The calming of Colombia’s civil unrest has contributed greatly to its recent popularity as a tourist destination. The country’s natural and cultural diversity have always been part of its attraction. However, it’s only been getting the attention it deserves since the early 2000s. These must-visit Colombian cities offer history and adventure and provide a great introduction to everything the country has to offer.
High above the Andes sits Bogotá, Colombia’s largest city and the nation’s capital. It features a harmonious blend of colonial and modernistic architecture that differs from other South American capitals.
Most visitors will come to this best-known of must-visit Colombian cities before exploring the rest of the country. Its historic district, La Candelaria, is lined with beautiful and imposing buildings built back in the colonial era. The best example of this is the city’s main square, Plaza Bolivar, named after the Spanish liberator, Simon Bolivar.
The square’s most prominent buildings include the city’s main cathedral as well as Bogotá’s national capitol. If art is more your interest, check out the Museum of Gold. It displays more than 34,000 gold artifacts dating from the pre-Hispanic societies in Colombia through to today.
Finally, while staying in Bogotá, be sure to try a number of the local delicacies. Ajiaco is a stew made from chicken, with potatoes and an herb called guascas. Colombia also has its own versions of empanadas and tamales.
Well-known for its colorful architecture, lively culture and beautiful scenery, it’s no wonder Cartagena is one of the must-visit Colombian cities. Established as a Spanish port in the early 16th century, Cartegena also served as a settlement for freed slaves. This occurrence helped shape the city’s rich Afro-Caribbean culture, which is apparent during festivals that occur all year round. When in town, make sure to dance to the tunes that blend both Spanish and African elements.
Cartagena’s old town is also a sight to behold. Designated in 1984 as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it features a beautifully preserved wall fortification. The cobblestone streets within lead visitors to brightly colored colonial buildings covered with flowers. As for what to eat, go for seafood. Cartagena is Colombia’s culinary capital, and offers so many options. Choose cooked options like pargo frito (fried snapper), or raw ones like ceviches made with shrimp, octopus, or whitefish.
Colombia’s northern region sparkles with plenty of beach towns. One of them is Santa Marta, a city with a long history that is a popular jumping off point for adventure seekers, be it mountain or sea.
The city itself has a fascinating history. Founded by the Spanish conqueror Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1525, it is the oldest Spanish settlement in the country and the second oldest on the continent.
Liberator Simon Bolivar died here at his villa commonly known as La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino. Those interested in Latin American history can visit the compound. In addition to the house itself, the entrance fee includes a contemporary art museum and curated gardens.
What makes Santa Marta one of the must-visit Colombian cities for many, however, is its accessibility to a couple of bucket-worthy experiences.
Tayrona National Park
The first one is its proximity to the beloved Tayrona National Park. Santa Marta is the closest large city to this natural wonder and is a popular base for backpackers and hikers wanting to visit the park. A bus trip from Santa Marta to the park takes just 45 minutes.
La Ciudad Perdida
The second reason is possibly the highlight of any Colombian trip for adventure seekers – a 4/5/6-day hike to the Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida.
The trek typically begins in Santa Marta, where organized trekking tours pick up hikers and drive them approximately two hours to the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. Trekkers then begin their hike and along the way interact with the indigenous people that still call the Colombian jungle home.
Considering the ruins date back to 800 AD, Ciudad Perdida is remarkably well-preserved. Unlike Peru’s Machu Picchu, Ciudad Perdida is only accessible by foot. Believed to have once had as many as 8,000 inhabitants, the city was unknown to most westerners until the late 1970s, thus its name.
For fans of coffee, Salento is one of the must-visit Colombian cities. This charming town sits in the heart of Colombia’s coffee triangle, Eje Cafetero, and is as great a place as any to begin your Colombian coffee education. Take a coffee tour at one of the organic farms and learn the painstaking process of growing, cultivating, and roasting coffee beans. The tour are relatively inexpensive, ranging from $10 to $17 per person.
The real tourist draw to Salento though is the stunning Cocora Valley. Hike amongst Quindio wax palms, the tallest palms trees in the world and Colombia’s national tree. These skinny giants grow as high as 60 meters from the valley floor! You can also rent bicycles or ride on horseback to explore the region. For the latter, you can enlist the help of “vaqueros,” or local cowboys, who offer tours for a minimal fee.
Which of these must-visit Colombian cities have you traveled to? Share your experiences below.