Lying in the extreme northwest corner of South America, Colombia is a gem of two oceans: 500 miles of Pacific coastline and another 700 miles along the Caribbean. The latter of these is the Emerald Coast, where the first European adventures landed in the 16th century in search of a New World full of riches. In the 21st century, Colombia is a close-by country full of natural grandeur, historic colonial attractions, and archeological sites from an illustrious pre-Columbian past. And Colombia is the place to at least consider taking home a bit of its national treasure: emeralds.
Santa Marta is South America’s oldest European-founded town and the second-most-important colonial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Despite its long history and charming center, it gets a bad rap from many travelers, who cite its unlovely urban sprawl and terrible traffic as reasons not to hang about here. The secret to Santa Marta is to use it for what it does well: hotels, restaurants and bars, and then get out to the slew of superb nearby destinations during the daytime.
Cartagena, a gorgeous fishing village on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, has excellent beaches, a historic old town (that’s entirely walkable) and beautiful colonial architecture. It’s also one of the safest places in the country, so it’s no wonder it’s a popular port of call for cruise ships. Need a break from exploring the cobblestone streets? Stop at an outdoor cafe for excellent pastries and people-watching.
Once infamous for dangerous gangs and drug activity, Medellin has been transformed. It’s now a vibrant destination for travelers seeking a culturally rich vacation. Medellin rises proudly from the belly of the Aburrá Valley, and its natural beauty makes a perfect setting for hiking, zip lining and horseback riding. Travel through lush jungle to Piedra de Penol, then climb the 740 steps to the top—a journey within a journey that rewards you with unforgettable views.
Ten million people call vibrant, passionate, sprawling Bogota home. The energy of this metropolitan heart of Colombia is in part fueled by its hundreds of eclectic and authentic dining hot spots, fantastic wines, and frequent foodie festivals. Ask the locals where they like to eat, then walk off your empanadas and aji with a stroll through the historic district of La Candelaria or during an indulgent shopping adventure on the North Side.
The vibrancy of Pereira is due in part to its large population of students, who roam the European-style streets in search of coffee, cheap eats or ways to blow off steam between exams. Explore the nature walks of El Cedral eco-park, then marvel at the exotic creatures you’ll find at both the Zoo Matecaña and the nightclubs of Avenida Simón Bolivar. Pereira is one of the three cities comprising Colombia’s “coffee triangle,” so a perfect cup is never too far away.