10 Things You Must Do in Colombia
Traveling to Colombia is an adventure of a lifetime. Colombia has it all and is one of the most diverse countries on the planet – from its lush Amazonian jungle, to its beautiful tropical islands, to its snow-capped Andes mountains, to its trendy cities and colorful Latin American culture.
While older generations still tend to have an unsafe connotation with this beautiful country due to its rocky past (sup, Narcos fans), this leaves nothing but opportunity for the INCREDIBLE country’s tourism future. While much of Colombia is still (amazingly) relatively undiscovered by tourists, I have no doubts that this will be the year that the savviest of vacationers sweep aside their stereotypes and begin to explore all this country has to offer. Which, frankly, is everything.
So how to start planning a trip to Colombia? Do you fly to Cartagena and the Caribbean coast? Do you go straight to Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona? Or do you set out to experience the magic of Medellin? A vacation in Colombia is incredible no matter where you go, but I wanted to make sure I rounded up my top 10 things to do to help you make it the best trip of all time!
1. Explore the Old City of Cartagena
The charm of Colombia’s colonial city of Cartagena is tough to beat. Think colorful buildings with sprawling balconies and vibrant bouganvillea, adorable neighborhood restaurants serving up delicious fresh seafood outside in the cobblestone plazas, and a beachy, Caribbean vibe unlike any other place in Colombia. And you can’t leave Cartagena without exploring the stone-walled Old City. Historically, Cartagena was one of Colonial Spain’s most important ports. Gigantic stone fortresses and walls up to 30 meters thick and 11KM long line the entire city, which was so well protected because in the 16th century, pirates (most famously Sir Francis Drake) would regularly invade and siege the wealthy port’s riches. Strolling the historic Old City is like stepping back in time and truly feeling the evocative history that makes Colombia such a fascinating country.
2. Take a coffee tour
One of the best things I did on my trip to Medellin was escape the city to the coffee region of Antioquia. I absolutely loved getting to learn about this incredible Colombian industry. Yes, I already knew that Colombian coffee was arguably the best in the world, but I learned all about why it is, from the dedication of the Colombian farmers to the intricacies that make up the landscape of the Andes that form the perfect climate and soil for growing coffee. Tasting coffee in Colombia reminded me a lot of wine tasting in Napa Valley, but maybe more similar to if you were wine tasting in Napa Valley in the ’70s – before they were truly exporting and when it was just a bunch of family farms working passionately on their craft. I went to a coffee farm in Jardin, outside of Medellin, but there are lots of coffee plantations throughout Colombia.
If you have more than the day to spare and you want to be truly immersed in the coffee belt with an overnight experience at a coffee farm, you’ll need to go a few hours further than Jardin to the “Coffee Belt” (about 6 hours from Medellin, or a domestic flight from Bogota) where you can stay the night at a coffee farm like Hacienda Venecia, which has 100 years of tradition and extensive experience in the cultivation, production, marketing, roasting and exporting of Colombian coffee. Its vast coffee fields feature a stunning canopy of native fruit trees and water springs, and you can stay overnight at the beautiful hacienda at any budget – in the more luxurious hotel, in their guest houses, or in their hostel.
3. See the world’s most colorful waterfall at Caño Cristales
You’ve probably seen it on Pinterest, and had no idea that this stunning floral phenomenon was in Colombia. Dubbed by Colombians as the “river that ran away from paradise,” Caño Cristales is often hailed as the most beautiful river in the world. This is because during the short time between the wet and dry seasons (June to November), when the water level is juuuuuust right, a unique species of plant that lines the river floor called Macarenia clavigera turns a goooorgeous shade of red (yep, that picture is not photoshopped, it’s just that magical). The red is then offset by splotches of yellow and green sand, blue water, and a thousand shades in between, creating a rainbow river unlike anything else in the world.
Caño Cristales is located in the Serrania de la Macarena province of Meta in Columbia and is not easy to get to. If you want to see it up close for yourself, you have to take a flight out into either the city of Villavicencio or directly to the town of La Macarena, where local guides can take you the rest of the way and you can stay in one of the six decent hotels in the town.
4. Party in El Poblado
Sure, you can hang with the tourists in Cartagena and have an absolute blast… but there’s nothing quite like spending time in Colombia’s capital of cool – Medellín. Located in the mountainous Antioquia region, this city was made famous by the one and only Pablo Escobar. But, the Medellín of today has come a long way since the days of the Narco drug wars. Nowadays, the trendy barrio of El Poblado attracts the the young, hip Colombian (and expat) crowds like a moth to a flame. Think: lush city streets filled with trendy bars and chic brunch spots everywhere you turn. For the perfect night out in Medellín, start with a sunset at The Charlee Hotel Rooftop, dinner at La Bronca, and dancing at Bolivar discoteca.
5. Walk the colorful pueblo of Guatape
Guatape is the pueblo all your Colombia Instagram dreams are made of. Located about an hour and a half from the city of Medellin, this colorful town is a getaway for Colombian locals looking to escape the city, and has become a hot spot for travelers looking to explore more of Antioquia as well. Aside from how absolutely breathtakingly beautiful the town is, the main attraction of Guatape is even more (literally) breath-taking… the “Rock of Guatape” is a huge rock with 600 vertical steps up, leading to a stunning view of the lakes of Guatape. The best part? The freshly made mango micheladas at the top.
6. Hike Parque Tayrona
One of the most beautiful spots on Colombia’s coast is Parque Tayrona, a national park about 40 minutes from Santa Marta that covers some 30,000 acres of land and 7500 acres of coral-covered sea. Think sprawling golden-sand beaches and coconut palms meet thick, jungley rainforest. The hike to the best part of the park (San Juan Del Cabo), takes about 2 1/2 hours each way (you can take a horse for part of the way if you prefer), and is well worth the hike. Once there, you can camp or rent a hammock for the night, which is definitely the best way to experience Tayrona.
7. Get to the Colombian Islands
The Colombian coast is a gorgeous Caribbean paradise that so many people still don’t know about! While the city has some beaches, the best beaches and islands are located just off the coast of Cartagena, so you’ll want to take a boat out to the islands to get to the best ones. There are a ton of islands to choose from, but I’d check out Baru for an easy day trip that’s a local favorite, or for a more exclusive experience, Isleta – a tiny island off Isla Grande in the Rosario Islands, which you can get to via charter through Cartagena Connections.
8. See San Andres
Often named as South America’s Best Beach Destination, San Andres is a Caribbean island dream located about 800 km off of Colombia’s coast. You have to fly there, but the paradise island boasts some of the country’s very best beaches and crystal-clear turquoise waters. I still haven’t had the chance to go to this gorgeous island but you can read more all about San Andres & what to do when you get there on my friends’ Destinationless Travel’s article on San Andres here!
9. Take a tour of Jardín outside of Medellin
Jardín is a town up in the Andes known for its coffee, its brightly painted homes, and gorgeous displays of flowers. The pueblo is in that sweet spot of being an absolute gem of a day-trip destination while still being very undiscovered by tourists. Most tourists in Medellín head to Guatape (and understandably so) since it’s the Colombian pueblo experience and a full 2 hours closer to Medellin than Jardin is. But I’m here to tell you that Jardín is the best Colombian pueblo experience you can get outside of Medellin. I took a tour through The Andes Adventure, and I swear we were the only foreigners in the town that day. It was amazing. The tour can include a coffee farm, a little time in the town (make sure you go to Macanas Jardín – the BEST coffee shop located right next to the church in the town square), which is where you can find this dreamy floral wall.
10. Learn to salsa dance in Cali
Salsa first started becoming a thing in the 1970’s, when dance clubs called salsatecas sprang up all over the Colombian region of Cali, especially in the working-class neighborhood of the Barrio Obrero. In this red-hot region of Colombia, you’ll hear music played everywhere, from the supermarket to the suburbs in the hills. The locals live and breathe salsa day in, day out, and you’re going to want to too. Check out Tin Tin Deo, Zaperoco, Las Brisas or La Topa Tolondra, for foreigner-friendly scenes where you can get the true taste of a salsateca and either watch the experts show you how it’s done, or give it a shot yourself on the dance floor.