Things to Do in Colombia
Hidden among the mountains about 50 miles (80 km) from Medellin is the beautiful town of Guatapé. Founded in 1811, this town is now situated on the reservoir of a hydro-electric dam that was built in the late 1960s, when more than 7.5 square miles (2,000 hectares) were flooded to create the dam.
The incredible beauty of the reservoir and the views of the lush vegetation on the lake are unforgettable. Ferries on the lake take visitors to recreational areas on nearby islands and to see Pablo Escobar’s former mansion. The boardwalk by the water fills with vendors selling regional food and crafts.
The town is famous for zócalos, decorative tiles along the lower part of the facades of the buildings in the historic center. These tiles in bright colors and patterns are connected to life in the community, telling the history of the town and the beliefs of the people.
A leisurely walk through the narrow streets of Old Town Cartagena, with bougainvillea spilling off second-floor balconies and brightly painted Colonial houses, invites visitors to escape into the past. The bustle of daily life mixes with the historical architecture of this walled city by the ocean. In addition to the beautiful boutique stores, numerous restaurants, and colorful street vendors, there are many treasures to see around town and just outside the city walls. The leafy Plaza de Bolivar serves as a good place to start a tour in Cartagena and to see some of the local culture and buy fruit from the colorfully dressed women known as palanqueras. Next to the plaza, the free Gold Museum (Museo de Oro) displays pieces that tell the history of the Zenú indigenous tribe. The nearby Palace of the Inquisition (Palacio de la Inquisición) provides a rather gruesome look at Colombia’s past and the Spanish Inquisition -- some of the torture devices used on the accused are on display.
Enormous and austere, Bogota’s broad, bricked central plaza was designed in 1553 to be the gathering place for tens of thousands at the hub of the federal government. Once known simply as the Plaza Mayor (Main Plaza) and serving as home to the city market, the plaza is a classic example of monumental Spanish civil engineering. Some of Bogota's most important edifices sit in the area: the soaring neoclassical national cathedral; the appropriately federalist capitol building; French neoclassical Edificio Liévano, seat of city government; and the ultra-modern stylized arches of the imposing Palace of Justice, most recently rebuilt after a 1985 terrorist attack. At the center of it all is the statue of Simón Bolívar, erected in 1846 to honor the man who liberated so much of South America from the Spanish.
You might want to start your exploration at tiny Plazuela Del Chorro Del Quevedo, where this city was supposedly founded in 1537, by Spanish Conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada. (Of course it is much, much older; Jimenez merely renamed the ancient indigenous town of Bacata “Bogota.”) However, this plaza—now the epicenter of Bogota’s hipster scene, with plenty of tattoos, Chucks, handmade jewelry and fire dancers—doesn’t really get going until dusk. Be sure to stop into one of the cool little cafes for the Candelaria’s signature beverage, a traditional Andean canelazo, made with sugarcane liquor, cinnamon and panela sugar, served steaming hot for the chill altitude.
But begin instead at sprawling Plaza Bolivar, surrounded by picturesque streets lined with more tejas-topped adobes, interspersed with the city’s finest museums, coolest casas cultural, and most ornate churches.
Among Bogota’s most popular and spectacular attractions, the Museo del Oro sparkles with more than 55,000 priceless archaeological and artistic treasures. Only a fraction can be displayed at any one time within the main edifice, itself a work of art, ensconced in elegantly and eloquently designed displays of Colombia’s dazzling bounty.
There are four floors of exhibits, signed in both Spanish and English, with audio guides available in a handful of other languages. From delicate filigree nose rings to carefully crafted containers for coca leaves to the famed “Muisca Raft,” depicting the legend of El Dorado, the “Golden Man,” these objects have been innovatively arranged to tell tales of pre-Colombian mining, manufacturing and metallurgy.
The sensuous silhouettes and deliciously plump proportions of his subjects have become famous the world over. His presidents and prostitutes, bullfights and firefights, capture the Colombian experience with a whimsy that belies otherwise serious scenes shattered by earthquakes, war and relationships. All are instantly recognizable as Botero.
While Fernando Botero’s unparalleled talent across multiple mediums—from sculpture to watercolor to charcoal—has earned him international acclaim, it is his generosity that has made the artist Colombia’s favorite son. At the peak of his fame, the artist donated 208 pieces to the government of Colombia including 85 pieces by other masters including Chagall, Renoir and Monet. The entire collection was valued at US$200 million; you are invited to enjoy it all for free.
Mists permitting, you’ll be able to see the gleaming white Basílica del Señor de Monserrate high above the city, beckoning from the thickly forested mountains that form Bogota’s spectacular backdrop. Originally built as a monastery in 1657, it is no wonder that this glorious spot has been a site of pilgrimage ever since.
The original stone path marked by statues depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross still leads from the colonial Candelaria district up to the sanctuary. It is a steep climb to a chilly 3152m (10,339ft) still used by pilgrims (and exercise buffs), particularly on weekends and religious holidays. Most tourists take advantage of either the funicular, a steeply pitched train, or teleferico, a cable car system, which both make the trip inexpensively throughout the day. If you do choose to walk, note that there have been muggings, so it might not be the best choice if you’re alone with an expensive camera.
The beautiful city of Medellin has an efficient metro system that runs north-south along the valley, but for many years the neighborhoods in the surrounding mountains found it difficult to get to the public transportation routes. It was difficult for buses to get up the steep roads leading up to the barrios in the hills, and it would take residents hours to get down to city to work or study. These transportation difficulties increased social problems in these communities.
But in 2004 a new, ingenuous new cable car system came into use. It is part of the public transportation service from the neighborhoods in the mountains surrounding the city to the metro system in the valley.
This cable car carries tens of thousands of passengers each day in a system that has changed the lives of those who live in these neighborhoods, giving them access to work and study opportunities they didn’t have before. The trip to the city that once took hours now takes just 15 minutes.
More Things to Do in Colombia
On the edge of Tayrona National Natural Park and the northern coast of Colombia, Crystal Beach 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 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.
Take the wooden steps up the 15-meter mud mound that is Totumo Volcano (Volcán de Lodo El Totumo) then look down to be greeted by a mud bath big enough to fit dozens of bathers. A popular day trip from Cartagena, it's said that the volcano goes hundreds of meters deep, but when you dip into the warm mud you'll find that it's so dense it's impossible to do anything but bob about at the top. While wallowing, it’s possible to pay one of the attendants for a personal massage.
Legend has it that Totumo Volcano used to spew out fire and lava, but a local priest, believing such hellfire to be the work of the devil, used holy water to turn it all to mud. After the bath, everyone heads to the next-door lagoon to wash off the gloop, which local women will help you wash off with buckets of water, for a small fee, if you wish.
Aside from the thrill of “discovering” new lands, the Spanish conquistadores were endlessly driven by thoughts of discovering gold. Here at Bogota’s Casa de 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.
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 absolutely adorable Spanish pueblito (“little town”) of Paisa, founded in 1978, crowns 80m (262ft) Cerro Nutibara, a natural landmark named for legendary Cacique (Chief) Nuibara. It would worth climbing just for the views. Today it is home to a perfect central plaza, surrounded by colonial adobes rescued from an actual Spanish outpost since flooded by the Penol-Guatape Hydroelectric Project. The beautifully restored buildings, complete with flower-draped wooden balconies and ceramic tejas tiles, is centered on the single cutest Catholic chapel you’ve ever seen.
While originally designed to depict businesses you’d find in a typical rural community—pharmacy, tobacconist, barber—as well as a school and city hall, have been largely replaced with souvenir shops, and the place is populated by a surprising number of mimes and living statues, especially on weekends.
Iglesia Santo Domingo, founded in 1534, is the oldest church in Cartagena and one of the first in the hemisphere. The original stone structure, finished in 1551, was so badly damaged by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 that a new church needed to be built; the current incarnation was finally completed some time during the 1700s.
The cool, spacious interior, with its imposing central nave lined with massive stone columns and inspiring marble altar are unusual, and certainly worth a look. Most travelers will spend more time on Plaza Santo Domingo, right out front, the spot to enjoy a little rest and relaxation of a premium-priced beverage. Surrounded by some of the city’s finest architecture, and filled with umbrella-shaded café tables, the plaza is also a magnet for souvenir vendors. Be sure to bargain.
Cartagena’s Catedral de San Pedro Claver, so close to the sea wall, seems unduly imposing for such a sanctified site. Begun in 1575, when this was a very rough neighborhood, its unfinished fortifications were destroyed in 1586 during a tiff with Sir Francis Drake and his pirate crew, and rebuilt by 1602.
Its namesake, San Pedro Claver Corberó, did not arrive until 1610. The Spanish-born priest arrived in Cartagena, then a slave-trading hub, as a novice priest. Horrified by the treatment of African captives, sold to a motley crew of middlemen on what’s now Plaza de los Coches, the young man became an activist, writing in his diary, “Pedro Claver, slave of the slaves forever (3 April 1622).”
Pedro would not only baptize newly enslaved arrivals right in the cathedral’s courtyard well (which was already controversial), but he would then explain to the newly saved that they deserved all the rights held by other Christian citizens of the Spanish Empire.
In Cartagena, the Casa de Rafael Núñez is a mansion that was once home to the famous politician, poet, and lawyer Rafael Núñez. The country's president on four occasions, Núñez' importance in Colombian history cannot be overstated — not only did he write the country's 1886 constitution, in effect until 1991; he also wrote the words to the Colombian national anthem.
A three-minute walk from the Walled City in El Cabrero, the Caribbean-Antillean styled white and green mansion was built in 1858, and today it's a museum where you can see Núñez' documents and personal possessions including furniture, paintings, and art. Just opposite the Casa de Rafael Núñez you'll see the chapel of Ermita del Cabrero, where the ashes of Núñez and his wife rest.
This massive stone-and-brick structure—built originally as a prison—houses Colombia’s first museum, founded in 1823. The imposing structure is now home to more than 20,000 objects that represent the Colombian experience, displayed in revolving exhibits that fill 17 permanent galleries where there were once only cells. An excellent exhibit of aesthetically and archaeologically important pre-Colombian artifacts, tells the story of ancient Colombia. But it is the Spanish Colonial collection, featuring everyday objects and impressive works of art, which really dazzles. Oil paintings, beautifully constructed furniture, religious icons and other well-preserved pieces offer insight into a bygone era.
An immense art gallery features the most famous works of Colombian artists past and present, with an emphasis on the experimental and modern. An impressive Afro-Caribbean collection illuminates the culture of Colombia’s coasts.
The original foundations for Bogota’s Catedral Primada, more properly called the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, were laid in 1538 when Spanish conquistadores first christened the old indigenous city, “Bogota.” Then a simple thatch-roofed hut on a muddy market plaza, it was gradually rebuilt into a sturdier adobe structure in the 1590s.
As the spiritual center of a city prone to earthquakes and social upheavals, it is no wonder that the national cathedral has been rebuilt several times, most recently in 1823. Despite a long history of disasters, today’s neocolonial beauty, with its tasteful echoes of mission revival style, remains the final resting place of Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, the city’s Spanish founder.
The elegant whitewashed interior, with its stately rows of gilded Egyptian columns, isn’t the city’s most ornate by a long shot. But these arches overlook Colombia’s most important masses, and the place is packed on Sundays.
Home to both the Columbian Congress and Senate, the grand National Capitol (Capitolio Nacional) building is the center of Colombian politics and makes a striking sight, looming over the south end of Bolivar Square.
With its dramatic colonnaded frontage, central dome and neoclassical design, the National Capitol building is also one of Bogota’s most significant architectural works. The masterpiece of British architect, Thomas Reed, it took over 75 years to complete and was finally completed in 1926. The building’s crowning glory was added in 1947 – a magnificent fresco by Santiago Martínez Delgado, depicting the Bolivar and Santander leaving the famous Cucuta congress.
Less than an hour southwest of Cartagena’s port is a fragile archipelago of some 30 picture-perfect islands, wrapped in shimmering white-sand beaches, and strung like rosary beads through the deep blue Caribbean Sea. They sit atop the world’s third-largest barrier reef, which has protected as Islas del Rosario National Park since 1977. Though this clearly remains a mixed-use area, the designation has helped conserve 1300 species of flora and fauna present on and around the islands.
Dozens of operators offer day trips to the Islas del Rosario, which lie between 45 and 90 minutes southwest of the city, depending on the type of boat you’re on. As you cruise past Boca Chica and out into the open sea, don’t miss the 18th-century Spanish fortresses of of San Rafael and San Fernando.
Things to do near Colombia
- Things to do in Bogotá
- Things to do in Medellín
- Things to do in Cartagena
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- Things to do in Caribbean Coast