What comes to mind when you think of South America? Perhaps it’s the ever-iconic Machu Picchu, or maybe Rio’s Carnival, Argentina’s steak, or Bolivia’s Salt Flats. Well, it’s time someone else took the spotlight: Colombia.
Majestic, stunning, colourful Colombia. I fell head over heels in love with this country, and I’m not the only one. If you haven’t been yet, let me explain why you should go.
Colombia has everything. Caribbean beaches in the North, Pacific surf in the West. Tropical forests, snow-capped mountains, and everything in between. The country truly is Mother Nature’s playground. And it’s not just the landscape, but the people, and the incredible passion they have for living, for dancing, for welcoming you into their country.
Plus, hammocks are a big thing here, and who doesn’t like a hammock?
So where should you go? Here are my top six recommendations…
A charming colonial classic: Cartagena de Indias
This bewitching fort town tops most must-see lists in Colombia for good reason. Its Old Quarter feels like a fairytale – flowers hang liberally from wooden balconies against a backdrop of colourfully painted walls. Take an evening stroll along the city walls to see why Cartagena is known as the country’s most romantic city; watch the sun set behind the ocean horizon, cocktail in hand, among the many Colombian lovers who will join you.
Once night falls, leave the tourist crowds behind and head to artsy Getsemani district and Plaza de la Trinidad. This square heaves with locals spending warm evenings gossiping and playing live music. Kids play, while dignified old men sit silently observing the scene.
Food carts pop up offering tasty BBQ skewers and fried empanadas. Fresh, tropical juices are served alongside warm smiles – I recommend lulo, a fruit that is found only in Colombia – and beer is sold out of the windows of nearby houses who stock up their fridges for the evening crowds. Only a few hundred metres from the Plaza is Café Havana, famed for its mojitos and salsa, but even if you don’t make it there, following your ears in this area will undoubtedly take you to a welcoming dance floor.
Recover from the previous night’s entertainment with a visit to a natural mad bath – Totumo Mud Volcano – or head to the white sand of Playa Blanca, where you can stay overnight in shacks on the beach, or simply laze in hammocks until it’s time to go back to the city.
Snorkel just metres from your sunbathing spot and see dazzling fish and reefs, or if you’re lucky, kayak at sunset for a possible sighting of a stingray.
Caribbean beaches: Tayrona National Park
This north coast gem is treasured by locals and visitors alike – so get there early. You can hike or horse ride into its picture-postcard beaches – the best being Cabo San Juan. I recommend hiking as it makes the scenery even better.
The trail winds through jungle, climbing up and down rocks, past viewpoints, along stretches of deserted beach. You’ll paddle through lagoons and wander beneath towering palms. Keep your eyes open for wildlife – we saw a crocodile and iguanas. This National Park is regarded as the world’s ‘most irreplaceable nature reserve’ with the highest concentration of endangered species – so tread carefully.
You can sleep overnight right by the beach in a tent or hammock (I recommend the latter, it’s cooler temperature-wise). There is no WiFi in paradise, so leave your tech behind and enjoy chatting to new friends over a beer or snorkeling just off shore.
As the sun sets, gaze along the coast at silhouettes of mountains that nestle by the coast, and perhaps enjoy a moonlit swim.
The sacred jungle: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Moving inland from the north coast, the Sierra Nevada National Park is home to the small slow-paced hippy hill town of Minca. Activities here include abseiling down waterfalls, mountain biking, jungle treks…or just sipping coffee in a hammock with a book. It’s almost impossible to leave.
The Sierra Nevada has the closest proximity of mountains to sea in the world, so as you can imagine, views are to die for. There is one spot from which you can see both the Caribbean Sea and snow-capped mountains.
The Ciudad Perdida trek is also housed by the Sierra Nevada. The five-day hike takes you through lush, dense jungle, stopping by rivers where you can jump from rocks or rope swings into the water to cool yourself down. Along the way you may encounter some of the 30,000 indigenous people who call the Sierra Nevada home, free from civilization as we know it and still living off this sacred land.
On day three, after ascending 1200 brutal stone steps, you reach an archeological site – the “Lost City” – thought to pre-date Machu Picchu by about 650 years.
Urban city with a past and a future: Medellin
Medellin boasts both beauty and culture, sitting amid rolling hills and enjoying a pleasant spring temperature all year round. To see Medellin at its best, take the chance to go paragliding with the vultures that line the skies, or stop by the lush botanical gardens.
The rural town of Guatape is a daytrip from Medellin, and climbing the 740 steps of El Peñol gifts you with far-reaching views of the surrounding landscape – a mosaic of green and blue.
Back in Medellin, soak up the culture with museums, parks, and architecture. By night, clubs pulse with party goers dancing salsa. Let loose with a few shots of the local spirit, aguardiente.
Though not defined by it, Medellin’s character is entwined with a turbulent past – it was named the world’s most dangerous city only 20 years ago. But the real story here is not of violence or gang wars, but of the incredible development this city has seen.
Areas that were once feared have been turned into popular public spaces with libraries and art installations. Medellin is not only liveable, but innovative, winning awards for sustainable transport, and sporting the world’s first outdoor escalator which connects hilly neighbourhoods to the city centre.
P.S. go to a football match here – it honestly feels more like a carnival. Singing, drinking, dancing, instruments dotted through the crowd. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that you were there to watch a game.
Countryside charm: Salento and the Cocora Valley
Country town Salento sits a convenient distance south of Medellin and west of the capital, Bogota, so is easy to reach from either. This pretty little village in the country’s coffee triangle retains an authentic Colombian feel. Fincas dot the rolling green landscape, giving you the opportunity to get hands on with the ins and outs of coffee farming.
From picking beans, right through to grinding them, learn more about your favourite morning beverage in the midst of gorgeous countryside. When not sipping on a caffeinated brew, you can go horse-riding, seek out a waterfall, or hike through the Cocora Valley among the tallest palm trees in the world. Along the way you’ll pass captivating views, and even a hummingbird farm!
Adventure capital: San Gil and Barichara
I no longer teach in this wondrous country, but I am lucky to still have Colombian students in my new home of Melbourne, Australia. I asked a Colombian student of mine this week their personal top spot, and they said San Gil and Barichara. Hands down.
Now I must admit that I haven’t been to either…yet. But I’ve heard so many good things about them I had to squeeze them on the list. San Gil, which sits 500km east of Medellin, is known as the adventure capital. Go white water rafting, mountain biking, rapelling, paragliding, caving, the list goes on!
And just a day trip away lies Barichara – think cobbled streets, white-washed walls and burnt red tiles. It was even named a national monument in the 70s – race you there!
And trust me, this is all just the beginning. There is so much more to be seen and discovered in Colombia beyond this list. So stop reading and start planning. You sure won’t regret it.
Tempted to visit this gorgeous gem? This 9-day trip to Colombia takes you from Bogota to Cartagena and everywhere in between.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, iStock, Intrepid Travel, Jen Welch, Intrepid Travel, Jen Welch x2, iStock, Intrepid Travel, iStock)