Colombia Tours and Travel Guide
Colombia Attractions & Landmarks Guide
A country that has undergone tremendous change over the past few decades, Colombia has become an increasingly popular tourist destination. From idyllic beaches to beautiful cobblestone streets, fun shops and restaurants in Cartagena's old town, to the spectacular views and hiking trails in Medellin, to tasting local coffee in Bogota, there's something for everyone.
Why Visit Colombia on Guided Tour?
When visiting Colombia, independent exploration is a definite option. On the other hand, finding a guided tour is highly advised in order to get the fullest experience of Colombia. While many guided tours in Colombia need to be booked in advance, it is also possible to arrange them when in the country. However, this is likely to increase travel costs and the chance of certain tours being unavailable when travelers wish to book them.
For the vast majority of Colombia tours, guides will be city locals or Colombian natives. This is important, as they will likely already have contacts that they frequently use when planning activities for the group and will know which attractions travelers tend to frequent. Similarly, Colombia tour guides can offer personal advice on where to best spend time during free days and recommend specific places to stay or eat based on pricing and local reputation.
If travelers to Colombia are worried that their guide will not speak their specific language, it is possible to arrange for one that does. However, this factor depends on the Colombia tour operator, as some may not employ guides fluent in certain languages. Therefore, travelers are urged to verify the guides’ languages with the specific Colombia tour operator as far in advance as possible. As a further precautionary measure, travelers to Colombia can invest in a phrasebook. Not only does this help Colombia tour participants connect with other international travelers, but it also allows them to effectively communicate with their tour guide.
Since Colombia guided tours are usually with groups, depending on the size of the party that travelers are with, they are great opportunities to meet other travelers. This allows for future tours together, the exchange of travel information, and a cultural immersion that may not be found as easily in solo explorations.
By working with guided tours in Colombia, travelers set themselves up with the best chance to fully enjoy all that each city and location has to offer. First-hand knowledge of the country along with the long-time travel experience that comes with a Colombia tour guide are invaluable to travelers, as they minimize costs, travel time, and the possibility of missing out on something important!
What to Expect When Visiting Colombia
When traveling to Colombia for extended periods of time, a budget may be necessary to plan. Tours of Colombia that include hotel rooms, food, and activities are certainly available to book, but there are also many other ways to travel economically.
As the food is relatively inexpensive in Colombia, travelers who are not opposed to cooking for themselves may opt to stay at the many lodgings with kitchens available for use. Places to stay in Colombia also have the option for travelers to pay for breakfast in the morning, should they not choose to eat out for every meal.
On a similar note, tipping is not expected or is very minimal when going to places to eat in Colombia. Depending on location, groceries and meals can be sufficiently purchased even with a minimal budget. Within larger cities that have a high density of citizens and international travelers, the prices of commodities tend to be at their cheapest. The opposite rule applies to cities further away from urban centers, such as those along the Amazon or in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains.
For the most part, it appears that Colombia’s attitude towards travelers is a friendly one. Provided that travelers to Colombia are respectful of the fragile environmental landscapes that they explore, it appears most Colombians are willing to help travelers enjoy their country in the same way that they do. Since tourism is a growing sector of Colombia’s economy, travelers may not experience the same standards of “premium” or “value” accommodations that they are used to. This is especially true when it comes to highly-rated places to stay in Colombia, as there are a number of them, but given their high demand, they may be full if travelers do not book their stays in advance.
As one of the world’s highest-altitude capitals, Bogotá is an iconic Colombian city that demonstrates a successful integration of green-space within urban architecture. Not only are the colonial roots of the city still present, but also the ways the city has modernized so as to embrace an influx of international travelers.
Travelers who are looking for the best things to see in Bogotá might want to begin with a trip up Monserrate Mountain, found at the center of the capital. A 3+ hour hike or a 1.5-hour cable-car ride brings travelers to the summit, where the Sanctuary of Monserrate still stands after 400 years along with breathtaking panoramic views of the city.
El Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) is a popular landmark to tour with a guide or in a solo venture, as it has more than 50,000 pieces for visitors to view.
The Museo Botero is another frequented locale for travelers in Bogotá to stop at, as it showcases works of both international and local artists. This museum is also free for travelers and Colombian citizens alike, allowing for a dispersion of art and culture that is not always found in other cities.
For travelers looking to discover Bogotá’s culinary endeavors, the Paloquemao food market is where vendors congregate to showcase their produce, which can also be found in meals at the many restaurant stalls that share the space.
As a port city that has been used for centuries, Cartagena is a Colombian city along the Caribbean coastline. Its historic “Old Town,” a maze of colonial-era walls, fortresses, and tunnels, is both a UNESCO Heritage Site and frequent destination for travelers. At the Palace of Inquisition, travelers to Cartagena can not only view intricate colonial-era architecture but also curious religious items on display from that time period.
In a more modern comparison, the Bocagrande neighborhood consists of skyscrapers and restaurants, which travelers often visit for lodging and to partake in the night-life. Its location being directly on the beach allows solo travelers or groups to relax there without having to plan a tour, as access is free to all. However, should travelers desire adventure beyond the city limits, visiting the islands of Barú and Rosario are only possible with guided tours.
The Isla del Barú is a tranquil island with white-sand beaches far from the congested ones found in the city. In comparison, Isla del Rosario may appeal to active travelers, who can scuba dive along the third largest coral reef in the world.
While viewed historically as a dangerous city, Medellin has made great strides in providing travelers with both safe and entertaining ways to explore the city. By taking one of the many “free walking tours” that are offered in the plazas and parks, travelers can gain an understanding of the surrounding museums, markets, and landmarks within the city.
Soccer fans, or even just those interested in seeing intense team spirit, can watch a Categoría Primera A football game at the Atanasio Girardot Stadium. Travelers interested in art can tour the Museo de Antioquia, which has both international and Colombian exhibits.
The Cementerio Museo de San Pedro, while more macabre, is just as educational for international travelers in Medellin. As the final resting place for many of Colombia’s important historical figures, visitors have the opportunity to learn about the country’s past and those who helped shape it.
For adventurous travelers looking for art in a more informal manner, it can be found on the buildings in Comuna 13. While previously known as one of the most dangerous parts of Medellin, Comuna 13 now boasts local organizations that sponsor neighborhood outreach and countless street art installations. Guided tours to the neighborhood can be arranged, but solo ventures are also possible with local knowledge of the specific areas to see.
The Capital, Bogotá
Bogotá is Colombia’s capital, and a classic stop for Colombia tours. With many cultural and historical sites, museums, art galleries, cafes (for some famous Colombian coffee), and restaurants, you’ll get a real sense for what makes Colombia a unique and special country.
Some main attractions in Bogotá that you shouldn’t miss include:
1. The Gold Museum - Colombia has a long history when it comes to this most precious commodity. The Gold Museum was founded in 1939 as a way to preserve pre-Hispanic gold works. Gold is not the only material featured - the museum also houses artifacts and pieces made from semi-precious stones, textiles, rock, and pottery. It’s an essential stop on any Bogotá visit.
2. Take a cycling tour - Bogotá is a very walkable and cycle-able city, with boardwalks and parks. Cycling is a very popular way to take in the sights and sounds. There are many day tour options, or if you’re on a multi-day tour through Colombia, an afternoon of cycling in Bogotá is a commonly offered activity on the itinerary.
3. Take in the views from Monseratte Mountain - Don’t worry. If you’re not in the mood to take a several hour hike (ill-advised for safety reasons), the gorgeous panoramic views from the top of Monseratte are easy to get to by cable car. At the top be sure to give yourself enough time for plenty of pictures, and to observe the ‘El Señor Caido’ statue.
Traveling in the Colombian countryside
Traveling through the Colombian countryside provides travelers with the opportunity to come face to face with the vibrant native plants and animals that call the country home. With landscapes that range from the inviting Caribbean coast to the snow-capped Andes Mountains which are preceded by Los Llanos grasslands, travel in Colombia can cross many geographical boundaries.
Colombia’s immense swath of the Amazon Rainforest is about a third of the country and nearly impossible to pass through. Travelers in Colombia can arrange for guided tours through the Amazon that access the rainforest and its river, but solo or group travel is highly inadvisable without first-hand knowledge of the paths and specific times to venture out.
Guided tours through the Amazon typically rely on boats and footpaths to reach their destinations, a factor which leads to limited accessibility for certain travelers in Colombia. If travelers are looking to access the various towns along the Caribbean coast, these same aforementioned methods of travel are the only ones currently available.
However, for travelers with a larger budget and a desire to explore Colombian cities, air travel is an efficient option. Flights between Bogotá, Cartagena, Cali, and Medellin happen multiple times per day and do not always have to be booked in advance. If booking online, travelers looking for flights in Colombia should consider using a private browsing tab when booking.
This avoids the international charges which many online airfare companies tack on for international travelers and can make a significant difference in pricing. For those traveling on a budget in Colombia, buses are available so long as travelers do not mind the lengthy travel times.
Roadways through the more remote, mountainous regions of Colombia are notoriously long and windy. Even still, as a relatively inexpensive way to get between the major cities of Colombia, the roadway system in cities is of fair quality and worth utilizing should travelers find it necessary.
Coffee tours in Colombia
Colombia, known for its sprawling landscapes and fertile land, is the third largest producer of coffee in the world. Therefore, regardless of a traveler’s affinity for coffee, taking one of the many coffee tours in Colombia is highly recommended. Quindío, the region where the coffee bean flourishes, is split by the Andes Mountains and dotted with plantations near the fields.
As an activity offered by many guided tours in Colombia, understanding the process of sustainable coffee production is important both internationally and locally. Therefore, travelers who engage in one of these excursions will be able to tour detailed museums and witness the step-by-step process that goes into providing the coffee Colombia is so well-known for. Of course, international travelers will also be able to taste the many different roasts and flavors that each plantation is known for their reinvention of.
Some of the more famous coffee plantations that travelers come across on coffee tours in Colombia include:
- Café San Alberto - Situated along the picturesque slopes that overlook the flatlands of the Quindío coffee region, participants in the Café San Alberto coffee tour are able to enjoy their caffeine while basking in the panoramic views afforded from the altitude.
- La Victoria - For a more historical perspective, La Victoria coffee plantation tours delve into the history of coffee, the antique machinery it uses being a living testament. Founded in 1892, the plantation is self-sustaining and harnesses the power of nearby Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain rivers to power its machines. While less about the coffee plant itself, this tour affords travelers a unique glimpse into the past (along with samples)
- Parque Nacional de Cafe - In a fun twist on typical coffee tours in Colombia, travelers may want to visit Parque Nacional de Cafe, a theme park based around the bean. Boasting a coffee museum along with 27 rides in the theme park, this activity is a great option for travelers in groups or ones who want adrenaline to go along with their caffeine.
Typical Accommodation Style in Colombia
Depending on the remoteness of a location, accommodations in Colombia range from campsites to luxurious hotel rooms. Within major cities of Bogotá, Medellin, or Cartagena, travelers have access to 4-star hotels from chains such as the Marriott, Hilton, Wyndham, and Hyatt Regency. Of course, international travelers can opt to stay in hotels owned by local Colombian companies, many of which boast the same standards of cleanliness, entertainment, and spa availability.
When looking for accommodations in Colombia of this economic caliber, booking in advance is very useful for saving money and ensuring that space is available at specific locations. Certain hotels may offer discounted guided tours or suggestions on how to spend time in a city, which is invaluable information for travelers looking to make the most of their stay in Colombia.
Similarly, booking ahead with hotels in Colombia enables travelers to plan other excursions or guided tours within the surrounding area, as they have a definite place to stay at night. Choosing to stay at hotels in Colombia is also useful when it comes to dining since many offer food all day and provide free breakfast for those looking to eat before early tours or activities.
For travelers looking for frugal ways to stay in Colombia, the length of stay is an important consideration. Hostels are ways to maintain a flexible schedule, as they do not usually require booking ahead of time and are prolific in cities.
Similarly, while hostels in Colombia are cheap to rent alone, traveling in a group and being willing to share the price of a room significantly lowers individual costs. Depending on the hostel, breakfast and/or other meals are sometimes provided, also helping to limit overall travel costs.
Food in Colombia
Colombian cuisine may not exactly be something to write home about - unless you really hunt around. Another fantastic reason to visit on a tour! In Cartagena you’ll find a lot of European restaurants, particularly in Old Town - and while the food is delicious, you feel that you could be in any European city.
Elsewhere in Colombia you’ll find many rice and bean based dishes, with Spanish and Mexican influences, as well as some more eclectic offerings with Arab and African influences. Colombian food tends to be heavy and many popular dishes include meat - most commonly chicken - like much of traditional South American cuisine.
Like most countries, Colombian food and drink is very regional, with certain areas having access to different ingredients and utilizing different cooking techniques.
Some Colombian foods you absolutely must try:
1. Ajiaco - A heavy, potato based dish, Ajiaco is a favorite soup around the country, but perhaps most popular in Bogota. Soups are very popular in Colombia, an odd choice perhaps for a country with a temperate climate that rarely fluctuates. Soups in Colombia are almost always served with avocado, are chock full of seasonal ingredients and flavorful broths.
2. Empanadas - This classic South American treat is the perfect street food snack to munch on while taking in the sights. Every country seems to have their own spin. In Colombia you’ll find their fried with potato and beef filling - sometimes sweet versions are also found in bakeries!
3. Lechona Tolimense - Many Colombian dishes are quite substantial - designed to feed big groups, and Lechona Tolimense is no exception! Hailing from to Tolima region near Bogota, this dish is comprised of a stuffed pork, that then cooks for ten to twelve hours. Often made for special occasions.
4. Arepas - A delicious side dish, served with almost every meal - or as a stand alone market food, Arepas are fried or baked dough usually filled or topped with some cheesy goodness. You can also have it with condensed milk for a slightly sweeter rendition.
Colombia Lost City Trekking
There are a choice few well known “lost cities” in the world - top places on travelers bucket lists: Machu Picchu in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Tikal in Guatemala, and smattering of others. These places are incredible and well worth discovering.
However because of their popularity, they are also often crowded and, let’s face it, accessible - so even though you are visiting an archaeological treasure surrounded by jungle it doesn’t feel remote.
If you’re after a Lost City experience that harkens back to what the above sites may have felt like to the first explorers and travelers, Colombia has just the place: “Ciudad Perdida”. Literally translated as “Lost City” this hidden archaeological site has just begun to be visited by tourists.
The city pre-dates Machu Picchu by roughly 600 years, and though it may not be quite as picturesque, the experience of getting there, the incredible stillness of the surrounding jungle, and the ancient history surrounding the city ruins will push any thought of Machu Picchu splendor out of your mind.
The trek is intense - expect a lot of off roading, a lot of mud, a lot of water, and high humidity. But for an adventure that few tourists are attempting - though they will within the next 20 years, go now and see it without the crowds.
As a country renowned for its vast rainforests, access to the Amazon River, and inviting beaches, Colombia offers many ways for travelers to interact with its biodiversity. Depending on what level of activity travelers are interested in, tours in Colombia range from rowing in a transparent kayak, hiking with a group, or exploring trails via horseback, all of which provide a rewarding travel experience.
Although Bogotá is the nation’s capital city, it has no shortage of eco-travel options for visitors. As a central location for many travelers to Colombia, there are a number of tours that leave on single or multi-day excursions from the city which can be booked in advance.
From the city itself, many travelers use a cable car to ascend the famous Monserrate Mountain (and see the 400-year old sanctuary that crowns it). Otherwise, the 3+ hour hike along switchback trails is also available for travelers in Colombia should they not wish to hire a horse. Similarly, Lake Guatavitá is a picturesque travel destination for those staying in the capital, as it is possible to visit (weather permitting) within one day.
By arranging for a ride an hour south of the capital, travelers to Colombia can visit Chicaque Park. Public transportation is available to enter this cloud-forest reserve, which is home to miles of hiking trails, a 98-foot zip-line, and a rich variety of birds. Travelers may also see sloths in the trees along the trails or larger animals should they choose to ascend a platform that rests on a 200-year-old tree. Visitors looking to be frugal may camp out, but the option to stay in unique tree-houses are available as well.
For those wishing to escape the city altogether, tours are available in El Chocó, along Colombia’s Pacific coast. As a mixture of rainforest and shoreline, the area provides the perfect opportunity for travelers to spot whales or see some of Colombia’s countless species of birds. The time between June and October is considered the best for whale-watching, while February-July is when the famous Leatherback sea-turtles appear to lay their eggs on the shore. Poison arrow frogs are abundant along the hiking trails of these Colombian jungle tours and the more fortunate travelers may even spot a jaguar.
Along the Amazon River, travelers to Colombia may choose to stay in Leticia, a town with many of the same amenities, restaurants, and entertainment as are found in less rural locations. However, the opportunity to see lemurs, birds, and Pink River dolphins up-close are unique to these types of jungle-cities and provide amazingly personal experiences with the surrounding wildlife.
Colombia posses the northwest corner of South America and the Amazon, and this portion of jungle makes up nearly ⅓ of the country. With the Amazon forming such a large physical and cultural part of the country, it makes sense that any trip to Colombia should include at least a taste of the world’s largest rainforest.
Here are some of the best towns to visit in the Colombian Amazon:
Leticia can be found at Colombia’s most southern point, and is the most developed and well known of the country’s Amazonian town. Residents of this town still live a relatively traditional lifestyle, and primarily depend on agriculture and tourism to make a living. Another interesting component of Leticia is that it is one of the main aquarium fish trading posts in the world -- hundreds of Amazonian species are raised or captured in this town, and then shipped to Bogota, where they are distributed worldwide.
If you are going on an eco-tour, or plan to immerse yourself in the local community by experiencing traditional jungle life with one of the remote indigenous tribes of Colombia, Leticia will likely be your home base.
This town is located in Vaupes, a region of Amazonia that is one of the premiere birding destinations in the world. The town is incredibly isolated and definitely far off of the beaten path -- tourist infrastructure was never built due to the fact that the town used to be a base for the FARC (An anti-government guerilla movement).
Many Colombians consider this to be “real jungle,” unlike even Leticia. There are very few tourists in this region, and and because of the lack of development for tourism it is highly recommended you take a guided tour of the region. One major highlight include the Cerros de Mavecure (Mavecure Hills), which are an incredible destination for hiking, and a great place to go camping overnight.
This small town is only 75km away from much more known Leticia, and is known for its dark, nutrient-rich waters and abundant wildlife. One its main attractions is the church by the town’s own Santander Park, where parrots flock to each night to sleep. By paying a small donation, the nearby church will allow you to climb its steeple and watch both sunset, and the parrots as they come home.
Puerto Nariño is also a great place to learn more about Colombia’s indigenous communities. 95% of the town’s population is indigenous, and the entire town practices a more customary way of life -- there isn’t even a single car in the town!
Like the town Mitu, Guaviare is another very off-the-grid travel location, and this is because of the town’s history with political conflict. However, things are safe for the mindful traveler, and Guaviare boasts dozens of fascinating sights and wonders. For those interested in nature and wildlife, Guaviare is one of the few locations on earth that experiences a healthy red algae bloom in its rivers and lakes. This turns the water a startling pink for half of the year, and is an incredible sight to behold.
Even if you look just in the surroundings of the town, you are sure to find a wide range of flora and fauna. Peering into the water, you may see pink dolphins and caiman, and quick glance into the tree tops will reveal monkeys, toucans, and parrots... life is everywhere in Guaviare.
If you are interested in a historical tour of Colombia, or, rather, a prehistorical tour, Guaviare is also home to several caves filled with beautiful, 10,000-year-old cave drawings.
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