We look at 20 top tourist attractions in Colombia, the top things to do in Colombia including Caño Cristales, Cartagena, Parque Tayrona, San Andrés and much more.
Colombia is blessed with its equatorial position and two coasts that provides a diversity of landscapes that is matched by few countries.
As you change your altitude in Colombia you go from the hot Caribbean coast to to emerald-green hills in the Coffee Triangle. Continue going higher and there is Bogotá, the third-highest capital in the world. Continue going higher and there are several snow-capped mountains.
Also, Colombia has Los Llanos, a huge 550,000-square-km grasslands shared with Venezuela. Throw in some desserts and the Amazon jungle plus the Pacific coast. Colombia has an amazing diversity of landscapes with few rivals in the world. Also, the country has a rich culture seen in its food, music, dance and lifestyles.
I have lived in Colombia for over eight years and have had the opportunity to explore many parts of Colombia. This article looks at what I believe are 20 of the top tourist attractions in Colombia.
Also, this list of 20 top tourist attractions in Colombia is in alphabetical order.
1. Caño Cristales – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Caño Cristales is a famous river in Colombia known as the “river of five colors”, which is also considered by many to be “the most beautiful river in the world”. The river has also been called the “liquid rainbow”.
During several months each year, Caño Cristales becomes a rainbow of vibrant colors including red, green, yellow, blue and black hues in a natural display that reportedly happens nowhere else on Earth.
Caño Cristales is located in the Serrania de la Macarena National Park, which is located in the Meta department of Colombia. In addition, Caño Cristales is a tributary of the Guayabero River.
Serranía de la Macarena is a protected national park in Colombia that covers 2,500 square miles (6,200 square kilometers). The Serranía de la Macarena park is located where three large ecosystems in Colombia meet, each of them with a high diversity of flora and fauna: the Amazon rainforest, the Andes mountain range and the savannah plains of the East Llanos.
Serranía de La Macarena is considered one of the most biodiverse areas of Colombia. It reportedly is home to over 500 species of birds, 100 species of reptiles, over 2,000 species of plants and over 1,200 species of insects.
For about six months of the year, Caño Cristales looks like any other river. But from about June to early December the river comes alive with red, green, yellow, blue and black hues.
Visiting Caño Cristales is more of an adventure trip, as it’s not so easily accessible. You need to get there by a combination of air, boat, 4×4 vehicle and some hiking. But in my experience, it’s an unforgettable trip as the river is breathtakingly beautiful.
2. Carnival in Barranquilla – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Carnaval de Barranquilla (Carnival of Barranquilla) in Colombia is the second largest carnival in the world, surpassed only by Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In 2019, Barranquilla’s carnival will be held on March 2 to March 5, 2019. If you happen to be in Colombia during this time it’s considered by many to be a must-see event. Barranquilla’s Carnival slogan is “quien lo vive, es quien lo goza“ – “those who live it are those who enjoy it.”
Much of Barranquilla shuts down during the four days of carnival. And enjoy the huge party in Barranquilla.
In 2002, Carnival in Barranquilla was declared a Colombian National Culture Heritage. And in 2003, Carnival of Barranquilla was proclaimed by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The Barranquilla Carnival 2019 theme is ¡Para que lo baile todo el mundo! (‘For everyone to dance!’). This is a tribute to music, its rhythms, expressions, creators, performers and songs that have made the Carnival of Barranquilla a unique cultural event for Colombia and the world.
If you are planning to go to Carnival in Barranquilla in 2019, it’s not to early to plan as tickets are already on sale. Also, it’s better to make your lodging and airline reservations early for this popular event.
3. Cartagena – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Oozing history, romance and sun-drenched beaches, the allure of historical Cartagena is hard to resist. Inside El Centro in Cartagena, visitors are surrounded by pastel-colored buildings, flower-clad balconies and vibrantly dressed palenqueras balancing bowls of fruit on their heads.
Combine that with the scorching heat, and Cartagena feels more like a Caribbean island. And once you step off the plane onto the searing tarmac, you will think you’ve escaped to a different country.
But you haven’t. And that is the main appeal of a short break to Cartagena from Medellín. You can experience all the delights of island life, with just a short one-hour domestic flight from José María Córdova International Airport. And with inexpensive domestic flights available from Medellín, it would be a sin not to venture there.
Cartagena’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a maze of cobbled streets, balconies, plazas and churches, which are surrounded by a wall.
There is so much to see and do in Cartagena. So, we provide a recommended itinerary for 72 hours in Cartagena.
4. Ciudad Perdida – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Ciudad Perdida is the site of an ancient city in Colombia that is older than Machu Picchu in Peru. It’s a challenging but rewarding hike with ancient ruins, jungle, river crossings, native villages, waterfalls and much more. Ciudad Perdia is also one of the largest pre-Columbian towns discovered in the Americas.
Ciudad Perdida is located deep in the Sierra Nevada coastal mountains near Santa Marta. And it remains accessible only on foot in what is one of Colombia’s most exciting and breathtaking hikes. This is definitely one of the most rewarding and also challenging hikes I have been on.
Ciudad Perdida is an archaeological site of an ancient city in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains near Santa Marta. It is believed to have been founded about 800 CE, which is about 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu in Peru.
For about 350 years, Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) was hidden from all but occasional natives. But Ciudad Perdida was discovered in 1972, when a group of local treasure looters found a series of stone steps rising up the mountainside and followed them to the abandoned city.
The hike to Ciudad Perdida is one of the most amazing things to do in Colombia. But it’s not for everyone due to being a four-day to six-day hike in the jungle.
Pretty much everybody knows about Machu Picchu in Peru. While Ciudad Perdida in Colombia remains much less discovered by tourists with perhaps only a few hundred tourists visiting it each week.
If you go to Ciudad Perdida in Colombia you will have something to really remember. And the amazing landscapes and views plus the sense of remoteness will stay with you for a long time.
5. Colombia’s Pacific Coast – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
The Pacific coast of Colombia is often overlooked by tourists visiting Colombia. The relative difficulty of getting to the Pacific coast (the area is only accessible by domestic flights), coupled with the lack of Internet and developed tourist infrastructure, makes many people opt to visit a place like Cartagena on the Caribbean coast or islands such as San Andrés instead. But there are many things to see and do on Colombia’s Pacific coast.
Colombia’s Pacific coast can be considered somewhat wild and mysterious. And it’s also considered rather remote. But for the slightly more adventurous traveler who wants to experience untamed nature and undiscovered beauty that is off the beaten path for most foreign tourists, the Pacific coast can offer some of the best of Colombia.
The Pacific coast region of Colombia is one of the most biodiverse in the world. In addition, the local hospitality is unparalleled. And the beaches are the perfect place to relax and soak up the silence – when the rain stops long enough for you to enjoy them.
From unspoiled beaches to wild jungles and humpback whales, there is much to do and we looked at 12 things to do on Colombia’s Pacific coast.
There are not many destinations in Colombia as ruggedly spectacular as the Pacific coast of Colombia. But don’t go expecting to find the luxurious accommodations you can find on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. But there are several comfortable eco-resorts/hotels.
The bottom line is that Pacific coast of Colombia is off the beaten path for most foreign tourists. So, the few that do venture to this little-visited area of Colombia will find unspoiled beaches, wild jungles, majestic whales and people that are unforgettable.
6. Desierto de la Tatacoa – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Tatacoa Desert (Desierto de la Tatacoa) is a desert located in the Colombian Department of Huila, which is located about 24 miles (38 km) from the city of Neiva in Colombia. In addition, Tatacoa Desert is considered the second largest arid zone in Colombia
The stunning and surreal desert landscapes in the area as well as fossil remains plus being considered a good location for star gazing make it a popular tourist area. Tatacoa has almost no pollution or noise. So, it attracts tourists who enjoy the silence, scenery and tranquility. But it is still off the beaten path for foreigner tourists.
Technically, the Tatacoa Desert is not really a proper desert. And some say it is semi-desert and others say it’s a semi-arid dry tropical forest. You can sometimes experience rain at night in the area. Also, the area is heavily eroded and has dry canyons that develop transiently.
This desert area is filled with rocky canyons that form dry labyrinths in red and grey colors that are interrupted by occasional green bushes.
Tatacoa Desert provides access to some stunning and surreal desert landscapes in Colombia. When I visited a few years ago I found it to be an amazing experience that I highly recommend.
Also, Tatacoa Desert is located in the middle of nowhere. So, it’s an incredibly quiet place and a great place to enjoy the natural beauty in the area with some amazing views.
7. Guatapé – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Picturesque Guatapé is a very popular pueblo to visit from Medellín. It’s a great place for a day trip or a weekend getaway from Medellín. In my opinion, no trip to Medellín and Antioquia would be complete without a trip to Guatapé. And it’s likely the most most visited pueblo in Colombia by foreigners.
Guatapé is located next to the massive man-made lake that was created for a hydroelectric dam built in the 1970s. So, it’s now a lakeside pueblo with many sidewalk restaurants and cafes plus water activities in the area. Also, there is Peñón de Guatapé, which is a gigantic rock with incredible views of the lake and surrounding area.
Guatapé is easy to get to. It’s only about two hours away from Medellín. And it’s one of my favorite pueblos near Medellín. The pueblo is also extremely colorful with the homes painted many colors and many have additional decorations.
While it is possible to go there as a day trip from Medellín, there is much to do to keep you entertained and make it worth staying overnight. I normally try to go for a three-day weekend and stay there two nights to provide more time to unwind and enjoy the colorful pueblo.
8. La Guajira Peninsula – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
La Guajira Peninsula is one of the most visually stunning places in South America and is worth visiting. La Guajira Peninsula is a desert environment located along the northern coast of Colombia.
This is a desert region that is the northern tip of Colombia and South America. And the region is home to the indigenous Wayúu people.
Keep in mind this is a hostile desert climate that has made it pretty isolated since colonial times. Also, this barren peninsula is about 149 miles (240 km) long and no more than 31 miles (50 km) wide.
In addition, La Guajira is off the beaten path of foreign tourists and can provide an “end-of-the-world” feel. Furthermore, about a third of the driving is off-road. But if you are looking for a beach all to yourself, this adventure is for you.
The capital of the La Guajira Peninsula is Riohacha, which is about 109 miles (175) km northeast of Santa Marta. And it has a population of over 170,000. Also, this is where most La Guajira tours start.
Several tour companies in Santa Marta offer multi-day tours of La Guajira Peninsula. Also, we included La Guajira Peninsula in our list of 16 top things to do in Santa Marta.
9. Las Lajas Sanctuary – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Las Lajas Sanctuary (Santuario de Las Lajas) is arguably considered the most beautiful church in Colombia. It’s also considered by many to be one of the most beautiful churches in the world. And The Telegraph even named Las Lajas Sanctuary the most beautiful church in the world in 2015.
Las Lajas Sanctuary is a minor basilica church located in Ipiales, which is located in the southern Colombian Department of Nariño. The church sits on a 130 feet tall bridge over the Guáitara river. In addition, it’s located less than seven miles from the Ecuadorian border.
Las Lajas Sanctuary is a Gothic Revival style church built inside a canyon of the Guáitara river. So, it’s often been called a jewel of engineering. This Roman Catholic church is dedicated to the veneration of Our Lady of Las Lajas Ipiales.
The Las Lajas Sanctuary is famous for its stunning architecture and a series of legends involving the appearance of the Holy Virgin and a mysterious mural of which nobody knows the origins.
Las Lajas Sanctuary (Santuario de Las Lajas) is one of the world’s most beautiful churches. And it’s definitely worth visiting if you are crossing the Ecuador/Colombia border by land. In addition, we have looked at the top 14 churches in Medellín.
10. Medellín’s Christmas Lights – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
One event that Medellín is famous for is the annual Medellín Christmas lights display that is known as Alumbrados Navideños or El Alumbrado.
The first public Christmas lighting in Medellín reportedly happened in 1851 at Plaza Mayor, which is currently the location of Medellín’s large convention center.
The modern annual Christmas lights display in Medellín began in 1955, when EPM was consolidated as a public utilities company. Starting that year, part of the city was adorned with a modest special Christmas lights display that was jointly funded by EPM, the local government and the press.
By 1967, EPM started to manage Medellín’s Christmas event each year. In addition, the company became responsible for the design, installation and funding of the light display.
Over the years, the annual Christmas lights were broadened in scope. So, they are now considered one of the biggest tourist attractions in Medellin. Tourists come from around the world to Medellín to see Alumbrados Navideños.
The Medellín Christmas lights display in 2018 includes 26 million lights and is mainly found at the Parque Norte amusement park.
Each year up to 4 million people see the Alumbrados Navideños display in the city. And last year an estimated 90,000 tourists visited Medellín to see the world-class Medellín Christmas lights.
11. Medellín’s Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Medellín’s biggest annual festival is known as the La Feria de las Flores 2018 (Festival of Flowers). In 2018, it ran from August 3 to August 12.
The 10-day festival is a huge annual celebration of paisa culture. 2018 was the 61st annual Feria de las Flores in Medellín. And the theme was “Medellín Florece” or “Medellín Blooms” in English.
Festival of Flowers schedule is packed with many events, big and small. And in 2018 there were over 400 different events between public and private events for La Feria de las Flores.
The first Feria de las Flores, or flower festival, reportedly took place in Medellin in May 1957. It was intended to host a tribute to the thriving flower business in the Medellín area.
The following year in 1958, the month of the festival was changed to August. This was done to celebrate the independence of Antioquia. Over the next 60 years, additional events were added to the festival, which increased the duration to the current 10 to 11 days each year.
The three big headliner events during Feria de las Flores each year are the big super concert, the classic car parade and the flower parade. And each year we publish a popular Feria de las Flores guide with a schedule and expat tips.
12. Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
The Parque Los Nevados, also known as Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados (Los Nevados National Natural Park), is a popular national park in Colombia located in the heart of the coffee region in Colombia. It’s a beautiful park known for its snow-capped volcanoes, glaciers, lakes and forests.
Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados is the third most popular national park in Colombia after Parque Nacional Natural Corales del Rosario and Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. In 2016, Parque Los Nevados reportedly had 39,904 visitors.
Parque Los Nevados is located in the Central Andes, which is the highest of the three branches of the Colombian Andes. The park was created in 1973 in order to help contribute to the conservation of important ecosystems such as three of the glaciers in Colombia, high Andean wetlands and high Andean forests.
The rivers that descend from Parque Los Nevados’ snow peaks supply water to the farmlands and aqueducts of cities, towns and villages in the center of Colombia.
Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados is worth visiting as it provides access to some of the most stunning stretches of the Colombian Andes with some incredible landscapes. The varied altitudes in this park encompass everything from humid cloud forests to glaciers on the highest peaks.
13. Parque Tayrona – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Parque Tayrona, also known as Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona (Tayrona National Natural Park), is a popular national park in Colombia located along Colombia’s Caribbean coast that is known for its beautiful beaches and biodiversity. Parque Tayrona is a tourist hotspot in Colombia that reportedly received a total 395,250 visitors in 2017.
This park is full of biodiversity with over 60 mammal species as well as 400 species of birds, in addition to countless reptiles and amphibians. It’s a very biodiverse area with two ecosystems between coastal mountains and the sea.
Parque Tayrona includes 150 square kilometers of land and over 30 km of coastline. One of the main reasons to go to Parque Tayrona is the beautiful beaches.
Parque Tayrona is an immensely attractive place with its gorgeous beaches backed by coconut palm trees and thick jungle/rainforest. And behind it all are the steep hillsides of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal mountain range.
14. Popayán – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Colonial gem Popayán in Colombia best known for its white buildings and beautiful churches. It’s a city off the beaten path for foreign tourists to Colombia but Popayán is definitely worth visiting.
Popayán is the capital of the Cauca department in Colombia. The city’s historic downtown is considered one of the most beautiful and best preserved Colonial centers in Colombia and Latin America.
In addition, the city has a strong religious presence with many churches and traditions like Semana Santa (Holy Week), a gastronomy recognized by UNESCO and hiking at the nearby Parque Nacional Natural Puracé
All these ingredients, make Popayán a recommended destination during your trip to Colombia. It’s a lesser known city in Colombia with a vibrant history and beautiful Colonial architecture.
Popayán has a colonial architecture matching Cartagena’s, a history rivaling the history of Bogotá or Medellín, a religious presence as prestigious as Jericó. All those ingredients make Popayán a unique and admiring place to visit.
15. Rio Claro Nature Reserve – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Rio Claro Nature Reserve (Reserva Natural Cañon de Río Claro) is considered by many as one of the must-do activities in Antioquia. And it is located only about three hours from Medellín.
Rio Claro is also the perfect place to enjoy an abundance of nature with a picturesque crystal-clear river, canyon and tropical rainforest. In addition, it enables completely unplugging from the hectic pace of daily life in the city.
Established in 1970, the 1,606 acre (650 hectare) Rio Claro Nature Reserve is a private reserve and it’s a spectacular example of Colombia’s biodiversity. It is located about 94 miles (152 km) southeast of Medellín on the Medellín – Bogotá highway.
Almost every area of the reserve offers a view of the river, canyon and tropical rainforest. This exquisite framing creates a Garden of Eden effect, further accentuated by the sublime chorus of birds, insects and monkeys.
Here, the diversity is not simply geological. Animal species within the reserve are estimated at 100 species of mammals, 350 species of birds, 70 species of reptiles, 45 species of amphibians, and 50 species of fish, beyond abundant species of insects and invertebrates.
There is a two-hour and thirty-minute Class I and II rafting trip in inflatable rafts. And this rafting trip provides access to bird, reptile and monkey sightings as well as a leisurely swimming break. Also, there are many swimming beaches throughout the reserve.
Rio Claro is truly the quintessential place to unplug. There are no TVs here and Wifi is only available at the main entrance reception area. So, let the jungle sounds lull you to peaceful sleep and discover the extraordinary beauty of nature.
16. Salento and the Cocora Valley – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Salento is a picturesque pueblo in Colombia’s coffee region and the nearby Cocora Valley is one of the most striking landscapes found in Colombia.
Salento is a sleepy pueblo in Colombia’s coffee region that is definitely worth visiting. Salento is a relatively small pueblo – it occupies just 12 calles by 10 carreras. And it’s a place where horses trot down the street unmounted and roosters can be heard crowing in the morning.
Like many Colombian pueblos, the white-walled homes and shops in Salento have vibrantly painted doors and windows in eye-catching shades of cobalt, tangerine and turquoise.
Salento is nestled in the Central Cordillera of the Andean mountains. It’s a place to come to reconnect with nature. Somewhere to take long hikes and indulge in lots of food.
Near Salento is the spectacular Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora). This breathtaking area of Colombia is surrounded in emerald green hills and dotted with the country’s national tree – the wax palm.
Called the Quindío wax palm, this spindly variety can grow up to 200 feet. Their comical appearance looks like something straight out of Dr Suess’s book The Lorax.
Coming to Salento without going to the Cocora valley would be like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower. You just have to do it.
17. San Agustín Archaeological Park – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Colombia has the largest group of pre-Columbian monuments and megalithic statues in South America that are located in the San Agustín Archaeological Park (Parque Arqueologico). This site was even named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
The sizable park features the largest complex in South America of pre-Columbian megalithic funerary monuments and statuary, burial mounds, terraces, funerary structures and stone statuary.
Volcanic stones from now-extinct nearby volcanoes proved irresistible to the local sculptors, who worked the stones into grand monuments. The result is well over 500 statues, which are scattered over a wide area in the lush green hills. The statues vary in height with the tallest being 23 feet (7 meters) high.
Little is known about the people that inhabited this area and carved the statues. The dates of the statues are not known but are believed by some to have been carved sometime between 50 to 400 A.D. The statues include human figures, animals, deities and monsters.
The result is a mystical place that is located in a spectacular landscape that is worth visiting, particularly if you like impressive archaeological sites. I would say this site is comparable to Easter Island’s Moai statues, but not quite on the same scale.
San Agustín Archaeological Park has a seemingly endless count of fantastic stone statues located in green hills and surrounded by valleys and mountains.
18. San Andrés – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
Colombia’s Caribbean island is San Andrés and it’s a popular vacation location. San Andrés is so different from Colombia that you will think you are in another country. In addition, San Andrés is located closer to Nicaragua than it is to Colombia.
The island of San Andrés is a popular vacation place from the mainland of Colombia. Also, the archipelago with several other islands is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. And it features many beaches, islets and coral reefs that are filled with flora and fauna.
San Andrés is a great place to go on vacation. You are still in Colombia but it feels like are are in another country in the Caribbean, as San Andrés seems very different than the Colombian mainland.
Also, there are so many things to do in San Andrés with beaches, snorkeling, diving, good seafood, several small islands nearby and so much more. It’s definitely worth adding San Andrés to your list of places to visit in Colombia.
19. San Gil – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
San Gil is known as “Colombia’s Adventure Capital” with so much to do nearby including white water rafting, paragliding, caving, rappelling, hiking and much more.
San Gil is a pueblo in the Santander Department of Colombia with a population of less than 50,000. It was founded in 1689. So, San Gil is over 300 years old. And in 2004, San Gil was named the tourist capital of Santander.
Each year, San Gil is being discovered by more foreign tourists but it’s still off the beaten path for most tourists visiting Colombia.
The bottom line is that San Gil deserves its reputation as the “Adventure Capital of Colombia”. There is so much to do nearby that you could spend weeks there and not experience everything. So, it’s definitely worth adding San Gil to your list of places to visit in Colombia.
20. San Jose del Guaviare – Top Tourist Attractions in Colombia
As little as two years ago, the small town of San Jose del Guaviare in Colombia was a complete no-go zone for tourists. The region was associated for decades with drug trafficking and the ongoing violence that plagued Colombia for decades.
Now, it is emerging as a prime destination for eco-tourism and rightfully so. Sandwiched between the plains of Los Llanos and the thick jungle of the Amazon, San Jose del Guaviare offers infinite opportunities for anyone looking to get off the beaten track and experience a true adventure.
San Jose del Guaviare is a truly fascinating and beautiful region. Also, the eco-tourism industry is breathing new life into the area and providing opportunities for work and growth.
And that is without going into the wealth of activities and sights within the area. From wildlife watching, to jungle trekking, to delving into Colombia’s prehistoric past, this is truly an unforgettable experience for any traveller who wants to see a different part of the country. The bottom line is that San Jose de Guaviare really is a hidden gem worth visiting.
The Bottom Line: Top 20 Tourist Attractions in Colombia – Top Things to Do in Colombia
More Americans are discovering Colombia each year with tourism to Colombia growing at double digit rates. For example, Medellín experienced an 18 percent increase in travelers from the U.S. between January and August of 2018, as compared to last year.
In addition, more than 528,000 Americans visited Colombia in 2017, of which 105,735 visited Medellin, representing 16 percent of the total arrivals.
This isn’t surprising as Colombia is full of amazing places to see and things to do. The list of 20 top tourist attractions in Colombia in this article is based on my over eight years living in Colombia and traveling throughout Colombia.
I have been to many of the top tourist attractions in Colombia. But there are still many places I haven’t been to yet. For example, I haven’t been to the Amazon. Also, I have been to only 10 of the 59 protected areas (national parks) in Colombia.
So, I expect this article will be revised in the future, as I discover more of the beautiful country of Colombia.
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