Things to do in Colombia
Colonial towns & cities
Colombia’s colonial cities are beautifully preserved and almost always set against a stunning Andean backdrop. Popayán, the ‘white city’, was founded in 1537, making it one of Colombia’s oldest. It was phenomenally rich as a result of the gold that was traded through it, and this wealth is still visible today in its magnificent city centre packed with whitewashed buildings and imposing cathedrals. Barichara is said to be Colombia’s prettiest town. Founded in 1705, it has been declared a national monument and its whitewashed buildings gleam as brightly today as they did three centuries ago. Many people only spend a day here, so to make the most of the town without the crowds, book yourself in for a night or two.
Villa de Leyva’s cobblestone streets lead to the largest plaza in the country. There are plenty of funky coffee shops, cafes and craft shops, and you can hire a bike to explore the lush countryside. The gem in the colonial crown is Cartagena, whose stunning, rainbow-coloured buildings have been lovingly restored, with double height windows draped in butterfly-filled bougainvillea. In the mind bending Caribbean heat, hours slip into days, as you lose yourself amid the ancient streets immortalised in García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.
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The relative inaccessibility of Colombia’s Amazon means it is refreshingly new to tourism, and those seeking pristine virgin rainforest will be delighted.
The entry point to the Amazon is Leticia, on the Peru-Brazil border, over 1,000km from Bogotá, and only accessible by air. But it’s worth the short flight here, as you stay in jungle lodges, meet indigenous communities, spot macaws, monkeys and caimans, and canoe along Amazon tributaries, keeping an eye out for pink river dolphins.
Colombia largely lacks the charismatic indigenous communities of nearby Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, but don’t dismiss its culture so easily. The burgeoning middle class means that many lodges and guesthouses are Colombian owned, you’ll be taken on treks and city tours with English speaking local guides, and will be able to mingle with urbanites in local bars – this is a far more immersive encounter than any kitsch village tour. Once dreary Bogotá and Medellín are now blossoming with hip bars and organic cafes, and the colonial towns of Villa de Leyva and Barichara are popular weekend escapes for Colombians from nearby cities, meaning you’re more likely to encounter domestic rather than foreign tourists here. Take the time to learn a bit of Spanish before visiting, and doors will open all over the place.
Alternatively, learn Colombia’s other national language: dance. Cali is Colombia’s salsa capital, and if you have even a single night here, you’d better spend it in a salsa club. You can arrange to take a class or two first – and if you’re feeling shy, you could do worse than down a cheeky shot of aguardiente.
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You could be airdropped into any part of Colombia, and you’d be pretty much guaranteed to find yourself surrounded by the most astounding landscapes.
Colombia is a perfect patchwork of landscapes stitched together to create one impressive and hugely biodiverse blanket. The coastal rainforest of the Pacific contrasts with the dense Amazon jungle, while the Andes soar from lush green valleys up to high páramo, complete with rare, downy plants. Mountain peaks remain snowcapped through the year, while the Caribbean coast boasts stunning beaches, tropical islets and deep turquoise seas, warm as a bath.
More about Colombia
The best time to go to Colombia is in December to March, when the Andes are drier.
Our Colombia travel guide explores this often misunderstood country where, as the tourist board once claimed, 'the only risk is wanting to stay'.
Colombia is surprisingly huge; there’s no way you’re going to be able to explore it all in a single trip.
Cali, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, is often referred to as the capital of salsa, and several distinctive styles have been formed here.
With colourful colonial cities overflowing with flowers and spectacular national parks hiding secluded beaches it's little wonder Colombia’s Caribbean coast is the grand finale on most tours through the country.
From Cali to Cartagena, Colombia’s cities are shaking off their dangerous reputations and reinventing themselves as some of the most fascinating, forward-thinking cities in South America.
Tours through Colombia’s Zona Cafetera reveal the traditional coffee-making process, where coffee is still picked by hand, bean by bean from trees growing in rows up steep mountainsides.
Explore one of South America’s most important archaeological sites at San Agustín, hidden among verdant valleys lined with cloud forest, sugar cane and coffee plantations.
For Colombians, cycling is something of a national past time: practically everyone has a bike and knows how to use it. Join them: go cycling in Colombia’s coffee country or power up into the Central Andes; there are hot springs at the end of the road.
Get top Colombia travel tips from our South American experts. They’ve shared their advice on accommodation, what to pack, background reading, what to eat – and what not to.
Colombia is pretty new to tourism, so its development in the next few years will be crucial in ensuring that this industry is sustainable and responsible...