Long gone are the days when Colombia was considered, rightly or wrongly, off-limits or unattractive for the everyday traveller. Today globetrotters are heading here in great numbers and with the same zeal and enthusiasm as its more celebrated southern neighbours Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. And for good reason too. Colombia offers a combination of dynamic cities, lush landscapes and idyllic Caribbean beaches, underscored by a welcoming nature which embraces foreign visitors and enthused with an exotic cuisine and the aromatic coffee with which the country is synonymous.
Now that visitor numbers are rising here, where are they all heading? Where are the best places to visit in Colombia? A visit here will usually start in the capital, as that is where long-haul flights from Europe usually arrive. Bogotá demands at least a couple of nights to explore this lively yet fascinating city, longer if you are journeying out of town on a day excursion. From here you can head west to the Coffee Triangle and the towering wax palm trees of the Cocora Valley, or north to the charming heritage town of Villa de Leyva. Perhaps the highlight of any visit to Colombia will be the time spent in the colourful Caribbean city of Cartagena in the very north of the country, whilst a few days on the boulder-strewn and jungle-fringed beaches of Tayrona is the perfect finale to a memorable first visit.
Let's have a look in more detail at our favourite places to visit in Colombia.
Bogotá & Andean Region
Bogotá sits at high altitude in the very centre of the country, nestled among the towering peaks of the Andes Mountains. A visit here affords the opportunity to survey magnificent Catholic churches and temples, sample typical Colombian cuisine in buzzing markets and immerse yourself in the fascinating history of this extraordinary region. The charming cobbled streets of La Candelaria provide a glimpse into Bogotá's colonial past and its impressive street art a fresh perspective on its ever-changing present. A ride on the cable car up to Cerro Monserrate offers panoramic views as the whole city spreads about below, whilst the Museo del Oro boasts perhaps the finest collection of pre-Columbian gold artefacts in Latin America.
Some 30 miles north of the city, across the fertile plateau, is the Roman Catholic cathedral of Zipaquirá, a remarkable feat of engineering situated 180 metres below ground in an ancient salt mine. 14 chapels represent the Stations of the Cross and Jesus Christ's crucifixion and the cathedral is an important pilgrim destination.
Around 100 miles north-east of Bogotá we find the wonderfully preserved heritage town of Villa de Leyva and the pretty colonial town Ráquira, with its colourful buildings and fine local artwork and hand-made ceramics. Close-by is Latin America's very first Augustine monastery, dating all the way back to 1604.
Enjoying a temperate climate, as reflected in its nickname the City of Eternal Spring, Medellin is gaining a reputation as a dynamic, artistic and ever-evolving city. Just like Colombia itself, Medellin has worked hard to shed its image as a crime hot-spot, decades of regeneration and new wealth means the city is now largely welcoming and fashionable. Highlights include the Fernando Botero Sculpture Park, the cubist-style buildings of the Spanish Library and Pueblito Paisa, a reconstruction of an ancient Antioquia town. Medellin is located 130 miles directly above Pereira (more of which soon) and can be reached in less than an hour by air from the capital.
Zipaquira Salt Cathedral near Bogota (Photo by Gabriel Porras)
Coffee Region & Cocora Valley
Reached by road from Bogotá, the mountainous coffee growing region around Pereira is the best place to experience Colombia's most prized industry. Up in the hills of Buenavista is our favourite producer; Hacienda San Alberto. The hacienda can be explored on intimate private tours, teaching you about the entire process, from start to finish and offering tastings in the company of experts, who will help you identify the different characteristics and qualities of each blend. As well as coffee, this part of Colombia is also known for its exotic fruits and the active volcano and colourful bird life of the Nevado del Ruiz National Park.
Around 50 miles south of Pereira is the beautiful Cocora Valley, a spectacular cloud forest landscape famed for its giant wax palm trees, the tallest in the world and the national tree of Colombia. Some reach upwards of 50 metres and live for well over 100 years. They're not the only attraction here though, as the Cocora Valley offers a rich mixture of flora and fauna and visitors are encouraged to plant their own wax tree, to help preserve this fragile ecosystem. The nearby town of Salento is a great place to stroll past typical colonial architecture, shop for handicrafts and enjoy a smoked trout lunch.
Wax palms of Cocora Valley
Colombia is easily overlooked when you consider all that its fellow Andean countries can offer to entice visitors. As well as better access to the Amazon Rainforest, Peru and Ecuador both boast bucket list worthy travel destinations in the form of Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands respectively, whilst Bolivia offers the other half of Lake Titicaca and the world famous Uyuni Salt Flats. Colombia though does have a trump card of it's own; the Caribbean coast.
Easy-going Cartagena is without doubt one of the Caribbean's most attractive and seductive cities. Encircled by two-hundred-year-old city walls, its colonial centre is bedecked in a palette of bright primary colours, perfumed by vibrant flowers, which spread out over balconies and burst out of window boxes and accompanied throughout by the slow click-clack of horse-drawn carriages. Must-see sights include the convents of La Popa and San Pedro Claver, San Felipe's Fort and the handicraft stores of Las Bovedas. Cartagena is especially pleasant in the early evening, when it is bathed in soft light and washed over by a warm sea breeze, before the evening brings forth the sound of rhythmic salsa long into the night.
Cartagena has its own varied collection of nearby beaches, but the most idyllic ones can be found on the small island of El Rosario, part of an archipelago of 27 islands, around 30 miles off-shore. The white sand beaches, crystal-clear waters and colourful reef life evoke a picture perfect image of a Caribbean island. Together with the reef, the island's mangrove habitats and lagoons support more than 1,300 different species. For something completely different, take a relaxing dip in the natural mud pools which form in the crater of the 15 metre high Totumo miniature volcano, around 40 miles from Cartagena.
Further up the Caribbean coast, close to the city of Santa Marta is the Tayrona National Park, beloved for its combination of pristine beaches, lined with large boulders and shaded by palm trees, and its jungle walking trails which afford sightings of abundant wildlife, including sloths, iguanas, frogs, caiman, monkeys and over 400 species of birds.
Colourful streets of Cartagena
When to visit Colombia
Colombia's Andean climate is generally quite stable in terms of temperatures, however occasional downpours can arrive with little notice. The months between April and June are usually the wettest, though its position close to the equator and the El Nino phenomenon means that the weather can vary quite dramatically from one year to the next. The population of Bogota swells at the beginning of August east year as the city comes to a standstill for the carnival.
As you might expect, the temperatures on the Caribbean are always high. The wettest weather arrives over the summer (between June and August), whereas September to February offers drier months with temperatures still reaching above 30 degrees.
How to get to Colombia
We fly between London Heathrow and Bogota on direct overnight flights with Avianca, a flight time of 11 hours 25 minutes.
Better with experts
Travelling in any Latin American country can sometimes be a challenging and unpredictable undertaking for even the most well-versed globetrotters. With our vast experience and expertise, Veloso Tours will carefully create the perfect itinerary for you, handling all the tricky logistics, negotiating the best prices, liaising with local suppliers and ensuring everything flows perfectly during your time here. All you have to do is decide where to go! Our collection of local guides will help bring these wonderful places to life, giving you their inside knowledge and offering an authentic and personal perspective, that will leave you both informed and inspired.
The Veloso Tours website has all the ideas and inspiration you'll need to get you started on your Colombian adventure, including our 11 day Santa Fe private tour through Colombia. Now that you know where to visit in Colombia, our expert consultants would be delighted to work with you to sort out all the little details and craft an unforgettable journey, full of memories that last a lifetime. Get in touch today and start planning your dream trip to Colombia with Veloso Tours.