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Get Outdoors in Colombia

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Get Outdoors in Colombia
Colombia is one of those Latin American countries that never ends. From rain forests to deserts, from the Caribbean to the Pacific—and including the snowcapped Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta—nature lovers find themselves awash in options and dream of staying forever.
Photo by Tom Griggs
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    Santa Marta: Sierra with Ocean Views
    Even if the call of the wild isn’t so strong with you, consider a nature commune at Tayrona National Park, whose cute ecohab cabins are designed to offer carefree shelter for a day on the virgin beach (though do prepare for the occasional monkey screech or birdcall from the surrounding greenery). Ready for a little more action? Palomino, nestled between the mountains and the beach and watered by the Palomino and San Salvador rivers, is another idyllic place to stop off…and more of a well-kept secret.
    Photo by Tom Griggs
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    Medellín’s Green Side
    Medellín’s Botanical Garden isn’t just a green, many-petaled respite; it also boasts a small lake and a farmers' market, and is, in fact, home to one of the city’s finest restaurants. As the name implies, Parque de los Pies Descalzos (or Barefoot Park) invites visitors to take off their shoes and traipse through sandpits, a Zen garden, fountains, and grassy lawns. From the northern Santo Domingo neighborhood, a cable-car ride leads to Parque Arví, an expansive nature reserve and weekend escape favored by overheated locals. And then you’ve got Parque Explora, with pavilions by architect Alejandro Echeverri. Maybe this last is more museum than park, but an on-site aquarium and planetarium keep nature top of mind.
    Photo by Tom Griggs
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    The Beach, Period. Nothing—and Nobody—Else
    The 27 islets that make up Islas del Rosario, reached from Cartagena, are a sublime complement to the walled city’s architecture, tempering all that ancient culture and history with snorkeling, diving, or just plain sunbathing on marvelous white-sand shores. In the province of La Guajira, right beside the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the coastal town of Palomino is another great spot for blissfully checking out. The beaches here, between the Palomino and San Salvador rivers, have romantic cascades and gorgeous natural pools.
    Photo by Tom Griggs
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    Visual Safari at the End of the World
    You might think insect-watching pilgrimages are a little weird in comparison to quests to see tigers or elephants. Yet the butterfly-shaped sanctuary called the mariposario at lush, varied Quindío Botanical Garden is fantastic. There's also a bird-watching area on these grounds from which might even spy notoriously skittish toucans. If it’s gargantuan creatures you’re after, Colombia has got you covered in the form of humpback whales (yubartas in Spanish), like the ones that migrate some 5,000 miles yearly from the Antarctic and southern Chile to Colombia’s Pacific coast. Bahía Solano and Nuquí, in the Chocó region, are ground zero for spotting these marine mammals.
    Photo courtesy of Mariposario
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    Day Trips from Bogotá
    Without even leaving the city, it’s possible to "get away"—upward, to Monserrate and its mountaintop sanctuary that honors the Passion of Christ. The peak and gardens offer spectacular city views. An hour to the north, the so-called Salt Cathedral is an intriguing, impressive church that has been sculpted from the empty chambers of a salt mine that’s been in operation since pre-Columbian times. A drive of a little less than two hours east into the mountains from the capital brings you to Lake Guatavita, a mystical, peaceful spot that's purportedly the site where the legend of El Dorado began; indeed, gold artifacts have turned up on its shores.
    Photo by Alejandra Cardona
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    Unforgettable Walkabouts
    Those who love to hike should make time for Tayrona National Park, or (for hard-core practitioners only; the trip takes at least four days on foot) Ciudad Perdida, believed to have been a political and spiritual center for the indigenous group that inhabited the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta highlands around 800 C.E. In coffee country, near the quaint town of Salento, lies the enchanting Valle de Cocora, where you could see wax palms (the tallest known palm species) of up to 195 feet in height—not to mention fantastic birdlife and one of the most breathtaking, iconic views found anywhere in Colombia.
    Photo by Nicolás Sastoque