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8 Can't-Miss Experiences in Colombia
With dramatic landscapes and a rich colonial heritage, Colombia offers a wealth of hot spots.
From the hipster hangouts across Medellín to the beautiful architecture of Cartagena, Colombia's versatile cities offer plenty of charm.(Getty Images)
Colombia is no longer South America's best-kept secret. The country's soaring Andean mountains, unspoiled beaches, vibrant cities and lush rainforests welcome millions of tourists each year. And amidst the country's natural splendor, there is an excitement, an optimism that you can feel as you stroll down cobblestone streets, hike staggering mountains or admire the scenic coast. Shaking away its seedier past, riddled with drugs and violence, Colombia is rebranding its image. Medellín, once dubbed the most violent city in the world, is decorated with hipster hangouts, inspiring bistros and boutiques were Escobar once reigned. The streets of Cali are alive with music and salsa, not the gunfire that once rang through the air. And most of the breathtaking mountains are now home to hummingbird sanctuaries and soaring trees.
So join the movement, dismantle the stereotypes and book your adventure to South America's northernmost country. To help inspire your trip-planning, here are eight can't-miss experiences that will captivate you and transform the way you see the country.
Explore Medellín's Diverse Neighborhoods
Nestled in the Aburrá Valley, Medellín, known as the "City of Eternal Spring," brims with modern-day business. Stay in the city's El Poblado neighborhood, one if Medellín's most affluent area, which houses some of the city's best hotels and stroll through the bamboo- and tree-lined streets, which are also filled with local favorite eateries. Take the city's metro cable in the north to soar over the sprawling barrios and ride on the city's buses or Metrocable to downtown Medellín at night to experience the city's renowned live music. Also make sure to stop at the famous La Candelaria quarter to tour the Plaza Botero and revel in the famous artist's unique sculptures.
Discover Cartagena's Walled City
The crown jewel of the Caribbean coast, Cartagena's fairy-tale city boasts pastel-coated buildings, a beautiful coastline and an impressive 13th-century colonial wall. As you enter Cartagena's Old City, you'll be met with cobblestone streets, brightly painted buildings and flowing flowers cascading down wrought-iron balconies. And across Cartagena, you'll find vibrant neighborhoods such as Getsemaní and La Matuna, which boasts a modern look and impressive collection of sights and restaurants. If you lose your bearings, look for the Castillo de San Felipe, a storied fortress that casts its shadow over the city's bustling plaza.
Take in the View at Cerro de Monserrate
At 10,341 feet above sea level sits Monserrate Hill, the white, church-topped peak that flanks the city's eastern side. Getting to Monserrate Hill is simple: You can either take the tram or funicular (a glass-domed skyway) or you can hike. But the hike is not for the faint of heart, as the path weaves over and around rugged peaks and lush forests. But once you're at the top, you'll take in the breathtaking view of the sprawling city to the east and the stunning countryside to the west. Make sure to visit the church, which is often open for guests, take in the many vantage points decorated with gardens or explore the open-air market behind the church.
Traverse Through the Cocora Valley
The Cocora Valley, one of Colombia's most awe-inspiring landscapes, stretches east of Salento into Los Nevados National Park and is one of the most popular areas in the country Here, you can enjoy picturesque scenes of vast valleys flanked by wax palms, sharp mountain peaks surrounded by clouds and cascading streams on a memorable hike. One of the most popular hikes is the six-hour loop trail, which takes visitors from the wooden gate entrance to the acclaimed hummingbird sanctuary, Acaime, and back to the Finca Mountain. The hike is tricky, with treacherous and steep rocky climbs and thinning elevation, but the views from the top are worthwhile. You'll be met with 180-degree aerials of towering palms, a cloud forest and the lush, green valley.
(Claire Volkman)(Claire Volkman)
Tour Salento and the Surrounding Coffee Farms
Salento is most well-known as Colombia's "Coffee Triangle." Here, you'll find dozens of coffee farms, or estancias, spanning the vast valley. The town itself is one of the oldest in the state of Quindío. Take a leisurely stroll through the Calle Real (the main street) and window shop for local crafts, traditional outfits and, of course, coffee. And a climb to the top of the Alto de la Cruz will bring you sweeping views of the Cocora Valley. Carve out a day to venture outside of town to the many coffee farms speckled along the valley. It's a smart idea to tour the area is with a reliable guide, such as Intrepid Travel, which offers a Café Colombia tour that takes visitors to a certified farm, and includes touring the fields, plucking beans from the trees, talking with farmers firsthand and even tasting the finished product.
Get Lost in Guatapé and El Peñol
A few hours from Medellín sits Guatapé, a small but colorful city located on the shores of the Embalse Guatapé, a man-made lake. The town, which is decorated in a cornucopia of colors, is small but offers a great selection of traditional Colombian eateries, local art galleries and scenic views. And just a quick ride from the town sits El Peñol, a staggering rock formed millions of years ago that overlooks the artificial lake and the many coves, lagoons and lush islands that decorate it. The climb, which encompasses more than 650 steps, offers inspiring, 360-degree views of the area.
Tackle Ciudad Perdida
Ciudad Perdida, or the "Lost City," was a Spanish colonization that was undiscovered until the early 1970s. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, this breathtaking, centuries-old city is one of the country's most incredible wonders. The only way to reach the city is by foot – and it's one of the most challenging hikes in northern South America. The city lies on the steep, sloping mountains in the upper Buritaca Valley and houses more than 150 staggering terraces and remains of stone structures and the hike takes four to five days (depending on fitness level) and spans an expansive 3,280 feet. There are several steep climbs, high humidity, water crossings and muddy paths, which make it a challenging, albeit rewarding, trek.
Find Peace in Tayrona National Park
Flanked by the lush Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains and speckled with rocky enclaves, mossy islets and sandy beaches, Tayrona National Park is one of Colombia's most picturesque areas. Spanning nearly 30,000 acres, the park features a dynamic and diverse selection of landscapes that range from beaches to forests and deserts. The area's gorgeous beaches are the top attraction, and despite the influx of tourists, it's easy to find a quiet cove or bay to relax and reflect. And though the area's rapid currents make the waters unsuitable for swimming, with a reputable guide, you can snorkel or dive in the some of the calmer areas.
About En Route
Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.
Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.
Edited by Liz Weiss.
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