Some of the best areas to visit in Colombia won’t be in your guidebook—they’ll be a bit more challenging to access.
But they’ll always be worth the bus ride, or bumpy plane ride, or horseback ride.
Here is a list of the best places to go in Colombia, things to do in Colombia, and fresh points of interest in Colombia (that are sometimes a bit off the beaten path and vary from the traditional tourist route so that you can thank me later for that).
The Desert of Tatacoa
Why: The grey and red deserts of Tatacoa transport you to an extraterrestrial setting where few tourists seek to adventure. You’re sure to make some friends on a jeep ride or sweaty hike through the miles of ups and downs of this crazy landscape.
Things to do: Sleep in an adobe bungalow, hire a jeep guide, and then spend your hot afternoons in the pool.
At night make your way to the local observatory for a guided astronomy discussion under one of the most encompassing night skies in the world and best places to visit in Colombia. A local guide will talk you through the constellations, give you a history of the area, and perhaps even a walk-about if you’re lucky.
Where to stay: I recommend Sol de Verano for their incredibly simple accommodation. They have camping, hammocks, and small cabaña options.
We arrived in the middle of the night, and the on-site restaurant was sweet enough to whip us up some midnight snacks and find a pitcher of Club Colombia Cerveza to get us settled in.
Getting there: Take a bus from Bogota to Nieva and then a shuttle to the town of Villavieja, where you can then take a moto-taxi to your accommodations in the desert.
Why: Home to hundreds of ancient statues hidden in the forest, this place is perfect for the outdoorsy, adventurous, travelling soul. It’s an excellent place for hiking, horseback riding and spending time in the misty forest on your trip to Colombia.
Things to do: Bring a fleece jacket, hop on a horse and ride through the lush mountains surrounding this picturesque village. Also, don’t forget to head to the San Augustin Archeological Park to see the ancient statues of the area showcased in their natural settings.
Where to stay: I stayed at La Casa de Francois and spent every evening drinking wine with the host and trying to understand the politics and guerrilla warfare so recently present in this region. It is such a beautiful place that I would come back to simply for accommodation.
Getting there: San Augustin is easily accessible from any national bus station. (It’s also very easy to take a short bus ride here from Nieva, so it’s a great stop after the Desert of Tatacoa.
Why: It’s the home of Colombian salsa dancing and one of the best areas to visit in Colombia! It’s seriously not to miss if you want to completely immerse yourself in some of the best dancing in the country. Unbelievably friendly people, diverse food options, and colourful side streets.
Things to do: Go dancing!
I also recommend a hike up to El Cerro mountain peak. Stop off and enjoy a slice of pizza at one of the many eateries along the road before looking out over the entire city. Incredible views at night!
Where to stay: El Viajero was one of the coolest hostels that I’ve ever stayed at. They offer daily excursions around the city and daily salsa classes, a lovely pool, and an excellent atmosphere for meeting fellow travellers.
Getting there: Fly or take a bus to the centre of Cali. Easy.
The Pacific Coast
Why: This place is off-the-beaten-path for a reason. This part of the country is difficult to access and lacks the significant infrastructure required for tourism, which is why I loved it so much.
From quiet fishing villages to whale watching, turtle hatching, and silent swims in the ocean, this place is full of wild adventure and attracts a specific type of traveller.
Things to do: Hire a local boat for the day to take you to Parque Nacional Natural Isla Gorgona, and enjoy waves and whales along the way. Once at the park, hike through the mangroves, jump into the ocean, and explore the museum and nature centre.
You can also watch sea turtle hatching, and it’s an excellent place for stargazing over the open ocean because there aren’t any lights at night.
Where to stay: The Humpback Turtle is an incredible hostel right on the beach, outside the small village of El Valle. It is the only place like it in the area.
Choose between a hammock, shared dorm, or private accommodation, enjoy daily meals of freshly caught fish at the beach bar, or speak with the owners about various excursions in the area.
Getting there: Okay. This is the tricky one. There are a few options to getting to the Pacific Coast. First, you can take a cargo ship out of the town of Buenaventura (where you don’t want to stay overnight if you can help it. This place is known to have an active cartel presence still).
BUT taking the 24-boat ride out of the city is one hell of an experience.
An easier option is to fly from Medellin to Bahía Solano or Nuquí.
Santa Marta and La Ciudad Perdida
Why: The northern city of Santa Marta is a steamy destination and an excellent jumping-off point if you’re going to do the trek to La Ciudad Perdida. It has a few great bars, quiet beaches and is a perfect spot to decompress before or after a big adventure.
Things to do: Hang out for a day or two in Santa Marta and then pack your bags for La Ciudad Perdida—The Lost City. A three day guided trek will take you into the mountains and through the forest to the ancient ruins of The Lost City.
This trip is a bit of financial investment, but the journey was worth it. The guides were incredible, and the friends along the way were irreplaceable.
Where to stay: The best hostel in town is Masaya Santa Marta. Impeccable service, indoor pool, and rooftop playground for relaxing.
Getting there: Depending on where you come from, flying or taking a bus into town are your options.
(Provision Tip: Check flight prices as last-minute as possible in Colombia, as prices tend to drop the closer to departure that you get.)
Why: The capital city of Colombia rests in the high mountains and is your best bet for starting your adventure off right. A fusion of modern and antique, this city welcomes travellers in so many ways.
Things to do: Take a bike tour with Bogota Bike Tours. This is one of the best city tours I’ve ever been on and one of the best things to do in Colombia. It’s an excellent way to get to know the city’s layout with straightforward guides willing to answer all of your pressing political and historical questions.
Hike up to the top of Mount Monserrate for amazing views of the entire city!
If you’ve still got energy left, take a day trip to Zipaquirá to the Salt Cathedral and have some locally made tamales for lunch.
Where to stay: I recommend the Casa Bella Vista hostel in La Candelaria. Fantastic atmosphere and breakfast cooked fresh daily by the amazing family that runs the place—a great way to support and get to know locals.
Getting there: If you’re flying into Colombia, chances are you’re flying in or out of Bogotá.
(Provision Tip: Copa Airlines offers a stop-over option in Panama City if you’re coming from the US. So you can stay in Panama for a few days before heading to Colombia, a fun way to break up your trip at no extra cost to you!)
Why: They call this place the City of Eternal Spring. Some say it’s for the weather (which truly stays at a balmy level all year long), but you could also say it’s because of the people.
Medellin is one of the most welcoming cities globally, and the passion for tourists is so evident in the incredible treatment of all guests to this majestic destination.
Things to do: Go on a walking tour with Real City Tours for an excellent look into the tumultuous history of this town. Then, head to a fútbol match and become an instant fan of either Medellín or their rival Independiente.
Also, take the cable car up over the city and explore the reconstructed barrios—reborn in the last decade.
Where to stay: Casa Kiwi hostel was a simple, fun hostel in the heart of the city (a bit of a party place, if you’re into that sort of thing). Airbnb also has some fantastic options, especially for digital nomads and travel bloggers looking for longer-term accommodations.
Colombia offers some of the most unique, majestic, and eye-opening sites and experiences imaginable. Connect with locals, eat deep-fried empanadas, embarrass yourself on the dance floor. Support a country so full of hope and renaissance that once you leave, you’ll be right back googling flights for your return.