When its narrow streets cool down, the walled old town of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast comes alive. After newcomers enjoy seafood dinner in a cobblestoned square, it’s time to discover the raucous rhythm born here called champeta (or “machete”). This fusion of Afro, Caribbean, and indigenous sounds—and its sensuous dance—are all the rage these days. Bands play it in outdoor cafes that sit atop a fortress bastion, and the music spills out of bars until the wee hours.
Champeta is just one of the many music genres you’ll find across Colombia, where the wide variety of geography has allowed for the evolution of various styles over the years. For centuries, diverse music has flourished from the Caribbean to the Pacific coast and the Andes to the Amazon Basin. But now, the world is waking up to Colombia’s off-the-charts music scenes.
Here’s what you’ll find in various regions across the country.
When you hear a Spanish-language song from any country these days, it may well be set to a modern Colombian cumbia beat. Based on drum and winds, this original folk sound features indigenous, Afro, and European roots—and a dance-inducing rhythm. In August, you can enjoy amazing cumbia performances at the National Cumbia Festival in the northern river town of El Banco, along with stunning costumes worn by dancers.
You can also head to the small colonial river town of Mompox, the home of Totó la Momposina—an Afro-indigenous cumbia singer who has won several Latin Grammys over her 60-year career. In September, her northern town hosts the Mompox Jazz Festival.
For something different, visit the Caribbean city of Barranquilla, which hosts a huge Carnival each year—an amazing opportunity to hear Colombian music. (It’s also the original home of pop megastar Shakira.) Interestingly, one of the influences on the music around here was the accordion, which German sailors brought over in the 19th century. And in nearby Santa Maria—the nation’s oldest town—this influence was fully embraced by ‘90s heartthrob telenovela star-turned-singer Carlos Vives, who made the accordion-driven folk style vallenato a hot sensation. In September, this music style comes to life at the Cradle of Accordion Festival in the town of Villanueva in the dry northern Guajira region.
Another music style gaining popularity comes from an island off the Colombia coast. Old Providence was a favorite hiding place of 17th-century privateer Henry Morgan; today, an English creole is still spoken here and the music remains distinctly more Jamaican than Spanish. Artists such as Elkin Robinson are bringing their blend of mento, reggae, calypso, and soca to growing audiences on the Colombian mainland.
The eastern high plains region of Orinoquía is cowboy country, where in June the International Joropo Contest will draw lovers of this fandango-like music and dance set to the four-stringed cuatro guitar. The singer Cholo Valderrama performs joropo titles such as “My Horse and Me,” sometimes with a techno twist.
Andes Tango lovers should head to the Andean Valley city of Medellín. In the mid-1930s, Argentine Carlos Gardel, the progenitor of tango, died in a plane crash here, and the beautiful city has been a tango hotbed ever since. To fully celebrate, come in June, when the popular International Tango Festival takes place. Rock, too, has a strong foothold here, in part because Medellín is the hometown of Juanes—perhaps the Spanish-speaking world’s biggest rock star. (He’s also spearheaded peace initiatives that have helped change perceptions of his city.) Celebrate this music style with the locals every November, when the Altavoz rock festival takes center stage in Medellín.
Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, is also a hive of rock, with international stars such as Arctic Monkeys making April’s Festival Estéreo Picnic the Coachella of the south. Similarly, Colombia al Parque is a massive September open-air festival, with genres from alt-rock to jazz.
It was New York Puerto Ricans who turned Cuban sounds into salsa, yet nowhere is the genre more popular than the Pacific region city of Cali. Come for December’s Cali Fair and you might catch star salseros such as Yuri Buenaventura, who takes his stage name from a Pacific seaport.
Discover more of the amazing music scene in Colombia—along with its incredible food, scenery, and people—at Visit Colombia.