Colombia is Calling. You Can't Miss It.
Vast and varied tracts of stunning terrain. The irresistible pull of a thousand rhythms. Sizzling-hot cultural icons with tens of millions of fans worldwide. No wonder Colombia has been having a major moment.
Maybe you were an early trend-spotter with Shakira's stage-shaking champeta rhythm at last year's Super Bowl. Or with The New York Times' inclusion of the Llanos in 52 Places to Love in 2021. Of course, these last few months, it’s been Maluma's Papi Juancho tour grabbing headlines and the spotlight. But if the increasingly caliente Colombian vibe has somehow eluded you, odds are, you'll catch it this month, when Disney's star-powered Encanto debuts with a magical vision of the country.
Not that Colombia requires help in that department: The real-life version is as dreamy as it gets. The planet's most biodiverse country per square meter—from the Andes to the Amazon, the coffee farms to the Caribbean corals, the pink river dolphins to the red-fan parrots—this is a place whose real-life lure is even stronger than you've surmised from stage and screen.
Fortunately, you can give into that pull immediately and easily: Colombia is officially open to American travelers and United Airlines offers two daily nonstop flights to Bogotá from Houston and a daily flight from New York/Newark. COVID-wise, the only requirement is that you register here 24 hours before your flight.
To help you narrow down your adventures once you get there, we're highlighting favorites across six regions—each distinct and dazzling.
Greater Colombian Caribbean
Rare is the region that offers such gorgeous cityscapes, landscapes and seascapes as Colombia's Caribbean. You probably already know that Cartagena is a must-see jewel, with its imposing seaside city walls, colorful and cobbled colonial-era center—and captivating musicians and dancers.
But there's another rhythm-obsessed city about two hours away that you'll want to check out, too: Shakira's hometown. Remember "mira en Barranquilla se baila asi?" The iconic line just begins to hint at the local love of shaking it—and at no point during the year is that love more obvious, or fun, than Carnaval—one of the biggest such festivals in existence. If you can be in town between February 26 and March 1, 2022, you'll be treated to all manner of eye-popping, hip-swaying fun, from costumed dancers to folkloric characters to a king and queen on parade.
Continuing to make your way up the coast, stop in Ciénaga, whose dreamy landscapes at the junction of the Caribbean and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are said to have inspired Gabriel García Márquez's brand of magical realism. But whether you're a Gabo fan or not, you’ll want to check out the historic center as well as the hot springs.
From there, it's just another half hour or so to lovely Santa Marta, where you'll want to see everything from the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino (the estate where Simón Bolívar spent his final days) to Bastidas boardwalk—named for the city's founder and known for breezy, beautiful sunsets.
Santa Marta is also considered the gateway to Colombia's version of Eden: the Tayrona National Natural Park, named for the indigenous culture that preceded the Spaniards' arrival here—and blessed with everything from lush, trail-laced jungle-scapes to palm-fringed crescents of stunning Caribbean coastline.
Lesser known to visitors, this stretch of the coast calls to anyone who loves an off-the-beaten-path adventure and hallucinatory nature. One prime example is Utria National Park, an inlet where misty, tropically-forested foothills meet warm, calm waters to the advantage of migratory species (right now, the last of the season's humpbacks, which overlap with marine turtles that will stick around until January) as well as year-round residents, such as the lovely lace corals of the Chola reef. Whether you're checking out the crabs underfoot along the mangrove boardwalk or the monkeys and parrots overhead on jungle trails, you'll see wildlife wherever you look in this protected wilderness.
Base yourself in the charming nearby town of el Valle, and you'll also have the option to go chasing waterfalls on guided treks into the surrounding jungle (don’t miss El Tigre cascade). Other musts: tasting the locally caught piangua, taking time to chill on a gorgeous beach, and most important, catching a performance by the area's Afro-Colombian singing groups, whose traditional songs will move you in every sense.
To see one of the most famous modern offshoots of these Afro-Caribbean musical roots, you'll want to fly farther south—to Cali. Known as the world capital of salsa, this city is made for dancing, with club after club full of late-night hip-shakers on any given night.
Western Colombian Andes
This is a region where two of the country's most famous hallmarks converge. The first? Café. In fact, odds are good that you're drinking some of Colombia's finest even as you read this, given the country's ranking among the top three exporters worldwide.
But as much as you may love the taste and aroma of Colombian coffee, the settings that give rise to these beans are an experience unto themselves—to the extent that 10 years ago, The Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia earned a UNESCO World Heritage designation. "An exceptional example of a sustainable and productive cultural landscape," per UNESCO, the coffee belt includes "18 urban centres on the foothills of the western and central ranges of the Cordillera de los Andes in the west of the country." Put otherwise: choosing just one coffee finca to visit along this lush and aromatic stretch would be tough, so you'll probably want to check out the increasingly popular coffee-centric tours. Their main draw is the crop itself, of course, but the people who produce it are no less wonderful. In short order, you'll feel right at home in their slope-side villages of bahareque (mud, wood and cane) casitas.
The other iconic draw in these parts? Medellín. Though the world has long since had an understandable fascination with the place—an intrigue that's only been piqued of late, thanks to Netflix—there's so much more to the City of Eternal Spring. Look ever so slightly beyond the entertainment world's version of the surface, and you'll find one of the most celebrated cultural renaissances anywhere on earth, with emerging artists, chefs and designers flourishing here.
Of course, one local artist is the opposite of an upstart. The nation’s most iconic and globally recognized sculptor, Fernando Botero, is from Medellín, and the city is accordingly heavy (as it were) on Boterismo, as you'll find at Plaza Botero, Museo Botero and Museo de Antioquia.
Eastern Colombian Andes
Not to be outdone, Bogotá is having its own moment. Founded almost 500 years ago, with plenty of colonial-era architectural holdovers still dazzling visitors, the city is also decidedly modern. Indeed, its pulsing urban vitality has made Bogotá home base for everyone from the Valentino-turned-Hunting Season designer Danielle Corona to World's 50 Best-anointed chef Harry Sasson.
Also juxtaposed against the city's gorgeous, centuries-old churches, museums and estates is a transit system that's making international headlines for eco-friendly modernization—from the new gondolas that provide service into the surrounding hillside enclaves to one of the world's largest electric bus fleets. So getting around is increasingly easy (and easy on the environment). On the shortlist of things you'll want to explore: the endless market stalls of Paloquemao plaza; the impressive collection of gold artifacts at the Museo de Oro; the patrician mausoleums of the Cementerio Central; the stunning colonial-era collections of the 17th-century Mueso Santa Clara and the numerous craft cocktail additions to the city's already legendary nightlife scene.
On weekend trips from the city, you'll find a whole circuit of quiet, colonial-era villages to explore. The most famous is Villa de Leyva, all cobblestones, bougainvillea and whitewashed plazas, but other worthy stops include Guadas (with a particularly beautiful mirador) and Honda, the so-called City of Bridges on the Magdalena River.
To trace that same river to its surreal source, head to the Southern Andean stretch known as the Colombian massif. Among the unique natural features of the region are páramos—high-elevation ecosystems dubbed the nation's "water factory" for the rivers that begin flowing there. In fact, this area is all about unique natural displays, from the elfin forests of the San Juan hot springs to the tiny islands of La Cocha Lagoon to the active volcanic landscapes of the Purace National Park, where, for good measure, you may have a close encounter with a condor.
But the cultural traditions of the region are marked by the same sort of singularity. Take, for example, the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos that's celebrated in San Juan de Pasto in early January. UNESCO-designated for its intangible cultural heritage, this festival of varied cultural influences, costumes and customs opens with a city-wide water-tossing fest and includes, arguably, the most of-the-moment ritual on earth: a ceremonial burning of the past year (could any tradition be more relevant or cathartic right now?).
While Colombia may not be the first country that comes to mind when you think of the Amazon, consider that within an hour's flight from Bogotá you can be right at the gateway to the world's largest river by volume. Leticia is the place that puts you there, and even without leaving city limits, you'll be surrounded by close to 1000 bird species, almost 7000 plant species and one marquee marine mammal that won't seem real: the pink river dolphin. Also known as botos, these sly swimmers are of course very much real, but you have to act fast when you see one if you want to capture the moment: Almost as soon as a fin surfaces, it's back underwater.
Other surreal sights will include the giant water lilies known as Victoria Amazonica, the diminutive piranhas of B movie fame (infinitely cooler to see in the wild) and the slo-mo sloths whose every micro-movement will start to feel like a major event to you.
If you go with a responsible tour operator, one of the most rewarding experiences may be a visit to a local indigenous community, whose traditions and livelihoods are inextricably linked to these stunning surroundings. And though you'd feel compelled to protect the area regardless—as "the earth’s lungs," it's our collective respiratory system, after all—meeting the people who call it home will make you all the more passionate about preservation. In fact, the same will hold true anywhere you go in Colombia. Once you've experienced a place so magical—the IRL version of Encanto—you'll want to ensure its continuity for generations to come.