Set to the lively rhythms of salsa and merengue, spiked with three great chains of Andean peaks, scented with mountain coffees and dressed in everything from misty rainforests to rolling pampas, there’s a reason that Colombia reigns as one of South America’s real bucket-list destinations.
Check out this selection of the the best places to visit in Colombia:
Another of South America’s soaring capital cities, the sprawling, seething metropolis of Bogota makes its home on the ridges of the Colombian Eastern Cordillera.
Just shy of nine million Colombians live, work and play here, making it an electric place to visit.
The best known district – La Candelaria – is a lesson in all things colonial.
Trodden by Simon Bolivar and awash with low-rise pueblo cottages, cobblestone streets and the gorgeous La Catedral, it’s simply not to be missed.
Elsewhere, Bogota offers up the dramatic funicular ride to the tips of Cerro de Monserrate, while football crowds roar in El Campin and the various museums house everything from mysterious Incan gold works to Spanish portraiture.
Colombia’s Caribbean come colonial gem is a mass of coral-stone forts and crumbling stuccoed homes, all strung along the country’s finest stretch of coastline.
The Old Town is the piece de resistance for sure; a place where labyrinthine alleys weave and turn past gorgeous Baroque mansions and Spanish churches burst onto sunny plazas where babbling fountains mirror the colours of the blooming flower baskets on the nearby palazzo.
And then there’s the swish side of town: Bocagrande.
Here, Gucci-bearing, bikini-clad folk rollerblade along the beachfronts, sip pina coladas in the Carib sun and tan themselves between the lines of swaying palm trees.
The onetime epicentre of the infamous Medellin Cartel has gone full chameleon, changing virtually entirely since the days when Pablo Escobar ruled its potholed streets and ramshackle barrios of breeze blocks and corrugated roofs.
Today, Medellin is a buzzing, artsy university town that boasts the likes of the fascinating Museo de Antioquia and the restored homes of countless Colombian writers and artists.
Public art displays adorn many a street corner, popping up in metallic canopies above the town’s Botanical Gardens, or with curious avant-garde carvings on the plazas (Medellin isn’t called the ‘City of Sculptures’ for nothing!). The rugged ridges of the Aburra Valley can also be reached by cable car from the town – great for sunset viewing!
4. San Gil
Hemmed in by the steep-sided valleys and wild ridges of the mighty Cordillera Oriental – the easternmost branch of the Colombian Andes – San Gil has risen and risen to become perhaps the country’s most famed outdoorsy hub.
With the palm-dotted, misty hills of the Yariguies National Park to the west and the sanctuaries of the Rio Fonce to the east, it’s easy to see how the small city gets by on attracting hikers, bikers, white water rafters, rock climbers, wildlife seekers, gorge walkers – the list goes on! Those who do opt to break out into the wildernesses here can expect the breathtaking likes of the Chicamocha Canyon, the rustic village of Jordan, deep caves and oodles more!
5. Santa Marta
Strung out along the beautiful coastal reaches of Magdalena Department, Santa Marta is arguably the prime spot for beach lovers in all of Colombia.
The town itself is sandwiched between the snow-mantled peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the deep blue, cerulean rollers of the Caribbean Sea.
The sand stretches in the city are truly wonderful, complete with granite boulders dotting the shore and swaying lines of palm trees.
In nearby Taganga, meanwhile, backpackers sip cerveza and prep for diving in the legendary coral gardens and coves of the Tayrona National Park.
Others make a beeline for the secluded sands of Bahia Concha, or head to the Sierras, where rustic pueblos like Minca and jungle-shrouded Paso Del Mango are set to the sounds of chirping tropical birds and babbling rainforest creeks.
Manizales can be found nestled in a beautiful valley of spiked and serrated Andean hills, right on the edge of the famous Coffee Valley in the very heart of the Colombian mountain region.
A relatively modern town that was founded by pacifists in the middle of the 1800s, when civil wars raged through the land, Manizales still oozes a charming laid-back vibe that’s difficult not to like.
Today, there are plenty of earthy little bakeries and cantinas to enjoy, where it’s also possible to sip potent fresh coffees in the company of chatty locals.
Outside of the town and the beautiful snow-mantled ridges of the Nevado del Ruiz soar above the horizon; a glacier-topped volcano that’s home to spectacled bears and tapirs alike.
A down-to-earth, gritty city that’s the veritable epicentre of Colombia’s iconic Coffee Valley, Pereira buzzes with enterprise and big business.
Benefitting from the fertile soils and hospitable climate of the Risaralda region, the city has grown and grown, booming with coffee bean and sugarcane depots by the bucket load.
Today, the spot remains a little off-the-beaten-track and certainly less visited than some of the other towns in the Valle de Cauca.
That makes it a great place to sample Colombia’s local highland character, sip potent coffees in earthy cantinas, and take a tour of the bean plantations in the hills – all without the usual crowds.
The roaring waterfalls and bubbling hot springs of Santa Rosa are also nearby – perfect for getting away from the urban fray.
Whitewashed pueblo homes and adobe cottages with half-baked terracotta roofs line up all along Barichara’s cobbled alleys and roads.
Set over the sultry hills and scrublands of Santander in the northern reaches of the country, this is the sort of cowboy come gaucho town you’d expect to see in a Sergio Leone flick.
Its center is crowned by the colossal Cathedral of Barichara, which balances well with the humble, mud-built chapel to the Virgin Mary on the nearby roadways.
Neat little craft workshops touting woven fabrics hide in the bungalows, while the wild karst hills and cloud-topped peaks of the untrodden Serrania De Los Yariguies beckon with adventures aplenty to the west.
9. Villa de Leyva
No matter who you are, there’s simply no escaping the charm of Villa de Leyva.
Hailed by most as the single handsomest town in the nation, this patchwork of wobbly cobbled roads and whitewashed buildings is a lesson in all things Spanish colonialism.
Perfectly preserved, the city stands like a great museum piece amidst the low Andean hills of Boyaca.
It draws thousands of day-trippers out of the capital at Bogota too, who come to wallow on the sun-splashed plaza at the town’s heart, taste fine-dining in the new wave of international eateries fringing the 16th century streets, and delve into the fascinating Museum of Paleontology and Museo del Carmen alike.
Popayan is hailed as the White City, and can be found spread out nearly 2,000 meters up on the ridges of the great Cordillera Occidental.
Shimmering and shining in the Andean sun, the town is awash with photogenic churches and governmental builds left over from Spanish rule.
Take the square-cut Clock Tower in the heart of town, or the gloriously adorned Santo Domingo church, looking plucked straight from the backwater towns of Andalusia.
Then there’s the breathtaking sight of the Catedral Basilica, a glorious example of neoclassical colonial design that’s been meticulously restored after a destructive earthquake in the 1980s.
Yes sir, Popayan is one darn pretty town to explore!
11. Santa Rosa de Cabal
Nestled deep in the wild folds of the Cordillera Central, where the two mighty chains of the Colombian Andes spread out northwards, the effortlessly pretty town of Santa Rosa de Cabal is a real must on any itinerary through the country.
It’s famed primarily for its Termales hot springs, which bubble and froth through the jungles nearby, overlooking dramatic waterfalls and the wild foothills of the mountains.
Between the city streets themselves, travelers will discover some charming little plazas and palm-dotted walkways, while mineral mines and bucolic villages pepper the highlands and valleys all around.
12. San Agustin
Steeped in myth, legend and raw, pre-Colombian history, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of San Agustin is like nowhere else in all of South America.
Travelers flock to the far-flung spot amidst the rainforests and winding river channels of southern Huila Department to seek out the famous anthropomorphic monolith carvings that were discovered lurking in the various burial mounds and chieftain tombs here.
They are thought to have been constructed sometime after the 8th century, and belie a complex spiritual relationship with the afterlife, making this one of the most enthralling and fascinating sacred sites in the country.
What’s more, San Agustin boasts a beautiful location betwixt the verdant valleys that line the Magdalena River!
There are few places as elegant and handsome as Santa Cruz de Mompox (that’s just Mompox for short).
Set over the waterways of the appropriately-named Bolivar Department (it was here that the revered Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar came to raise troops in 1812), the town glows in hues of white and yellow, punctuated in the middle by the maroon-red facades of its gorgeous San Francisco Church (don’t miss the frescos!).
Other pulls include the artworks of the House of the Apostles and the sun-splashed cobbles of Plaza Concepcion; a gorgeous little square where local folk sip coffee, the mellifluous Spanish tongue echoes throughout the evening, and merengue dances erupt ad hoc in the cantinas.
Rising from amidst the sea of coffee plantations and swaying palm tree groves that is the Eje Cafetero (one of the heartlands of the Colombian coffee growing axis), Salento is a laid-back provincial backwater with a lacing of bona fide colonial charm and an earthy, local Quindio character.
The horizons around the city are spiked with the mist-topped, snowy peaks of the Los Nevados National Park and its 5,000-meter-high volcanos, while the maze of tight-knit streets and their pretty rows of painted craft boutiques that form the center rarely fail to impress.
Be sure to sample the trout dishes (the Salento version is famous) and head out on a coffee tour to see the best of the region as a whole.
15. Santiago de Cali
Beating with the rhythms of salsa (one of the more famous exports of this two million-strong city in the midst of the Valle del Cauca), Santiago de Cali – or just Cali for short – is a great place to while away some time before making a beeline for the coffee plantations and wilds of the Cordillera Occidental.
Start by flitting between the preserved Spanish churches in the colonial center, then wonder at the Gothicism of the La Ermita, or head for the heights of the Cerro de las Tres Cruces for views over the tops of the town.
Sports and adventure are big here too, and travelers can opt to hike and bike in the surrounding mountains, or settle in with the roaring locals for a football match at the colossal Estadio Olimpico.