Top 10 Places to Visit in Colombia

When someone says they’re visiting Colombia, reactions tend to be mixed. Drug cartels, gang violence, and other forms of chaos enter many people’s minds, despite the fact that these impressions are now outdated. Pablo Escobar, the drug lord often credited with creating an atmosphere of conflict and violence between his cocaine cartel and a competing one, is largely to blame for this. But Escobar has been dead for more than 20 years, and with him died the violent environment he created. Now, millions of tourists visit Colombia every year without being accosted by delusional drug criminals. In other words, Colombia is as safe to visit as any country in the region.

Colombia is a country worth visiting for dozens of reasons, but well just name a few. For one thing, the incredible terrain forms a playground for fans of adventure sports, or the perfect canvas for artists and photographers. For another, the culture of the people is a unique blend of young and old, of the indigenous and those with European ancestry. It is a vibrant and colorful country that has the tendency to make visitors fall in love – and return again later for second and third visits. That is the real danger of Colombia today: you 11 want to keep coming back for more.

01. Cartagena

Cartagena, also known as the Queen of the Caribbean Coast, was the first Spanish colony in the Americas. Stemming back to the mid-1500s, this city is well known for its beautiful walled colonial section (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the grand new area of hotels, beaches, and condos known as the Bocagrande, and the luxurious neighborhood of Castillogrande. It’s a fantastic city where new and old coexist peacefully amongst the palm trees and sandy white beaches of the Caribbean coast.

Attractions & Activities
The historic walled city is, of course, Cartagena’s main tourist attraction. You should start by walking through the main entry, marked by the clock tower, and then enjoying a stroll along the wall and the inner neighborhoods of the city, and be sure to pop in to several of the glorious churches. Much of the old city is in impressive condition, as well as many of the forts, which are made of coralstone and stem back 500 years. A walk through this UNESCO World Heritage Site will transport you straight back to colonial times.

One of the best fortresses to visit is the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, built in 1657 with the purpose of protection from pirates. Still in good enough condition that an entrance fee is justifiable, visitors are able to stroll through the fortress to get a feel for what the most impressive Spanish fortress ever built was like. You can rest assured it is extremely safe; in its centuries of withstanding multiple attacks, it was never once taken by an enemy.

If the weather is clear, be sure to climb La Popa hill to get amazing views of the city and harbor. The hill is also home to the Santa Cruz monastery from the 1600s, whose courtyard is definitely worth a look.

02. Bogota

Largest city in Colombia, fastest growing city in Central and South America, and capital of Colombia are a few of the titles boasted by the city of Bogota. It has the population of nearly 9 million residents, forming a booming metropolis perched amongst the majestic Andes Mountains. Due to its dizzying growth and rich heritage, you can stumble upon centuries-old churches standing beneath brand new sky scrapers. El Centro is the center for historical buildings, but the North is where you’ll find most of the modern day developments. In terms of world cities to visit, Bogota is among the best.

Attractions & Activities
Bogota is a city so large that it is impossible to outline all the sights worth seeing here. However, doing a tour of the downtown area will give you a good taste of the historic city center, which is easily the highlight of any visitor’s trip. Most travelers prefer to do the tour on their own. If you are planning on doing that, be sure not to miss the Gold Museum (Museo del Oro) to see their dazzling El Dorado collection, then walk south a short distance to Avenida Jimenez, where you can see the most well-known intersection in all of Bogota. You will see new and old architecture collide here. Then head to the beautiful pedestrian zone of Eje Ambiental (“Environmental Axis”), which is home to numerous historic buildings.

For a taste of Bogota’s interesting blend of cultures, next head to the Chorro de Quevedo, historically significant for being the supposed location of the city’s founding and now the unofficial center for arts, music, and culture.

Finally, be sure not to miss the main square of the city, Plaza de Bolivar. The city’s cathedral and the largest church in Colombia, Catedral Primada, is located in this square, as are some elegant government buildings. The Presidential Palace is southwards from the square and is well worth a look.

03. Tayrona National Park

At just 150 square kilometers of land and 30 square kilometers of sea, Tayrona National Park is a small park with a big reputation. It is one of the most visited parks in Colombia, with hundreds of thousands of travelers coming from all over the world to see its amazing flora and fauna. With more than 300 species of bird, several types of mammals, dozens of reptiles and amphibians, and hundreds of species of sea life, the park encompasses two unique ecosystems with walking paths suitable for ecotourism.

Attractions & Activities
Tayrona National Park is located just a 30-minute drive from the city of Santa Marta, located on the northern coast of Colombia. Santa Marta therefore functions as a jumping off point for visitors to Colombia’s northern coast, and especially for Tayrona National Park. Most people come to the park with hiking, swimming and camping in mind.

Beaches and other snorkeling opportunities abound; the lagoon called La Piscina forms the perfect natural swimming pool that is both safe and beautiful. Don’t be shocked by lobsters and rays that might make an appearance while you snorkel and explore. There are also a wide number of walking trails that are perfect for the curious explorer.

There are plenty of campgrounds available for visitors interested in getting up close and personal with the great outdoors – even unprepared tourists can usually hire tents and other equipment once there, so there’s no excuse not to spend a night under the stars of Tayrona.

04. Cano Cristales

It’s a river with a name that is Spanish for “crystal spout,” but it also is called by names such as “River of Five Colors” or “Liquid Rainbow” or even simply the most beautiful river in the world. With bright yellows, greens, blues, blacks, and (in particular) red, Cano Cristales is not your ordinary river. When you visit it you might think you’re looking at some colorful paint that’s been spilt into the river; but this is no paint spill! It’s a natural phenomenon that people travel thousands and thousands of kilometers to witness in person.

Attractions & Activities
Wildlife around the area includes macaws and howler monkeys, and there are various landmarks that lie along the river, such as the Piscina Carol, or “Carol’s Pool” in English. Many come with local legends; in the case of Carol’s Pool, the story goes that a man convinced his wife to give birth in the protected pool, because he heard that giving birth was less painful in water.

You can take a motorized boat trip that will drop you off at one of three hiking trails from the main river of Guayabero. You will need to walk down one of these trails in order to get to the colorful waters of Cano Cristales – it cannot be accessed except by foot. Hiring a tour company is required, so choose an experienced and locally- owned company for a responsible choice.

05. Coffee Triangle

The Coffee Triangle, also known as the Colombian coffee growing axis, in Spanish known as “Eje Cafetero,” is the region of Colombia where most of its coffee is grown and produced. Many rave that Colombian coffee is better than any other coffee in the world, so a visit here is as close as it gets to a coffee lover’s paradise. Theme parks centered around coffee and coffee-related museums abound in this area, drawing tourists from around the globe. You will not only be able to taste the local coffee – you’ll get to truly experience it.

Attractions & Activities
Visitors to the coffee triangle can have the chance to harvest, roast, and (of course) taste the locally grown coffee themselves, if they so desire. They can travel the countryside on horseback, visit the local fruit market (located in Filandia), or zipline through fields growing coffee. They can even go on some amazing hikes through the cloud forest in the region. Basically, the Coffee Triangle isn’t just for coffee lovers.

Besides that, tourists can visit some of the theme parks, such as the Colombian National Coffee Park, situated in the town called Montenegro, or the National Park of Culture Agriculture, which you can find in Quimbaya.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Coffee Triangle is the Museum of Culture Coffee, which is materialized as an old colonial city that includes tourist attractions such as performances, traditional music, cable car rides, and amazing views of the surrounding landscape.

06. Medellin

The second largest city in Colombia, Medellin is a large city- of hills, well-known for its unique types of public transportation that form an expansive metro network. It’s a city with a decades- old reputation of danger, with modern architecture and progressive residents. It is no longer the kingdom of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the city’s improvements and development have reflected that. It is now one of the tourist favorites of Colombia, and your visit to this modern metropolis will quickly make you understand why.

Attractions & Activities
Medellin, also called the City of Eternal Spring, guarantees a good time for the curious visitor. During the day you can enjoy this metropolitan center of industry and culture. Take a ride on one of the many forms of public transit, including the newer MetroCable lines (a sky train), the Metro lines (trains), the Metroplus (busses), and the outdoor escalators. At night, a visit to the local clubs should give you a glimpse of Medellin’s more relaxed side. Just be sure to take the locals seriously when they warn you away from certain parts of town – there are areas reminiscent of Medellin’s violent past that are best avoided.

If you are interested in learning more about the notorious drug lord, there are tours you can take that specifically center around the history of Pablo Escobar. You will learn about his life, his death, and his reputation in the city as a popular Robin Hood figure.

07. Medellin Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira

The famous Salt Cathedral, located near the town of Zipaquira, can be found within a Halite mountain and (predictably) inside of a salt mine. There are a few deceptions in play here: it is actually located below the currently active mine, the current is actually the second location of the cathedral, and it is actually, by Catholic definition, not actually a cathedral. But this does nothing to stop droves of tourists from visiting, or to stop it from being a worthwhile attraction.

Attractions & Activities
The Salt Cathedral will leave an imprint in your mind after your visit; namely, the 5m-high cross that sits up, illuminated, behind the altar, not to mention the other architectural details and ornamentation, many of which are carved directly into the halite rock walls. You will notice three distinct sections in the temple, each of which stands for one of the stages of Jesus’ time (according to Christian theology): his birth, life, and then his death. Tourists and pilgrims alike mingle in the Salt Cathedral; on Sundays, some 3,000 churchgoers enjoy a Catholic mass here.

The cathedral is part of an area that also includes the Salt Park (“Parque de la Sal”) and museum for mining, mineralogy, geology, and natural resources. The Salt Park includes works of art, educational displays about sustainable mining and development, and explanations of the process of mining. Visiting these sites will give you a thorough understanding of this industry.

08. Rosario Islands

An exciting day trip from Cartagena, the Rosario Islands make a fabulous place to visit. The incredible clear water is perfect for a crisp swim, the dramatic landscape is excellent to view and hike around, and the colorful coral will dazzle you and inspire your knowledge of a unique ecosystem. As if that isn’t enough, the islands are renowned for their delicious cuisines (seafood in particular).

Attractions & Activities
Simply take a one-hour boat ride from Cartagena and you’re there. The most popular choices for islands to visit are the two biggest ones, called Isla Rosario and Isla Grande. Isla Rosario houses the Oceanario Aquarium, which is rather small but nevertheless does include a dolphin show. Its focus is on conservation, so if that is in your interest then it may be worth the visit.

Isla Grande is only one of a few islands in the Rosario archipelago that is home to permanent residents. If you’re interested in culture, this is the island to visit; while the coastline is covered in privately owned houses, the interior is interesting to explore. It also includes a bird sanctuary that has free entrance (and is never overrun with other tourists).

One of the first things you should do on a visit to the Rosario Islands is to try your hand at snorkeling or scuba diving. Both will allow you to get up close and personal with the incredible abundance of life amongst the coral reef.

You can simply book a tour of the Rosario Islands that leaves from Cartagena, and it will include the chance to snorkel, a stop at the aquarium, and a generally short visit to several islands. Many individual travelers won’t recommend the tour, however, and suggest paying separately for the water taxi that will take you to your island of choice, and you can enjoy it at your leisure.

09. San Andres & Providencia

If you’re looking for an island paradise with an unusual depth of culture, the archipelago of San Andres and Providencia is your destination. Actually situated closer to Nicaragua than to Colombia, the islands have historical connections to England and Spain, but politically belong to Colombia. Not only will you encounter perfect beaches and dazzling coral reefs that haven’t been damaged, but the people themselves, called the Raizal, offer certain intrigue. It’s certainly a place you wouldn’t forget in a heartbeat.

Attractions & Activities
If you are looking for a better developed island to make it easier to get around, San Andres is for you. While many consider it crowded, others would call it lively and bustling. The capital city, San Andres Town, houses much of the island’s accommodation as well as shopping opportunities. Snorkeling is a common pastime here that any visitor should definitely try. There is even a natural blowhole in the southern part of the island at Hoyo Sopladór, which will launch water as high as 20m – be sure to check it out.

Providencia is San Andres’ tiny cousin, with a low population, very few tourists, and amazing natural beauty. It is a popular diving spot, given the fact that the third largest barrier reef on Earth is located here. The landscape of the island’s interior includes mountains covered in green, making fantastic photo opportunities. You can also snorkel from this island, or simply travel around the whole island on the outer coastal road, which makes a 16-kilometer circle.

10. Guatape

Popularly visited on a day trip from Medellin, Guatape is a lovely town known for its beautiful decorations and colorful waterfront markets. Pablo Escobar himself had a mansion here – so you can rest assured it’s the kind of town worth a visit. With its dazzling lakes, green rolling hills in the background, its famous Penol Rock and the many pastel paintings on buildings around town, a visit to Guatape will bring a smile to even the grumpiest of people.

Attractions & Activities
If you decide to climb the steps to the top of Penol Rock (which you should), your exertion will be rewarded at the top with food vendors, gift shops, and a lovely viewing area that allows you to get the best possible view of the surrounding landscape.

After a morning climb of the massive monolith, take a stroll through the town itself to appreciate the incredible array of colors before you. ‘’Zocalos,” or a vivid kind of wall art, cover each building in different patterns and pictures. They are all in fabulous condition, as there was a town-wide repainting of the zocalos in 2011 in order to bring more tourist interest to the town.

One of the most distinctive buildings, despite the incredible art on all of them, would be the church. You’ll know it when you see it – it is located in Guatape’s main square and is easily distinguished by its stark white walls with brick red accents.

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