The most Instagrammable things to do in Colombia
Colombia is finally emerging from the shadow of its drug heavy and notorious past, however I spent a month there last year and can attest to feeling very safe during that time. It is now time that the world focuses on the many amazing sights, sounds and tastes that this passionate and exciting country has to offer. And in the age of social media, Colombia also offers a wealth of instagrammable experiences. As it has been off the tourist trail during the rise of popular social media apps, many of its key sights and images are also quite unknown and fresh – which is even better!
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The main port of entry into Colombia is Bogota. It is a terrific, modern airport with flights to most main airports across the globe. Medellin also has an international airport but flights are far less frequent. Cartagena is often accessed by boat, and many cruise ships have this stunning Caribbean town on their itinerary.
Colombia is a country full of mountains which means driving around it can take a long time and direct and modern roads are also limited, but luckily they have a fantastic domestic flight set up as a result. Avianca is the local carrier and there are also budget options to consider – although Avianca offers excellent fares. Flights between Medellin and Bogota only take 40 minutes and take off virtually every 30 minutes. Internal flights to Cartagena are also very reasonably priced.
Medellin has a fantastic metro system which extends into trams and cable cars, allowing you to get around the very steep sides of the valley with much greater ease. Bogota is a little behind on this front, with only a rather interesting, full on bus system. There isn’t much need for public transport in Cartagena as it is very much walkable.
When to Go
The major cities of Colombia all sit on vastly different altitudes, so the weather varies massively. Cartagena is almost always warm due to its Caribbean location – and tends to be very steamy, whereas Bogota is much higher, sitting at 2600m above sea level and as a result the temperature rarely strays outside a range of 12-20 degrees celsius.
Medellin has the wonderful title of ‘the city of Eternal Spring.’ Indeed like Bogota there is not a great range in its temperature throughout the year with lows of 15 degrees Celsius and highs of 30 degrees. As a result you can comfortably visit Colombia all year round. Having said that, I would recommend visiting in August as it is the month of Feria de las Flores and also perhaps the best time to visit Cano Cristales.
Instagrammable hot spots
The Houses of Guatape
Guatape is the number one day trip from Medellin. This gorgeous little town is a two hour bus trip from Medellin. Don’t miss a visit to Piedra Penon – this giant rock is the stop before Guatape and offers amazing views of this beautiful region and is also very Instagram friendly!
Once you have climbed the rock, hop in a cab and get them to take you to Guatape. Most of the town is filled with gorgeous colourful houses, but the main square has one of the cutest churches that you are likely to ever see – and a super cute fountain in front of it, too! I personally thought that the best houses were west, past the main square away from the bus station.
The houses are purposely painted different colours to differentiate them, and often feature imagery which guides you as to the occupation of the owners – one even features caskets for the funeral home! The light can be tricky due to shadows however, so it is ideal to get to Guatape for mid-morning. Wander around taking shots, have some lunch and maybe a boat trip on the lake, and then head back for an afternoon capture before heading back to Medellin.
Medellin Street Art
Street art has had a big part to play in the rejuvenation of Colombia. The Colombians have cleverly used street art to turn derelict neighbourhoods into outdoor art galleries and, in turn, major tourist attractions. Nowhere is this more evident than Medellin’s ‘Communa 13 neighbourhood.’
Communa 13 used to literally be ‘the most dangerous neighborhood in the world’. Due to its unique location near the highway which takes you out of Medellin, and its very hilly topography, it made it easy to spot any law enforcement, and was the centre of the drug wars in Medellin. As the violence decreased the locals began to use their outside spaces to express through their art how they felt about having been held captive to the drug wars for so long. This sparked a community of graffiti artists and enterprising locals began to run tours which brought in more artists (and art!) and you now have one of the hottest tourist areas in Medellin. The portraits throughout the area are stunning and constantly changing. A tour of this fascinating neighborhood is a must for any trip to Medellin.
There is also street art in many of the other neighbourhoods of Medellin, as well as in Cartagena and Bogota.
Feria de las Flores
Did you know that Colombia is one of the biggest producers of flowers in the world? And at the centre of this booming industry is in the city of Eternal Spring, Medellin. Every August Medellin turns even more colourful for the Feria de las Flores, and this week-long festival culminates in a parade that stops the city.
Activities take place all week long leading up to the parade, but the highlights are the amazing displays in the Botanical Garden of Medellin, including an extremely insta-friendly display in one of the main shopping malls, Santa Fe. In 2017 the mall featured a three-storey high peacock made from flowers. The city is filled with flowers over this time with many businesses participating, the parade is televised and the winners (and losers) are on display for several days after the parade.
Cartagena was the first town in Colombia to emerge back into the tourism scene after the problems of the 1990s and early 2000s. This stunning town was heavily promoted based on its gorgeous coloured houses. The government actually determines which colour your house will be based on your neighbours!
You can easily see these super streets and buildings by wandering yourself, although the most colourful streets are in the neighbourhood of San Diego. There are larger gorgeous buildings, including a stunning salmon pink church, on the edges of the walled old town.
Cartagena also has a vibrant food scene with amazing multi-coloured popsicles and ceviche that are also very photogenic! They lead the way when it comes to fruit-based street food and vibrant colours. For street art head to the neighbourhood of Getsemani. Finally, you can also find some fantastic photo opportunities when it comes to the extraordinarily colourful handbags and crafts of the many street vendors.
Fernando Botero is perhaps Colombia’s most famous artist, who is a prolific sculptor and painter. His work is best known for his unique use of proportions – resulting in some very Instagram-friendly sculptures in particular!
Botero was born in Medellin. As part of the rejuvenation of the city he contributed 23 large bronze sculptures that created Plaza Botero and one of the most charming parts of Medellin. This lovely square is full of art, street vendors, tourists and locals. It is also the location of the Museo de Antioquia which displays more Botero sculptures as well as many of his paintings.
Parque San Antonio is the location for the Pajaro de Paz, or the Bird of Peace. Very sadly many Colombians were killed during a terrorist attack at a concert in this square. The Botero sculpture of a bird was also partially destroyed. Botero insisted that the destroyed sculpture be kept on display in memory of those who lost their lives. He then provided a brand new identical sculpture free of charge. The two sculptures now stand side by side.
Bogota has a dedicated Botero museum which includes some of his most famous works, including his take on the Mona Lisa and his Pablo Escobar painting. When Bogota donated all of these works free of charge to the museum he had two conditions. The first was that there could be no entry fee. The second was that these works could never leave Bogota. Anyone who wanted to see his works would have to travel to Bogota. Botero also has a keen tourism brain by all accounts!
Colombians love their street food and for Instagram it has to be about the fruit! Without question my favourite was the mango – ideally dipped in lime and salt. Locals like their mango raw but I prefer mine ripe and juicy – and photo ready!
Colombians also love a popsicle – it is like their gelato. There are popsicle stores – particularly in Cartagena – where you can see every flavour of popsicle you could ever imagine. The ladies who sell fruit and fruit-based drinks in Cartagena are also very Instagram-friendly with their colourful dresses and hats. Just make sure you purchase something from them, or ask before you start snapping!
Cano Cristales is the name of a river located in the Meta province of Colombia. The river runs for approximately 100km through a national park. This area was off limits to tourists for many years as the area was controlled by Guerillas. The army has managed to take back a good chunk of this region and it is now safe for travel.
The key appeal of Cano Cristales is due to a unique flora in the river that appears to turn a rainbow colour during the months of July to November. This phenomenon is at its height in August and September and is absolutely stunning.
It is not easy to get to Cano Cristales. Due to its fragile ecosystem there are limits on visits and tourism agencies, so you cannot visit independently. Flights from Bogota to La Macarena on a small plane take about one hour and the schedule is limited. Once you get there, expect fairly heavy walking in extreme heat to visit the most beautiful parts of the river.
However, let’s face it you have to earn your amazing Instagram shots and Cano Cristales certainly provides them! The combination of natural phenomenon, difficulty in getting there and amazingly strong colours makes this incredibly instagrammable!
The Rejuvenation of Medellin
Art is now almost omnipresent in Medellin – in a good way! I believe that it is now a law that any new building must incorporate some type of art into its development. Indeed the clever paisas of Medellin have used art to transform the city. A fantastic and oh so instagrammable example of this is the Square of Lights of Plaza Cisneros.
This square used to be filled with drug addicts and dealers, but the city then decided to change this by putting in a massive art installation. Over 300 light masts were installed that are over 22 metres tall. At night the square is now lit up, which has the double purpose of encouraging tourists and discouraging illegal activity! The brutalist architecture of Alpujarra Administrative Centre near Plaza Cisneros also makes for some great shots.
Key tips for your visit:
– Close your taxi door gently! Taxi drivers throughout Colombia are very sensitive about their vehicles and seem to think that a solid slam could destroy their source of income. They get very angry if you close their doors to firmly – so remember to be courteous!
– Sit in the front seat of any app called taxi. Pretend you’re Australian! Colombia is still sensitive about the arrival of Uber, Tappsi etc. so the driver prefers it if you sit in the front as you then seem more like friends vs a customer. Don’t use the apps to get a taxi to the airport as cars have been known to be stopped.
– Don’t mention Pablo Escobar – particularly in Medellin. Escobar is still a source of much contention and emotion and everyone has a view. Thanks to Narcos (which is brilliant by the way) this has probably become even more heightened in recent years.
– If you take the bus to Guatape get off at the stop after Penol and BEFORE Guatape on the way there. This stop allows you to walk up Piedra Penon (there are little carriages you can take the 1km walk from the bus stop to the rock). Once you are finished take a taxi in to Guatape. Get them to drop you at the bus station and purchase your return bus ticket then – they often sell out. Then you can relax and enjoy Guatape!
– Take advantage of the free walking tours on offer in Medellin, Bogota and Cartagena. The tours in Medellin and Bogota are particularly good. Sign up for these tours online (they run in English most days). At the end of the tour you can then decide how much value you thought the tour provided. The guides are all locals and tend to be fantastic storytellers. A great way to get to know these fascinating cities.
– Colombia is famous for its emeralds – and Bogota is the place to buy them! In the centre of Bogota is a four storey shopping mall that is filled with emerald shops. All are sold with certificates etc. If you like emeralds this is the place to buy them!
– When visiting Cano Cristales you will have to choose between sunscreen and swimming. It is HOT in Cano Cristales during the peak of the river’s colours. However, due to the delicate ecosystem of the park it is illegal to swim if you have put sunscreen on that day. Your options are to either completely cover up in the heat or just put your feet in. I also bought some “sleeves” in La Macarena to complement my short sleeved tops as the sun was so fierce.
Note: As always, be sure to check the Foreign Affairs website in your country for any travel advice and warnings (as you should for any country you plan to visit) before you book your flight and proceed with further planning. Happy travels!
Featured image courtesy of getty images, all other images credited to Amanda O’Brienn