Things to Do in Colombia
On the shores of the Guatapé Dam and surrounded by lush islands, the 19th-century town of Guatapé is one of Colombia’s most photographed sites. It’s not hard to see why—the town’s brightly painted buildings and serene natural setting make for some stunning shots.
The Lost City, or Ciudad Perdida, is the archaeological site of an ancient indigenous city in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Thought to have been a commercial center for trade around 700 A.D., its population probably ranged between 1,400 and 3,000 inhabitants. Hidden in the jungle for over a thousand years, the Lost City was found in 1972 when treasure hunters followed a series of stone steps leading up to an abandoned city.
The Lost City is open to visitors, but the trip is not for the faint of heart. The nearly 30 mile trek takes visitors through farmland and jungle on an unforgettable six-day journey. Part of the adventure includes trekking over mountains filled with exotic plants and animals, climbing stone paths through dense jungle, bathing in waterfalls and sleeping in indigenous villages.
Upon arriving at Lost City, climb more than 1,000 stone steps to the top of the site for incredible views of the surrounding mountains and jungle. Take time to explore the more than 250 stone terraces that were carved out of the mountainside, each of which was a space for living and working. The different areas of the city were joined to the fields by a network of cobbled paths and stairs, and an irrigation system channels rainwater downhill to avoid damage and erosion.
Members of local tribes, including the Arhuacos, Koguis, and others, continue to maintain many of their ancestral beliefs and customs. They visited the site regularly before it was widely discovered, and gave it the name Teyuna. This trek takes you through some of their villages where life has remained unchanged for centuries.
Looking down over the city from its hilltop perch, the Sebastian de Belalcázar Statueand Viewpointis one of Cali’s most iconic landmarks, erected in honor of the Spanish conquistador who founded the city in 1536. Built in celebration of the city’s 400th birthday, the statue depicts Belalcázar leaning on his sword and pointing towards the ocean as he looks out over the city below.
As well as being an important monument, the Sebastian de Belalcázar Statue also marks one of Cali’s most popular lookout points, with views stretching out over the city below. For the most atmospheric experience, visit in the evening hours when locals gather to watch the sunset and food vendors and street entertainers work their way through the crowds.
Towering 10,341 feet (3,152 meters) tall at the edge of Bogotá, forested Mt. Monserrate (Cerro de Monserrate) can be spotted from across the city. Set like a pearl on the summit is the Monserrate Sanctuary, a 17th-century church whose shrine is a major pilgrimage place for Colombian Catholics.
Totumo Volcano (El Totumo) ranks among Cartagena’s most popular day trips. A small volcanic caldera has become a top attraction—a naturally heated bath of grayish brown silt. After bobbing around in the soupy mix, head to the lagoon next door to wash off the mineral-rich mud, thought to have therapeutic properties.
Bogotá’s main square is built on a grand scale, from a landmark statue of Simón Bolívar to the 16th-century La Catedral Primada. In between is a colorful crowd of vendors, travelers, and downtown workers. A starting point for exploring the historic La Candelaria neighborhood, the Plaza de Bolivar is a key stop for visitors to Bogotá.
The brainchild of local painter and sculptor Hernando Tejada, the aptly named Cat Park (Parque del Gatode Tejada) started life in 1996, when a giant bronze sculpture, El Gato Rio (The River Cat) was erected along the banks of the Cali River. The impressive sculpture was created in Bogota and transported to Cali—no easy feat as the huge cat measures around 3.5 meters in height and weighs about three tons—and became the centerpiece of the newly renovated parklands stretching along the riverfront.
The River Cat was so popular, it was soon joined by more feline friends and today a series of 15 smaller cats can be found in the park, including a fiberglass cat model and colorful sculptures by local artists like Alejandro Valencia Tejada, Mario Gordillo, Nadin Ospina, Omar Rayo and Maripaz Jaramillo.
Baru Island, which sits in the glass-clear waters of the Caribbean, south of Cartagena, has long been touted as one of Colombia’s most serene beach resorts. The aptly named Playa Blanca is the undeniable highlight, an expanse of powdery white sand perfect for spending a day swimming and sipping tropical cocktails.
With brightly-colored buildings, colonial landmarks, and bougainvillea-covered balconies, Old Town Cartagena is known for its beauty and its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Highlights include the leafy Plaza de Bolivar, the striking Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj), and the Gold Museum (Museo de Oro).
This spacious cathedral is carved into a warren of salt mines 600 feet (183 mt) below the ground. Venture into the Salt Cathedral to see chapels and altars carved directly into solid rock, learn about the mine’s history, and see intricate statues in chapels representing the Stations of the Cross.
More Things to Do in Colombia
The graceful and carefully planned Spanish colonial city center, known as La Candelaria, is the oldest part of Bogotá; it’s a vibrant hub of activity for young artists, Bohemian university students, and hip indie businesses. At the heart of it all is Plazuela del Chorro del Quevedo, the spot where the city was founded in 1537.
A charming mix of old and new,Plaza de Caicedo (Plaza de Cayzedo)is a fitting showcase of modern Cali and as the central hub and main navigational landmark, most visitors will start their tour of the city from here.
Once the epicenter of the colonial city,Plaza de Caicedo (Plaza de Cayzedo’s) stately architecture lends the square an air of grandeur, with the snow-white facades of the National Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral looming over the south and east corners. But the square is also full of life, teeming with street artists, food carts and shoeshine boys, and making a popular picnic spot for locals, with its central gardens shaded by towering palm trees and linked by star-shaped walkways.
Gold Museum (Museo del Oro) is one of the city’s most popular attractions. It sparkles with more than 55,000 priceless archaeological and artistic treasures. Only a fraction can be displayed at any one time, laid out to tell tales of pre-Colombian mining, manufacturing, and metallurgy of pre-Hispanic Colombians.
Some historians say that if it weren’t for San Felipe de Barajas Castle (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas), South America would now speak English. The 14th-century fortress protected the coastal city of Cartagena from English invasion, allowing the Spanish to maintain their rule. Besides the role it plays in Colombia’s history, the castle attracts visitors with its panoramic harbor views.
Just off the coast of northern Colombia, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park is home to a wealth of endangered flora and fauna as well as the world’s highest coastal peak. Dominated by mountains and popular among hikers, this UNESCO-recognized national park is home to bird reserves, archaeological ruins, and indigenous villages.
Ruins, reefs, mangroves, and beaches make up the 37,000-acre Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most popular ecotourism destinations. Visit to hike along the coast, relax on the beaches, snorkel among the coral reefs, or simply disconnect from daily life.
Aside from the thrill of “discovering” new lands, the Spanish conquistadoreswere endlessly driven by thoughts of discovering gold. Here at the Bogotá Mint Museum (Museo Casa de la Moneda), walk amidst the spot where gold was first minted in Colombia, having stood in this spot since 1622 when the King of Spain ordered the production of gold coins in Bogota. Since money and power seem to go hand in hand, this museum that’s based around Colombian currency has many political undertones, where the type of currency that’s been minted through the years shows fascinating parallels between the political era and Colombia’s historical events. From the initial barter of ceramics and pots that was used by indigenous tribes, the currencies weave a chronological tale as viewed through production of money.
While the plump proportions of Fernando Botero’s sculptures have earned him international acclaim, it’s his generosity that’s made the artist Colombia’s favorite son. At the peak of his fame, the artist donated more than 150 pieces worth $200 million to the Colombian government—you can enjoy all of this art for free at Museo Botero.
The Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora) is like a postcard-perfect version of rural Colombia, with lush rolling hills, mist-capped mountains and tall, slender palm trees. Tucked into foothills at the heart of the country’s UNESCO-listed “Coffee Cultural Landscape,” the serene valley makes a worthy detour from nearby Salento.
A short train ride from the skyscrapers and international art galleries of modern Medellín’s El Centro is Pueblito Paisa, a monument to Colombia’s colonial past. The little village (pueblito) is a re-creation featuring traditional white-washed houses, a picture-perfect central plaza, and spectacular views of Medellín’s surrounding mountains.
Conquistadors dreamed of a golden city called El Dorado, and modern-day archaeologists find traces of that myth in historic practices at Colombia’s Lake Guatavita. Here, the Indigenous Muisca people are believed to have made offerings to the gods by casting gold figures into the crater lake—a scenic and popular day trip from Bogotá.
You’ll see his art everywhere around Colombia: large women, round-faced children and wide-eyed animals. It’s the life work of Fernando Botero, the beloved Colombian artist famous in his home country and around the world.
A visit to Medellin, where Botero was born, provides the chance to see these works in larger-than-life surroundings. The appropriately named Botero Plaza, opened in 2002, is an outdoor park that forms an important cultural space in the city. It’s also close to other important museums, like the Museum of Antioquia with art from all over Latin America, and the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture, where exhibitions and concerts are held.
The 80,729 square feet (7,500 square meters) of Botero Plaza are home to 23 giant bronze sculptures (donated by Botero himself) within reach so that people can touch them—some people even climb on them! These sculptures, created using the lost wax method, are organized into five main types, focusing on body parts; relationships between men and women; animals; and mythic creatures like the sphinx. The sculptures tend to have short names that are direct and dynamic, like Woman with Fruit, The Hand, Man on Horseback, Maternity and Roman Soldier.
The busy plaza is also a great place to try local foods, like obleas, empanadas and green mango cut in strips and served with salt and vinegar. It’s also a good place to browse for souvenirs and do some serious people-watching.
On the edge of Tayrona National Natural Park and the northern coast of Colombia, Crystal Beach(Playa Cristal) is one of the most picturesque white sand beaches in South America. Its clear turquoise waters provide ideal conditions for swimming and snorkeling. Many come to relax on the soft sand shaded by coconut palms or to eat fresh seafood caught right off the shore. It is also a great base for exploring the Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most important protected ecological areas, for the day.
Marine life in the waters off Crystal Beach(Playa Cristal) includes sea turtles, dolphins, and several species of fish. Even without spotting one these creatures, the coral and sponges of the reef provide colorful underwater scenes. The Caribbean reefs offshore also attract those seeking scuba diving and other water sports.
Recuca (El Recorrido por la Cultura Cafetera) is an innovative coffee farm, near Armenia, Colombia, offering tours that give the visitor a glimpse into life on a finca. After arriving at the farm, visitors dress up in traditional clothing that would have been worn by Colombian coffee workers (‘cafeteros,’ in Spanish). After the requisite photo op, guests take a guided walking tour to learn about how (and why) Colombian coffee production is different than that of its other Central and South American neighbors. Visitors get to strap on a basket and head into the plantation to pick coffee beans before returning to the hacienda to learn about the coffee-making process. See the beans processed through a machine to have their skin removed, how the beans are oven-dried, and learn where the beans go after they leave the farm.
Visitors can learn some traditional dances as they get a lively introduction to the world of coffee production and the lives of the cafeteros. You’ll also learn about the history of the Jeep “Willy,” the distinctive vehicles used to transport coffee beans in Colombia, and of course you’ll taste coffee. For an additional cost, you can enjoy a traditional lunch at the hacienda. Please note: it’s best to reserve in advance for the lunch option.
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- Things to do in Bogotá
- Things to do in Cartagena
- Things to do in Santa Marta
- Things to do in Cali
- Things to do in Armenia
- Things to do in Salento
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