From the jungles of the Amazon to the colorful coastal city of Cartagena, Colombia is full of unforgettable places to explore. It’s a destination where you’ll probably have a longer list of things to do after leaving than before you came.
In the past, the South American country had a complicated history (notably with various drug cartels) that may have deterred travelers, but today its popularity is booming. Nowadays, you can find plenty of activities with a focus on sustainable tourism—often highlighting the biodiversity of the animals, birds, and plants. But remote ecosystems aren’t its only draw: Colombia is encouraging remote workers to urban centers thanks to its friendly remote work policies (like its digital nomad visa), bringing an influx of recognition to cities for high-quality restaurants, art displays, and nightlife.
Here are seven things to do on your next trip to Colombia.
1. Explore Guatapé
A two-hour bus ride east of the bustling city of Medellín leads to Guatapé, a town (or pueblo) in the Andean mountains. Admire the rainbow of colors on the buildings, and pay close attention to the paintings depicting animals, vehicles, or other stills of real life, known as zocalos, covering the bottom of building walls. While these images make for fantastic decoration, they also represent the services or goods offered by its occupants.
However, the famous draw of Guatapé is called La Piedra del Peñol, a 7,000-foot rock that was first scaled by Luis Eduardo Villegas López, Pedro Nel Ramírez, and Ramón Díaz in 1954 and has drawn crowds ever since. Getting up there has gotten a lot easier over the years thanks to the approximately 700 steps that have been built along the side of the landform. Buy a ticket for about $20 at the entrance, and you can access the staircase climb leading to two viewing platforms at the top. The views of surrounding waterways are gorgeous and you’ll get your workout in for the day—what else could you want?
2. Salsa the night away in Cali
Salsa music drives the soundscape of Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city. Born in New York with influences from Cuban and Puerto Rican dance, the music genre quickly made its way to Cali in the late ’60s and early ’70s and can be heard in the clubs, the parks, and the streets; it’s infectious. You could use all of your willpower to resist the clave rhythms that signal people to move to the dance floor, but it’s time to get out of your seat—you’re in the Capital de la Salsa.
Cali-style salsa is danced on the count of one, combining influences from pachanga, charanga, and boogaloo. If you don’t know what those terms mean, you’re in luck—salsa lessons are offered by the boatload here, which you can easily find by asking around. If you’re more into the social salsa scene, bars like Zaperoco Bar and MalaMaña Salsa Bar are great places to drink one minute, dance the next.
3. Take a Colombian coffee tour
Book now: Finca El Ocaso
Colombia is a huge exporter of coffee (the third biggest in the world, after Brazil and Vietnam, respectively). Because it’s such a large part of Colombia’s economy, you’d be remiss not to get your hands on a cup before you leave. While most towns and cities will have a Juan Valdez café—Colombia’s equivalent of a Starbucks—head to central Colombia for an intimate experience with the morning drink.
The departments of Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío make up the UNESCO-recognized coffee-growing region. Take a coffee farm tour in Cocora Valley with sustainable operators like Finca El Ocaso and see how the coffee is grown and harvested, as well as talk to the people who work to make it happen. It’s the best way to get an insight into the mild, slightly fruity taste of Colombia’s coffee that makes its beans a staple around the world.
4. See Medellín, the city of eternal spring
Medellín packs quite a punch: it’s never too cold or hot, there’s plenty to do in the daytime and night, and the backdrop of the Andes mountains makes it jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It’s the type of destination that caters to both the city and countryside traveler, where you can spend the morning deep in the Comuna 13 neighborhood (an area associated with drug trafficking in the ’80s and ’90s but now has a thriving creative community) and the afternoon on a walking trail in the Parque Arvi nature preserve. Foodwise, Medellín’s dining scene also offers variety. Fine diners can get thoughtful twists on Colombian dishes in establishments like Elcielo or Carmen, but a bandeja paisa (a regional assortment of pork crackling, avocado, grilled banana patties, rice, and beans) can just as easily be enjoyed in a hole in the wall.
Arguably the best time to visit the City of Eternal Spring is during its Feria de las Flores, where thousands of people come together to celebrate the flower-growing culture of the region. (Did you know that Colombia is the second-largest exporter in the world after the Netherlands?) For 10 days in August, concerts, parties, and parades flood Medellín’s downtown and other major streets. Be on the lookout for silleteros, lavish flower displays that farmers carry on their back.
5. Go bird-watching
In the words of AFAR’s birding beginner guide, “Once you begin bird-watching, no street, sky, or forest ever looks the same.” This saying couldn’t be more true than in Colombia, where more than 1,900 species of winged creatures occupy its landscapes. It’s the most bird-biodiverse country in the world, home to sights like the bright orange–beaked Bogotá rail and the sounds of the screaming piha (as loud as you might think).
Bird-watching in Colombia is often a matter of opening a window with binoculars in hand. But trips to specific parts of the country can reveal the more elusive breeds. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range is one haven for birds you can’t find anywhere else, having 36 species (and 55 subspecies) of birds restricted to this area. Colombia’s portion of the Amazon is also home to some striking varieties, like the pompadoured Amazonian umbrellabird and the red-throated caracara.
6. Get a taste of old, old Colombia in Cartagena
Dance music pulsing through the street, humidity that can turn into a sudden downpour, the smell and sound of the Caribbean Sea—Cartagena is a place you can feel as much as view. While it’s well-known for parties in the city center and the narrow, art-filled streets of the Getsemani neighborhood, it’s also where you can find relics of the country’s past as one of the first cities on the continent settled by the Spanish.
In Plaza de la Paz, a slew of walking tour guides holding umbrellas offer guided walks to some of the most historically significant areas, like the nearly seven miles of stone wall that have surrounded the city for more than 400 years. Other must-see points, like Plaza de la Aduana, harken back to Cartagena’s more complicated history as a major port for enslaved people. The former marketplace is a sobering landmark but also a reminder of the influence of enslaved Africans on the country—from the spoken languages to the multicultural background of the Colombian people.
7. Look for the creepy, beautiful, and wonderfully weird animals of the Amazon
Ten percent of the Amazon—yes, that Amazon—lies within Colombia’s borders. This may not seem like a lot, but it totals around 187,000 square miles, or 35 percent of the country. It’s a defining landscape of Colombia’s southern Amazon region—comprised of the Amazonas, Caquetá, Guainía, Guaviare, Putumayo, and Vaupés departments—and the species found here are a big reason why the country is a world leader in plant, fish, and bird diversity.
People come from all over the world for a chance to be captivated by pink dolphins, macaws, shiny-eyed caimans, and other species endemic to the river and rain forest. With the looming presence of climate change’s effects threatening this region, learning about this ecosystem can give you a new perspective on the fragility of your own. There are plenty of operators that will take you into the wilderness, but consider booking a tour with Yoi Eco Tours or agency Ecodestinos, which work closely with Amazon Indigenous communities and aim to preserve the environment.