Colombia Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Colombia is a spectacularly beautiful country with an abundance of archeological treasures and old cities to delight the leisure traveler. It is also the only country in South America with coasts on the Caribbean and the Pacific. A country of diverse ethnicities, Colombia is famous for its fascinating cultures that stem from the blend of African and Caribbean heritages.
Colombia Travel Guide
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Colombia boasts more than 300 beaches along its Pacific and Caribbean coasts. There are beaches for all types of beach-lovers. If the resort-style beaches in and around Cartagena are not your thing, head over to the unspoiled, tropical paradise at the San Andres and Providencia islands. Here you will find white sandy beaches, lined with palm trees and clear blue waters.

Colombia’s cities also offer their own distinct architecture. The walled city of Cartagena is home to some of the most colorful and original architecture on the planet that you simply cannot afford to miss out on. Go on a walking tour of Cartagena to take in its unique flair and magical scenery. The bustling city full of adventure opportunities will not disappoint with its fortifications, palaces, churches and museums.

Stroll through the streets of Medellin which is home to Colombia’s coffee region. Mingle with the coffee farmers some of whom you are likely to find seated outside brightly colored houses on the streets. The city is also colorful due to its abundance of gorgeous flowers. Plan your visit in August to attend Medellin’s flower festival.

Many tourists visit Colombia for the amazing scenery. The country is home to rolling mountains and canyons that create a beautiful backdrop to your vacation, and Canon del Chicamocha is one such canyon that offers breathtaking views. This beautiful steep-sided canyon carved out by the Rio del Chicamocha river is a must visit.

Spanish colonialism left a trail of Spanish-influenced architecture that can be seen in cities such as Popayan. Situated in southwestern Colombia, Popayan features chalk-white buildings such as mansions, monasteries, churches and schools, all dating from the 16th century. The charm and tranquility of Popayan make it a great spot to chill out during your Colombian vacation.

San Agustin is a laid-back small town surrounded by amazing landscapes and the remnants of a forgotten civilization. One of Colombia’s most intriguing ancient sites, the San Agustin archaeological park is home to over 500 monoliths, statues, sarcophagi and petroglyphs. Most of the stone carvings found here were created between the years 100 AD and 1200 AD.

The capital of Colombia and one of the largest cities in South America, Bogota boasts many attractions to entice any visitor, including botanical gardens, a gold museum, a planetarium, cultural events and a thriving nightlife. Be sure to tour Bogota’s historic district at La Candelaria, a pleasant quarter with museums, churches and cafés.

Colombia is stunning beautiful, great fun and an all-round amazing place to visit. This gem of a country is fast becoming a top destination for tourists, eco-lovers and foreign culture enthusiasts. From the sandy beaches of the Caribbean to the Amazon rainforest and the Andes Mountains, the South American nation has something to please all visitors. All this and more makes Colombia well worth a visit.

1. Popayan

One of Colombia’s most beautiful and treasured cities, Popayan is the capital of the Cauca Department. Founded in 1537 at the foot of Volcan Purace, Popayan is situated in the Andean cordillera. Soon after its founding, Popayan attracted settlers who established sugar plantations within the Cauca river valley.

The town soon became an important religious center with numerous churches, seminaries and monasteries, as well as a prosperous center for trade.

The historical site of Popayan makes for an attractive destination in Colombia, especially during the famed Semana Santa Holy Week celebrations.

The churches of Popayan rank high on the list of things to do in this Colombian town. Visit Iglesia de San Francisco which is noted for its fine side altars. Iglesia La Ermita is Popayan’s oldest church which dates from 1546 and boasts frescoes and a fine altar. Capilla de Belen offers panoramic views of the city.

The museums of Popayan also make for an interesting stop. At the Casa Museo Mosquera, you will find a collection of colonial art. Visit Museo de Arte Religioso, which is situated within the Franciscan monastery and which features a collection of religious art.

At the Casa Museo Negret you will find displays of contemporary art, while Museo Guillermo Valencia with its colonnades is dedicated to the poet of the same name. At the Museo de Historia Natural, you can check out displays of insects, birds and butterflies, as well as a collection of pre-colonial pottery.

Also take a stroll through the streets of Popayan for a closer look at the 2-storeyed colonial houses which feature balconies on the second floor. You can also visit the University of Cauca which was founded in 1827. Also check out the Humilladero Bridge which was built over brick arches; and the Torre Del Reloj cathedral.

Just outside of Popayan to the northeast is the town of Silvia, home to an indigenous community of Guambinos, one of the most traditional in Colombia. The town holds a weekly market on Tuesdays at which the Indian natives dress in traditional clothing and sell handicrafts as well as fresh produce.

Parque Nacional Purace is situated to the east of Popayan and comprises one of the prettiest national parks in Colombia. Its landscape features the snow-covered Purace volcano which rises 4780m, waterfalls, hot springs and lakes.

2. Medellin

The second largest city in Colombia, Medellin is a principal industrial and manufacturing area, as well as a commercial flower growing region which is famous for its orchids.

Medellin is the capital of the Antioquia department situated in the mountainous region of northwestern Colombia. A beautiful city that is modern and vibrant yet true to its regional characteristics, Medellin was founded in 1616 within the scenic Aburra valley.

Plan your visit around early August to attend Feria de las Flores, the famous Medellin flower festival. The festival features music, dance and cultural events that celebrate the customs of Antioquiana, but the highlight is when the campesinos come down from the mountains bearing flowers. You can also visit the Festival Internacional de Poesia de Medellin which is held around June.

Visit the Basilica de la Candelaria, which is one of the few colonial buildings left in Medellin. Also tour the Basilica Metropolitana which is situated in Parque de Bolivar. The Basilica was completed in the early 20th century and is believed to be the largest brick church in South America. At Pueblito Paisa, you will find a replica of a typical Antioquiana village, complete with handicraft shops.

Plaza Botero features displays of several works by Fernando Botero, the internationally renowned Medellin sculptor who specializes in oversized human figures. More of his works can be viewed at the Museo de Antioquia. Plaza de Toros la Macarena is another square worth visiting. At the Jardin Botanico Joaquin Antonio Uribe, you will find an annual orchid exposition.

3. San Andres, Providencia y Santa Catalina

San Andres, Providencia y Santa Catalina is an archipelago and biosphere reserve situated 720 km from the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The archipelago comprises the islands of San Andres, Providence and Santa Catalina, as well as a number of islets, cays and sand banks.

The archipelago comprises of two large islands: San Andres and Providencia. Situated at the southern tip of the archipelago is San Andres, the largest island which is mostly flat. San Andres boasts a lush green landscape, isolated cays and near-private beaches, with most of the island’s attractions deriving from nature and its history.

Visitors craving superb diving in crystal clear warm waters, along white sandy beaches, relaxation, a colorful culture and thriving nightlife should look no further than San Andres. Home to a vivid and multi-ethnic history, San Andres offers a diverse cultural experience from the island cuisine to the languages spoken.

Providencia is the second biggest island which lures snorkelers and divers who come for the extensive coral reefs and crystal clear waters. The island interior features tropical palms which are pleasant to stroll by. For nice views of the island, walk from Casabaja to the top of the island’s highest point, El Pico.

There are plenty of things to do on the archipelago islands. Be sure to try the island cuisine from one of the roadside stands, in particular rondon which is made with pork, fish, conch, plantain and coconut milk.

Walk up El Cliff from El Centro where you can enjoy a pleasant stroll and good views of the coral reefs and the town from a height of 50m.

Swim or just relax on the Sprat Bight beach, which is the most popular on San Andres. This beach offers excellent swimming in shallow waters.

You can also rent a small boat to explore the cays nearby including Sound Bay in San Luis which derives its name from the waves that crash against the coral. Cocoplum Bay is another cay worth visiting with a gentle slope of the beach, as well as shallow waters that are ideal for swimming. Also visit the Cove, at which divers can walk into the water to access the coral reef.

There are several good locations for snorkeling and diving. The archipelago’s moderate temperatures, calm undercurrents and almost unrestricted visibility make it a prime diving location.

Popular diving spots include the sunken wrecks of the Nicaraguense and the Blue Diamond. East of Johnny Cay is Here Kitty, a circular spot of sand that is surrounded by reef. Blue Hole and Blue Wall is a vertical wall that goes down 300+ feet where you can see fish and coral.

Johnny Cay is also known as Islote Sucre and is the small island closest to San Andres, which offers clear waters, sandy beaches and tropical vegetation.

Situated at the southern end of San Andres is El Hoyo Soplador, a sea water geyser. La Cueva de Morgan is a sea cave that is constantly enlarged by the action of water against its rock walls. This is a popular attraction due to these natural effects and the legend of a hidden treasure.

Another tiny islet close by to explore is La Loma, a tiny hamlet on which traditional island life thrives. The islet is home to Iglesia Bautista Emmanuel, the first church built on the island with a spire that served as a landmark for sailors. You can also enjoy superb sunsets while on La Loma.

4. San Agustin

Follow Colombia’s Magdalena River to its head, trudge through the thick tropical rainforest and you will come into the high valley of San Agustin with its mounds of earth that once held cultural treasures, stone dolmens, sculptures and caryatids. Some mounds contained tombs guarded by statues with fierce expressions while a few others contained fabulous riches currently on display in Bogota’s Museo de Oro.

San Agustin is a small town set within the beautiful Magdalena river valley. Its rich volcanic soil supports farmers who have tilled it for centuries. Early farmers built terraces and canals on the hillsides around the mounds and their monumental tombs.

These artifacts were relics of a civilization that flourished and ended between the 6th century BC and the 12th century AD. Believed to be a cultural centre used by a succession of different indigenous groups that disappeared before the arrival of the Incas, the region of San Agustin features several sites with similar type of carvings and statues.

Parque Arqueologico de San Agustin is spread out over an area of 500 square kilometers. Considered the largest of the pre-colonial sites of South America, San Agustin brings together cultural influences from peoples of the Caribbean, the Amazonia and Andes groups.

While not much is known about the cultures that created San Agustin’s statues, carvings and dolmens, the relics tell a story of their own. The lush landscape serves as foil for the statues that represent both real and mythical creatures, some human and others gods, such as the Goddess of Motherhood.

There are approximately 500 statues and tombs scattered in groups over an area spanning both sides of the Rio Magdalena Gorge. The relics encased important personages buried with statues to guard their offerings of pottery and gold to the gods. It is believed that even more relics remain undiscovered to this date.

Some of the statues guarding the burial chambers have fierce expressions and jaguar-type mouths. Others resemble birds of prey, snakes, frogs, monkeys and eagles. The jaguar figure is believed to be associated with a shaman who could transform himself into a jaguar to maintain balance in the world. The concept of reincarnation is believed to play a role in the rationale behind the San Agustin monoliths.

During the 1930s, archaeological excavation began which unearthed figures whose dye or paints primarily the colors red, yellow and blue were still visible. However, the colors began to fade as soon as they were exposed to air, but traces linger today.

Although adorned with different styles of clothing, hairstyles and accessories, the status share a common feature of blank eyes. The statues of San Agustin were sculpted from huge chunks of volcanic rock and are mostly oval or rectangular in shape and of varying sizes. The largest weighs several tons and stands at more than 7 meters tall.

Take your time exploring the large San Agustin archeological site with its tomb sites linked by pathways and offers great vistas into the valley and mountains. The originators of the sites had a keen eye for beauty and chose scenic sites to bury their dead, some of whom were interred in carved stone sarcophagi.

Take some time to visit other surrounding sites that also feature burial mounds, carved figures and great scenic views of the surrounding countryside. At Fuente de Lavapatas you will find a series of pools and water channels carved into the smooth bare rock, along with images of human figures, serpents, lizards and salamanders.

The summit of the hill Alto de Lavapatas features the oldest tombs and a children’s cemetery protected by a large double statue that is beautifully carved. At Bosque de las Estatuas, statues that were originally found in remote areas have been grouped together for display inside a natural wooded setting. El Alto de los Idolos features vertical and horizontal tombs with carved stone slabs.

5. Bogota

Bogota is the capital city of Colombia. Nestled high in the Andes Mountains at 2620m, Santafe de Bogota is a city of contrasts, with high-rise buildings standing adjacent to colonial churches. A mix of Indian, Spanish and English influences, Bogota is also a modern city with futuristic architecture and graffiti, bookstores and street vendors peddling emeralds around the inner core of the old city.

Founded in 1538, Santafe de Bogota’s name was shortened to Bogota following independence from Spain in 1824. However, the original name was recently reinstated. Until the mid-1900s, Bogota was a provincial city, the bureaucratic home of government and intellectual pursuits. Its main industries were woolen textiles, candle making and breweries.

Zona Norte is Bogota’s most modern and upscale zone which features the city’s highest income bracket neighborhoods, the best restaurants, shopping centers and a thriving nightlife scene in the zona rosa. Because Bogota expanded from its colonial center, this is where you will find most of the great churches. To the east of the city, the mountains offer a constant backdrop.

At 3030m, Cerro de Montserrate is a favorite for Bogotenos who climb it for spectacular views, its park, restaurants and the famous religious site. The church found here houses the statue of the Senor Caido Fallen Christ and is said to be a place of miracles. The top is only accessible by climbing hundreds of stairs or via cable car or funicular.

Bogota has a number of landmarks from the colonial period preserved as historical monuments. The majority of these are found in La Candelaria, the city’s oldest district. The Capitol Municipal Palace and a handful of churches here are worth a visit.

San Francisco was built in 1567 and elaborately decorated with massive wooden altar columns covered in gold leaf. Santa Clara was built during the early 17th century as a single nave church with wonderful frescos. The church was completely restored and is today a museum. Visitors can admire the beautiful screen that was previously used to hide the choir of the cloistered convent of nuns.

San Ignacio was inspired by the Church of San Jesus de Roma and features a sumptuously decorated church with Baroque altars, very high naves and interesting sculptures. San Agustin is one of the oldest churches in Colombia which was established in 1637. Its most notable features include the Baroque altars.

If you have time, also visit the churches of La Veracruz, La Tercera, La Catedral, San Diego, Santa Barbara, La Capilla del Sagrario and La Candelaria la Concepcion.

Bogota is also home to a handful of great museums, most of which can be enjoyed in an hour or two. But be sure to schedule more time for the Museo Del Oro, which is home to over 30,000 objects of pre-Hispanic gold work.

The museum resembles a fort designed to protect the treasures within such as the tiny Muisca boat that depicts the ritual of throwing gold into the lake to appease the gods. You can also admire the diamond and emerald studded crosses that date from the colonial period.

Also of interest is the model of the Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City of Taironas, which was found in 1975 near Santa Marta. The highlight of a visit to Museo Del Oro is the strong room – enter the darkened room which will have you audibly gasp when the lights come on to reveal the 12,000 pieces of gold stored inside.

Museo Nacional de Colombia has a broad range of displays of ethnic, historical and archaeological importance. Other museums of interest include Museo Colonial, which is housed in an old Jesuit monastery that was built around 1640 and features displays of the life and time of the Viceroyalty period.

Museo de Arte Religioso is home to a collection of religious art that was popular during the colonial period. Museo de Arte Moderno houses the works of contemporary Colombian artists. Other museums of note include: the Museo Del Siglo XIX; Museo Arqueologico; Museo de los Ninos; Museo de Numismatica; and the Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares.

Quinta de Bolivar is the magnificent country home of Simon Bolivar, which is situated at the base of Cerro Montserrate. Here you will find his documents, furniture and personal items that the liberator and his mistress used. Be sure to take a pleasant stroll through the gardens and lawns.

There is plenty to see and do in Bogota if you intend to stay for a couple of days. Once you’ve had your fill of the churches and museums, there is the active nightlife with theaters and restaurants to enjoy. Plan a visit to the elegant Teatro Colon for a performance of Colombian theater.

6. Cartagena

Hot, sultry, filled with bright color, tradition and the sound of music, Cartagena de Indias has been an important port on the Caribbean ever since it was founded in 1533. Silver and gold left the port bound for Europe, pirates looted the city and a walled fort was built to protect shipping and the slave trade. Today, Cartagena attracts tourists who visit to enjoy its sights, history and nightlife.

The old walled city is the heart of Cartagena. Protected from storms and pirate attacks by the fortress, the old city features colonial buildings, plazas, convents and churches. This area is today known as El Centro and features restaurants as well as a section known as Getsemani which is worth a daytime stroll.

The old walled city, Ciudad Amarullada features tiled roofs with balconies and courtyards full of flowers and the historic charm of the city beckons visitors for a stroll along the narrow streets. A good place to begin your exploration of the old city is at Casa de Marques Valdehoyos. Situated on Calle Factoria, the house is a great example of old Cartagena.

Museo de Oro y Arqueloguia is located on Plaza Bolivar and features a great collection of pottery and gold from the Sinu culture. Similarly on this plaza is the Palacio de la Inquisicion, a fine example of colonial architecture. Behind its charming façade, a museum houses displays of torture instruments from the Spanish inquisition. There is also some pre-Hispanic, colonial and post- independence art.

Cartagena’s Cathedral has a simple interior, a massive exterior and a fortress-like appearance. The Cathedral was begun in 1575 and completed in 1602. Iglesia de Santo Domingo is situated on Calle Santo Domingo and has changed little from its colonial days. The oldest church in the city, the Iglesia was built to resist invaders, as was the Cathedral.

Las Bovedas are dungeons that were built initially for military purposes but today house tourist shops and boutiques.

Castillo de San Felipe de Baraja is the largest in a series of fortresses that were built to protect the city from pirate attacks. Be sure to check out the tunnel system that was designed to enable supply to and evacuation from the fortress.

The massive fortress dominates the town and was begun in 1639, but not completed for another 150 years. Today, visitors can walk the battlements, stroll through the underground passages and marvel at the labor that went into building a fort that was never used for defense purposes.

Overlooking the fortress is the Convento de la Popa which features flowered patios and offers great views of the city, especially at sunset, as well as panoramas of the Caribbean and neighboring islands.

The convent once served as an additional fortress but today is home to a museum and the chapel of the Virgen de la Candelaria, the patron saint of Cartagena. This colonial complex is a great spot to visit for insights into religious life during colonial times.

El Laguito and Bocagrande are the newer areas of Cartagena situated on the peninsula facing the Caribbean. These areas have become the fashionable location of upscale, restaurants and shops. Go here to dance until dawn at one of the city hotspots.

Plan to stay a couple of days in Cartagena to enjoy the historical center, the modern city and the fashionable seaside of Colombia’s second port. The fascinating city will have your plate full with its historical attractions, beaches, nightlife, churches, walled city and colonial architecture, all of which make it a veritable living museum ideal for romantic getaways, family vacations and solo travelers.

Also visit the Rosario Islands which comprise a small archipelago on the southern part of the Bay of Cartagena. Situated just an hour away, the islands offer crystal clear waters and multicolor reefs ideal for recreational diving. Beach lovers will also find refuge on Playa Blanca with its white sands and crystal clear waters.

7. Canon Del Chicamocha

Situated in Santander, Canon del Chicamocha is a natural wonder. An impressive and beautiful canyon, Chicamocha is a desert maze amid the region’s mountains and one of the most beautiful natural valleys in Colombia.

If you have already visited any of the corners in the Colombian department of Santander, you will already have enjoyed the natural beauty of its contrasting geography. Santander offers a lot of charm and natural magic that lies between its mountains. This is a region in which the landscapes and geography have forged the spirit and character of their inhabitants, who, despite their strong character, treat travelers with hospitality.

Canon Del Chicamocha is carved into the mountains by Rio Chicamocha, a river running through and deepening within the Santander department, to become the dominant player in the region’s landscape. A sand bed marks the route of the river amid the towering mountains that surround it, which enables it to make its way naturally.

Due to geographic and climatic features in this part of Santander the canyon becomes deeper and more rugged in its geography. Also, during this part of your journey into the valley, the landscape will become a kind of arid desert that is aggressive, with temperatures soaring to 40 degrees Celsius during the dry seasons.

It is this desert landscape that has shaped the character of the santandereanos, and which has made Canon del Chicamocha one of its most important figures, not only as a natural attraction but as an adventure spot and tourist destination.

The extreme natural conditions of the site has created a trail that is ideal for adventure lovers, mountain bikers, hikers and even paragliders who enjoy adventure travel. But for those who prefer a quieter itinerary, visit the Chicamocha National Park, one of Colombia’s best theme parks that offer breathtaking scenery in its surroundings.

Canon Del Chicamocha can be accessed from the city of Bucaramanga which is situated about 7 hours drive from Bogota. After your tour of the canyon, stop by at one of the Santander restaurants situated at the top of the canyon to sample their cuisine and enjoy pleasant views of the landscape.

You can also visit the town of Cepita which is right inside the canyon and a good spot to begin your trek across the canyon. At Cepita you will find guides to take you through your tour of the canyon bed. Be sure to try the homemade ice-cream sold around the park.

8. Guatape

Situated in Antioquia, the town of Guatape is small and colorful, and serves primarily as a trading post for the small farmers in the area. The town is particularly popular for the bright and elaborate designs that adorn the exteriors of its houses.

While in the neighborhood, be sure to go on a walking tour of Guatape. Here you can visit Malecon, Memory Lane as well as the Home of the Horseman. You can also tour the church of Nuevo Penol. The more adventurous traveler can climb the 649 steps up the famous El Penon de Guatape.

El Penon de Guatape is a 10 million ton rock that was once worshipped by the Tahamies Indians, and which is today accessed via an astounding staircase. A massive stone that rises more than 650 feet from the flat ground of Guatape, El Penon de Guatape is also known as Piedra de Penol.

Formed some 70 million years ago, El Penon rises 2135m above sea level. The rock is almost completely smooth but for a long crack, which climbers use to ascend. A 649-step staircase has been wedged into the crack and provides the only way of getting to the top of El Penon.

The top of the rock offers beautiful views of a dramatic series of islands and lakes, as well as interesting plant species. There are also religious relics and a 3-storey lookout tower.

9. Salento

Lying inland in the north east of Colombia, Salento is a small town that is distinctive in this part of Colombia for its original historic architecture that can still be seen lining the streets. The architecture in Salento town is one of its attractive features, having retained many of the original colonial buildings established during the 19th century.

Calle Real is the main street in the town of Salento which features buildings typical of the architecture seen throughout the region at the height of the Eje Cafetero period. Your visit to Salento is not complete without sampling trucha, the local delicacy which is a type of freshwater trout found in abundance in the area’s rivers.

Situated in Quindío, the district of Salento stands on a plateau overlooking the Quindío River. The valleys found here feature some very steep slopes which make for great spots for hiking and exploration. One of the main reasons why the district of Salento is such a popular destination for both locals and tourists is because it is the gateway to the lovely Cocora Valley and surrounding areas.

Cocora Valley boasts some of the best highland and valley scenery in Colombia, and is home to Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm, which provides a uniquely different image to the landscape, with its tall and leafless trunks that are topped by a small fan of palm leaves. The valley is also the site of a number of activities including hiking and mountain biking.

10. Cano Cristales

Dubbed “the river that ran away from paradise”, Cano Cristales is an amazing spectacle and a unique biological wonder. Regarded by some as the most beautiful river in the world, Cano Cristales is found in the Sierra de la Macarena National Park, in the Meta department of Colombia.

For most of the year, Cano Cristales is no different from any other river as all that’s visible is a bed of rocks covered in a dull green moss seen below a clear, cool current.

However, for a short time each year, the river blossoms into a vibrant explosion of color. During a short span between the dry and wet seasons when its water level is just right, the Macarenia Clavigera, a unique plant species lining the floor of the river, turns a brilliant red and orange. This is offset by patches of green and yellow sands, blue water and hundreds of shades in between.

The best time to see this natural wonder is between the months of July and September. Do not bother visiting Cano Cristales at any other time of the year as you certainly will be disappointed. This is because during the wet season in Colombia, the water flows too deep and too fast, obscuring the bottom of the river, thereby denying its special plants the sunlight it requires to turn into the red color.

Whereas during the dry season there is insufficient water to support the river’s dazzling array of life. But for a couple of weeks each year, the river comes to life in a dazzling multi-colored rainbow-like display that you just can’t afford to miss.