If you are planning to travel to Colombia, you are probably wondering where to go: the Caribbean coast, the Pacific coast, the Andes, the Amazon? or perhaps, which cities are worth visiting? We know it is not an easy decision specially having in mind that Colombia is a relative large country, there are no railways and its mountainous topography makes most journeys by land quite long. That is why we decided to write a short overview of the main cities in Colombia that may help you decide where to go depending on what you want and how many days you plan to stay in Colombia.
Your journey most probably will start and/or end in Bogota, mainly because most of the international flights to Colombia arrive in El Dorado international airport in Bogota. El Dorado airport also acts as Colombia’s main Air hub with the highest number of domestic connections to all the main destinations in the country. Travelling by air will save you a lot of time when going from one city to another, it would be a bit more expensive but it is worth it. Most of the flights from Bogota to other parts of Colombia will take approximately from 35min to 60min, depending on where you go.
So, without further ado, here is a summary of Colombia’s main cities including famous landmarks and things to do.
Bogota is the capital of Colombia, located right in the middle of the country. The city was built in a valley in the middle of the Andes mountain range (Altitude: approx 2,600m over sea level), making it a relatively cold place with temperatures ranging from just above freezing in early morning to a max of around 21 degrees Celsius at midday (in a good sunny day).
Bogota is the political and cultural centre of Colombia. Its population comes from all regions of Colombia and also hosts an increasing number of expats from many countries, making the city a great place to find a diverse offering of cultural activities, museums, historic buildings and a varied offering of gastronomy and night life for almost every taste.
In Bogota, you can visit:
- The historic neighbourhood of “La Candelaria“,
- The Gold Museum, which holds the biggest collection of gold pieces from the pre-Columbian time in the world,
- The Museo de Botero
- The iconic symbol of the city the “Cerro de Monserrate“.
- The modern areas of the city like Zona Rosa or Parque de la 93, where you will find good places for eat, drink, go shopping or clubbing.
From Bogota you can also spend a day travelling by car to nearby destinations including: The Lake Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado is said to have originated, the colonial town of Villa de Leyva, the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira or even a coffee farm in case you don’t have time to travel to the coffee region.
2. Cities in the Southern area of Colombia
From Bogota, you can also fly to Neiva and from there, travel by land to the archaeological sites of San Agustin and Tierradentro.
If you love partying and want to learn how to dance salsa with the best in the world, Cali is the definitely the place to go. This business and industrial city is also recognised as the World’s Capital of Salsa. It has a great nightlife, excellent restaurants and plenty to do specially in the evening when the temperature is not as hot as during the day. Juanchito district, South of the city centre, is Cali’s Salsa hotspot and you can go dancing there to until dawn.
If you are very much into partying and dancing, a good time to visit Cali is during the Feria de Cali (Cali’s Fair) in December (from the 25th to the 30th) or during the World Salsa festival.
If you prefer to admire the architecture of colonial buildings and churches dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, Popayan is the place. This beautiful city, known as the white city of Colombia for its chalk white buildings, is famous for its holy week celebrations and for its gastronomy. The holy week celebrations are the second largest in the world (after Seville, Spain) and were declared by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible patrimony of humanity. Popayan was also declared by the UNESCO as the first city of gastronomy because of its variety of food and meaning to the intangible patrimony of Colombian culture.
Popayan is a small city and its historical centre is fairly compact, you can easily walk around this area to visit some of its most important sites like:
- The Parque de Caldas, a peaceful plaza dominated by the Cathedral Basilica Nuestra Senora de Asuncion and the city landmark called the Torre del Reloj or the ‘Clock Tower
- The church of San Francisco and La Ermita.
You will also find many coffee shops and restaurants with very good options to eat.
Pasto is just two hours from the border with Ecuador, so it is a good point to stop in case you are planning to continue your trip towards Ecuador by land. Pasto is also famous for its “Carnival de Blancos y Negros” (whites and blacks carnival) held on the 5th and 6th of January. This carnival was originated during Spanish rule, when slaves were allowed to celebrate and their masters joined in the festivities by painting their faces black. So, during these two days of carnival, the city goes wild, with everybody painting one another with grease or flour, black and white substances.
3. Medellin and the coffee region
If you are planning to visit the coffee region in the central area of Colombia, the main cities to visit are: Manizales, Armenia or Pereira. However, you will probably pass these cities to go directly to visit the coffee farms in the area, the traditional paisa towns like Salento and Filandia or the Natural National Park of Los Nevados.
Manizales is also very famous for the Manizales Fair held in January. The fair attracts the world’s best bullfighters, but you will also find the usual parades, the craft fairs and a beauty pageant.
Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia and the third most visited one after Cartagena and Bogota. It is called the city of the Eternal Spring thanks to its excellent weather. Medellin is also the only city in Colombia with a metro transport system and it is also very famous for its flowers festival held in early August.
There are many places to visit in Medellin including:
- Plaza de Botero
- Museo de Antioquia
- Museo el Castillo
- The Pueblito Paisa located on the top of the hill Cerro Nutibara. Pueblito Paisa is a small replica of a traditional paisa town.
From Medellin you can go to the beautiful paisa towns of Guatape and Santa Fe de Antioquia.
4. The Caribbean coast:
In the Caribbean coast the main cities are: Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta. From Bogota you can fly to any of these cities and then travel by land to the others. You would usually fly to Cartagena and from there travel to Santa Marta passing by Barranquilla or vice versa.
Located further North on the Caribbean coast is Riohacha, which is the starting point if you want to go to Cabo de la Vela in La Guajira.
Cartagena is the most touristic city in Colombia and one of the most fascinating colonial cities in Latin America. Cartagena is famous for its fortress and walls, colonial architecture and great plazas surrounded by picturesque cafes and restaurants. There are many sightseeing landmarks like: The Clock Tower, Plaza de la Aduana, Castillo de San Felipe, Palacio de la Inquisicion and the Convento de la Popa.
From Cartagena you can go to Islas del Rosario (Rosario Islands), a group of 23 islands bordered by extensive areas of coral banks, crystal clear waters and fine beaches.
It is located between Cartagena and Santa Marta and is mainly famous for the Carnival of Barranquilla held in January. The Barranquilla Carnival arrived to Colombia during the Spanish colonization period, but only really began to flourish in the 1800s. The carnival was declared by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
It is the oldest surviving city in South America and is the city where the famous South American liberator, Simon Bolívar died in 1830. The city has some historical places worth visiting such as la Catedral de Santa Marta and Quinta de San Pedro, the place where Simon Bolívar died, which has now been converted into an impressive museum and events space that most definitely deserves a visit. Although Santa Marta boasts the well-known bay area called Rodadero, the real gems of Santa Marta are the beaches right outside the city like those in the Tayrona National Natural Park. A lot of people who travel to Santa Marta actually bypass the city and head straight for Parque Tayrona.
There are some other cities to cover. like Villavicencio, located in the Eastern plains, Bucaramanga and Tunja, located North of Bogota and Leticia, the main Colombian outpost to the Amazon basin.
But, since we don’t want to over extend ourselves, we will probably write more posts, covering more details on the cities above or showcasing other hidden gems in Colombia.
Until the next time. Happy travels!
The Uncover Colombia Team
- Colombia: mountains, plains, beaches, desert and jungle, all in one country (uncovercolombia.wordpress.com)
- A Few Tips for Travelling in Colombia (uncovercolombia.wordpress.com)
- Scouting trip to La Guajira (www.uncovercolombia.com)
- Five Places in the Historic Center of Bogota You Shouldn’t Miss (www.uncovercolombia.com)
- Things to do in Medellin (www.uncovercolombia.com)
- Explore Colombia with Uncover Colombia: Check our new tours (uncovercolombia.wordpress.com)
- Colombia is Extraordinary (iwilltravelblog.com)