A country with a rich cultural heritage blending indigenous, African, and Spanish traditions, Colombia is an enthralling swirl of history and modern innovation. Explore mystical archaeological ruins of the Tayrona in the coastal mountains, walk through the past in exquisitely preserved colonial towns, and enjoy the pulsating energy of Bogotá and Medellín. Blessed with incredible biodiversity, this is where snow-covered mountains preside over pristine coastline, untamed rainforest gives way to tropical grasslands, and the cool misty peaks of the Andes form a spine spanning the whole country. Swim in crystalline, turquoise Caribbean seas, climb to the snowy shoulders of the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy, raft the Río Fonce in San Gil, or stroll the historic streets of La Candelaria in Bogotá. Colombia has sublime natural beauty, and offers everything from trekking and paragliding to the absolute tranquility of palm shrouded beaches. Take salsa dancing lessons, learn about coffee from the people who grow it, and enjoy the warm-hearted and welcoming embrace of Colombia, a country that dances to its own beautiful rhythm.
Sitting at 8,600 feet with mountain peaks as its backdrop, Bogotá is the capital and cultural center of Colombia. With around 8 million people living in the metropolitan area, this is a sprawling, busy, but incredibly accessible city to visit. The old part of the city, centered on Plaza de Bolívar, is filled with colonial architecture, cobbled streets, and fantastic museums; hip cafés and restaurants, and animated nightlife are at your fingertips in the La Candelaria neighborhood. Visit Museo Botero to see a great collection of Fernando Botero’s works, and check out the impressive array of pre-Columbian gold pieces as the Museo de Oro. From ornate 17th-century churches to historic mansions, Bogotá is bursting with history. Hike up the winding two-mile trail to the Santuario de Monserrate for amazing views of the city, and back on the streets, keep your eyes open for florid graffiti art.
Founded by the Spanish as a defensible trading port on the Caribbean in 1533, Cartagena is a wonderland of colonial architecture colliding with a modern waterfront of glassy high-rises. The UNESCO-Heritage listed Old Town is enclosed within eight miles of ancient stone walls, and the labyrinthine cobbled lanes are lined with colonial homes, their wooden-banister balconies bedecked with vivid colored bougainvillea. The Old Town bursts into life at night, with street-food vendors, horse-drawn carriages, performers, and top-notch restaurants. Cool off at the city’s beaches, or visit the vast fortress of San Felipe de Barajas. A day trip to the idyllic Islas del Rosario, an archipelago and national park known for its cerulean water and coral reefs, is definitely worth the journey.
El Cocuy & Sierra Nevada de Cocuy
El Cocuy is a charming colonial village surrounded by soaring mountains, and is the town with the best services offering access the dramatic landscapes of Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy. Encompassing towering snow-capped peaks and an impressive alpine tundra landscape called the páramo, the park was forced to close until recently because of the environmental impact of hikers in this region, which is held as sacred to the U’Wa indigenous community. The park has reopened three trails that will take you to the majestic Laguna Grande, or to the snow-line of two other peaks. With red-roofed, white walled colonial buildings—and quality lodging and restaurants—El Cocuy is a tranquil base to explore the enthralling beauty of this region.
Once one of the most dangerous cities in Colombia during the height of drug lord Pablo Escobar’s reign, Medellín has been reinvented as a beacon of prosperity and an urban monument of city-planning. Cradled in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, this is a city that prides itself on innovation; high-rise apartments and commercial buildings stretch skyward, and the country’s only elevated train—clean, modern, and efficient—makes moving around this metropolis incredibly easy. With a youthful, festive vibe due in part to the abundance of universities in the city, you will find an enticing array of restaurants serving local specialties and international cuisine; a lively nightlife centered around Parque Lleras in the upscale El Poblado district will keep you dancing until dawn. Take salsa dancing lessons, go paragliding, meander through the impressive botanical garden, and immerse yourself in the buoyant urban atmosphere of Medellín.
Parque Nacional Tayrona
Sterling sand beaches are nestled into sheltered coves of palm trees and the encroaching jumble of lush jungle. Walking paths connect numerous beaches, each with a distinctive landscape and atmosphere, and for the adventurous, there are trails up into the jungle to the ruins of an ancient Tayrona village. The park itself has limited services since everything, including people, has to come in by horse, boat, or by foot, which helps maintain its air of pristine perfection. Time your visit to avoid the main holidays and student break of January and you will be rewarded with beaches all to yourself. Outside of the park boundaries, there are an abundance of beachfront resorts and restaurants to enjoy magical evenings on the Caribbean.
Salento & Valle de Cocora
A traditional agricultural town surrounded by coffee plantations, Salento has evolved into an easy-going hub to delve into the world of small-scale coffee production, and is the gateway to the mystical Valle de Cocora. Set in picturesque mountains, Salento is little more than a main plaza with artisan shops, guest accommodations, and restaurants, which also stretch out into the quiet of the countryside. Enjoy a personal tour of a coffee farm and learn about the journey of coffee from the mountainside all the way to your cup. Salento has an alluring tranquility and beautiful surroundings, but the true magic of the region is in the Valle de Cocora, which is cradled in the foothills of the Parque Nacional los Nevados. Take a jeep to the park entrance, and then strike off on foot or take a tour on horseback through a verdant, misty landscape. Swaying wax palms—some are over 150 feet tall—are endemic to this area and a crowning jewel of this enchanting valley.
San Gil & Barichara
Sitting just a few miles down the road from one another, San Gil and Barichara offer a combination of outdoor adventure and tranquil small-town colonial charm. San Gil has gained a reputation for extreme sports from white-water rafting to paragliding and caving, but there are plenty of hiking trails around for those who would rather keep their feet on the ground. The 300-year-old town square of San Gil is just a hint of the more atmospheric allure of Barichara, which is a quieter, more upscale version of Villa de Leyva. Well-preserved and tastefully restored, strolling around Barichara is a picture-perfect journey through a colonial past of whitewashed walls and red-tiled roofs. With quality restaurants and hotels, you will find the best of both past and present in Barichara, and adventure waiting in nearby San Gil.
This is the oldest Spanish city in Colombia, and through it doesn’t have the same cobbled streets of Cartagena’s Old Town, or the glitter of its oceanfront high-rises, Santa Marta has a laid-back atmosphere that will lull you into blissful contentment. Still an active port, the city waterfront isn’t the finest of Santa Marta’s beaches, but the promenade along the water is the perfect place to enjoy a cold beer, mingle with the locals, and watch magnificent sunsets. Nearby, the crystal-clear water of Taganga bay, an isolated and picturesque beach, is ideal for diving, snorkeling, and soaking up the sun. Inland you can climb into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to the quiet coffee region around Minca, or for those up for a physical challenge, join a six-day trek to the mystical ruins of the Ciudad Perdida of the ancient Tayrona civilization. Travel up the coast, and you will find a paradise of white-sand, jungle-ensconced beaches in Parque Nacional Tayrona.
Villa de Leyva
An absolutely perfect colonial town that will transport you back hundreds of years, Villa de Leyva has been exquisitely preserved. Cobblestone roads and whitewashed buildings create a distinctive sense that you are walking through history; founded in 1572 by the Spanish, it served mostly as a retreat for the wealthy and the upper ranks of the military. Enjoy views of the town against its natural backdrop of sweeping mountain landscapes from the vast Plaza Mayor. Boutique hotels and upscale restaurants that fill up with weekend visitors from Bogotá are the perfect weekday retreat, and if you have the time to explore, hopping on horseback is an exciting way to see the surrounding countryside.