Colombia has unbelievable diversity and some of the world’s most gorgeous landscapes, exciting cities, and charming towns. Despite its violent past, the Andean country has burst onto the scene as the hottest South American destination almost overnight. With its humble residents and authentic culture, Colombia has a bright future in travel spheres.
When you visit Colombia the first time, don’t think you can see the whole country in one trip. Colombia is way bigger than most tourists think as its landmass is over twice the size of Spain and nearly five times the United Kingdom. With snow-capped peaks, idyllic coastlines, lush jungles, and part of the Amazon rainforest, Colombia has something for every traveler.
To satisfy nature lovers and urban explorers, I’ve tallied 5 must-see destinations in Colombia. With this list, you’ll discover cultural wonders, picturesque countryside, and wild landscapes around Colombia.
The gateway to the Colombian Caribbean coast, Santa Marta entices beach freaks with turquoise waters and jungle-clad shores. Tayrona National Park sits next door and unlocks a world of mystical rainforests and golden coastlines. With a backdrop of palm trees and verdant hills, you’ll be swimming in paradise.
If you venture to Santa Marta anytime soon, please arrange a trip to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City). The archaeological site will become South America’s next Machu Picchu, and you should visit before the crowds get relentless. It’s over 600 years older than the famous Inca citadel and the expedition to get there is one of Colombia’s toughest endeavors.
The trek through the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta challenges you to 4+ days of dense jungle, intense heat, and wild terrain. You’ll hike 45 km to witness the sacred historic site built by the indigenous Tairona people. The Wiwa are modern-day descendants of the Tairona, and they protect the ancient city and culture of their ancestors.
Salento is Colombia’s coffee country, and this fertile region ranks among the most scenic places in the country. Colorful buildings and trotting horses highlight the rustic charm of this delightful Colombian town. With its location in the Andes, prepare to face some hills while wandering its laid-back streets. Calle Real is the primary thoroughfare for shops, restaurants, and cafés.
After your stroll down Calle Real, climb the stairs for dramatic views overlooking Salento from Mirador Alto De La Cruz. The vistas of the coffee triangle leave you speechless and create a picture worthy of a postcard. Keep walking along the concrete path to find more spectacular views at Mirador de Salento and grab a coffee to taste the local flavors.
The highlight of Salento is hiking through the Valle de Cocora and feasting your eyes on the world’s tallest wax palms. Walking through the peaceful landscape enchants visitors with the towering trees and lush hills.
For a tougher trekking expedition, Los Nevados National Park has some of Colombia’s most diverse scenery. As you ascend into higher elevations, Los Nevados guides you through wax palm forests, rainforests, cloud forests, paramo, and rare tropical glaciers.
Medellin’s warp speed transformation from ‘world’s murder capital’ to modern metropolis is astounding. Home to around 2.5 million people, Medellin has spawned technological innovation thanks to its unwavering spirit. Long gone are the days of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar as Medellin now ranks among the top urban destinations in South America.
The best way to appreciate Medellin’s progress is to ride the Metrocable and admire the sprawling Andean views. As you ascend into the rolling hills, the vistas of the towering skyscrapers are breathtaking. While on the Metrocable, take Line L to Arvi Park for scenic forest hikes overlooking the valley.
Plaza Botero showcases sculptures made by the renowned artist Fernando Botero, and Antioquia Museum holds one of Colombia’s largest art collections. Comuna 13 has an edgier vibe with its street art, while Poblado boasts a cosmopolitan atmosphere of upscale clubs and hip cafés. And for a chance to understand how far Medellin has come, the Memory House Museum educates visitors of the country’s past armed conflicts.
When you’re visiting Medellin, don’t you dare leave without taking at least a day trip to Guatapé. The colorful town is famous for its decorative zócalos on the bottom of each building. While their origin is a mystery, the murals showcase the talents of local artists. Highlighted by its striking church, the main square boasts cafés and restaurants around every corner. The square bustles with locals on weekends and has a fun vibe that puts a smile on your face.
After sipping coffee and shopping for Colombian handicrafts, it’s time to hit Guatapé’s scenic waterfront. The artificial lake has transformed Guatapé into one of Colombia’s most beloved resort towns and hubs for aquatic activities. Its emerald waters offer boat rides, kayaking, fishing, swimming, and jet skiing for a relaxing day on the water.
But there’s no doubt the top activity in Guatapé is climbing 740 steps to the top of El Peñón de Guatapé. If you’re in decent shape, the climb isn’t treacherous, and the rock presents sweeping views of the islands around Guatapé. Enjoy some refreshments and soak up one of the best vistas anywhere in Colombia.
Guatapé is the easiest Medellin day trip, and the 2-hour ride from Terminal Del Norte costs 16,000 COP (about $4.37 USD) at the time of writing.
El Cocuy National Park
Colombia isn’t usually associated with alpine scenery, but El Cocuy National Park is a hidden treasure for intrepid explorers. Near the Colombia-Venezuela border, El Cocuy boasts jagged peaks, mighty glaciers, and crystal-clear lakes for hardy trekkers. With an 8-10 hour bus ride from Bogota or Bucaramanga, El Cocuy sees far less foot traffic than other attractions in Colombia.
The journey to El Cocuy National Park begins in either El Cocuy or Guican. To trek inside the park, you must register yourself, hire a guide, and organize transport from town. If you’re willing to depart El Cocuy at the crack of dawn, catch a ride on el lechero (the milk truck) to save money. Once you’re at the park entrance, you can tackle 50 km of hiking trails on three day hikes.
My advice is to spend three nights minimum at the cabins located beside the park entrance. Spend one day on the Ritacuba Trail, El Pulpito Trail, and Laguna de La Sierra Trail for some of the best hiking in Colombia. It’s one of the rare places where you’ll see snowy peaks, paramo, alpine lakes, and glaciers in a single location.