Travel & Learn Spanish in Colombia
Colombia is so densely draped in jungle that you’re not going to be able to visit half of it. Yet this unique part of Latin American still regularly tops the leader-board among travelers as their favourite place in South America. Why?
It could be its extensive Caribbean coastline. It might be the diversity of the land: from the altitude of the Andes to the colonial cities with jungle trekking in between. For some it's the cocktail of coffee, culture and Colombian people. For most, it’s the combination of all these things.
- Want to trek through the jungle to a lost city that’s older than Machu Picchu? Try the Ciudad Perdida trail.
- Want to drink the mountain-grown coffee that Colombia’s famous for? Head to Salento.
- Fancy picking up some salsa moves? Cali, Medellín and Bogotá all call.
- And if you’re ready for beaches, get off the grid in Tyrona National Park where you can sleep in a hammock perched over the sea.
- Want to Learn Spanish in Colombia? Get settled in Medellín.
- Cartagena has Spanish colonial down pat. Shakira, Botero and Gabriel García Márquez prove that Colombia’s cultural history is as thick as its jungle.
- And if all of that isn’t superlative enough (as if!), take a trip to Caño Cristales, regularly dubbed as the most beautiful river in the world.
- So what if nature’s untamed way will stop you from exploring half of Colombia’s landmass. It’s probably for the best - there’s already more than enough to see.
What to See & Do in Colombia
The ace in Colombia’s deck is the sheer variety of things to see and do. What follows is a short list of just some of the country’s highlights. You might have trouble covering them all but even if you manage just a few, you’ll leave Colombia with the experience of a lifetime.
Study Spanish in Medellín
Life in Medellín is good. The city couldn’t always make that claim (and certainly not while it was under the informal rule of Pablo Escobar) but regeneration has done a lot for Medellín.
The inspirational Graffitour of Comuna 13 counts as one of the best things you can do in Colombia. Meanwhile the modern transportation system is impressive, especially the cable car that takes you up to Arví Park where you can observe the city’s sprawl.
But why not stay a while? Medellín’s bars, restaurants and cafés are world-class, making it the perfect base to stay a while and learn Spanish in Colombia. In fact Medellin is one of the fastest growing tourism destinations in South America not just for travellers but also for expats & digital nomads.
Medellin also boasts one of the largest spanish school in South America, Toucan Spanish School. Read more about why Medellin is the best place to learn Spanish.
Hike up El Peñol
It's a short but intense climb up the 625 steps to the top of El Peñon but this rock, a short ride away from Guatapé screams “climb me” so loudly you’ll be unable to say no (why else is that winding staircase grafted to the side of the rock face)? If you have any left by the time you get to the top, the view across the nearby islands will take your breath away.
Guatape / El Peñol is an easy day-trip from Medellín.
Explore the Colours of Guatapé
A short ride away from El Peñol is the wonderfully colourful town of Guatapé. There are all sorts of activities on offer over the town’s lake from zip-lining to boat rides but you can’t beat a stroll through Guatapé's streets. The houses are wonderfully maintained and the streets so cobbled and steep, there's a fairy tale feeling to this place. Have your camera at the ready. No filters necessary.
Fill your Face on a Plate of Bandeja Paisa
You’ll probably want an eating buddy to share a plate of bandeja paisa, which typically comprises three or more types of meat plus beans, rice, plantain, avocado, arepa and…deep breath…fried egg. Loosening your belt before you start is wise. Loosing it afterwards is close to mandatory. The dish’s origins can be traced to the countryside regions around the Andes but this plate is now popular throughout Colombia.
Step on Playa Blanca’s Pure White Sands
Playa Blanca, meaning white sands, is not only one Colombia’s most beautiful beaches it’s also within day-tripping distance of Cartagena. The beach is located on Barú Island, around one-hour from Cartagena’s main port and whether you commit to a one-day package tour or opt for a solo adventure for a few nights, enjoy digging your toes into the island’s white sand; it goes so well with the Caribbean-blue sea.
Party in Taganga
Colombia isn’t all historic sights and lazy beach days, and the nightlife in Taganga proves that. A legendary backpacker party spot, the clubs will keep you entertained all night. You may love it, you may hate it but for most people they at least have to try it.
And, if you are there by day, it’s a great diving spot.
Explore Wild Beaches in Tayrona National Park
Think ‘national park’ and most people think of greenery and mountains, but that’s not the case with Tayrona. After a few hours trekking through woodland, the coastline opens up to reveal beach after beach after beach. Head to Cabo San Lucas where you can spend the afternoon swimming in the twin bay before sleeping in a hammock on top of a rock. Tayrona is a wonderful slice of rustic that’s far from the madding crowd.
Find the Lost City with a Hike to Ciudad Perdida
If hiking’s your thing, put Ciudad Perdida at the top of your Colombia ‘to-do’ list. Translated as the ‘lost city’, this ancient spot is believed to be 650 years older than Machu Picchu (dating around 800 A.D.) and was discovered in the 1970s by treasure hunters. Today, you can take a three, four or five night trek to the lost city, but be prepared – this isn’t an easy trail; it’s nature at its wildest.
Get a Colonial Fix in Cartagena
No matter how well travelled you are, Cartagena is liked to be one of the best-looking places you’ve ever been. The old town has been wonderfully preserved with its narrow streets and vibrantly coloured buildings.
Head to the Spanish Inquisition Museum for some of the city’s gruesome history while the street food (try arepas stuffed with cheese) will restore your faith that life’s on a much better course in Cartagena these days.
Cartagena is a ideal place to learn Spanish. Head to Toucan Spanish School in the morning and head to the beach for a spot of kitesurfing in the afternoon.
Nothing could be more romantic than to end the day watching the sunset on a rooftop bar whilst sipping on a locally inspired cocktail.
Enjoy Caribbean Island Life on San Andrés
As wonderful as the mainland of Colombia is, a small but significant part of its beauty can be found spread across a few small islands off the east coast of Nicaragua. With just a short flight, you can be sunning yourself on the white sands of San Andrés while Caribbean life buzzes on around you. It’s Colombia, but not as you know it.
Get a Coffee Fix in Salento
If you want to head into Colombia’s coffee region, Salento is an excellent choice. A fine combination of a small but fully functioning town complete with coffee farms in the vicinity, you can get a coffee fix and learn about plantation life without the expense of a luxury stay. Go horse riding, coffee tasting or try your hand at a bit of tejo (a game that involves good aim and gunpowder) – Salento will show you a more rural side to Colombian life.
Hike the Cocora Valley
Whether you’ve been indulging in too much bandeja paisa or are ready to stretch your legs, the Cocora Valley is worth investing a day. There are a few routes to choose from but they will all take you through a forest of wax palm trees. With clouds around your ears and mulch underfoot, harness your inner Tarzan (or Jane) as you sway across rope bridges and wonder at each bend what is coming next. Warning: it might include mud.
Spike your Adrenaline in San Gil
Known as Colombia’s adventure capital, all the usual adrenaline sports are on offer in San Gil: rafting, caving, mountain biking, rock jumping and water hole swimming. There are also several trekking routes on offer including one leg (Jordan to Los Santos) that takes you on an almost 3,000 feet climb out of a canyon.
Visit Bogotá - one of the World’s Highest Cities
At over 8,000 feet above sea level, being in Bogotá feels a little like you got out of the airplane too early. And the city is all the more alluring for it. From the Gold Museum, which showcases over 50,000 pieces of pre-Hispanic gold, to graffiti tours highlighting more modern displays of Colombian art, Bogotá’s got plenty going on. If 8,000 feet doesn’t feel high enough, take the cable car or hike up Monserrate (a mountain in the middle of the city) for an overview of the dense mass of Colombia’s capital.
Go Underground to Explore a Cathedral Made of Salt
Sitting nearly 1,000 feet underground, the salt cathedral of Zipaquirá may seem like a tourist gimmick but it’s actually a fully functioning Roman Catholic cathedral – visit on Sunday and you’ll find people attending mass. Crafted into the tunnels of a salt mine, the cathedral meanders through several sections, each more impressive than the last but each as dark, damp and eerily lit as the one before. It really is one of those ‘you have to see it to believe it’ places.
The salt cathedral is an easy day-trip from Bogotá.
Give Salsa a go in Cali
Regardless of the number of left feet you think you might possess, you can’t pass through Cali without giving salsa a go. Whether you sign up for formal classes or take advantage of the lessons that are usually offered for free in the city’s hostels, master a few basic moves before you step into Cali’s salsa clubs to dance all night.
See the Red Roofs of Barichara
Having seen the colours of Cartagena and the whiteness of Popayán, why not complete the trifecta with a stay in red-roofed Barichara. With fewer tourists and a more sophisticated feel, this colonial town is more about absorbing the laid-back life than checking off a to-do list. It’s an ideal place to catch a breath in this otherwise lively country.
Meet Popayán - Colombia’s White City
In a country where most of the towns and cities are defined by their colourfulness, Popayán looks nothing short of bleached, but therein lays its beauty. Known as Ciudad Blanca (the white city), this colonial town is as grand as Cartagena and is a great stopping-off point if you’re en route to Ecuador.
Cano Cristales - the most colourful river in the world
Visiting Caño Cristales comes with a caveat – it’s only the most beautiful river in the world during the right season (end of July to November). But, assuming you coincide your trip with its most vibrant phase, you’ll see river plants in every shade that nature knows; and the off-the-path adventure to get there will just enhance the experience.
The Colombia Trail
Rapido Travel2 weeks or less
You won’t get much sleep on this route and you’ll want to plan those night buses, but for the maximum sights on a short stop in Colombia, try this route.
Bogotá (trip to Salt Cathedral) – Salento – Medellín (trip to Guatapé and El Peñon) – Cartagena (trip to Playa Blanca) - Santa Marta (for Tayrona National Park) – Bogotá
Tranquilo travelUp to a month or more
With a bit more time, you’ll be able to cram more in, though you’ll still be cramming – Colombia’s like that…too many things to see and do. This route’s ideal if you’re passing through Latin America, arriving in Cartagena (possibly from Panama) and travelling on to Ecuador, or vice versa.
Cartagena (trip to Playa Blanca) – San Andrés – Santa Marta (for Tayrona National Park) – Barichara – San Gil – Medellín (for Guatapé and El Peñon, also try Spanish school in Medellín) - Salento - Bogotá (trip to Salt Cathedral) – Cali - Popayán
Yes, you, adventurous soul, Colombia was made for you, or so it will seem. Here are the spots for the biggest adventures while you’re in Colombia.
Santa Marta (for Tayrona National Park and Ciudad Perdida) – Taganga (for diving) - San Gil – Medellín (for Guatapé and El Peñon) – Salento (for Cocora Valley) - Bogotá (for Salt Cathedral) – Caño Cristales - Cali (for salsa dancing)
For Beach Bums
There’s a lot to do in Colombia….if you want to. But if you’re more of a beach bum, sit back, sip a rum-based cocktail and enjoy life - there are plenty of beaches in Colombia designed exactly for that.
Cartagena (for Playa Blanca) – San Andrés – Providencia – Santa Marta (for Tayrona National Park) – Taganga (for beach parties)
Colombia Travel Tips
Learn Spanish in Colombia
Deciding where to study Spanish in Colombia could be one of the most difficult decisions you make during your trip. Medellin is understandably one of the top options thanks to its almost perfect climate all year round, sophisticated vibe and kicking nightlife. Historic Cartagena is also a popular destination for obvious reasons, although generally tourists don't stay more than a couple of weeks due to the consistently hot weather. Bogota is a great option if you like the big city vibe.
In Colombia Toucan Spanish School is the professional choice for studying Spanish. Since they have schools in Medellin, Cartagena and Bogota this makes it easy to travel between their schools whilst using the same curriculum. As the largest school in Colombia they have classes at all levels starting every week. You can take group or private lessons and classes are generally small. Free daily activities help you see more of the city and meet new people. Toucan Spanish School will quickly come to feel like family.
In Medellin they host language exchanges (Spanish / English) at the Toucan Cafe their tourism cafe (alongside the school) with about 50 people attending each night. They also run daily tours which focus on cultural, gastronomic and social issues. We hear on the grapevine that a Toucan Coffee Museum is coming soon.
If you’re looking for an option off the beaten track why not study in the Andes mountains with one of the most spectacular landscapes in eastern Colombia. EHE Spanish School is located in El Socorro, a beautiful pueblo "small town" which boasts of its historical significance as the cradle of Latin American Independence. The school offers private and group classes as well as cultural activities.
Guest Author Bio - JO FITZSIMONS
Jo Fitzsimons has been travelling the world full-time since 2010. She’s spent way too much time in Latin America (if that’s possible) and has circled the globe more than once. When she’s not (accidentally) walking down volcanoes without any shoes on, she’s studying Spanish and writing about her adventures on her blog, Indiana Jo.