Visitors to Colombia have an extensive choice of experiences, accounting for the country’s increasing popularity. You can pick from an urban setting teeming with nightlife, culture, and stunning architecture. Or head to a beach town along the Caribbean Coast where Colonial life mixes with snorkeling and sunshine. Then, there are options for stops at a smaller city with an easier pace or an area rich in landscapes and archeology.
I have visited this beautiful country twice. Colombia attracts those who know to travel “smart,” acknowledging the country’s history marked by upheaval and change. I suggest a four-city trip starting in the north on the coast and zig-zagging to the south — with two city experiences in the middle and a relaxing finale.
The walled Colonial city of Cartagena (de Indias) is a beauty. Sitting on the Caribbean Coast, with a climate that’s blazing hot and humid, Cartagena offers beaches, great dining, and a certain type of polished grittiness. The city’s fortifications and colorful architecture have earned it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and inspired author Gabriel García Marquez to use the city as a backdrop in Love in the Time of Cholera.
In the Centro, Cartagena’s historic city center, you’ll want to roam the pretty cobblestoned streets that show off a blend of color and national pride. Fruit vendors called palenqueras dress in local costumes and offer photos for a small fee. If it’s too hot to stay outside, you can wander in and out of Cartagena’s numerous churches and cafés.
Walk The Walls And Explore The Squares
Cartagena’s historic walls, originally built to protect the city against pirates, now invite you to explore the city on high with a beautiful and cooler option for the sunset. Bars with live music add to the experience, complementing ground-level plazas buzzing with cocktail wizardry and street performances.
Dining In Cartagena
The area is filled with multi-ethnic restaurants, some with long queues and others inviting an intimate experience. Ceviche is popular here. Thanks to Anthony Bourdain, La Cevicheria always has long waits. Don’t miss their ceviche tastings of octopus, fish, and shrimp. Nearby, El Boliche is a tiny eatery with an exceptional ceviche menu as well. Come early; there are only seven tables. Peruvian cuisine (including ceviche) is featured at Cuzco, where you can also try seafood risotto, sip a pisco sour, and enjoy live music by the pool.
An Evening In Getsemani
In the evening, stroll to the Getsemani section of the city — a grittier area where vibrant murals line the streets and raucous clubs like Cafe Havana will have you dancing salsa and cumbia until the early hours. Grab some tapas, pizza, and a coffee or cocktail pick-me-up at the super-cool Demente just across from Plaza Trinidad.
For day trippers, Cartagena’s Aviario Nacional on Isla Baru is a tranquil escape from the heat. Boasting the “most bird species in the world” in outdoor, shaded exhibits, the aviary is an uncrowded gem. Beach lovers and snorkelers can take a boat to Playa Blanca, a lovely white sand beach with turquoise waters. To get a real sense of local Cartagena life, venture past the tourist areas for a guided visit to Mercado de Bazurto. This market is the real deal: a loud, smelly bustle of stands selling fish, fruit, and more.
Pro Tip: Stay at the Bastion Luxury Hotel, which features a refreshing rooftop pool.
The capital of Colombia and a city of 8 million people, chilly Bogotá is perched at an altitude of nearly 9,000 feet. Vibrant and colorful, with murals and street art covering its buildings and walls, the city is a mix of sophistication and Colonial heritage.
Enjoy The Culinary Choices
Bogotá is a delight for food lovers. You’ll find a wide range of restaurants, including historic venues like La Puerta Falsa and La Puerta de la Catedral, with menu staples such as ajiaco and sancocho soups, and tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Acclaimed Chef Leonor Espinosa has profited from the biodiversity of Colombia’s regional ingredients and created a fine-dining experience with eccentric tasting menus at Leo. Street food is plentiful, too, with arepas (corn cakes) sold from stands adjacent to vendors selling crunchy hormigas (Santander ants). The attractive Mercado de la Concordia is an indoor market selling the country’s chocolates, fruit, coffee, and chicha — an alcoholic beverage made from corn.
Museums And Art
Bogotá is culture-rich with numerous museums and archeologically significant buildings. El Museo de Oro houses a collection of 55,000 pieces of gold artifacts dating from the country’s wealthy pre-Columbian days. The city’s archaeological museum, musa Bogotá, specializes in ceramic pieces. El Museo Botero holds the personal collection of Colombian artist Fernando Botero, with sculptures and paintings showing off his particular style of larger-than-life individuals, including the Mona Lisa. Also included are paintings by Monet, Pisarro, and Caillebotte. If you want more, there’s also the fascinating Military Museum of Colombia.
Pro Tip: Many of the museums have outdoor Colonial-style courtyards, but given the oft-rainy weather in Bogotá, I found the indoor galleries to be more appealing. Don’t feel like being indoors? Walk the narrow streets of La Candelaria and Chapinero and take in the amazing street art and graffiti. Or, just observe the busy Plaza de Bolívar where tourists, vendors, locals, and even llamas coexist.
If you’ve watched the Netflix series Narcos, you know a little about Medellin and the story of Pablo Escobar — the black marketeer and drug kingpin living in Medellin. In fact, “drug” tours are popular here and you can visit key sites in Escobar’s 20-some-year history of running drug cartels. But there’s much more to Medellin than its nefarious past. Surrounded by verdant mountains and set in the Aburrá Valley, the city — with its perpetually spring-like weather — has transformed into a safe, urban environment with museums, Michelin-starred dining, and an active social scene.
Go On A Gastro Walk
In the walkable El Poblado area, you’ll find Michelin-starred restaurants including Carmen, an indoor-garden space helmed by two Californian chefs. The menu is Colombian-focused, gastronomic, and always exciting. Nearby is OCI.mde, a hip spot for “inspired contemporary Colombia cuisine.” For local flavor, there are casual restaurants like Mondongo’s and sports bars that become exciting if a soccer game is scheduled. A street food tour will take you to the city center to sample arepas, empanadas, and aguardiente, and then to the Plaza Minorista farmers market, where you can try unusual fruit like zapote, mangosteen, or lulo. If you prefer cocktails, there’s a bar crawl to prime you for later.
Museums And Outdoor Art
Museo de Antioquia attracts visitors with its stunning architecture and art collections. Those who prefer to stay outdoors can admire the 23 bronze statues from Fernando Botero set in the appropriately named Plaza Botero.
Pro Tip: Make a wish by rubbing the shiny spots on the chubby sculptures.
Day Trips In Medellin And Beyond
Comuna 13 showcases the fascinating rehabilitation of Medellin through street art, innovative transportation, and community commitment. The neighborhood, previously dangerous and drug-infested, can now be explored with a guide who will explain the system of moving escaleras and other programs that have changed the area.
A tour by cable car over nearby coffee plantations offers a lush contrast to the city environment. You’ll have a chance to sample Colombia’s famed Arabica beans while enjoying lunch amid the beautiful natural landscape.
4. San Agustin
Tucked away in southwestern Colombia, San Agustin is a beautiful Colonial town known for its mysterious archeological parks. With its waterfalls, rivers, and lush valleys, the area provides a relaxed setting for exploring, chilling, and contemplating.
Local Crafts And Plaza Life
In San Agustin’s Centro Poblado, locals and visitors alike take a break at the lovely plaza with its beautiful church and shaded benches. Handmade jewelry is the specialty at shops like Llegado Ancestral along with ponchos, woodcraft, finger puppets, and ceramics.
Refrescos To Beat The Heat
Enjoy a cooling stop at BiciCafe, a friendly coffee bar where you can watch the roasting and preparation of the area’s beans. For something more substantial, Casa Blanca la Parrilla de Moas’s combination plates come with rich vegetable soup and icy lemonade. Book a table at La Gata Parilla for an evening of fun and music. The restaurant’s burgers and pintxos (tapas) are named after rock musicians and the walls are lined with album covers and photos.
The star attractions in San Agustin and neighboring Isnos are the three archeological parks, all recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These parks contain hundreds of statues of gods and mythical animals plus funerary mounds and monuments reflecting early Andean culture. At the main Parque Arqueológico, start your exploration with a passport that explains the theories behind the animals and people depicted. You’ll probably come up with your own thoughts as I did both here and on Easter Island when I viewed the moai.
Pro Tip: Bring lots of water with you. It’s quite hot and in addition to the pathways, there are stairs and hills necessary to trek if you want to take advantage of the parks’ viewpoints and lush surroundings.