Be inspired by these road trip itineraries through Colombia © Luz Zuluaga Photography / Shutterstock
Unique biodiversity, historical sanctuaries, and unexpected landscapes are just a few of the incredible things that await you in Colombia. There is no better way to become acquainted with all the natural beauty this country – home to some of the world’s rarest species of birds, flowers, and amphibians – has to offer than to take an unforgettable road trip along its scenic routes and through its quaint towns.
Really get to know the the warmth of its people and the gastronomic variety that comes from being surrounded by ocean and jungle by hitting the open road. Here are the seven best road trips to take in Colombia.
Drive through history and culture on the Golden Door to the Walled City road trip
Barranquilla – Cartagena; 130km (80 miles); allow 5 days
Barranquilla, dubbed “The Golden Door” for being the first major port of Colombia, is known for its Carnaval, a celebration of Colombia’s African, Spanish, and indigenous roots. Music, costumes and dances show the influence each culture has on the history of the Caribbean part of the country. For an insight into the city’s Carnaval festivities, visit Museo del Caribe, La Casa del Carnaval, and Museo del Carnaval to learn about folklore rhythms such as cumbia and mapale. Stroll the Malecón del Rio, a lively 5km (3-mile) walking and cycling path that stretches alongside the Magdalena River, lined with restaurants and live music. Before you hit the road, grab a street snack of arepa de huevo (corn cake with a fried egg inside) or butifarra (peppery sausage).
Follow the Autopista highway (also called Via Paralela Al Mar) to Cartagena, a landmark city enclosed by well-preserved colonial walls and architecture. The controversial history of the Spanish conquest, slavery, and inquisition is depicted across the buildings and monuments of this pedestrian-friendly city.
Enjoy breathtaking views from atop the fortress of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, where the Spanish battled the English and French. You can also admire the inside of the Catedral de San Pedro Claver, spend a day at the beach drinking fresh coconut water, and visit the Old City at night to watch Las Murallas (the walls) light up while taking a horse-drawn carriage tour around town.
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Hit the highway along the Caribbean Coast for a driving route packed with beaches and water sports © aetb / Getty Images
For beaches and water sports, cruise along the Caribbean Coast
Puerto Velero – Coveñas; 326km (203 miles); allow 6 days
Road conditions in Colombia have improved, meaning more places are accessible for adventurous travelers. This road trip takes the Autopista Paralela Al Mar from Barranquilla to Puerto Velero and Salinas del Rey, a new base for those ready to hit the waves.
If you prefer to rest and recharge, you can also take the Autopista to Santa Veronica and spend the day tanning at the beach, eating mojarra frita (whole fried fish) with patacones (fried plantains).
Continuing on the Autopista, stop in Salinas de Galerazamba to admire the salty pink-colored beaches before heading to the Volcán de Lodo El Totumo for a day of soaking – not sinking – in healing mud and swimming at the nearby lagoon.
Sufficiently relaxed, drive toward the turquoise waters of Islas Barú in Cartagena, making a rest stop in the city and from there taking a boat tour to Parque Nacional Islas del Rosario, a coral sanctuary where you can kayak through mangroves and snorkel above the reefs.
Following the highway from Cartagena, the go-to spots are Tolú and Coveñas, two destinations that are great for families and couples looking to relax and enjoy activities on the water. The tranquil beaches have shallow access, making them ideal for children to experience the coral and fish without swimming too far from the shore.
Road conditions have improved in Colombia © Edgar Stroessner Delgado Rodriguez / Getty Images
Explore indigenous heritage on a road trip through natural parks
Santa Marta – Cabo de la Vela; 473km (294 miles); allow 6–8 days
On the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Santa Marta and Guajira are home to many ancestral indigenous tribes that have preserved their traditions and lifestyle. Drive around the city of Santa Marta and head to the Sierra Nevada, one of the few coastal mountains in the world with snowy peaks. In this serene location, the beaches of the Parque Nacional Tayrona are concealed from the rest of the city, while the swaying palm trees and crystalline waters heighten the spiritual atmosphere of this sacred ground.
Hiking through the jungle to the “Ciudad Perdida” (Lost City) inside Parque Tayrona can take a few days, but it’s a must for observing endangered species of birds and exploring hidden Pre-Columbian archeological ruins.
Hit the road again, taking the Avenida Troncal del Caribe highway from Santa Marta toward Riohacha in La Guajira, a bustling commercial city with many beautiful beaches. Stop to rest before heading to Cabo de la Vela, located in Uribia, the northernmost part of Colombia. It’s a secluded destination where the endless desert and bright blue Caribbean Sea meet.
The roads are not completely paved, so unless you have 4WD, it is recommended that you hire a local tour guide in Riohacha to take you to Cabo de la Vela, and to the indigenous reserves of the Wayuu people, the dunes of Punta Gallinas, and the Parque Natural Macuira.
You can support the women of the Arhuaca and Wayuu tribes by purchasing handwoven mochilas (bags) or chinchorros (hammocks), one-of-a-kind artisanal accessories made from sheep’s wool or thread, that are a representation of their culture and a contribution to their economy.
A visit to Valle del Cocora, the inspiration for scenes in the movie Encanto, is likely to be popular with young travelers © Rico Markus / Shutterstock
Make memories on the coffee route road trip, the best choice for family travelers
Cali – Villamaria; 434km (270 miles); allow 8 days
If you’re traveling with your family and looking for special spots to explore together, head to the Eje Cafetero (coffee axis) zone in Colombia, where the coffee is just as special as the places where it is made. Be enchanted by lush mountains, exceptional wildlife, and unforgettable outdoor experiences.
Nestled in the Cauca Valley, Cali is a historical city close to the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Take a tour of the stunning neo-Gothic church La Ermita, soak in the breathtaking views of the city from the hilltop statue El Cristo Rey in the Cerro de Los Cristales, and dance salsa in Plaza Caicedo.
Follow Route 23 from Cali toward La Tebaida, and in about three hours you will arrive in the city of Montenegro, where you can stay at a finca (countryside house) decorated with vibrant hanging flowers. Spend the night looking at a clear sky full of stars and wake up to the sounds of the birds before having a fun day on the roller coasters and rides at Parque del Café and letting eye-catching butterflies fly around you at the Jardín Botánico del Quindío.
An hour's drive away from Montenegro on Via a Circasia, you will encounter scenic towns like Salento and Finlandia, where the adults in your group can sip authentic Colombian coffee while visiting the fields and learning about the coffee-making process. Head into the incredible Valle del Cocora with scenery that inspired the 2021 movie Encanto. Here, the Quindío wax palm trees – the tallest in the world – are the backdrop to a collection of never-ending clouds and endangered wildlife, such as the Andean condor, Andean tapir, and the puma.
About two hours away on the same route, stop to experience the remarkable Termales de Santa Rosa de Cabal, waterfalls with cold and hot springs, before concluding your journey by traveling to Villamaria on Route 29CL to practice year-round winter sports on the slopes of the glacier-covered volcano of the Nevado del Ruiz at Parque Nacional de Los Nevados.
Drive between prehistoric and archaeological sites to the rare macarena flower
Neiva – La Macarena; 864km (537 miles); allow 5–7 days
Rich with history, Neiva has fascinating archeological monuments and sites, as well as festivals dedicated solely to the city’s dance of bambuco. The showstopper of this area is the Desierto de La Tatacoa, a magnificent dry tropical forest an hour away from the city on Route Neiva-Tello, where specimens of fossils remained hidden for thousands of years. You can drive your car inside without paying a fee and stargaze or camp under its orange-hued landscape. Learn more about the area’s paleontological contributions, which includes one of the largest accumulations of vertebrae fossils in the world, at the Museo Arqueológico Regional del Huila.
Taking Route 37 from Neiva to San Agustín, you will encounter two Unesco World Heritage Sites. Continue your exploration of the past at Parque Arqueológico Nacional de Tierradentro, an exquisite underground site with tombs and funerary temples adorned with colorful geometric murals. Get back on the road and head south for about four hours to reach Parque Arqueológico San Agustín, a ceremonial site that encompasses burial grounds surrounded by megalithic sculptures and carved monuments.
An excursion from San Agustín to the Serranía de la Macarena, where the unique biodiversity of the Andes and Amazon merge, is not an easy trip. Many of the roads from Route 20 to Route 65 are unpaved, and it will take about 11 hours. Luckily, towns like Florencia and San Vicente in between are rest stops that make the trip easier. Stop here to eat caldo de cucha (fish broth) or empanadas (fried, filled pastries).
Known as the “River of Five Colors,” Caño Cristales located in the Serranía de la Macarena is one of the few places in the world where the macarena flower blooms. From June to November, this rare plant mixes with the unique algae and minerals of the soil making the water have striking shades of red, blue, magenta, yellow, and green.
Barichara is considered Colombia’s most beautiful town © Joerg Steber / Shutterstock
Link up charming small towns on a heritage road trip
Bogotá – Chichamocha; 471km (293 miles); allow 5 days
This road trip begins in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia and the epicenter for colonial architecture and history. Bogotá’s roads can become congested so the city has implemented a system to prevent heavy traffic and help with pollution by limiting days you can drive based on your number plate. Before heading out, check whether the license plate of your vehicle has any blocked dates.
Before you get on the road, stretch your legs on a walking tour around the public square Plaza de Bolívar, where historical and government buildings are located. Stop by Catedral Primada (a colonial-era church), Casa de Nariño (the presidential residence) and the renowned Museo del Oro, which has more than 30,000 pieces of jaw-dropping pre-Columbian gold artifacts and jewelry on display.
Begin your road trip down the Autopista Norte highway with an hour-long drive toward the town of Zipaquirá and its Catedral de Sal, a remarkable underground church built entirely with salt. From there, take Route 45A to the majestic Laguna de Guatavita. This lake is the birthplace of the famous legend of “El Dorado” (the gilded one), which originated from the story of the Muisca indigenous tribe covering their king in gold dust during their ceremonies before he leapt into the lake.
Many beautiful small towns dot Route 55, but it’s Villa De Leyva, less than three hours away from Guatavita, that wins hearts with its combination of history and extreme sports. You can soak up the architecture walking around the white cobblestoned Plaza Mayor, taste delicious vino at one of the up-and-coming wineries, or venture out to do rappelling and zip-lining over the mountains.
From Villa De Leyva, you can take Route 62 to Route 45A and arrive at Barichara. Regarded as Colombia’s most beautiful town, this city has maintained its colonial edifices and churches, including the 18th-century Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción.
Continue on Route 45A to finish up this road trip in Cañón del Chicamocha, a spectacular steep canyon where you can take a horseback tour of the surroundings, drive a buggy through the Parque Nacional del Chicamocha, or admire the mountain views aboard the teleférico (cable car).
Get a dose of Colombia's incredible nature on the Pacific coast road trip
Medellín – Nuquí; 229km (142 miles); allow 6–8 days
Begin this trip in Medellín, a city known for its forever-spring weather and picturesque mountains. Visit the Plaza Botero and the Museo de Antioquia to appreciate sculptures and paintings by the famous artist Fernando Botero, known worldwide for depicting voluptuous figures of people and animals.
The Pacific coast of Colombia remains one of the least touristy regions of the country, but it is absolutely worth visiting for its remarkable fauna, flora, and private beaches.
Drive down the Autopista del Sur highway from Medellín, following Route 60 for about six hours, toward Quibdó, the capital of the state of Chocó. On the way, make a stop in Cascadas Sal de Frutas. These waterfalls have natural slides surrounded by lush vegetation, which combined with the sounds of the river and jungle, will help you experience the peacefulness of the area.
Once in Quibdó, get acquainted with the city's incredible African-influenced culture. As you take a walk down the Malecon you'll see it in dance and music performances, and in the architecture of the Catedral San Francisco de Asis.
Some of the beaches and state parks are less than an hour away from Quibdó but accessible only by boat or small-engine planes, making them quiet and seemingly untouched. Among these are the towns of Nuquí and Bahía Solano, which have an exceptional ecosystem that welcomes humpback whales during their mating season from July to November.
Another spot less than an hour away from Quibdó is the Parque Nacional Natural Ensenada de Utría, a striking union between rich rainforest, paradisiac beaches, and extraordinary wildlife including sharks, stingrays, and native birds.