It’s the second most populous country in South America and has a landmass about twice the size of France. And while there’s no doubt that it’s gone through some dark times, the Colombia of today is nothing like the Colombia you’ve come to know through the hit Netflix series Narcos. It’s emerging from its turbulent past and quickly becoming a must-see part of any South American travel itinerary.
Colombia is one of those countries that really does offer something for everyone. With a rich history and an incredible diversity of landscapes, culture, and things to see and do, you could visit over and over without experiencing the same thing twice.
Most international flights land in Bogotá, the sprawling capital city that sits in the Colombia Andes. It’s a city where old and new coexist beautifully – where churches and plazas that are hundreds of years old sit next to modern glass skyscrapers and multinational business headquarters. Bogotá is divided into 20 different districts, each of which offers something unique to visitors. La Candelaria was the city’s first official neighborhood and retains its colonial charm despite all the tourism, with narrow cobblestone streets and gorgeous centuries-old homes. Bogotá also has a growing art scene, offering numerous galleries, artist studios, and even street art for visitors to admire. Those looking for green space will find plenty of it at Simon Bolivar Central Park, known as the ‘lung of the city,’ which extends over 970 acres in total and includes a lake, trees, swimming pool and water park, motocross track, event arenas, and public facilities.
Medellín – the City of Eternal Spring – is a popular stop on the so-called ‘gringo trail,’ too. A couple decades ago it was one of the most dangerous cities on the planet; now it’s a hotspot for tourists with one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, creative urban living ideas, and the zen-inspired Barefoot Park, where visitors are encouraged to shun shoes and play in the green space. The Casa de la Memoria is a must-see, dedicated to honoring victims of conflict in Medellín and the rest of the country through newspaper clippings, audio and video presentations, art, and first-hand testimonials. And then there’s the Metrocable gondolas – perhaps the most budget-friendly way to take in stunning aerial views of the city.
A bit more off the beaten track is Popayán, one of the best preserved colonial centers in all of Latin America. Dubbed ‘the white city’ for its beautiful white buildings, the main attraction here is the architecture. Besides colonial houses, the city is home to numerous impressive churches, including Iglesia de San Francisco and Iglesia de Belen, which sits on a hill overlooking the city. There is a Natural History Museum – considered one of the best in Colombia – and visitors looking for outdoor things to do will find downhill cycling, hiking up Volcán Puracé, and visits to the thermal springs and/or a local coffee farm.
The Colombian Coast
When it comes to coastal cities in Colombia, Cartagena is the go-to. The unique walled city has plenty to offer, including colonial architecture, museums, boutiques and shopping, and great restaurants. Sites to see include the historic old town, Castillo de San Felipe (a fortress designed to protect the Spanish against pirates), and La Popa hill, which offers beautiful views over the city and harbor. Visitors looking to enjoy the beach should venture out to Punta Arena and Playa Blanca, both of which offer gorgeous white sand beaches and clear Caribbean waters.
Santa Marta is also a common stop for visitors to the country. A common jumping off point for adventure tours and scuba diving, the city is close to Minca (a quaint mountain village) and Tayrona National Park. It’s also home to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the hacienda where Simón Bolívar spent his final days.
The Lost City
Perhaps one of the best hikes in South America, the trek to la ciudad perdida – known locally as Teyuna – takes adventure seekers through the tropical rainforest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It’s a 46-kilometer (28-mile) round-trip that crosses rivers, hills, and steep terrain but offers incredible views, local villages, and the abandoned capital city of the Tayrona civilization, built in 800 AD, more than 600 years before the Incas built Machu Picchu in Peru. Treks are four or five days in length and require a reasonable fitness level.
The Colombian Amazon
Much of Colombia’s Amazon rainforest is pristine and virtually untouched, and this means that it’s far less developed for tourism than in neighboring countries like Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. Leticia borders Colombia, Peru, and Brazil and is the most popular for Amazon tours in the country, but there are other places that offer memorable experiences, as well – Guaviare is known for nature and indigenous culture, Putumayo and Caqueta offer rafting and waterfall hikes, and Vaupes is a birdwatcher’s paradise. No matter which Amazonian department you visit, be sure to pack a camera and a good pair of binoculars to spot all the wildlife!