Ibagué isn’t on the traditional tourist trail through Colombia, but this small and friendly city is set amongst brilliant natural surroundings and it’s a nice stop between Bogotá and Salento. Many visitors come to trek in El Nevado del Tolima National Park or venture to the Combeima Canyon.
But within Ibagué, the capital city of the Tolima Department, you’ll find parks, plazas, markets, and botanical gardens. It’s known as Colombia’s “City of Music” so there’s also a historic conservatory as well as the country’s annual Folk Festival in June which draws thousands of visitors. The city itself is a charming and safe place for tourists to mix with locals, experience the nightlife, try the traditional cuisine of Tolima, and head off for some adventure sports.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ibagué:
1. Plaza de Bolívar
Much like other plazas throughout Colombia and South America, this is the perfect spot for people watching and street food.
It’s a pleasant and attractive square with fountains and gardens, bordered by the city’s Catedral Inmaculada Concepción (which you can peek inside), government buildings, and (of course) a statue of Simón Bolívar.
There are also plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, and dessert places around, so grab an ice cream or a sweet Colombian treat like an oblea and sit for a while on a park bench here.
2. Jardín Botanico San Jorge
At the edge of the city you’ll find these botanical gardens that are home to over 500 species of plants.
A great place for exercise, there are miles of nature trails as well as a tougher two-hour hike to the top with incredible views (be sure to bring water!). A rustic yet beautiful park, you can see local flora that’s used for medicinal purposes as well as the famed coca plant.
There’s a small fee to enter, and occasionally local university students give tours of gardens.
The trails are also a great place for birdwatching, and you can stop for a picnic in certain areas to make a day of it.
Speak to an employee to ensure the gate to the gardens is open before you head up.
3. Parque Museo La Martinica
If you want to get out of the city and into nature, Ibagué is a great jumping off point for that.
La Martinica is a large nature reserve just ten minutes from the city center with lots of ecotourism activities for visitors.
Hike to the top of the highest hill here if you’re up for two to three hours of steady climbing in the heat.
Or bring your gear for camping, wildlife watching, and relaxing next to the Rio Combeima.
There’s birdwatching, horseback riding, abseiling and rappelling through waterfalls, mountain biking, and lots of viewpoints.
Don’t worry, there’s civilization around here too with options for spa treatments, restaurants, and swimming pools.
4. Music and Folklore
Because Ibagué is known as the “City of Music” in Colombia, be sure to check out the city’s important historic sites while you’re here.
The Conservatory of Tolima now consists of a crumbling old building and a new modern one just a block from the Plaza de Bolívar.
It’s got an interesting colorful facade, and if you sit in the Parque de la Música next door long enough, you might just hear some free music.
The city’s streets inspired many traditional songs, and Ibagué is also recognized as the center of Colombian folklore.
The annual Folk Festival draws large crowds of tourists during the last week of June when streets and plazas are filled with stages, colorful dresses, dancing, and the rhythms of Andean folk music and traditional instruments.
5. Try the Food of Tolima
They say the tamales in Ibagué are the best in all of Colombia, so sample a few while you’re here and pick your favorites. They’re little pockets of wrapped-up goodness made from a cornmeal dough that’s mixed with potatoes, carrots, egg, chicken, or pork and then steamed in banana leaves.
Try Tamales Don Floro or Palacio del Tamal.
Lechona is another delicious favorite around here – it’s slow-cooked pig with crispy skin stuffed with rice, onion, and spices.
Bonus points if you find the tamal with lechona.
Other foods from Tolima include venadillo (an oatmeal-based drink), fresh river fish, red desserts called liberales, and fresh quesillo cheese.
6. La Fundación Orquidea del Tolima
Another nature-based activity in Ibagué, a visit to the Fundación Orquidea is a must while in town if you’re into flowers.
The endangered Cattleya trianae species is actually the national flower of Colombia, and you’ll find one of them here.
Take the nature trail up to the mirador to see the town below, learn about the preservation and life cycle of orchids, and chat with the reserve’s friendly and passionate host.
There are lots of hummingbirds buzzing about, a pond with fish and ducks, and the surrounding forest even has a few monkeys roaming close by.
It makes for a nice day of walking, enjoying nature, and soaking up the mountain views, plus you can actually spend the night here if you happen to fall in love with the place.
7. Museo de Arte del Tolima
While the city is known more for its music, you can see the best of Tolima’s art from the 19th century through today.
Between the four exhibit areas – three permanent and one rotating – the museum features Colombian artists and contemporary Latin American artwork, and you’ll get a feel for the art scene around here.
There’s even a little souvenir shop and cafe where you can have a coffee after you’ve finished browsing.
Check the museum’s Facebook page for things like painting workshops and film screenings – this place serves as an important community center as well.
8. Adventure Sports
If you need a little adrenaline while you’re here, there’s an adventure sports tour company in Ibagué that can hook you up.
Ibagué Extremo gets rave reviews for guiding people into the natural surroundings of Ibagué to hike, zipline, slide down natural waterslides, and most popular of all, go canyoning.
Canyoning is basically rappelling down a waterfall (in the middle of the beautiful Colombian jungle). They company provides all of the gear and safety equipment you’ll need, so you’ll get a taste of excitement while still feeling secure.
Just tell them what you want to do and they can combine activities and transportation to make it all happen.
9. Visit Juntas and the Combeima Canyon
A popular weekend trip, Juntas is a peaceful mountain village just a short trip away from Ibagué by public bus.
Along with the dramatic Cañon Del Combeima, it’s got around 50 waterfalls to explore and lots of outdoorsy activities like climbing, hiking, ATV riding, birdwatching, and horseback riding.
You can also make your way up to El Rancho, the thermal hot springs located in the cloud forest.
Along with nature-based attractions, there’s a coffee nursery, a fish farm, and the ruins of a gold mine.
The town is a great place to eat river trout, almojabanas (cheese bread), baked rabbit, sancocho, and other regional foods.
10. Parque Nacional El Nevado del Tolima
Many mountaineers use Ibagué as a base before heading out to trek up El Nevado del Tolima, but unless you’re an avid hiker (or really want to reach 5,215 meters), that’s probably not why you’re here.
El Nevado del Tolima National Park is still a beautiful site for the less hardcore as it’s got many trails, mountains, high altitude lakes, gorges, and thick jungles to explore.
The frequently snow-capped mountains here are actually volcanoes, and you can hike amongst them or visit the hot springs at El Rancho at the park’s entrance.
Get a guide if you do want to summit El Nevado – you don’t actually need technical climbing skills – because it’s a multi-day trek to the top via the Ibagué Route or the Salento Route.
Even though Ibagué isn’t a huge city by Colombian standards, the residents here still like to rumba (that means “party”). Nightlife is focused in the eastern portion of the city along with all the cinemas and shopping malls.
El Tereque, La Estacion, and Estancomodos Bar are popular spots for drinking, mingling, and dancing to Latin hits until late into the night.
If you’re really into trying something local, hop onboard a loud, colorful chiva (party bus) to drink with friends as you ride around town blasting music for a couple of hours before finally getting dropped off at a nightclub.
12. Day Trip to Armero
Just an hour from Ibagué, you’ll find a town called Armero which is now in ruins.
It was destroyed in 1985 when the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted.
More than 20,000 people were killed in the second-deadliest eruption of the 20th century, and in that spot there’s a small museum commemorating the tragedy.
At the Centro Histórico Parque de la Vida, you’ll find stories and information on the volcano which devastated the town with mudflow rather than lava.
You’ll see memorials, the remaining ruins, and how nature that has begun to overgrow everything (bring mosquito repellant).
13. Water Parks
If you want to swim, hit the water slides, or find somewhere to relax poolside with the family for the day, Ibagué has you covered.
Within the town you have Playa Hawaii, a pretty little water park with a hotel, pool, and lakeside area lined with palm trees.
About an hour outside of town, however, there’s a much bigger waterpark called Piscilago that has tons of water slides of all excitement levels, swimming pools, restaurants, kid’s play areas, and even a zoo.
Located in the town of Melgar with accommodation nearby, it’s a great place to spend a full day with the family when it’s sunny out.
14. Hit the Markets
Traditional local markets are one of the best things about smaller cities, and there are several around Ibagué.
Locals here are friendly, so spend some time wandering around, checking out the fresh produce, and trying the cheap cooked meals at the food stands.
They’re like farmer’s markets housed in open warehouses that often spill out onto the streets.
Plaza de Mercado La 28 has a variety of traditional food to try, from corn arepas to lechona with peas, but be careful of your belongings.
Chapinero Mall (or La Plaza de Mercado La 14) is a great place to see the campesinos bring their products in for sale from the countryside, especially on Sunday.
It’s perfect for tourists because you can take photos, try Tolimense foods, and then hit one of the many pubs nearby or explore the Multi Central Commercial Chapinero shopping complex.
15. Hike to La Rivera
If you make it out to Juntas – which you should – keep going a little further to Finca La Rivera.
It’s about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the village, so you can either make the hour-and-a-half hike or get a ride.
La Rivera is a farm with a lovely restaurant, accommodations, activities, and a nature reserve.
Here you’ll find a cable car that you can ride, camping, great views, horseback trips to the canyon, and exceptional food like grilled rainbow trout.
If you choose to stay for the night, they often have campfires and open-air movies, plus if the weather is clear you’ll can see the dramatic Nevado del Tolima from here.