Colombia is a destination on the rise, claiming perennial spots on “Top 20” lists and earning recognition as one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Much of this acclaim is driven by the destination’s strong focus on sustainable ecotourism: over fifteen percent of Colombia’s eclectic landscape – which includes mighty volcanoes, primal rainforests, dazzling beaches and snow-capped mountains – is nationally protected. That number is expected to grow as Colombia pursues investments in tourism infrastructure and environmental preservation.
Below, we offer our picks for the must-sees and do’s in “The Gateway to South America”, highlighting the compelling beauty, culture, and history that sets Colombia so far apart.
Bustle and Beauty in Bogota
Diverse, verdant, and safe, Colombia’s inviting capital is emblematic of the country’s overall character. In Bogotá, meticulously maintained parks and green places break up the dichotomy between modern architecture and traditional Spanish-style brick buildings. In the mountains to the east, the Catholic sanctuaries (and hiking destinations) of Monserrate and Guadalupe overlook the neighbourhood of La Candelaria, the historic heart of the city that is home to the presidential palace and the Plaza de Bolivar. Foremost among the city’s world-class museums is the Bogota Gold Museum, which features not only the largest collection of pre-Hispanic goldsmithing in the world – 34,000 gold pieces – but also over 20,000 bone, stone, ceramic and textile articles dating back thousands of years.
After first making the pilgrimage up Monserrate, the intrepid visitor should look to the neighbouring departments of Casanare and Guaviare for more adventure. Casanare is the perfect destination to enjoy Colombian wildlife, as its sanctuaries are overflowing with wild horses, rare birds, and reptiles of all varieties. Guaviare has surged to international attention after intricate prehistoric murals were discovered in the heart of its Serranía de la Lindosa mountain range. Journey to the ancient Caño Lajas, a river of seven colours, and the massive Chiribiquete National Park, home to iconic species such as the jaguar and tapir, unbelievable table-top mountains, and over 75,000 sacred rock pictographs.
Cartagena: Culture on the Coastline
Overlooking the azure waters of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Cartagena’s walled Old Town encapsulates the classical identity of this populous port. 16th-century cobblestone streets and bright colonial buildings mark Cartagena as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. You’ll find this reputation further cemented in the stunning contrast between the modern skyline and venerated landmarks like the San Felipe de Barajas Castle and Santa Catalina de Alejandria Cathedral. As Cartagena is known for its dynamic culinary scene, we highly recommend taking a cooking class at one of the many lavish boutique hotels before heading to the beach.
The enterprising traveller will naturally find no shortage of opportunities to snorkel, swim, and sail in Cartagena. For those willing to travel farther, the Natural Park of Macuira offers a literal oasis of stunning biodiversity in the middle of the Guajira desert.
The Marvels of Medellin
Nestled within the Aburrá Valley, Medellín lives up to its moniker as the “City of Eternal Spring”. The weather is pleasantly warm all year round, making Medellín a metropolitan jewel among expanses of lush greenery. Typically known for the gothic architecture of the Plaza Botero and its Palace of Culture, Medellín has been steadily gaining popularity with nature lovers as hikers, cyclers, and birdwatchers flock to Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden and Arvi Park. The city also boasts convenient proximity to the many charming colonial towns (such as Guatapé, Santa Fe de Antioquia, and Jericó) that dot the mountainside, providing a wealth of day trip opportunities in the authentic Colombian countryside.
Medellín is in the midst of a cultural renaissance born from the transformative influence of community tourism. Nowhere is this transformation more apparent than in Comuna 13, a formerly disadvantaged neighbourhood that has grown into a thriving sanctuary for street art, dance, and music. A walking tour of Comuna 13 is not to be missed, as it represents a one-of-a-kind chance to engage with the local community and see the uplifting potential of tourism firsthand.
The “Coffee Heaven” of Eje Cafetero
Colombia’s impressive natural beauty is also highly functional, its green and temperate hills providing the perfect environment for cultivating the best soft coffee in the world. Eje Cafetero includes the mountainous departments of Quindío, Risaralda, Caldas, Antioquia, and the northern portion of Valle del Cauca. Here, the country’s uniquely acidic and intensely aromatic coffee beans are sustainably harvested on rural plantations using traditional methods. Travellers of all stripes will enjoy the sights and sounds of Quindio’s Cocora Valley, a protected national park that is home to scores of captivating wildlife and vast groves of wax palm trees.