Are you thinking about your next vacation? Are you open to international adventures? Here are the Top 10 Reasons why you should add Colombia to your list of travel destinations!
#10 The Food
I know you’re probably thinking, “Food is #10 on the list?” Listen, it was hard for me to limit the list to ten things. These are ten of the top reasons for you to visit Colombia.
So the first thing that I think of when I think of Colombian food is the arepa (also, shout out to the Venezuelan arepa!).
Seriously, when I left Cartagena, I thought that I might turn into a gigantic arepa de queso (‘cheese arepa’), because I ate so many of them.
They were SO delicious. The ones that knocked my socks off were the ones where the people have a cart on the side of the street. It’s like a cart with a hot plate, and they’re just making the arepas right there. The arepas are round and about an inch think. Once the arepa is cooked and you’re ready to order, they slice it open, put some butter inside, and stuff it full of cheese. [Heart Eyes] It is so SO amazing.
The first night that I got to Cartagena, I was hanging out in a touristy area, so I paid like $5,000 COP (about $1.66 USD) for an arepa de queso, which is twice as much as you are supposed to pay. The other times that I tried arepas, I got them from the carts on the side of the street, and the price was $2,500 COP (about $0.75 USD).
Arroz con coco
Also highly recommended is arroz con coco, coconut rice. I didn’t get to try arroz con coco in Cartagena, but I tried it at a beachfront restaurant when I got to San Andrés. It was fantastic!
When you go to Medellín (in the Department of Antioquía), they have a dish that’s called the bandeja paisa. A bandeja, in Spanish, is a ‘tray’, and ‘Paisa’ is what people who are from that region of Colombia call themselves. So the bandeja paisa is the ‘Paisa tray’. There’s rice. And there’s beans. And there’s plantains. And there’s avocado. And there’s egg. And, if you eat meat, there’s beef and pork. It’s HUGE!
I didn’t know if I was going to be able to try the bandeja paisa, because I’m vegetarian. I was going to try to try it when I was actually in the city of Medellín, and I didn’t get the chance. But then I went on a tour to the town of Guatapé, and the restaurant where we had lunch offered a vegetarian version of the bandeja paisa!
My vegetarian bandeja paisa had rice and beans and avocado and plantain and eggs and french fries. It was SO good. I am definitely down with the bandeja paisa. You should try it too.
#9 The Drinks
The lulada is a MUST TRY. Seriously, you have to try it. It’s kind of in the style of a lemonade, but it’s made from the lulo fruit. It’s sweet and tangy and icy and AMAZING. You have to try it. I tried my lulada in Cali, but you can try it anywhere you’d like.
Limonada de coco
I also fell in love with something called the limonada de coco (‘coconut lemonade’). At first, I was a bit tentative about trying it, even though it was highly recommended. When I was in Cartagena, one of the first recommendations I received was from a street vendor who insisted that I HAD to try a limonada de coco. The idea of a coconut lemonade seemed okay, but I wasn’t completely sold.
In Medellín, I went on a street food tour, and our tour guide said, “Hands down, the BEST juice that you’re going to try at this place is the limonada de coco.” I didn’t listen to him. I ordered a strawberry passion fruit juice, and it was good … but the people that had ordered the limonada de coco RAVED about just how delicious it was, “This is the BEST thing I’ve ever had!” They raved about it so much that I actually started to doubt my original choice, but I still had not tried the limonada de coco.
So, when I made it to Cali, I finally tried the limonada de coco for the first time, and it BLEW ME AWAY. Like, it was amazing. It was sweet and had a little bit of tang from the lemon. It was amazing. You HAVE to try it.
#8 The Desserts
I think you can see a pattern developing here. Lol
Cocada de maracuyá
The first night that I got to Cartagena, I went into the walled city, and they were having this feria del dulce (a celebration of sweet treats). I was walking by, just trying to catch a quick glance of the treats so that no one would try to stop me and sell me stuff.
As I was speed walking by, a jar caught my eye. It said “cocadas de maracuyá”. It stopped me in my tracks. I wasn’t 100% sure of what these cocadas were, but they had maracuyá in the name (which is ‘passion fruit’, which I LOVE). So I decided that I had to try them.
The cocada de maracuyá is like a coconut candy that’s made with coconut, sugar, milk, passion fruit … water …? Okay, I will admit that I am making up the ingredients, but that is my best guess. So after mixing these (or other) ingredients, the result is the cocada de maracuyá.
Now that I think about it, I’m familiar with the cocada, because, in the Dominican Republic, they also eat cocadas. But Dominican cocadas seem to be a bit wetter and have a bit more coconut milk (again, pure conjecture about these ingredients).
In summary, the cocada de maracuyá is the best thing I have ever had in my LIFE. It is the most DELICIOUS thing I have ever tasted. When you go to Colombia, you must try the cocada de maracuyá. On the off chance that you are the type of person who does not enjoy passion fruit (aka a monster), they also have guava, pineapple, and caramel cocadas.
I also loved the cholado. When I arrived in Cali, they told me, “If you are in Cali, you HAVE to try a cholado. If you come to Cali and don’t try a cholado, you were never really in Cali.” Again, I wasn’t immediately sold on the idea. I actually came THIS close to missing my chance to try a cholado. It was my last night in Cali, and I was in the park that goes along the Bulevar del Río. Finally, I decided that I was going to try a cholado. I didn’t really know what was in it, and I didn’t know how much it was supposed to cost. I just went in blindly with my mission to try a cholado.
I chose the cart that I would go to for the cholado because I had visited the same cart the day before to try the lulada. The lulada was so good, that I figured that I could trust them for my first cholado experience (Travel Tip: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!).
So I went to the cart and ordered the cholado. It BLEW ME AWAY. The cholado is several layers of AMAZING-ness. It starts with shaved ice, condensed milk, flavored syrup, all the fruit you can think of (mango, pineapple, banana, apple, papaya, kiwi, a grape), cookies, whipped cream, and MORE condensed milk. Then, while I was eating my cholado (and it was blowing my mind), the lady that made it kept coming over and putting EVEN MORE condensed milk on top.
I just sat there, enjoying bite after delicious bite and sobbing into the cholado perfection, “I think you’re trying to make me fall in love! I think you’re trying to make we stay here FOREVER!”
I would 100% spend the rest of my life in Cali, eating cholados in the park (side note: let me know if you’re aware of any cholado taste tester gigs).
Right now, Cartagena is the city in Colombia that has the most tourism. It has the infrastructure for tourism. The city is located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. People know what there is to do in Cartagena, but Cartagena also has a really interesting history (it is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites).
One of the things I did in Cartagena was the free walking tour, where they talk to you about the history of Cartagena as a port during the transatlantic slave trade. They talk to you about the indigenous history of Cartagena, about the colonial period, and the fight for independence.
While you’re in Cartagena, you can see the living history in the historic center of the city. It is evident everywhere you look, on the streets, the buildings, and the placards.
You should definitely check out Cartagena and its interesting history, not just the food and the beaches (which ARE amazing). Take a moment to understand the history of the place, so that you can appreciate its beauty even more.
#6 Natural Wonders
Colombia has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty. They have amazing beaches. They have mountains. They have rivers. They have everything, and I was fortunate enough to visit and appreciate some of these natural wonders.
Pink Sea / Mar Rosado
One of the natural wonders that I went to visit was the Pink Sea in Galerazamba. (Some of you might be thinking, “Hey, but that’s a salt mine; that’s not a natural wonder.” The point is, the microorganisms that give the water its pink color are naturally occurring, and I am claiming it!)
I didn’t get to see the Pink Sea at its maximum splendor, because it’s maximum splendor is apparently in January (and I went in December). In any case, it’s definitely worth seeing.
Volcán del Totumo / Totumo Mud Volcano
Another natural wonder that you CANNOT MISS is the Volcán del Totumo (the Totumo Mud Volcano). You absolutely must visit this natural wonder. Bathe in the mud. Get the mud massage. Go and rinse off in the lake. It’s SO worth it!
Scuba Diving (San Andrés)
Another way that I got to experience the natural beauty in Colombia was by scuba diving in San Andrés (it was my first time scuba diving!!).
While I was scuba diving, I saw coral and fish and all kinds of diverse ocean life. It was AMAZING.
It was one of the best experiences of my life. If you have the opportunity to go scuba diving (along the coast of continental Colombia or on the island of San Andrés), you will get a feel for the natural beauty that exists “under the sea”.
Piedra del Peñol
Another thing that I really wanted to see when I went to Colombia was the Piedra del Peñol, in the area of Guatapé. The Piedra del Peñol is this really high rock, and you have to climb 740 steps to get to the top.
Once you get to the top, the view will knock you off your feet. The view is like looking out over a thousand tiny islands. You see patches of green in the middle of vibrant blue water. It really is breathtaking.
If you’re in Antioquía, and you’re in Medellín, then it’s definitely worth it to check out la Piedra del Peñol.
I was destined to love Cali. It was fate. Kismet. Or perhaps a circumstance of my birth. I was born in California, and I am a “Cali Girl” at heart. So I was already predisposed to love this city.
Cali is known as the “salsa capital of the world”. The have the best salsa dancers (Don’t shoot the messenger!!). Their style of salsa dancing is really unique and really well respected.
Unfortunately, I was born with two left feet (#RhythmlessNation), and I don’t have the rhythm that God gave a billy goat. But I was super excited to go down to Cali and get a feel for the music and the rhythm.
If you have the chance to visit Cali, on the Pacific coast of Colombia, you definitely have to check out salsa. They have lots of different salsa schools that do beginner’s salsa lessons (which is important!). Then, they have shows where you can see the professionals do their thing (which is more what I prefer Lol).
#4 San Basilio de Palenque
(I am going to write a separate post that extolls ALL the virtues of San Basilio de Palenque, but here is a taste)
You NEED to visit San Basilio de Palenque while you’re in Colombia. This town was the first settlement of free blacks in the Americas. In 1603, a group of enslaved blacks escaped from slavery and established this settlement in the rural area about 45 minutes outside of Cartagena.
In that village, even today, they still preserve language, food, music, dancing, traditions—all things that did not get lost during the process of enslavement the same way that they did in other places. Because this group of people escaped from slavery much earlier in the process.
When I got there, I was really interested in learning about the people and their history. I wanted to hear the language, listen to the music, try the food, and feeling what it’s like to be in that space that is so proudly, undeniably, and unapologetically proud of their African roots, influence, and culture.
San Basilio de Palenque is “a piece of Africa in the Americas,” and when you go there you really get that sense.
I have listed “Colombians” as the third most important reason that you should travel to Colombia. I know that might seem kind of weird, but the reason why I say that is because I experienced TREMENDOUS hospitality while I was in Colombia. Everyone that I met was super nice, super welcoming. I didn’t have any particularly negative experiences.
I liked the way that people addressed me. I remember I was in Cali, and I was walking past some ladies that were selling things on the side of the street. As I was passing, I made eye contact with one of the ladies, and I said, “Buenas tardes” (good afternoon). She replied, “Buenas tardes, ¿qué más, mami? ¿Cómo tú estás?” (Good afternoon, what’s up, mami? How are you?)
Everywhere I went, people were like, “Ven, mi reina” (Come, my queen).
I just felt really happy and really comfortable, and it felt like a space where I could move about and find my place and fit in. (So don’t be surprised if one day I show up and declare, “I live in Colombia now.”) It was such a positive experience.
The people that I met in Colombia were super nice and welcoming, and also super informative. I learned the most about the country just by talking to people. It’s one thing to find things out on the internet, but it’s completely different to talk to people and hear their perspective. So I learned a lot from my Uber drivers. I learned a lot from my taxi drivers. I learned a lot from my hosts and my tour guides through Airbnb. They all talked to me about the history of different cities, and about the transformation going on. I also learned a lot about the ways that Colombia is changing for the better, and the things that still could be done.
So, when you go to Colombia (because you HAVE to go), make sure that you take the time to talk to people and listen to their stories, because you’ll learn some of the best lessons (and some of the most amazing things about the country) by talking to the people that live there.
#2 Story of Transformation
Medellín and Comuna 13
One of the places where I first saw this transformation narrative was in Medellín. So, in Medellín, they have all these tours: the Pablo Escobar tour, the Comuna 13 tour. I decided to do the Comuna 13 tour.
Comuna 13 is an area of the city that had a really troubled history. There were a lot of paramilitary groups there. There were narcotraffickers. The government had two bloody standoffs with the paramilitary groups and narcotraffickers, and a lot of people were killed and “disappeared”.
Comuna 13 used to be a place where you couldn’t go as a tourist (obviously). Even the people that lived there had to deal with “invisible borders,” which were invisible boundaries that divided different sections of the community that were controlled by different groups. If you crossed the border into one group’s territory, even without knowing it, that could put your life at risk.
When I did the Comuna 13 tour, my tour guide (Yeison) talked a lot about the history had been and how the government and the people were being intentional about transformation. Transformation through art. Transformation through music. Transformation through different types of community engagement and investment and infrastructure.
The transformation narrative is also visible in Cali. People that live in Cali told me that the Cali of the 1980s and 1990s was very different from the Cali that is there today.
There is development and investment and new infrastructure. This investment that is helping to move the city forward and transform the narrative from what Cali “used to be” to what Cali is like now.
Something that I found really encouraging while I was in Colombia was hearing these stories about transformation. The history is undeniable. At one point (in the late 1980s and early 1990s), Medellín was considered to be the “Most Dangerous City in the World”. This history is undisputed. But people in Colombia have made a conscious decision to change that reality, and this idea of transformation is observed in the change of these dangerous places into places where people can feel welcomed and safe. This allows people to truly appreciate what the country has to offer.
#1 To See It For Yourself
“It is better to see a place one time than to hear about it a thousand times.” I could tell you about the amazing food, and the drinks, and the desserts, and the natural wonders, and the history, and the transformation that different cities have experienced. But, until you see Colombia for yourself, you will not fully understand, appreciate, and realize that all the things I’m saying are true. You will not understand what an amazing country this is, how much it has to offer, and how much it can offer you.
Those are my Top 10 Reasons why you should visit Colombia. I am SURE that there are reasons that I did not list. Go ahead and post some of your favorite reasons in the comments.
Check out my YouTube video where I explain these Top 10 Reasons Here: