Best national parks in Colombia for volcanoes, glaciers, scuba diving and more

Best national parks in Colombia for volcanoes, glaciers, scuba diving and more

Colombia’s national parks offer a staggering range of ecosystems, such as the volcanoes and sparse highland paramo at Parque Nacional Natural Puracé © Guillermo Ossa / Shutterstock

A country famed for its exceptional natural wealth, Colombia promises beguiling natural beauty that spans rugged Andean peaks, wildlife-rich tropical rainforests, vast grasslands of wax palms and sparse, highland paramo. 

Following two decades of concerted efforts to strengthen its protected areas, the country now has 59 national parks and protected areas, which span a total of 200,000 sq km  (77,220 sq miles) – adding up to a whopping one-sixth of Colombia’s land mass. Venturing into one of this country’s national parks offers an escape into remote, pristine and – more often than not – hard-to-access lands. But doing so is always worth the effort. 

From encounters with an unsurpassed richness of wildlife to hiking trails offering majestic mountain views, remarkable indigenous stories past and present, and much more, these treasures simply dazzle travelers. Here is our guide to the best national parks in Colombia.

Best national parks in Colombia for volcanoes, glaciers, scuba diving and more

On your visit to Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, you might spot a critically endangered cotton-top tamarin © Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / Shutterstock

Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is the best national park for white-sand beaches

An exquisitely beautiful stretch of white-sand beaches, vast rock formations and untouched rainforest, Tayrona National Natural Park lies in the north of the country, between the skirts of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range and the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea. 

Colombia’s most visited park extends across 12,000 hectares (29,650 acres) of land, with a further 3000 hectares (7413 acres) of ocean protected, too. You’ll find access to glorious swimming and snorkeling on a select few beaches; treacherous currents make many others too dangerous for a dip – if beautiful to admire. The obligatory trail from the entrance at Cañaveral into the park traces the coast, dropping by beaches where you can take shade beneath a coconut palm or even catch sight of the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin monkeys that call the adjoining jungle home. 

At night, choose a hammock, beachside tent or rustic cabin so close to the ocean that the crashing waves will lull you to sleep. And for maximum tranquility, avoid visiting in December and January when the park is packed with backpackers and pleasure seekers. 

See one of the last untouched places on earth at Parque Nacional Natural Serranía del Chiribiquete

One of the last unexplored corners of the planet, Serranía del Chiribiquete National Park is the world’s largest tropical rainforest park and one of Colombia’s most remarkable protected areas, Covering 44,000 sq km (17,000 sq miles), the park was added to Unesco’s World Heritage List in 2018 thanks to its incredible biodiversity (some 3000 animal and plant species reside here) and unique topography in the form of the tepuis, table-top mountains that rise dramatically out of the jungle. 

But human history is what makes this place special. Deep within the park lie 75,000 cave paintings dating back to 20,000 BCE, which depict hunting scenes and other ceremonial events. They’re believed to still be used by the five uncontacted tribes who reside within the park’s borders. 

Serranía del Chiribiquete National Park first opened to visitors only in 2019, and access is solely by a limited number of 1-hour flyovers run by local tour operators, where you’ll see the park’s dazzling topography and lush jungle from the air.

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Best national parks in Colombia for volcanoes, glaciers, scuba diving and more

Active travelers will love hiking through Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados, one of Colombia’s most dramatic and high-altitude national parks © Antoine Barthelemy / Shutterstock

Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados offers exciting high-altitude hiking

Dappled with snow-swept volcanic peaks thrusting towards the sky, Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados is one of Colombia’s most dramatic and high-altitude national parks. Adventurous travelers come here in their droves to tackle the summit of Nevado del Tolima, a 5200m (17,060ft) volcanic crater that requires technical mountaineering experience. For more casual hikers, gentler trails pass up through the sparse yet striking paramo landscapes to reach glassy lagoons and age-old glaciers. You’ll need a registered guide to hike here, which you can organize in nearby Salento.

In the southern skirts of the national park, the more accessible Valle de Cocora is a verdant wonderland of grasslands and cloud forest surrounded by Colombia’s trademark rolling hills dotted with coffee plantations. The main attraction is the Quindío wax palm, Colombia’s national tree, a species that towers up to 60m (196ft). Admire it from the meandering trails that take you to viewpoints from which breathtaking panoramas of the whole Cocora valley and the craggy peaks of the park’s northern reaches await. 

Explore the beautifully barren paramo at Parque Nacional Natural Chingaza

Tucked into the eastern Andes within a stone’s throw of Bogotá, Chingaza National Natural Park is a rich source of water, its 60 lagoons providing 80% of the water consumed by the capital city’s residents. It also provides some of the easiest access from the capital to Colombia’s distinctive paramo. This barren yet beautiful tundra-like ecosystem sits between the tree line and snow line, and is dotted with curious-looking frailejón plants. 

No public transport operates here, so exploring this 76,600-hectare (189,300-acre) park requires the assistance of a Bogotá-based tour operator or your own vehicle. Five hiking trails, each with visitor caps at either 40 or 60 per day, allow you to explore the park, with the most popular being the challenging climb to reach the otherworldly Lagunas de Siecha. 

Altitudes hit 4000m (13,120ft) above sea level within the park, so give yourself a couple of days to acclimate in Bogotá before venturing out here. 

Summit an active volcano at Parque Nacional Natural Puracé

In the far south of Colombia and protecting a slice of the Andes, Parque Nacional Natural Puracé packs volcanoes, dazzling waterfalls, soaring condors and sparse highland paramo within its boundaries. 

Like most of Colombia’s national parks, the best way to experience the remote but beautiful natural landscapes here is on foot. The best route is the hike to the edge of the crater of the 4650m (15,255ft) Volcán Puracé, the only active volcano in Colombia with a summit that’s safe to reach. Keep your eyes on the skies for the unmissable vast wingspan of the Andean condors, a species introduced to the park in 2002. 

Visit Puracé during September and October to see the frailejón plants that dominate the paramo produce dazzling, sunflower-like blooms. 

Take in shrinking glaciers (while you still can) at Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy 

Remote and untouched, Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy is a challenging place to reach. Yet the effort of a 10-hour rattling bus journey northeast from Bogotá pays big dividends, granting access to a 3060 sq km (1180 sq mile) park that’s home to 15 magnificent 5000m-plus peaks, electric-blue lakes and the largest expanse of glaciers in the country, which are narrowly clinging on despite the onward march of climate change. 

While many hiking trails have been closed because of objections from the resident U’wa people about visitors crossing their sacred lands, the park still has plenty to offer. Trekking highlights include the 12-hour trail to El Pulpito del Diablo, a shard of rock spiking out of a slowly retreating glacier, beyond which alpine tundra, glacial valleys and vertiginous mountains roll into the distance.

Best national parks in Colombia for volcanoes, glaciers, scuba diving and more

Every year, the Caño Cristales bursts into a bloom of pink and red thanks to the Macarenia clavigera plant within its depths © sunsinger / Shutterstock

Swim in magenta-hued rivers at Parque Nacional Serranía de La Macarena

Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de La Macarena is where you’ll find one of Colombia’s most curious natural attractions. Each year within the tropical reaches of this park, a river blooms magenta. 

Better known as Caño Cristales or the Liquid Rainbow, this river bursts into a bloom of pink and red between July and October thanks to the Macarenia clavigera plant within its depths – and you can swim the water to get a closer look. As part of a guided tour, you can access a trail of waterfalls and swimming holes dotted around the south of the national park, all of which are within easy reach of the town of La Macarena.

Visitor numbers are capped at 200 per day, but this figure is rarely enforced; a mid-week trip will see many fewer visitors than on weekends. 

Enjoy snorkeling and scuba diving galore at Parque Nacional Old Providence McBean Lagoon

Measuring in at just 1485 hectares (3670 acres), Parque Nacional Old Providence McBean Lagoon is one of Colombia’s smallest national parks. It covers the mangrove forests in the east of Colombia’s Caribbean island, Providencia, as well as the surrounding waters, which protect part of the third-longest coral reef in the world. 

Within the park is Cayo Cangrejo, a magical, picture-perfect island nearby whose waters lay claim to some of the most remarkable snorkeling and diving in the region. Beneath the bathtub-warm and crystal-clear waters, you’ll spot coral reefs inhabited by schools of tropical fish. Keep your eyes peeled for four species of turtles and manta ray, too. 

Best national parks in Colombia for volcanoes, glaciers, scuba diving and more

It takes days of trekking through the jungle to reach Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in Colombia’s Parque Nacional Natural Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta © Jess Kraft / 500px

Visit Parque Nacional Natural Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta for intriguing archeological sites

The birthplace of the Tairona people, Parque Nacional Natural Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is best known as the home of Ciudad Perdida, the once-thriving Tairona city that remains buried deep in the jungle. This national park is a place of stark contrasts, where the soaring summits of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range slide into deep river valleys and practically impenetrable jungle. 

Descendants of the Tairona still inhabit this national park – and consider these mountains sacred – and you may well bump into them as part of the 5-day trek that slogs through the rainforest to reach the intriguing archeological site. Conditions are hot, humid and muddy; visit between December and February for dry ground underfoot.

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