Shrugging off its murky reputation, Colombia has been revealed as an exciting destination that deserves to be seen with fresh eyes.
It is true that Colombia has suffered from a bad press in the recent past, but any remaining connotations of criminality are very much out of date. The focus has now shifted to the incredible diversity of experiences and landscapes waiting to be uncovered in this enticing and friendly corner of South America.
Colombians can’t wait to show off towering Andean peaks and jungle-clad lowlands or tell you about the best places to dip a toe in the Caribbean or Pacific. They will point out the cultural riches of the colonial architecture and myriad celebrations that punctuate the Colombian calendar, all with a tangible pride. Colombia’s time has come, and it was certainly worth the wait.
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Top things to do in Colombia
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this ancient and intriguing country. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts at the foot of this page, but in the meantime here are our top three things to do in Colombia.
Discover the wild Caribbean coast
Palm trees sway on the unspoilt tropical beaches of the Tayrona National Park. Lush jungle backs the sandy shores which are in turn fringed by busy coral reefs, and behind that the steep mountainsides of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rise up. It's a perfect destination for those wanting to combine adventure and relaxation, with unparalleled hiking experiences and white sand beaches side by side.
Explore Cartagena - the city of colours
Stroll through this UNESCO World Heritage site and bask in the beauty of its winding cobbled alleys, balconies dripping with flowers and magnificent plazas. The atmospheric streets of the old city are full of life, with street vendors peddling exotic sun-ripened fruits and sweet pastries, watched over by brightly painted colonial buildings. All this charm is coupled with an idyllic location on the shores of the Caribbean, making Cartagena an ideal base for those wanting to mix culture and relaxation into their trip.
Breath deep in high-altitude Bogotá
Surrounded by icy Andean peaks, Bogotá is the third highest capital on the planet (2640m). The downtown district of La Candalaria is home to cobbled colonial streets, historic cafes and art galleries. Here you can explore the softly darkened rooms of the impressive Gold Museum, then stop for a classic Bogotá pick-me-up of hot chocolate and cheese, before walking (or catching a ride) to the top of Monserrate Mountain for unparalleled views of the city. In the sophisticated northern districts the buzz of coffee shops, on-trend restaurants and a cutting edge club scene invite you to stay up into the small hours.
Savour the flavours of the Zona Cafetera
Spend a few days on a coffee plantation in the hills of the Tierra Paisa learning all about coffee production and soaking up the verdant views. Great hiking routes weave in and around the Zona Cafetera, taking in scenic highlights such as the Andean town of Salento and the beautiful palm-clad sweep of the Valle de Cócora alive with parrots and other birdlife.
Take a wander back in time
San Agustin Archaeological Park is one of Colombia’s most important historical sites. Fascinating religious monuments and sculptures are spread out across beautiful parkland and forest and have remained surprisingly intact. These mysterious carved figures take the form of humans, gods and animals and are thought to have been created between 50-400AD.
Lesser-known things to do in Colombia
While there are many well-known things to do in India, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Indian adventure.
Wander through Colombia's Lost City, deep within the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. Only rediscovered in the 1970s, its origins date as far back as the 7th Century - making it older than Machu Picchu! The city is an ideal place for travellers wanting to get off the beaten path and experience true Colombian wilderness. Hike for 5 days through the otherworldly river valleys and jungle-strewn hills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to the lofty Ciudad Perdida, a magical testament to Colombia's ancient past.
Whale watching in Utría National Park
The eco-tourism and wildlife menu here is phenomenal. Being one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, it positively thrums with life. Go snorkelling or trekking, or hop in a boat to spot whales and dolphin. Hike the raised boardwalk through the mangroves and learn from the rangers why this riverside habitat is so vital for a healthy coastal ecosystem. It’s a bird lover’s paradise so take the binoculars if keen to tick some multi-coloured tropical species off your birding bucket-list.
Paradise in Providencia
The lack of direct flights to a place means that, though hard to get to, the rewards on arrival are greater. Make the effort to reach pristine Providencia and you’ll find a reef-studded gem of an island that’s retained serious amounts of laid-back charm. It was once a base for pirate Henry Morgan and it’s said that his treasures still remain – his name certainly does with much named in his honour. From historical ruins, forts and abandoned cannons to the freedom of quiet golden beaches, paradise is no longer lost: you’ve just found it.
Bottle the Liquid Rainbow
Caño Cristales, or ‘el río de los 5 colores’ is a mystical place that tends to exceed expectations. Thanks to an ecological phenomenon, its aquatic plants and algae flourish at certain times of year to incredible visual effect. Rippling reds, fresh bright greens and more create a unique rainbow effect as the rivers flows down its terraces. Once off limits to tourists, an increasingly stable Colombian government now encourages visits once more though you’ll need a permit and must be accompanied by a trusted local guide. Check the time of year if keen to see this natural kaleidoscope.
Get fruity in Medellin
Foodie days needn’t be fattening as the juicy fruit tastings in Medellin prove. Colombia is renowned for its biodiversity – second only to Brazil globally – and this extends to its tropical fruit smorgasbord. Medellin market is a great place to take a walk on the fruity side. Peel, prod, sample and savour your way through the finest exotic fruits the country has to offer. Look out for bright yellow carambolo (starfruit), green-layered cherimoya (sugar apples), elongated curuba (banana passionfruit) or the glossy orange Granadilla.
When is the best time to go to Colombia?
Equatorial proximity ensures consistent temperatures year round, although the diversity of landscape means that there is climatic variation depending on location. The best time to go to Colombia for reliably dry weather is between December and March, which is also a busy period for festivals and celebrations. Domestic tourism is a force to be reckoned with in Colombia, so if you wish to time your visit to coincide with any of the major events or national holidays (particularly Christmas and Easter) it would be wise to plan ahead.
Interesting facts about Colombia
Colombia is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top three facts about it?
- Colombia’s eastern jungles take up over 50% of the country’s total area, but are home to just 3% of the population. On the subject of jungles, around 10% of the Amazon rainforest is found within Colombia’s borders.
- With some 300 different ecosystems, Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.
- Colombia is a patriotic nation and the law demands that the national anthem be played across radio and TV twice a day at 6am and 6pm.
Insider tips from our local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Colombia. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Colombians love to party…
So join them with flair! First, join a dancing lesson to learn salsa, champeta or vallenato, a dance style that’s a UNESCO-recognised element of Colombia’s intangible cultural heritage. When ready, put your moves into action in one of the country’s pulsating nightclubs. In Bogotá try Gaia and Andres Carne de Res; in Cartagena try Getsemani or the Bazurto Club with its own in-house champeta classes; and in Medellin the Poblado neighbourhood is legendary.
Learn to speak some Español…
Colombians in general do not speak English so don’t expect to be understood, especially in smaller or out-of-the-way places. Learning a few key words and phrases will be appreciated. Colombians are in the main a friendly and curious people and will enjoy your attempts at conversation.
Support community-based tourism…
Worthwhile projects are everywhere if you know where to look, from emergency house-building to heritage arts and crafts. Bogotá has an impressive selection of coffee-relating tastings and tours, so you can support producers directly. The city also has over 8,000 active street artists, a number that’s grown exponentially since the government decriminalised graffiti over the last decade. Proceeds from these enlightening urban art tours goes to guides and ripples out to support local projects and artists.
What to read before you go to Colombia
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Colombia, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'One Hundred Years Of Solitude' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A seminal tale of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the multi-generational story of a family living in the fictional Colombian town of Macondo. In this landmark 1967 novel, Macondo is not only the setting but the metaphor for Colombia itself. Over 50 years after its publication, the book is being serialised for the screen.
'Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw' by Mark Bowden
Bowden investigates wide-ranging sources including military intelligence from the US and Colombian governments to detail Escobar’s rise and meteoric fall. He exposes the covert efforts of US Special Forces to assassinate one of the world’s most notorious criminals. Highly readable investigative journalism that reads like a best-selling thriller.
'Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard' by Joseph Conrad
Though fictitious, Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) conveys notions about South America’s politically turbulent past that are still relevant today. It’s widely considered his best novel. Set in the fictional country of Costaguana, it details a series of political regimes from military dictatorship to an attempt at socialism, via a conservative-democratic uprising, a stab at imperialist capitalism and a national revolution. A dense, attention-demanding, thought-provoking read.
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