Colombia map & highlights

Colombia’s huge size (you could fit the UK into it almost five times), combined with its stunning but often impenetrable landscapes, mean you’re just not going to see it all in one trip, so do your research and decide which places inspire you the most. The good news is that every destination has several attractions: colonial villages are also gateways to hiking and biking havens; the Zona Cafetera is the hub of some heady salsa, and the magnificent cities of the Caribbean coast are just a short boat ride or hike away from stunning beaches. Roads are generally good, and comfortable to travel on. However, you’ll still be dependent on the short, cheap flights to whisk you off to the coast, mountains or Amazon; they’ll save you several days’ traveling.
The Amazon

1. The Amazon

The Amazon covers over a third of Colombia; the gateway town of Leticia on the Peru-Brazil border is only accessible by air. Start your jungle exploration at the Ethnographic Museum, before traveling along rivers to isolated lodges and private reserves, past macaws and pink dolphins. Take jungle treks, look down from canopy walkways and visit the village of Mocagua for a different perspective of this rainforest.
Aracataca & Mompós

2. Aracataca & Mompós

Gabriel García Márquez was born in the pretty town of Aracataca in 1927, and some say it is the real life setting for the mythical town of Macondo, featured in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Today, his family home is a museum. A five hour drive away, sleepy, swampy Mompós also feels like something out of Gabo’s novels, with its whitewashed, colonial buildings, shaded plazas and riverside setting where time appears to stop.

3. Cali

Cali is synonymous with salsa; the city even has its own style, featuring frenetic footwork which is incredible to watch. Taking a class – or trying your luck with a partner in a local bar – is highly recommended! Cali’s lowland setting gives it a tropical climate, and its culture is influenced by its large Afro Caribbean population. Visit the gothic-style La Ermita church, then head to Barrio San Antonio for sweeping city views.

4. Cartagena

Time seems to have stood still in Old Cartagena, a magnificent, colonial, Caribbean city where every candy coloured building presents a photo opportunity. Bougainvillea tumbles down the wooden bars on the double height windows, and the sound of hooves on the cobbled streets is eerily evocative. If you can tear yourself away, take daytrips to the mangroves, mud volcano or tiny offshore islands.

5. Medellín

Colombia’s second city has managed to shake off its notorious past as the home of Pablo Escobar. Pay homage to Medellín’s other famous son, Fernando Botero, whose statues and paintings decorate the plazas and museums. Explore lush parks, baroque churches and the Museo Antioquia, which documents the city’s history from pre Colombian times through the violence of the 20th century, up to the modern day.
Pacific Coast

6. Pacific Coast

Remote, sweltering and little developed, Colombia’s Pacific coast has barely opened to tourism and is generally only accessible via plane. But there are ample rewards for those who reach these tropical shores flanked by Choco Rainforest. Stay at a stunning ecolodge, trek to waterfalls and enjoy deserted beaches. In July-Nov, keep an eye out for migrating humpback whales; guides can take you to the best beaches to spot them.

7. Popayán

Founded in 1537 by the Spanish, Popayán is one of Colombia’s oldest cities. Vast amounts of gold were transported through here in the colonial era, and the wealth is still visible in the beautifully preserved, whitewashed center. There are many gorgeous churches, and Popayán’s Easter processions have been recognised by UNESCO. Don’t miss the stunning, 18th century haciendas in the surrounding countryside.
Salento & the Zona Cafetera

8. Salento & the Zona Cafetera

Tucked away into Colombia’s lush Zona Cafetera, Salento is a very pretty – and friendly – base for excursions out into the surrounding cloud forest and coffee plantations. You’ll learn how the beans are grown, harvested and processed, often by hand. A top activity is a hike through the lush, green Cocora Valley, lined with spindly, 60m-tall quindío wax palms, the symbol of Colombia.
San Agustín

9. San Agustín

San Agustín Archaeological Park protects hundreds of pre Colombian statues and burial sites dating to between the 1st and 5th centuries AD. As South America’s largest collection of religious and megalithic monuments, including representations of gods and mythical creatures, it is hardly surprising it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The origins of the people that created these stone carvings remain a mystery.
San Gil

10. San Gil

San Gil is Colombia’s undisputed capital of adventure sports. Use the town as your base and take daytrips out to the Chicamocha Canyon – which has South America’s longest cable car; trek to the Juan Curi waterfall; kayak or raft along rivers; or explore the nearby caves. If you’re after calmer adventures, visit colonial Barichara. Just 45 minutes away, it’s said to be Colombia’s prettiest village.
Tayrona National Park

11. Tayrona National Park

Dreamy, tropical coastline, lush rainforest and soaring mountains, all within sight of one another; Tayrona is a dream destination. Over 400 bird species, from parrots to condors, inhabit this park; keep an eye out for monkeys and iguanas too. The secluded Caribbean beaches with their offshore reefs have no road access so you’ll have to hike, though you can drive to pre-Colombian ruins in the mountains.
Villa de Leyva

12. Villa de Leyva

This gorgeous, whitewashed town looks pretty much as it did when it was founded in 1572, with its chunkily cobbled streets, tiled roofs and enormous plaza – the largest in the country. It’s great for people watching with a coffee or cold Águila beer, but make sure you get out into the surrounding landscapes, great for trekking and mountain biking. Check out the dinosaur fossil and tranquil blue ‘pozo’ pools, too.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Colombia or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Travel times in Colombia

The following times give you a rough idea of the travel times between the main attractions in Colombia.
Bogota – Neiva: 1hr by plane Neiva – San Agustin: 4hrs by road Santa Marta – Aracataca: 2hrs by road Aracataca – Mompós: 5hrs by road Mompós – Cartagena: Full day by road Salento – Medellin: 5hrs by road Santa Marta – Tayrona National Park: 2hrs by road Tayrona National Park – Cartagena: 5hrs by road

Sample Colombia itineraries

Andes and Caribbean (14 days):
Bogotá > Villa de Leyva > Tatacoa Desert > San Agustín > Tierradentro > Cali > Santa Marta > Tayrona National Park > Cartagena

Western Colombia (14 days):
Bogotá > Guatavita Lake > Coffee Region > Valle de Cocora > Medellin > Cartagena

Pacific Coast (10 days):
Bogotá > Medellín > Santa Fe de Antioquia > Nuquí, Pacific Coast > Bogotá
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Nick Harris] [Rear-view mirror: Dan Gold] [Amazon Milk Frog: Laura Wolf] [Santa Barbara Church - Mompós: sergejf] [Salsa: Joakant] [Cartagena: Luis Vidal] [Medellin: Juan Saravia] [Beach - sunset: Christian Holzinger] [Plaza - Popayan: Car710] [Cocora Valley: Taavi Randmaa Randmaa] [San Augustin statue: Laurent de Walick] [San Gil: Lina Trochez] [Tayrona National Park : David Shankbone] [Villa de Leyva, Boyacá: Diego Andrés Alvarez Marín] [Road - Boyaca: Dogoff Zambrano]