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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The brainchild of local painter and sculptor Hernando Tejada, the aptly named Cat Park (Parque del Gato) 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.
A verdant peninsula jutting out below Cartagena and lapped by the glass-clear waters of the Caribbean, Baru Island has long been touted as one of Colombia’s most serene beach resorts and deservedly so. The aptly named Playa Blanca is the undeniable highlight, an expanse of powder-white sands, where you can sip cocktails and tuck into fresh seafood on the beach, enjoy water sports like jet-skiing and speed-boating, or while away the afternoon swimming and snorkelling. Baru Island is also the gateway to the Rosario Islands National Park, a cluster of islands renowned for their colorful corals and a popular destination for scuba diving and snorkelling.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Colombia
Zipaquira’s attractive Spanish Colonial center, built with the wealth of the massive nearby salt mines, was founded in the 1760s some 50km (31mi) north of the Colombian capital. Today the “City of Salt,” replete with quaint cafes and souvenir shops, is Bogota’s most popular day trip—you can even make it in an antique steam train.
You are here to see the famed Zipaquira Salt Cathedral, considered one of Colombia’s “Seven Wonders” and its architectural crown jewel. Climb to the Parque de Sal (“Salt Park”), just southeast of downtown, to enjoy the Plaza of the Miners’ great views and evocative art. From here, you’ll begin your journey 180m (590ft) into the heart of an enormous salt mountain.
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 Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a unique natural ecosystem along the of the northern coast of Colombia. This majestic mountain range is the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, with the snow covered Simón Bolívar and Cristóbal Colón peaks rising 18,700 feet above sea level.
Amazingly, all the climatic zones and biomes present in Colombia can be found within the 6,600 square miles of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. That makes it an excellent place to come into contact with animals and plants from around the country in just one park. Jaguars, tapirs, páramo deer, condors, endemic parrots and important groups of endangered wildlife call the Sierra Nevada home. The Sierra Nevada and Tayrona parks have a combined 300 recorded archaeological settlements along the coast and in the highlands. The largest is the Teyuna Archaeological Park, known as The Lost City (Ciudad Perdida), testimony of the country’s most important ancient Indian civilization.
Simón Bolivar is viewed as the Liberator of much of northern South America and is considered one of the most important Latin American political figures who ever lived. He was born in Caracas, the son of wealthy landowners, and led the independence movement, eventually achieving independence from Spain for what was then called Gran Colombia, covering most of northern South America.
Simón Bolivar spent his last days at La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino near Santa Marta, a quinta (large house) and hacienda (farm) built in the 17th century. At that time the estate produced rum, honey and panela, a sugar cane product. Bolivar died of tuberculosis in one of the rooms there on December 17, 1830. Now the Quinta is a tourist site, museum and historical landmark. The main house, painted a deep yellow color, is where Simon Bolivar breathed his last breath.
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.
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.
Tayrona National Park, just 34 km from Santa Marta in northern Colombia, has abundant natural and archaeological attractions. Named after one of the most important indigenous tribes in Colombia’s history, the Tayrona National Park was established in 1969 with an area of 19,000 hectares. Eco-tourism is popular in this complex biological ecosystem. There are over 300 bird species, including the endangered Andean condor and woodpeckers. Puma, deer, bats, howling monkeys, iguanas, jaguars and marine turtles also call this forest home. Hikers can spot multicolored land crabs, reptiles and butterflies on the trails. To get to the beaches, visitors walk along marked trails or hire a guide with horses. Explore the many golden sand beaches and snorkel near coral reefs and underwater treasures hidden around the huge rock formations. The largest archeological remains in the park are found in Pueblito, an ancient commercial center used by the Tayrona Indians of the Sierra Nevada.
Cartagena’s strategic significance as Europe’s conquest of the Americas intensified cannot be overstated. Some say that if the British had won the 1741 Battle of Cartagena, that South America would now speak English. They didn’t, largely because of massive El Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest and most formidable Spanish colonial fortress in the hemisphere.
Begun in 1536, almost immediately after the conquistadors arrived, the massive megastructure sits atop San Lazaro Hill, with flawless views across the harbor. Bristling with cannons and other armaments, it was enlarged and re-fortified in 1657 and 1763 as part of an ongoing arms race against other European powers. A marvel of military engineering, the compound’s angles and parapets offer maximum coverage, and are connected by a warren of secret tunnels threading the mountain of stone.
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.
Long the go-to postcard image of rural Colombia, the Cocora Valley is an enchanting spot, characterized by its lush rolling hills, mist-capped mountains and tall, slender palm trees. Smuggled away in the foothills of the mighty Andes and at the heart of the UNESCO-listed coffee region, the serene valley makes a worthy detour from nearby Salento, if only to admire the startling views.
The best way to explore the Cocora Valley is by hiking or horseback riding and a marked circular trail runs around the valley, affording magnificent views along the way. Hiking the entire loop takes around 5-6 hours and it’s an adventurous route, passing muddy streams, rope bridges and rocky trails, with some steep sections. Along the way, lookout points offer great views of the valley’s iconic ‘Palmas de Cera’ trees – the world’s highest wax palms that grow up to 60-meters in height – while the hilltop cloud forests harbor a huge variety of tropical birds and butterflies.
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.
The Legend of El Dorado, the “Golden Man,” once inspired the Spanish conquistadors to historic acts of bravery, blunder, and bloodshed. Those stories of outrageous wealth and waste almost certainly started here, with the glittering pre-Columbian ceremonies that once took place at this small crater lake. (Which is really the lake’s first mystery; though geologists speculate that a meteor made this scenic spot, no one knows for sure).
The rumors that captivated the cold-hearted conquistadors told of Muisca shamans and chiefs completely covered in gold and draped with every sort of gem and precious metal. These gleaming and godlike figures would then be carried out on ceremonial rafts to the center of pretty little Lake Guatavita, where they would pour their riches into the water to appease some monster, perhaps a serpent god, hiding below its deceptively serene surface.
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- Things to do in Bogotá
- Things to do in Cartagena
- Things to do in Santa Marta
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- Things to do in Salento
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- Things to do in Caribbean Coast