What to Do in Colombia

With vividly painted colonial cities, rain forests rich with wildlife, Caribbean beaches, and Andean mountains, visiting Colombia can mean dramatically different things. Choose one or several experiences and dive into this exciting region.

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.
Dg. 68 #1242, Bogotá, Colombia
After more than a decade as one of the Bogotá art scene’s nerve centers—in addition to being a Pan-American landmark—Nueveochenta, founded by former Colombian president César Gaviria, now operates out of a house from the 1960s recently restored by Colombian architect Luis Restrepo. The building’s “patio” is a canvas in itself, for site-specific, outdoor works that complement what can be seen indoors. A bookstore and a documentation center are both open to the public.
Cl. 79b, Bogotá, Colombia
Calle 79b (between Carreras 7a and 9a) is a favorite Bogotá destination, where restaurants, indie galleries, design stores, bars, and, above all, antiques shops come together. A visit to the Zona Rosa isn’t complete without a stroll down this street in search of treasures and collectibles. Prices can be expensive, but some surprise is always on sale. At the end of the drag, on the corner with Carrera 7a, a prize awaits: El Bandido, one of the coolest gin joints in the entire capital.
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.
Calle 119 Con Carrera 6a, Bogotá, Cundinamarca, Colombia
Every Sunday and on holidays, the streets and open spaces of Bogotá’s Usaquén neighborhood overflow with stall after stall selling handicrafts, jewelry, leather goods, and snacks—and with thousands of Bogotanos out for a stroll. The growing city engulfed the formerly separate town long ago, yet Usaquén retains a small-town feel, including a charming central park and parish church. The neighborhood’s trendy restaurants and cafés satisfy almost any craving.
11-75 Calle 82
Aficionados of the high-end love the window-shopping and elegant eating in Zona T. Retail therapy reaches a peak at the Centro Andino and El Retiro shopping malls, chockablock with glitzy boutiques hawking refined Colombian and foreign labels; customers then pop into elegant dining rooms serving up dishes that range from Southeast Asian and Italian to local and other Latin American cuisines. Not tired yet? Try a craft cocktail at one of the district’s fashionable watering holes, if you can find a space amid the well-scrubbed, easy-on-the-eyes jeunesse dorée.
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.
Cl. 10 #25-18, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia
The Parque Lleras neighborhood is the throbbing heart of Medellín nightlife. The namesake park is tiny, but its surrounding blocks are packed with bars, restaurants, and clubs, many featuring terraces. Wherever you choose to go, it’s usually a high-energy, loud affair with thumping music and fruity cocktails. The area is ground zero for Medellín’s young, hip partyers, out to be seen; weekend dancing rarely ends before sunup.
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. 58 #42-125, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia
The name of this park, which alludes to going barefoot, is both description and invitation. Take off your shoes and tread among nature’s sublime textures in the park’s sandpits, Zen garden, fountains, and leafy grasses. You’ll also find a bamboo forest and an interactive science museum, but the biggest attraction is people-watching: children splashing in fountains, teens pitching woo, everyone soaking up the sun. A guided (barefoot) park tour offers insight into its history as part of a citywide renovation program.
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.
Cl. 71, Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia
This two-auditorium space—with adjacent performance venues—is a lot more than simply a place to catch great concerts. Part of Parque de los Deseos and constructed opposite the city’s planetarium, it emerged from a citizen initiative meant to reanimate Medellín’s social and cultural life. The idea is to foment learning and create awareness about various musical disciplines. It offers a number of free musical and dance training programs; children’s orchestras from underserved neighborhoods also present memorable open-air recitals here. Casa de la Música is one part of an equation that, little by little, has allowed life to improve in complex and marvelous Medellín.
Cra. 43 #59-03, Barranquilla, Atlántico, Colombia
Founded in 1954, La Cueva, in the seaside town of Barranquilla, gained renown as a favorite watering hole of some of Colombia’s most famous artists, writers, and intellectuals, most notably the so-called Barranquilla Group—which included Gabriel García Márquez—and painter Enrique Grau. All-night affairs were said to be equal parts pontification and house party, with a dollop of boogie. Today’s La Cueva serves a varied menu and invites visitors to relive the bohemian spirit of the artists who put this place on the map (some of their faces adorn a portrait that takes up an entire wall). Jazz bands play here on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Carrera 44 #72-263, Barranquilla, Atlántico, Colombia
Barranquilla’s famed pre-Lenten carnival is the supreme forum for residents’ festive spirits, but that same dance-till-you-drop energy can be found all year round at La Troja, now in its 52nd year. The barroom is a no-frills, open-air affair—weekend crowds regularly spill onto the streets in a veritable salsa-dancing tempest (definitely go elsewhere if you want quiet drinks and conversation). The music invites you to dance—with your honey, with the people at the next table, even the staff—so loosen up and enjoy.
Hotels
Cra. 54 ##70-10, Barranquilla, Atlántico, Colombia
El Prado, a grand hotel that stands as a testimony to Barranquilla’s golden days as Colombia’s gateway to the world, is now on the nation’s registry of historic places. When it opened in 1930, it boasted of being the first luxury lodging in Colombia, with private bathrooms and telephones in every room. Narcotraficante interests acquired the property in the 1980s and made it an operations center, which drove away legitimate guests. But after government seizure and decades of decline, things are once again on the upswing. Don’t miss the expansive pool and its shady vegetation, especially when the mercury soars (day passes are available). And afternoon aperitifs or lunches beneath these palms are always a welcome respite.
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.
41 Murillo Toro y El Progreso
Parque de los Novios, in the center of Santa Marta’s colonial sector, is perfect for people-watching in the late afternoons when the tropical heat abates. Everyone from the gentry to the common folk—not to mention a plethora of brides posing beneath the gazebo—seems to treat themselves to a nice stroll around the park. Nearby restaurants and bars come alive after night falls, as do, of course, street artists and musicians.
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.
Catch a boat from the dock just opposite the Cartagena city gate and take a ride out to the Islas del Rosario, a protected archipelago of 27 coral islands surrounded by reefs teeming with exquisite flora and fauna. Island activities include snorkeling, diving, fishing, or just sunbathing on marvelous white-sand beaches—whatever tickles your fancy. Some vacation homes and hotels were built on the islands before they were designated a national park, so there are small communities on some of the larger islands. Isla Rosario has a small aquarium and oceanarium, with dolphin shows and sharks. Make sure to try local seafood like pargo rojo with coconut rice and fried plantains.
Getsemani, Cartagena, Cartagena Province, Bolivar, Colombia
Once one of Cartagena’s seedier areas, Getsemaní has recently claimed its spot as the city’s hippest barrio. Walk its tiny streets, lined with quaint colonial architecture—some of which is adorned with beautiful graffiti. At night, the district comes to life: Musicians and street performers gather outside the church in the main square, while a very easy-on-the-eyes set mobs streetside tables at funky boîtes serving Colombian specialties and cocktails. The (slightly) cooler evening air revives them before they head into the area’s irresistible salsa bars for more perspiring.
Cr 4 # De La Merced 3638 Carrera 10 Centro, Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia
The gilt, plush decor, and stunning architecture at the Teatro Adolfo Mejía are a spectacle in themselves; the guided tours will direct your attention to the marble staircase, imported from Italy, and to a frescoed ceiling depicting the nine muses, each doing her thing, in a fabulous allegory envisioned by Cartagena’s most renowned painter, Enrique Grau. Try to catch a show to experience the place in all its splendor. The 1911-era auditorium, more commonly known as Teatro Heredia, is Cartagena’s prime cultural venue and hosts events throughout the year, especially during the literary Hay Festival.
Barrio Pie del Cerro, Avenida Antonio de Arévalo, Carrera 17, Cartagena de Indias, Bolívar, Colombia
A short walk from the city sits imposing Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, covering almost the whole of San Lázaro Hill, 135 feet above sea level. The castillo bit is something of a misnomer, as the structure is not technically a castle but a fort; it happens to be one of the most impressive the Spanish ever built, resisting a number of land and sea attacks. Allegedly its tunnel system was engineered so that the slightest sound anywhere within it would reverberate a warning of approaching danger or attempted escape. Audio guides, available in English, Spanish, and other languages, recount the full story. The castle also happens to be one of the best spots in the city from which to watch the sunset.
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.
Km 3 vía al Valle del Cauca, Calarcá, Quindío, Colombia
The lush and varied Quindío Botanical Garden is home to a spectacular butterfly house, or mariposario, built in the insect’s distinctive shape and containing some 1,000 butterflies of different types that flit between the garden’s ferns, palms, and guadua bamboo trees. Volunteers lead two-hour tours of the grounds, offering great information on plant life, butterflies, and birds. There is also a bird-watching area, where tinted glass provides camouflage for humans attempting to spot members of a number of species—including, sometimes, gorgeous yet elusive toucans.
Each year humpback whales (known around here as yubartas) migrate some 5,000 miles from the Antarctic and southern Chile to Colombia’s Pacific coast. The whales spend July to November mating and giving birth, and then frolicking with their newborn calves. The dark-sand beaches at Bahía Solano and Nuquí in the Chocó province are two favorite locations from which to whale-watch. Also recommended are the guided excursions that leave from the towns and head to the Utría National Natural Park, a lush, well-managed refuge that’s also great for other wildlife spotting.
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