In the last few decades, Colombia has gone from one of the world’s most dangerous countries to one of South America’s most popular travel destinations. Travellers no longer ask, “Should I visit Colombia?”, but rather “Where should I go in Colombia?”, “What are the best places to visit in Colombia?”
While Colombia has had its fair share of safety issues in the past, today it is attracting more travelers than ever. Colombia has something for everyone, from vibrant cities to deserted beaches and heart-racing adventure sports. It’s one of the most biodiverse places in the world. You can visit the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, sail down the Amazon River and hike parts of the Andes mountain range right through the centre of the country.
With so many options, you could literally spend years exploring all that Colombia has to offer. You might also consider taking a few flights and cutting something if it’s a bit too out of the way. Like other South American countries, with the Andes mountains running through Colombia, travel by bus tends to be long and windy. Most of us also don’t have years to spare, so here are some of the highlights to help you plan what places to visit in Colombia on your next holiday.
History lovers and lovers in general would be remiss not visiting Cartagena, where you can walk in the footsteps of the love-struck characters out of Gabriel García Márquez‘s novel, Love in the Time of Cholera. The city was established in the early 1500s and much of its old-world charm remains, including the massive, medieval stone wall. Inside these walls, you can discover boutique hotels, world-class restaurants and picturesque colonial squares.
What to see in Cartagena? The historic part of Cartagena can roughly be divided into three parts. The oldest and grandest area, El Centro is the most popular with tourists. San Diego, on the eastern side of the old city, is more laid back with charming parks and beautiful colonial homes. And finally, Getsemaní is the hip, local neighbourhood with numerous bars and hostels surrounding the iconic Plaza de la Trinidad.
Set in a restored 17th-century Spanish Colonial house, Hotel Quadrifolio is a small luxury hotel in Cartagena with eight deluxe suites. In addition to an inviting swimming pool and rooftop Jacuzzi, the hotel boasts an on-site restaurant serving traditional Caribbean dishes and spa services.
Deluxe Junior Suites feature air conditioning, Smart TVs and mini bars, while Special Junior Suites add terraces or pool views. Travelling in a group? Stay in the Junior Suite – Two Beds for two double beds. The hotel also has a private speed boat for fishing and beach-hopping trips.
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2. Santa Marta
A few hours down the coast from Cartagena, Santa Marta is a popular beach vacation destination for many Colombians. Foreign travellers know it more as a launching pad for the region’s popular nature reserves and hiking routes.
Sitting at the end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Santa Marta makes the perfect base for exploring Colombia’s national parks and natural spoils, including Tayrona National Park and Caño Cristales, which you can read more about below.
Casa de Leda a Kali Hotel is a charming boutique hotel in Santa Marta’s Centro Historico area, known for its captivating panoramic city views. Every room is unique, offering vibrant decor, a flat-screen TV and a soothing aromatherapy machine. For a hot tub and private balcony, upgrade to a lavish Suite.
Take a steam bath at the spa or sunbathe at the rooftop pool, then enjoy dinner on the terrace overlooking Santa Marta Cathedral. When the sun sets, walk a few minutes to the nightlife at Parque de Los Novios.
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3. Tayrona National Park
Tayrona National Natural Park is easily one of the most picturesque places to visit in Colombia. The gorgeous sandy beaches and bright-blue Caribbean Sea are perfectly framed by lush tropical jungles. Playa Cabo San Juan is especially beautiful with its swaying palm trees, rocky coves and soft, golden sand.
The park is a protected zone, so you will have to pay an entrance fee and follow the official park rules. It’s also occasionally closed for a month or so at a time at the request of the local indigenous communities. This is to allow the park time to recover from excess tourism.
4. Caño Cristales
If you want to get off the beaten path, check out Caño Cristales. Travellers most favorite places to visit Colombia. This relatively unknown Colombian river has been nicknamed the “Liquid Rainbow” for its striking yellow, green, blue, black and red colours.
The best time to visit Caño Cristales is after the wet season between the end of July and November. This is when the aquatic plants that give the river its vibrant colours are the most vibrant.
Reaching Caño Cristales is a bit of a trek, due to its remote location, and can be quite expensive. Most people visit as part of a tour and fly to La Macarena from either Bogotá or Villavicencio. There is also a much less convenient overland route via San Vicente del Caguan.
To visit the river itself, you will need to hire a licensed guide and apply for a permit from the National Parks Office, which you can do through your guide or independently by emailing the national park. If you book a trip with a tour company, they will handle both the guide and permit for you.
Surrounded by the tropical forest of La Serrania de la Macarena, La Manigua Lodge boasts secluded cabins that can accommodate up to five guests. Named after a monkey species, the La Saguina cabin caters to large groups with three single beds and one double bed.
You can awake to the sounds of Colombia’s birdlife and spot squirrel monkeys from your outdoor deck and large hammock, which connect to the lodge via a boardwalk. While disconnection is a top priority, there are bathrooms and solar power for lights and charging electronic devices.
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Located at the heart of Colombia’s coffee region, Salento is one of the best places to visit in Colombia for coffee and nature lovers. The town is beautifully traditional with the typically vibrant buildings of the country’s coffee region. Shop for local handicrafts and don’t forget to order the region’s specialty, trout, from one of the small, local restaurants.
The beauty of Salento though is in its location. The town is surrounded by rolling hills and mountaintops carpeted with coffee farms. To the east you’ll also find the Cocora Valley, which is famous for having the tallest wax palm trees in the world.
HotelsCombined visitors rave about the location of Hotel Salento Real Eje Cafetero, which is a 20-minute drive from the Cocora Valley. The colourful rooms at this eco-friendly hotel feature crafts from Quindio, as well as flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi. Upgraded Superior Rooms with Balcony boast stunning Salento views, while Family Rooms can accommodate six adults with three double beds.
Feast on traditional cuisine inspired by local ingredients at Restaurant Quindu, then enjoy a pampering massage at the spa. There’s also a breakfast buffet and tours of the valley and coffee plantations.
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If you are flying to Colombia, you’ll likely start your trip in one of its three major cities, such as the capital, Bogotá. While many travellers tend to leave Bogotá soon after arriving, the capital certainly rewards those who stay a little longer with its many charming neighbourhoods, national museums and numerous world-renowned attractions.
For a taste of history, wander through Bogotá’s La Candelaria neighbourhood. It’s the historic centre of the city and home to the country’s top museums. Don’t leave without visiting the Gold Museum and the Botero Museum, the latter of which houses international artwork in a colonial mansion.
For people watching and a more local vibe, relax in the Plazoleta Chorro de Quevedo. This small square in La Candelaria is popular with university students and travelling artists. It’s also a great place to try some locally-made chicha.
For the best views in the city, venture to the top of Monserrate at sunset. For a short day trip out of the city, check out the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. If nightlife is more your thing, visit some of Bogotá’s top nightclubs, such as Armando for live DJs and rooftop cocktails or Theatron to experience the city’s LGBTQ scene.
JW Marriott Hotel Bogota offers a prime location in Bogotá’s city centre, just 230 metres from Avenida Chile Shopping Mall. Take advantage of the full-service spa, 24-hour fitness centre and indoor lap pool, then dine on Japanese cuisine at NAU Sushi Lounge or brick-oven pizza at the circus-themed Circo, which also boasts live music.
Cosy rooms feature soundproof windows, Egyptian-cotton sheets and mini fridges, while Junior Suites add Executive Lounge access and separate living and dining rooms. Stay in the opulent Presidential Suite for stunning city views from a private balcony.
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7. Villa de Leyva
A few hours north of Bogotá, the small town of Villa de Leyva transports you back in time. The whitewashed colonial town is filled with historic buildings, picturesque cobblestone streets and a massive central square, which is considered one of the most impressive places to visit in South America.
Outside of Villa de Leyva you can find the Museo El Fósil, a small museum housing the most complete pliosaur fossil ever found. In town, the Museo Paleontológico shares more information on the numerous Cretaceous period fossils found in the region.
If you visit Villa de Leyva during the low season, expect a quiet little town. However, during Christmas or any of the town’s yearly events there will be some serious crowds. The town is close enough to Bogotá to make it a popular weekend getaway and it’s not unusual for every hotel and hostel to sell out during festivals.
Enjoy the tranquil countryside views at Hotel Casa de Los Fundadores, which is seven kilometres from Lake Iguaque. Standard rooms feature king-size beds, flat-screen TVs and sofa beds, while the Junior Suite can accommodate up to five guests with a king-size bed and three sofa beds. Couples might prefer the romantic Jacuzzi Suite with an in-room spa bath.
Book a relaxing massage in the wet zone area located near the eucalyptus forest or keep fit in the modern fitness centre. Dine on local specialties at the on-site restaurant, then swim in the indoor pool, which has large glass windows for taking in the views of the lush foliage.
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The second largest of the cities in Colombia, Medellín is considered by many to be the top destination in Colombia. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring”, Medellín has year-round, near-perfect weather. The paisas (the local people) are also known as some of the friendliest people in Colombia.
What to see in Medellin?
Sitting in a narrow valley, Medellín has a lot to see and do spread out over a few different neighbourhoods. Poblado is the most popular with travellers, thanks to its people watching in Parque Lleras and the numerous nightclubs and bars.
For a more local experience, take a tour of Comuna 13 or Comuna 8. These neighbourhoods were once the poorest and most dangerous in the city. Today, they have used street art, community activism and tourism to transform into cultural hotspots.
Speaking of tours, skip the Pablo Escobar ones. Locals don’t appreciate foreigners coming in and celebrating a man responsible for thousands of deaths across the city and country. Instead, join a trip out to Guatapé. This small town just outside Medellín is famous for El Peñol, a giant granite rock with incredible countryside views from its peak.
A 30-minute drive from José María Córdova International Airport, NH Collection Royal Medellin offers easy access to the city’s top restaurants, shops and nature sites. In addition to a daily breakfast and an on-site bar with live music and an extensive wine list, the hotel boasts a pool and hot tub, modern spa and gym.
Superior Rooms feature mini bars, black-out blinds and refrigerators, while Superior Rooms with a View add city views. Need extra space? Upgrade to a Family Room for two twin-size beds or a spacious Suite with separate living and dining areas.
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The Amazon Jungle covers 35 percent of Colombia’s total territory, but is often overlooked by travellers, which is a terrible shame as the Amazon is one of the best places to visit in Colombia.
At the very southern tip of Colombia and deep within the Amazon Rainforest, you’ll find the small city of Leticia. Cut off from the rest of the country, Leticia is only accessible via plane or boat. From Leticia, you can explore the Colombian Amazon or hop on a boat to explore the rest of the South American Amazon. Boats head upriver into Peru or sail down river all the way to Manaus in Brazil.
Exploring the Amazon on your own is not recommended. Thankfully, from Leticia you can book many day trips or overnight jungle excursions. Attractions include piranha fishing, swimming with pink dolphins and indulging in Amazonian delicacies, such as exotic fruits and tree grubs.
Waira Suites is located in Leticia, which is considered the capital of the Colombian Amazon. All rooms feature flat-screen TVs, fridges and mini bars, while Junior Suites add private balconies and hot tubs. Need extra space? Main Suites can accommodate up to four guests.
Visit the on-site restaurant for traditional Amazonian dishes, then enjoy a cocktail at the pub or kick back at one of the two swimming pools. An in-room dining menu is available until 10pm, while a taxi service is at your disposal during the day.
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This once sleepy little town in the mountains outside Santa Marta has become a favourite among travellers, especially backpackers travelling in Colombia. While Minca still has that sleepy, small-town vibe, it’s now home to a number of hostels and cute bungalow retreats.
The popularity of Minca has a lot to do with its location. Minca is still far removed from the bustle of the city despite being close to Santa Marta. It’s particularly well-known for its coffee and is also a great home base for one of Colombia’s most popular hikes: The Lost City Trek.
Hotel Minca – La Casona is a newly renovated Colonial-style hotel with rooms that cater to all types of travellers. Single rooms offer twin-size beds, while Matrimonial rooms are perfect for couples with double beds. Travellers who need more space can choose from a Double, Triple, Quadruple or Quintuple room, some of which have bunk beds.
Visit the on-site restaurant for local specialties and impressive Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta views. Lounge by the outdoor pool or mingle with fellow travellers on the communal balcony, then visit the waterfalls of Marinka just 20 minutes’ drive away.
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11. Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City Trek)
Not for the faint of heart, this four to six-day hike takes you deep into the Colombian jungle. After surviving the tropical heat, bugs and mud, hikers are rewarded with one of Colombia’s archaeological gems.
The ruins of Ciudad Perdida are all that remains of a city thought to have been established around 800CE. That makes the site around 650 years older than Machu Picchu! Once lost to the jungle, it was rediscovered in the 1970s, revealing a rich and fascinating history.
AC Hotel By Marriott Santa Marta offers a prime location near Santa Marta Sea Beach and Prado Plaza, with modern rooms featuring marina, sea and city views. In-room perks include flat-screen TVs, mini fridges and pillow-top mattresses, as well as complimentary Wi-Fi and ergonomic workstations.
Gaze out at the harbour from the relaxing pool deck, then swim in the infinity pool or sip cocktails at the poolside bar. Each morning, AC Kitchen serves hearty breakfast options, while AC Lounge is a hotspot for socialising. The 24-hour fitness centre has free weights and cardio equipment perfect for active travellers.
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12. San Gil
If adventure and adrenaline are more your speed, San Gil is definitely one of the best places to visit in Colombia. Known as the adventure sport capital of Colombia, San Gil offers everything from horseback riding to rappelling off a waterfall.
San Gil is located in a beautiful section of the Andes mountains surrounded by forests and rivers. It’s easy to book hiking tours, rafting trips and caving expeditions, but for more of a rush, you can try paragliding, bungee jumping and white-water rafting.
The gorgeous nature around San Gil shouldn’t be overlooked either. A simple trek through the forests and canyons near San Gil reveals the diverse and beautiful ecosystems around this charming Andean town.
Hotel Campestre Casona del Camino Real is surrounded by lush greenery in San Gil, offering a family-friendly atmosphere with a swimming pool, large hammocks, board games and bike tours. Tuck into traditional regional dishes at Mama Gilma restaurant, then take advantage of the full-service spa, poolside pub and garden area.
Rooms range from Triple Rooms with bunk beds, LCD TVs and mini bars to cosy Matrimonial Rooms with double beds. Families will find the Multiple Room ideal with its private bathroom, three single beds and one double bed.
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Don’t Let Colombia Pass You By
As you can see, Colombia has more to offer than you could experience in a lifetime. Hopefully my list of the best places to visit in Colombia has helped you narrow down your choices a bit. No matter where you end up though, it will no doubt be an amazing experience. After all, the motto is: “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay!”
My name is Jeremy Scott Foster, I’m a travel writer, photographer, and professional adventurer. I have been travelling the world since 2010, asking the hard questions, and learning about both the world and myself in the process.