So beautiful and vibrant are Colombia’s landscapes and culture that they recently inspired the Disney film Encanto. And with landscapes as diverse as the travel experiences found within them, Colombia offers all kinds of adventures for all kinds of travellers. Find the perfect part of Colombia for you with our full guide…
Greater Colombian Caribbean: Much more than sun and sea
While it is famed for its gorgeous, jungle-backed beaches, the Caribbean also offers a wealth of historic, cultural and architectural attractions. The centrepiece of the region is Cartagena, one of the most beautiful and best-preserved cities in the Americas. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, its fortified walls, cobbled streets and shady plazas are lined with elegant churches and pastel-shaded townhouses draped with bougainvillea. Beyond the historic architecture, Cartagena also boasts a vibrant culinary scene and lively local life.
To the north, the city of Barranquilla is renowned for its annual carnival, the second biggest in South America after the one in Rio. Kicking off ahead of Ash Wednesday and blending African, Indigenous and European influences, it has raucous street parties, colourful parades and pulsating music. Once you’ve got your breath back, you can follow the Magdalena river inland to the city of Mompox, an architectural treasure trove; strike out on an epic trek to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), a remarkable set of ancient ruins tucked away in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta; or journey over to the far-flung islands of San Andrés and Providencia, whose expansive reefs and translucent waters offer superb diving and snorkelling.
Colombian Pacific: Flavours of forest and sea
If you want to get off the beaten track, head to the hot, humid Pacific region. Its coast is lined with beaches of grey and black volcanic sand, fringed with mangroves and emerald-green rainforest, and sprinkled with towns and villages with strong Afro-Colombian and Indigenous identities.
The surfing, diving and birdwatching is excellent here, but the Pacific is perhaps best known for providing a bounty of whale-watching opportunities. Between July and October, humpbacks swim north from as far away as Antarctica to give birth to their calves in the temperate waters offshore and can be easily spotted in places such as the Parque Nacional Natural Utría, along with a multitude of other marine species, including dolphins and turtles.
Beyond its natural attractions, the Pacific region boasts a tasty, seafood-focused cuisine, as well as an array of distinctive musical and dance traditions. Nowhere is this more apparent than the inland city of Cali, which is synonymous with salsa.
Western Colombian Andes: Mountains of coffee and flowers
Nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring”, thanks to its consistently warm climate, Medellín is an engaging, forward-looking metropolis with fascinating museums, galleries and cultural spaces, notably the Museo de Antioquia, which showcases the work of painter and sculptor Fernando Botero. It bursts into bloom every August with the week-long Feria de Las Flores (Flower Festival), which features a stylish parade of local growers with colourful and creative floral displays strapped to their backs.
Beyond Medellín is the Coffee Cultural Landscape, the hub of the coffee-growing industry, as well as an excellent place for trekking. The picturesque departments of Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío are covered with coffee farms known as fincas, many of which offer accommodation, tours and tasting sessions, and in some cases the chance to take part in the harvest. The region is also home to the beguiling Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, which encompasses snow-topped volcanic peaks, shimmering glaciers, trout-filled lakes, and soothing hot springs.
Head South of Los Nevados to the Valle del Cauca where you can crane your neck at the rare Palma de Cera. This long, skinny wax palm is the national tree of Colombia and can grow up to 60m tall.
Eastern Colombian Andes: Legendary moors and valleys
Most international flights land in Bogotá, but don’t be tempted to dash off immediately on your adventures – Colombia’s cosmopolitan capital is packed with things to see and do. La Candelaria, the oldest and most attractive part of the city, boasts scores of historic palacios, churches and plazas, while the Museo de Oro has one of the world’s largest collections of gold ornaments and artefacts. The summit of Cerro de Montserrate, a rocky, church-topped hill on the eastern edge of the city, provides panoramic views, while districts such as the Zona Rosa offers a diverse mix of dining, drinking and dancing options. Everywhere you look you’ll see examples of Bogotá’s thriving, endlessly creative street art scene – some vast murals cover the sides of multi-storey buildings.
Elsewhere along the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes, you’ll encounter an undulating landscape of deep valleys, churning rivers, snowy peaks, and sweeps of páramo, a high-altitude, moor-like ecosystem. There are also picture-postcard heritage towns such as Villa de Leyva and Barichara, both perfect for slow-paced explorations on foot, as well as unusual sights such as the Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá, an underground church located deep in the bowels of a salt mine.
The Colombian Massif: Ancestral origins
South of Bogotá the Andes continue their march down towards the border with Ecuador. In this area you’ll find the Macizo Colombiano (Colombian Massif), a rugged knot of mountains, páramo and lagoons, the source of many of the country’s major rivers, including its longest, the Magdalena. The gateway to these dramatic landscapes is Popayán, known as “La Ciudad Blanca” (“The White City”) on account of its whitewashed, centuries-old architecture.
From here you can head out to two of Colombia’s most important ancient sites. San Agustín is home to the biggest collection of megalithic sculptures and religious monuments in South America. These striking artefacts, which depict deities and mythical creatures, were built by a society that lived in the region between the 1st and the 8th century CE. Meanwhile, Tierradentro has a haunting complex of subterranean tombs and surface-level statuary dating from the 6th to the 10th century CE. Like San Agustín, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Colombian Amazon-Orinoco: Sacred rainforests and plains
Spanning more than a third of Colombia, the southern Amazonia region feels like a world apart from the rest of the country, and is only accessible by plane or boat. Blanketed with dense rainforests and serpentine waterways, the area is a biodiversity hotspot: there are 674 species of birds, 195 species of reptiles and 212 species of mammals, which can be spotted on canoe trips and jungle hikes. The Colombian Amazon is also home to dozens of Indigenous communities, who provide visitors with a vital insight into life in this region.
North of the Amazon are the Llanos Orientales (Eastern Plains), a vast expanse of seasonally flooded grasslands that accounts for another third of the country. Cattle ranches known as hatos dot the region, which remains a centre of cowboy (known here as llanero) culture. Increasing numbers of hatos are being turned into private nature reserves, initiatives that use sustainable tourism to encourage conservation and preservation of natural habitats. Many offer accommodation and tours, allowing travellers to go horseriding with the llaneros and on boat, jeep or walking safaris to spot everything from jaguars to anacondas, as well as some of the approximately 700 species of birds found in the Llanos.
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Start planning your dream journey to Colombia now by heading over to the official website.
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