With over 1,900 species of birds and an array of micro climates ranging from dry desert…to cool mountain…to humid jungle, Colombia, is the second most biodiverse country in the world.
Shedding its dark past, Colombia now attracts visitors and people wanting to live part-time or full-time in this amazing country. You could spend years trying to do and see all that Colombia has to offer, but here are my favorite 10 things to do in Colombia.
10. Cueva del Esplendor (Splendor Cave) waterfall
It takes a little effort to get to the waterfall just outside of the small Colombian town of Jardin…but each step is an adventure of its own, and is definitely worth it. Jardin, located in Northwest Colombia, is around three hours south of Medellín by car or bus. First take a jeep ride from the town square— then a one-hour horseback ride through the lush, green mountains of the coffee region—followed by a walk down into the cave. This brings you to the beautiful cascading waterfall, that flows from a hole in the roof of the cave into a crystal-clear pool. The sunlight streams through the hole to illuminate the water making it a perfect place to go for a dip, or just dangle your feet to cool off. Be warned though, the water is cold! You don´t need to go it alone, group tours leave from the town square and cost about $20 for the five-hour excursion.
9. Fly With the Birds
Did you ever want to fly like Superman? Well, in many parts of Colombia you can do just that. Parapente (paragliding) is jumping off the side of a mountain, while safely strapped into a harness with a parachute attached to your back. If this sounds a little too scary, don’t worry, you don´t go solo. Tandem flying with a trained instructor lets you soar like an eagle, and have a peaceful bird’s eye view of the cities and towns below you.
One of the most popular places to have this exhilarating experience are in San Felix, just 40 minutes outside of Medellín. For $20 you can transform yourself from Clark Kent…into Superman.
8. Step Back in Time in Cauca Viejo
Enjoy the ambiance of an early 20th-century Colombian village, but with all the modern amenities in Cauca Viejo. This development of vacation homes and hotels was built to replicate the style of old Colombia and is a two-hour drive from Medellín along the La Pintada-Bolombolo road. At this peaceful spot alongside the Cauca River, you can stroll through the cobblestone streets and enjoy the duck ponds, mountain views, and historic architecture of the village. There is a church, a town hall, and cafés to sip coffee or freshly squeezed juice.
The Boutique Parasiempre Hotel has rooms inspired by Colombian romantic poets. It has attentive staff and an excellent restaurant offering freshly prepared food. If you would rather have something more private, you can rent out one of the large homes for groups of up to 15 people. They are fully furnished and have private swimming pools, maid and chef services and plenty of space for sharing time with family and friends.
7. The Liquid Rainbow
Caño Cristales really is the most beautiful river in the world. The crystal-clear water comes alive with the brilliant fushia, yellow, green, and even blue colors of the plants living beneath the surface. You can only visit this spectacular natural wonder from July through to November. Because the river is inside an eco-park, the use of sunscreen and bug spray is prohibited, so cover up.
The best way to experience the river is by using a tour company. Tour packages are available for three, four, or five days. They include airfare, hotel, guide service, and all meals. The hike to the river is not too strenuous, and well worth it. When you get there, enjoy cascading waterfalls, deep swimming holes, lush vegetation, and bird watching.
6. Try Colombian Food
One of the best ways to get to know a country…is to eat the food. It captures the soul and spirit of the people and the region. When you are in Medellín you absolutely must eat bandeja paisa—rice, frijoles (beans), ground beef, fried egg, chicharron (fried pork belly), morcilla (blood sausage), avocado, salad and fruit juice to wash it all down. This platter of food will test the limits of even the hungriest person.
A favorite of the Bogotá area is ajiaco (in photo) Seasoned with cilantro, it has the consistency of thick soup or thin stew and is filled with chicken, corn, onions and potatoes. They serve it with a heaping bowl of rice and a side plate of avocado. After this hearty lunch, you will not be hungry for the rest of the day.
The coastal cities are well known for their fresh seafood, and ceviche in Santa Marta is some of the best in the country. Consisting of a traditional combination of shrimp, oysters, conch, skate and octopus in a red sauce with just the right amount of lime juice and cilantro along with some saltine crackers. This makes a great lunch or snack.
5. Climb an Ancient Rock
When nature presents you with a 70-million-year-old monolith…you just have to climb it. El Peñol is located 90 minutes east of Medellín, and for a small entrance fee of $3 you can climb 740 winding, wooden stairs up to 7,000 feet above sea level, along the side of “the rock.” Anyone with a good set of walking shoes and strong legs can do this trek.
The prize for making the climb, are some of the most spectacular 360-degree views of Lake Guatapé, and the surrounding Andes mountains. There is a snack shop at the top where you can quench your thirst while you pose for selfies using the gorgeous scenery as your backdrop. If you fancy the climb to the top, the expansive parking lot at the base still offers wonderful views and photo opportunities…even if you don´t want to make the climb.
4. Commune With the National Tree
The Wax Palm is the national tree of Colombia. They grow to reach a height of 150 feet, and some even make it to 200 feet tall. Valle de Cocora, located in the valley of the central range of the Andes Mountains and is part of the Los Nevados National Nature Park, is one of the best places to see them dotting the green Andes mountains. Situated within the coffee triangle, it is 15 miles north east of the city of Armenia. Hiking in the area lets you get up close and personal with these majestic trees. If you want to do more than just see the trees, stop by Donde Juan B´s restaurant in Valle de Cocora, just outside of the pueblo Salento. They frequently have a tree planting ceremony with an official botanist of the region. The ceremony says, “when you plant a tree you leave part of your heart in Colombia…and put a part of Colombia in your heart.”
3. Take a Coffee Farm Tour
As you sip your morning cup of joe, have you ever thought about where it was grown? Colombia is world renowned for its delicious coffee. Eje Cafetero (coffee axis) has the perfect climate to produce rich, smooth coffee beans. The cities of Armenia, Pereira, and Manizales make up this “coffee triangle.”
The region has many coffee fincas where you can take narrated tours. These farms have been in families for generations, and the owners enjoy sharing their love of coffee production. You can walk amongst the coffee trees (yes, they are called trees), as the guides explain how to pick the best beans. Then after seeing the production process, sit down, relax and enjoy a cup of coffee right smack in the middle of where it was grown.
2. Carnival in Barranquilla
Second only to the more famous carnival in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, the Caribbean coastal city of Barranquilla throws one heck of a party. You can watch parades with men and women dressed in brightly-colored costumes with their faces covered in paint and glitter as they dance salsa, and sing through the streets. Everyone from grandparents to babies participate in the five-day event, leading up to Ash Wednesday. Vendors roam the streets selling giant cans of foam, and boxes of maizena (corn flour) that locals will inevitably use to cover you from head to toe. Don´t be shy…join in the fun. Street parties take place all over the city starting in the afternoon and lasting until the wee hours of the morning.
1. Take a Tour of Medellín’s Hip Neighborhood
The days of the old Medellín as shown in Netflix´s Narcos…are long gone. Over the past two decades that dark shadow has been lifted, to reveal a thriving, vibrant and welcoming city. Medellín was even named the “most Innovative City in the world” by Citibank in 2013.
To get an up-close look at some of the changes, take one of the city´s graffiti tours through Comuna 13. I recommend www.medellingraffititour.com they charge $20 for a half day tour. Once considered Medellín´s most crime-ridden neighborhood, it now houses the Casa Kolacho community center. One of the local hip hop artists will take you through the neighborhood with walls and buildings covered in local street art and explain how the area came back to life.
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