Top 10 Destinations in Colombia
With a brilliantly preserved old town hosting stunning colonial architecture of grand mansions and ancient monasteries, Cartagena is undoubtedly the most beautiful city in the Caribbean. Situated on the Caribbean coast, the heart of the city lies within 13km of centuries-old stone walls and is an enchanting network of narrow cobbled alleys beneath colourful building facades with balconies draped in the vivid purple hues of bougainvillea. Cathedrals and churches dominate small plazas lined with open-air cafes while horse-drawn carriages pass by. It's the sort of place to enjoy at leisure, aimlessly wandering the sensual streets filled with the noise of friendly chatter and peddlers selling their wares with a camera at the ready, for it's a supremely photogenic city.
The UNESCO-listed San Agustin Archaeological Park is home to the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures found in South America. Surrounded by wild, lush jungle, the 500 statues represent gods, mythical creatures and sacred animals such as eagle and jaguar. Skilfully carved by masons that inhabited the region some 3,000 years ago, the statues stand at heights reaching 7 metres tall and draw comparisons to the famed Moai statues on Easter Island. With no written language, little is known of the peoples of San Agustin who disappeared long before the Spanish hit the shores of Colombia in the 15th century. Their stonework legacy, left undisturbed for centuries, is one of Colombia's greatest sights.
Tayrona National Park
Hugging the unspoilt jungles of the Caribbean coast across an area that spans 15,000 hectares of land and ocean, the Tayrona National Park is a dazzling mix of sandy beaches, deep bays and verdant rainforest.
The reserve is Colombia's most popular national park, and is home to more than 56 endangered species. These included the rare loggerhead turtle, critically-endangered Cotton top tamarin, and even jaguars! The elusive big cats are rarely spotted in the flesh, but it isn't unusual for visitors to find fresh paw prints in the mud.
The compact town of San Gil is Colombia's premier adventure destination with a bewildering choice of outdoor activities available. The majority of extreme-sporting enthusiasts flock to San Gil for its incredible white-water rafting on the Suarez River with thrilling rapids and huge waves though visitors can also opt for paragliding, caving and rappelling. For downtime, San Gil's 300-year-old town square is a nice spot to unwind or head to the peaceful nearby villages of Barichara or Guane, seemingly lost in time with white-washed colonial houses and cobbled streets. Another worthy excursion is the Parque El Gallineral, an island park that is famous for its barbas de viejo (old man's beard) trees, so called for the tendrils of silvery moss that hang from the branches.
As Colombia's second largest city, Medellin is a thriving metropolis with an attractive setting in the heart of a narrow valley. The city has long been associated with the infamous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, but has worked hard to free itself of this association. Medellin has risen from the ashes to welcome visitors with attractive green spaces, interesting museums, lively discos and excellent restaurants. Head to downtown Parque Botero to see the curvaceous sculptures of local artists or Parque de Bolivar to see how wealthy Colombians now live. For a journey with a view take a ride on the impressive elevated metro system, cable cars that connect the centre of the city with the once harder-to-reach districts. As the cable cars climb the sides of the valley you'll be afforded superb views out across Medellin and the surrounding mountain ranges.
Colombia's coffee region is a beautiful combination of lush green landscapes, atmospheric colonial estates and quaint rural towns. Known as the Zona Cafetera, the region was colonised in the 19th century and even today retains a traditional charm with coffee-pickers riding around in American jeeps sporting heavy moustaches while the older generation spend lazy mornings catching up over a cup of the black stuff. And speaking of which, this part of Colombia is the best place in the country to indulge in the world-famous Arabica coffee bean, a fine bean by any aficionado's standards and plentiful in the Zona Cafetera.
With an isolated mountain-top setting in the heart of the jungle to rival that of Machu Picchu, the "lost city" of Ciudad Perdida is without a doubt Colombia's most captivating sight. Only accessible by foot, the ancient circular terraces and stone pathways have remained unsullied by mass tourism though the treasures once contained within the city's boundaries have long been raided by marauding looters. Like its counterpart in Peru, the trek to Ciudad Perdida is just as much a part of the experience with a 5-day return route through tropical forest, dense vegetation, raging streams and waterfalls, and the odd indigenous village.
Villa de Leyva
With its undeniably pretty cobbled streets, large central plaza and humble whitewash architecture, Villa de Leyva is easily Colombia's best colonial town. A secluded location has helped to keep developers away from the town, and a visit is like stepping back in time to the 16th century. Ancient wooden doorways, hand painted tiles and historic churches dot the area, whilst there are also plenty of pre-Colombian ruins to discover if you venture further out into the countryside.
Known as the 'White City' for the hundreds of white-painted buildings that make up the city's historic core, Popayan is one of Colombia's most interesting cities with a well-preserved colonial appearance and hard-working character. During the colonial era Popayan was an important stop on the trade route between Cartagena and Quito and Lima further south, and as regional capital the city has has enjoyed a historical and cultural richness that is evident today. Sat at the foot of a mountain range, the city is not short on beauty with terraced mansions and grand churches flanking the historic streets.
Colombia's capital is a cosmopolitan metropolis with a rich heritage that makes it one of the most exciting urban destinations on the continent. Something of a diamond in the rough, Bogota has plenty of attractions for those inquisitive enough to look, from the cobbled historic neighbourhood of La Candelaria filled with impressive colonial buildings to the uptown districts where fashionable residents shop and dine. The city is also home to the acclaimed Museo del Oro, more commonly known as the Gold Museum for the dazzling array of pre-Hispanic gold pieces contained within its walls.
When planning your trip to Colombia have a look through our handy Travel Guide resources:
Best Time to Visit - climate and weather in Colombia
Tourist Visas - entry regulations for visiting Colombia
Top Travel Tips - voltage, health, money and time in Colombia
Style of Travel - what our tours of Colombia involve and what to expect