Colombia is a music lover’s dream destination: a nation that is deeply passionate about music and dancing, with a rich and diverse cultural heritage where many unique genres have been invented. From the hip, independent music scene in the capital city to the rich folk music traditions of the Caribbean coast, here are 10 Colombian destinations that all music lovers should visit.
The Colombian capital is many people’s first stop on a trip to Colombia, and the vast city can seem overwhelming and intimidating at first glance. However, the music scene in Bogotá is thriving, with a wealth of excellent independent labels, diverse new bands, and unique live music venues to enjoy. Make sure to check out live music venues such as Boogaloop, Latino Power, and Matik-Matik, as well as electronic hot spots Video Club and Baum.
The capital of Colombia’s beloved accordion-led folk genre vallenato, Valledupar is a city that lives and breathes one genre of music, almost at the expense of all others! The city’s annual Vallenato Legend Festival is one of the most important folk music celebrations in Colombia, but the city moves to the distinctive strains of vallenato year-round. Music aficionados will want to pay a visit to the Vallenato Museum and pay homage to the statues of local legend Diomedes Diaz.
One of Colombia’s lesser-known cities, the capital of Tolima department has been recognized as “The Musical Capital of Colombia and America.” This recognition is thanks to the Conservatory of Tolima—one of Colombia’s most important music schools—its Colombian Folk Music Festival in June or July each year, and the many musical monuments throughout the city.
San Basilio de Palenque
Palenque was the first free slave settlement in the Americas and began life as a village of escaped slaves, many of whom brought unique traditions from their African homelands. Over the years, these traditions fused with local ones and created a unique culture, particularly around music. Champeta and Palenque music both originated in the town, and on a trip there, you can even pay a visit to Colombian musical legend Rafael Cassiana of the iconic Sexteto Tabala. Excellent rap newcomers Kombilesa Mi also call Palenque home.
If you’re a jazz lover, then you absolutely have to pay a visit to the little riverside town of Mompox for their annual Jazz Festival, which takes place every October. During this time, the otherwise sleepy town comes to life for a few days of excellent live music, parades, and general festival fun. With important artists from all over Colombia and specially invited musicians from across the world, Mompox’s Jazz Festival is fast becoming one of the most important music festivals in the country.
The Carnival Capital of Colombia has so much to offer beyond its amazing annual celebrations (although music lovers won’t want to miss carnival). Barranquilla has been nicknamed “the capital of African music” due to its unique connection to music from West Africa. The amazing pico sound systems, which can be found in most Barranquilla neighborhoods, are responsible for this. DJs used to scratch the names off the labels of records from Africa to protect their unique sound from rival DJs—so the DJ had no way of knowing the name of the song—and over the years, the sounds fused with local ones to create exciting new genres.
This tiny little town in the coastal department of Bolivar is famous for two things: hammocks and gaita music. Gaita is a form of cumbia music based around the Indigenous gaita—a flute-like instrument typically played alongside drums, the guacharaca (a percussion instrument), and accordion. The iconic Colombian gaita group Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto are from the town, and the entire place lives and breathes this typical Colombian genre.
The southern city of Cali is famous as the Colombian, and even world, capital of salsa music, and a trip to Cali to dance in one of its hundreds of salsa clubs is an essential pilgrimage for any music lover in the country. Cali has also become a focal point for Pacific music due to its proximity to the major Pacific port of Buenaventura, and every year, Cali plays host to the Petronio Alvarez Festival of Pacific Music, one of Colombia’s best traditional music festivals.
The tiny, generally unknown town of Ovejas in Sucre department hosts one of the most important folk music festivals on the Colombian calendar every year in October: The National Gaita Festival. For a few days, the town becomes a hub of all things gaita, as musicians and music lovers alike flock there to appreciate the excellent live music, exuberant dancing, and colorful costumes of the festival. It’s arguably one of the best off-the-beaten-track festivals for music lovers in Colombia.
Another top choice for music lovers looking for a slightly more unusual and lesser-known musical experience, the Cumbia Festival in the riverside town of El Banco is another important folk music festival, celebrating one of Colombia’s most important genres of music. Cumbia has its origins in Colombia, so you can hardly be a music lover visiting the country in August and not stop by El Banco for the festival.