Colombia is one of the most diverse countries in the world, full of contrasts and contradictions. It brings together the otherworldly landscapes of the high plateaus (paramos) and the cloud forest, and tantalizes tourists with pristine beaches on remote islands, and distant snow-capped mountains.
The urban and contemporary art scene tells stories of Colombian reality, past and present, and you can’t help but notice the colonial, indigenous, and modern cultural influences.
Consider these activities on a trip to Colombia including whale watching, visiting a coffee plantation, wine tasting, and salsa dancing.
Bogota is often the first port of call for visitors arriving in Colombia. On the journey to downtown Bogota from El Dorado airport, one of the first things people notice is the city's beautiful street art. Multistory buildings and tunnel walls have provided canvases for both Colombian and international street artists and in the last few years, laws against graffiti in Colombia have been relaxed to protect and encourage street artists. There are city projects, exhibitions, and art galleries all over the city dedicated to promoting urban and contemporary art.
For expert insight and a guided tour of some of the best murals in La Candelaria neighborhood, join the Bogota Graffiti Tour at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. on any day of the week.
Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world and specializes in producing high-quality Arabica coffee. There is so much to learn about coffee that a trip to a coffee farm is an absolute must while you’re in Colombia.
Although Colombia’s Coffee Triangle encompasses the Pereira-Manizales-Armenia region of Antioquia, coffee is actually produced all over the country. The best way to learn about the coffee production process is to visit a local farm and get your hands dirty. Andes Ecotours’ Traditional Coffee Farm tour works with family-owned coffee farms just outside of Bogota. On this hands-on tour, you’ll see different plantations and learn about the traditional and modern techniques used in coffee production. You’ll pick coffee cherries, help process them, and learn about the drying process. Finally, you’ll roast and grind the coffee beans and sit down to enjoy a fine cup of Colombian coffee you made yourself—from scratch.
Hike the Chingaza National Park Paramo
A trip to Chingaza National Park is a chance to discover the rare paramo ecosystem and some of the resilient wildlife species that inhabit this beautiful but inhospitable environment. Just two hours’ drive from Bogota and spread across an altitude of 3,400–3,800 meters (12,467 feet) leaving you a little breathless, you'll find climate conditions ranging from freezing rain to burning sun often in the same day. Wear layers of waterproof clothing that you can peel off if necessary.
You’ll encounter the spiky, strange-looking frailejón, the iconic plant of the paramo, and if you venture deep enough into the park, you might even glimpse the extremely shy Andean spectacled bear.
Explore the Country's Cloud Forest
If you ever dreamed of sleeping in a treehouse as a child, the Chicaque Natural Park may just be a dream come true. Chicaque is located in the cloud forest ecosystem just an hour outside of Bogota and provides a home to over 300 different bird species, including hummingbirds and toucanets.
Visitors interested in staying in the park overnight can book a night in either of the park’s two treehouse ecolodges, both of which offer great views over the reserve. The Big Oak Nest is the more basic of the two lodgings, allowing up to six people to spend the night in sleeping bags on the 25 meter-high platform. The Tanager’s Nest offers greater comfort in the form of a cabin and terrace built around a walnut tree eight meters off the ground. It contains a double and single bed and has a toilet within the cabin.
On weekends the park runs the Chicaque Express bus service from Terreros TransMilenio bus station in Bogota.
Take a Vineyard Tour in Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva is a three-hour bus journey from Bogota and one of central Colombia’s most photogenic towns. On arrival, before heading out of town to the country’s finest vineyard, the town’s main square is a great starting point for sightseeing. Plaza Mayor is surrounded by white-washed buildings and has a stunning mountain backdrop. There are so many great photo angles that you’ll easily spend an hour just wandering around with your camera.
The taxi ride from the bus station to the Ain Karim/Marques de Villa de Leyva winery takes about 20 minutes. This winery has won awards for the high quality their wines. For around USD $7 you get a half-hour tour of the vineyard, production facility, and wine cellar, followed by a wine tasting on the terrace.
Explore the Old City of Cartagena
The Caribbean port city of Cartagena is a melting pot of color, culture, and flavor. The Walled City (known locally as San Diego) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the brightly colored colonial buildings adorned with exotic flowers look like something out of a painting.
The best way to experience Cartagena’s old town is to join a walking tour and continue exploring on your own afterwards. Cartagena has something for everyone. There’s a wide range of boutiques for fashionistas, art fans will love the Museum of Modern Art, and foodies will be spoiled by the huge range of gastronomic offerings. For some fantastic views and a cold beer at the end of the day, head to the Café del Mar on the city wall at sunset—the views more than compensate for the price of the beer.
Experience the Barranquilla Carnival
The Barranquilla Carnival is the second biggest in Latin America and a celebration of Colombian culture and folklore. The carnival starts on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and brings together people from all walks of life. The first day begins with The Battle of the Flowers, the biggest parade of the whole festival, which includes the coronation of the King and Queen of the Carnival. The streets fill with floats and vibrate with cumbia music while performers in glittering costumes dance in sync.
On day two, the Grand Parade adds salsa, samba, and a whole range of folk music to the mix, while street parties continue all over Barranquilla on the third day. The last day is dedicated to the Death of Joselito, a fictional character symbolizing the joy of the carnival and whose "burial" marks the end of the festivities.
The main events of the first and second days of carnival take place on the main street, Via 40, with the "Death of Joselito" procession starting at the streets Carrera 54 and Calle 58 on the final day.
Discover Paradise at Tayrona National Park
Where lush jungle and mountains meet the Caribbean Sea, Parque Tayrona is one of Colombia’s natural treasures. As stunning as the photos are, a camera just can’t quite capture the true beauty of this place. There are regular buses to Tayrona from Santa Marta, the nearest town. These drop travelers at the park entrance, about an hour’s walk through the jungle or a cheap van-ride away from the beaches.
The jungle trails are well marked and it’s a beautiful hike to the beaches. The park only allows a limited number of visitors each day, so get there early and avoid going on a national holiday (of which Colombia has many). And, don't forget the bug spray.
Go on a Trek to the Lost City
No longer as "lost" as its name suggests, la Ciudad Perdida is the most significant pre-Colombian archaeological site in Colombia, located deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park. The site consists of 216 circular and quadrangular-shaped stone terraces and tiled roads and was founded by the native Tairona people in around 800 AD.
The four-day trek to the Lost City is a rewarding experience for backpackers with strong fitness and endurance levels, or there are five- or six-day treks for those who prefer to go at a slower pace. Tours usually cost around USD $350 per person, which covers basic accommodation, meals, snacks, and activities.
Roll Down the Sand Dunes in Punta Gallinas
If you can think of nothing better than sleeping under the stars in an open-air hammock in one of the most isolated places on Earth, Punta Gallinas is where you need to be. At the northern-most tip of South America, Punta Gallinas is a wild and isolated place where sand dunes connect the desert and the sea. It’s not easy to get to and the infrastructure in this region is pretty rudimentary, so this is a good option for adventure-seekers.
Rancheria Utta runs a 2.5-hour shuttle service from Riohacha airport to their lodging in Cabo de la Vela, a tiny coastal village that is home to the indigenous Wayuu people. Transport to Punta Gallinas departs from Cabo at daybreak and takes about four hours. The highlight of Punta Gallinas is the magnificent Taroa sand dunes sloping up from the beach to the desert, and which you can roll all the way down right before you enjoy a refreshing swim in the sea.
Go Snorkeling in Providencia
Providencia is a beautiful Caribbean island of 5,000 people just over 50 miles from its better-known neighbor, San Andres Island. It's isolated location, combined with the fact that it isn’t cheap to get to, means that Providencia hasn’t yet been overwhelmed by tourism and has a more authentic Caribbean vibe than San Andres. There are no direct flights from the mainland, so you’ll need to fly to San Andres first and then take a separate 20-minute flight with Satena airlines to Providencia. The short flight alone costs around $150 dollars.
Once you’re there, rent a bike and go exploring; it only takes half an hour to do a full circuit of Providencia island by motor scooter. Next, head to the Deep Blue Hotel and take a motorboat to the beautiful Cayo Cangrejo (Crab Cay), a tiny uninhabited island just off the main island. The reefs, fish, and turtles around the cay make for some excellent snorkeling, and there are some stunning 360-degree views from the top of the hill. For a funny preview of life in Providencia, check out the film "Bad Lucky Goat."
Ride the Metrocable in Medellin
With an all-year-round average temperature of 23 C (73 F), Medellin is also known as the "city of eternal spring." Its warm climate, fun city vibe, and spectacular surroundings have made Medellin popular with tourists and expats alike. Once you’ve seen the fantastic exhibits at the Museum of Antioquia and visited the beautiful Botanical Gardens, head to the Metrocable at Acevedo metro station and prepare yourself for some stunning panoramic views across the city.
Take the cable car up to Santo Domingo neighborhood to enjoy the scenery, then hop back on and continue up to the lovely Arvi Park. Enjoy the fresh air and a walk through the woods before heading back down to the trendy El Poblado neighborhood to party the night away.
Go Whale Watching on the Pacific Coast
Humpback whales migrate from the Antarctic to the warm waters of Colombia’s Pacific region every year between July and September to breed. Bahia Solano and El Valle in Chocó department are great options for whale watching and there are various hotels and eco-lodges, such as The Humpback Turtle, offering whale-watching tours.
In addition, the nearby Utria National Park is a picture of beauty and biodiversity, with great hiking, kayaking, and bird-watching opportunities. The easiest way to get to this remote coastal region is by flying with Satena airlines from Medellin.
Hike Among Giant Palm Trees in the Cocora Valley
The Cocora Valley is just half an hour from the pretty town of Salento in Colombia’s Quindio department. The valley of giant palm trees is surrounded by cloud forest, jungle, and wide stretches of lush green farmland, and there are several hiking routes to choose from. Jeeps to the valley leave from Salento’s main square at around 7:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m., and 11:30 a.m., and make the journey back at around 5–6 p.m.
If you just want to snap some shots of the giant wax palms before heading back, ask around and rent a jeep to take you there any time before 4 p.m. It’s just a half-hour walk down to the main valley from the trailhead. However, if you’re aiming to do one of the longer 6-hour hikes through the Cocora Valley, you’ll need to head out early. The longer hikes involve a muddy uphill trek through the jungle and several river crossings, but there are incredible views over the valley as a reward for your efforts. The trails are not always well marked so you’ll need to download or buy a map of the area beforehand.
Learn to Dance Salsa in Cali
In Cali, the streets pulse to a salsa beat as music emerges from nearby houses, bars, and even supermarkets. Cali is the salsa capital of Colombia. Cali salsa is much faster than other salsa styles, and as local couples start dancing, their feet soon become blurs. It can be a little intimidating if you want to get out there and give it a try.
But with a few salsa classes under your belt, you’ll soon learn how to move to the rhythm, and the locals will be happy to take it slow with beginners. The Ritmo Studio offers private and group salsa classes and the Topa Tolondra or Tin Tin Deo nightclubs are great venues for practicing your moves after class.
Go Paragliding in San Gil
Thrill-seekers should head straight for San Gil in Colombia’s Santander department. From canyoning and rafting to paragliding and bungee jumping, San Gil has it all.
For paragliding, there are two options. The first is a shorter flight of 10-20 minutes (depending on weather conditions) in Curiti, which is about half an hour’s drive from San Gil. This may be a good choice for beginners or for those who are short of time or money.
The second and better option is to travel an hour up to Colombia’s largest canyon in Chicamocha National Park. The views over the canyon during the flight are probably the best you’ll see in Colombia, and you’ll have around 30–40 minutes in the air with an instructor, who will land you in the same place you took off (i.e. not at the bottom of the canyon.) Parapente Chicamocha offers paragliding, kayaking, and quad biking tours around San Gil.
Visit Barichara, the Prettiest Town in Colombia
Beautiful Barichara is just an hour away from San Gil by bus and is one of those picture-postcard places you just have to visit. The cobbled streets of this upward-sloping town date back to the early 18th century and have been so well preserved that Barichara appears to be frozen in time.
The pristine whitewashed colonial houses and red-tiled roofs make it hard to take a bad photo, wherever you are in town, but you’ll get some magnificent views of the surrounding countryside up at Parque para las Artes. You can see the best of Barichara in half a day, so it’s a good day-trip option from San Gil.
Immerse Yourself in the Amazon Culture
The Colombian Amazon isn’t as well developed for tourism as the Brazilian or Peruvian Amazon, so the lodging is pretty basic in comparison. But it’s still worth a visit for the opportunity to watch wildlife in the virgin rainforest.
Leticia is the main urban center and the jumping off point for tours of the rainforest. Sergio Rojas, a local guide, started community-based tour company Amazonas Jungle Tours to help provide jobs for his community in Puerto Nariño and offers tourists a more authentic experience of the Amazon. These tours immerse visitors in the Amazon culture by providing lodging with indigenous families and encouraging participation in community activities.
Local guides from the village lead the jungle walks and take visitors on boat-trips to see the pink river dolphins and caimans, and monkey-spotting and bird watching tours. It’s a great way to experience life in the Colombian Amazon.
Spend a Night Stargazing in the Tatacoa Desert
There’s a reason why people say “Colombia is magical realism,” and the Tatacoa desert is a perfect example. This surreal, desert-like landscape could easily belong to another planet. During the day you can go hiking, horseback riding, and quad-biking through the desert. But it’s at night that the magic really starts, with amazing sunsets and sunrises book-ending incredible stargazing opportunities.
It’s therefore worth staying overnight in the desert if you can. The Peñon de Constantino hotel has an ideal setup for outdoor stargazing, with private rooms and tiny cabins scattered across the property. The Tatacoa observatory also deserves a visit on a clear evening and has telescopes you can use under the guidance of the resident astronomer. Try to plan a visit to Tatacoa close to the new moon as the darker night skies will provide optimal conditions for stargazing (but bring a flashlight as it will be pitch black outside). Neiva is the nearest city to the Tatacoa desert. From there, it’s 45 minutes to the local town of Villavieja, and then a 15-minute taxi ride to the desert.
Go Wildlife Watching on the Llanos
A visit to Colombia’s Eastern Plains, or Llanos Orientales as they’re called in Spanish, is to experience the diversity of Colombian wildlife and landscapes. The llanos are one of the country’s best-kept secrets. From the cowboy culture to the flooded forests, rolling savannahs, rivers and lagoons, there’s a huge potential to develop ecotourism in this region. The wildlife-watching opportunities are magnificent, whether you’re exploring on foot, in an open safari jeep, or canoeing through flooded forests. Watch out for giant anteaters, howler monkeys, scarlet macaws, anacondas, and the largest rodent in the world, the Capybara. If you’re really lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the elusive jaguar.
The llanos also have some of the most spectacular sunsets and the finest quality beef in Colombia. The best time to visit is during the dry season from November through April. Day tours from the city of Yopal are available from Aventur Eco Tours.