Colombia


Colombia destinations

about Soaring Andean summits, unspoiled Caribbean coast, enigmatic Amazon jungle, cryptic archaeological ruins and cobbled colonial communities. Colombia boasts all of South America's allure, and more.

Diverse Landscapes

Colombia's equatorial position affords it a diversity of landscapes matched by few countries. A slight tinkering in altitude takes you from sun-toasted Caribbean sands to coffee-strewn, emerald-green hilltops in the Zona Cafetera. Continue to climb and there's Bogotá, the bustling cradle of Colombia and third-highest capital city in the world. Throw in another few thousand meters and you'll find snow capped peaks, high-altitude lakes and the eerie, unique vegetation of the páramo (high-mountain plains). The bottom drops out as the Andes give way to Los Llanos, a 550,000-sq-km swath of tropical grasslands shared with Venezuela, often called the Serengeti of South America.

Outdoor Adventures

Colombia's varied terrain is fertile ground for outdoor adventurers to dive, climb, raft, trek and soar. San Gil is the undisputed adventure capital, but Colombia boasts alfresco pleasures in all corners. Some of the continent's most iconic trekking is here, and is dramatically varied: Ciudad Perdida is a multi day jungle walk to the ancient ruins of the Tayrona civilization, while numerous ascents inside Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy place intrepid hikers among the highest reaches of the Andes. Providencia's world-class reef spells aquatic heaven for scuba divers, and whale-watchers on the Pacific coast can see majestic humpbacks in the wild.

Extraordinary Culture

A wealth of ancient civilizations left behind a fascinating spread of archaeological and cultural sites throughout Colombia. The one-time Tayrona capital, Ciudad Perdida, built between the 11th and 14th centuries, is one of the continent's most mysterious ancient cities, arguably second only to Machu Picchu. Even more shrouded in mystery is San Agustín, where more than 500 life-sized ancient sculpted statues – some 5000 years old and of enigmatic origin – dot the surrounding countryside. And then there's Tierradentro, where elaborate underground tombs scooped out by an unknown people add even more mystique to Colombia's past.

Historical Architecture

Led by Cartagena's extraordinarily preserved old city, Colombia offers an off-the-radar treasure trove of wonderfully photogenic cobblestoned towns and villages that often feel like they hail from a different century. Unweathered Barichara and sleepy Mompós feel like movie sets, while whitewashed Villa de Leyva appears stuck in 16th-century quicksand. Colombia's panorama of postcard-perfect pueblos are among the best preserved on the continent; just don't explore them in high heels!

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Bogotá is Colombia's beating heart, an engaging and vibrant capital cradled by chilly Andean peaks and steeped in sophisticated urban cool. The city's cultural epicenter is La Candelaria, the cobbled historic downtown to which most travelers gravitate. Here, a potpourri of carefully preserved colonial buildings is home to museums, restaurants, hotels and bars, peppered amid 300-year-old houses, churches and convents. Nearly all of Bogotá's traditional attractions are here, radiating from Plaza de Bolívar, and gorgeous Cerro de Monserrate is just east.

The city's grittier sides sit south and southwest, where working-class barrios continue to battle their (sadly, deserved) reputations for drugs and crime. In the ritzier north you'll find boutique hotels, and well-heeled locals piling into chic entertainment districts such as the Zona Rosa and Zona G. Here, rust-tinted sunsets dramatically bounce off the bricks of upper-class Bogotá's Andes-hugging residential buildings – a cinematic ceremony that begins the city's uproarious evenings.

Sights

La Candelaria

Blissfully alive and chock-full of key things to see, La Candelaria is Bogotá's colonial barrio, with a mix of carefully restored 300-year-old houses, some rather dilapidated ones, and still more marking more modern eras.

The usual place to start discovering Bogotá is Plaza de Bolívar, marked by a bronze statue of Simón Bolívar (cast in 1846 by Italian artist Pietro Tenerani). It was the city's first public monument. The square has changed considerably over the centuries and is no longer lined by colonial buildings; only the Capilla del Sagrario dates from the Spanish era. Other buildings are more recent and feature different architectural styles.

Some of La Candelaria's most popular sights, as well as the Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez, are within a couple of blocks east of the plaza. The slightly confusing web of museums run by the Banco de la República, including the Museo Botero, Casa de Moneda, the Colección de Arte and the Museo de Arte del Banco de la República, are essentially one massive and labyrinthine interconnected museum complex and form what is easily one of Bogotá's top attractions. Plan ahead: last admission to the complex is 30 minutes before closing.

Green People Watching From Above

While walking around La Candelaria – while keeping an eye out for fresh dog feces and missing pothole covers at street level – look up for a unique art project that peers down from rooftops, window ledges and balconies. Assembled in the past decade from recycled materials, the artworks – green figures representing the area's comuneros (commoners) – come from local artist Jorge Olavé.

Note the guy watching over Plaza de Bolívar from atop the Casa de Comuneros' southwestern corner – he's got the best seat in town.

City Center

Bogotá's scrappy business center – busiest along Calle 19 and Carrera 7 – is easiest to deal with on Sunday, when Ciclovía shuts down Carrera 7 for cyclists and pedestrians (a permanent pedestrianization between Plaza de Bolívar and Calle 26 was being completed in early 2018), and the Mercado de San Alejo flea market is in force. Some of the district's most visited parts (notably the Museo del Oro) cluster near La Candelaria by Av Jiménez.

Cerro de Monserrate

Bogotá's proud symbol – and convenient point of reference – is the white-church-topped 3150m Monserrate peak. It flanks the city's east, about 1.5km from La Candelaria, and is visible from most parts across the Sabana de Bogotá (Bogotá savannah; sometimes called 'the valley'). The top has gorgeous views of the capital's 1700-sq-km sprawl. On a clear day you can even spot the symmetrical cone of Nevado del Tolima, part of the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados volcanic range in the Cordillera Central, 135km west.

The church up top is a major mecca for pilgrims, due to its altar statue of the Señor Caído (Fallen Christ), dating from the 1650s, to which many miracles have been attributed. The church was erected after the original chapel was destroyed by an earthquake in 1917. You'll also find two restaurants (Santa Clara and San Isidro) and a cafe – make a day of it.

The steep 1500-step hike – past snack stands – to the top (60 to 90 minutes' walk) is open from 5am (closed Tuesday). It's a popular weekend jaunt for bogotanos; on weekdays it used to be dangerous, as thefts occurred all too regularly, but an increase in police presence in recent years has curbed that considerably. If you're traveling solo or don't feel like walking, the regular teleférico (cable car) and funicular alternate schedules up the mountain from Monserrate Station. Generally, the funicular goes before noon (3pm on Saturday), the cable car after.

The funicular base station is a 20-minute walk up from the Iglesia de las Aguas (along the brick walkways with the fountains – up past the Universidad de los Andes), at the northeastern edge of La Candelaria. Safety along this route has also improved, although you're still best advised to make the trip at weekends, particularly in the morning, when many pilgrims are about.

Sleeping

Boutique and business hotels are scattered north of Calle 65, many within walking distance of the lively scenes of Zona G, Zona Rosa or Parque 93. La Candelaria is where most of Bogotá's attractions and budget lodgings are located – including many excellent hostels.

La Candelaria

In the past couple of years, the historic suburb of La Candelaria has seen an explosion in hostels. Generally, private rooms in hostels are better than cheapies in the district's dated, grubby hotels. In the higher-end price bracket there are a couple of fine locales with more colonial spirit than you'll find anywhere else in the capital.

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Entertainment

Bogotá is home to a well-established arts, theater and music scene. The city's best theaters are found in La Candelaria, while live-music venues dot the north, from grittier/trendier Chapinero to more mainstream venues in the Zona Rosa.

Theater

Bogotá is big on theater and has more than a dozen options. Left-leaning, politicized troupes dominate La Candelaria, while more mainstream options linger 'uptown' in the north.

Live Music

Clubs across town stage live music nightly, and outdoor festivals such as Rock al Parque are huge events that attract fans from all over the continent. Posters around town tout big-name acts, who play at Estadio El Campín, Parque Simón Bolívar, and Parque Jaime Duque (on the way to Zipaquirá, north of the city).

Sports

Many outsiders equate Colombia's national sport – football (soccer) – with the shooting of Andrés Escobar after his own goal eliminated Colombia from the 1994 World Cup, but seeing games here is generally a calm affair (wearing neutral colors isn't a bad idea, though). The two big rivals are Los Millonarios (in blue and white; www.millonarios.com.co) and Santa Fe (in red and white; www.independientesantafe.co).

The principal venue is the 36,343-seat Estadio El Campín. Games are played on Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon. Reserve your seats online in advance for big matches (decent seats go for between COP$200,000 and COP$350,000); otherwise, turn up at the ticket window before match time. For international matches, check with the Federación Colombiana de Fútbol (www.fcf.com.co) for locations that sell tickets or head online to StubHub (www.stubhub.co).

Eating

Fusion is the watchword of many Bogotá restaurateurs, who are running Mediterranean, Italian, Californian or pan-Asian influences through typical Colombian dishes, but reinvented homegrown cuisine is on the rise. The best dining destinations include Zona Rosa, Nogal and Zona G; also recommended is the slightly boho scene in La Macarena, just north of La Candelaria.

Drinking & Nightlife

Atmospheric 300-year-old homes with corner fireplaces and old tile floors dot La Candelaria. Watering holes turn up the trend as you head north: especially in Chapinero Alto, Zona Rosa and Parque 93. Bohemian barrios west of Av Caracas, such as Parkway in La Soledad, have become stomping grounds for craft brewing and other hipster trends in the last few years.

Clubbing in Bogotá

Strap yourself in: Bogotá boogies. There's all sorts of ambience and musical rhythm on offer – from rock, techno and metal to salsa, vallenato and samba. If you don't know how to dance, be prepared to prove it. Strangers frequently ask each other to dance and everyone seems to know the words to every song played.

Shopping

Locals love malls – Centro Comercial El Retiro and Centro Comercial Andino are the best – but Sunday flea markets are more inviting attractions. Also look along Carrera 9, south of Calle 60, for Chapinero's antique shops.

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Situated in a narrow valley, Medellín packs the punch of a city twice its size. Its skyline reaches for the heavens, setting high-rise apartments and office buildings against a backdrop of jagged peaks in every direction. Its pleasant climate gives it its nickname – the City of Eternal Spring – and the moderate temperatures put a spring in the locals' steps, at work and at play. It's a bustling place of industry and commerce, especially in textile manufacturing and exported cut flowers. On weekends Medellín lets its hair down, its many discos attracting the beautiful people.

The city sprawls north and south along the valley floor; slums hug the upper reaches of the hills. True to its paisa (people of Antioquia) roots, Medellín affects an indifference to the rest of Colombia, putting on metropolitan airs and looking overseas for inspiration for its next great public-works projects.

Sights

Botero Sculptures

Around the city center you'll frequently bump into the distinctive voluptuous sculptures of paisa artist Fernando Botero, whose larger-than-life figures have become emblems of the city. Among those worth checking out is the iconic La Gorda, in front of the Banco de la República in Parque Berrío. There are three more Botero sculptures in Parque San Antonio, including the Pájaro de Paz (Bird of Peace), which sits alongside its earlier incarnation that was destroyed in a terrorist bomb attack.

Sleeping

El Poblado is the preferred place to stay for most travelers. It's close to the bars and restaurants, and is usually safe, even late at night.

Those who want a less-sanitized experience of Medellín may prefer the more rough-and-tumble center, although you'll want to take taxis after dark.

A middle option is the area around Laureles/La Setenta, which is less flashy than Poblado yet more orderly than the center.

El Poblado

El Poblado has several different sub districts with different kinds of accommodations. Most hostels in the blocks around Parque Lleras tend to be ‘party hostels’ so bring ear plugs. The Patio Bonito area close to the metro has more relaxed accommodations and a quieter vibe. Another option is Manila, where there are several good hostels dotted among hip restaurants and bars.

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Entertainment

Medellín has the liveliest theater scene outside of Bogotá, with venues concentrated in the center and the Boston neighborhood. Dance fans will want to attend a performance at one of the city's tango centers. Once the preferred dance of the we're-not-really-Colombian paisas, it now lingers on in the memories of the older generation, and those with a taste for nostalgia.

Eating

El Poblado is full of restaurants covering a wide range of tastes and budgets. The Provenza area up the hill from Parque Lleras is home to many high-end options, while Manila, on El Poblado's northern edge, is a hip dining spot packed with cafes and eateries.

Drinking & Nightlife

The city's zona rosa is around Parque Lleras in El Poblado, a dense tangle of upscale restaurants, bars and clubs. Some of Medellín's most exclusive bars are located along Av El Poblado. Less showy are the bars around the Laureles neighborhood. For a more bohemian experience, check the options around Parque del Periodista in the center.

Late-Night Options

There is a group of large clubs in the former industrial neighborhood of Barrio Colombia. Many late-night options are clustered on the Autopista Sur – the southern highway out of town near the Palmahia disco. Bars in that area don't get busy until around 3am and keep going until first light.

Craft Beer

Second only to Bogotá when it comes to the craft-beer scene, Medellín boasts around three dozen microbreweries and nano-breweries. A number are one-person operations, with the self-taught brewers experimenting in their kitchens and serving their beers in their front rooms, while others have proper steel vats and formal brew-master skills. Brews to look out for include TorreAlta, Metamorphosis, Belgian-style ÖlBröder, Alburrá Valley and Sierra Blanca – none have brewpubs of their own but are available in bars and restaurants around Medellín.

Shopping

For high-end shopping, head to the malls of El Poblado, including Santafé, Centro Comercial Oviedo and El Tesoro. Handicrafts and souvenirs can be found at the Centro Artesanal Mi Viejo Pueblo in the center.

Travel with Children

Medellín is one of the more child-friendly cities in Colombia, with cool public transportation, including cable cars and trams, and many kid-oriented places to visit.

Among the attractions likely to interest younger travelers are Parque Explora, with its fantastic aquarium chock-full of fabulous fish, and the Jardín Botánico, which boasts a butterfly enclosure, lakes and plenty of grass on which to run around. Outside town, Parque Arví is another good option with its easy hiking trails, ziplines and play areas.

Pavements in Medellín vary greatly. In newly redeveloped areas they tend to be wide and good, while in traditional neighborhoods they can be blocked or nonexistent, with most locals walking along the road. Note that in mountainous neighborhoods, pavements often feature a series of steps, which makes visiting these areas with a pram a challenge.

Care needs to be taken when walking in the center and other populated areas as traffic does not always stop for those on foot. Likewise crowded buses that hurtle along at full speed with open doors are best avoided.

Diaper-changing facilities can be found in more upmarket malls and museums, but they are by no means universal.

LGBT Travellers

Compared to some Latin American countries, homosexuality is well tolerated in Colombia (it was declared legal by the government in Bogotá in 1981).

There is a substantial gay undercurrent in the major cities and as long as you don't broadcast the fact in public you are unlikely to be harassed. With popular apps like Grindr for men, most contact is initiated online these days.

In 2011 Colombia's Constitutional Court ordered Congress to pass legislation addressing same-sex marriage by June 2013; if they did not, the ruling dictated same-sex couples would automatically receive all marital rights from that date forward. Congress failed to act and Colombia's first gay wedding was performed on July 24, 2013. Full legal rights were confirmed in 2016 when the country's Constitutional Court ruled that the constitution required the state to process and recognize same-sex marriages.

For LBGT-specific listings see the website www.guiagaycolombia.com.

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Cali is a hot, gritty city with a real zest for life that draws you in and stays with you long after you leave town. Beyond a handful of churches and museums, Cali is light on sights – but the the city's main attraction is its beguiling, electrifying atmosphere. If you make the effort you will find great nightlife, good restaurants and plenty to do, especially in the evening, when a cool mountain breeze dissipates the heat of the day.

Cali is rich in Afro-Colombian heritage; nowhere is the nation's racial diversity and harmony more apparent. From the impoverished barrios to the big, slick clubs, everyone is moving to one beat, and that beat is salsa. Music in the world's salsa capital is more than entertainment: it is a unifying factor that ties the city together.

Sights

For a city of its size, Cali has very few top attractions but it compensates with atmosphere. Caleños are proud of their vibrant culture and have a rebellious attitude that's reflected in the city's catchphrase: 'Cali es Cali y lo demás es loma, ¿oís?' (Cali is Cali, and the rest [of Colombia] is just mountain, ya hear?).

Sleeping

For a taste of Cali's colonial origins and a plentitude of hostels, lay your head in laid-back San Antonio; nearby residential area Miraflores is calmer but still within walking distance of the action. If you're after high-end accommodations and nightlife head for Granada.

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Eating

The best cheap eats in town are in and around La Galeria de Alameda, a colorful local market with plenty of small lunch counters serving seafood and comidas tipicas (typical food). Cali's largely Colombian dining scene has recently acquired several creative international restaurants that have raised the culinary stakes considerably.

Activities

No trip to Cali is complete without visiting Cerro de las Tres Cruces, three crosses that tower over the city. The views here are spectacular. It's a hefty two- to three-hour walk (round trip) from Granada heading northwest – bring plenty of water. Security is an issue on the trail – especially on weekdays when it's more or less empty – so travel in a group and don't take any valuables. There are several trailheads; the easiest one to find is near Av 10 Oeste at Calle 12N.

Marker Km18 lies 18km west of the city. There are numerous bars and restaurants here. At 1800m it's pleasantly cool, and the nearby cloud forest is an Important Bird Area (IBA) with high biodiversity. The walk from here to the small town of Dapa (four hours) – off the Cali–Yumbo road – is a pleasant stroll. There are numerous crossroads – always take the left-hand fork.

Drinking & Nightlife

Many caleños don't really go out drinking, they go out to dance. For a low-key night out head to Parque del Perro, home to numerous small bars. Just north of Cali is Menga, with many large discos. Further afield, several large salsatecas (salsa dance clubs) cluster in legendary Juanchito, although the area no longer attracts crowds like it once did.

Travel with Children

Like most Latin Americans, Colombians adore children. Due to a high rate of population growth, children make up a significant proportion of the population, and they are omnipresent.

Few foreigners travel with children in Colombia, but if you do plan on taking along your offspring, they will find plenty of local companions.

Almost all attractions in Colombia offer discounted admission for children.

Pick up a copy of Lonely Planet's Travel with Children for general tips.

Practicalities

You can buy disposable diapers (nappies) and baby food in supermarkets and pharmacies. There are quite a few shops devoted to kids' clothes, shoes and toys; Pepeganga (www.pepeganga.com) in particular is recommended.

Most restaurants with a menu, which excludes cheap set-lunch places, will have high chairs available for small children.

Baby-changing facilities are not standard in public toilets and are rare in men's facilities.

Breastfeeding in public remains controversial in some sectors of Colombian society although education programs are seeing attitudes slowly changing.

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Cartagena de Indias is the undisputed queen of the Caribbean coast, a historic city of superbly preserved beauty lying within an impressive 13km of centuries-old colonial stone walls. Cartagena's Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage site – a maze of cobbled alleys, balconies covered in bougainvillea, and massive churches that cast their shadows across leafy plazas.

This is a place to drop all sightseeing routines. Instead of trying to tick off all the sights, just stroll through the Old Town day and night. Soak up the sensual atmosphere, pausing to ward off the brutal heat and humidity in one of the city's many excellent bars and restaurants.

Holding its own against Brazil's Ouro Preto and Peru's Cuzco for the continent's most enthralling and impressively preserved historic city, Cartagena is hard to walk away from – it seizes you in its aged clutches and refuses to let go.

Sights

Without a doubt, Cartagena's old city is its principal attraction, particularly the inner walled town consisting of the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego. El Centro in the west was traditionally home to the upper classes, and San Diego in the northeast was previously occupied by the middle classes. Both sections of the Old Town are packed with perfectly preserved colonial churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and mansions, with balconies and shady patios that overflow with bright flowers.

With its modest architecture, the outer walled town of Getsemaní is less obviously impressive, but as it's far more residential and less sanitized, it offers plenty of atmosphere and is well worth exploring. In recent years it has become a backpacker hub, and gentrification has come astonishingly quickly – the area is full of trendy restaurants, packed cocktail bars and salsa clubs, and almost as many boutique hotels as the inner walled town. A beautiful walkway alongside the Muelle Turístico de los Pegasos links Getsemaní with the Old Town.

Sleeping

Cartagena has a huge choice of places to sleep, though you'll pay a pretty penny for anything above a hostel or a very simple mid range hotel. Catering to wealthy Colombian and US weekenders, the town's top-end accommodations have truly stratospheric rates, and there's an enormous number of beautifully restored boutique colonial options to choose from. Getsemaní, especially Calle de la Media Luna, is the main place to find budget accommodations.

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Sleeping

Cartagena has a huge choice of places to sleep, though you'll pay a pretty penny for anything above a hostel or a very simple midrange hotel. Catering to wealthy Colombian and US weekenders, the town's top-end accommodations have truly stratospheric rates, and there's an enormous number of beautifully restored boutique colonial options to choose from. Getsemaní, especially Calle de la Media Luna, is the main place to find budget accommodations.

Eating

Food in Cartagena is fabulous, with enormous choice and high quality at all levels. Backpackers should look out for comida corriente (daily set menu) places at midday, where you can eat for around COP$15,000 per person.

Street Food

Cartagena is strong on street food: plenty of snack bars all across the Old Town serve local snacks such as arepas de huevo (fried maize dough with an egg inside), dedos de queso (deep-fried cheese sticks), empanadas and buñuelos (deep-fried maize-and-cheese balls). Try the region's sweets at confectionery stands lining El Portal de los Dulces on the Plaza de los Coches.

Entertainment

Cartagena, despite its touristy first impression, is a big cultural center: there's plenty going on, from sports to theater. You may have to dig a little to find local concerts, sporting events and exhibitions, but it's all there and worth seeking out.

Shopping

Cartagena has a wide range of shops selling crafts and souvenirs, and the quality of the goods is usually high. The biggest tourist shopping center in the walled city is Las Bóvedas, which offers handicrafts, clothes and kitschy souvenirs. You'll find more interesting things for sale by wandering in Getsemaní, San Diego and El Centro, however.

Gay & Lesbian Travellers

Compared to some Latin American countries, homosexuality is well tolerated in Colombia (it was declared legal by the government in Bogotá in 1981).

There is a substantial gay undercurrent in the major cities and as long as you don't broadcast the fact in public you are unlikely to be harassed. With popular apps like Grindr for men, most contact is initiated online these days.

In 2011 Colombia's Constitutional Court ordered Congress to pass legislation addressing same-sex marriage by June 2013; if they did not, the ruling dictated same-sex couples would automatically receive all marital rights from that date forward. Congress failed to act and Colombia's first gay wedding was performed on July 24, 2013. Full legal rights were confirmed in 2016 when the country's Constitutional Court ruled that the constitution required the state to process and recognize same-sex marriages.

For LBGT-specific listings see the website www.guiagaycolombia.com.

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