Colombia’s Top Highlights – Where to goShaun Edmond - Product & Marketing
A lot has changed about Latin America since the 1980's when we started operating, yet no country’s rise in tourism circles has been more meteoric than that of Colombia. A far cry from the no-go zone it once was, Colombia has emerged from its dark past with an infectious enthusiasm. The modern Colombia is a land of beauty, in practically everything.
Colombia’s tourism ministry famously adopted the slogan “the only risk is never wanting to leave”. This is, of course, inaccurate: calling this a “risk” would imply the possibility of it not happening.
Its kaleidoscope of natural wonders includes the highest number of bird species of any country on the planet, thanks to its diversity of habitats, from arid deserts to luxuriant cloud forests. Its history is a saga told through pre-Incan ruins in the wilderness, Caribbean cities that date back to the Spanish Empire’s early days and pastel-coloured hillside towns that compete to become the Balamory of Latin America.
And while the world is slowly getting to know Colombia, the country still packs plenty of surprises, from the hurricane of jacarandas that graces Medellin every year to the backwater colonial city of Mompós.
- Bogotá - A Cosmopolitan and Cultural Hub
- Medellín – A city reborn
- The Coffee Region – A world of aromas
- The Colombian Amazon – A harmony between humans and nature
- Los Llanos – Colombia’s wildlife highlight
- Cartagena – Where history meets Caribbean charm
- Mompós – A hidden colonial gem
- Tayrona National Park – Caribbean Colombia at its finest
- Popayán – Colonial elegance
Bogotá - A Cosmopolitan and Cultural Hub
Bogotá, the vibrant capital city of Colombia, offers a captivating blend of history, art and bustling city life.
La Candelaria is the focal point of many visits here, with its colonial architecture and cobblestone streets not dissimilar from countryside towns – albeit with a splash of street art here and there. In this area you’ll find landmarks like Plaza de Bolivar and the impressive Catedral Primada, the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) and the Botero Museum, showcasing works by renowned Colombian artist Fernando Botero.
Looming over Bogotá, and especially prominent from Plaza de Bolivar, is Montserrate Hill. Initially the site of an indigenous temple to the tribe’s sun god, the Conquistadors constructed the monastery that currently occupies the summit. Today, visitors can hike up or take a cable car for a panoramic view of the city. The lifts run into the night, making this an excellent (and safe) spot to watch the sun set.
Near the city are several worthwhile day trips, including the remarkable Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, constructed within the 200-metre-deep salt mines, the charming old town of Vila de Leyva and the cloud forest reserves and waterfalls of Chicaque Nature Reserve.
Medellín – A city reborn
Once known for its turbulent past, Medellín has emerged as a vibrant and innovative city, capturing the hearts of visitors from around the world. Nestled in a scenic valley surrounded by lush mountains, Medellín offers a pleasant climate year-round – hence its nickname “The City of Eternal Spring”. As you stroll through its streets, you'll be captivated by its blend of modern architecture, lively plazas and captivating street art.
The city's transformation is most evident in the Comuna 13 neighbourhood, where vibrant murals adorn the walls and escalators climb the steep hillsides, connecting residents and visitors alike. Explore the Botero Plaza and its museum, home to the renowned artist’s comically bulbous sculptures and paintings respectively. For a spot of nature, take a ride on the Medellín Metro Cable for panoramic views of the city, followed by a glide over the cloud forests that top the hills.
Fun fact: while cable cars are nowadays a feature of many hilly Latin American cities, Medellín was the first to adopt them as a means of public transport.
If you happen to visit in the first week of August, don’t miss the annual Flower Festival. Marking the official start of spring, botanists transform the city into a horticultural mosaic with parades and flower shows. It being Colombia, there’s plenty of music, and it being Medellín, a special cycling event is held to celebrate the city’s excellent cycling infrastructure.
The Coffee Region – A world of aromas
Colombia's Coffee Region, known as the Zona Cafetera, is a paradise for coffee lovers and nature enthusiasts. Rolling hills blanketed with emerald-green coffee plantations create a picturesque backdrop for immersing yourself in the coffee-making process. Visit a traditional finca (farm) to learn about the art of cultivating, harvesting and roasting coffee beans.
Beyond coffee, the region offers stunning landscapes and outdoor adventures. Hike through the lush Cocora Valley, home to the towering wax palms, Colombia's national tree. Base yourself in a comfy plantation lodge, or one of the region’s colourful towns – Salento and Jardin, with their brightly coloured doors and balconies, are particularly renowned.
The Colombian Amazon – A harmony between humans and nature
For an off-the-beaten-path experience, venture south to the Colombian Amazon, a pristine rainforest teeming with biodiversity and indigenous cultures.
The main entry point, Leticia, is worth a stopover even if you’re eager to get stuck into nature: every evening, swarms of parakeets thousands-strong flock to the central plaza. Not far upriver is the world-apart community of Puerto Nariño, with its absence of vehicles and community-led projects that encourage recycling and conservation.
Of course, the highlight of your time here will be a jaunt into the- forest. Navigating the Amazon's winding waterways, you'll almost certainly encounter pink river dolphins as they briefly surface, exotic bird species from egrets to umbrellabirds, and lush vegetation.
Los Llanos – Colombia’s wildlife highlight
If you’ve a love for nature then prepare to be mesmerized by Los Llanos, a rugged savanna stretching across eastern Colombia and Venezuela. African-style jeep safaris will get you close to the herds of capybara and flocks of jabiru that call this area home. Alternatively, embark on a boat safari and witness caimans basking in the sun along the riverbanks, and maybe an anaconda if luck is on your side.
The novelty of tourism shines when you experience the region's unique Llanero culture. Characterized by horseback riding, cattle herding and traditional music, this Colombian cowboy culture remains an authentic affair. Whether you watch them round up zebu cattle, put on a Joropo music performance in the evening (their preferred post-workday ritual) or cook up an asado barbecue, you’ll be experiencing a taste of how the Llaneros have always lived.
Cartagena – Where history meets Caribbean charm
Travel back in time in the enchanting city of Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage site that embodies the spirit of the country’s Caribbean region. Its well-preserved colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and colourful facades are spellbinding, and fruit stands and coconut vendors add to the atmosphere.
To take a guided tour around the old city walls or go museum-hopping is to learn about Cartagena’s rich history. This city grew as the primary collection point for gold from across the Spanish empire, drawing in pirate attacks by such figures as Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan. Cartagena’s importance also led to the unexpected arrival of the Spanish Inquisition.
To experience Cartagena’s less polished side, wander through the charming Getsemani neighbourhood, an old neighbourhood where vibrant street art and lively squares add a splash of activity to the colonial buildings. Nearby is a small park where semi-wild sloths and monkeys live.
Mompós – A hidden colonial gem
Tucked away on an island in the Magdalena River, Mompós was founded by the Spanish as a riverside alternative to Cartagena – far enough inland to be out of the reach of marauding pirates, but close enough to the coast for ships to reach its port. Then the site of the empire’s Royal Mint, Mompós was back then the third most important city in Colombia. Nowadays, with its population of thirty thousand, it’s a far cry from a metropolis. Not that the town’s laidback residents are complaining, nor the trickle of tourists who make it out here.
Grand colonial mansions and beautiful churches line the riverbanks and the cobblestone streets, most of them beautifully restored. Visit the Santa Barbara Church, an architectural masterpiece, and explore the nearby La Tertulia Museum, which showcases local art and artefacts. All this is best done in the morning – Mompós hot afternoons are the preserve of card games or pool time, with an ice-cold beer in hand.
Tayrona National Park – Caribbean Colombia at its finest
Tayrona National Park is a pristine coastal paradise where dense jungles meet turquoise waters. A network of hiking trails takes you through lush forests and down the coast, past a series of viewpoints overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Keep an eye out for wildlife, including capuchin monkeys and colourful birds, as you stroll down the boardwalks.
The piece de resistance, though, is Tayrona’s beaches. After a walk in the heat, the lukewarm waters of the Caribbean will be nothing short of bliss. When you’ve cooled off, the soft powdery sand will beckon you back ashore. Spending the night here is the highlight of many visitors’ itineraries, especially in the thatched-roof cabins atop the giant coastal boulders.
Popayán – Colonial elegance
Known as the White City, Popayán enchants visitors with its well-preserved colonial architecture and rich cultural heritage. Like Cordoba in Argentina or Cuenca in Ecuador, Popayán is a university town that at once sets its sights on the past and the future.
The city's historic centre is a maze of whitewashed buildings with ornate balconies, baroque churches and interesting museums. Don't miss the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations, during which the city comes alive with processions, music and traditional religious rituals.
An easy day trip from Popayán is Tierradentro archaeological park, where a series of pre-Hispanic burial chambers have been unearthed. Each has a spiral staircase and chambers adorned with wall art, windowing the artistic and architectural talents of these ancient civilisations.
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Lina Fuller - Travel Expert
Lina's passion for the continent where she was born really took off when she moved to Córdoba (Argentina) to study, spending the holidays travelling between Argentina and her native Colombia.
Kathryn Rhodes - Travel Expert
Kathryn backpacked across Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru before joining us. She has a degree in Philosophy and French and is a keen netball player.
Ben Line - Travel Expert
Ben fell in love with Latin America on a six month backpacking trip from Colombia to Mexico in 1995. Since then he has explored most of South America, including living in Peru for a year. He is now Head of Sales.
Charlotte Daubeney - Travel Expert
Charlotte's fascination with Latin America began with a family holiday to Belize. She went on to study Spanish in school and at university before spending a year living in Santiago, Chile.
Paul Winrow-Giffin - Travel Expert
After graduating in Computer Science, Paul spent seven months travelling from Colombia to Argentina and came home hooked on Latin America.
Hannah Donaldson - Travel Expert
Having spent part of her childhood in Colombia and worked in Brazil and Costa Rica, Hannah's ties to Latin America run deep. Hannah is a much valued Travel Expert in our Tailor-made Holidays and Group Tours sales team.