Soaring Andean summits, unspoiled Caribbean coast, enigmatic Amazon jungle, cryptic archaeological ruins, and cobbled colonial communities. Colombia boasts all of South America’s allure and more. Colombia is bordered on the northwest by Panama, on the east by Venezuela and Brazil, and on the southwest by Peru and Ecuador. Through the western half of the country, three Andean ranges run north and south. The eastern half is a low, jungle-covered plain, drained by spurs of the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, inhabited mostly by isolated tropical-forest Indian tribes. The fertile plateau and valley of the eastern range are the most densely populated parts of the country.
Led by Cartagena’s extraordinarily preserved old city, Colombia offers an off-the-radar treasure trove of cinematic cobblestoned towns and villages that often feel bogged down in a different century, content to carry on as they have since the departure of the Spanish without a care in the world. Unweathered Barichara and happily sleepy Mompox feel like movie sets, impossibly unspoiled by modern progress; while whitewashed Villa de Leyva appears stuck in 16th-century quicksand – and these are just the villages that people do visit.
The Galápagos Islands
Since their “discovery” in the 16th century, the Galápagos Islands have intrigued and inspired visitors from around the globe. Named for the giant tortoises on the islands, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to a unique ecosystem that largely evolved without outside influences (mainland Ecuador lies some 1,000 kilometers to the east) and offers an exceptional opportunity for wildlife viewing. The Galápagos Islands remain one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, and the formation of the islands is still in progress. Most of the 13 large islands, six smaller islands, and 42 islets that make up the Galápagos were declared part of the Galápagos National Park in the 1950s, and visiting this fragile ecosystem can only be undertaken as part of a guided tour to designated visitor sites (there are, however, one or two areas visitors can go without a guide, including some areas popular with scuba divers).
The main attraction here is its many bird species of which 28 are unique to the islands, including the Galápagos penguin, flightless cormorant, and waved albatross, and the 13 species of Darwin’s famous finches. Hot Tip: Be sure to book a behind-the-scenes visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island (tours of this important research facility can be made in advance of your arrival).
Quito: Ecuador’s Historic Andean Capital
High in the Andes, Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is filled with colonial architecture and is the largest historic center in South America. Preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site with many old churches, beautiful public squares, and world-class museums, the city has long been a favorite with artisans and is a great place to shop for local art and crafts, from ceramics and wood carvings to colorful clothing. The most famous attraction in Quito’s historic center is the San Francisco Church on the Plaza San Francisco. Dating back to the first half of the 1500s, the church’s white-washed twin towers flank each side of the entrance to this massive complex. It’s notable for its splendid Baroque interior and the Convent Museum of San Francisco with its religious paintings, sculptures, carvings, porcelain, textiles, and handcrafted furniture.
Other beautiful churches to visit include La Compania de Jesus Church, constructed in the early 17th century and listed by UNESCO as one of the top 100 most important buildings in the world, and Quito’s cathedral, Basílica del Voto Nacional, constructed in the 1560s. Be sure to explore Plaza Grande, a beautiful square surrounded by the cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Municipal Palace, as well as Calle La Ronda, a buzzing street lined with restaurants, cafés, art galleries, and other entertainment.
The beautiful city center of Cuenca, officially known as Santa Ana de Los cuatro ríos de Cuenca, is in southern Ecuador and is a delightful city to explore on foot. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city brims with splendid colonial influences and architectural treasures spanning 400 years and encompassing both Spanish and Indian elements. The historic city center is also where many of Cuenca’s key attractions lie, one of the most important being the Old Cathedral of Cuenca (Iglesia del Sagrario), built-in 1567 from stones taken from nearby Inca buildings. Highlights include its old organ from 1739, its tower clock from 1751, and the Museum for Religious Art. Also worth a visit is the massive New Cathedral of Cuenca, built in the 1960s and hard to miss for its three beautiful blue-tiled domes.
The Church of San Sebastian with its mix of Gothic and Neoclassical elements is also worth seeing. As you wander Cuenca’s pleasant narrow streets, be sure to spend some time exploring the many squares and parks, including Calderon Park in the heart of the old town; Plaza San Blas Square, dominated by the Church of San Blas; and Plaza de San Francisco with its merchants selling textiles and other goods.
Cotopaxi and Cajas National Parks
Two of Ecuador’s most popular national parks, Cotopaxi and Cajas, are within easy driving distances from the cities of Cuenca and Quito and make wonderful day trips. Of the two, Cotopaxi National Park (Parque Nacional Cotopaxi), just 50 kilometers south of Quito, is perhaps the best-known thanks to the massive (and still active) Cotopaxi volcano dominating the area, along with the smaller Rumiñawi and Sincholagua volcanoes. About 30 kilometers from Cuenca in Ecuador’s stunning highlands, Cajas National Park (Parque Nacional Cajas) offers a different experience due to its numerous hills and valleys, making it a perfect place to hike and bike. It’s also a delight for watersports enthusiasts, particularly kayakers and canoeists, thanks to its more than 270 lagoons and glacier-fed lakes. Finally, Podocarpus National Park often referred to as the “Botanical Garden of America,” offers a diverse range of flora and fauna. In the southeast part of the country, its humid mountain forests are home to more than 4,000 species of plants and trees (some as tall as 40 meters), including the famous cinchona, Ecuador’s national tree.
The Boardwalks of Guayaquil
Ecuador’s largest city in terms of population, the Pacific port of Guayaquil as well known as the gateway to the Galápagos Islands. In addition to its many historic sites, Guayaquil boasts great shopping and entertainment venues in its many picturesque squares and plazas, and along its splendid waterfront. The highlight for those who enjoy exploring on foot is the magnificent Malecón 2000, a two-and-a-half-kilometer-long boardwalk adjacent to the Guayas River. Undoubtedly one of the world’s most memorable promenades, this remarkable urban renewal project winds along the river’s west shore past many of the city’s best attractions, including important historical sites, gardens, museums, and entertainment. For a real treat, take a tour boat on an evening trip up the river, when the city is lit up to beautiful effect. Other highlights include the splendid Guayaquil Metropolitan Cathedral and Museo Antropológico y de Arte Contemporaneo with its fascinating displays and collections focusing on the country’s rich culture and history.
The Hot Springs of Baños
Thanks to its lovely surroundings and numerous hot springs, the small town of Baños de Agua Santa is a popular tourist destination within central Ecuador. At the western edge of the Amazon basin, Baños is nestled among dense jungle-like forests and offers numerous recreational opportunities including hiking and mountain biking. But the big draw is its mineral-rich hot springs and many waterfalls, some of them accessible from the town via a series of fun trails incorporating rope bridges with incredible views over the falls and their deep pools. Adventure sports such as whitewater rafting and kayaking are also popular here. More sedate pleasures include visiting landmarks such as the Virgen de Agua Santa church with its famous statue of Mary (it’s claimed she appeared at one of the town’s waterfalls) and shopping for local goods such as colorful carved balsa parrots while enjoying the town’s famous “melcocha,” a type of candy made from cane sugar.
The Beaches of Salinas, Bahía, and Montañita
While best known for its ecotourism and adventure travel opportunities, Ecuador also boasts a number of beautiful beaches worth visiting, whether for a short break from sightseeing or as a base for a longer sun, sand, and sea vacation. One of the most popular areas, due to its many beach resorts, is the coastal city of Salinas, a little west of Guayaquil, and boasting a consistently warm climate year-round. Also popular is the Pacific coastal city of Bahía de Caráquez. On a pretty peninsula jutting out into the ocean, Bahía attracts many tourists with its fine beaches, numerous hotels, and lively entertainment scene. Another popular area, particularly among younger travelers and surfers, is Montañita in the south coastal region of the country (for families, head a little further south to the quieter beaches of the fishing village of Ayangue).
In a pleasant valley surrounded by mountains lies the picturesque town of Otavalo. The town’s big draw is its excellent market where locals and tourists alike come to buy colorful locally-made rugs and blankets, sweaters, bags, and other wool products made by the indigenous Otavaleños people. Other notable items are the unique tagua nut jewelry, leather goods, indigenous costumes, as well as many interesting food items, in particular locally-produced spices. If visiting in June, be sure to check out the famous Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) music festival featuring numerous local musicians with their distinctive instruments and sounds.
Colombia’s equatorial position affords it a diversity of landscapes matched by few countries. A slight tinkering in altitude takes you from sun-toasted Caribbean sands to coffee-strewn, emerald-green hilltops in the Zona Cafetera. Continue to climb and there’s Bogotá, the bustling cradle of Colombia and third-highest capital city in the world. Throw in another few thousand meters and you find snowcapped peaks, high-altitude lakes, and the eerie, unique vegetation of the páramo. The bottom drops out as the Andes give way to Los Llanos, a 550,000-sq-km swath of tropical grasslands shared with Venezuela often called the Serengeti of South America.
A wealth of ancient civilizations left behind a fascinating spread of archaeological and cultural sites throughout Colombia. The one-time Tayrona capital, Ciudad Perdida, built between the 11th and 14th centuries, is one of the continent’s most mysterious ancient cities, arguably second only to Machu Picchu. Even more, shrouded in mystery is San Agustín, where more than 500 life-sized ancient sculpted statues of enigmatic origin dot the surrounding countryside. And then there’s Tierradentro, where elaborate underground tombs scooped out by an unknown people add even more mystique to Colombia’s past.
Where To Go
All the areas covered by us are generally safe from guerillas and paramilitary groups and providing you do not wander far from what’s included in our coverage, you aren’t likely to run into any problems. If you’re curious about an area that has been omitted, it’s likely due to security issues. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and/or paramilitaries maintain a presence in the Chocó, Cauca, parts of Nariño, rural parts of Huila, Putumayo, Meta, the jungle area east of the Andes (except for the area around Leticia) and parts of the northeast, (especially Arauca) so avoid these areas were not covered by us.
Why I Love Colombia
It was a much different country the first time I came to Colombia in the early 2000s, but the stellar hospitality of Colombians had me at arrival. Today, the security situation has improved dramatically, helping Colombia to become South America‘s phoenix from the flames. But that initial reception has always stuck with me: without a five-star tourism magnet – no Machu Picchu, no Iguazu Falls, no Patagonia – Colombia works harder for its money, and that begins and ends with the people, who ensure you leave with a different impression than the one you landed with.