Colombia's Best Destinations

 Photo by Jodee Debes

Photo by Jodee Debes

Over the past few years, Colombia has steadily become a true travel hotspot for those who are slightly ahead of the curve.

As the Colombian renaissance continues, more and more travelers are finally making the journey to what we think is the hidden gem of Latin America.

If you’re reading this, you’ve either decided to visit - or are somewhere in the planning phase. And you are at the stage of the process where you need to make some exciting but difficult decisions.

Which of Colombia’s tantalizing spots to visit? And which to skip, in the hopes of perhaps returning again in the future? Colombia is huge and it is culturally and geographically diverse, part of what makes it such an incredible place to visit. You can come back several times and have a completely different experience each time.

So to help you with the wonderful challenge of deciding where in Colombia to visit, we have narrowed it down to a small selection of our favorite areas and cities of the country.

These are the main places we would consider if it were our — or a best friend’s — first time traveling to Colombia, and you want to make the best use of your limited travel time.

Of course, just because it’s not on this list doesn’t mean we don’t love it! If you’re in the planning stages and considering working with a company that specializes in Colombia, feel free to reach out to us and discuss!

Also, if you want a “shortcut” simply have a look at some of our sample Colombia itineraries! We’ve already done the work of curating some perfect trips, whether you have 1 week, 10 days, or 2 weeks available to visit Colombia.

Colombia’s Best Destinations: The Highlights

Cartagena: Colombia’s Caribbean Jewel

Cartagena is easily Colombia’s most popular destination. However, whether you are visiting for the first, second, or third time, there is much to be discovered in this city that is still off the radar for the average tourist.

Let’s first start with the reasons so many travelers are flocking to Colombia’s Caribbean jewel. First, the cobblestone streets that date back hundreds of years, the colorful facades, and the salty humid air of the most popular neighborhood, The Old Walled City, leaves its visitors with an air of enchantment and romanticism. It is after all, the town that inspired many of the passion-fueled novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

 Photo by Lauren Colton

Photo by Lauren Colton

Furthermore, stunning luxury boutique hotels, courtyards brimming with over-the-top greenery, and lavish restaurants found in said outposts have given Cartagena the reputation by design gurus as the city to experience the best of “Carribean glamour.” It is this mix of old and new, along with authenticity and luxury, that feels different from any other Latin American city.

 Photo by Jodee Debes

Photo by Jodee Debes

However, while this is why is often highlighted by major travel publications, there is a deeper layer to Cartagena left to be discovered. One can have an exquisite eight-course meal in a women’s prison, home to a social impact and rehabilitation project, that does not sacrifice quality, and instead elevates traditional Coastal dishes. Or head to the neighborhood of Getsemani to sip coffee in a charming café that is part caffeine laboratory and home to a successful engineer who ditched everything to return to his familial business roots.

Want in on the biggest under the radar secret? Do not come to Cartagena to learn salsa. You come to learn how to dance the African and barrio inspired rhythms of champeta, a style of music born here but that has taken the country by storm. After your lesson, head to a local champeta bar with your teacher to test out your newly acquired skills.

Surprisingly, the beaches in Cartagena itself are not very nice and not worth the visit.

 Photo by Jodee Debes

Photo by Jodee Debes

Instead, take a boat from Cartagena to Islas de Rosario, an archipelago right off the coast that takes about an hour to get to. This is where you will find the crystal clear waters and white sand beaches. Most tourists go to Playa Blanca, but we recommend Isla Grande for a less touristy outpost.

Medellín: Urban Gem in the Mountains

When you visit Medellin, you’ll see why so many visitors decide to (or at least daydream about) staying forever. Gorgeous mountains, perfect weather, inspiring urban planning, design, food - the city has it all.

 Photo by Lauren Colton

Photo by Lauren Colton

The charming city of Medellin is located in a lush mountain valley, and as you explore its colorful streets you’ll see why we call it an urban jungle, with an abundance of leafy monstera and philodendron selloum plants everywhere you turn.

Of course, Medellin is also the most misunderstood city in all of Colombia, thanks to its tragic history (and, most infamously, Pablo Escobar). With an abundance of culture and beauty, there are endless ways to dig deeper and learn more about the bright present and future — and dark past — than by signing up for a cheesy Pablo Escobar tour. Skip the narco-tourism and instead meet young urban planners who passionately speak about the change they have witnessed throughout their lifetime.

While many professional in the urban planning and public policy fields have studied and admired the grand reinvention of Medellin over the past decade, it is a cultural aspect of the city that is only now gaining the attention of travelers.

Medellin’s modern evolution is truly inspiring. Using policy tools like social urbanism (a governmental program that invests over 85% of the city’s budget into the poorest neighborhoods) and the development of innovative public transport, Medellin has transformed itself from a city that was once the murder capital of the world, to being named Most Innovative City of the Year in 2013 by the prestigious Urban Land Institute.

Now that the city is so much safer, Medellin has become a hotbed for design and culture. You’ll find amazing restaurants, beautiful boutiques, not to mention a legendary nightlife! Paisas (as people from this part of Colombia are known) love to have fun.

 Photo by Lauren Colton

Photo by Lauren Colton

Medellin is also the epicenter of Colombian fashion. Head to Via Primavera (Primavera Street) to find great local shops highlighting the latest creations from local designers. Some of our favorites include Makeno and Makua Jewelry.

Visit the stunning Museo Moderno de Arte de Medellín (MAMM), a feast for the eyes for those that appreciate modernist architecture. Wander Colombia’s best collection of contemporary art, or linger with a book in its outdoor café.

Don’t leave Medellin without trying the regional culinary dish, bandeja paisa, a hearty platter of beans, rice, fried egg, ground meat, avocado, pork and arepas. And see if you can tune into the distinct Paisa accent. It is a great example of the large range of accents found within the country.

 Photo by Jodee Debes

Photo by Jodee Debes

There are countless day trip options near Medellin, and our favorite is the colorful town of Guatape, located a couple of hours away. Hiking up the iconic rock here is the most popularly known activity, but we prefer posting up at a luxurious lake house, to enjoy the views and leisurely swimming and kayaking.

Bogotá: Colombia’s Cultural Capital

Let’s be honest: at first (and even second) glance, Bogota is a large, gray, not-so-pretty city. It’s dramatically larger than any of Colombia’s other cities, and many travelers skip it in search of prettier scenery and a warmer climate - yes, on top of the sprawl, the weather in Bogota is also a bit chillier and the days grayer.

Despite the superficial drawbacks, Bogota is worth the visit. There is simply so much of value to see, do, and experience, and no other Colombian city can compare to its incredible wealth of culture.

You can spend your days at Casa Botero, the Museo Nacional, or the Gold Museum, or get lost climbing the steep hills of the colorful colonial neighborhood of La Candelaria and perusing the large public works of graffiti. Get up early one morning to hike the hillsides on the outskirts of the city to see the sun rise over the capital. It is a breathtaking view that makes you appreciate the sprawling metropolis. Head to a local bar to sip Aguila beers and try your hand at tejo, the weeknight diversion of choice that includes throwing metal pucks into holes with the goal of creating a loud and fiery explosion once it lands in a hole. It is a pub sport certainly more exciting than darts or bowling.

Dinner plans should include reservations at a hip restaurant hidden behind a hall of discreet emerald shops, or the restaurant of a female chef, Leonar Espinosa, who is reviving traditional agriculture and ancestral foodways and culinary know-how among Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations.

Don’t let your night end there. Head to a discoteca owned by one of Colombia’s most famous musicians, Carlos Vives, to partake in live performances, shots of aguardiente (local firewater) and dance salsa, cumbia, merengue and other styles of Latin dance into the wee hours of the early morning. Whether you find yourself at a larger than life club or a small corner bar, the festive energy of Bogota’s nightlife is contagious. We cannot count how many times we found ourselves saying one last dance and instead ended up dancing until 3 in the morning.

Drank too much aguardiente? If you find yourself with a guayabo (hangover) the next day, cure it by indulging in changua, a popular breakfast soup made of simple ingredients—egg, scallion, milk, salt and pepper, and cilantro. Drop in pieces of stale baguettes that become soft after soaking for a few minutes in this delicious soup.

And if you happen to find yourself here on a Sunday, you have to partake in the city’s famous Ciclovia, where the city’s major avenues are shut down to become an official bikeways. Anywhere from a million to four million locals come out to bike, walk, run, rollerblade, and engage in all varieties of exercise. Its popularity with Rolos (Bogota locals) has inspired spinoffs in cities all over the world including Ottawa and Paris.

Parque Tayrona Area: Tropical Paradise

If you’re looking for that perfect beach getaway, Parque Tayrona is the place for you. With stunning stretches of golden sandy beaches, lined with larger-than-life coconut palm trees — and backed by 12,000 hectares of lush jungle to explore — this is one of the country’s most beautiful national parks.

 Photo by Emma Mcalary

Photo by Emma Mcalary

Parque Tayrona lies at the foothills of the world’s highest coastal mountain range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which is home to to over 70,000 indigenous people that belong to four different ethnicities: Kogui, Arhuaco, Kankuamo, and Wiwi.

Impressively, their cultural traditions are respected and revered by the government to the extent that the indigenous communities play a central role in the preservation of the area. From late January to late February, Parque Tayrona is closed to allow local tribes to carry out an environmental and cultural cleansing of the natural reserve.

While most travelers stay in the hammocks of Cabo San Juan, or the rustic-luxe EcoHabs found near the entrance of the national park, we recommend heading outside and discovering the incredible surroundings in the Palomino area. There are several luxury boutique hotels popping up along the coastline, an under-the-radar music festival scene, and plenty of sacred water holes to hike to.

You will find miles and miles of secluded shoreline, groves of giant palm trees, and you can inner tube for hours down jungle rivers that float directly into the ocean. Visiting today feels like having been able to visit Tulum 15 years before its time!

Eje Cafetero: Colombia’s Coffee Region

Even if you don’t love coffee (if you don’t, I admit, I feel just a tinge of sorrow for you), you may still want to consider the Coffee Triangle, which oozes with charm and beauty. Colombia’s Eje Cafetero is made up three departments (i.e., states or provinces): Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío.

 Photo by Lauren Colton

Photo by Lauren Colton

The majority (though certainly not all) of Colombia’s coffee is grown here, and as you explore this luxuriant region you will find old-school Jeeps packed to the brim with coffee bags, and poncho-wearing senior citizens idling in cafes surrounding the main town square.

The colorful plazas of this region were made for socializing, and you will not see anyone with their coffee in a to-go cup. Instead, do like a local and sit, relax, and gossip for hours without feeling like you have to rush to the next experience. This is the experience.

The Eje Cafetero is often donned the low-key Napa Valley of coffee, where you can find a variety of Arabica beans to sip on and enhance your coffee palate. Its growing popularity with travelers means you now can find many ornate haciendas that have been converted into boutique accommodations. Enjoy colonial architecture, traditional décor, and beautiful views overlooking the emerald hills of the region.

While in the coffee region, take a day trip to the Valle del Cocora, where you’ll find a stunning and unreal view of extraordinarily tall wax palm trees over 200 feet tall.

Barichara and Colombia’s Colonial Charm

Small and colorful colonial towns are key to Colombia’s charm, and while they abound we are huge fans of Barichara, which has an almost Mediterranean feel with its whitewashed adobe walls, red tiled roofs, cobblestone streets, the outdoor showers found in many boutique hotels, and of course lovely weather.

 Photo by Camara de Comercio de Bucaramanga

Photo by Camara de Comercio de Bucaramanga

Located in the department of Santander, Barichara was founded in 1705, but the buildings and town have been so well maintained that they feel almost new. This is due largely to the fact that the government named Barichara a National Monument in 1978.

We’re not the only ones swooning over this hidden gem. Its perfectly charming streets form the backdrop for many films and telenovelas, and Barichara has become the local escape for many stylish urbanites looking for break from the bustle of the city. Think of it as the Palm Springs of the country.

You can now stay in breathtakingly beautiful traditional abodes (with all the modern amenities), find yourself soaking in thermal baths in a stunning boutique hotel at the edge of town, and treat yourself to a local ceramics class.

Barichara is small, but has a range of restaurants, shops, and places to hang out. Though many visit for a day trip, we highly recommend staying here for a few days.

We hope this guide helps you decide where you should visit when traveling the hidden gem of South America!