The Best Things to Do in Colombia

Swim the Caribbean Sea. Hike through Tayrona National Park. Trek to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City. Take in Colombian coffee culture in the Coffee Triangle. Or just wander the streets of one of Colombia’s cities to take in enough art and culture to keep you talking about this stellar South American country for the rest of your life.

Monserrate Bogotá, Colombia
The peak called Monserrate towers over central Bogotá and lends its name to the church that tops it. Perched more than 10,000 feet above sea level, the sanctuary—dedicated to the Passion of Christ—has beautiful gardens showcasing marvelous highland vegetation, and the city views from here are spectacular (sunsets are especially recommended). Ascend Monserrate by cable car, via railway, or on foot (this last is only for the fittest and those already acclimated to the altitude). That beautiful white house on the mountainside is Casa Santa Clara restaurant, a better-than-expected, special-occasion-suitable venue at which to try traditional Bogotá favorites like ajiaco, a thick potato-and-chicken soup.
Carrera 6 No.15-88, Bogota 110321, Colombia
Bogotá’s museum of all things gold is one of Colombia’s greatest treasures. Yet despite the name, you’ll find more here than just the precious metal. In addition to stunning displays drawing on a collection of more than 30,000 gold treasures, you’ll find highlights from the institution’s more than 20,000 artifacts of clay, textiles, and other materials that reveal the history of Colombia’s diverse pre-Hispanic cultures. Audio guides enhance the experience with information on the objects’ purpose and provenance that connects various periods and movements. The museum shop offers dazzling (if somewhat expensive) souvenirs fashioned by members of Colombia’s many indigenous nations.
Cl. 11 #4-41, Bogotá, Colombia
Set within the Banco de la República’s museum complex, the Botero Museum offers a sampling of paintings and sculptures by famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero, best known for his still lifes and his exaggeratedly rotund human figures. Botero donated 123 of his own pieces to the institution, as well as 85 from his personal collection—including treasures by Chagall, Picasso, Monet, and Miró. The gracious colonial-era mansion includes an area that displays contemporary Latin American and European artworks. Audio guides are available in English, French, and Spanish.
Parque De La Sal, Zipaquirá, Cundinamarca, Colombia
About an hour north of Bogotá lies the so-called Salt Cathedral, an intriguing and impressive church that has been sculpted from the empty chambers of a working salt mine, one that’s been in operation since pre-Hispanic times. Beginning in the 20th century, miners began to decorate shafts with icons and saints from whom they sought protection. By 1954, a full-fledged cathedral had been carved into the rock and inaugurated; it has been attracting visitors from all over the world ever since. When a previous sanctuary became unstable, the current chapel was carved almost 200 feet deeper down and opened in 1995, complete with eerie lighting and beautiful sculptures. A visit is a moving experience even for nonbelievers.
This lake set amid lofty mountains is a mystical, peaceful spot with a fascinating history of indigenous princesses, gold-covered chieftains, and treasure-gouging conquistadors—purportedly the site where the El Dorado legend began (indeed, gold artifacts have turned up on the shores). Colombian guides can explain the local history, recount famous tales, and identify the highland vegetation you pass as you wind up a trail to the stunning lagoon. Its perfectly circular shape once fueled speculation that it is a volcanic crater or the result of a meteorite impact, but it’s been found to have been formed from a sinkhole. The lake’s located about two hours outside Bogotá; the drive to get there crosses some beautiful country.
Cl. 73 #51d-14, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia
Medellín’s botanical garden is a 35-acre oasis of green amid the bustling city. Stroll through lush tropical vegetation, towering trees, and flowering bushes to a quiet, picturesque pond amid the gardens. Or peek into a butterfly farm, a maze, and an orchid exhibit beneath an arbor. The gardens are a public space for all sorts of activities like yoga, martial-arts classes, and outdoor movie screenings; a farmers’ market for organic goods takes place the first Sunday of every month. The park is also home to one of Medellín’s best restaurants, In Situ, which in addition to its normal gourmet fare sells lunchtime picnic baskets—complete with red-and-white-checkered blankets and a bottle of wine—to enjoy on the garden grounds.
Carabobo, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia
At the center of Medellín, Plaza Botero gets its name from Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who donated 23 of his much-loved, disproportionate-bodied bronze sculptures to the city. There’s a huge chubby head, a reclining woman, and an oddly small man with a bowler hat riding a horse, plus good old Adam and Eve. The Museo de Antioquia abuts the plaza and houses other pieces by Botero as well as works by other artists. By day the square is vibrant and lively, but do take appropriate precautions after dark.
Medellín’s urban renewal, following decades as one of the world’s murder capitals, has drawn international attention. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the revival more than the Metrocable, a system of cable cars that connect the city center to steep hillside neighborhoods that were once reckoned to be the city’s most dangerous. Grab a ride on Line K up to Santo Domingo and treat yourself to spectacular views. Once on the ground again, take a short wander around the neighborhood for a taste of the real Medellín and its friendly residents (known as Paisas), and see the small shops and the beautiful library whose original benefactor was the government of Spain. From Santo Domingo, another cable car continues to Parque Arví, an expansive nature reserve and weekend escape favored by overheated locals.
Parque Bicentenario, Cl. 51 #36-66, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia
This sobering museum reminds visitors that Colombia’s beauty, natural and otherwise, has often coexisted with civil war and its brutal violence. Galleries present stories and images as well as survivor, victim, and ex-combatant testimonies. Many artists have contributed portrayals of the war—but perhaps the experience with the strongest emotional impact at the museum is simply watching the videos in which victims of the violence tell their stories.
Cra. 12 #9-70, Santa Fé de Antioquia, Santafé de Antioquia, Antioquia, Colombia
Located about an hour from Medellín, Santa Fe merits a detour for its lovely, well-preserved colonial architecture. The town was Antioquia province’s capital before Medellín, from 1584 until 1826, and time seems to have stopped here amid cobblestoned streets and whitewashed structures. Horseback tours lead to nearby waterfalls and the Cauca River.
Cra. 53 #7375, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia
The four huge red cubes set amid the verdant mountains around Medellín will seize your attention and pique your curiosity—they are pavilions that architect Alejandro Echeverri designed to house Parque Explora, a science museum that is rather a monumental toy itself. The goal was to strike a proper balance between wonder and learning—and to avoid at all costs the sort of place that quickly grows obsolete. The result offers a nice sort of carnival or market feeling in its wide-open spaces. Inside, the pavilions, aquarium, planetarium, and cool science and tech exhibits keep both wee ones and grown-ups entertained and awed.
46 - 66 Calle 36
Colombians from the Caribbean coast, known as Costeños, are immensely proud of their cultural, musical, literary, and historical heritage, all of which are on display at this interactive museum. The country’s famous shore stretches from the jungles bordering Panama up through the historic cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta, all the way to the deserts of La Guajira. Multimedia exhibits here offer insight into the region’s indigenous cultures, and into the varied musical expressions that have emerged along the long coastline.
Av. del Libertador - Sector San Pedro Alejandrino, Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia
The 17th-century estate where Simón Bolívar died in 1830 is the site of several Bolivar monuments as well as an art museum featuring works by Latin American artists inspired by Bolívar, the hero who freed Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela from colonial rule. The estate serves as the city’s botanical garden, also worth your time for its magnificent, centuries-old trees.
Magdalena, Colombia
Tayrona National Natural Park has become such a popular destination during typical vacation periods that authorities have had to limit admission. But an off-season visit offers singular luxuries like miles of all-but-solitary beaches, jungle trails, and a unique way to observe a variety of monkeys and tropical birds in every brilliant hue. Tayrona can be experienced as a day trip from Santa Marta or as a several-night stay at one of the park’s accommodations. From the main entrance at Cañaveral (El Zaíno), visitors can take a leisurely hike to the ocean while a donkey handles the luggage; horses are also available for those who prefer not to walk. This same park entrance also leads directly to high-roofed, native-wood cabins known as ecohabs, a slightly fancier option for staying in the park.
You’d be forgiven for passing straight through “downtown” Palomino without giving it a second look, but slow down to discover a real-life paradise between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and amazing, almost deserted, palm-tree-lined beaches on the other side. Nestled between its namesake Palomino River and the San Salvador River, the region is home to some fascinating wildlife. The most fun way to observe the animals is from an inner tube floating down the Palomino toward the Caribbean (you have to earn your leisurely journey, though, with a 20-minute uphill walk first). A word of warning: The sea in this area has strong, unpredictable currents that make swimming a challenge—if not downright dangerous; serious safety precautions are recommended.
Calle 15 #5 - 63, Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia
Ciudad Perdida (or “lost city”) is believed to have been a political and spiritual center for the people that inhabited the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta highlands around 800 C.E. Treasure hunters “discovered” the complex in the 1970s and plundered its ceremonial artifacts. The subsequent arrival of archaeologists and anthropologists failed to turn up the site’s true origins with any certainty, but indigenous Arhuaco and Kogui people believe it was a sacred city. It seems to have been abandoned around the same time the Spaniards arrived. Today’s visitors can still see a network of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, overlooking the Buritaca River. The city can be experienced two different ways—choose to hike in (a four-to-six-day guided trip) or to fly over on a helicopter tour (though note that aircraft are not permitted to land).
calle san Augustin nº 6-14, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
The best way to enjoy Cartagena’s historic center is simply to get lost. Wander the narrow streets that flow past gaily colored edifices and into small, leafy parks or sprawling plazas. Stroll the city ramparts, the walls built starting in the 16th century to protect the city from foreign enemies and marauding pirates. Between the churches and gardens, you’ll find everything from emerald emporiums to local design boutiques to street vendors. The city’s dark history provides some stark contrast to the candy-hued and lively present, and should not be entirely ignored: Cartagena’s bloody past is revealed at the Palace of Inquisition museum and at some of the memorials at sites where locals sold African captives into slavery. Knowing a bit of what came before gives texture and context to a town that may otherwise seem like a touristy set piece.
Pueblo Rico, Risaralda, Colombia
Up in the rolling hills of Colombia’s Caldas, Quindío, and Risaralda regions, some coffee plantations offer guest accommodations for visitors looking to lap up traditional coffee culture (pardon the pun). Many of the farms give tours that involve arabica picking, drying, and roasting…and that always wrap with a fabulous cup of joe. You’ll also see beloved cultural symbols: the Jeeps that serve as the region’s pack mules. (Local Jeep festivals, called Yipaos, celebrate the vehicles with contests—those that most artfully pack and haul the biggest loads win prizes.) Not far from the town of Armenia, the Parque del Café, a veritable coffee-themed amusement park, is a great option for those traveling with children.
Salento, Quindio, Colombia
Officially founded in 1865, Salento is one of Colombia’s quaintest, most traditional towns. Its main street, the cobblestoned Calle Real, is lined with handicraft shops and restaurants that serve delicious, locally farmed trout (among many other Andean favorites). The street ends at the foot of a hill with a staircase leading upward, interrupted at regular intervals by representations of the stations of the cross. A short Jeep ride from town leads to the enchanting Valle de Cocora, where you’ll find wax palms up to 195 feet in height (the tallest known palm species), as well as fantastic birdlife, including Andean condors and yellow-eared parrots, plus legions of adorable hummingbirds. Take a hike or horseback ride into the valley to get access to some of Colombia’s most awe-inspiring lookouts.
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