A list of the top 10 things to do in Colombia, from the colonial city of Cartagena to Medellin – the ex-murder capital of the world.

Top 10 things to do in Colombia

1. Cartagena’s Old Town: Colonial architecture, picturesque window boxes and colourful streets awash with art define Old Town Cartagena. The Caribbean coastal city is full of charming cobbled streets, a wide choice of restaurants and a relaxed atmosphere that makes the city feel more chilled European than zesty Colombian. Once the sun goes down, however, the town comes alive with street performers and the famed Latin-American nightlife.

2. Piedra del Peñol at Guatape: This is the best day trip in the country and one of the best things to do in Colombia. The quaint, colourful town of Guatape is the gateway to La Piedra Del Peñol, a large wall of rock which resembles Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf Mountain.

The rock’s 200-metre summit offers outstanding views across a unique landscape of interconnecting lakes. However, those views don’t come easy as there are 740 steps up the winding stone staircase and the searing Colombian sun won’t aid your ascent.

3. Medellin: In 1991, there were 17 murders every day in Medellin, making it the murder capital of the world. The hunting ground of notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, Medellin was rife with violent crime and corruption. 

Of course, ‘was’ is the operative word here. Since the days of Escobar, Medellin has undergone a renaissance. From engaging art on Botero Plaza to trendy cafes on El Poblado, Medellin has flowered into a vibrant, thriving city with interesting culture and a colourful history.

4. Tayrona National Park: One of Colombia’s most popular national parks, Tayrona hugs the Caribbean coast and boasts the La Ciudad Perdida trek – the best the country has to offer. Although not quite as dramatic as Peru’s Machu Picchu, La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), does pre-date the Incan site.

If you don’t fancy the sticky three to five-day hike, then lounging on the gorgeous beaches set amid deep bays and coconut palms is a less strenuous option.

5. San Agustín Archaeological Park: The mythical funny faces of San Agustín can be found in a sleepy little town buried in the rolling green hills of the south-west. The town isn’t quite as charming as Guatape but makes up for it with Colombia’s finest archaeological park. 

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Parque Arqueológico is home to over a hundred 3,300-year-old statues carved from stone by the area’s famous pre-Hispanic masons.

6. Salento and the Cocora Valley: In the heart of Zona Cafetera (coffee country) is Salento. Set amid luscious green mountains, the small town survives on coffee production, trout farming and, increasingly, tourism.

The main draws are the town’s quaint streets, traditional paisa architecture and its proximity to the surreal and striking Valle de Cocora. Homestays on the surrounding coffee haciendas can be easily arranged from here.

7. Diving at Taganga fishing village: The lively and budget-friendly fishing village of Taganga is not as pristine as it used to be, but its pretty setting on the side of a mountain gives the town an almost Mediterranean feel.

The real draw is the easy access to the Ciudad Perdida hike, Tayrona National Park and ample affordable watersports. Some of the best diving in South America is available here in very agreeable water temperatures.

8. Reserva Natural Cañon de Río Claro: If you’re looking for some above-water adventure, then caving, kayaking, white-water rafting, canopying, hiking and swimming are all available at this stunning natural feature.

The Río Claro Canyon was carved from its marble bed by this dramatic and fast-flowing river. It’s also an excellent spot for bird-watching with opportunities to spot hummingbirds, heron and vultures among others.

9. Santa Marta: Founded in 1525, Santa Marta is Colombia’s oldest city. Unfortunately, much of the town’s colonial heritage was swept away by English and Dutch pirates. Today, the city is geared towards middle-class Colombians on holiday and backpackers looking for access to Tayrona, Taganga and the Ciudad Perdida. The city boasts bustling narrow streets and pretty squares lined with vibrant restaurants and bars. There is also a small beach and an attractive international marina.

10. Museo del Oro, Bogotá: With all the things to do in Colombia, the country’s capital of Bogotá does not have much to offer. However, most visitors will have to pass through, so should use the opportunity to visit one of South America’s most fascinating museums. 

The gold museum is Bogotá’s best asset and contains more than 55,000 pieces of gold and other materials from the major pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. There are free one-hour tours on Tuesdays to Saturdays (in Spanish and English), and audio guides are available in Spanish, English and French.

Lonely Planet Colombia covers all the top things to do in Colombia and includes colour maps and images throughout, highlights and itineraries, insider tips, essential information and over 50 local maps.

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Lead image: Dreamstime