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Colombia has exploded onto the backpacker and traveller scene over the past few years and is now a popular destination for travellers from all over the world. While there are many destinations – Cartagena, Medellín and Salento, for example – that are well known and popular, there are plenty of towns and cities that remain hugely underrated by travellers. Here are the most underrated towns and cities to visit in Colombia.
Colombia’s White City, Popayan sees a decent level of tourism these days, but is hardly ever mentioned when people discuss the most beautiful cities in Colombia, which is a shame, because the lovely historical city should surely come out top in many such lists. With a pleasant, laid-back atmosphere, beautiful architecture, famous gastronomy and excellent day trips to nearby national parks and villages, Popayan is well worth a few days of your time.
Colombia’s Pacific coast is a vastly underrated destination, which hardly sees a fraction of the tourist numbers that the more accessible Caribbean coast enjoys. However, the region has much to offer, with ecotourism, whale-watching, surfing and more. The little beachside town of El Valle might not seem the most picturesque place at first glance, but there are loads of ecolodges, hostels and excellent tours available, making it the perfect base to explore this wild jungle coastline.
Mongui is known to Colombians as one of the country’s most beautiful small towns, but hardly merits a mention in most guidebooks and blogs about Colombia, as nearby Villa de Leyva hogs the column inches. Mongui is a delightful little town, with classic colonial architecture, remarkably kind and friendly people and a pleasant cool climate. Best of all, you’re likely to be one of the only tourists there.
Known locally as the Golden Gate to the Amazon, Florencia is a bustling city on the frontier of the Andes and the Amazon in the underrated department of Caqueta. It’s also the base for some excellent off-the-beaten-track activities, from rafting the Orteguaza River to exploring jungle caves and canyons, visiting amazing natural reserves like El Horeb, Las Palmas and Las Dalias and discovering Colombia’s myriad Amazonian indigenous cultures.
Another city on the fringes of the Andes and the Amazon, Mocoa has been slowly creeping onto the traveller radar for a few years now, but remains a highly underrated destination. The city itself isn’t especially pretty, but it’s a base for some wonderful jungle treks to some of Colombia’s most spectacular waterfalls such as Fin del Mundo, Hornoyaco and Ojo de Dios. The climate is warm and tropical, there is some excellent birdwatching and the ecotourism opportunities are seemingly endless.
A small town around four hours south of Medellín, Tamesis is often overshadowed by the more popular nearby Jardín, but has plenty to offer in its own right. Tamesis is a great base to practise extreme sports, with paragliding, rappelling, caving and canyoning all on offer. There are thousands of ancient indigenous petroglyphs dotted through the surrounding Cartama Valley, and the hiking in the mountains around the town is excellent too.
The prettiest small town in Colombia that most people have never heard of, La Playa de Belen is a tiny little town in Norte de Santander department, which itself hardly sees any tourism. Fewer than 1,000 people live in the urban area of the town, and the cobbled streets, whitewashed walls and red-tiled roofs are reminiscent of the much more well-known Barichara, but with barely any tourists. The surreal and beautiful Estoraques National Park is just a 10-minute walk from the town, too.
Guaviare department has often been written off as a tourist destination due to its long association with the Colombian conflict. However, much has changed, and the departmental capital of San Jose del Guaviare is an excellent base from which to visit ancient indigenous rock paintings, colourful red rivers, waterfalls and jungle lakes, and you can even swim with pink river dolphins here.