These are 20 of the best places to visit in Colombia, from colorful villages to stunning beaches.
A hypnotizing mix of charming coastal cities, world-class cuisine, and lush landscapes hiding immense biodiversity have made the bicoastal country of Colombia one of the most sought-after destinations in the Americas. Spending a long weekend in Cartagena or a few days in Bogotá isn't enough; even after spending months living in Medellín, I felt I barely scratched the surface of all Colombia offers.
With the help of Medellín-based Travel + Leisure A-List advisor Boris Seckovic and locals who work at some of the country's most incredible accommodations, like Bio Habitat Hotel and Casa Pestagua, we've assembled a list of the best places to visit in Colombia. Read on to find the country's most scenic trekking trails, untouched white-sand beaches, and where to get the best cup of Colombian coffee.
Boris Seckovic is a T+L A-list advisor and Colombia specialist living in Medellín.
Carolina Bernal is the general manager at Casa San Agustin and Casa Pestagua, luxury hotels located in Cartagena.
Few destinations have done a better job rebranding themselves than Medellín, a vibrant metropolis whose rapid transformation has made it one of South America's most sought-after cities for travelers and digital nomads alike. Laureles was recently named the coolest neighborhood in the world, though travelers might be more familiar with El Poblado as home to some of Colombia's trendiest cafes, restaurants, and bars. Medellín's impressive public transportation network includes several cable cars, making the journey to green spaces like Arvi Park one of the best ways to enjoy breathtaking views of a city that crawls dramatically up the mountainsides of the Aburrá Valley.
Valle de Cocora
Don't be surprised if the Valle de Cocora (Cocora Valley) in the heart of Colombia's coffee country looks familiar. This magical area served as the real-life inspiration for Disney's “Encanto,” so you'll be sure to hear the soundtrack's most famous song as you pass through the nearby village of Salento. Despite its new claim to fame, the Valle de Cocora has long been famous for its impressive forest of wax palm trees, which tower high above the valley, growing up to 200 feet tall.
One of the best cities in South America, Colombia's bustling capital city of Bogotá is much more than just a stopover after an international flight. As soon as you arrive, take a funicular or cable car up the Cerro de Monserrate to take in the city views and get your bearings before exploring the historic neighborhood of La Candelaria. Visiting the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) is a must, as is experiencing the city's increasingly impressive culinary scene at spots like the award-winning El Chato, one of the world's best restaurants.
Stay at the luxurious W Bogotá, named by T+L readers among the best hotels in South America last year, or stop by for their beloved night brunch. The hotel's bold design is a modern interpretation of the legend of El Dorado.
"Colombia's slice of the Amazon rainforest isn't as well-known as the Amazon in neighboring countries, but it's almost better that way," says Seckovic, who heads Amakuna, the leading specialist for luxury travel in Colombia. "You'll see far fewer people here and have a much better chance of encountering wildlife because of it." Explore the jungle by starting in the regional capital of Leticia, hidden among forest canopy and accessible only by airplane. From there, head to one of the region's ecolodges for biologist-led excursions into the wilderness, where colorful butterflies dart above waters where pink Amazonian river dolphins play.
Santa Cruz de Mompox
Set along the Magdalena River that winds towards Colombia's Caribbean Coast, the colonial village of Santa Cruz de Mompox "feels like what Cartagena used to be," says Seckovic. An important stop along the river used by the Spanish to extract gold, the UNESCO-protected town still retains all its historic beauty, and an artisan filigree jewelry industry points to its golden past. First-of-their-kind cruises along the Magdalena River with AmaWaterways will kick off in 2024, offering a new way to experience the region on routes that twist through the countryside between Cartagena and Barranquilla.
Cartagena is officially Colombia's worst-kept secret. Whether by cruise ship or via newly added flight routes from major U.S. cities, travelers now flock to Colombia's buzziest and most colorful hotspot year-round. A walk along age-old Spanish colonial walls at sunset with glimpses of the glimmering high-rises of Bocagrande in the distance is all you'll need to see why.
Carolina Bernal, general manager at Casa San Agustin and Casa Pestagua, recommends staying in a restored mansion for a look into the city’s past. Longtime Cartagena favorite Casa San Agustin is a gem; its sister property, Casa Pestagua, is a meticulously restored and luxurious 17th-century mansion colloquially known as the most beautiful home in Cartagena.
Until recently, Isla Barú was mostly a destination for day trippers looking for the best beaches near Cartagena. The recent addition of the Sofitel Barú Casablanca Beach Resort changes all that, making this "island" just 45 minutes from the city an increasingly popular destination all its own. Travelers can also enjoy a beach day or book an overnight at one of the six new cabana-style bungalows at Acasi Private Beach, a luxe extension of Casa San Agustin and Casa Pestagua on the sand.
Colombia's idyllic coffee-growing region is known as the Eje Cafetero, the "Coffee Axis." This verdant landscape is peppered with grand haciendas and tiny, shaded cafetales where families have long worked the land, and even passersby enjoy the aroma of the world's best coffee. Explore the countryside in a colorful, open-air Jeep Willy, visiting historic villages like Salento, Jardin, and Filandia along the way.
One of the region's coolest places to stay is Bio Habitat Hotel, where luxurious free-standing accommodations are enveloped in rainforest flora and fauna and offer views across the Andes. This eco-conscious, regenerative hotel perched amidst the forest canopy feels a world away, though it's just minutes from the city of Armenia and some of the country's finest artisan coffee farms.
Tucked within the lush, tropical Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, Colombia's Ciudad Perdida ( or “Lost City”) is among the great ancient ruins in South America. There's no easy way to reach Ciudad Perdida; visiting this hidden settlement demands a four-day mountain trek with numerous river crossings. The payoff is well worth it: Just a few dozen intrepid travelers reach this expansive site with its terraced hillsides and circular plazas every day, meaning you'll get to enjoy it almost uninterrupted.
Only a handful of Santa Marta-based tour operators are certified to guide visitors to the site, still cared for by the descendants of the Tairona people who built the settlement centuries ago.
Guatapé and El Peñol
It's impossible to miss El Peñol, a massive monolith towering many stories over the countryside of Antioquia as if dropped from the heavens by a giant. If the climb to the top doesn't take your breath away, the 360-degree views from the top certainly will. Just minutes down the road, the small town of Guatapé has its own flavor of fantasy, with a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns covering the facades of its historic buildings. These twin destinations are an easy day-trip distance from Medellín, but an overnight stay at some of the country's coolest glamping spots is even better.
Known as Colombia's "river of five colors," Caño Cristales is home to unique aquatic plants that give it a liquid rainbow effect you must see to believe. When the colorful effect is at peak vibrancy between July and November, the river seems to run green, magenta, purple, maroon, and canary yellow simultaneously. The river is located in the relatively isolated Serranía de la Macarena National Park, though locals attest it's well worth the trip to see one of the world's strangest natural wonders.
The village of Barichara is arguably Colombia's prettiest. Barichara is a bit further from the country's major cities than other historic gems like Villa de Leyva, so "it's stunningly beautiful, but still not too touristy," says Seckovic. The town made T+L's list of the best hidden gem destinations to visit last year and is conveniently located just a stone's throw from San Gil, the undisputed capital of adventure travel in Colombia.
Tayrona National Park
In Tayrona National Park, Colombia's best beaches line untouched jungles with enough endemic flora and fauna to make any eco-conscious traveler swoon. Take a skippered sailing excursion to the park directly from Santa Marta, with stops at spots like Bahia Concha and Cabo San Juan for swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing. More adventurous travelers can trek through the park and camp in hammocks perched directly over white sands.
“The Rosario Islands, or Islas del Rosario, are known for coral reefs and year-round diving and snorkeling opportunities," says Bernal of this perennially popular destination located off the coast of Cartagena. Hop on a speedboat in town and escape to eco-friendly boutique hotels tucked away on sandy shores, offering some serious rest and relaxation far from the crowds. It's an affordable and laid-back alternative to the built-up Caribbean islands where you would spend your days fighting for beach chairs.
Among the cities on Colombia's Caribbean Coast, Barranquilla can't compete with buzzy, beautiful Cartagena. However, for one week a year, Colombia lives and breathes to the rhythms of the Carnival of Barranquilla. Folkloric dance, music, and rich, regional food shine among a packed schedule of events including the Battle of the Flowers, the Great Troupes Parade, and the Death of Joselito Carnival, each more vibrant than the last. It's such an essential spectacle that it made the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The small city of Popayán still flies under the radar of most travelers, but it's all the better for it. Known as Colombia's "White City" for its grand historic center's whitewashed facades, this laid-back town feels like a breath of fresh air for travelers with an itinerary packed with just the country's biggest highlights. It's a great first stop on a road trip north through cities like Cali and to the haciendas and villages that make the Eje Cafetero so memorable.
The Tatacoa Desert is the second-largest arid environment in Colombia, after the dune-studded La Guajira at the northern tip of South America. However, Tatacoa isn't a desert at all, but a long-dry tropical forest where lush flowers bloomed a millennium ago. Its unexpected past makes fossil-hunting a perfect pastime on hikes through its dramatic red canyons. Tatacoa's remote location and ideal atmospheric conditions also make it one of South America's best destinations for stargazing.
Known as the capital city of salsa, Cali is the best place to visit in Colombia if you want to settle into several days of lessons to truly master these sensual steps. Zaperoco Bar is one of Cali's most famous salsa clubs, while Siboney — its name pointing to the rhythm's original Cuban roots — has long been one of Cali's salsa institutions. Fill your dance breaks by exploring the city's historic center and with day trips through the Valle del Cauca for river tubing, ziplining, and waterfall hikes.
Tucked away within Utría National Natural Park on a remote stretch of Colombia's Pacific Coast, the tiny beach town of Nuquí is known as one of the best places in the country for whale watching. Between July and October, humpback whales travel from Antarctica to these warmer waters to give birth to their babies in the region's protected lagoons. Whale watching is the undisputed highlight for most travelers visiting Nuquí, but adventurous travelers will love surfing near jungle-fringed shores and hiking to long-hidden rainforest waterfalls.
San Andrés and Providencia
Search for the islands of San Andrés and Providencia on a map, and you'd be forgiven for thinking they were a part of Central America. These tiny, remote islands over 450 miles from the Colombian mainland sit within a stretch of sea so azure it's called the "Sea of Seven Colors," and they are home to some of Colombia's last truly untouched beaches. Livelier San Andrés and more unspoiled Providencia are little-visited, idyllic destinations worth considering for your next unplugged, unbothered Caribbean getaway.
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