Soaring Andean summits, unspoiled Caribbean coast, enigmatic Amazon jungle, pre-Columbian architecture and multi-cultural communities. Colombia boasts all of South America's allure, and more.
Colombia's equatorial position affords it a diversity of landscapes matched by few countries. A slight adjustment in altitude takes you from sun-toasted Caribbean sands to coffee-strewn, emerald-green hilltops in the Zona Cafetera. Continue to climb and there's Bogotá, the bustling cradle of Colombia and third-highest capital city in the world. Throw in another few thousand meters and you'll find snowcapped peaks, high-altitude lakes and the eerie, unique vegetation of the páramo (high-mountain plains). The bottom drops out as the Andes give way to Los Llanos, a 550,000-sq-km swath of tropical grasslands shared with Venezuela, often called the Serengeti of South America.
Colombia's varied terrain is fertile ground for outdoor adventurers to dive, climb, raft, trek and soar. San Gil is the undisputed adventure capital, but Colombia boasts alfresco pleasures in all corners. Some of the continent's most iconic trekking is here, and is dramatically varied: Ciudad Perdida is a multi-day jungle walk to the ancient ruins of the Tayrona civilization, while numerous ascents inside Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy place intrepid hikers among the highest reaches of the Andes. Providencia's world-class reef spells aquatic heaven for scuba divers, and whale-watchers on the Pacific coast can see majestic humpbacks in the wild.
A wealth of ancient civilizations left behind a fascinating spread of archaeological and cultural sites throughout Colombia. The one-time Tayrona capital, Ciudad Perdida, built between the 11th and 14th centuries, is one of the continent's most ancient cities, arguably second only to Machu Picchu. Equally mythical is San Agustín, where more than 500 life-sized ancient sculpted statues – some 5000 years old and of enigmatic origin – dot the surrounding countryside. And then there's Tierradentro, where elaborate underground tombs scooped out by an unknown people add even more mystique to Colombia's past.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Colombia.
Bogotá's most famous museum and one of the most fascinating in South America, the Gold Museum contains more than 55,000 pieces of gold and other materials from all of Colombia's major pre-Hispanic cultures. The collection is laid out in logical, thematic rooms over three floors; descriptions are in Spanish and English.
Also known as El Peñon de Guatapé, thanks to the fierce rivalry between the towns it straddles, this 200m-high granite monolith rises from near the edge of the Embalse Guatapé. A brick staircase of 659 steps rises up through a broad fissure in the side of the rock. From the top there are magnificent views of the region, the fingers of the lake sprawling amid a vast expanse of green mountains. Medellín–Guatape buses can drop you off at 'La Piedra.'
This 78-hectare archaeological park is 2.5km west of the town of San Agustín. There are over 130 statues in the park in total, either found in situ or collected from other areas, including some of the best examples of San Agustín statuary, with human or animal features, or a mixture of the two. Don't miss the carved tombs either. Reputable guides congregate around the museum.
Cartagena's old city is its principal attraction, particularly the inner walled town, consisting of the historical districts of El Centro and San Diego. It's one of finest examples of preserved colonial architecture in the Americas, packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and mansions with their famous overhanging balconies and shady patios.
This harrowing museum dedicated to the urban conflict in Medellín is a must-visit for travelers wanting to fully understand the city (and Colombia). There are interesting displays on the geopolitical origins of the conflict, but the most moving parts are the life-size video screens, where survivors recount their experiences as if they were standing in front of you, and the Wall of Memory outside, which pays homage to local residents killed in the violence, their names etched onto the bricks.
The vast Santuario de Flora y Fauna Malpelo, the largest no-fishing zone in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, provides a critical habitat for threatened marine species. It is centered around Isla Malpelo, a tiny, remote Colombian island that has some of the best diving in the world. The diversity and, above all, the size of the marine life is eye-popping, and includes over 200 hammerhead sharks and 1000 silky sharks.
One of Colombia's most spectacular national parks, PNN El Cocuy is mostly made up of a diverse ecosystem known as the páramo. This glacially formed, neotropical system of valleys, plains and mountain lakes includes the largest glacier zone in South America north of the equator. The park has 15 peaks that are at least 5000m, the highest being Ritacuba Blanco at 5330m, and is an outdoor playground popular for trekking, mountaineering, camping and climbing, although many activities are currently restricted.
Once one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellín, the Comuna 13, which clings to the mountainside above the San Javier metro station, has undergone an impressive transformation in recent times and is now considered safe to visit. The focal point of a trip to the comuna is the area around the escaleras electricas, the outdoor escalators that provide access to homes in marginalized barrios that were formerly isolated from the city below. A taxi from the metro costs COP$5500.
The greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in any of their colonies, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas still dominates an entire section of Cartagena's cityscape. It should definitely be the first fortress you visit. The original edifice was quite small. It was commissioned in 1630, and construction began in 1657 on top of the 40m-high San Lázaro hill. In 1762 an extensive enlargement was undertaken, which resulted in the entire hill being covered with this powerful bastion.
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