20 places to visit in Colombia: my 90-day backpacking trip experience
Thanks a lot for reaching out and I am so glad you finally decided to go to South America! Colombia is one of my favorite countries in Latin America, mostly because of its people’s warmth. When I traveled for 90 days in Colombia, I always felt safe even if I was navigating the country by myself – the people are always helpful! In this post, I will recommend places to visit in Colombia. Actually, it’s more of a thing not to miss list as there’s really a lot to do there but you get it. Good luck with your trip and let me know if you need anything else!
#1: PARQUE NACIONAL NATURAL TAYRONA
Located on the northern coast of Colombia, you can get to Tayrona National Park by flying to Santa Marta or by bus from Cartagena or Barranquilla.
Nestled at the foot of the world’s highest coastal mountain range, Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is paradise. It is a slice of heaven on Colombia’s Caribbean coast with crystal clear waters, golden stretches of sandy beaches, and lush rainforest. Visitors will have a selection of outdoor and beach activities to choose from. The Nine Stones hike is a popular choice and will allow you to see the scope and range of the park. For the history buffs, archeological evidence of pre-Hispanic settlements can also be found at the park. You will find good weather and fewer crowds during March, July, and August.
Where to stay in Santa Marta:
#2: CHURCHES OF POPAYÁN
How to get to Popayán: You can fly to Popayan (they have an airport) but you can also do land travel from Cali or Ipiales.
Nicknamed as La Ciudad Blanca or White City, Popayan is one of Colombia’s most beautiful and well-preserved colonial settlements. The city just has that feeling of peaceful elegance. Mansions, schools, and monasteries built in the 17th century sit alongside the famous churches of the city. Religious or not, the churches are definitely worth a stop. Iglesia de San Francisco, Iglesia de San Agustin, and Catedral Basilica Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion are the most popular ones although Iglesia La Ermita, Iglesia de San Jose, and Iglesia de Santo Domingo deserve a look, too.
Related: MY 70-DAY BACKPACKING TRIP IN COLOMBIA: KARAOKE, SALSA, AND THE MANY NIGHTS I DON’T REMEMBER
Where to stay in Popayán:
#3: CIUDAD PERDIDA
How to get to Ciudad Perdida: Located on the northern coast of Colombia, you can get to Tayrona National Park by flying to Santa Marta or by bus from Cartagena or Barranquilla.
Ciudad Perdida literally means “The Lost City” in Spanish. At the time of the Spanish invasion, this city disappeared and was discovered again in the 70s. It is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains – one of Colombia’s greatest pride in the outdoors. If you are a fan of hiking and will be visiting Santa Marta and Tayrona, don’t skip this!
#4: LOS NEVADOS NATURAL PARK
Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados offers the most stunning glimpse into the Colombian Andes. Colombia, being a part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, is home to more than a dozen volcanoes and this national park is home to some jaw-dropping snow-covered ones.
Spot the Nevado del Ruiz, Nevado del Tolima, and Nevado de Santa Isabel. The park’s varying altitudes create panoramic scenes of paramos (high-mountain plains), cloud forests, and glaciers. It’s the perfect place for hiking at any level. Be wary of the altitude though and make sure you acclimatize.
#5: CARNAVAL DE BARRANQUILLA
How to get to Barranquilla: You can fly to Barranquilla anywhere from Colombia.
Imagine four days of street parties and non-stop dancing. This is Carnaval de Barranquilla. During the four days in February that leads up to Ash Wednesday, the whole city of Barranquilla comes alive with masquerade parades and live performances. Very little is known about the origins of this carnival but it’s a perfect illustration of Colombia’s unique history and cultural diversity.
There are also events leading up to the four-day festivity such as the reading of the carnival proclamation, crowning of the carnival queen, the gay parade, and the La Guacherna. It’s a definite must-see and unique to this country. And as the carnival motto goes, “those who live it are those who enjoy it.”
I lived with a local family in Barranquilla, Colombia which made my experience more authentic. Experiences are really different when you go with locals. It was my best week in Barranquilla because they showed me places and things I wouldn’t even know (or do) by myself!
Where to stay in Barranquilla:
#6: Museo del Oro
How to get to Bogota: Bogota is the capital of Colombia. Many flights from outside Colombia land here.
Located in Bogota, Museo del Oro will give you a fascinating peek into how gold was weaved into the lives of pre-colonial inhabitants of the country. The museum contains the largest collection of gold artifacts in the world. Each floor exhibits how gold was used in different aspects of indigenous life. If you want a more in-depth understanding, tours are offered within the museum for a reasonable price. Admission is free on Sundays.
See also: Not your usual things to do in Colombia
Where to stay in Bogota:
#7: San Gil
How to get to San Gil: San Gil has two bus stations with numerous names, but you’ll most likely arrive at the intercity bus terminal (known locally as terminal principal), located 3km west of downtown on the road to Bogotá. Local buses shuttle regularly between the terminal and the city center, or you can take a taxi.
Deemed as the outdoor capital of Colombia, San Gil is a haven for thrill seekers. This small Andean city in Colombia offers a varied range of outdoor activities and the most popular is white water rafting. Rio Fonce is great for families while Rio Suarez will really get your adrenaline going. La Tierra de Aventura also offers trekking, spelunking, mountain biking, and paragliding among other things. Non-adventure junkies can also enjoy some waterfalls and natural pools. San Gil really is a small town that packs a punch.
Where to stay in San Gil:
#8: Colombia's Amazon Rainforest
How to get to the Amazon: you can fly to Leticia’s Vasquez Cobo airport from Bogota.
I mean, it’s the Amazon. What more can I say? The Amazonia region is in the southernmost part of Colombia and makes up 35% of the country. You will be welcomed into pristine jungles, unique biodiversity, and indigenous communities when you go to these parts. Leticia is a small city bustling with commerce and is considered the gateway to the Amazon. Look for numerous bird species endemic to the area in Amacayacu, search for the pink river dolphin in Tarapoto Lake, go to Monkey Island and Puerto Narino. The Amazon is the Amazon so, really, you will have plenty of things to do.
Where to stay in Leticia:
#9: Whale watching
Every year between July and November, humpback whales migrate to Colombia’s Pacific coast. They come to the warmer waters from the Antarctic in order to mate and give birth. Nuqui, Bahia Solano, Bahia Malaga, and Gorgona Island are popular spots for this yearly spectacle. Avid lovers of these giant mammals can opt for boat tours.
It’s considered safe for both humans and whales if the distance is kept and boat tours are your safest bet in seeing these majestic creatures up close. Best to go early in the morning in perfect conditions. If you don’t get a chance to get on a boat tour, you can also spot the whales at high distances from land.
#10: Catedral de Sal de Zipaquira
How to get to Zipaquirá: This town is an hour and a half away by bus from Bogota.
A Roman Catholic church built within the tunnels of a former halite mine is a sight to behold. Halite or rock salt has been mined in this area as early as the 5th century BCE. Local miners back in the 1930s decided to carve a sanctuary within the mines as a place for prayer. Eventually, a cathedral was finally built and completed in 1954 and visitors and pilgrims now flock to the small town of Zipaquira (north of Bogota) for this. Visitors can also go on guided tours and learn about the history of place and the salt production processes that have existed in this deposit for centuries.
Where to stay in Zipaquirá:
#11: San Andres and Providencia
San Andres and Providencia are close to each other and are considered one of the most remote beaches in Colombia. In here, you will be able to relax and enjoy a full-on nature activity. It’s not easy to get as it is really remote. Flying and ferry rides are the most common mode of transport to get to Providencia and San Andres.
Where to stay in San Andres:
#12: Caño Cristales
How to get to La Macarena: From Bogota, you can take an overnight bus for 10 hours.
A series of remote rivers, Caño Cristales is a river of 5 colors located in Parque Nacional Natural Sierra de La Macarena. Witness the streams in red, green, pink – a natural phenomenon that only happens between July and November.
Where to stay in La Macarena:
#13: Villa de Leyva
How to get to Villa de Leyva: From Bogota, you can take a bus. The ride is about 4 hours.
Are you trying to imagine what a colonial village looked like 400 years ago? Then you have to take a pitstop at Villa de Leyva. Founded in 1572, this little town in a high altitude valley of semi-desert terrain is full of cobblestone roads and buildings of colonial style and architecture. Visitors can cool off in old churches, grab a cup of coffee at the town plaza, people watch at the parks, shop at local markets, walk or bike and marvel at the architecture or soak in some history at one of the town’s museums. Day trips and hikes not too far from the town are also available and easily accessible.
Where to stay in Villa de Leyva:
#14: Johnny Cay
How to get to Johnny Cay: You can go on charter boats that will bring you to the island for $5 USD approx. Lower prices can be given to bigger groups.
Far from mainland Colombia but still politically part of Colombia, the island of San Andres and the smaller Johnny Cay is something to see. Johnny Cay is a Caribbean paradise boasting white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and palm-lined shores. Visitors can go lounge at the beach and eat fresh seafood. Snorkeling sites can also be found within the area. In the evenings, local bands playing reggae songs have live performances on the island. Can you get more Caribbean than this?
#15: The tombs of Tierradentro
How to get to The National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro: This UNESCO Heritage site is located in the southwest of Colombia in Andean’s central cordillera, in the municipality of Inzá, department of Cauca. The closest and most familiar city is Popayan, where it is only 4 hours by bus. The bus costs $7.67 USD.
Tierradentro is far from the usual tourist route in Colombia. In a remote valley in the southern part of the Colombian Andes lies the underground tombs of Tierradentro. Little is known about the civilization that flourished in this area as early as 200 BCE. More or less 100 tombs are found in this area and these funeral temples are unique and distinct from the rest found in the Americas. Evidence of pre-colonial life in the area is found inside the tombs–from wall drawings to pottery and sculptures to textiles. It’s a wonderful day trip wherein you can soak up on some culture and history amid wonderful mountain and jungle scenery.
#16: Learn salsa in Cali
How to get to Cali: Cali is in the backpackers trail and is easily accessible by bus and plane, depending where you are coming from.
Cali is the salsa capital of the world. Despite having roots in Cuba, salsa gained popularity in New York during the 1970s. Eventually, it found its way to Colombian shores and has transformed and evolved over the years. The Cali school of salsa is uptempo and involves faster and more energetic beats. It’s all about the footwork for the Cali style of salsa. Salsa can be heard everywhere in the city and salsatecas are in abundance. If you wanna learn salsa or just simply dance every day, a trip to Cali is a must for you.
Where to stay in Cali:
How to get to Barichara: To get to Barichara, you can take buses or fly from Bogota, Medellin, Cali. Note that the destination is Bucaramanga or San Gil. From these 2 cities, transport to Barichara are pretty frequent and are easy to find.
Barichara is one of Colombia’s prettiest towns. It’s a tiny town located at the north of the country (close to San Gil) with well-preserved colonial buildings and cobblestone roads. Barichara literally means place of rest in the local Guane language and you will understand why as soon as you visit. The place emanates tranquility and peace. It probably does not look any different from how it was back in 1714 when it was first established. In a few hours of walking around the small town, you surely feel that you are transported back in time.
Where to stay in Barichara:
#18: Reserva Natural Cañon de Río Claro
How to get to Cañon de Río Claro: From Medellin, take a bus in Terminal del Norte. Trans Oriente is a bus company that frequently goes here. Travel time is 3 hours (est) and the cost is $7.37 USD. Bus departs every 30 minutes.
Three hours from Medellin lies Reserva Natural Canon de Rio Claro. Visitors can go for a swim or relax in its river that runs through a stunning marble canyon. It’s a perfect place to sit back and just bask in all the wonders that nature has to offer. You can do hikes and marvel at the unique biodiversity of the area. It is home to a number of flora and fauna endemic to the area. The three-hour Cueva de los Guacharos cave and stream walk is a must. You don’t need to spend the night. This could be a good option for a day trip whilst staying in Medellin.
How to get to Guatape: From Medellin’s Terminal Norte, you can take a bus to Guatape. Bus trips are pretty frequent and are easy to locate once you are in the station.
Guatape is dubbed as the most colorful town in Colombia. It is famous for its brightly-colored traditional houses that feature paintings depicting the history of the town. There’s also plenty to do in this small town. You can challenge yourself by climbing the 740 steps of the Penol Rock and be rewarded with panoramic views or you can kayak or do a number of water activities in Embalse Guatape.
After a day of being in the outdoors, you can indulge yourself with great food in any of the diverse restaurants scattered all over town. You don’t need to stay the night in Guatape. It’s an easy daytrip from Medellin!
#20: El Cocuy
How to get to El Cocuy: Get a bus to the town of El Cocuy from Bogota or Bucaramanga. The ride will take 6 hours (est).
White and green colonial buildings topped with red Spanish tiled roofs with a backdrop of the Andean mountains, the small town of El Cocuy is a sight to behold. Of course, the most popular attraction in the area is Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy. Here, you’ll get stunning views of Andean snow-capped peaks and glacial lakes. The park offers three trails at different levels for all kinds of climbers to enjoy. Don’t forget to spot the uniquely beautiful frailejones (perennial subshrubs in the sunflower family).
Where to stay in El Cocuy:
- La Posada del Molino Campestre. A villa with a private pool starts at $35 USD per night, breakfast included
- Hostal El Caminante. A double room for 2 pax starts at $20 USD per night, breakfast included
- Hotel San Gabriel. A twin room for 2 pax starts at $24 USD per night, breakfast included.