When most people think of traveling to South America, places like Argentina or Peru often come first to mind. For many years, Colombia has had a nasty reputation, due to the proliferation of violence and drugs associated with the country. Thankfully, though, things have been turning around recently, and there are lots of reasons to visit Colombia now.
While Colombia still has a way to go before it becomes a prime tourist destination to rival the most popular South American spots, it’s much better today than it was before. So, with that in mind, I want to share the top eight reasons why traveling to Colombia should be on your wishlist. If you haven’t thought about going here before, make sure your passport is up to date because now is the perfect time to visit Colombia.
After more than a few years of living in Colombia and traveling from one end to another (on multiple occasions), I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of what Colombia has to offer, even if it still only feels like I’ve just scratched the surface… So let’s get on with our top reasons to visit Colombia now.
As with most South American countries, Colombia is well-known for having spectacular natural beauty. There are a couple of different reasons for this…
First, the country has coastlines on two separate bodies of water – the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Second, it spans many different climate zones, meaning that temperatures and weather patterns vary greatly from one point to the next, even if the country is located wholly within the tropics.
Finally, lack of tourism in years past (even internal, domestic tourism in many cases) has helped ensure that many natural areas and wildlife in Colombia has flourished and thrived, leading a wide array of different species, plants, and other natural elements.
Colombia has been officially declared as the second-most biodiverse place in the world, just behind Brazil. However, with over 1,800 different birds, you can find more distinct avian species here than anywhere else on the globe, even the variety of hummingbirds in Colombia can be mind-blowing.
So, what does this mean for tourists? Well, if you love hiking and exploring nature, then this is the country in which to do it. Here are a few of the best places to travel in Colombia if you’re hoping to spot some wild animals, birds, and plants.
As its name suggests, the small town of Jardin is like a Garden of Eden, waiting to be explored. This area in Antioquia doesn’t see tons of tourists throughout the year, so much of it is unspoiled. Here is where you can explore the incredible Cueva del Esplendor, eat freshly caught trout, or just take in the lush countryside.
If you want to go somewhere a little more popular, Salento is kind of like a larger version of Jardin. The town itself is colorful and charming, and this is also one of the best places to learn more about coffee, but the real highlight here is the Valle de Cocora which is a magnificent place to hike among the wax palm trees. Here, toward the end, you’ll find the Acaime Hummingbird House where you can see some a variety of hummingbirds.
For those seeking a more challenging hike, El Cocuy is a mountainous area with snow-capped peaks like Pan de Azucar or the craggy rock buttress known as el Pulpito del Diablo (the Devil’s Pulpit). However, these trails are at an extreme altitude, so they are not for the faint of heart (or at least not for those without time to acclimatize). Experienced trekkers or hikers only, I’d say, since the infrastructure and development is still pretty rustic.
The Amazon Rainforest
Yes, Colombia is connected to the most famous rainforest in the world, and you can visit it during your stay here. When it comes to stunning nature and wildlife, nowhere else comes close to the vibrant beauty of the Amazon. Although, you’ll have to fly into Leticia (the heart of Colombia’s Amazon) in order to explore this area as it is so remote that it isn’t even connected by road to the rest of Colombia.
That’s just a taste of the biodiversity, beyond that, you’ve got deserts like Tatacoa, the canyon of Chicamocha, the whales and wildlife off the wild coast of Choco…
#2 Diverse Culture
If you’re like most people, then you tend to assume that everyone from a particular country is more or less the same. Chinese people are all alike, as are the British, and so on. Obviously, if you’ve traveled, you’d have already realized that such a generalization is very untrue. The same goes for Colombia too, of course, and you’d be mistaken (but forgiven) for thinking that the people of Colombia are all similar as well, because the reality is far from that.
When traveling through different regions of the country, you’ll discover that each area is quite different than the last. On the Caribbean coastline, for example, you’ll meet Costenos, who are quite different from the Rolos from Bogota, the country’s capital.
Although everyone shares some things in common, the culture of each place is unique and memorable. Because of this diversity, you will want to explore as much of the country as possible so that you can see and experience these differences up close. If you’ll be visiting for a short time, I’d try to at least visit two distinct regions.
Here are a few highlights to visit.
As the third largest city in Colombia, Cali has plenty to offer for both nightlife and cultural heritage. However, it’s the city’s claim as the salsa dancing capital of the world that may inspire you to visit. Whether you prefer to be out on the dance floor or watch from the sidelines, there is a lot to love here and no lack of things to do.
Medellin is the biggest city in Antioquia (second biggest in the country), a mostly mountainous and interior region of the country (although it stretches to the coast), where you will find friendly Paisas who are renowned for their business sense, fiercely proud of their innovative and constantly transforming city, and who have no qualms stating that they’ve got the best city in Colombia, no matter what the folks in Bogota think (I agree with the Paisas).
Although we’ll talk about Colombia’s rich and colorful history further ahead, one of the best places to experience the country’s colonial past is Barichara. The architecture transports you back a few centuries ago, and the arts and crafts scene here is incredible. Santander is also one of my favorite regions in Colombia, with the adventure sports capital of San Gil nearby, the stunning Chicamocha Canyon, and the different culinary treats here (ranging from big-bottomed ants to the delicious carne oreada).
Cartagena is a colorful, vibrant city, long-serving as the country’s most popular tourist destination (both for Colombians and foreigners) which also acts as an important point of introduction for many travelers. Here you’ll find a hot and humid climate, super friendly and outgoing people, lazy afternoons trying to beat the heat, delicious seafood, and so much more.
Honestly, that’s just a small cross-section of the regional differences, but I could go on and on… From Pasto in the south to Palomino in the north, you’ve got an incredible variety and diversity here in culture, skin color, food and more.
#3 Incredible Food
Speaking of food… Yes, visiting a country for its culture and natural beauty is great and all, but if you’re like me, then a big part of travel is the food. Thankfully, Colombia is one of the most under-appreciated places in the world for good, hearty eats. You can spend the better part of your day visiting the various restaurants and street vendors around any big city in Colombia, and you will not be disappointed unless you’re a vegetarian or a health nut.
As with everything else, part of the appeal of Colombia’s food scene is the country’s biodiversity. Everything special and unique about Colombia stems from the fact that it’s so varied, and the food is no exception.
For example, if you were to visit the city of Antioquia, you would find the Bandeja Paisa, a local dish that wasn’t normally served anywhere else in Colombia (unless they’re trying to appeal to tourists, most likely), Santander is famous for its Carne Oreada, Tolima for its Lechona, Bogota for its Ajiaco, and on and on. See my comprehensive guide to Colombian food for more details about all of that.
Of course, there is also the coffee here. While much of the best stuff has always been exported, you’ll find a growing wave of amazing coffee shops serving up some of the freshest and most delicious coffee you’ve ever had.
On top of that, you may be surprised to discover that the country has a growing craft brewery scene, meaning that you can see how Colombian beer stacks up with all of your favorites back home (spoiler alert: some are pretty incredible).
Here’s a small sample of what to expect when it comes to Colombian food.
Restaurants: Andres Carne de Res
If you like the atmosphere as much as the food, then you will love Andres Carne de Res. The meals are already succulent and delicious, but the restaurant has a unique personality that permeates everything. The decor, the color palette, and even the plates and cups are all a feast for the senses.
You’ll feel like you entered a vibrant, pastel world when you’re inside, and if you stick around long enough it will turn from a normal restaurant into a hopping nightlife. You’ll find the original on the outskirts of Bogota (as well as one in the city) along with one in Medellin.
Restaurants: El Cielo
This decadent molecular gastronomy restaurant is a splurge and a feast for the senses that will have you marveling over every “moment” of this 20-moment tasting menu. This famous Medellin restaurant is among a unique niche in the world, and while it is expensive, it is certainly accessible thanks to the cheaper prices here in Colombia. Worth the splurge, trust me. For something still upscale but a bit more classical, don’t miss out on a visit to Carmen just a few blocks away.
Restaurants: Menu of the Day
For something totally different than the above, you’ll find the humble but extremely common menu of the day which is served all across the country, usually at lunch, where you will get a soup to start with (or sometimes the famous beans), along with the main dish (typically including your choice of meat, rice, salad, plantains, often potatoes), and a fresh tropical fruit juice drink (Colombian fruits are amazing, resulting in some of the best juices on earth)…
It’s quite a meal, and incredibly, these fixed plate “menu of the days” only cost about $3! Yes, you can eat very well on very little money here. Slightly more upscale places may cost $5-7 or places in the countryside may cost as little as $2.
Street Food: Ceviche
Although this traditional dish is mostly located along the coastal cities, it’s so good that you will want to plan a trip out there just for the ceviche (and the gorgeous beaches, of course). Whether you’re already a fan or you’re looking for something different, exotic, and decadent, the Colombian ceviche is some of the best in the world, albeit quite different from the more famous Peruvian version.
Another example of Colombia’s biodiversity in action – here you can find fruits that don’t grow anywhere else. Cherimoya is one of the country’s most famous and delicious offerings, with none other than Mark Twain commenting that it was “deliciousness itself.”
The fruit doesn’t look all that appetizing, but once you bite into it, you’ll see what Twain was talking about. This same refrain can be said of many different exotic Colombian fruits, the vast majority of which are completely unknown to us foreigners.
#4 Amazing Photo Ops
Now that social media has taken over our lives, more and more people are planning trips that will make everyone else on our timeline jealous (I’m half-joking). While I’m not saying that your journey to Colombia should only be used for snapping pics and sharing them, it’s a nice bonus when you’re able to document such colorful and stunning scenery. Truly, Colombia offers a pretty incredible landscape for those who enjoy photography.
Everywhere you go is gorgeous in Colombia, but here are a few notable spots that should be on your Instagram bucket list.
Just outside of Medellin, you’ll find the quaint and colorful little town of Guatape, sitting on the shores of a giant water reserve. Overlooking the town is Piedra del Penol, a huge granite monolith rising above the surrounding countryside.
If you can manage the steep, 650-step climb to the top of this cool rock, then the views are absolutely unrivaled. Taking a few pictures from the summit of Guatape will show that you’re both adventurous and in good shape.
Las Lajas Sanctuary
Chances are that you’ve seen this gothic-style cathedral on Instagram before, so why not see it up close and personal? The building was constructed on the side of a canyon, meaning that it’s one of the most unique cathedrals in the world. It took almost 30 years to build, and the site was chosen because of a sighting of the Virgin Mary in 1754. It is among the most impressive settings for a church that I’ve ever seen.
Speaking of impressive, located just outside of Bogota, this cathedral is unlike any other you may have seen. It is an underground church carved in the middle of a salt mine, featuring figures and sculptures made of salt and lit with a strange glow, this place is certainly unique.
Initially, it was created by the salt miners as a place to worship, but it’s become a growing tourist attraction in recent years. As such, it includes a theater, an art museum, and a cafe, beyond the regular religious services offered here.
Tall spindly palm trees jutting out of pastoral green fields high in the mountains… Yeah, it’s a surreal landscape by any stretch of the imagination, but the stunning beauty here is absolutely worth checking out. Not only does it offer an amazing nature experience (near the cool little town of Salento) but it is also a photographer’s playground. This is one of my top recommended places to visit in Colombia.
#5 Sunning at the Playa
As I mentioned earlier, Colombia is notable because it has two different coastlines. Thus, if you’re looking for a place to relax and catch some rays, there are tons of places to do so here. Better yet, the Caribbean side and the Pacific side are both distinct, so just because you’ve seen one doesn’t mean you’ve seen them all.
Another benefit of the coastal towns is that many of them have colonial roots, so you can catch up on Colombia’s history while getting a tan. Overall, this country has some of the best beaches in the world, and many of them aren’t clogged with tourists every day of the year (yet).
Here are the top places to check out when you need to be close to the water.
Again, we return to Cartagena because it has long held the crown as the #1 beach destination in Colombia, and for good reason. Cartagena and the surrounding area boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, featuring crystal blue waters and white sands.
Obviously, the closer you are to town, the more crowds you can expect, but getting away to places like Playa Blanca is definitely worth it. Don’t miss my guide to the best Cartagena beaches for more details.
Pilon de Azucar
In case you don’t speak Spanish, the name of this beach translates to “pile of sugar.” When you’re here, you might just agree that there is nowhere sweeter, both in Colombia and elsewhere.
Pilon sits on the edge of the remote Guajira Peninsula which is known mostly because of its colorful and otherworldly scenery as the desert meets the ocean. This beach is nestled between two hills of orange sand, the water is a pristine turquoise, and it’s surrounded by green limestone.
San Andres and Providencia
Who says that you have to be on the mainland to enjoy the beach? Colombia’s got islands too! Both San Andres and Providencia are on the Caribbean side, meaning that they have white sand and incredible views of the ocean, but they are actually much closer to Nicaragua than they are to Colombia.
Regardless, they offer some of the most beautiful beaches and are also close to one of the world’s largest coral reefs, making them perfect for snorkeling.
Right now, much of Colombia is still relatively untouched by tourism, but that’s sure to change in the coming years. If you want to go off the beaten path and see a beach that most people don’t go to (yet), then Nuqui is for you. Not only is the natural element of this beach pristine, but so are the people and the local culture. This also happens to be a great place from which to head out on Colombian whale watching tours in the Choco.
This national park sits just outside the medium-sized town of Santa Marta (a place I really like) and features some of the best preserved natural, jungle-beach landscapes on the Caribbean side. Here, you’ll have to hike in and stay in rustic lodging, but you’ll be rewarded with beaches that are unrivaled on this side of Colombia.
#6 For Coffee Lovers
If you ask the average person what Colombia is known for, they will likely say two things: cocaine and coffee. While the former is still, sadly, a major illicit export, the latter has been growing every year, helping to increase opportunities for local farmers and to gradually change perceptions abroad about this often misunderstood country.
For most coffee lovers (I’m one of them!), Colombian coffee offers some of the best flavor and richness found anywhere, featuring single origin Arabica beans grown in ideal conditions at high altitudes, so it makes sense to incorporate a coffee farm tour into your itinerary. Here are my top picks.
Although there are a lot of different coffee tours in Colombia, the WakeCup Experience from Buenavista or Pijao (in the Coffee Axis) is consistently ranked the highest. What I like about it is that it avoids most of the popular tourist destinations, meaning that you get more insight into the coffee culture of Colombia, I mean, very few people have even heard of Buenavista or Pijao.
Finca el Ocaso
For something more accessible, you’ll find a number of options in Salento, which is the most popular city for coffee and coffee tours (in the heart of the Coffee Axis), which is why many travelers come here to experience the different blends and flavors the region has to offer.
While you’re here, take the Finca el Ocaso tour and visit a small farm, as well as learn more about the charming city of Salento. The experience on the farm was amazing, and something I’d highly recommend to learn more about coffee.
La Victoria Coffee Plantation
As one of the oldest operating coffee plantations in the world, this coffee tour near the little town of Minca along the Colombian coast, offers both insight and a historical perspective. The site is named after Queen Victoria, which gives you a sense of how old it really is.
See how the coffee is made and try a few cups for yourself. Plus, Minca is just a cool little mountain town outside of Santa Marta, nestled in the world’s highest coastal mountain range.
#7 Local Festivals
If you want to experience the local culture, then you have to participate in one of the many festivals that happen throughout the year. As yet another example of Colombia’s diversity, each region has its own celebrations, meaning that each one is a unique feast for the senses.
In fact, there are so many different festivals that occur in Colombia, you may inadvertently plan your travels when one is happening. However, while that may be a happy accident, I’d also suggest that you try to make sure to visit one of these celebrations if you get the chance.
Carnaval de Barranquilla – Four Days Before Ash Wednesday
Like Carnaval in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, this festival has religious roots, as it offers a chance for everyone to cut loose before they give up their vices for Lent.
Technically speaking, the Carnaval is only celebrated from Saturday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, but many people in Colombia start the festivities long before that (kind of like how Christmas starts on the 1st of December). So, as long as you’re in the area in the weeks leading up to Barranquilla, you can partake in the celebration.
Festival de las Flores – First Two Weeks of August
If you like floats and flowers, then you will love the Festival de las Flores in Medellin, aka the Flower Festival. This celebration lasts about 10 days, so you can participate for as long as you like while it’s happening.
I’d also highly recommend visiting the Botanical Gardens of Medellin during the festival, as it’s a focal point for some of the various flowers you can see here, and it’s one of my top things to do in Medellin. Beyond the flowers though, there is an old car show, music, and lots of other fun and festivities in Medellin’s most famous and popular festival.
Feria de Cali – December 25-30th
You may already be in Cali because of the swinging nightlife and salsa dancing but come during the Feria de Cali if you want to get an even better experience. The festival happens just after Christmas, so you can incorporate both holidays into your travel plans. The fair started in 1957, and since the 80s, it’s become focused on street culture and salsa music.
#8 Unspoiled History
As if nature, food, and festivals weren’t enough, Colombia is also home to some rich and colorful history. Whether you’re a history buff or you just want to add some extra culture to your trip, Colombia has some incredible places for you to visit.
Throughout the centuries, the country has been home to many different people, from the conquering Spanish to the local tribes. Colonialism is a huge part of Colombian history, which shows up in both the architecture and the various museums you can find. Best of all, Colombia is so steeped in these traditions that you don’t have to do an official tour to benefit, although I would recommend at least one during your trip.
Here are some of the best historical sites to see.
As a UNESCO heritage site, Cartagena holds a special place in the hearts of many locals in Colombia. During the colonial period, Cartagena was a major trading port for the Spanish. However, because it was where many of the treasures being plundered were taken out of the country, the city was under threat of attack at all times.
As a result, the Spanish built a wall around Cartagena, most of which still stands today. Inside, you’ll find colorful streets, old churches, colonial architecture, and pleasant plazas. You can walk the old walls or head to the old fort just outside.
Not only that, but Cartagena has long been one of the safest destinations in Colombia, providing an important respite and vacation destination for more fortunate Colombians during the dark years.
Check out my guide to the best things to do in Cartagena.
Santa Cruz de Mompox
Another colonial Spanish city, Santa Cruz de Mompox is a place where time seems to have stood still. Many of the original 16th-century buildings are still intact, and most of them are also used for their intended purpose.
Mompox is home to some of the oldest and most inviting churches in South America. And even though the city isn’t directly on the coast, you can still experience that coastal vibe as the townspeople sit out on their rocking chairs, chilling in the afternoon heat. It feels like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro
Although the Spanish conquest of Colombia is a significant part of the country’s history, it’s far from the only aspect. If you want to see pre-colonial artifacts and learn more about the natives, there’s no better place than the Archaeological Park in Tierradentro.
Most of the structures and sculptures here date back to the six through ninth centuries CE. Another excellent place to enjoy archeological history is the nearby San Agustin, or to join in on the famous Lost City Trek on the coast.
The Gold Museum – Bogota
One of the best ways to learn more about pre-Columbian history and culture, before the Spanish conquest, is at the Museo del Oro in Bogota. This museum has one of the most expensive collections of golden artifacts in South America, even if most of it was stolen and taken to Europe.
This museum is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, with some 500,000 visitors annually and more than 50,000 gold pieces in the collection. A must visit to better understand the history of Colombia.
Many Reasons to Visit Colombia Now
No matter what kind of vacation you’re hoping to find, Colombia has something to offer every kind of tourist. And while Colombia is far from the most popular destination in South America, it grows in popularity every year as the word gets out (I’ve witnessed this myself in the 5+ years I’ve been coming here), so now is the best time to visit Colombia, before it becomes overrun.
Honestly, though, the reasons above are just skimming the surface of everything it has to offer, from super friendly locals to incredibly affordable prices… Colombia just offers a great place to explore.
See the sights, try the food, and wonder in amazement at how much Colombia has changed in such a short period of time (just a few decades). As the official tourism slogan goes: the only risk is wanting to stay.
Are you visiting Colombia soon? Don’t miss out on my super comprehensive guide for traveling to Colombia, discussing all my favorite places from nature areas to cities, to small towns, full of recommendations on everything you’d need to plan a great trip.
Also, while Colombia is safe, on the whole, I would highly recommend picking up travel insurance for Colombia to protect yourself against illness, injury, and theft. I use and recommend World Nomads for its combination of affordability and coverage.
Read Next: Guide to Traveling to Colombia
Colombia Trip Planning
- Book a cheap flight to Colombia with Momondo, or better yet, start travel hacking so you can fly for free. Traveling between major cities is much better by flying, trust me.
- Plan a rough itinerary and how long you will spend at each destination. Use an itinerary planning service for custom recommendations and pick up Lonely Planet Colombia.
- Work a little every day to teach yourself Spanish, you'll want to know as much as possible before you arrive.
- Book cheap accommodation in advance, at least for the first destinations -- For hostels use: Booking, for cheap hotels use: Hotels.com, for apartments use: Airbnb.
- Reserve your on the ground tours and activities through Get Your Guide.
- Purchase travel insurance for Colombia with SafetyWing to protect yourself from illness, injury, and theft while in Colombia. VERY important. And be sure to read my article: "Is Colombia Safe?" for my honest opinion and safety tips.
- Sign up for my free emails about planning a better trip to Colombia, and be sure to check out my comprehensive guide about traveling to Colombia.
- Learn more money-saving tricks with my top budget travel tips.
- Put together your Colombia packing list.
- Enjoy this incredible country!
I hope this helped you plan your travels in Colombia! I know it can be a struggle to find accurate and on the ground information when traveling to a new place like Colombia, which is why I started writing so extensively about it!
If you have any questions about Colombia, budget travel, or anything else shoot me an email at email@example.com.
(I love getting questions! That is how I get ideas for my blog posts and what to write about!)
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