From the blue waters of Tayrona National Park, the sweeping views of the Cocora Valley, and the ruins of San Agustín, Tierradentro, and the Lost City, to the white colonial buildings of Popayán and the hustle and bustle of its metropolises, Colombia is packed with things to see and do.
Today I want to share my list of what I think are the best things to see and do in Colombia. These are the activities and places you should try to focus on when you visit:
Bogotá is Colombia’s vibrant capital. While it’s not the country’s most popular destination, it felt the most “Colombian” to me: there was just a certain edge and charm to it, and it seemed the least touristy, with the fewest gringo expats. The historic downtown, La Candelaria, is filled with bright colonial buildings, detailed museums, delicious restaurants, tiny fun, historic churches, and centuries-old houses. The north end of town is home to boutique hotels and entertainment areas like Zona Rosa and Zona G. The foodie scene in the city is incredible, with a lot of international options and cutting-edge gastronomic happenings. Throw in some amazing walking tours, day trips, and hikes and you’ve got a recipe for an astounding city.
This hot, hot city is the salsa capital of the world, where people come to dance. A lot of the guests at my hostel had been there for weeks to learn (the hostels also offer free dance classes). If you like to dance, you can’t miss this city. Besides dancing, though, there are a number of parks, museums, and churches you can visit, plus free walking and food tours. While I didn’t stay long, I definitely enjoyed the scene.
Popayán rivals Cartagena as Colombia’s most impressive colonial town. It’s known as La Ciudad Blanca (“The White City”) because all the buildings are painted white. Popayán is also a college town (there are three universities), and it’s produced 17 presidents too! Though small, I really loved the slow pace of life and the surprisingly robust food scene here (eat at La Cosecha Parrillada, Restaurante Italiano y Pizzeria, La Fresa, and Mora de Castilla).
While you don’t need a lot of time (take the walking tour, climb the hill, see the churches, and you’re done), I do suggest staying longer to enjoy the slow pace of life. So much of Colombia is go-go-go, it’s nice to find a place that’s more “stay and relax a while.”
4. Tatacoa Desert
Millions of years ago it was once a lush tropical forest. Now, Tatacoa Desert is filled with rocky canyons in shades of red and gray. It is also home to one of the most important observatories in South America, where you can gaze at the stars (weather permitting). If you want to be blown away by the universe, you really need to see this place! Other than that, there’s not much here. Bike into the desert, take some walks, stare at the sky. Stay a night or two. It’s not a popular area, but it is a picturesque way to break up the long bus ride from Bogotá to the south or vice versa.
5. San Agustín Archaeological Park
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Agustín is a small mountain town that’s home to hundreds of pre-Columbian statues and burial mounds. Its collection of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures is the largest in Latin America, for which you’ll need at least one full day (two to really see it all in depth). If you love history, this is probably the best spot in all of Colombia to experience it.