Colombia is my favorite country in the world.
It is STUFFED with awesomeness—there’s just so much to love.
But what is Colombia famous for exactly?
Because it turns out, this country gets a bad rap. And if everything you know about Colombia comes from the news and media, you are only getting one side of the story.
And that’s not fair.
That’s why today I’m show you what Colombia is known for—things I’ve gotten to know well over the past three years living here.
We’re going to cover both the good and the bad, so buckle up.
Let’s get started.
Famous Colombia Foods
Colombia cuisine is one of the best in South America. The country’s unique geographic location creates a special food scene combining flavors from Latin America, the Caribbean region, and more. As you’ll see, each region in Colombian has its own signature dish that it’s known for.
A few of the must-try foods in Colombia are:
Bandeja Paisa is one of the signature Colombian dishes if you’re looking for a delicious, hearty meal. Seriously, it’s not for the faint of heart.
It’s basically an overloaded plate consisting of rice, beans, eggs, fried plantain, and avocado. You’ll also get a hefty serving of meats—including chorizo, chicharron, and steak.
This dish is especially popular in Medellin (the name literally means “Meal of the Paisas”, which is what people from Medellin are called), but you can find it anywhere in Colombia— from fancy restaurants to small hole-in-the-wall diners.
When large groups of Colombians get together, you’re likely to see sancocho on the menu. Sancocho is a community dish—a delicious stew often cooked in a ginormous pot.
Everyone prepares sancocho differently, but they all have meat, plantains, potatoes, yucca, vegetables, and the secret ingredient, aji—a salsa you mix in that gives it some kick.
Ajiaco is a famous Colombian dish from the capital city, Bogota. Think of it like chicken noodle soup, but a little bit thicker and 100x better.
There are also no noodles (maybe chicken noodle soup wasn’t the best comparison). Instead, the chicken is mixed with small Andean potatoes and corn on the cob. These potatoes dissolve as the stew cooks, giving it a yummy, thick texture.
It’s normally topped with a blob of sour cream and is often accompanied by a giant slice of avocado.
Arepas are a famous Colombian dish that comes in many shapes and sizes. Think of it like a piece of grilled (or fried) cornmeal flatbread. It’s hard to explain without actually trying one for yourself.
Some restaurants throw tiny arepas on your plate as a side dish (these are pretty bland, in my opinion). But other restaurants sell bigger arepas stuffed with meat, cheese, and veggies.
Arepas are popular around the clock. Many Colombians eat arepa y huevos (arepa and eggs) for breakfast. You can also find street vendors selling greasy cheese-stuffed arepas all day long.
Exotic Fruits (and Mega Fruit Salads)
Before traveling to Colombia, I thought I knew of all the fruits. Boy, was I wrong.
Turns out, the fruits I grew up with in the U.S. are only a small fraction of all the weird and delicious exotic fruits in Colombia.
We’re talking things like guanábana, zapote (sapota), cherimoya, maracuyá (passion fruit), borojó, gulupa, uchuva (golden berry), pitaya (dragon fruit), mangostino (mangosteen), curuba (banana passion fruit), lulo, níspero (medlar)…the list goes on and on.
Which brings us to the mega fruit salad.
This is a giant bowl of fresh fruit topped with double cream, ice cream, condensed milk, coconut, and peanuts. Out of all the foods Colombia is best known for, this is my favorite.
What Colombia is Famous for Producing
Colombia is an export powerhouse in South America. When visiting, you can’t help but see the influence these major products have on the culture.
Some top products that Colombia is known for producing are:
You haven’t had coffee until you’ve tasted Colombian coffee.
The rich, volcanic soil in the Colombian mountains is perfect for producing some of the world’s best coffee. Colombia exports most of its top-quality coffee to the U.S. and Europe. This is great for foreigners, but kinda sucks for Colombians who get stuck drinking the bottom of the barrel coffee.
That said, if you visit Colombia—especially the Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axis) region, you’ll find tons of coffee tours where you can learn how it is cultivated and get a chance to taste “the good stuff”, right off the coffee farm.
Colombia is also a gold mine—both literally and figuratively. Colombia-exported gold is highly sought after due to its purity. And if you’re buying gold locally, you can find some great deals (just make double-sure that it’s real!)
Gold has always been a major product in Colombia. You can find various Gold Museums in cities all throughout the country to learn about its history.
Flowers are a big deal in Colombia. Like, a really big deal.
Colombia is the world’s second largest flower exporter, second only to the Netherlands. And just like the Netherlands’ famous Tulip Festival, the city of Medellin, Colombia—nicknamed the ‘City of Eternal Spring’—has its own famous Flower Fair every year.
Colombia is the 3rd (closing in on 2nd) biggest avocado exporter in the world. And we’re not talking about those tiny, pathetic-looking avocodos you get from Mexico (the #1 exporter)…
Colombian avocados are GINORMOUS! I once saw one nearly the size of my head.
Colombian avocados can be found all over the U.S., but if you visit Colombia (which you should), you can enjoy them for a fraction of the price. Heck, I’ve even lived places with avocado trees and had a free unlimited supply!
Colombia is also known for cheap plastic surgeries and producing “perfect” bodies.
Medical tourism is a huge deal here, and people fly in from all over the world to get work done.
This is most popular in Medellin and Cali, where—according to my Colombian wife—most middle- to upper-class women have had some sort of plastic surgery.
Famous celebrities and rappers have even had their teeth “designed” where I go for my routine teeth cleanings. My dentist told me that in Colombia, you can get a full set of veneers for the cost of one tooth in the U.S.
Note: Even though medical care is way cheaper than in the U.S., it’s still SUPER important to get travel insurance (here are the best travel insurance plans). It’s no fun getting stuck with huge medical bills (been there!)—especially when travel insurance is as cheap as this.
Famous Colombian People
Colombia has its fair share of famous people, too – people that helped put the country on the map. Maybe you’ve heard of…
Colombian women are known for being some of the most beautiful creatures on earth (and I’m not just saying that because my wife is Colombian!). Shakira proves that not only are Colombian girls good-looking, but they’re also extremely talented. Whether she’s singing, acting, or dancing, Shakira is one of the most famous Colombian celebrities to walk the earth.
Flip on your TV, and there’s a good chance you’ll see Sofia Vergara on your screen. Born in the coastal city of Barranquilla, she’s hands-down one of the most famous Colombians. She’s been the highest-paid television actress from 2013 to 2020. With her stunning looks and adorable accent, it’s easy to see why!
J Balvin is another famous name from Medellin that you might recognize from the radio. He’s one of the top Latin American singers and helps bring a positive light to Medellin. It’s nearly impossible to spend a day in Colombia without hearing one of his songs blasting from a car or bar.
Pablo Escobar is the most notorious name in Colombia’s drug history. He single-handedly stained Colombia’s reputation and is responsible for thousands of deaths. Colombians hate the fact that Pablo is the first thing that pops into a foreigner’s mind when they think of Colombia (instead of the flowers or gold or delicious mega fruit salads).
But the truth is—whether they like him or not—he played a big role in the country’s history. That said, the goal of this article is to show that there’s a lot more to Colombia than Pablo, and today’s Colombia is nothing like what you see on Narcos.
Famous Colombia Landmarks and Places
Tayrona National Park
With nearly 500,000 visitors every year, Tayrona National Park is a must-visit for any Colombia itinerary. It’s located in the Caribbean region and extends from the Atlantic coast to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains.
The park is famous for its beautiful hikes and jungle-framed beaches. It’s also chock-full of wildlife including monkeys, deer, tiger cats, and birds (lots and lots of birds!). If you’re lucky, you may even spot an endangered cotton-top tamarin.
While there are loads of stunning beaches in Tayrona National Park, the most popular is by far Cabo San Juan.
El Peñon de Guatapé
El Peñon de Guatapé is a massive granite rock erecting from the Earth in the region of Antioquia. The rock is one of the most popular natural landmarks in Colombia and an absolute must-see. It’s located on the border between the town of El Peñol and the colorful Guatapé.
El Peñon de Guatapé towers 200 meters high. Visitors can climb to the top via 650 zig-zag steps on the face of the rock. If the climb doesn’t take your breath away, the view from the top certainly will.
Cartagena’s Old Town
If you’ve ever seen photos of Colombia, chances are they’ve been of Cartagena’s Old Town.
Cartagena is one of Colombia’s top Caribbean coastal destinations. It’s unique in that it boasts modern high-rise buildings on one side and the preserved Old Town on the other. Old Town, or the Walled City, is the city’s tourist hub where you’ll discover the vibrant culture, history, colorful Spanish colonial architecture, and more.
The Coffee Axis (or “Eje Cafetero”)
The Coffee Axis region of Colombia is known for more than just coffee production. It’s is just plain beautiful!
Set up in the cool mountains, it is one of Colombia’s most popular tourist regions—especially among Colombians.
It’s jam packed with fincas (AKA Colombian cottages or farm houses) where people like to vacation for the weekend.
Speaking of fincas, we actually lived in one for several months. In case you’re wondering, here’s what they look like:
San Andres is a small island in the Caribbean that belongs to Colombia (which is kind of weird since it’s much closer to Nicaragua). It’s the perfect getaway destination to enjoy the beautiful tropical weather, white-sand beaches, and crystal blue waters.
It’s a favorite among tourists due to these iconic beaches and unique blend of Colombian and Caribbean culture. It’s also a duty-free zone, and due to its cheap flights from Colombia, it’s become a popular shopping destination.
Considered one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, Caño Cristales is a must-see for anyone visiting Colombia. It’s a colorful river flowing through Colombia’s Meta region and its rare properties attract many visitors.
Caño Cristales is located within Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de la Macarena. As soon as you arrive, you’ll immediately see the vibrant hues of red, green, yellow, blue, and black. The water is actually clear, and the colors are attributed to the plants on the riverbed.
If you’re planning a visit, keep in mind that the vibrant red color is most vibrant between July and October.
When most people think about Colombia, they picture a lush, green landscape. That’s not the case in La Guajira—a desert region stretching across Colombia and Venezuela. It is home to Punta Gallinas, the northernmost tip of South America where the desert meets the sea.
La Guajira features stunning dunes stretching as far as you can see. Since it’s so far off the beaten path (and crosses through some sketchy areas), most tourists visit the remote areas of La Guajira on guided overnight tours.
Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá
This famous Salt Cathedral is hands down one of the most unique architectural wonders in Colombia. It’s a Roman Catholic Church constructed 200 meters underground in former salt mine caves. And if you’re not claustrophobic, you take a tour inside the structure to learn about its awe-inspiring history.
The Salt Cathedral is located near Zipaquirá, approximately one hour drive from Bogota. The cathedral was designed with three rooms to represent Jesus’ birth, life, and death. You’ll see large crosses, ornaments, and sculptures all carved from the rocks.
And the coolest part?
The church is still active and hosts thousands of attendees every Sunday for service.
Popular Colombian Dances
If you’re planning a night out in Colombia, expect to dance—a lot. Colombians love dancing, and if you visit, you’ll quickly discover that anywhere you look is a potential space for an impromptu dance floor.
Let’s start with the most popular Colombian dance of all…
Salsa dancing is by far one of the most famous things Colombia is known for.
In fact, when I was traveling through South America, my number one bucket list item was to learn how to salsa dance in Cali, Colombia—the “Salsa Capital of the World”. (Fun fact: This is how I met my wife!).
Now, salsa didn’t originate in Colombia, but when the music first arrived to the ports of Buenaventura and spread to Cali, the people were obsessed with it and adopted it as their own. Since then, Colombians have even invented their own style of salsa music and dancing styles.
The first is Cali-Style Salsa (AKA Salsa Caleña). This style involves a lot more footwork than the international style of salsa. It’s also faster-paced (and much more tiring – no wonder you rarely see fat people here). Dancing salsa is one of the best things to do in Cali if you want to mingle with the locals for a truly authentic cultural experience.
Salsa Choke (pronounced “chohkay”) is another, more modern dance style with Afro-Colombian roots. It’s basically a fusion of salsa, reggaeton, and hip-hop, and can be more fun for beginners because the music is catchier and it’s more of a “freestyle” dance than traditional salsa.
Cumbia (and other cultural dances)
Colombia is also known for several different traditional dances—the most popular being cumbia. It’s the official dance in Colombia with roots deep in the country’s past. Cumbia is a performance style dance complete with traditional costumes and accompanied by live musicians.
If you ever visit the famous Carnival in Barranquilla—the second-largest Carnival in the world—you’ll get to see cumbia at it’s best.
In addition to cumbia, each region of Colombia is known for its own traditional dance style. From champeta and mapalé along the Caribbean coast to joropo in the plains region—the entire country has dancing in their blood.
Bad Things Colombia is Known For
Let’s be honest – Colombia isn’t all delicious food, great weather, and beautiful women. The elephant in the room is some of the things Colombia is infamous for. And I bet you know at least one of them…
Colombia is the #1 cocaine producer in the world. Thanks to drug lords like Pablo Escobar, Colombian cocaine is known worldwide and responsible for vast amounts of illegal money generated in the country.
And while Colombia is nothing like it was back in Pablo’s time (~30 years ago), they still have massive cocaine production fields in the rural countryside. While the government has intervened significantly, it’s still a big business.
As a tourist, you may be offered cocaine in the streets (usually only in super touristic areas). This is a big no-no. I met a fellow traveler who bought from a dealer working with the police. Seconds after buying, the police popped out and threatened to arrest him.
He got away with a bribe, but trust me, a Colombian prison is not a place you want to end up.
Colombia is also known for having the longest civil war in history. The war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (AKA the “FARC”) started in 1964 and is responsible for over 260,000 deaths. A peace agreement was finally signed in 2016, but it hasn’t brought an end to the violence.
The peace agreement is one of the hottest political topics in Colombia, as much of the country doesn’t agree with letting the FARC off easy for all the crimes they’ve committed.
It’s important to note that you don’t really ever see these internal conflicts as a tourist. Most of it is happening in extremely rural areas. Unfortunately, this has made some beautiful places in Colombia off-limits for many years.
Hopefully this changes in the future. Seeing as though one FARC camp in La Guajira has actually been opened for tours, things seem to be headed in the right direction.
What are Colombians known for?
So we know what Colombia the country is famous for. But what are Colombians known for?
Well, they are known for being some of the warmest, friendliest people on earth. Coming from a first-world country where people are generally closed off (and sometimes even downright cold) towards strangers, you can literally feel the difference when you step into Colombia.
Everyone is out on the streets laughing and chatting each other up (apart from Bogota—people are always in a rush there). Don’t be surprised if strangers walk up and strike up a conversation with you. I’ve even had people wave me down from the other side of the street because they wanted to chat.
There must be something in the air, but it just seems like people smile and are happier in Colombia.
That said, Colombians are also known for taking advantage of others. Let me be clear, most Colombians are honest. But the rotten apples give the entire country a bad rap. Whether you’re a foreigner or a local, it’s best not to give people the opportunity to screw you over.
Lastly, Colombians are known for their passion. Every emotion seems to be more intense. Whether that be passionate love, passionate fighting, or passion for football (AKA soccer), the excitement Colombians have for life is contagious.
Why is Colombia so popular?
As you can see, there’s a lot to love about Colombia. She’s filled with unique culture. She has a wide variety of stunning natural landscapes. Her land produces some of the best coffee and flowers in the world. And she’s home to some of the most lovely people on the planet.
Colombia is truly an amazing country, and in order to fully appreciate her, you have to visit for yourself…
The longer, the better!
Mitch is your typical nomadic backpacker. Or at least, he was. But after stopping in Colombia to take “one week” of salsa lessons, his life took a sharp left turn. He met a cute Colombian girl in dance class, fell in love, and got married. Over half a decade has passed since he left his career to travel the world as a digital nomad, and he’s never looked back.
Nowadays, he’s the blogger behind Project Untethered—where he runs an awesome email newsletter and Youtube channel teaching adventure-craved wanderlusters how to escape the rat race, earn money from anywhere, and build an “untethered life”.