Despite the previous strife, Colombians are routinely rated the happiest people in the world. They’re aware of the reputation they’ve got, and will go out of their way to show you exactly how off-the-mark your assumptions are. Its landscape is as varied as it is stunning.
Finding the humid, tropical beaches of the Caribbean coast a bit much? Head to the cooler, mountainous climes of Medellin and Bogota.
Or perhaps singing in the constant rain of Popayan would be more your flavour. I’m not too embarrassed to say the country worked its way into this young man’s heart.
By my count there are approximately one million most beautiful places in Colombia, but by some act of god I’ve been able to whittle that down to a very manageable ten!
La Piedra Del Peñol is a large chunk of rock that rises out of the middle of a man-made lake near the sleepy town of Guatape, 2 hours north-east of Medellin.
The lake was only created in the 60s for hydro-electric purposes, and has made the view from the top of the climbable rock exquisite. The township of Guatape is only as old as the lake, and because of this it has been able to create its own very unique aesthetic.
One of the original house owners decided to decorate the front of his house with colourful tiles depicting his trade, and over the years the entire town followed suit. It’s the cutest!
Medellin, as of 1991-92, was officially the aforementioned murder capital of the world. Pablo Escobar had set up shop and was throwing money at anyone in a position of power and killing anyone who chose to go honest, while the Colombian civil war simultaneously raged on. The difference from then to now is nothing short of STUNNING.
I felt as safe in Medellin as in any European capital. The public transport infrastructure, much of which was built during those trying times, makes seeing this picturesque city a breeze.
Take a cable car up to Arvi Park and soak in the views of the valley-bound city. Find a hostel bed in El Poblado and get waist deep in the epic nightlife. Hear the stories of the people that have lived it – from then to now.
Sick of lounging on beautiful beaches or in rainforest hammocks? Feel like getting the blood circulating again? Head 2 hours south of Bucaramanga to the quiet mountain town of San Gil, and dip your toe, head and/or torso into any of the countless adventure activities on offer.
And if mountain biking, rafting, canyoning, paragliding or rock climbing don’t float your boat, head to nearby Curiti for a swim in their epic string of rock pools, or head 30 minutes the other way to the majestic Juan Curi waterfall.
Bogota was thoroughly undersold to us. When fellow travellers heard that we were going, the general consensus was ‘minimise the time and move on through’. How wrong they were. For all its grit and grime, Bogota had more character than most other Colombian cities combined.
A burgeoning student population, an intense nightlife scene, and a particularly lenient attitude to street art made most of the centre of town feel like a cooler version of East London. Find a place to stay in La Candelaria, then spend all day wandering around and looking up.
Tayrona National Park
Next to the seaside city of Santa Marta you’ll find Tayrona National Park. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful place to visit in Colombia. It’s a heady combination of untouched Caribbean beaches and dense rainforest, leading up to huge, often snow-capped mountains.
Find yourself a tent and some sleeping gear and get lost in nature until you find a combination of the above that suits you best. Take supplies to last a while though – Tayrona has a habit of keeping people longer than they planned.
The north coast of Colombia is home to the party and tourist hotspot of Cartagena, a throbbing city where the nights turn into days that turn into nights again, often without you noticing.
The after-hours fun is balanced beautifully though with an old-town that is dripping with history. Here you’ll find stories of the Spanish Inquisition and stark reminders of the slave trade, then be able to wash away the thoughts of how rubbish people were hundreds of years ago with an ice-cold Aguila and a bit of salsa.
One of the most southern major centres of Colombia, Popayan is located between the Western and Central mountain ranges of the country about 140km south of Cali.
The location between the mountain ranges means it rains. And when I say it rains, I mean it rains! Approximately two thirds of the year. Bring an umbrella. The city itself though is loaded with charm, with almost the entire centre consisting of whitewashed colonial buildings. I was a month late, but am reliably told that during Easter the white city is Colombia’s place to be!
Capurgana and nearby Sapzurro mark the final pieces of Columbian soil before entering Panama. You’ll find stunning beaches rolling into gorgeous Caribbean reefs that you’ll swear are painted. The sand gives way to dense jungle that is full to the brim with local wildlife.
The seafood is plentiful and ridiculously fresh, but keep your eye on it – the local monkeys will be keen to share in your feed. And for a unique addition to your bucket list, why not walk – or even swim – to another continent?
Santa Rosa de Cabal
A town of just 60,000, Santa Rosa is famous for 2 things – its silkworm industry, and Termales, a thermal pool and waterfall combination that is nothing short of a work of art. 200km south of Medellin, it is the perfect stop-over for any traveller heading down towards Ecuador.
The water is the perfect temperature, and the springs usually stay open well into the night. Head there for an evening, and soak in the serenity with a drink in hand.
Santiago de Cali
Even after people described Cali as the world capital of salsa, it was hard to wrap my head around exactly how ingrained the famous Latin American dance is in the city’s culture. It is everywhere. So strap on your dancing shoes, because if you’re in Cali, you’re going to be moving your feet. Often seen as the little brother of Bogota and Medellin, it breaks away from any comparison with an atmosphere all its own.
The surrounding wilderness is in itself breathtaking. Be sure to make your way out to KM 18 (Columbia’s bird watching paradise) while you’re there!
10 of the most beautiful places to visit in Colombia was written by our guest blogger Michael Catford