Colombia is a microcosm of South America. It has snow-capped mountains, gorgeous beaches, pulsing nightlife, great coffee, vibrant cities, friendly people and more. You could travel for months here and never get bored. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the luxury to travel endlessly. So I put together this list of the best places to visit in Colombia to help you narrow down your itinerary!
Obviously this Colombia travel guide is subjective. I spent nearly a month backpacking around the country and these were my personal favorite spots. But I didn’t make it to any of the highest-altitude mountain ranges, the Pacific coast, the Amazon jungle, or the far south. No matter what, Colombia will always have something to go back for — but this list covers the areas that most backpackers focus on.
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The absolute best places to visit in Colombia
The destinations here are ones you shouldn’t miss no matter what. If you have limited time to visit Colombia, center it around these places.
Medellin: The “murder capital” turned “City of Eternal Spring”
If you only have time to visit one of the top Colombia attractions, make it Medellin. It’s the single best place to visit in Colombia. I found it almost impossible to tear myself away.
30 years ago Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Today it’s one of the most enjoyable. And the story of its transformation is fascinating.
Start your trip to Medellin with a free walking tour with Real City Tours. You’ll learn all about the rein of Pablo Escobar and how the city and the country has changed. The tour is very educational, and you’ll walk for around 4 hours to most of the best attractions in Medellin.
Medellin is also one of the best Colombia destinations for foodies. Spend at least three days eating and drinking your way through El Poblado, the popular backpacker neighborhood. If you have any energy left after exploring all day long, the nightlife is awesome too.
Where to stay: Black Sheep Hostel has a great location, good prices, and the city’s friendliest staff.
Where to eat: Verdeo
Where to have coffee: Pergamino
How many days?: You could see everything in Medellin in two days, but you’ll want to linger. 4 days would be ideal.
Jardin: Coffee Country’s most charming town
Little Jardin is making a name for itself as one of the best places to visit in Colombia for those looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience. And it’s little wonder why: The town simply drips old-fashioned coffee country charm. The central plaza is probably the best people-watching spot in South America.
But that’s not all. During the day, you can hike to a waterfall in a cave, do short walks into the mountains around town, go bird-watching, or visit a coffee plantation. The setting is unbelievably beautiful and it’s very safe to explore independently.
Jardin is just a few hours away from Medellin, so you could easily combine the two on a short trip.
Where to stay: Budget travelers are best off at Canto de Agua, although it’s noisy at night. Or just turn up at any of the generic budget hotels in the town center.
Where to eat: Mediterranea has fantastic pizza and pasta. The trout farm outside of town is a fun excursion where you can get the freshest lunch imaginable.
Where to drink coffee: Literally anywhere; it’s all good. Cafe Macanas is a local favorite.
How many days?: Two days is plenty
Cartagena: Caribbean charm and easy access to beaches
If I had to sum up Colombia in one word, it would be: “Colorful”. And nowhere embodies that more than Cartagena. The Caribbean gem’s old town has perfectly restored colonial houses with gorgeous flower-draped balconies. Nearby, the grittier neighborhood of Getsemani is a major street art hub.
Cartagena’s coastal location means you can easily get to the beach for a day trip. The city itself has a few beaches, but go further afield for cleaner water and a more relaxed atmosphere.
Being one of the best places to visit in Colombia, Cartagena is very popular. American tourists, Instagram wanna-be’s, and backpackers all flock to the city in peak season. But don’t let that scare you away — you don’t have to look too hard to find an authentic local scene.
Where to stay: The family-owned Patio de Getsemani is amazing value
Where to eat: La Mulatta is the best place to get a traditional Caribbean Colombian meal on a budget
Where to drink coffee: Abaco Book Shop serves the best cold brew in the city. Sit on the porch for views of the cathedral, or inside if you find a book you like.
How many days?: You can actually see Cartagena in one day, but two would allow for a more relaxed pace.
Best places to go in Colombia for city lovers
If you like spending your holidays in big cities, be sure to add these spots to your Colombia trip in addition to Medellin and Cartagena.
Bogota: A surprisingly charming giant city with fantastic museums
Bogota has a bit of a bad reputation in travel circles. It’s enormous, dangerous, and boring — or so the naysayers will tell you.
But if you take the time to explore Colombia’s capital, you’ll find it to be an enjoyable, laid-back city with tons to see and do. The weather is refreshingly cool and considering how many people live here, it’s a remarkably friendly city. Don’t miss a hike to Monserrate, a visit to the Gold Museum, and the Bogota Graffiti Tour.
And as for safety? During the day, it’s totally fine! Sure, you’ll want to keep your guard up in certain neighborhoods. But you really only need to worry after dark, and even then only in some parts of town. Don’t leave it off your Colombia itinerary out of fear of getting mugged!
Where to stay: Too many great places to name. I wrote a whole post about all of Bogota’s awesome hostels.
Where to eat: La Puerta Falsa for Colombia’s most famous chocolate completo. Quinua y Amaranto for the best set lunch (veggie-friendly)
Where to drink coffee: Arte y Pasion Cafe
How many days?: A minimum of two days in Bogota is necessary.
Santa Marta: Get your party on
If you’re young and looking for the best party on your Colombia vacation, head straight for Santa Marta and don’t look back. This Caribbean city has the most exciting gringo-centric nightlife in the country.
A large part of central Santa Marta is pedestrian-only. On weekend nights, the entire area turns into what feels like one giant, open-air bar. The vibe is very youthful and boozy If you’re over 25 you might not enjoy it so much — full disclosure, I’m too old for this shit and I beat a path out of there after getting some food. But if it’s what you’re looking for, it’s awesome.
The city is also one of the oldest in Colombia. You could spend a morning exploring its pleasant historic heart before heading to the beaches just outside of town.
Where to stay: Masaya Hostel has an epic set-up, with two pools and a bar, and good breakfasts.
Where to eat: Anywhere in the pedestrian zone in the city center
Where to drink coffee: Unfortunately Santa Marta’s coffee scene isn’t great. Stick with Juan Valdez.
How many days?: One night just before you head to Tayrona or the Lost City is plenty
Top places to visit in Colombia for outdoor adventures
Whether you like hiking, waterfall-rappelling, paragliding, cycling, mountaineering, or caving, you can find somewhere to do it in Colombia. The country is a paradise for nature-lovers and adrenaline junkies.
The Lost City: The best trek in Colombia
Everyone knows about Machu Picchu in Peru, but perhaps South America’s most intriguing ancient ruin is the Lost City of the Tayrona in Colombia. Deeply hidden in the jungle, known only to the Indigenous communities nearby until about 30 years ago, and only accessible on a four-day hike, it retains an aura of mystery unmatched at most historical sites.
The Ciudad Perdida Trek is easily Colombia’s most epic adventure. You start from Santa Marta and drive for about two hours to reach the trailhead in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You spend the next three days climbing up on impossibly steep trails in scorching heat and humidity, among the thickest jungle you’ve ever seen, to reach the ruins. You even have to ford a couple of waist-deep rivers along the way!
When you finally reach the Lost City, you get a personal guided tour. No one is there besides your group and your guide, and maybe one or two other groups. You are literally a three-day walk from the nearest tour bus. Finally, you spend the last day and a half walking back the way you came. Adventure of a lifetime.
Where to stay: Jungle camps all along the trail
What to eat: If you go with Expotur, they provide delicious and filling meals
Where to drink coffee: Sorry, instant coffee only!
How many days?: The trek takes a minimum of four days. You can extend it to five or six, but you’ll be ready to get out of the jungle after the third night.
San Gil: The adrenaline capital of South America
San Gil is a bit out on a limb on the typical Colombian backpacker circuit. That’s a shame, because it’s one of the best places to go in Colombia for adventure sports.
The most famous activity in San Gil is paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon. Believe it or not, once you jump off the edge of the mountain, it’s actually pretty relaxing!
Other great activities in the area include whitewater rafting, canyoning, hiking and trekking, and abseiling down a massive waterfall. In the evenings, learn to play tejo — a drinking game involving lead weights that you throw at a gunpowder-enhanced target.
Where to stay: Sam’s VIP is the place to be. They can book all your activities too.
Where to eat: Gringo Mike’s, possibly the best traveler restaurant in all of South America.
Where to drink coffee: Generally San Gil’s coffee scene kind of sucks. Gringo Mike’s has good French press coffee.
How many days?: Depends on how many activities you want to do. I’d recommend at least three days since it takes so long to get here.
Valle de Cocora: The best day hike in Colombia
One of Colombia’s most iconic landscapes, the Valle de Cocora lies on the lower slopes of Los Nevados National Park. It’s famous for being home to Colombia’s national tree — the massive wax palm, which can grow up to 60 meters high.
You can do a quick out-and-back hike to visit the wax palm grove. But for more of an adventure, opt for the five-hour loop. It takes in the cloud forest, an optional side trip to a hummingbird farm, suspension bridges, high-altitude mountain views, and of course, the wax palms at the end.
Not a hiker? No worries! You can still see the landscape on a horseback riding tour. Just make sure you book through your hostel, as not all the freelance guides treat their horses super well.
Where to stay: Base yourself in nearby Salento, where you can stay at La Serrana.
Where to eat: Pick up a packed lunch box at Brunch in Salento before you leave.
Where to drink coffee: The cafes at the entrance to the hike have real espresso machines and locally grown beans.
How many days?: You can do the hike on a day trip from Salento.
The best small towns to visit in Colombia
If you like colorful architecture and compact city centers that ooze charm, Colombia has plenty of places for you! There are too many to visit in one trip, but the ones I list here are relatively easy to reach and all unique.
Barichara: The most beautiful town in Colombia
There’s a reason Hollywood filmmakers, telenovela actors, and backpackers are all obsessed with Barichara. This little village in the mountains of Santander Department is beyond picturesque. The whitewashed walls with just a bit of color, the Andalusian-style wooden balconies, the leafy central plaza — it truly looks like it came out of a movie. And you’ve probably seen it in one, as it’s a popular filming location.
You’d think a place like this would be swarming with tourists, but Barichara is still fairly quiet. You might run into a group or two while you wander around town, or you might only encounter locals. That only adds to the feeling that it’s one of the most romantic places in Colombia.
Barichara is also the gateway to the Camino Real — a stone pathway laid by the local Indigenous population centuries ago. It links the town to Guane, another village that’s even smaller and cuter than Barichara. The scenery along the way is breathtaking. If you have time, you can hike even further into Chicamocha Canyon from here.
Where to stay: Visit on a day trip from San Gil, or stay at Tinto Hostel
Where to eat: Barichara wins major points for having great veggie food. Shanti and Shambala are both good options.
Where to drink coffee: Join the locals at Panadería Central, right on the plaza
How many days?: You can see the town center in a couple hours. Bank on a full day if you include the hike to Guane.
Salento: The gem of the Eje Cafetero
The Coffee Axis is one of the best places to visit in Colombia, and Salento is at the heart of it. This little town in the mountains is the perfect base for hiking in the Cocora Valley, visiting a coffee farm, or simply relaxing in an incredible setting.
But don’t spend all your time on day trips. Central Salento is supremely colorful. You can walk all around town in a morning, but spend a bit longer exploring the main road. You’ll find great souvenir shops (the Wayyu bags are popular) and the friendly locals will be happy to chat with you.
Where to stay: One of the best hostels in Colombia, La Serrana is 20 minutes outside of town. It’s well worth the walk.
Where to eat: Ricon De Lucy is the classic menu del dia spot in town.
Where to drink coffee: Straight from the source! Go on a tour of El Ocaso or Don Elias Coffee Farms.
How many days?: Stay for three days so you can explore the town, hike in the Valle de Cocora, and do a coffee tour.
Guatape: Home of the Insta-famous Piedra de Peñol
Few places have taken Instagram by storm as much as Guatape. This town just two hours from Medellin is famous for its fresco-adorned houses and for the spectacular man-made lakes all around. The best way to see the landscape is to climb the 700 steps of the Piedra de Peñol, a massive granite monolith just outside of town.
Guatape has a carnival-like atmosphere on the weekends, when seemingly everyone from Medellin comes to go boating or swimming on the lake. It’s also firmly on the international Colombia tourism circuit. Visit during the week for a quieter trip.
Another real treat of visiting Guatape is riding in the super-colorful tuk tuks that connect the town to the giant rock and the lake. They’re cheap and really fun!
Where to stay: Visit on a day trip from Medellin
Where to eat: Guatape had the most disappointing food scene of anywhere I went in Colombia. Any of the restaurants on the town square serve passable menus del dia, with vegetarian options.
Where to drink coffee: The coffee isn’t great, but you can’t beat the location of any of the cafes in the Plazoleta de los Zocalos
How many days?: I’d stick to a day trip for this one. You could spend a night to see the town after tourists clear out for the day, but Jardin, Barichara and Salento are all more pleasant places to do this.
Best places to visit in Colombia for beach bums
Do you prefer to park on the beach for your vacations? With a long stretch of Caribbean coastline and a still-wild Pacific coast, you can find your dream beach on your trip to Colombia.
Costeño Beach: The most chill place for a beach holiday
I don’t know about you, but my idea of a perfect beach trip is somewhere with few other people. A small town where locals hang around playing volleyball, you know all the other travelers by name within a few hours of arriving, electricity is hit-and-miss, and WiFi is nonexistent.
If this sounds like your ideal beach, beat a path for tiny Costeño Beach. It shares the same stretch of sand as Tayrona National Park but sees a fraction of the tourists. It’s highly social without being a party beach, and you’ll get to know all the locals in the area during your stay since it’s so small.
Lots of travelers go to Costeño Beach to surf. You can rent boards and take lessons. If you wake up early, you can swim in the mornings, but the current gets dangerous in the afternoon and in rainy season. That’s not really a problem though — the beach is so gorgeous that you won’t want to leave your hammock anyway!
Where to eat: At your hotel. Costeño Surf Camp serves outside guests as well.
Where to drink coffee: Costeño Surf Camp has a decent espresso bar (near the reception)
How many days?: Oh jeeze, I could’ve stayed here a month. However long you need to relax!
Tayrona National Park: Sleep in a hammock surrounded by the ocean
The classic Caribbean beach getaway obviously deserves a spot on any list of best places to go in Colombia. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to visit, but I’ll be back!
To get into Tayrona National Park, you have to hike for about two hours on (relatively easy) trails through the jungle. Eventually you come to a series of beaches — jaw-droppingly beautiful, postcard-perfect beaches like Cabo San Juan. Here you can rent a tent or a hammock to spend the night.
Unfortunately a dangerous current makes Tayrona National Park a poor candidate for swimming. But it’s worth going for the sense of adventure that comes from tromping through the jungle to reach your beach.
Where to stay: Everyone wants a shot at one of the first-come, first-served hammocks on the “island” created by high tide at Cabo San Juan
Where to eat: At your hotel. Food is expensive.
Where to drink coffee: At your hotel. Not a lot of options here.
How many days?: Most travelers find one night in a beach hammock to be plenty. You could stay outside the park at one of the more comfortable hostels for a few days if you want more beach time.
The Rosario Islands: Far better beaches just an hour away from Cartagena
If you’re driving down the airport road past Cartagena’s public beaches, you’ll probably find yourself wondering, “this is it? This is Colombia’s Caribbean paradise?”
Don’t worry — those photos you’ve seen of Cartagena’s amazing beaches are real! You just have to take a boat to reach them. They’re found on the Rosario Islands, usually visited on a day trip from Cartagena.
Playa Blanca on Isla Baru is the focal point of Rosario Islands tourism. It can be overcrowded during the day, but it’s a gorgeous beach. Stay overnight so you can arrive before the crowds come and stick around after they leave. This is also one of the best places in Colombia for diving, which can get you out to some of the more remote islands.
You can also book a tour to visit several of the islands in one day from Cartagena, including some snorkeling and usually a fresh-caught fish lunch.
Where to stay: Visit on a day trip from Cartagena
Where to eat: Lunch is typically included in your tour
Where to drink coffee: Not great options, unfortunately. Have an extra shot of espresso at Cafe San Andres in Cartagena before you get on the boat.
How many days?: You can see the islands in a day, but most people prefer to spend a few days relaxing.
As you can see, there are too many top places in Colombia to possibly cover them all in one trip. And I didn’t even mention Cali, Popayan, San Augustin, the San Andres Islands, Jerico, or Mompox!
Colombia is a country worth taking your time in — or taking multiple trips to. Great hostels, affordable prices, a relatively high standard of living, and a mostly amazing climate make it one of the most pleasant travel destinations on the planet. I hope this post has inspired you to plan to visit Colombia!
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