From rainbow rivers to perfect pueblos: the 15 best places to visit in Colombia
The perfect backpacking destination doesn’t exi… oh, hey Colombia. If we could paint a picture of our dream location, it’d look a lot like you. From the wild city salsa nights to the chilled-out beach yoga days, between wildlife hikes through national parks and sandboarding in the desert, there’s not a dull moment to be had when backpacking Colombia. With so many unmissable attractions in every corner of this coffee-loving country, you’d better start planning your itinerary now! We’ll leave it to our list of the 15 best places to visit in Colombia to get your travel inspo flowing.
Every good Colombian backpacking adventure begins in Bogota, the high-altitude capital city that’ll take your breath away in more ways than one. The best way to explore it is on a Bogota Bike Tour, which will take you to neighbourhoods most travellers never venture to, all while teaching you about the city’s culture and history. The favourite neighbourhood among backpackers is La Candelaria, known for its charming cobbled streets, amazing hostels and insane street art, like the iconic murals of indigenous Colombians by artists Carlos Trilleras and Gauche.
No trip to Bogota is complete without making the journey up Monseratte, a towering hill at 3152 metres above sea level that offers breathtaking views of the city. Take the cable car up to explore the church at the top, or give your legs (and lungs) a workout by climbing on foot!Check out all of our hostels in Bogota
Medellin should come with a warning – it’s known for stealing backpacker’s hearts. The leafy streets of El Poblado and their countless cafes are a magnet for digital nomads, and by night the area turns into the city’s hottest party destination. Don’t miss La Octava, a bar with a giant adult-sized ball pit for hours of ridiculous fun.
Medellin locals (AKA Paisas) don’t try and hide the city’s troubled past, and the best way to learn about it is on a walking tour of Comuna 13, once the most dangerous neighbourhood in Colombia. You’ll be led by residents who give a balanced history lesson, showing how the area has moved from a narco-controlled no-go zone to a creative, safe community.
You can’t leave Medellin without taking a trip on the Metrocable, a line of public transport that soars high above the rooftops. Think of it as the cheapest sightseeing tour you’ll ever do!
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Welcome to coffee country! This popular spot at the heart of Colombia’s Coffee Triangle is one of the best places to visit in Colombia for trekking. Known for its towering wax palm trees and lush green hills that make up the surrounding Valle de Cocora, the insanely gorgeous valley offers some of the most beautiful trails in the country. The main route takes around six hours and the views are out of this world, especially if you’re lucky enough to be joined by some colourful hummingbirds or toucans. Expect to see plenty of locals galloping through on horseback too!
It’s essential to visit a coffee farm in Salento, and the much loved family-run Don Elias offers an in depth tour with plenty of tastes of the local java. Chances are you’ll get hooked, but luckily there are loads of quality coffee shops in town to feed your addiction.Check out all of our hostels in Salento
Now for one of the most beautiful places to visit in Colombia, the mesmerising Caño Cristales, AKA the ‘river of five colours’. This liquid rainbow is caused by multicoloured algae that flowers beneath the shallow surface at certain times of the year, creating a magical sight that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. We won’t lie, it’s a bit of a mission to get there – you’ll have to fly from Bogota to the town of La Macarena, where you’ll then have to book a local tour guide to be allowed access to the protected area. It’s worth it though, as La Macarena national park is also home to epic rock formations, natural swimming pools and wildlife as colourful as the river, like macaws and iguanas. Just bear in mind that the river isn’t in bloom all year long, and the unique phenomenon is most visible between July and October.
One of the best cities to visit in Colombia isn’t on every backpacker’s itinerary, but it should be! Cool Cali is a city that’s all about experiences rather than attractions, and what it lacks in famous landmarks is more than made up by its buzzing atmosphere. Known as the salsa capital of the world, you can expect to dance until dawn any night of the week in Cali’s famous clubs. Tin Tin Deo is a welcoming, gringo-friendly club with cheap drinks, while Siboney is an old favourite that stays open until 6am.
When you’ve recovered from the night before, take a stroll around the historic Barrio San Antonio neighbourhood. This old town turned hipster hotspot is full of colourful colonial buildings, coffee shops and local food joints.Check out all of our hostels in Cali
If you thought Colombia couldn’t get more colourful then you’re wrong! The tiny town of Guatapé is painted every shade of the rainbow, with a mismatch of bright traditional houses lining the narrow streets. At the heart of town is the Plaza de Zocalos, a vibrant square that’ll almost overload your eyeballs – but a coffee at one of the chilled-out cafes will mellow the vibe.
Guatapé is surrounded by a mega lake, and there are plenty of hostels offering canoe and paddleboard rental to get you out exploring. For the best views of it, make the intense 740 step climb up El Peñón (literally ‘the rock’), a massive stone that towers above the town.
Getting to Guatapé is easy – just rock up to Medellin bus station and jump on the next ride. It takes around 90 minutes and costs 13,500 pesos (£3).Check out all of our hostels in Guatapé
Caribbean vibes are in the air on Colombia’s north coast, nowhere more than in the scorching city of Cartagena. Most visitors head straight to the historic Walled City, with its perfectly preserved colonial streets, floral draped balconies, boutique shops and horse-drawn carts. There’s no denying that this area is picture-perfect and you should definitely spend some hours getting lost here, but the prices reflect its huge popularity.
For a more backpacker-friendly neighbourhood, head to the gritty but equally vibrant Getsemani. It’s bursting with creativity, full of colourful buildings covered in street art and street performers providing the local soundtrack. Wednesdays and weekends are party nights, when everybody flocks to the main square to enjoy live music with shop bought beer and street food, before heading on to the iconic Café Havana for old school salsa till the early hours.
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Aaaand relax. The Caribbean beach town of Palomino is one of the best places to visit in Colombia if you want to totally disconnect – partly because there’s no Wi-Fi anywhere! Scrolling your Insta feed will be the last thing on your mind though with scenes like this all around – perfect white-sand beaches lined with palm trees and laid-back beach bars and cafes. The main attraction here is river tubing, and we seriously can’t think of anything better than spending a few hours drifting down the calm Palomino river on an inflatable tube, beer in hand, counting the monkeys and toucans in the trees.
In recent years some awesome hostels have opened in this once sleepy town, and we think The Dreamer is pretty special. Cosy sleeping huts, a massive outdoor pool and buzzing bar/games area right on the beach? As if you needed more reasons to book that flight.
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We’re not sure if paradise exists, but if it does it’d look a lot like Tayrona. This stunning national park offers your best chance of spotting Colombia’s exotic wildlife, from monkeys and toucans to crocodiles and even the elusive jaguar. Keep your eyes and ears peeled as soon as you arrive, as you’ll have to trek through the jungle for a couple of hours until you reach Tayrona’s crowning jewels – even more unspoilt Caribbean beaches that are some of the best on the continent. And the best news? There’s no need to rush off, as there are incredible hostels dotted around the coastline, meaning you can wake up and hear the waves crashing from your bunk. Entrance to Tayrona National Park costs 63,500 pesos in the high season (around £15), and it’s easily reached in an hour by bus from Santa Marta.
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The misty mountain town of Minca is Colombia’s answer to Thailand’s Pai. Offering a laid-back pace and unbelievable views over the Sierra Nevada mountains, it’s hard to believe this peaceful spot is only 30 minutes from the busy city of Santa Marta. Between hilltop yoga sessions at Casa Yoga, vegan feasting at Lazy Cat, bird spotting along the town’s many hiking trails and swimming below the waterfalls at Pozo Azul, you’re in for a wellness extravaganza when you visit Minca.
Stay in a Minca hostel that makes the most of your natural surroundings, like the incredible Casa Loma. An open-air hostel nestled in the treetops, here you can sleep outside in a hammock to the sound of toucans chirping, or gaze out into the sunset with a local craft beer in hand. Heaven!
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San Gil is a city that calls itself ‘La Tierra de Aventura’ (The Land of Adventure), so you already know it’s one of the best places to visit in Colombia for adrenaline junkies. It’s got everything for a thrill-seeking backpacker – extreme white-water rafting, epic paragliding, mountain biking, bungee jumping, caving, canyoning. Basically, it’s impossible to get bored in San Gil! And if that’s not enough danger for you, San Gil is also known for its tejo hall, where you can try out Colombia’s bizarre national sport. The game of tejo involves chucking weights at gunpowder targets – when you hear the explosion, it means you’ve scored! It’s usually played by locals under the influence of a few Aguila beers – what could possibly go wrong?
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Travel as far north as you possibly can in Colombia and you’ll reach the coastal desert region of La Guajira. This lesser-backpacked area is home to some of Colombia’s most awe-inspiring landscapes – picture sand dunes, salt flats and empty beaches (yes, in the desert!) The region’s biggest city is Riohacha, so stay at one of its awesome hostels as a base for exploring. The nearby town of Camarones is a must-visit, if only to meet the huge population of adorable flamingos who live there. Seriously, who doesn’t love flamingos?
La Guajira is also home to Colombia’s largest indigenous community, the Wayuu people, and meeting them and learning about their culture is one of the most enriching travel experiences you’ll have. They’re famous for their hand-crafted ‘mochila’ shoulder bags, and purchasing one is a great way to support the community while scoring yourself a unique souvenir in the process.Check out all of our hostels in Riohacha
If you visit Barranquilla on any average day of the year, you might think it’s nothing to write home about. A busy city without the buzz of Bogota or beauty of Medellin, it’s not your typical traveller hotspot. However, that all changes for a few days every February, when Barranquilla hosts a wild carnival to rival the likes of Rio. In fact, some people even argue it’s better, thanks to the lack of international tourists and way lower prices. The parades, the music, the atmosphere and the people all make for a totally enchanting experience. And if you don’t already know, Colombians can party. Prepare for your hangover to last twice as long as the four day festivities!
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While Guatapé is now very much on the backpacker trail, another colourful colonial ‘pueblo’ that most travellers miss out on is Jardin. Translating to garden, this beautiful town more than lives up to its name, with brightly coloured streets and surrounding green hills covered in all shades of exotic fauna. The best way to take it all in? A hair-raising ride on ‘La Garrucha’, a wooden box masquerading as a cable car that was built by a creative local who wanted a quicker route from his home on the mountains to the town centre! Warning: it’s not for the faint hearted.
If you live to tell the tale, spend the rest of your days in Jardin hiking to explore the surreal La Cueva del Esplendor cave, sipping on a locally sourced ‘tinto’ (sweet, black coffee) in a charming café or swapping stories over beers with locals in the social central plaza. At the moment, Jardin is way more popular with domestic tourists than world travellers, so expect an authentically Colombian experience and a practical test of your high school Spanish!Check out all of our hostels in Jardin
Surrounded by jungle on the banks of the Buritaca River, an hour’s drive from the nearest city Santa Marta, one of Colombia’s most legendary hostels is a destination in itself. Travellers make the journey to the mighty El Rio Hostel with the aim of disconnecting from reality while spending a few days partying in paradise – and with a huge beer garden, riverside bar, superb sound system and a private beach, that’s exactly what they do! But there’s more than just hedonism on the cards, with daily yoga classes, river tubing, paddle boarding, birdwatching and sunrise hikes all on offer between northern Colombia’s most beautiful scenery. Beds range from penny-pinching hammocks to luxurious private cabins, so whatever your budget there’s no need to miss out on the El Rio party!
Quick – book your stay at El Rio Hostel!
Has our list of the best places to visit in Colombia given you serious travel FOMO? Well then what are you waiting for? Better start planning your South American adventure! Hint: checking out all of the brilliant hostels in Colombia is a great place to start.
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