Popular Destinations in Colombia – Tourist Traps or Mandatory Stops?

There are dozens of lists on the web of tourist destinations in Colombia. Most of these lists are redundant outlining the most popular destinations nearly every tourists visits when traveling to, or through, Colombia. But are these must-see destinations tourist traps deserving of your precious time and hard-earned money?

What’s the difference? Tourist destinations are popular places, cities or sites heavily dependent on revenues from tourism. They market themselves as places tourists absolutely must visit when they come to the country.  A tourist trap carries an obvious negative connotation. According to Webster, tourist traps are ‘places that attract and sometimes exploit tourists for their money’. Every traveler has visited a few of these in their lifetime.  

Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Florence, Rome, Venice, New York, the Acropolis in Greece, Disneyland, Phuket Beach in Thailand – all valid destinations, to be sure. These are places on everyone’s bucket list. But they have also been called tourist traps. And depending on the time of year you go; they will be overrun with tourists. (Niagara Falls in the summer months is a definite tourist trap. But in the dead of winter it’s magical with hotels deeply discounted and hardly a tourist in sight.)

While most people come to South American expecting an exotic, natural, untraveled experience they often find themselves at renown destinations, like Machu Picchu, sharing the sights with hundreds of other camera wielding tourists suffering altitude sickness.

The traveler’s dilemma is this: to avoid these destinations or join the masses and go anyway.  At its best tourism is an industry providing jobs and revenue for millions of people. At its worst, tourism strains neighborhoods and eco-systems.

Colombia Destinations – the 16 Places Everybody Visits:

Colombia is developing its tourism industry. Being a large country, it has countless destinations of interest – most of them undiscovered by foreign tourism. Some say, the current, total volume of tourists in any one place in Colombia is still too little to be able to define them as tourist traps. But travelers in Colombia are continually visiting the same 16 destinations – ignoring the less illustrious sites. And the seasoned Latin America travelers say many of these top destinations are becoming, or already are, tourist traps.

Below is the standard list of Colombian destinations: cities, beaches, parks, villages and churches. If you have been reading about Colombia, you’ve seen this list before. All valid destinations. And if you visit Colombia just once, or several times in a lifetime, these are highly regarded places you should and will see. But these places are also tourist traps, especially during Colombian holidays. You have to know when to go.

These destinations are seeing more than their fair share of tourism. Overtourism is the technical term. But are they becoming or are they already tourist traps? Are they overrated? Are they worth your time and money? And are there some alternative destinations one could be visiting instead?

The Cities:

  • Cartagena
  • Medellin (Guatape)
  • Bogota (Candellaria – Monserrate)
Historic center of Cartagena

Cartagena

is a vibrant port city where cruise ships dock. It has a beautiful historic center and is the #1 tourist destination in Colombia. The city has the feel of a touristy city in Spain. The city within the walls – also called the inner city – or El Centro, was where the high officials and nobility originally lived. You can easily walk most of its narrow streets strolling around this area in a half day.  (see full article)

Tourism Saturation: Very high – especially in the historic center in the a.m. when the cruise ships disembark their passengers from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. Also high in the Getsemani neighborhood and the nearby Islas del Rosario.

Difficulty: Easy city to get to by international flight, bus, or cruise ship. The city center is small and contained. The climate is very hot.

Off the beaten path alternative cities to visit on the Carribean: Isla Fuerte near Cartagena, Santa Marta or even Riohacha.

Worth it? Definitely merits a visit of a couple days. Many stay a week.  Fly into Cartagena and after a couple days try meandering up the coast to Santa Marta or, for the more adventurous, Capurgana near the Panamanian border.

Tourist Trap? Yes, always.

Plaza Botero – Medellin

Medellin

A dynamic, contemporary, prosperous city of 2.6 million people it’s known as the land of the eternal spring. It’s hot during the day and cool at night. The residents call themselves Paisas. The city is easy to travel thanks to an excellent metro system and cable cars. There are plenty of restaurants, museums and enough things to see and do to easily fill a week.  (see full articles: ‘Medellin: the land of eternal spring’ and ‘Traveling Medellin: Places to visit around Medellin’)

Tourist Saturation: High in the center and in the neighborhoods of El Poblado and Laureles.

Difficulty: Easy to get to by international flight or bus. A centrally located, easy city to visit in Colombia.

Off the beaten path Alternate Cities in the lower altitude mountains: Bucaramanga, Cali

Worth it? Definitely worth the visit of a few days. Medellin is the favorite city of many expats, snowbirds and travelers. Check out the sights around Medellin like Guatape, Santa Fe or small towns in the coffee zone south of the city – Jerico, Jardin and Aguadas.  See articles: Things to do Around Medellin. Also Alternative Coffee Zones

Tourist Trap? On its way to be becoming one

Playing chess on Cra. 7 in Bogota

Bogota

People are divided when it comes to Colombia’s capital city of Bogota: they either love it or they hate it. A large cosmopolitan city of 8 million people sitting at an altitude of 8,660 feet, it has a cool climate throughout the year. Colombians call Bogota “the refrigerator of Colombia”.  Overcast and often rainy, Bogota is the third-highest capital in South America, and the world, after Quito and La Paz. It’s known for its museums, nightlife and fine food. (see full article)

Tourism Saturation: medium/high in the center, at the main museums and in the neighborhood of Candelaria

Difficulty: It’s a large cosmopolitan city with extensive urban sprawl. Easy to get to by international flight or bus, centrally located in Colombia.

Off the beaten path Alternative Cities high in the mountains: Popayan, Pasto, Medellin

Worth it? If you like big cities, Bogota has a big city vibe and all the trimmings. Spend a few days in the city and then venture out to see the many sights just outside the city: Villa de Leyva, Zipaquira (the church in a salt mine), Lake Guatavita, Honda

Tourist Trap? The city is too big to really notice

The Beaches:

  • Tayrona Park
  • Palomino
  • San Andres
Beach at Tayrona Park

Tayrona Park

The park is a tropical paradise. It’s just a 45-minute bus ride outside of Santa Marta. It’s so close one can, and maybe should, keep a hotel room in SM and go visit the park during day. Accommodations in the park are few, pricey and mostly kept for people on tours. There’s a $18 entrance fee to the park which has seen prices sky rocket in the last 10 years as the park has become a destination.

Tayrona, is known for its palm-shaded coves, coastal lagoons and rain forest. From the park entrance one must walk to the numerous beaches located within in the park. The beaches at the entrance of the park get the most visitors. More isolated , distant beaches, harder to get to – up to a 3-4 hour walk each way can be reached either on foot or by motor boats leaving from Neguanje Bay in the park.

Tourism Saturation: High

Difficulty: Just a short bus ride from the city of Santa Marta. The beach is usually closed for a month for maintenance in February so check first.

Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Beaches around Santa MartaPlaya Blanca, Buritaca

Worth it? Yes, if you like pristine, undeveloped beaches in a park setting.  Tayrona is not the easiest beach to get to or the most accommodating.

Tourist Trap? Yes

Palomino beach

Palomino

I like Palomino Beach, but I used to like iteven more, before it became a destination. Palomino is a little village, catering mostly to the independent tourists with a beautiful beach 10 miles long.  South of town, where the Palomino river empties into the ocean, a long spit of sand offers an ideal option of fresh and salt water bathing along with food tents serving up fresh fish dishes.

Tourism Saturation: I was in Palomino two years ago when the town was just another dusty, sleepy pueblo. But somewhere between then and now it became a backpacker stop. The sheer number of tourists has increased embracing a younger crowd. The town seems to be straining under the volume of tourists while all the residents are trying to cash in on their new cottage industry.

Difficulty: The beach is two hours bus ride north of Santa Marta.  One must walk about a half-mile to the beach or rent a motorcycle from the main highway.

Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Try the Pacific Coast just south of the town of Bahia Solano there are beautiful, desolate beaches near the town of El Valle – Playa Almejal and Playa Cuevita. Great waves, bare-bone services – hardly discovered by tourism.

Worth it? If you’re looking for a party beach with a young vibe, yes.  If you want peace, quiet, there are resorts further up the beach, though a bit pricey, offering a more secluded experience.

Tourist Trap? Yes

San Andres Island

San Andres Island

is 350 miles off the coast of Colombia and is actually closer to the mainland of Nicaragua. The island combines the diverse cultures of English, Africans, Spaniards and pirates. Visitors first spot the island’s famous sea of seven colors from the airplane. Full of white sand beaches the island is surrounded by coral reefs. During the day one can beach comb, sun bathe, dive and snorkel in the coral reefs or go shopping at the duty-free stores.  At night the island comes alive with music beats of reggae, calypso and salsa.

Tourism Saturation: San Andres if very popular with Colombian tourists with a lot of package deals being peddled all over Colombia. San Andres is probably the most famous beach/island destination in the country. It’s especially crowded during the Colombian holidays of Semana Santa (the week before Easter) and during the Christmas holidays

Difficulty: One has to fly in, but the island is quite developed.

Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Providencia Islands, also called Old Providence, lies 40 miles to the north of San Andres. It’s more remote and less visited. The Gorgona Islands, a former penal colony and protected ecological area, lie in southern Colombia’s Pacific.

Worth it?  If you like islands and beaches and mingling with Colombians in party mode, then yes. But islands are always more expensive than beaches on the mainland.

Tourist Trap? Yes

The Parks:

  • San Agustin
  • The Coffee Zone (Salento – Cocora Valley)
  • Ciudad Perdida
  • La Guajira
  • Cano Cristales
A devilish statue in the park at San Agustin

San Agustin

is a pleasant country village in southern Colombia where one can explore the country’s finest archeological patrimony immersed in a beautiful rural landscape. People have been inhabiting this steep terrain for 6,000 years. These tombs and statues were created around 3,300 B.C. – about the time they were building the pyramids in Egypt and well before the Incas, whose civilization arose in the 13th century and was thriving when Columbus discovered the Americas.

In visiting San Agustin and its surroundings, one should allow at least three nights and two full days. One day to visit the town and the archeological park ‘Bosque de las Estatuas’ which lies just a 40-minute walk outside of town. And another day for a long jeep tour to the outlying archaeological sites – Alto de los Idolos, Alto de las Piedras and the Museum of Obando. The jeep tour (which costs around $10-$15 per person) passes through an incredible landscape of mountains, gorges, coffee and sugar cane farms. It stops at the beautiful waterfalls of Alto di Bordones and Salto di Mortino, and at the head of the Rio Magdalena. (see full article)

Tourism Saturation: High in the town, especially during Colombian holidays; medium at the archeological sites.

Difficulty:  Moderate. It takes a little travel time to get there by bus. The nearest airport is Garzon 46 miles (75 km.) away – national flights only. One can arrive at San Agustin by way of Cali and Popayan. It’s a grueling 5-hour bus trip from Popayan which goes over the Cordillera Occidental mountains into the paramo through the National Park of Purace. Or a 7-8 hour trip from Bogota by bus to the city of Neiva then onto San Agustin.

Off the Beaten Path Alternative: Tierradentro is a park just a few hours north of San Agustin. Only a fraction of the tourists who visit San Agustin make it to Tierradentro which I think offers the better Indiana Jones experience.  Tierradentro has 162 subterranean tombs located in 4 different sites dating back to the 6th to 9th centuries A.D.

Worth it? Yes – especially if you like archeology.  And the countryside is stunning.

Tourist Trap? Only during long Colombian holidays

Coffee beans drying on a farmer’s rooftop in the sun

The Coffee Zone

A visit to Colombia’s coffee region in the last 15 years meant a trip to an area known as the ‘coffee triangle’ or the ‘coffee axis’. Located between the cities of Manizales, Armenia and Perieria, this coffee country destination has been a very successful tourism/ marketing campaign launched by several adjoining regions in southwest Colombia.

Here they say the best coffee in the world is produced. A rather heated point of contention because every city and region in Colombia claims to produce, not only the country’s best coffee, but also the most beautiful women.

Foreign tourists, visiting Colombia with limited time constraints, have been flocking to this area in droves. Colombia = Coffee and the coffee triangle has been an attractive place learn about it. Here they: stay on a coffee farm ~ visit coffee roasting facilities ~ tour a handful of villages ~ go to the National Coffee Park near Montenegro ~ visit Salento ~ go to the Valley of Cocora Park to see the wax palm trees ~ buy some souvenirs ~ fly home.

Granted, it’s a great trip, and the agricultural tourism has greatly assisted the town merchants and farmers. The area is beautiful and well-run and the whole thing sells like mojitos on the beach. (see full article)

Tourism Saturation: High especially in the town of Salento, medium in the Cocora Valley National Park

Difficulty: One can fly into Armenia, Manizales or Perieria from Bogota or Medellin. If you have a couple days to spare take a bus and enjoy the countryside.

Off the Beaten Path Alternative: There’s coffee farms and regions all over Colombia. My favorite coffee area is just north of the coffee triangle, containing the quaint and colorful villages of Jardin, Jerico, Aguadas and Salamina.  This area is more beautiful and much less expensive. These villages, are all located within a 2-6-hour trip south of Medellin (a couple hours north of Manizales), could easily be worked around a trip visiting Medellin or a larger trip visiting the towns and sights of ‘the coffee triangle’.

Worth it: Yes, the countryside is beautiful

Tourist Trap? Yes

Ciudad Perdida

Ciudad Perdida (the lost city)

Ciudad Perdida disappeared into the jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta during the Spanish conquest. The stone city dates back to the year 800, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu and was only discovered in the 1970s. Visiting the lost city is only accessible on foot and is one of Colombia’s most exciting and breathtaking hikes.  It takes 5 days to complete the hike. Price: round trip costs $500 per person with a guide and rudimentary lodging and meals. This is one of Colombia’s most popular hikes and you will see people of all ages and fitness levels completing it.

Tourism Saturation: Medium/low due to it remote accessibility and price.

Difficulty: High. Required 5-6 hours of hiking a day for 5 days in a row, coping with rain, mud, bugs, heat and few amenities. One can fly into the closest city of Santa Marta. Most trips leave from the village of El Mamey – a 90 minute ride from Santa Marta.

Off the Beaten Path Alternative:  Tierradentro; San Jose de Guaviare – the rock paintings of Cerro Azul

Worth it: Yes – if you got the legs for it and are o.k. with the spartan-like accommodations.

Tourist Trap? Not yet

A beach on the desert coast of La Guajira

La Guajira

One of the strangest and most spectacular spots in South American is located at the northern most point of South American in the Guajira peninsula which is a reserve for the Wayuu – a Colombian indigenous tribe. Bordering Venezuela, it’s one of most visually stunning places on earth where bare, wild desert landscape meets the blue turquoise of the Atlantic. (see full article)

Tourism Saturation: medium/low – the major attraction is the village of Cabo de la Vela which is the destination of the shortest 2-day trip. The 3-day trip goes to Punta Gallina and points beyond.

Difficulty: You have to hire a guide with a jeep and go with a small group.  The tour varies from 2-3 days at a price of $150 – $200 per person. You ride in jeeps over rough, desert terrain, sleep in hammocks and eat fish for 3 days. There is an airport in the city Riohacha where most of the tours originate.

Off the Beaten Path Alternative: Bahia Solano, Nuqui and the beaches on the Pacific.

Worth it? Yes, if you are o.k. with spartan accommodations for a few days.

Tourist Trap? Over-tourism is a reality

Cano Cristales

Cano Cristales

Caño Cristales is a Colombian river located in the Amazon jungle. A tributary of the Guayabero River, the river is commonly called the “River of Five Colors” or the “Liquid Rainbow”. For six months of the year, Caño Cristales looks like any other river. But from about the end of June to the end of Novembere the river comes alive with red, green, yellow, blue and black hues due to the presence of an aquatic  plant called macarenia clavigera.

There is no lodging or camping available at Caño Cristales. So visitors must stay in the frontier town of La Macarena, pop.  30,000.The best way to get there is by air.

To enter the Cano Cristales national park, you must be accompanied by a guide from a tour company. A maximum of 200 visitors are allowed into the park per day. Entrance fee to the park is $30 per person.

By Air: tour agencies offer package deals to the park. Fly in from Bogota and Villavicencio. The plans start at $300 for a 3 night stay not including airfare up to $700 per person for a 4 night stay including airfare to and from Medellin.  

Tourism Saturation: High during the season – June-November , especially weekends and holidays.

Difficulty: By land: from Nieva to Villavicencio to San Jose de Guaviare it’s a 20-hour bus trip best divided into 2-3 days. The final leg of the trip from San José del Guaviare to La Macarena is done by air or boat and is the most expensive. It’s a 5-hour trip on the Guayabero river or an 8-hour trip in a jeep over dirt roads through the jungle.

Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: The rivers of Tranquilandia, Cano Rosado and Cano Sabanas, near San Jose de Guaviare, also succumb to the rainbow effect June-November. While smaller than the Guayabero River they are less controlled, easier to access and much cheaper to get to.

Worth it? Canos Cristales is at its peak from the end of June till the end of November while most foreign tourists visit Colombia December – April. It’s a long, pricey trip. But any excuse for immersion in the Amazon jungle is a good one.

Tourist Trap: Yes, during Colombian holidays

The Villages:

  • Villa de Leyva
  • San Gil (Barichara)
  • Mompox
Plaza Major Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva

 is considered the most beautiful village in Colombia. And being within a three-hour trip of Bogota, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited villages in Colombia.

Declared a national monument, the town boasts an impressively preserved main square, Plaza Major, the biggest and the most beautiful cobble-stoned square in Colombia. The town of 13,000 inhabitants is a tourist mecca with 320 hotels, 380 restaurants and 170 stores. It is also the second most expensive city in Colombia – after Cartagena.

Tourism Saturation: High especially on weekends and Colombian holidays.

Difficulty: An easy trip by bus from Bogota or Bucaramanga in the north. Fly into Bogota.

Off the Beaten Path Alternatives:  The Spanish colonial villages of: Mongui, Barichara, Pamplona, Playa de Belen

Worth it? Yes. Plaza Major alone is worth the experience but only if you’re in Bogota or on your way south from San Gil. Otherwise it would be hard to justify a special trip just to see Villa de Leyva.

Tourist Trap? Yes

San Gil

has been nicknamed the extreme sports adventure capital of Colombia. Located between two rivers the town is larger town than expected but laid back. Here there are plenty of hotels and restaurants. The town’s main park, Parque Principal, is a nice place to sit and soak in the energy of the town.

This is this the place in Colombia for adventure-seeking, travelers. People put up with all night bus trips just from Bogota or Medellin just to get here. If you’re an adrenaline junkie and have adventure sports on your bucket list, this is your Colombian destination! Sports like river rafting, caving, rappelling, bungee jumping and paragliding are available for just a fraction of what it would cost you back home. San Gil is even cheaper than other South American adventure destinations like Banos in Ecuador.

Tourism Saturation: Moderate/high. The nearby colonial town of Barichara also sees a lot of tourism.

Difficulty: There is an airport at Palonegro a 40 mile (63 km.) from San Gil. From the Bucaramanga bus terminal, it is a three-bus hour trip; 7 hours from Bogota.

Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: The colonial villages of Mongui, Pamplona, Playa Belen, Curiti

Worth it? Yes, especially if you like extreme sports. Otherwise an interesting city with lots of Spanish colonial villages to visit nearby – Barichara, Guane, Curiti, Magotes

Tourist Trap? Yes, during Colombian holidays

streets of Mompox

Mompox (or Mompos)

Mompox (also spelled Mompos) was an important port city on the Magdelena River for cargo and travelers during in the colonial era.  Today, Mompox is a sleepy, back-water town frozen in time. The heat and humidity in this town is oppressive but the architecture of the center is fascinating. There are nice restaurants and boutique hotels along the river all nicely priced. The city center is like one huge museum.  All the villas in town leave the huge doors and windows open displaying quaint courtyards and sitting rooms adorned with antiques. There’s a languid charm to this place, quintessential colonial Colombia. There are very few cars here.  Most people stroll, ride a bicycle or take a motor-taxi. (see full article)

Tourism Saturation:  Medium/high

Difficulty: There’s an airport in town. From Cargatena it’s a day trip in a bus. But there is no way to get here directly by car from central Colombia. You have to take buses from Sincelejo then another to Maragane then a small ferry boat up the Magdelena River to the port of La Bodega and then a collective taxi or motor-taxi to Mompox.

Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: Colonial towns like Mongui, Barichara, and Buga.

Worth it? It’s hard to get to by road. The heat and humidity are very oppressive. Sightseeing in the early a.m. and evening highly recommended.

Tourist Trap? No

The Churches:

  • Las Lajas
  • Zipaquiria
Las Lajas church near Ipiales

Las Lajas

Las Lajas Sanctuary, a catholic church located in southern Colombia about seven miles from the Ecuadorian border, is considered the most beautiful church in Colombia. It’s one of Colombia’s most important destinations for pilgrimage and religious tourism

Located outside of the Colombian town Ipiales the church is 130 feet tall and bridges the Guaitara River 300 feet below. Colombia, being a Catholic country, once ruled by Spain, has lots of stunning churches. But Las Lajas combines impressive Gothic architecture, a unique location, incredible design and a great story. (see full article)

Tourism Saturation: High especially during Colombian holidays

Difficulty: It’s a day trip from the southern Colombian city of Pasto – a 4-hour bus trip each way due to ongoing construction work on the Pan-American highway. But if one is enroute to Ecuador then it’s just a ten-minute bus ride from the bus station at the border town of Ipiales to the church. (There’s a baggage check at the bus station.) It’s a more convenient stop before or after making the Colombia-Ecuador border crossing. There’s an airport in Ipiales.

Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: there are thousands of stunning churches everywhere in Colombia like the church Senor de los Milagros in the town of Buga just north of Cali.

Worth it? Many people put this church in the top ten things to see in Colombia. If one is keen on religious tourism, then yes. It only takes a couple hours to tour the site, the church is just too far away from Pasto to merit the trip but if you’re going to Ecuador you have to pass through Ipiales.  The church is only a 10-minute taxi drive away and merits the side trip.

Tourist Trap? Yes

A church in the Salt Cathedral mine

Zipaquira – The Salt Cathedral

Just 25 miles north of Bogota is one of Colombia’s main’s tourist sites, a symbol of Colombia’s cultural and religious patrimony. The Salt Cathedral, located in the town of Zipaquira, is an underground church built inside of a salt mine 600 feet below the surface. A religious shrine was carved in the salt cave by miners, as a place for their daily prayers, long before the original cathedral was inaugurated in 1954.

 It’s an interesting destination for pilgrimage and religious tourism boasting the largest cross ever built in an underground church.  Everyone comes to see the cathedral in the salt mine which is just part of a larger complex called the ‘Parque de Sal’ or the Salt Park where there is also a museum of mining, mineralogy and geology along with zip lines and rock-climbing walls. (see article). One must join a tour, offered in English or Spanish, and the tour last just over an hour.

Tourism Saturation: High, especially on the weekends.

Difficulty: a 1-2-hour trip from the city of Bogota by bus.

Off the Beaten Path Alternatives: thousands of stunning churches everywhere in Colombia you can see and visit for free.

Worth it? The cathedral has always been widely promoted as a ‘must-see’ tourist site in Colombia.  I can’t say it’s a ‘must see’ unless, of course, religious tourism is significant to you. But if you’re on tight schedule and debating about whether to see it or not, I’d have to go with don’t waste your time. But if you are in Bogota for a week and are looking for a destination to get out of the city – the town of Zipa and the Salt Cathedral are an interesting escape. Entrance to the site is $15 for foreigners – steep by Colombian standards.

Tourist Trap? Yes

Author: Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Popular Destinations in Colombia – Tourist Traps or Mandatory Stops?”

    1. Good question. They’re all being overrun by tourists, especially during Colombian holiday periods then all of the top destinations start to look like tourist traps. But the places that felt the most like tourist traps I would say are the historic center of Cartagena, Medellin – Poblado and LLeras neighborhoods, Las Lajas and Zipaquira churches, Palomino, Tayrona Park, San Andres Island, the coffee zone and Villa de Leyva,

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