Why Colombia is Being Voted as Best Holiday Destination
I’ll never forget the first time that I visited Colombia.
I was going to visit the family of my then Colombian girlfriend and had absolutely no idea of what to expect. All I knew was that Colombia was the birth place of Shakira , that I always loved to watch their energetic football teams play at the World Cup, and of course that it had a ‘scary’ reputation for drug cartels and kidnappings. I confess to feeling a mixture of excited, intrigued and slightly apprehensive.
But what I experienced in that first trip blew my mind.
From arriving at the airport only to find my FULL extended Colombian family excitedly waiting there waving balloons and banners (which I’ve come to learn is a fairly typical Colombian welcome), to sampling the ridiculously tasty food that I’d never even heard of, to experiencing the beautiful landscapes for the first time and discovering all of those quirky little characteristics delightfully ingrained into the Colombian culture.
I was awestruck by the sheer diversity of the place. How we could be sitting in a super trendy bar in the heart of the surprisingly cosmopolitan Medellin, but yet within our eyesight the surrounding hills were crammed full of overpopulated slums. And how within a 1 hour drive we could be in the middle of breathtaking countryside where people still lived in fincas, wore ponchos and carried machetes in what felt like a million miles away from the pulsating city life. And with only a 1 hour flight we could be in Cartagena, or Bogota, or Santa Marta, or Cali, all of which almost feel like being in a completely different country.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that my then Colombian girlfriend would actually become my wife; I’d end up living in Colombia, and I’d become an advocate for authentic Colombian tourism. How things have changed.
But in truth, Colombia is SO DIFFERENT to many people’s stereotypical visions of the place. It’s not only about Cocaine Cartels; kidnappings aren’t a regular occurrence, and it’s not Brazil’s poor neighbour. It is however, one of the most stunning and diverse places on earth full of friendly, warm and welcoming people that can’t wait to show you their breathtakingly beautiful country and teach you how to Salsa. Remember to check out our complete guide to traveling Colombia, which includes information about where to stay, places to visit and what to do when you get there.
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Here’s Why You Should Visit Colombia
1. It’s Not What People Believe
At the risk of repeating ourselves, Colombia is not how you imagine. Thanks to TV series like Netflix Narcos, Colombia has sparked many people’s interest but often for the wrong reasons. If you’re expecting to find the remnants of Pablo Escobar – you may be in for disappointed. Sure you can take an Escobar tour but for many people, particularly in Medellin, Escobar is a chapter they’d rather put behind them.
It’s true that Colombia has battled with some pretty dark demons in the past, but underneath the grim and terrifying headlines awaits a country bursting with colourful, tasty, fun and life-changing moments waiting to be experienced.
2. It’s a Lot Safer Than You Think
Following on from our first point, Colombia is now recognised as being a safe place to travel.
We’re all familiar with the fact that Colombia has been plagued by many problems over the years, especially drug violence and a 50 year civil war, but most visitors are pleasantly surprised when they arrive to find something far removed from what they’ve heard on the news.
Back in 2016, and after many years of tense negotiations, the Colombian Government finally signed a peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla group to officially end the longest running civil war in the Western hemisphere and start a new era of peace.
And while drug trafficking definitely remains a problem (like in many other countries in South America and Asia) it tends to be contained to the more remote areas well outside the main tourist spots. Colombia is absolutely safe to visit but of course it’s always best to travel wisely and follow expert guidance on staying safe while traveling alone in Colombia. Alternatively if you’re a solo traveler there are other options if you don’t want to travel alone.
3. It’s Like Visiting 5 Countries in 1
On your first trip (and likely subsequent trips) there will be many defining moments that make you feel like there is nowhere on earth quite like it. Simply put, Colombia is epically beautiful. Or as National Geographic once said, “if earth’s biodiversity were a country, it would be called Colombia”. As the 2nd largest bio-diverse country in the world (second only to Brazil and with 10% of the earth’s overall biodiversity), its landscapes, terrains and natural beauty provide a ridiculous amount of geographical variety.
There are tropical jungles to trek, rainforests to explore, exotic beaches to discover, mountains to hike, snow-capped glaciers, vast deserts, active volcanoes, and huge metropolitan cities tucked into seriously picturesque valleys. Literally everywhere you go and everything you see feels like an epic adventure. And because of its huge biodiversity Colombia boasts an impressive amount of species. 56,000 to be exact, 9000 of which are unique to Colombia. It also has the largest variety of birds in the world.
The best part? Flying internally around Colombia is quick and cheap making it easy to experience much of it in a single trip and one of the best places to travel.
4. The Diversity of its People
Aside from the flora and fauna, the people of Colombia are themselves extremely diverse. Ethnically it’s a melting pot of people resulting from years of interactions between Native Americans, European Colonizers and African slaves. On top of that there are huge differences regionally – between the Paisas, Rolos, Costeños, Santandereanos, Vallecacucanos, Cundiboyacenses, Opitas, Chocoanos, Pastusos, Llaneros, Amazonian & Raizales just to name a few. All in there are 32 departments (states) across 5 geographic regions and each one is as unique as the last.
Colombians are well known for being ‘regionalistas’ and extremely proud of which part of the country they come from. All of this means that as you travel throughout the country you will encounter groups of people with completely different customs, traditions, foods, music and way of life.
5. Colombia is Bursting with Color
There are many things that make Colombia beyond colorful: the year round pleasant climate, the white sandy beaches, the lush mountain vegetation, the greenery of the thick rainforests, the red hot desert to name only a few. But aside from all that natural color it’s really the warmth and vibrancy of its people, architecture and food which bring it fully to life.
As you walk through the streets you’ll be surrounded by exotic fruits that cover every spectrum of the rainbow being sold by the even more colorful and characterful street vendors.
And everywhere you go you’ll find houses painted in vivid multi-color combinations providing a spectacular display of artistic expression.
6. It’s Cities are Vibrant
Colombia is host to several major cities which are positively thriving and significantly more cosmopolitan than many would imagine. They have great energy with lively atmospheres making them fantastic places to explore, hang out and enjoy great food, nightlife, and adventure.
My personal favourites are:
7. It’s Filled with Charming Little Towns
Colombia is absolutely full of these amazing little pueblos (towns) packed with so much character. If you really want to know what Colombia is all about then you need to get outside of the cities and go visit them. They are delightfully colorful, immensely quirky and it’s a bit like stepping back in time about 100 years.
If we had to pick out only a few of our favourites the list would certainly include Salento, Barichara, Villa de Leyva, Jardín, Guatapé, Santa Fe de Antioquia and Zipaquirá. In each of these you’ll get to experience the REAL Colombia where the historical traditions and rich cultures have remained well preserved over the years.
And these are only just a small selection of the many fascinating and enchanting little towns located all around Colombia. We highly recommend getting off the beaten track and taking a few days to go explore the lesser known towns where it’s easy to pass hours away just people watching and soaking up the Colombian culture.
8. The Food is Out of This World
Colombia may not be so well known internationally for its food, and likely you haven’t heard of many of its traditional dishes, but trust us when we say that you’re going to be absolutely spoiled for choice.
The homegrown cuisine is a rich blend of European and Indigenous ingredients, with minimal spice, and traditional dishes often come with a base of rice, beans, plantain, corn, avocado, arepa and a hearty soup on the side.
And it comes in all forms, from gritty street food (perfect for that 3AM snack), to traditional Colombian cafes, to high-end gastronomical experiences from some of the top chefs in the world.
Here is just some of the delicious food that you can expect.
- Traditional Food: Arepas, Buñuelos, Tamales, Lechona, Ajiaco, Bandeja Paisa, Chicharrón, Patacones, Mondongo, Sancocho
- Deserts: Mazamorra, Natilla, Arequipe & Hot Chocolate like you’ve never tasted before.
- Fruits: Pitaya, Lulo, Granadilla, Mamoncillo, Guanabana, Cherimoya, Tomate de Arbol, Uchuva, Zapote, Curuba
- Alcohol: variety of locally produced craft beer, Colombian rum and most importantly Aguardiente – the local firewater that you’ll find everywhere you go.
If you’re an adventurous foodie you’re going to love it, and be warned, you may just find yourself with an Arepa addiction!
9. The Locals Are Super Welcoming
In contrast to many other places around the world like Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik and Santorini all of which are struggling to cope with the demands of mass tourism – and quite rightly coming up with active measures to combat it – the Colombian government are currently making a huge effort to promote tourism within their country and are super enthusiastic to receive visitors.
Many people regard Colombia as one of the most welcoming places in the world. A report from the BBC said, ‘The Colombian people are eager to show their country in a positive light and are very receptive and hospitable towards newcomers,’
In my personal experience it’s not uncommon to walk through the streets in places like Medellin and Bogota and have people come up to you and say “welcome to my country” and you can see genuine delight on their face that you’ve chosen to come and visit.
10. Colombians Are a Happy Bunch
It may sound counterintuitive but Colombia often tops the list of happiest people in the world.
Despite all of their previous problems you won’t find the locals wallowing in self pity or admitting defeat. Instead you can expect to find them pushing through, fighting for justice, fighting for change, and getting on with making the best out of their lives.
Family connections are strong, there is a great sense of community, and people generally go out of their way to help each other. They are an extremely proud nation whose love of their country is quite possibly only matched by love of their music, food and of course favourite football team!
11. Colombians Love to Party
With more pubic holidays than almost everywhere in the world, Colombians know exactly how the kick back and chill. Actually, scrap that. They know exactly how to throw the biggest and best parties. Think cerveza, rum, salsa, great music, awesome dancing, beats, color, food, community and that’s your typical street party/festival in Colombia. Not only do locals know how to enjoy themselves but they’ll make sure that you’re every bit as involved too ( no watching from the sidelines here). I know I’ve already mentioned this but they are a welcoming bunch.
Colombian’s enjoy a lively nightlife which is very much centred around dancing. Locals learn to dance from a young age and seem to have an almost inbuilt natural rhythm (which sadly Scotsmen like myself simply don’t)! Most cities have a ‘zona rosa’ where the liveliest action can be found typically stretching through the night until about 5/6am on weekends. Here you can expect to find everything from laid back taverns, hot and sweaty salsa bars, grungy rock bars, hipster warehouse parties, to chic and sophisticated nightclubs filled with the rich and beautiful.
12. There’s an Abundance of Awesome Festivals
That’s right. Colombia has a ridiculous number of festivals, many of them well worth making the trip alone just to experience their awesomeness. Here’s just a few of my favourites:
- Carnival of Blacks and Whites – Pasto (January)
This delightful carnival takes place in the first week of January in the much less traveled south west of Colombia with the objective of ‘expression of desire for tolerance and respect’. It includes colorful dancers, traditional music and gigantic circus like figures parading through the streets, culminating in the final 2 days where locals paint their face black 1 day and white the next (to symbolise equality and integration in this massively multicultural country). This carnival is so special that since 2009 it has been proclaimed by UNESCO as one of the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
- Barranquilla Carnival – Barranquilla (February)
Think Rio Carnival but less commercialised, less touristy and with a Caribbean twist! For what is proclaimed as the 2nd largest carnival in the World the whole city of Barranquilla shuts down for 4 days of non-stop partying. During this festival that the people of Barranquilla have even managed to get two extra days of public holiday. The festival’s slogan is ‘Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza’, which translates to ‘those who live it are those who enjoy it’ – and it has also been recognised by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Event since 2003.
- Iberoamericano Theatre Festival – Bogota (March / April)
The largest performing arts festival in the world is held every 2 years over 17-days in Colombia’s bustling capital. The worlds most important theatre companies congregate to give the most exquisite performances and the city becomes awash with street theatre, concerts, dance and circus.
- Flower Festival – Medellin (August)
Starting in 1957, the Flower Festival has become known as the most important social event for the people of Medellin. The 10 day event, famous for its parties, gatherings and cultural activities attracts people from all over Colombia and from around the world. For many visitors it’s a chance to experience a traditional Colombian event, which typically starts during the first two weeks in August and culminates in the Desfile de Silleteros, where the local flower makers from the nearby pueblo of Santa Elena parade through the city with a colorful array of flowers on their back – hence its name.
- Cali Festival – Cali (December)
Cali is famed internationally for being the salsa capital of the world and every year between Christmas and New Year the city throws its biggest party. The festival celebrates the region’s cultural identity and is a wild combination of salsa marathons, horse rides, bull fights, dance parties, food festivals and more.
- Festival of Lights – Medellin (December)
If you’re a fan of Christmas then get ready for a Christmas experience that is out of this world. To officially kick off the festive period the people of Medellin adorn almost everything in bright neon lights. From important building, public squares, river walks, treetops to iconic hillsides and lookouts, almost no place is left untouched and it looks spectacular. Medellin does Christmas like nowhere else.
These are just a few of my personal favourite festivals in Colombia but be aware that in Colombia there are more festivals than days of the year and so it’s well worth reading some of the other great info out there on Colombia’s best music festivals, cultural festivals and music.
13. It’s Packed with Awe Inspiring Natural Wonders
Did we mention that Colombia is stacked with natural beautiful? Hidden within Colombia’s borders are some of the world’s most breathtaking natural wonders which, again because of its problematic history, remain relatively unknown to the wider world.
There are way too many places of list individually but here are some that you absolutely must see:
- La Piedra del Penol: a massive 10 million ton rock rising 650 feet high out of the ground to reveal stunning views over the breathtaking Guatape reservoir.
- Cocura Valley: home to the tallest palm trees in the world, a lush green mountain valley filled with long, thin, wax palm trees reaching up through the clouds some to almost 200 feet high.
- La Guajira Desert: where deep red desert meets the turquoise caribbean sea to provide a breathtaking contrast in color.
- Caño Cristales: known locally as “liquid rainbow” or “the river of 5 colors” the river has a unique algae bloom which turns it into a kaleidoscope of colors.
- Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City”): a lost city (to rival Machu Pichu) hidden deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta which was only rediscovered in the 1970s. The only way to get there is by doing the 4-day hike.
- Tayrona National Park: a breathtaking national park spoiled with tropical jungles, pristine beaches and hidden indigenous villages.
Many of Colombia’s places of natural beauty remain virtually undiscovered not just by foreigners but even by its own people. Many were located in no-go zones and so it’s only now that Colombians are starting to fully discover the magical places that they’ve heard about for so long. When the 2015 documentary “Colombia: Magia Salvaje (Wild Magic)” was released within Colombia to showcase the country’s natural beauty it broke all box office records.
14. It’s the Epicentre of Latino Music
Music is in Colombia’s DNA and the true soul of the country can be found through its music. The sheer variety on offer is impressive.
Colombia has a huge influence on the Latin music scene worldwide and are regarded by many other countries within the region as being some of the best dancers around. Some of the most popular types of music in Colombia are Salsa, Vallenato, Cumbia, Reggaeton, Merengue, Porro, Champeta & Bachata, each having their own distinct flavor, rhythm and sound.
Cali is renowned for being the the ‘salsa capital of the world’, and Medellin is fast becoming the place to be for reggaeton (which was originally born in Puerto Rico). Many of today’s biggest hits are being created within the city and a booming industry is emerging around filming the hottest reggaeton music videos there.
As you travel throughout Colombia you’ll no doubt hear the streets filled with music all around and you’ll almost certainly leave with a love for a whole new genre of music you never even knew existed.
15. It’s Quickly Growing in Popularity
16. Your Money Will Go Far
Let’s face it, we all want to ensure that our hard earned money will stretch as far as possible, and there’s nothing better than getting a good vacation deal. Well you’re in luck. Colombia is currently a cheap place to travel and so you can expect to get a lot of ‘bang for your buck’.
For food, accommodation and transport you can expect to pay around half of what you’d pay for the same quality in Europe or North America. Bonus!
17. You Can Still Experience it Authentically (for now)!
Due to its historical issues, tourists have largely stayed away from Colombia meaning it’s one of the last places in the world that remains relatively ‘untouched’ by mass tourism. Therefore at this point you can still experience it in all it’s authentic glory and see what it’s like before globalisation fully hits.
Yes, you will definitely find other travelers there but it hasn’t yet reached that point where you’ll be surrounded by tourists and even in the more popular tourist spots (like Cartagena) you don’t have to look far to find real life Colombia. But that is changing quickly and tourism is starting to take off big time. It has increased by 300% in the last 10 years alone and is growing exponentially.
Therefore if you want to experience the real Colombia, I say the best time to visit is NOW!
What Are You Waiting For?
For many years Colombia has struggled with a bad reputation as a place only of war, crime and cocaine. But as the country slows re-emerges from its dark past many are being enlightened by everything it truly has to offer beyond this rather shallow label.
It’s true, going to Colombia won’t be your average holiday. Because we think there is no place in the world that can quite match its combination of vast diversity, stunning and colorful scenery, inherent charm, sense of adventure, delicious food and energetic cities – making it one of the best holiday destinations.
We’d recommend going now before too many people catch on. While Colombia doesn’t yet feature on the radars of the masses you’ll be able to witness a delightful and welcoming country unchanged by mass tourism, where your money goes far. And remember, if you want to experience the REAL and authentic Colombia that we know and love then go check out our tour offers.
Alternatively if you have any questions about Colombia then drop us a comment or an email.
We could literally talk about Colombia all day long.
Want to see an OWR trip in action? Then check out this blog from a recent trip: An Immersive 2 Weeks in Colombia with Other Way Round.