So after spending almost 2 years in Colombia, and traveling all throughout the country (except the Leticia-part of the Amazon), I wanted to write just a brief summary of recommendations for places to visit and where I might recommend someone go for their stay. As always, things depend a lot on your interests and your length of stay, more than anything else, but still – I like to recommend routes that are different from the majority of travelers. And since I was going to write this note, I organized the places via regions because that’s how my mind works.
First off, there are numerous “regions” of Colombia. Here’s how I would classify them:
- Bogotá and nearby (Cundinamarca)
- Coffee region (Medellín, Pereira, Santa Rosa de Cabal, Manizales, Armenia, Filandia, Salento)
- Pacific Coast (2 areas: near to Buenaventura: Juanchaco, Ladrilleros, La Barra or….near Chocó which I didn’t visit)
- Atlantic Coast (Cartagena, Tolúm/Coveñas, Santa Marta/Taganga, Parque Tayrona, Palomino, Cabo de la Vela/Punta Gallina)
- Santander and north of Bogota (Cocuy, Bucaramanga, Cañon del Chicamocha, San Gil, Barichara) as well as closer to Bogota like Villa de Leyva, Tunja, Raquira)
- Los Llanos (basically southeast of Colombia, but a nice “highway route” with stops would be from Sogamoso to Yopal to Villavicencio with visiting various pueblos in between….I visited Maní and Monterrey while there and just fell in love with Monterrey due to the friendliness and welcomingness of the locals!)
- South of Colombia, towards the border with Ecuador (Cali, Popayán, San Augustín, Desierto de Tatacoa, Mocoa, Ipiales,
This thinking of clusters has helped me kind of organize the areas of Colombia in my own head, and maybe this will be helpful for you.
Regarding the different clusters, here’s a general overview:
- Cundinamarca – Bogota and nearby – Most people will spend at least a few days here because of Bogotá, the capital. I think one could spend 3 days in Bogota to experience a LOT of the city – and there is a lot to see. I would recommend Parque Nacional (7th Ave and 40) and Parque Simón Bolivar (the largest park with a nice pond in the middle and plenty of sidewalks, snack vendors, etc.) Bogotá also has some famous museums, a nice market in Usaquen on Sundays with nice artisanal goods, el Centro on Sundays is also very popular and full of people wandering around. They are always busy with things to do and places to see. The walking graffiti tour is a “can’t-miss” to me, and if you don’t know anything about Colombia, the food tour or even the bike tour can be really nice to get an introduction to the food/fruits/snacks of Colombia. Nearby the small towns of Cundinamarca are really nice, and whenever my friends visit me, I take them to at least one pueblo outside the city to eat some nice food, see the courtyard, and enjoy a slow pace of life. On weekends, many of the Bogotá locals leave and visit these pueblos (La Mesa, Zipaquirá, Tabio, Granada, La Calera, and Guatavita would be my favorites). There are many good hikes here also, so ask around and see what hikes you can do! HINT: you may need to join up with a hiking tour group because the hikes are not often well-marked. I did a hike every weekend with a hiking Whatsapp group.
- Coffee Region – I lived for 6 months in Manizales and visited the other cities of the coffee region during my stay. I also visited Salento and Filandia, which are famous for coffee tours, for doing the famous Salento hike, and for buying really beautiful artisanal goods there. My opinion is that Manizales, Armenia, and Pereira are big-cities and have a few things to do (famous areas to visit, some unique drinks or snacks, etc.) but generally, they are “big cities in a small pond”). One could easily join for one day and then leave – or skip them altogether. Filandia is a quaint small town that was less touristy than Salento, but Salento has a really nice hike that I recommend before all the trees die (in the next two decades?). So try to do both, but if you can only do one, I’d recommend Salento. Santa Rosa de Cabal has (expensive) hot springs and very famous chorizo and is a really pretty pueblo, I’d definitely recommend it if you have time. Medellín is a nice big city with great and accessible public transportation, nice museums, nice zones, etc. But honestly, Medellín is super full of tourists who want tourist things, familiar amenities, etc. so if that’s you, it’s perfect and if that’s not you, then feel free to skip it. I went there twice and stayed in a hostel to meet other travelers, and I felt that was a good way to go. Medellín is also very famous for drugs, prostitutes, and… always watch your stuff. J Guatapé, a few hours east of Medellín near Rio Negro (the airport MZE if you fly to Medellín) is one of my favorite pueblos in Colombia. They have a large rock that you can climb up using stairs and the vista is the prettiest and best lookout, I would argue, in all of Colombia. If you go to Medellin, do not miss Guatapé. The food is quite unimpressive for being so touristy, but things are changing and, of course, they sell artisan goods.
- Pacific Coast – I would highly recommend visiting the Pacific Coast if you can. The cons: it’s not very developed, poor infrastructure, difficult transportation, not many amenities. Pros: the best food (fish), gorgeous jungle with black sand beaches, the most friendly and relaxed and non-scamming people I ever met in Colombia, and very few visitors. If you do it, you will not regret it – go there to relax and have a great time! Hint: Take a motorboat from Buenaventura to Juanchaco (super dirty and full of trash). Arrive, eat some great fish along the water, and then leave (via tractor because the “road” is so bad) to Los Ladrilleros. Much prettier and barely any trash!
- Atlantic Coast – the cheapest diving in all of Colombia is in Taganga, next to Santa Marta and even accessible by public bus (50 USD) and it was alright, but it was nothing extraordinary. Santa Marta was, for me, easily skippable. The beach wasn’t that nice, in December/January is full of “medium-rich” Colombians traveling on vacation and gets super dirty from them leaving their trash everywhere and is quite full, and I was never impressed by the culture, the food, or even the “things to do” there. Cartagena was great! It’s expensive, but I loved walking in the center area, walking the city wall, exploring the Cartagena Museum of Modern Art, and the restaurants were alright. Night life is great, everything is walkable from within the city walls, the city was hopping with good energy, and while the beach was really nothing, it’s close to Tolúm where the beach is much Parque Tayrona is easily the prettiest beach of Colombia and a national park. It is a little bit expensive to visit, difficult with logistics since you need a reservation at least a couple days early (see if you can do it online), but once you’re there, you can camp on the beach (renting a tent, etc.) and spend some really nice and relaxing time there. The beaches are beautiful, and passing through the jungle was also really nice. Next, if you like goat, I’d say Cabo de la Vela and Punto Gallina are unmissable – it’s a desert next to the beach which is unique in all of Colombia, the food is incredible (goat, lobsters, shrimps) and you sleep in hammocks. There is enough breeze that the mosquitos can’t bite you and wind surfing is the most popular thing here since there is always some wind. J Just bring sunglasses! Food is expensive at $10/plate but hammock is $2, so don’t eat breakfast and enjoy the unique landscape that is La Guajira. J
- If you have time, I’d still recommend doing Santander. If you’re a hiker and want to hike the Sierra Nevada mountains, Cocuy currently has 3 trails open that go as high as 5300m. If you don’t like high elevation, skip it, but if you’re intrigued, a 4-5 day trip with 3 day hikes might be really nice. It is costly (120k guide, 170k transport, 15k/meal for food roughly) but you can also divide those costs by up to 6 people. I’m a hiker, so I liked it. Barichara is my second “favorite city” in Colombia and is very close to San Gil/Bucaramanga. San Gil is the place to be for any outdoor, adventure activities (paragliding, bungee jumping, adventure courses, whitewater rafting, etc.) but I thought the pueblo as itself was boring. The Cañon del Chicamocha was too touristy for me, but the view of the canyon is as close as Colombia can get to America’s Grand Canyon. Bucaramanga is my favorite medium-size city because there are nice places to visit nearby (by local city bus), very nice and helpful people, and great weather. They have a cobblestone street area, a restaurant area, so many parks, and great areas to walk around. Like I said, it’s one of my favorite cities in Colombia! J Raquira is very nice for clay goods (their specialty), Villa de Leyva has the best restaurants per capita anywhere in Colombia by far (and even a nice one-day hike) with cobblestone streets and a very safe, clean atmosphere.
- Very few tourists will ever make it to Los Llanos, but it is very different from the rest of Colombia. It’s fairly undeveloped, lots of cowboys with their cattle herds, and just flat (and wet) grasslands as far as you can see. The landscape is completely unique compared to the other zones mentioned, the people are very friendly and welcoming (and machista), and I stayed 4 days in Monterrey simply because I asked a girl at a print shop directions – who then introduced me to her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s family, her family, and her family’s friends! They have some nice hikes, waterfalls, and rivers around to explore, but mostly, you come here because nobody else comes here and you want to see some wild grasslands. In Maní, they told me they hadn’t seen a gringo (white person foreigner) in like 4 years! The famous Llanera food is basically a collection of meats, but they are famous for eating everything like snake, rodents, birds, and [everything[!
- The South of Colombia is perhaps my favorite zone. It’s often skipped by travelers flying in because it’s not part of the “Circle” (Bogota, Medellin, Santa Marta), but it’s my favorite part. San Augustín had the best tamales and their historical sculptures from thousands of years ago are quite impressive. You can walk or take a Jeep tour or both! The Desierto de Tatacoa is the prettiest desert I’ve ever seen, and you can see grey, red, and yellow areas depending on the mineral composites. I recommend camping here, taking a motorcycle tour with a guide, and even seeing the stars from the observatory (if there are no clouds). Popayán has an amazing “colonial area” that is small but with really good restaurants, and the entire city is painted white. Mocoa is great for jungle, many waterfalls, hikes and the “fin del mundo” waterfall (you see from the top looking down) is a must-see, beautiful outlook, if you’re in the area. Ipiales near the border with Ecuador has a church “Catedral de las Lajas” is the prettiest church in all of Colombia, to me – although the city of Ipiales completely unimpressed me and even seemed dangerous to me past 5pm. I put Cali here in the south which, as you probably know, is the salsa capital of the “world” (or at least Colombia) and is a really nice big city. There isn’t as much to do in Cali as in Bogota, and there are many fewer gringos than in Medellín, but as far as help goes, I thought Cali was an amazing city. Great for dancing, a nice urban zone with restaurants and cafes to stay in, a nice outlook to spend an afternoon, and great people everywhere.