The 5 Best Places to Visit in Colombia: South America’s Best Kept Secrets
Not all that long ago Colombia probably wasn’t top of your list of go-to travel destinations thanks to the conflict between guerrilla groups and the Colombian government and the infamous drug cartels. But the last decade has seen a massive turnaround and now Colombia is absolutely one of the very best places to visit in South America. The best thing about traveling to Colombia? The masses haven’t really discovered it yet, so you can go and travel safely and see the best places to visit in Colombia without having to shuffle along in crowds of other tourists.
We spent six weeks in Colombia and found so much incredible diversity in terms of things to do and see that we constantly found ourselves saying “I guess we’ll have to come back for that.”
Sure, there are definitely pockets of the country (Cartagena, looking at you) that are chock full of tourists and cruise ship passengers, but for the most part we found fewer tourists than we expected.
Colombia’s tourist numbers are certainly on the rise – the number of foreign visitors has more than doubled since 2010 – making now the perfect time to plan a trip to Colombia.
Heading to Colombia? Here are some other posts you won’t want to miss.
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The Best Places to Visit in Colombia
To help you plan your trip, here is my pick of the five best places to visit in Colombia when you visit this incredible country.
Obviously this is not a complete list of all the amazing places in Colombia.
Think of this as my picks for five places that should be on EVERY Colombia itinerary.
Parque Tayrona: Golden Beaches and Blue-Green Water
If you are looking for where to go in Colombia, the Tayrona National Park, perched on the Caribbean on the northern coast, is one of South America’s most spectacular areas. Here you’ll find some of the best golden beaches in South America, complete with swaying palm trees and intensely blue waters. It is a must-see for your Colombia itinerary.
Want to experience the area to the fullest? Hike in on a forest trail and spend one to three nights in one of the tents or hammocks near the beaches, visiting the diverse habitats during the day.
Must-see in Parque Tayrona:
- La Piscinita is an amazing place to snorkel and dive in the clear water with all the brightly colored fish.
- Cabo San Juan is probably the most famous beach in the park – it’s so breath-taking you’ll never want to leave!
- Punta Piedra & Playa Nudista: these beaches are a short walk from Cabo San Juan, and much quieter. Feel free to strip down to your birthday suit and reconnect with nature – but many don’t so visit whether or not you’re interested in stripping down.
- Fresh Food! The fresh food available here is the best reason to come beside the views, so be sure to try the seafood, coconuts, and fruit juices you’ll see from vendors along the walking path from El Zaino to the beaches. Don’t miss the fresh-squeezed orange juice!
There are plenty of other things to do and see, like trail riding on horseback, hiking and wildlife watching. Don’t forget that the park is closed periodically throughout the year for conservation. And you do need a national park ticket to gain entry, which you can buy on the day of, but I would get there early, 30-45 minutes before they open the gates.
How to Get to Parque Tayrona:
To get to Parque Tayrona, you’ll have to get to the main bus station in Santa Marta at Mercado Público de Santa Marta. The bus we took was headed to Palomino, and left from the corner of Calle 11 and Carrera 9 (here). Tell the driver where you want to get off, whether its a hostel or the El Zaino entrance to the park.
Medellín: Colombia’s Most Interesting City
Despite its turbulent past, Medellin is probably the most interesting city in Colombia. Innovative and forward-thinking, the city has reinvented itself with art, tourism and the new cable car network making it extremely popular with visitors from all over the world. It is truly one of the best places to visit in Colombia.
Must-see in Medellin:
- Parque Lleras – this park is full of people 24/7; musicians, food stalls, and people having fun and meeting friends. If you love people watching, this is a great place to give your feet a break!
- The Jardin Botanico – Medellín’s botanical garden is an oasis of peace and hosts concerts and festivals regularly, has thousands of flowers, and over 130 species of birds.
- See a soccer game – Soccer is big in Colombia and Medellín is home to two major teams, Atletico Nacional and Independiente Medellín, so try to see a game while you’re there to experience the excitement. Here’s a tour with a local soccer fan that we did – it includes transportation to and from the game from El Poblado, pre-game drinks, and great seats.
- Hit the markets! The huge Minorista commercial market is worth a visit (here’s a guided tour where you’ll taste ALL the fruits) and Mercado del Rio is a foodies heaven. Seriously. If you like good food, you have to visit the Mercado del Rio.
- Take a free walking tour courtesy of Real City Tours and find out how Medellín has been transformed from the most dangerous to the most popular city in Colombia. I recommend you avoid the Pablo Escobar tours; he was not a popular man and the locals aren’t crazy about people profiting from his criminality.
Jardin: A Colonial Paradise in the Andes
It’s not easy to get to as it’s in the Andes, but if you have time, you have to visit the colonial town of Jardin. When people asked me what my favorite part of Colombia was, I invariably gravitated towards Jardin.
It’s absolutely one of the best places to travel in Colombia, and it is still very much off the beaten path for the most part. This pueblo is, for those in the know, many people’s favorite destination and is ridiculously pretty.
Must-see in Jardin:
- Sight-see in the main square under the shoulders of the magnificent Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, their incredible cathedral. It’s a great spot for people watching.
- Hike up the valley to one of THE best cafes in Colombia, Cafe Jardin for a refreshing drink.
- Eat vegetarian – Jardin is incredibly vegetarian-friendly and serves vegetarian dishes as you’ve never seen them before. If you’re someone who chooses their meal meat-first, you have to step outside your comfort zone and try some! Don’t miss Roots, one of the best places to eat in Jardin.
How to get to Jardin
This was quite a journey from Manizales, which is where we were coming from, or Salento.
From Manizales, take the bus from the main bus station to Riosucio, and from there take a chiva up the dirt road to Jardin. It’s a LONG journey, despite what the bus company might tell you. Plan for 5-6 hours.
Here’s a guide that tells you everything you need to know about getting to Jardin from Salento.
Salento: Polished Gem of Colombia’s Coffee Axis
If you’re a coffee aficionado and are wondering where to go in Colombia to experience the best of their coffee, Salento should be on your list. Salento has beautiful architecture and a deep coffee connection – it’s a part of Colombia’s Coffee Zone, the Eje Cafetero.
Of course, there are numerous coffee tours and I’d recommend Finca El Ocaso and Las Acacias as the best of the bunch.
Must-see in Salento:
- Eat trout! It’s the specialty of the town and a feature dish of every restaurant.
- Hike the Valle do Cocora, it’s a great way to see the lush valleys and clear streams of the Andes and it lives up to its reputation as the best hike in Colombia. Don’t forget the detour to the hummingbird reserve, Casa de los Colibris, to see these beautiful creatures up close.
- Stroll the Plaza Bolivar and Calle Real in the center of Salento and experience the restaurants, souvenir shops and bars where you can sit and watch the world go by. It is just so colorful and picturesque, Salento should be near the top of anyone’s “Where to go in Colombia” list.
Bogota: Colombia’s Most Urban and Cosmopolitan Metropolis
You, of course, have to see the capital city of Colombia. It’s HUGE, and with that comes the hustle and bustle of any big city, along with the traffic.
Bogota is one of the best places to visit in Colombia, and there is seriously so much to do.
Yes, it gets some mixed reviews, so it’s worth doing your research before you go to ensure you stick to the best parts, but it’s well worth spending a few days in Bogota to do some urban exploration.
Must-see in Bogota
- Monserrate is over 10,000 feet above sea level so it’s a bit of a hike but is the best place from which to appreciate the vastness of the city. If you don’t want to walk there is a funicular railway and cable car to speed you to the top where you will find a church, restaurant and shop.
- Explore Chapinero – Quinta Camacho is a glitzy area of Bogota and is the place for fine-dining and where I had my best gluten-free meal – at Abasto. Traveling gluten free? Don’t miss my guide to gluten free Bogota.
- A trip to the famous Salt Cathedral, Columbia’s most famous church, is a must. Situated just outside the nearby city of Zipaquira, the Roman Catholic Salt Cathedral was built 600 feet underground in a disused salt mine and is an architectural wonder, another on the “where to go in Columbia” bucket list.
Final Thoughts on the Best Places to Visit in Colombia
With these five places, I am just scratching the surface of the best places to explore in this wonderful country.
From the mountains of the Andes down to the coast, and from unspoiled wilderness to thriving cities, Colombia offers unparalleled variety to the traveler looking for a little something different.
With six weeks, we STILL ran out of time to do and see everything we wanted to, and we’re looking forward to making a return trip to explore a little more off the beaten path – into the Amazon and the Pacific Coast.
Heading to Colombia? Here are some other posts you won’t want to miss.