Hi there! I am happy to hear you are interested in visiting Colombia as it is honestly one of the most beautiful countries and has some of the friendliest people in the world! Forbes named it as the 3rd most beautiful country in 2022.
I’ve been lucky enough to explore 29 out of the 32 departamentos (States in Colombia) and here are my top recommendations for visiting on a trip to Colombia:
I highly recommend spending a few days at national park: Parque Tayrona 1.5-2 hours by bus from Santa Marta which is a city worth spending a day or two to explore, way less touristy than Cartagena and also has a historic center with character. It is also a nice place to stop before going to Parque Tayrona and hopefully the Ciudad Perdida Trek in the fabled Sierra Nevada (one of the snow capped mountains ranges of Colombia and home to many indigenous groups). (You should start taking TIAMINA or COMPLEJO B pills a few days before to ward off mosquitos and be sure to take muddy/wet hiking gear with proper footwear if you are going to do the Trek )
Minca is a little cooler weather town near Santa Marta, and a beautiful coffee growing region like 30 mins up into the mountains around Santa Marta. Very chill and beautiful. Toucans in the vegetation around you, cacao farms, and a nicer than the now really saturated Palomino which sadly is losing its beach to erosion. Palomino is famous for its tubing as you can go down the river on an innertube surrounded by spectacular nature. Tons of guesthouses and hostels to choose from there. Mendihuaca is a nice alternative between Palomino and Santa Marta, near the Parque Tayrona. You can go surfing as there are decent waves and some places rent boards and give lessons. Playa Pikua is a nice place to stay.
El Cabo de la Vela and Punto Gallinas further up north in the Guajira department, are beautiful. Punta Gallinas especially. It is the Northern Tip of South America and arid desert like scenes meet the sea in dramatic and beautiful areas and the Wayyu cultures are interesting.
Cartagena is pretty and romantic… a nice place to explore is the Ciudad Amurallada (old historic city fort area) and Getsemaní which are very nice (the beaches in Cartagena are not nice from relaxed handling of the carbon trade which has polluted the beaches and the sand isn´t white anymore but a dark grey as well as the water), but about 1 hour away by boat´s that leave the port you can go to Islas del Rosario that are wayyyyy better, with some clear waters and white sand beaches so I highly recommend at least a day trip… early morning boats leave and come back afternoon. They call them Paseo a las Islas, or Pasadía.
An interesting day trip from Cartagena is to San Basilio de Palenque, only around an hour away and accessible by public transport, is the African heart of Colombia, where a former runaway slave colony where slaves who were brought by the Spanish and Portuguese escaped and established the first “slavery free” town in the Americas. They speak their own language and have a very interesting history. The place itself is not very impressive, but the people, the music, dances and culture you encounter have made it a UNESCO world heritage “intangible” site for its unique history and culture:
The Amazon around Leticia…the Marasha natural reserve an hour north of Leticia by boat on the Peruvian side… absolutely beautiful… Marasha is a reserve on the Peruvian side which is really expensive, but amazingly beautiful and calm…like 150 USD all day activities and accomodation and all meals.
Puerto Naranja on the Colombian side is really chill and near amazing Lago Tarapoto, a highlight where the pink river dolphins are easily seen and have a wonderful environmentally conscious community that has recycling projects and doesn’t allow motorized vehicles to maintain the calm and beauty of the amazon.
The Coffee Growing Region – Eje Cafetero:
This region is absolutely beautiful…some of the greenest and most fertile area in the world where everything grows. Eje Cafetero and Antioquia, the state where Medellin is has something like “Southern Hospitality” with the friendliest people.
Armenia & Pereira are bigger cities in this area, I’d recommend to stay in Salento and visit the Valle Cocorra and if you can visit a coffee farm and stay a night or two and if you can see the little towns around like Filandia, Quimbaya, etc.. Not too far is the city of Manizales which has cooler weather and is a famous college town and has friendly people, gorgeous nature all around
including the Parque de los Nevados Park, which has Paramos (moorlands) and snow capped mountains. There is a lovely coffee and cacao farm called Hacienda Venecia which also has accommodation ranging from dorms to really nice rooms.
Medellin, one of Colombia’s prettiest cities if not the prettiest and the city of the eternal spring is amazing and not too far. Visit the Parque Botero and Comuna 13 neighborhood and do a tour as it is a beautiful example of resilience and changing of times for this once troubled neighborhood. Click here for a locally run social enterprise company that does Comuna 13 tours.
If you go to Medellin you must go to Peñol rock in the picturesque town of Guatape, it has a stunning view.
El Peñol is a Massive rock next to beautiful lakes….another lovely town in the department of Antioquia is Santa Elena…looks straight out of the Disney movie Encanto. The town of Jardin in Antioquia is supposed to be lovely.
Off the beaten path : Colombian Pacific- Chocó
One of the most stunning places in Colombia and the world is the Chocó department on the pacific Coast.
Also very interesting as it is where many former African slaves went to after slavery was abolished. It is still very untouched as roads don´t make it there so options for getting there are by sea or by few flights (Nuquí and Bahía Solano are places with airports). and take in the quiet and relaxing dark sand beaches with really friendly people.
Around 30 minutes from the city of Bahia Solano by road is a lovely beach town called El Valle... there´s a cool hostel called the humpback turtle that rents surfboards and has a very friendly staff and you can go on hikes, fishing trips, surfing school, etc. Don´t miss Cascada El Tigre (Waterfall) north of El Valle.
Punta Huina is another small beach settlement north of Bahía Solano that is beautiful and relaxing. There are guesthouses there and you can get there by boat in around 20 minutes from Bahía Solano.
The Ensenada de Utría ,accessible by boat is located between Bahia Solano and Nuquí and is well worth a visit. as it is a gorgeous national park with mangroves and inlets where whales go to give birth and go with their young during whale season (July-November). This place is stunning, visit Playa Blanca if you can by boat and you can even spend the night there in a hammock if you arrange beforehand with local travel agencies.
If you like colder weather hiking, EL COCUY
has some beautiful high-altitude hikes to Nevados (snowcapped mountains) that pass-through PARAMOS (moorlands)… it’s like 8 hours away from Bogotá and Villavicencio, etc..
You need a guide and many companies organize trips starting from Guican in Boyacá.
Caño Cristales, is the legendary 7 color river, also known as the most beautiful river in the world
As the underwater plants turn from green to magenta a few months a year which make it stunning.
The season for the plant’s colors are June-late November, other months the park is closed or unimpressive. You can fly into the town of La Macarena or make the rugged trip by land
Cali, is the world capital of salsa dancing and a really charming city with warmer weather,
friendly people and a nice vibe. The San Antonio neighborhood is worth a visit and don´t miss
La Topa Tolondra…a world-famous salsa bar great for trying some moves or just watching people dance, a work of art.