Despite the previous strife, Colombians are routinely rated the happiest people in the world. They’re aware of the reputation they’ve got and will go out of their way to show you exactly how off-the-mark your assumptions are. Its landscape is as varied as it is stunning.
Finding the humid, tropical beaches of the Caribbean coast a bit much? Head to the cooler, mountainous climes of Medellin and Bogota.
Or perhaps singing in the constant rain of Popayan would be more your flavor. I’m not too embarrassed to say the country worked its way into this young man’s heart. By my count, there are approximately one million most beautiful places in Colombia, but amazingly I’ve been able to whittle that down to a very manageable twenty!
1. Cartagena – a beautiful historic city and undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast
The north coast of Colombia is home to the party and tourist hotspot of Cartagena. One of the most popular and beautiful places to visit in Colombia it’s a throbbing city where the nights turn into days that turn into nights again, often without you noticing.
The after-hours fun is balanced beautifully though with an old-town that is dripping with history.
Here you’ll find stories of the Spanish Inquisition and stark reminders of the slave trade, then be able to wash away the thoughts of how rubbish people were hundreds of years ago with an ice-cold Aguila and a bit of salsa.
2. San Andres y Providencia – stunning isolated beaches, unspoiled coral reefs with a laid back island vibe
Located 450 miles off the Caribbean coast, San Andres y Providencia archipelago is constituted by 7 large islands and two dozens of corral reef islets.
You can get there by either by ferry or by plane and due to its pretty remote location it’s not overrun by tourists. The department’s capital island, San Andres, is one of the best resorts in the Caribbean. The natural beauty of this place remains largely untouched by civilization.
Azure waves, coral reefs, and a fabulous underwater world lure flocks of snorkelling, diving, and surfing enthusiasts. Mild climate, clear sea, white-sand beaches, as well as friendly locals make the islands an ideal holiday destination.
On top of the gorgeous scenery, the archipelago boasts historical and cultural attractions. If you like the idea of getting rich overnight then set out for treasure hunting in the Morgan cave (Cueva de Morgan). According to legends, the notorious pirate Henry Morgan hid his enormous treasures in the cave’s labyrinths.
You like geysers? Then check out an underwater geyser Soplador that spews a fountain from a narrow cleft in the massive calcareous rock. Lastly, don’t forget to visit Johnny Cay Island to taste mouth-watering cuisine in one of their atmospheric reggae bars!
3. Guatape – a super cute Andean resort town and an incredible neighbouring man-made reservoir
La Piedra Del Peñol is a large chunk of rock that rises out of the middle of a man-made lake near the sleepy town of Guatape, located in northwest Colombia 2 hours north-east of Medellin.
The lake was only created in the 60s for hydro-electric purposes and has made the view from the top of the climbable rock truly exquisite. The township of Guatape is only as old as the lake, and because of this, it has been able to create its own very unique aesthetic.
One of the original house owners decided to decorate the front of his house with colorful tiles depicting his trade, and over the years the entire town followed suit. It’s the cutest!
4. Zona Cafetera – the beautiful coffee region where you can go on coffee tours and hot-air balloon rides
If you can’t imagine your life without coffee, then don’t miss the opportunity to visit the globally-famous Colombia coffee triangle, a world heritage-listed coffee-growing region in the Andino region of Colombia.
The best coffee in the country (and arguably in the whole world) is grown here, in the heart of Colombia. Zona Cafetera is the place where you can try hundreds of coffee brews, go around coffee bean plantations, as well as learn how it is grown and processed. You can also see the area from above in a beautiful hot air balloon ride.
The coffee zone runs between the eastern and central Cordilleras at the elevation from 4600 to 7060 feet above sea level. When traveling across the coffee land, you will see some of the most incredible sceneries … and changes of weather happening 10 times a day.
Nevertheless, the out-of-this-world experience is totally worth it. In addition to coffee-related attractions, you will find many other spots to feast your eyes on such as the museum boasting a respectful collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and the Catedral de Manizales tower offering stunning views.
Do not deny yourself the pleasure to dip in the thermal springs of Santa Rosa and San Vincent. And if you like mountain hiking, Zona Cafetera is a great starting point to explore the Andes.
5. Islas del Rosario – a beautiful archipelago consisting of 27 small coral islands
Move 60 miles southwest of Cartagena and come across Islas del Rosario. Ideal for beachgoers and scuba divers, the islands are famous for their magnificent coral reefs, diverse underwater world, magnificent sandy beaches, and crystal-clear sea.
Colombia is strewn with a network of national parks but the most remarkable one is located here. Unlike its counterparts, this park is predominantly underwater, meaning it’s teeming with endemic, nowhere-else-to-be-seen species of marine flora and fauna.
Here, everyone will find something to their liking – go kayaking through mango groves, explore tiny islands, taste authentic cuisine, or chill out on the beach. The Enchanted Lagoon on Isla Grande is a site where you can observe the stunning natural phenomenon, phosphorescent plankton.
You can visit the islands on organized day trips from Cartagena, stay at one of the hotels, or visit as part of a scuba diving course. There are a number of hotels on the islands which often include transportation as part of your stay and this is probably one of the best ways to visit the islands.
6. Tayrona National Park – stunning golden sandy beaches backed by coconut palms and thick rainforest
Next to the seaside city of Santa Marta you’ll find Tayrona National Park. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful place to visit in Colombia.
It’s a heady combination of untouched Caribbean beaches and dense rainforest, leading up to huge, often snow-capped mountains. Find yourself a tent and some sleeping gear and get lost in nature until you find a combination of the above that suits you best.
Take supplies to last a while though – Tayrona has a habit of keeping people longer than they planned.
7. Medellin – a once dangerous city turned trendy tourist hotspot
Medellin, as of 1991-92, was officially the aforementioned murder capital of the world. Pablo Escobar had set up shop and was throwing money at anyone in a position of power and killing anyone who chose to go honest, while the Colombian civil war simultaneously raged on.
The difference from then to now is nothing short of STUNNING. I felt as safe in Medellin as in any European capital and it’s become quite a hub for trendy travelers in the know. The public transport infrastructure, much of which was built during those trying times, makes seeing this picturesque city a breeze.
Take a cable car up to Arvi Park and soak in the views of the valley-bound city. Find a hostel bed in El Poblado and get waist-deep in the epic nightlife. Hear the stories of the people that have lived it – from then to now!
8. Villa de Leyva – a pretty town known for its whitewashed colonial buildings, cobbled lanes and large Plaza Mayor
The small town of Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s most beautiful colonial heritage sites. The colonial architecture of the settlement is preserved in its original variety. Here, you will discover pretty houses dating from the XVI – XVIII centuries.
All the newly constructed buildings, according to the local legislation, must carry the colonial style, too. Thanks to this, it feels as if you are travelling back in time when you visit here!
Despite rather a modest size, the town holds some impressive records. For instance, it’s the proud host of the largest (3.5 square acres) and one of the most beautiful squares in South America. It also boasts the highest density of hotels and restaurants per population. For these and many other reasons, Villa de Leyva received a status of the national historic-cultural monument in 1954.
9. Gorgona Island – a former island prison off the Colombian coast which has been converted into a gorgeous national park
The small but beautiful (only 10 square miles) Gorgon Island sits 22 miles off the Pacific coast of Colombia. In the 1950s, Colombian authorities decided to open a prison on the island hoping that the abundance of snakes (hence its Greek-inspired name) and remoteness would help prevent escapes.
However, the prison did not last long and in the mid-1980s, most of its dangerous inhabitants left the island. Since then, Gorgona evolved into a national park to preserve its endemic species such as Blue Anole lizard.
The former barracks of prison guards were turned into cosy condos for tourists who head into the jungle to see the prison ruins overgrown with vines. Another major attraction is the gorgeous humpback whales, whose migration routes closely pass along the shore.
10. Guachalito Beach – one of the most visually stunning and unspoilt beaches in Colombia
The Pacific coast of Colombia is one of the wildest and most exotic corners of the planet. Here are beautiful beaches and untouched scenery free of glamour and gloss!
The local beaches look pretty much the same as on the very first day the Mother Nature created them. One of these pristine strips of sand is Guachalito Beach lying in the wilderness next to the small fishing town of Nuqui?. Guachalito makes a perfect place to isolate yourself from the crowds and enjoy your holidays in tranquillity and peace.
However, perhaps the main reason to visit these parts is the incredible humpback whales, which breed and give birth to their offspring off the Pacific coast of Colombia. Whether you watch these giant mammals from the beach or take a boat trip, a once in a lifetime experience is guaranteed!
11. Bogota – a cool and vibrant city and Colombia’s beating heart
Bogota was thoroughly undersold to us. When fellow travellers heard that we were going, the general consensus was ‘minimise the time and move on through’.
How wrong they were. For all its grit and grime, Bogota had more character than most other Colombian cities combined.
A burgeoning student population, an intense nightlife scene, and a particularly lenient attitude to street art made most of the centre of town feel like a cooler version of East London. It’s also got a rather lovely cobblestoned center, featuring colonial-era landmarks.
Find a place to stay in La Candelaria, then spend all day wandering around and looking up.
12. Sapzurro – a small town on Colombia’s desert-to-jungle Caribbean coastline
The small village of Sapzurro is just a stone’s throw from Panama (located in the northwest corner of Colombia). Despite its off-the-beaten-track location, you won’t be disappointed.
This place is replete with world-class diving spots, small restaurants serving fresh seafood, and plenty of places to watch the unique local nature in seclusion.
Explore the jungles and discover a small but lovely La Diana waterfall, stroll along the coastal groves on your way to the neighbouring Cabo Tiburon village, or stay overnight at the Reserva Tacarcuna ecolodge to observe diverse Colombian wildlife.
And, of course, do not forget to walk to another continent – Central America spreads out right behind a small hill on the outskirts of Sapzurro.
13. Cabo de la Vela – a remote desert village where striking red sands meet turquoise waters
A popular eco-tourism destination in the Caribbean and a remote desert village on Colombia’s northern tip, Cabo de la Vela leaves travellers in total awe of its unique beauty.
This is where the striking bronze sands of the desert meet the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea and creates a breathtaking contrast. So much that the Indian tribes living in these parts believe that they harbour something mystical.
According to their legends, the souls of the dead go there before embarking on their last journey. Invading Europeans were equally in awe of the place – and they gave the headland its modern name, Cape of Sails.
Once a very under-the-radar destination in Colombia, it’s become an increasingly popular place to visit. It’s mostly known as being a destination for kitesurfing.
14. San Gil – a small Andean city known for being a center for adventure sports
Sick of lounging on beautiful beaches or in rainforest hammocks? Feel like getting the blood circulating again? Head 2 hours south of Bucaramanga to the quiet mountain town of San Gil located in northern Colombia, and dip your toe, head and/or torso into any of the countless adventure activities on offer.
And if mountain biking, rafting, canyoning, paragliding or rock climbing don’t float your boat, head to nearby Curiti for a swim in their epic string of rock pools, or head 30 minutes the other way to the majestic Juan Curi waterfall.
15. Popayan – a peaceful but charming town known for its whitewashed colonial buildings and Holy Week processions
One of the most southern major centres of Colombia, Popayan is located between the Western and Central mountain ranges of the country about 140km south of Cali. The location between the mountain ranges means it rains.
And when I say it rains, I mean it rains! Approximately two-thirds of the year. Bring an umbrella. The city itself though is tranquil but loaded with charm, with almost the entire centre consisting of whitewashed colonial buildings.
I was a month late, but am reliably told that during Easter the ‘White City’ is Colombia’s place to be!
16. Capurgana – a remote village on Colombia’s Caribbean coast known for quiet bays backed by dense rainforest and its abundant dive sites
Capurgana and nearby Sapzurro mark the final pieces of Columbian soil before entering Panama.
You’ll find stunning beaches rolling into gorgeous Caribbean reefs that you’ll swear are painted and plenty of incredible diving spots! The sand gives way to dense jungle that is full to the brim with local wildlife.
The seafood is plentiful and ridiculously fresh, but keep your eye on it – the local monkeys will be keen to share in your feed.
And for a unique addition to your bucket list, why not walk – or even swim – to another continent?
17. Santa Rosa de Cabal – a small town known for its gorgeous surrounding scenery and thermal springs
A town of just 60,000, Santa Rosa (located in west-central Colombia) is famous for two things – its silkworm industry, and Termales, a thermal pool and waterfall combination that is nothing short of a work of art. 200km south of Medellin, it is the perfect stop-over for any traveller heading down towards Ecuador.
The water is the perfect temperature, and the springs usually stay open well into the night. Head there for an evening, and soak in the serenity with a drink in hand.
18. Santiago de Cali – a vibrant city known for its salsa dancing
Even after people described Cali as the world capital of salsa, it was hard to wrap my head around exactly how ingrained the famous Latin American dance is in the city’s culture. It is everywhere.
So strap on your dancing shoes, because if you’re in Cali (a populous city in the Valle del Cauca department, southwest of Bogotá) you’re going to be moving your feet. Often seen as the little brother of Bogota and Medellin, it breaks away from any comparison with an atmosphere all its own.
The surrounding wilderness is in itself breathtaking. Be sure to make your way out to KM 18 (Columbia’s bird-watching paradise) while you’re there!
19. Via Isla de Salamanca – a scenic protected area of Colombia which is home to diverse and interesting fauna and flora
The unique ecosystem formed at the confluence of the fresh waters of the Magdalena River and the saline waves of the Caribbean is the backbone of the Salamanca Island National Park (Via Isla de Salamanca located in the Caribbean Region of Colombia).
The park covers picturesque freshwater swamps, coastal lagoons, secluded beaches, as well as a handful of islets separated by narrow channels.
Its wetlands are home to two endemic species of the island as well as the wintering grounds of a variety of migratory birds. In total, 199 species of birds, 33 species of mammals, and more than 140 species of fish live here.
Take a fascinating canoe trip through the canals overgrown with mango trees, stroll along the wooden bridges laid through freshwater swamps, explore the picturesque surroundings from the observation deck, visit bird nesting areas or take a boat excursion along the Caribbean coast – this is just brief list of thing to do in this enchanting place!
20. Pilon de Azucar – a picture-perfect Colombian beach where you can climb a mount for stunning vistas
The secluded sandy beach Pilon de Azucar and the eponymous mountain sacred to the Wayuu Indians who live here, are the highlights of Cabo de la Vela.
The white cliff, towering above the serene waters of the Caribbean Sea, is one of the best spots to watch the stars. On the top of this small yet picturesque mount (where a 15-minute hike will take you to the summit of this conical hill) offers stunning vistas of the Caribbean Sea.
Here you will have a beautiful panoramic view of the whole of Alta Guajira as well as Serrania del Carpintero mountain ridge looming in the distance. Near the viewpoint, you will be greeted by a statue of the patron saint of the mountain, La Virgen de Fatima, erected by pearl hunters more than 80 years ago.
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Michael Cowley – writer and photographer
Ever since he was knee-high to a grasshopper Michael has always had an affinity for adventure. Growing up he was lucky enough to live in a handful of exotic far flung locations including Hong Kong, Pakistan, Kenya and Tanzania and since then he’s continued seeking out new places and cultures. In his spare time he explores everywhere from the sizzling street markets in Bangkok to random back alleys in Sri Lanka and everything in between! He also has a special fondness for Cohibas, trying all kinds of street food, playing carrom with random strangers, and fine wine – he knows his clarets from his chiantis. He counts Cuba, Amsterdam, Indonesia, Goa, Cambodia and Italy as his favourite destinations. Find Michael on Instagram or Twitter.