecture, some of Colombia’s most gorgeous and accessible beaches, idyllic weather, and a fascinating history, Cartagena tops most travellers’ “Colombia list,” and it’s hard to argue with that. Even if beach/resort towns aren’t your thing, Cartagena feels like the perfect Caribbean city. Explore its UNESCO-listed Old Walled City, or take a walking tour to put all that history into perspective. Overlooking it all is the city’s most famous landmark, San Felipe Castle, also worth a visit, though you’ll get an even better view at Convento de la Popa.
Cartagena however, is as much about experiences as it is sightseeing. The street art is eye-popping, you’ll want to dance at least one night away in the salsa bars, pick up a souvenir in Las Bovedas, and if you fancy soothing your skin in the mud of a small volcano, El Totumo just outside of town is happy to oblige (be sure to tip the staff). You might also want to leave a day for what is arguably Cartagena’s best day trip. The Rosario Islands are an archipelago of 27 green islands set in the glittering waters of the Caribbean. Their reefs shelter an impressive array of marine life, while gorgeous white beaches surround most of the islands. Back on land, the most popular beach is Playa Blanca, but go later in the day to enjoy a more peaceful visit.
Tayrona National Park and Colombia’s Lost City
By far the most Instagrammed beach in Colombia is Playa Cabo San Juan, and if you make it to this gorgeous rocky cove on the shores of Tayrona National Park, you’ll understand why. Coming a close second is less known Playa Canaveral, even if it’s too rough for swimming. You’ll visit Tayrona more for its looks anyway, including the beautiful forest hikes required to reach the beaches. It’ll take you several hours to reach any of Tayrona’s beaches, and there are options to stay overnight if you want to take your time. Most visitors opt to camp, though ritzy eco-lodges bump things up the luxury scale while on Colombia travel.
Not too far from Tayrona is the Lost City, a fabled ruin thought to be even older than Peru’s Machu Picchu. Some claim this to be Colombia’s best hike. Just be warned, it’s not a day trip! The muddy trek to the Lost City is a 4 to 6 day return journey requiring a good level of fitness. If you’re serious however, few would dispute it’s worthwhile.
Trips to Tayrona National Park and the Lost City typically depart from the city of Santa Marta.
Pronounced Med-e-jin, the future has seldom looked brighter for this once infamously dangerous corner of Colombia. It is the City of Eternal Spring after all, with near idyllic weather year round, so it’s hard not to pick up on some of that optimism! Be sure to visit Plaza Botero, the public square dominated by the eye and mouthful that is Palacio de la Cultura Rafael Uribe Uribe. Medellin also might be the single best place to explore Colombian cuisine, from the uber-filling bandeja paisa – an enormous plate of red beans, meats, pork crackling, plantains, rice, and egg – to Colombia’s best coffee, grown in several of the surrounding towns. To address the elephant in the room, there is a better, more balanced and respectful alternative to the numerous Narcos-inspired tours that raise understandably mixed feelings among Medellin’s locals. Visit Comuna 13, a once dangerous neighbourhood reborn through an influx of creativity and street art. A guided tour will put things in context, though unfortunately, the area should still be avoided at night.
While it may not have the colourful colonial architecture or alluring beaches of the Caribbean coast, immense, ever-buzzing Bogota offers perhaps the most accurate snapshot of modern day Colombia. If you’re an urban explorer, you might also find it the most fun. Museo del Oro is the star attraction, displaying over 55,000 pieces of artwork crafted in gold. A further 20,000 pieces of art and history await at the National Museum of Colombia, which tells of the diverse ethnic and cultural groups that have defined the country. You’ll also want some time to stroll the historic La Candelaria district and Plaza Bolivar, though you should vacate both historic centres after dark. In any case, that’s when you’ll want to head to the Zona Rosa for some famed Bogota nightlife! No visit to the capital however is complete without a hike or cable car ride to the peak of Montserrate. A pilgrimage site for Catholics, the monastery at the peak also offers one of the best views of Colombia’s largest city. Just be warned, the locals believe that any dating couple visiting the site will doom their relationship by doing so! Read into that what you will…
Zipaquira Salt Mine
Zipaquira’s salt mine and cathedral is simply a magical place, and so deserves its own spot on this list. Located a 50 to 90 minute drive outside of Bogota, depending on traffic, it’s most easily reached on an organized day trip. An extraordinary feat of engineering, the 14 chapels each represent a Station of the Cross and Christ’s crucifixion. Besides the obvious tourist appeal, it’s an important pilgrimage for many locals. A sound and light show tells the story behind some of the more impressive chapels.
Whether your Colombia vacation takes you to the coast or the country’s heart, it’s hard not to feel swept away by the land of magical realism.