Why Colombia should be your next travel destination

Colombia has an incredible biodiversity, rich culture and long history. In this article you will find 10 good reasons to visit Colombia for your next holiday.

Barichara, Santander
1. All in one country

Colombia is a huge country where you can find completely different landscapes and climates: dense rainforests, tropical coastlines, exotic beaches, imposing mountains and snow peaks, stunning deserts, buzzing modern cities and beautiful colonial-style towns. 

The Amazon rainforest, that expands over the southeast Colombia and covers nearly 40% of the national territory, is a truly unique and majestic place filled with amazing biodiversity, natural resources and ancient ways of life. In the impressive savannah of the Orinoquia or Eastern Plains you can go on a memorable safari to meet the wildlife or go horse riding and experience the culture of the region. The off-the-beaten-track Pacific coast offers isolated virgin beaches, amazing marine biodiversity, dense jungle and Afro-Colombian traditions. In the north, there is Cartagena, a colonial gem located in Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The islands of San Andrés, Providencia, Barú and Rosario feature white-sanded beaches and crystal waters. There is also Tayrona, a paradise of tropical beaches and lush vegetation. In this region, you will also find Colombia’s largest desert, La Guajira, where you can explore primitive landscapes covered by sand, relax on a hammock, get to know the culture of the indigenous people and enjoy fresh fish.

Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira
Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira

In the Andean region the mountains create the perfect landscape for long hikes and adventure sports with plenty of forests and paramos to visit. You can travel to the famous coffee triangle and its picturesque towns that reflect the tradition of coffee growing on the foothills of the Andes. In the hot city of Cali, you will be immersed in the salsa music and be impressed by the dancing skills of the locals. If you’re more into history and archaeology, the San Agustin Archaeological Park and the colonial city of Popayán in the southern part of the region are worth a visit. Last but not least, the cosmopolitan cities of Bogotá and Medellín will introduce you to the best of the country through a mix of culture, history and arts. 

View from Monserrate Hill, Bogota
View of Bogotá from Monserrate Hill
2. The cultural diversity

Thanks to its long history, Colombia is known for the rich cultural diversity. The country has been inhabited by people of different origins and cultures, including indigenous, afro, mestizo, European and Arabic. These cultural influences are represented in gastronomy, music, dancing, fashion, and everyday life. 

Of nearly 50 million of the Colombian population, the ethnic groups represent 14% from which 10.5% are afro-descendants and 3.5% indigenous. The black and Afro-Colombian populations, descendants of the African slaves who were taken to Colombia during the Spanish colonisation in the 16th century, are concentrated mainly in the coastal areas of the Pacific (mostly in the departments of Chocó and Valle del Cauca) and the Caribbean (mostly in the departments of Bolívar and Sucre). Colombia’s indigenous peoples belong to 87 different tribes and inhabit several regions of the country, most of them remote,  like the Guajira desert by the Wayúu , the mountain range of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta by the Koguis and Arhuacos, the Pacific coast by the Nasa, Emberá and Pastos, and the Amazonia by the Tikunas and other groups. 

Wayúu community, La Guajira

Besides Spanish, 64 Amerindian and 2 creole languages are spoken in Colombia as well as a diversity of dialects. Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities have contributed to a great extent to Colombia’s cultural diversity by keeping their heritage alive through their language, traditional foods, music, festivals and cultural events.

3. The music and dance

In Colombia music is passion. There is probably no other country where music and dancing are engraved in the DNA of its people. Colombia is not only a country of regions but also of music genres. To name a few, there is cumbia, champeta, vallenato and porro in the Caribbean coast, currulao in the Pacific, bambuco in the Andean highlands, salsa in Cali and joropo in the Eastern Plains. There is also reggaeton, one of the most popular contemporary genres not only in Colombia but the whole world, which is perfect for dancing and partying. It features mainly synthesized electronic sounds and rap-style beats. It is worth mentioning that two of the world’s most recognised reggaeton singers, J Balvin and Maluma, both come from the city of Medellín.

Bahia Malaga, Pacific Coast
Afro-Colombian group of performers, Pacific coast

Today, there are various artists who have transferred those traditional rhythms to the international music scene by mixing different sounds. Among other renowned Colombian music groups, ChocQuibTown, Bomba Estéreo and Systema Solar form part of this trend, with their music that combines elements of traditional and modern genres. There are also international artists, like Quantic or Sidestepper, who after having spent long time in Colombia studying and immersing in its music culture, they got inspired and currently produce a repertoire that is known in different world scenes.

Colombia’s cultural diversity and different lifestyles make it the “land of a thousand rhythms”. Much of the Colombian music is a blend of Spanish and European influences with African beats and native sounds. In the Pacific coast, the afro-descendant sounds from the tambores (local drums) and the marimba (palm-wood xylophone) are integral to the communities and present in most of their cultural manifestations. In the Caribbean you will listen to the gaita (a traditional type of flute), tambores, maracas, trumpets and accordion. In the Eastern Plains there are harps, maracas and bandolas (stringed instruments). 

Tambores and marimbas

Colombia boasts a dynamic, exciting and unforgettable musical environment. A great way to experience this atmosphere is through the various fairs and festivals that take place in different regions every year. For example, the Carnival of Barranquilla and the Blacks and Whites’ Carnival in Pasto are among the most celebrated festivals in the country, both recognised by UNESCO as cultural masterpieces. During the festivities, everybody comes together and celebrates with lots of dancing, music and joy. It can be said that Barranquilla’s world-famous carnival is the biggest celebration of folklore in Colombia. The dance groups prepare long in advance for their masked parades and street performances. On the other hand, the Blacks and Whites’ Carnival is one of South America’s oldest festivals that dates back to the time of Spanish rule celebrating the racial heritage and cultural diversity. 

4. A remarkable culinary experience

The geographic, ethnical and climate conditions make Colombia’s gastronomy so diverse. Colombian food combines mostly European and indigenous ingredients but has also African and Arabic (in some areas) influences. Corn, potato, yucca, beans, rice, pork and chicken compose the basis of many national dishes. The culinary traditions vary according to the region, as it happens with other cultural manifestations. For example, in the Caribbean and Pacific coast you will find an abundance of fish and seafood-based dishes, due to the proximity to the sea. In the Andean and Orinoquia regions, meat and tubers are more prevalent, while the preparations vary from grilled and fried dishes to stews and soups. 

Colombian Food
Colombia’s gastronomic offer

Something that is very common in Colombia and you can find it almost everywhere is the arepa (corn dough that comes in different preparations and shapes according to the region). In Colombia there is also great street food. Empanadas (fried pastries usually filled with beef and potato or chicken), pandebono (cheese and yucca bread), tamales (corn dough filled with meat and vegetables, wrapped in banana leaves and slowly steamed) and cocadas (coconut-based sweets) are only some of the best street food you can try here. Fresh juices are also very popular among Colombians. They come in different combinations and colours as a result of the great variety of exotic fruits that exist in the country.

Colombian Fruits
Exotic fruits of Colombia

In the department of Antioquia, you will find probably the most famous Colombian dish, the bandeja paisa. This is a hearty platter that consists of a variety of flavours, including minced beef, fried pork crackling, beans, rice, fried egg, chorizo, avocado, ripe plantain and arepa. Another typical dish, traditionally from the high plains of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, is the ajiaco santafereño. A thick soup made with three kinds of potato, chicken, corn and local herbs called guascas. Traditional preparations from the Caribbean region include cazuela de mariscos (seafood casserole), sancocho de pescado (fish soup) and mote de queso (yam soup with cheese and coconut). In the Pacific coast you will taste shrimps and prawns, jaiba or cangrejo (type of crab), piangua (local shellfish found in the mangroves of the coast) and fried fish. 

Colombian dishes

In major cities like Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Cartagena, there is a leading culinary movement that has emerged recently. Various chefs are redefining Colombia’s gastronomic offer by combining different cooking techniques with local products. This movement has also contributed to a stronger ecological and social consciousness through the recovery of native ingredients that otherwise would disappear as a result of the industrial production. 

5. The rich biodiversity

Colombia is one of the megadiverse countries in the world and a hotspot of ecotourism. Home to 10 percent of the Earth’s flora and fauna, Colombia is the second most biodiverse country behind the much larger Brazil. In Colombia you will find more bird and orchid species than any other country, incredible ecosystems, endemic animals and plants, as well as a large number of national parks and protected areas.

Colombian Wildlife
Birds of Colombia

The different climates and altitudes found in Colombia contribute to this amazing biodiversity. Some of the best places to experience sustainable and community-based tourism include La Serranía de la Macarena or San José del Guaviare, where the infinite savannah of the Orinoquia meets the wild jungle of the Amazonia, Nuquí in the Pacific coast and Puerto Nariño in Amazonas.

Bird watching in Amazonas

This contrasting environment creates the perfect destination for many outdoor activities and unique experiences in the nature. There are endless choices, including white-water rafting, paragliding and rock climbing in Santander, bird watching in the Andean mountains and Amazonas, kitesurfing in La Guajira, surfing and whale watching in the Pacific coast, scuba diving and snorkelling in San Andres and Providencia islands. Colombia’s numerous national parks also offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences for visitors, such as great hikes and horse riding. Some of the most spectacular hikes can be experienced in the Cocora Valley, the Gorgona island, Caño Cristales, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the National Parks of Amacayacu, Los Nevados, El Cocuy and Chingaza. 

Santander, Colombia
Paragliding in San Gil, Santander
6. The colonial architectural heritage

Colombia’s colonial architectural heritage dates back to the 16th century and is reflected all over the country. From small villages to bigger towns, it is still alive in its magnificent buildings and respected by its inhabitants. In that times, the structure of the main plaza consisted of three main buildings surrounding the plaza: the church, the town hall and the courthouse. This pattern is still present today and repeated in almost every Colombian town. Cobblestoned streets, historic buildings, magnificent plazas and ancient churches and cathedrals are well-preserved in some of Colombia’s most beautiful heritage towns, such as Villa de Leyva, Honda, Barichara and Mompox, in the stunning Walled City of Cartagena as well as in Bogotá’s historic centre. Rich in heritage and charm, Colombia’s colonial gems will take you back to a different era where you can soak up their history and remarkable architecture.

Villa de Leyva, Boyacá
Villa de Leyva, Boyacá
7. Fascinating art

The most celebrated Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez, got inspired by the beauty and large history of this nation. In his novels, García Márquez invented the literary genre that is commonly known as magical realism, combining aspects from the real life with fantasy, dreams and surreal situations. One can notice these elements by simply travelling to Colombia. 

Street Art, Cartagena
Mural of Gabriel García Márquez, Cartagena

What García Márquez is to the country’s literature, is Fernando Botero to Colombian painting. Botero, the figurative painter and sculptor, is famous for his satirical works with the characteristic oversized subjects. His sculptures can be found scattered around his hometown, Medellín, where there is also a permanent collection in the Museum of Antioquia. The Botero Museum in Bogotá also hosts a vast collection of his art. Botero although overshadows all others, is not the only distinguished Colombian painter. Omar Rayo, known for his geometric drawings, Alejandro Obregón for his abstract paintings, and Pedro Nel Gómez for his murals, watercolours and oils, are often overlooked but absolutely worth to discover. Colombia has even a well-known pop artist, Antonio Caro, who is also known as the “Colombian Andy Warhol”. Caro became famous in the artistic scene of the 70s and 80s for his representations and iconic elements of the Colombian popular culture.

Plaza Botero, Medellín
Plaza Botero, Medellín

There is also an exceptional street art present in major urban centres. In Bogotá and Medellín you will come across impressive and provoking artwork that reveals the cities’ current situation, their social movements and recent history.

Street Art, Medellin
Street art in Comuna 13, Medellín
8. The premium quality coffee

Colombia produces coffee of finest quality and is one of the world’s top coffee exporters. But what is that makes people love Colombian coffee?

Colombia’s coffee is characterised by a smooth, well-balanced flavour and rich aroma. The secret behind its success is the geographic and climate conditions that exist in different regions of the country. Coffee plants grow best in volcanic soil and at an altitude between 1,200 and 1,800 metres above sea level. Another factor to the success is the coffee beans. In Colombia you will only find arabica beans that are known for the mild and acidic flavour. Additionally, it is important to mention that coffee farmers use non-industrialised techniques of harvesting as they still pick the grain manually. As opposed to other major coffee producing countries, in Colombia manual harvesting predominates which guarantees its high quality and rich flavour.

Coffee Plantation, Coffee Region
Coffee plantation in Colombia

Colombia’s coffee region or triangle, which consists of three departments (Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío), produces most of the national seed. However, there are other regions as well, including Antioquia, Tolima, Cauca and Nariño, that produce equally great quality of coffee which varies in flavour according to the origin. In these regions there is a good touristic offer where you will have the opportunity to visit family coffee farms, learn about the harvesting and production process, take part in tasting experiences and surely enjoy a good cup of coffee that can’t be any fresher!

9. A perfect cycling destination

While the most popular sport in Colombia is football, cycling has been winning more and more fans. Over the years, this country has produced world-class cyclists. Trained on the challenging mountain roads of the Andes, they’ve stood out in some of the world’s biggest cycling championships. 

Colombians love cycling. In the main cities you will find extensive cycle roads, known as ciclorutas, that have incentivised the culture around cycling. A remarkable event that demonstrates this passion is ciclovía. Every Sunday and national holiday Bogotá’s main streets are closed to the car traffic and get filled with hundreds of people who go out with their families and friends to cycle. There are also plenty of Colombians who take part in long-distance rides in rural areas away from the big cities where they can also enjoy spectacular mountain views. The culture around this sport combined with the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems make Colombia the perfect cycling destination.

Ciclovía in Bogotá
10. It’s not as people believe, Colombia is safe to travel

Forget about drug cartels, guerrillas and bombs. The stereotypes that Colombia is an unsafe and high-risk destination belong to the past. The country has moved on from the 90s and is turning into one of the coolest countries in the world to visit. 

Colombia faced a lot of violence and sad situations in the last half of the 20th century, but today is not like then. After the peace process negotiations and the final agreement between the government and the FARC guerrilla group, the country has recorded the biggest drop in crime and violence rates and has become much safer for travel and tourism. You can rest assured that travel to big cities and other tourist destinations is trouble-free.

You will be surprised by the vibrant cosmopolitan cities; the beautiful landscapes and how welcoming and friendly people are. In 2019 Colombia welcomed more international tourists than ever before and, surely, this record is yet to be broken the years to come.

Bocagrande, Cartagena
Bocagrande, Cartagena de Indias

The best of Santa Marta and around

Tayrona National Park, Santa Marta
Santa Marta

During your stay in Santa Marta you’ll have the opportunity to visit some of the city’s most iconic attractions. The Tairona Gold Museum is one of them. Housed in the impressive Casa de la Aduana, in front of the Bolívar Park, this historic building of the 16th century is of great cultural and architectural interest. One of the reasons that makes it so special is the fact that over the years this building has survived big fires, various conquests and pirate attacks. The museum exhibits a large collection of archaeological pieces from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains which highlight the cultural heritage of the indigenous communities of the region. The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday and the entrance is free. 

Tairona Gold Museum, Santa Marta
Casa de la Aduana, Santa Marta

Another attraction that can be of your interest is the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino where Colombia’s liberator, Simón Bolívar, spent his last days in 1830. In the area around the old residence you can visit the botanical garden, the sugar cane mill and the museum of contemporary art. The Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is located approximately 5 kilometres away from the city centre. The space is open daily from 09:00 to 17:30.

Of course, Santa Marta’s historic centre doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s characterised by picturesque little streets and colonial style buildings. Among the main attractions we recommend you to visit is the Santa Marta’s Cathedral, the Bolívar Park and the Santander Plaza, places that invite you to explore every corner of them. In the afternoon hours it’s worth taking a stroll along the Malecón de Bastidas by the sea and enjoying the beautiful sunset. You can choose to end your night with a traditional dish or a tropical cocktail in one of the various restaurants and bars around the famous Parque de los Novios. 

San Francisco Church, Santa Marta
Old town, Santa Marta
Old city of Santa Marta

Due to its proximity to the Caribbean Sea, Santa Marta’s gastronomy is characterised mainly by fish and seafood. Among other local dishes, here you’ll try cayeye (plantain puré with local cheese), chipi chipi (local shellfish), cazuela de mariscos (seafood soup cooked in coconut milk) and carimañolas (cassava pastries stuffed with cheese and meat or chicken). Make sure you taste some of these foods, they’re delicious!

Traditional dish from Santa Marta
Gastronomic offer in Santa Marta
Tayrona National Natural Park

The Tayrona Park is located about 34 kilometres away from Santa Marta and makes part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range as its lowest zone. This protected park of 12,000 terrestrial hectares and 3,000 marine hectares is one the most biodiverse and beautiful not only in Colombia but also in all South America. Its abundancy in flora and fauna attracts hundreds of nature and ecotourism friends every day. The Tayrona Park is perfect for bird watching with more than 350 species that inhabit this place, among others, the white eagle, macaws and curassows. Also, it features pristine beaches, crystalline waters and coral reefs. 

Tayrona National Park, Santa Marta
Tayrona National Natural Park, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

In the park you’ll have the opportunity to engage with different activities. For example, you can walk for hours in the nature, swim in tropical beaches, get to know the indigenous culture and enjoy the beautiful scenery, where the dense jungle meets the clear waters of the Caribbean. 

To get to the Tayrona Park you can take the local bus from the central station of Santa Marta, with shuttle service every half an hour, from 06:30 to 18:00 every day. For more convenience, you can get a taxi or a private car, however, the cost would be much higher. Keep in mind that the park is open from 08:00 to 17:00. 

There are two main entrances to the park, each one leading to different beaches. The choice of the entrance point normally depends on the time you have available and your mood for exploration and hiking. You can visit the biggest part of the park within a day, however, the time you’ll spend in each beach will be limited if you want to see as many beaches as possible. For a day trip to the park is recommended to enter from the entrance El Zaino, so you can visit some of the most famous beaches, including the Playa Arrecife, Piscina, Cabo San Juan and Nudista. From the entrance Calabazo you can reach the archaeological village of Pueblito and then continue until the Playa Brava beach. The entrance ticket has different prices according to the season. 

Cabo San Juan, Tayrona Park

If you want to spend more than one day in the park and take your time to enjoy the nature and the beautiful landscape, you can stay in one of the most organised beaches, such as the Playa Arrecife or Cabo San Juan. Don’t expect to find luxury suites, but there are camping tents or hammocks on the beach available for rent.

The park requires you to stock up on basic equipment, as the distances are pretty long, the weather can be unpredictable and there are limited places where you can buy things. We recommend you to bring comfortable clothes, boots for hiking, a light raincoat, mosquito repellent, sun block, swimming suit and cash. The best season to visit the park is from November to April, as during these months it rains rarely. 

It’s important to keep in mind that not all of the beaches are ideal for swimming due to the strong currents. Pay attention to those beaches where swimming is not allowed. Also, sometimes the park closes the doors to the public for short periods every year for recovery. Before your visit check with us the closing dates. Lastly, even if it’s not mandatory, it’s recommended to get vaccinated against yellow fever at least 10 days prior to your visit. 

Lost City (Ciudad Perdida)

Santa Marta is the starting point for a fascinating trek to the archaeological wonder of the Lost City of Teyuna, where the pre-Columbian tribe of the Tairona used to live. The duration of the tour can take from 4 to 6 days and trekking is the only way to reach the site by land, as there is no access by any means of ground transportation. You’ll also need to be accompanied by a local guide for the duration of the trek. Overnight accommodation and food services are offered in small camps with hammocks or single beds with a mosquito net. 

Ciudad Perdida is hidden deep in the jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The trek is quite challenging and requires good physical condition. Be prepared to pass through rivers, jungle, steep ascents and 1,200 steps that lead to the lost city. On the way you’ll also meet the descendants of the Tairona indigenous group, known as the Koguis and Arhuacos.

Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

As soon as you arrive to Ciudad Perdida, you’ll face its ruins dating back to 800 AD, about 650 years older than Peru’s Machu Picchu. The ruins consist of about 170 stone terraces carved on a mountain, with numerous little plazas and connecting streets. It’s possible that Ciudad Perdida was the political and economic centre for the Tairona people and that it played an important role in trade thanks to its location on the banks of the Buritaca river. It’s estimated that almost 2,000 people lived once in the region, who were forced to abandon it during the Spanish conquest. 

It’s said that in the ‘70s a couple of guaqueros (mineral hunters) were found accidentally in front of the ruins of Ciudad Perdida, covered in moss, soil and roots, while they were exploring ancient settlements in the region. Few years later and after some rumours about illegal treasure trade, a team of archaeologists arrived at the area and started the excavations for the restoration of the lost city. 

Minca

Just 14 kilometres away from Santa Marta and on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada you’ll find the peaceful small village of Minca. Minca is famous for the beautiful mountain landscape, the impressive waterfalls, the rich biodiversity, the organic coffee and cocoa plantations and the stunning sunsets. Recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Biosphere Reserve since 1980, it’s definitely the perfect place for those seeking to connect with nature. 

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

There are plenty of outdoor activities that you can practise here. For example, you can follow the mountain trails and set out on an exciting hike, go on a coffee or chocolate tour to a family farm, go bird watching, or visit the natural spa created by the waterfalls of Marinka and Pozo Azul. 

You can get to Minca by taxi or the local bus, which you can take from Santa Marta’s Public Market. The journey to Minca normally takes about half an hour, however, on weekends or public holidays it might take longer. 

Minca, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Minca, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta