Colombia has something that will please most travelers, from sandy beaches of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, to the Andes Mountains and the Amazon rainforests. Its heritage reflects the culture of its indigenous peoples as well as the Spanish who began settling here in the early 15th century. A couple of decades or so ago, Colombia was not on the tourist map because it was not a safe place to visit. However, the government is working hard to change that image, making it safer for travelers to enjoy the many features Colombia offers. An overview of the best places to visit in Colombia:
Popayan is one of Colombia’s most impressive colonial cities. Located in southwestern Colombia, it is sometimes called the “Ciudad Blanca” (White City) because its buildings are chalk-white. Founded in 1537, its mild climate quickly attracted wealthy Spanish families who built mansions, schools, churches and monasteries. The city is famous for its Maundy Thursday procession as well as its nightlife. The Iglesia de Ermita is the city’s oldest church, built in 1546, while the Iglesia de San Francisco lays claim to being the most beautiful. Popayan’s tranquility and charm make it a good place to chill out.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Medellín was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, home to Colombia’s infamous cocaine cartel. But when drug lord Pablo Escobar was snuffed out in 1993, Medellín began to bury its troubled past and rebounded tremendously. These days, the increasing number of tourist who come here find an inviting, modern city with one of the country’s best climates. Located in the Andes in the narrow Aburra Valley, the city sports temperatures averaging 24°C/72°F throughout the year, making any time a good time to visit. Medellin is also a very colorful city because of its gorgeous flowers; the city celebrates its flower festival for 12 days every August.
San Andrés and Providencia Archipelago are two island groups that are located closer to Nicaragua than Colombia in the Caribbean. San Andres is the largest island, and also the capital. Providence Island was initially settled by English Puritans who used slave labor on their plantations and took up privateering. White sand beaches and palm trees are San Andres’ best features. The Caribbean is colored seven shades of blue and is rich marine life, making it a great place to snorkel and dive. Accommodations aren’t as luxurious as other Caribbean islands, and visitors travel around the island on old school buses.
San Agustin is a laidback little town surrounded by awesome landscapes and the remains of a forgotten civilization. One of the most intriguing ancient sites in Colombia, the archeological park of San Agustin is home to more than 500 monoliths, statues, petroglyphs and sarcophagi. Most of the stone carvings at San Agustin were created between 100 A.D. and 1200 A.D. They include representations of human figures, smiling and sneering monsters as well as animals such as snakes, birds and jaguars. The pre-Incan culture that built the stone carvings is surrounded by mystery. No one knows their actual name. Most of what is known about this society comes from the interpretation of the carved statues and other ruins.
Travelers who love their java will definitely want to visit Zona Cafetera (Eje Cafetero) where almost half of Colombia’s coffee crop is grown on the slopes of the Andes. Visitors can learn more about coffee at El Parque del Café, a park that has a botanical garden with coffee plants and an amusement park. The Zone has a gold museum featuring pre-Columbian artifacts. The tower at the Catedral de Manizales offers stunning views of one of the region’s main cities. Visitors can also take a dip in thermal springs at Santa Rosa and San Vincente. The region also is a good place to hike in the Andes.
San Gil is an old colonial town in northeast Colombia. Founded by the Spanish in 1689, it was named the region’s tourism capital in 2004. The designation honors mainly the main outdoor activities, such as mountain biking, rafting and kayaking. Couch potatoes may enjoy a visit to the cathedral built in 1791; the Parque La Libertad, the center of the city’s social life; the Parque El Gallineral, a park set in a river, and Plaza de Mercado, a covered market where travelers can sample a variety of typical Colombian foods.
Villa de Leyva may be a small town less than a four-hour drive from Bogota, but its Plaza Mayor is one of the biggest town squares in South America. At one time people were executed on this immense square, which is now used as a gathering place for celebrations and festivals, such as the onion beauty pageant. Its architecture reflects Spanish and Moorish influences; indeed, the Villa de Leyva has been compared to Andalucía because of the white buildings with wooden trim and balconies. Museums honor famous people who fought for Colombian independence. The first distillery in the region is located here.
Bogota, sometimes referred to as “the Athens of South America”, was first settled by indigenous peoples, though the founding date is generally set at 1538 by a Spanish explorer. Today, the city is one of the largest cities in South America and Colombia’s capital. Once considered a place to avoid, Bogota has cleaned up its act and is fast becoming one of the best places to visit in Colombia. Located at 2,640 meters (8,660 feet) in the Andes, Bogota has numerous attractions to entice visitors, including a planetarium, gold museum, botanical gardens, cultural events and a thriving nightlife. The city’s historic district can be found at La Candelaria, a pleasant quarter of cafés, churches and museums.
Tayrona National Park is a must-see place for travelers who enjoy nature and exploring old ruins. Located on the north Colombia coast, the park offers a variety of ecosystems, from swamps to scrublands to cloud forests. For many travelers, the park’s biggest attraction is its beaches, set in deep bays and shaded with coconut palms. In fact, Tayrona beaches are among Colombia’s most beautiful. The park is also popular with birdwatchers who come to see the Andean condor, a threatened species. The park takes its name from the Tayronas, a native people, who left their mark on a number of archaeological sites, including Pueblito Chairama. Tayrona is a good place to snorkel, hike and see wild animals, including lizards and monkeys, in their native habitat.
Cartagena is the bustling city where Kathleen Turner’s character Joan Wilder begins her Colombian adventures in Romancing the Stone. Hopefully, travelers will get their visits off to better starts, though the city is just as busy as when it was one of the key Caribbean ports from the 16th to 18th centuries. Fought over by various countries, Cartagena was one of the most heavily fortified cities in South America; these fortifications can still be seen today. Travelers should take time to wander through the colorful old town, with its colonial architecture that includes museums, palaces and churches. “Bocagrande“, a long strip of hotel towers and condos fronting onto the beach, is also very popular with tourists.