By Alison Browne
More and more travelers are heading to Colombia as the word gets out that this country is ripe for exploring and offers a plethora of diverse experiences. Colombia’s landscapes range from an unspoiled Caribbean coastline to tropical rainforests to the soaring Andes.
Interested in city life or small colonial towns? Colombia has both. Love music and dancing? Colombians are always moving to the beat! This country, sitting at the equator, will make its way into your heart, and before you leave you will be planning your return journey.
Here are seven experiences that will have you adding Colombia to your bucket list.
1. Ride A Willys Jeep To The Cocora Valley
In Salento, Colombia, colorful Willys jeeps line the main square. These old jeeps from WWII are a common sight in the coffee triangle. Often, burlap sacks bursting with coffee beans are stacked high in the jeeps along with bunches of plantains and other cargo. They are also used as taxis for transporting visitors out to the Cocora Valley.
Sit up front in the Willys jeep or stand at the back. Your grin will say it all as you rumble past verdant green landscapes on the route from Salento to the Cocora Valley.
The Cocora Valley is famous for wax palm trees (palmas de cera) that stretch skyward against a backdrop of mountains. Colombia’s national tree is the tallest palm tree in the world. When you arrive in the valley, choose which hike suits you. A short hike along the road takes you straight to the palmas de cera. Alternately, plan your day around the longer three-hour hike that takes you through grassland and cloud forest and on to the wax palm trees.
Pro Tip: On the longer hike, the optional trail up to see the hummingbirds is very steep, but awaiting you at the top is a family run business serving hot chocolate and locally made cheese. Take a well-deserved break to admire the stunning views and the variety of colorful hummingbirds.
2. Sip Coffee In The Zona Cafetera
You’re in Colombia, the land of coffee. Colombia is known worldwide for its coffee production, so sipping Colombian coffee at its source is a highlight. The Zona Cafetera, the coffee triangle, is full of fincas (coffee farms) that are open to tourism. From Salento, take a Willys jeep through breathtaking landscapes to the coffee farms that hug the steep slopes of the mountains. Take a guided tour to see how coffee is produced. Grab a woven basket and pick some coffee beans. Best of all, sip a cup of java made from the coffee plants you have just wandered past. Leave room in your suitcase to bring home Colombian coffee directly from the farm!
Pro Tip: Don Elias Organic Farm offers an excellent guided tour.
If you feel like a second cup of coffee, head to Cafe Jesus Martin in Salento. This trendy little cafe serves the perfect cup of espresso.
3. Step Back In Time In Jardin
Sometimes the best experiences are a little off the beaten path. The small town of Jardin, Colombia, situated amidst the Andes mountains, is a four-hour bus ride from Medellin. The setting alone is jaw-dropping. But what makes this a bucket-list experience? The streets are lined with brightly painted facades. Blue. Green. Pink. The colors spill into the main square where the massive Catholic basilica with its gleaming aluminum spires should be the main attraction. But instead, the colorful wooden tables and chairs that fill the plaza invite you to have a seat and watch as life in Jardin unfolds.
Buy some freshly cut juicy mangoes and watch as the men wander into the square, ponchos slung over their shoulders, sporting sombreros. Life is lived at a slower pace here.
Listen for the clip-clop of the horses as they arrive in the evening. Farmers from the surrounding countryside ride their prancing horses into town for a drink, and before you know it, horses line the edge of the plaza.
4. Go Birdwatching In Minca
Minca, Colombia, is a tiny town nestled in the Sierra Nevada above Santa Marta. The Sierra Nevada offers hiking and mountain biking opportunities, but the chance to see brightly colored toucans is the real bucket-list experience. Colombia is an incredibly biodiverse country, and here in the Sierra Nevada, there are 300 species of birds. Join up with Jungle Joe Minca Adventures on an early morning walking tour. The birdsongs and sightings will have you smiling, even if you are not a twitcher!
Pro Tip: If you don’t mind a solid 10-minute climb uphill, stay in the hostel Casa Loma. There are private thatched-roof huts (with shared bathrooms) and a bar area looking out over the mountains. The sunset is outstanding. Dinner at the long, communal tables is the perfect way to meet people of all ages.
5. Witness Transformation Firsthand In Comuna 13
Comuna 13 in Medellin was once known as the most violent neighborhood in the most dangerous city in the world. This neighborhood, with its warren of streets and homes stacked upon each other, was witness to incredible violence. Kidnappings, extortion, and unexplained disappearances were the norm as gangs vied for power. This was “normal life” in Comuna 13 for years. Finally, in 2002, the government led an operation targeting Comuna 13 to rid it of its underground leaders.
Since 2002, Comuna 13 has been on a path to recovery and creating a safe community. Creativity is one way that the community has come together. Hip hop dancers grace the streets and street art covers the buildings. Each vibrant artistic creation holds a deep meaning, recounting the stories of Comuna 13 and its journey from darkness into more peaceful times.
Visit Comuna 13 to gain an understanding of Colombia and Medellin’s turbulent history.
Pro Tip: Take a walking tour with Free Zippy Walking Tour. The guides all live in Comuna 13 and provide a firsthand account of life here now and how it was in the past.
6. Explore Cartagena’s Old Town
Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is Colombia’s gem sitting on the Caribbean Sea. It is a treasure to explore. Tiny streets are laden in cascading blooms and horses and buggies clatter along cobblestoned laneways. An ancient fortified wall, brightly colored facades, preserved colonial buildings, stunning churches, and shady plazas make it the perfect place to wander. No map required. Amble and marvel at this historic city that was founded in the 16th century.
Pro Tip: Sunset at Cafe del Mar is a highlight. Situated on the fortified wall, have a drink or dinner and watch the sun sink below the horizon
7. Listen To Local Music In Getsemani
Getsemani sits outside the fortified walls of Old Town Cartagena. Cross the park, Parque del Centenario, pausing to search for sloths hiding in the trees as you venture over to Getsemani. Less busy than the old town, there is a feeling of authenticity in Getsemani. Locals live here, men play board games in the streets, and each little cobbled lane is waiting to be explored. In the evening, head to the tucked away Plazaleta del Pozo, where furniture is refinished during the day, but at nighttime, it becomes a busy restaurant scene where local music fills the airwaves and the plaza hums with a lovely mix of locals and foreign visitors.