After years of being considered a drug-ridden nation of guerrillas and narcoterrorists, Colombia has made a tourism resurgence unlike almost any other country on earth. For the last five years or so, this Latin American hot spot has become one of the most booming destinations in the world.
But most travelers here don't make it far outside of Cartagena, which is unfortunate. Don't get me wrong, Cartagena is a beautiful colonial city with stunning architecture. But for those willing to leave the well-trodden path (and get away from the herds of tourists), Colombia has so much more to offer.
One of the most ecologically and geographically diverse countries in Latin America, Colombia has it all: a lost city, the world's tallest palm trees and even a Caribbean desert (yes, that's a real thing). Here are 10 places in Colombia you need to visit:
La Guajira peninsula is at the northernmost edge of the continent, but it feels more like the edge of the world. It’s likely the only place on earth you’ll find a Caribbean desert, where undulating dunes meet a turquoise and aquamarine sea.
Getting to this desolate corner of the country is not for the faint of heart; much of the journey is by boat and 4WD vehicle, and accommodation is often a hammock on the beach. But those who come will be rewarded with an uncrowded paradise, alien landscapes and, with a little luck, a taste of the culture of the indigenous Wayuu population who call this land home.
Santa Marta is a perfectly acceptable Caribbean beach town. You could even call it beautiful. But Santa Marta's real attraction is that it's probably Colombia’s best jumping-off point for off-the-beaten path adventures. This charming little colonial city – which happens to be the oldest city in Colombia – is a hub for adrenaline seekers.
From Santa Marta, you're within an hour of Andean mountain biking, canyoning, paintball tours, overnight scuba diving safaris, desolate beaches and surf camps. And it's also the best launch point for trips to the Ciudad Perdida and Tayrona National Park.
Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City)
Machu Picchu might be the most famous ‘lost city’ in South America, but Ciudad Perdida is the oldest. And the newest. Colombia’s lost city was actually built roughly 650 years before Machu Picchu, around 800 CE, but it wasn’t discovered until 1972, when a group of Indiana Jones-style treasure looters discovered stone steps going up the mountain and followed them to the ruins.
The trek here takes five days through the blistering jungle heat, up Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range. But there are plenty of swimming holes, waterfalls and spectacular vistas along the route.
Tayrona National Park
Word has long been out about the magic of Tayrona, so don’t expect to have the park's sandy Caribbean beaches all to yourself. But Tayrona is popular for a reason: Dozens of endangered species call the park home, and there are some great diving opportunities on the far end of the park. But the real reason most people come here is to lay in a hammock or take it all in from a boulder and enjoy paradise.
No matter how many palm-fringed beaches you’ve been to, no matter how many jungles you’ve trekked through, you’ve never seen a palm tree quite like Colombia’s palma de cera (wax palm). The palma de cera is the largest palm in the world – reaching up to 200 feet – and the Cocora valley is littered with them.
At the foot of the snow-capped Andes, Cocora is a lush valley surrounded by misty mountaintops, the perfect setting for horseback riding or an easy day hike.
Reminiscent of Easter Island, San Agustin’s archaeological park is a 5,000-year-old collection of more than 500 statues reaching more than 20 feet tall, carved out of volcanic rock. This UNESCO World Heritage site is the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures on the continent.
Not much is known about the origin of these mysterious statues of gods and mythical creatures scattered across the verdant hills of San Agustin, or the people who carved them, but walking through this ancient land is a mystical experience.
San Andres and Providencia
If you’re looking for a truly unspoiled paradise, it’s in San Andres and Providencia. This small archipelago is actually closer to Nicaragua than it is to Colombia, which means it’s not the easiest place to reach, but it's worth the trip.
The beaches are isolated, the reefs are pristine and the silence is blissful. If you’re looking for a bit more of a crowd, San Andres is probably the best option, but for those seeking true isolation, Providencia is where you'll find it.
Cali is Colombia’s third largest city, with more than 2 million people, yet it’s overlooked by most travelers. Cali is not the most aesthetically beautiful city, but what it lacks in glamour, it makes up for with soul.
Salsa is the beating heart of this city, and the streets are filled with music and around-the-clock dancing. Cali is also the jumping-off point to Colombia’s under-explored Pacific region, home of Afro-Pacific culture, wild jungles, surfing and spectacular wildlife in places like Isla Gorgona.
Isla Gorgona is Colombia’s answer to the Galapagos Islands, but with an incredible history. This former maximum security prison was transformed into a national park more than 30 years ago, after word got out about the torturous conditions of the prison. The remains of the prison have been swallowed by jungle, and visitors can wander through this eerie landscape.
But the highlight of a trip here is the wildlife, including many snakes, monkeys and endemic species (including the world’s only pure blue lizard, the blue anole). There's also rich marine life that includes an incredible variety of pelagic fish, sharks and turtles. Most importantly, from June to October, more than 1,000 humpback whales use the water for mating and calving, making it inevitable to witness the creatures jumping out of the water and listen to them sing as you scuba dive.
Hacienda Napoles is quite possibly the most bizarre – and controversial – place in Colombia. Formerly the largest and most famous of Pablo Escobar's many estates, this property has been converted into part zoological park, part water park and part sprawling Pablo Escobar museum. In the middle of nowhere on a 15-sq-km patch of land (about four hours from Medellin), it still contains the remains of his decaying mansion, bullring and plenty of animals.
Pablo used to have what is believed to be the largest private collection of animals in history, but most starved to death after he was arrested, so the park got new animals. There are also plenty of dinosaur statues and a full-on water park complete with fake waterfalls.