Before I even get started on this Colombia guide, let’s get something out of the way.
Making a list of the best places to visit in any country is kind of silly. “Best” is relative. What might make my “best places to visit in Colombia” list might not make yours.
Plus, it’s kind of like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. I love a lot of places in Colombia, and narrowing down the options to just a few is hard!
If you’ve started planning a trip to Colombia, you’ve probably realized by now that there are a LOT of great places to add to your itinerary.
Colombia is one of the most diverse places in South America, filled with posh cities, gorgeous beaches, and lots of jungles. Unless you have tons of time, it’s hard to see and do it all.
So, to help you plan your trip, I’m going to give you my list of the very best places to visit in Colombia. My list probably won’t perfectly match yours, but hopefully, it can give you some ideas on what places you might want to check out while visiting Colombia.
If I were forced to pick my absolute, top favorite, best place to visit in Colombia, it’d be Cartagena.
The city is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. The beaches aren’t that great, it’s super hot and humid, and there are always people trying to sell you stuff on the street.
But the city has history galore.
The old city wall, the stories of pirate attacks, and the fortress standing over the historic center all make it feel like you are walking through history. Cartagena also has some of the best Spanish colonial architecture in Colombia (and South America).
Besides history, Cartagena is one of my favorite cities in Colombia for great nightlife, year-round festivals, and excellent restaurants. It’s one of Colombia’s safest cities for travelers — especially if you stick to the historic center or the Bocagrande neighborhood.
2. Rosario Islands
Sticking to the coast, the next area on my list of best places to visit in Colombia is the Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario).
Located about an hour from Cartagena, the islands are part of a national park and offer the gorgeous Caribbean island experience that Cartagena is sorely missing.
The islands weren’t always part of a national park, and as such, most have small homes and hotels. The beaches here aren’t as beautiful as those on the nearby Isla Baru, but they are also way less crowded. If you like snorkeling or diving, you can also do that here.
I personally recommend booking an overnight stay on the islands. You have a limited number of options, but there are a few hostels. You’ll also have a chance to see the bioluminescent phytoplankton in the lagoon, or you can book a tour of the mangroves.
3. Volcan de Lodo El Totumo
I’ll be honest, at first glance, the Volcan de Lodo El Totumo (aka the Mud Volcano) can feel a bit like a tourist trap. But before you pass judgment and skip over this kitschy looking tour, hear me out.
You will never experience anything so weird as the feeling of floating in a seemingly bottomless volcano of mud, and for me, that’s why it’s one of the best places to visit in Colombia. Seriously. Add in a bunch of mud-covered strangers, locals offering mud massages, and the inability to keep your balance in the muddy pit, and I guarantee you will be laughing by the time you get out.
All that being said, there are a few ways to cut down on the annoying tourist trap feeling.
First, just accept that you will be tipping everyone at the mud volcano. For the locals, this is their livelihood. From the kid watching your stuff to the lady aggressively helping you wash off the mud, everyone will be expecting a tip.
Second, if you have a larger group, consider booking your own taxi instead of going on a tour. Booking your own private transportation can help you time it so that you get there before or after the tour bus rush (early morning or late afternoon).
4. Tayrona National Park
If you are looking for the best beaches to visit in Colombia, head to Tayrona National Park, near Santa Marta.
The Cabo San Juan de Guia beach is considered by many to be the most beautiful beach in the country. And other than beaches, the park is rife with lush jungles and crystal clear Caribbean waters.
What makes Tayrona unique and one of the best places to visit in Colombia is also what makes many travelers skip it. The park has not only a max capacity of people allowed in each day but also a fairly steep entrance fee.
The park also closes sometimes for a month or more per year at the request of the local indigenous groups to help prevent and heal the damage caused by excess tourism.
If you are going to Tayrona, I recommend staying overnight. Your options are basically hammocks or tent camping — but if you have a few extra hundred dollars to spend, there are a few cabins as well.
Years ago, when I first visited Palomino, Colombia, I would have recommended it above Tayrona National Park. That’s how much I loved the endless white-sand beaches and the relaxed, small-town feel.
Years ago, though, Palomino had just started becoming popular on Colombia’s backpacker trail.
Today, while I still think Palomino is a fantastic place to visit, it’s for different reasons.
Skipping over Tayrona is no longer an option because Palomino Beach is less of a peaceful place and more of a party destination.
This hippy, laid back town is a backpacker’s paradise with lots of hostel options, cheap, tasty food, and super affordable day tours surf lessons.
Besides hanging out at the beach, the best thing to do in Palomino is tubing on the river. For a few dollars, you can rent an inner tube, grab a moto-taxi ride up the river, and then spend a few hours slowly drifting downstream through the Colombian jungle.
6. La Guajira
If you want to see something completely different along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, I’d suggest checking out La Guajira.
Located east of Santa Marta, this section of Colombia is known for deserts and sand dunes; it feels far removed from the lush, green jungles of Tayrona.
There are several things to do and see in La Guajira that make it one of my best places to visit in Colombia.
Kitesurfing is really popular here, and it’s a great place to learn. It’s also a popular place for bird-watching. The sand dunes and beaches are fun too, whether you like dune-buggies or just soaking up the sun.
This part of Colombia is also home to one of the larger indigenous tribes of the country: the Wayuu. Those bright, colorful bags you see for sale basically everywhere in the country? The Wayuu are the people who make them. If you want to support the local community, consider buying a bag here instead of back in Bogota or Medellin.
Fair warning, if you do make it this far off the beaten track in Colombia, be prepared for no WiFi and definitely no hot showers.
Moving away from the coast, let’s talk about some of Colombia’s cities. Bogotá, the capital, is definitely on my list of best places to see, and not just because there is a good chance you’ll end up flying into or out of the city.
Bogotá is the thriving metropolis of Colombia. It has some of the country’s best nightclubs, restaurants, and museums, along with the historic La Candelaria, the vibrant heart of the city.
Many locals will tell you that, while they prefer Cartagena as one of the best places to visit in Colombia—and Bogotá as one of the worst—living in Colombia is the exact opposite.
Bogota is the place to be.
If you’re into art, you have to see the Botero Museum. Are you a foodie? Bogotá has three of the best restaurants in Latin America and one restaurant on the World’s Best Restaurant list.
Want to enjoy a seriously good party? Bogotá’s nightclubs are some of the best in South America, with the nightclub Theatron earning the title of the best LGBTQ club in Latin America.
The best time to schedule in a visit to Bogotá during your Colombia trip would be on the weekend. Saturday, enjoy a few museums in La Candelaria, and an excellent restaurant dinner before heading out to one of the city’s nightclubs.
The next day, wake up just in time to catch the end of the city’s famous Sunday ciclovía, a weekly event that closes down many of the city’s major roads for pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy.
8. Villa de Leyva
For a small-town escape from Bogotá, I always recommend Villa de Leyva as one of the best places to visit in Colombia.
Located a few hours from Bogotá, Villa de Leyva is not quite close enough for a day trip, but it’s the perfect distance for a weekend getaway.
The town is gorgeous, with white-washed buildings, a massive central square, and cobblestone streets. There are also tons of nice restaurants, art galleries, and local handicraft stores.
While Villa de Leyva is an excellent option for a quiet, peaceful weekend, it also has a much different vibe if you visit during one of the town’s many yearly festivals.
Just imagine—thousands of people lining the cobblestone streets to celebrate the New Year, flying kites for the annual kite festival in August, or carrying candles during the Festival de Luces in December!
Another one of the must-see Colombian cities is definitely Medellín. It has a lot to offer, from consistently incredible weather to some of the friendliest people you’ll meet in Colombia.
Known as one of the biggest digital nomad hotspots in South America, Medellín is one of the best places to visit in Colombia for a few weeks of working or studying. You can find plenty of affordable vacation rentals, hostels, and coworking spaces here.
There are also a lot of good quality Spanish schools and salsa schools.
But my favorite thing about Medellín is how easy it is to reach all the small towns nearby. You can easily take a day trip to Guatapé and climb the famous El Peñol rock. Cocorná is another little town option with some of the best paragliding options in Colombia.
If you don’t want to really leave the city, take a tour of La Comuna 13. This local neighborhood in Medellín was once ruled by cartels but is now best known for incredible street art.
Unless you’re on a visit in Colombia for a week or less, skipping over the coffee region is basically blasphemy. And that’s coming from someone who doesn’t even drink coffee.
Colombian’s are very proud of their coffee, and the Coffee Triangle is a definite must-visit. Picking just one place in the coffee region to visit can be hard, however. For most visitors, Salento is probably the best option.
The town of Salento itself is small, quaint, and colorful. But fair warning: it can get a bit chilly, especially compared to the lower coffee triangle cities like Armenia.
In town, you can find lots of hostels and some boutique-style hotels. I recommend not leaving until you have tried at least one local restaurant’s trout dish. The trout from this region of Colombia is delicious, and pretty much every place in town serves an excellent meal of it.
11. The Cocora Valley
Outside Salento, the Corcora Valley is what really puts this area on my “best places to visit in Colombia” list. This valley is home to the world’s tallest palm trees, and I promise you will be blown away by their size.
The Valley is also one of my favorite places to hike in all of Colombia, and maybe all of South America. There are a variety of hiking options from short, hour-long hikes to all-day treks. If you aren’t so much into hiking, there are also horseback riding tours available.
Bonus: there are lots of fantastic coffee farms nearby where you can stay overnight, learn about how coffee is made, and basically just relax.
If you want to see the Amazon jungle, Leticia is your best option in Colombia.
Sitting right on the border, you can easily see parts of the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon jungle with day trips from Leticia.
The city itself isn’t much to rave about. There are a few nice restaurants and a good market. From Leticia though, you can book both day trips and overnight tours into the jungle.
Popular trip options include visits to local villages, piranha fishing, a stop at “Monkey Island,” and treks through the jungle.
If you are really lucky, you’ll get a chance to see the famous Amazon Pink River Dolphins!
13. San Gil
For adventure sport lovers, San Gil is a must-visit. It’s called the adventure sports capital of Colombia for good reason. Here you can find everything from white water rafting to paragliding to bungee jumping.
The town itself is located in a beautiful region of Colombia with lush forests all around. The canyons and rivers nearby are where most adventure sports options can be found. Tours and adventure sports excursions can be easily booked from a number of companies in town.
14. Caño Cristales
Getting to Caño Cristales can be quite the journey. The river is definitely off the beaten path. There are also some restrictions on when and how you can visit. If you time it right though, a visit to Caño Cristales is a chance to see one of the country’s best natural wonders.
Nicknamed the Liquid Rainbow, the Caño Cristales river is known for its beautiful range of colors—red, blue, yellow, green, and more. The colors are actually a combination of aquatic plants that bloom and grow into vibrant displays.
The best time to visit is just after the rainy season.
15. Ciudad Perdida
This famous archaeological site is located in the mountains near Santa Marta. It is accessible via a multi-day hike with most treks lasting 4-6 days. Many companies offer guided treks to the ancient city and tours can be booked both in Santa Marta and Palomino.
Be prepared for intense tropical heat, lots of bugs, and plenty of mud! If you can survive all that, you will be rewarded with a nearly empty archaeological treasure.
The Ciudad Perdida – or Lost City – is thought to have been built around 800CE. This makes the site over 600 years older than Machu Picchu.
Come Find Your Own Best Places in Colombia
So that’s my list of what I consider to be some of the best places to visit in Colombia. It’s not an all-encompassing list. I’m sure I’ve left a few places off that are just as good.
The fact is that you could spend a decade living here and still only see a fraction of this remarkable country. The places on my “still have to see” list far exceed the places I’ve already checked out.
I still haven’t been to the Pacific Coast of Colombia, where people rave about the whale watching opportunities. I have been to the Amazon but still have so much to explore. My brief trip to Cali wasn’t enough time to really explore the city or even take a salsa lesson.
This list of mine is just a place to get you started on your visit. If you really want to find the best places to visit in Colombia, you just have to come to explore Colombia yourself.
And don’t forget to read up on our tips for visiting Colombia before you do!