It’s become a New Year tradition on the Colombia Travel Blog to write a list of our 10 best destinations in Colombia for the upcoming year – every January we look at the last 12 months of Colombian travel that we have undertaken and the trends that we have noticed and determine 10 amazing places that we strongly recommend for our readers to visit over the course of the next 12 months.
These could be individual towns or sights, or an entire department that we feel has been overlooked by travelers and is due for some extra recognition. So, without further ado, here are our top 10 Colombian travel destinations for 2017…
1. San José del Guaviare, Guaviare
This list is officially in no particular order, but if it were, then this would still be No. 1 – the small capital city of Guaviare department isn’t necessarily much to look at first glance, but it’s located smack bang in the middle of some of Colombia’s most incredible and diverse sights. Within a couple of hours of the city you can visit 10,000 year old rock paintings, perfectly reflective jungle lakes (see the cover photo), a red river that is the twin of Caño Cristales, surreal rock formations, refreshing swimming holes, all whilst checking out amazing natural diversity.
I have visited San José del Guaviare 3 times now, and I have seen toucans, parrots, 4 different species of monkeys, and much more. It has quickly become my most highly recommended destination in the country. If I had to pick one place to recommend to travelers in 2017 it would be Guaviare.
2. The Cartama Valley, Antioquia
This probably isn’t a name that rings many bells, but the Cartama Valley, which roughly consists of a loop between the towns of Jerico, Tamesis, Valparaiso, and La Pintada, is one of Antioquia’s great hidden secrets for travelers.
About 4 hours south of Medellín, and conveniently located close to the main highway between Manizales and the City of Eternal Spring, there is easily enough to do here to fill a full week of traveling. Jericó is a Colombian Heritage Town, Tamesis is home to some of the best adventure sports in Colombia (not to mention one of the best views, after one of the loveliest hikes, I have ever seen – see photo below), and in Valparaiso you can visit and stay at the lovely La Elisa coffee farm or spend some time at the local Embera Chami indigenous reservation.
Then there’s La Pintada, which is often written off as nothing but a ‘swimming pools and beer’ destination but offers so much more, including discovering the traditions of artisanal gold mining and hiking around the stunning farallones mountains. It’s also home to some of Colombia’s nicest and most diverse accommodation: the pretty cabins of El Rincón Paisa in Jerico, the delightful La Nohelia hostel and coffee finca, Finca La Oculta near Tamesis, which was the setting of Hector Abad’s eponymous novel. Easily my most recommended rural getaway of 2017.
3. Buenavista, Quindio
Salento remains one of the most popular places to visit in Colombia, and with good reason: the Cocora Valley is beautiful and Salento is a lovely little town. However, there’s so much more to Quindio department than just its flagship destination. On last year’s list we mentioned the ‘Alternative Coffee Trail’ as a recommended destination, but this time we’re going to be even more specific: make time to visit this delightful little town, a real off-the-beaten-track coffee region destination.
We wrote a post about our visit there earlier in the year declaring the Experiencia Cafetera coffee tour to neighboring Pijao as “the best coffee tour in Colombia” and we’re sticking by that bold claim. Stay at the beautiful Panorama Café Hostel in Buenavista, enjoy the stirring views and fresh coffee, and then take the tour – it’ll be the best, most authentic coffee experience you have in Colombia.
4. Rafting the Samana River, Antioquia
One of the best trips I took last year was an incredible white-water rafting trip down the Samana River in Antioquia department. This stunning river is threatened by a mega-dam project, which is a real tragedy for Colombian nature and tourism because it truly is a remarkably beautiful and naturally diverse place. Plus, the rafting is some of the best in Colombia: level 4 and 5 monsters roiling through the narrow jungle-clad canyon as the river carves its way through the Antioquia countryside.
It was easily the best rafting I’ve experienced in Colombia, and the excellent guidance provided by Expedition Colombia made the experience even more unique. What makes this trip even better is the scope of it – we’re not talking a few hours on the river here: rafting the Samana involves 3 days of action and a wonderful night camping on the beach under the stars.
Make rafting the Samana River your extreme experience of 2017…and help to preserve this natural wonder from destruction at the same time.
5. Pueblos of Boyacá
No, not Villa de Leyva! Another excellent trip we did this year was exploring some of Boyacá department’s lesser-known small towns, and boy, were we impressed! This rural department north of Bogotá has so much more to offer beyond the iconic Villa de Leyva: Tibasosa, Tenza, Sutatenza, Mongui, Paipa, Macanal, Iza (easily one of the loveliest towns I’ve visited in Colombia)…the list could go on!
The best part: all of these towns are really close together and easily toured in a few days. But trust us, once you meet Boyacá’s people you’ll want to stay longer – a strong contender for the friendliest department, Boyacá is a treasure trove of off-the-beaten-track colonial towns and kind folks. Plus, you can pay a visit to the home of a sporting legends parents…
6. Casanare department
It’s truly remarkable that Casanare department exists and isn’t full of tourists and travelers. The central department of the Colombian llanos orientales, or Eastern Plains, Casanare couldn’t be much different to the Andean regions that it
It’s truly remarkable that Casanare department exists and isn’t full of tourists and travelers. The central department of the Colombian llanos orientales, or Eastern Plains, Casanare couldn’t be much different from the Andean regions that it borders. A department of cowboys, giant rivers and plains, incredible nature and unique culture, in other countries Casanare would most likely be a major tourist destination, and it is poised to become one over the next few years.
A visit to a giant nature reserve finca in Casanare can yield incredible sighting of a variety of birds and mammals, as well as giant caimans and anacondas – it’s the closest equivalent to a safari in Colombia, and probably second only to Brazil’s Pantanal region for wildlife spotting in South America. Plus, you can visit Colombia’s rarest and biggest crocodiles (and the stars of Colombia: Magia Salvaje) at Wisirare Park.
And it’s not just about the nature: Casanare also boasts the unique llanero cowboy culture (excellently explained in the living llanero museum near San Luis de Palenque), some of the best sunsets you can see, and amazing river travel along some arteries of the Amazon and plains regions.
7. San Basilio de Palenque
We’ve had this amazing UNESCO World Heritage town on our radars for a while now (it’s No. 1 in our ‘5 Amazing Day Trips from Cartagena’ post), but now is the time to visit and explore the uniqueness of Colombia’s first town of freed slaves, just an hour from Cartagena.
As the popular Caribbean port city becomes more and more popular with tourists, people are increasingly looking for ways they can experience authentic Colombian culture outside the Jewel of the Indies, and San Basilio is definitely the place to do that! Pay a visit and learn about the unique culture and language of the town, with its definitely West African roots, the genre-defying music being produced here, and the gastronomy, which is unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the country.
A visit to San Basilio de Palenque is a trip straight to the heart of Afro-Colombian culture. Most people pose for a tourist snap with the colorfully dressed palenqueras in Cartagena…
8. San Cipriano, Valle del Cauca
A small town in the jungle on the banks of a gorgeous clear river, San Cipriano is only a couple of hours from Cali, so it’s an easy trip to make in a day or two. But why visit? For the town’s delicious Pacific coast food, Afro-Colombian culture, remarkable natural diversity (it’s arguably the best place in Colombia to enjoy views of toucans), and tubing along the clear jungle rivers that snake through the surrounding jungle.
Oh yeah, and then there are the brujitas – the inhabitants of the town have come up with a unique solution to their isolation: they’ve attached motorbikes and wooden boards together and to get to the town you simply sit on a bench while the bike zips you along the old train tracks through the jungle like a decommissioned theme park ride! It’s a perfectly Colombian experience: exhilarating, one-of-a-kind, with just a hint of danger and uncertainty!
9. Rio Claro, Antioquia
Another under-visited gem not far from Medellín, and arguably the best ecotourism hotel in the country, Rio Claro lies just off the main highway between Medellín and Bogotá, so there’s really no excuse not to stop there for a night or two. What’s so special about Rio Claro? Basically, it’s the chance to sleep overnight in genuine jungle, surrounded by monkeys, toucans, snakes and frogs, just a few hours from a major Colombian city.
Not to mention rafting, tubing, ziplining, caving and climbing, all surrounded by the imposing granite walls and famously clear river that gives Rio Claro its name. You can stay in dorms in the main building if your budget is a little less, or sleep in the spectacular open-sided jungle canopy rooms: wake up in the morning to the dawn chorus of the jungle and wild monkeys feeding in the trees, all visible from your own bed! Just go!
10. Caquetá department
And finally, this year Putumayo (another Amazon basin gem we’ve been recommending for years): Caquetá department is another region of wild rivers, diverse nature, and truly off-the-beaten-track jungle experiences. Visit spectacular jungle canyons, hidden waterfalls, and swimming holes, fincas full of wild birds and monkeys, small towns that have hardly seen tourism, and learn about local indigenous cultures.
Caquetá has plenty to keep even the most adventurous travelers occupied and happy for at least a week! Plus, it has easy access to some of the countries the greatest rivers, the Caquetá and Putumayo, so you can experience the contrast between higher altitude and lower altitude jungle in one trip…