Learning about the five natural regions of Colombia (or six natural regions if you count the islands) will help you plan your trip.
Since I started exploring Colombia (in 2015), the diversity between these different regions has always pleasantly surprised me. It’s like traveling to a new country in South America.
- Passing by the Caribbean coast, you will enjoy haphazard cities and the joie de vivre of their inhabitants.
- It contrasts the Pacific coast and its remote, quiet fishing communities along black sand beaches.
- If you venture to Los Llanos, you’ll explore endless savannahs full of wildlife and colorful rivers on horseback.
- Or you can decide to spice up your trip with a stop in the Amazon wilderness to get to know some of the indigenous communities.
- Between two expeditions, don’t forget to organize a cultural stay in one of the many large cities present in the mountainous region of the Andes.
- And then sunbathe on one of the paradisiacal islands of the country.
Read on to find out about all the Colombian natural regions.
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The Andean Region: large cities and mountains
The Andean region is the central area of Colombia, located in the Andes mountain range. It is the most densely populated area of the country, with multiple types of climates, cuisine, music, and dance.
Departments of this Colombian region
The Andean Region includes 10 of the 32 departments of Colombia. The following describes each one, with their corresponding capital city in parentheses.
This department hosts the country’s capital city, on the Andes mountains, and it offers different kinds of weather and many towns and places of interest you can visit, such as the salt cathedral in Zipaquira; La Chorrera waterfall (the tallest in Colombia) in Choachi; the Tabacal, Sisga, and Tomine lagoons; El Chochal de Siecha natural reserve, and plenty of other natural parks. People are less outgoing than in other regions.
This department has its own culture, with very friendly people, good food, and plenty of activities in Medellin, the capital, and its surroundings. You shouldn’t miss la piedra del peñol or the beautiful colonial towns in this department (Jericó, Jardín, Santa Fe de Antioquia), which also has its small share of the Caribbean coast. The vibe in Medellin is tremendous and will seduce all kinds of travelers.
This province is similar to Cundinamarca in terms of weather and landscape. The famous Tota lake, the largest and most beautiful in the country, is located at 3,015 masl on the Andes mountains. Boyaca is the area with the highest number of towns: 123. It also features hot springs (Paipa) and historical places such as Puente de Boyaca and Pantano de Vargas monuments. People are shy but friendly and live in beautiful colonial towns (Villa de Leyva, Mongui).
This area is part of the Eje Cafetero (the coffee growers’ region). It also hosts the volcano Nevado del Ruiz and great hot springs at high altitudes (above 3,000 masl.) Manizales, the capital, is a colonial city with excellent viewpoints and many university students.
Quindio is another department within the Eje Cafetero. Breakfasts are famous for their generosity and variety (they resemble a dinner platter). People are very friendly and helpful. Interesting places are Valle del Cocora, with beautiful wax palm trees, Parque del Café amusement park, and Filandia. The landscape of the Andes mountains and the spring weather all year round are also things to enjoy.
Yet another department of the Eje Cafetero and apart from the coffee fields, this one offers wonderful hot springs, including a thermal waterfall in the middle of nature near the town of Santa Rosa de Cabal. The people are friendly, and the whole area is green and safe.
Norte de Santander (Cucuta)
The department sits in the northeast of the country and borders Venezuela. The warm weather, good food (rich in beef and lamb meat), and a reputation of people with strong personalities are typical of this region. Playa de Belen has been deemed the most beautiful town in the area, 200 km away from Cucuta. The Sisavita natural park is worth seeing.
This region in the north of Colombia has a totally different vibe. Parque Nacional del Chicamocha offers spectacular views of a canyon only comparable to the Grand Canyon in the U.S. Adventurers can practice extreme sports in San Gil. The food is varied, tasty, and abundant.
Tolima is a region known for its typical music festivals. Tamales and lechona (stuffed pork) are the region’s typical dishes. Tolima mainly consists of small, hot towns. The Combeima Canyon and Tolima snow mountain, including its hot springs, are great places to visit. Alto de Letras poses a tremendous challenge for road cyclists due to its steep gradient.
Huila is a sparsely populated department whose capital is Neiva. Visitors coming to the city are just stopping by to reach the photogenic Tatacoa desert or the mysterious archaeological sites of San Agustin and Tierradentro. You will also find the interesting and little-known Cueva de Los Guácharos national park.
Culture of the Andean Region
The way people in the Andean highlands behave and their customs are similar, with subtle differences depending on the department.
The food in the Andean highlands is rich and abundant. It varies from department to department. For example, Cundinamarca and Boyaca share their love for potato-based dishes; Antioquia and the coffee growers’ region are passionate about red kidney beans; Tolima loves pork, and Santander and Norte de Santander prefer beef and lamb accompanied by manioc.
Music in this region has different expressions and rhythms, basically played with guitars and drums. Typical dances are featured during festivals in the towns of the area. Bambuco, guabina, pasillo, torbellino, and carranga are some of the typical rhythms.
As mentioned above, people in Boyaca and Cundinamarca are shier and less outgoing than in the Eje Cafetero and Santander. But all in all, people are friendly and helpful, even in large cities such as Bogota and Bucaramanga. People in the region have a reputation for hard work and entrepreneurship.
Best things to do in the Andean region
- It is one of the best Colombia natural regions to organize multi-day treks. You can contact Eduardo to explore the splendid Los Nevados.
- There are many powerful rivers flowing down the mountains of the country. You can go rafting from Medellín with Jules.
- Learn about Colombia’s history.
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Caribbean Region: the most famous of the Colombian natural regions
This area features beautiful beaches, rainforests, Colombia’s tallest mountain, and deserts. People in the area are considered the happiest (and noisiest) in the country.
👉 Must read: Our guide for exploring the Caribbean Coast of Colombia.
Departments of this region of Colombia
The Caribbean Region consists of 7 departments.
Its capital, Barranquilla, differs from other Caribbean cities, such as Cartagena and Santa Marta, in that it is not exactly on the beach but instead on the banks of the Magdalena River, the largest waterway in Colombia. This capital is also famous for its carnival, the second largest in the world. The Pumarejo Bridge (the longest in Colombia), the Salgar Castle (20 minutes from Barranquilla), and the Malecon on the Magdalena River are places of interest.
Cartagena is the jewel of the crown in Bolivar. It’s not only the historic center that makes this city attractive, but also its surroundings, such as the paradisical Rosario islands. People in Bolivar are happy and festive and feature a mix of African, indigenous, and Spanish cultures that influence music, dance, and cuisine.
Valledupar is its capital city and is famous for its Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata, the most important musical event of the year (vallenato is a rhythm played with accordion, drums, guitar, and guacharaca.) Cesar is also one of the accesses to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. There are day trips to share with the nearby indigenous communities.
This department has Andean mountain ranges, plains, and beaches. Cordoba is crossed by the Sinu River, one of the most important in the country, which supports tens of thousands of families and inspires the culture of its happy inhabitants. There is a place where you can take a bath in volcanic mud pools.
La Guajira (Riohacha)
It is the most northern department of Colombia. It is also the most deserted, with interesting places like Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas. There are some indigenous settlements in this unexplored and mysterious territory. Unfortunately, Guajira is one of the country’s most forgotten and poorest regions, where child malnutrition remains one of the problems to be solved. Transportation is scarce, and it is a typical destination for true adventurers.
Magdalena (Santa Marta)
Magdalena is home to the historic city of Santa Marta, the oldest in Colombia. It is also where the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is located, one of the highest coastal mountains in the world, with its famous Cristóbal Colón peak. At the foot of the Sierra, you will find the Parque Tayrona, a beautiful natural park where you can stay for several days. The multi-day trek to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) is one of the experiences of a lifetime in Colombia.
Tolu and Coveñas are destinations Colombians love to visit on the Caribbean coast. They offer great beaches and a decent tourist infrastructure. These spots are cheaper alternatives to more crowded Santa Marta and Cartagena beaches. Service and attention to the visitor are great. There are lots of “cienagas” or lagoons in the department from which fishermen and locals make their living.
Culture of the Caribbean Region
The people of the Caribbean coast see life differently, in a more laid-back way than in the country’s center and south. As a result, the music, partying, and dancing are typical of the Caribbean lowland coastal region. The people of the Caribbean region are friendly and welcoming.
The food in the Caribbean is a combination of African, Arab (even French), and local. Therefore, the result is exquisite dishes made with lamb and beef (Posta Cartagenera, and Friche, in Guajira, for example), and fried foods such as bollos de yuca (manioc rolls) and arepa de huevo (corn patties with an egg inside.) Of course, Caribbean seafood is part of the diet too. I’m a big fan of the Cazuela de Marisco.
Music in this region comes from different places. It is the birthplace of cumbia, vallenato, and mapale (an African rhythm and dance with drums). Other known rhythms are porro, bullerengue, fandango, and gaita. Caribbean people are great dancers. They feel the music with their body sensuously, unlike Cali, where footwork takes center stage.
People in the Caribbean are very outgoing and open to visitors. They transmit a good vibe, and their happiness is contagious. Their optimism is more notorious than in the rest of the country. The ethnic origins are indigenous, African, and from immigrants from the Middle East at the beginning of the 20th century.
Things to do in the Caribbean lowlands coastal region
- It is one of the best Colombia natural regions to hop from island to island. Ask for Aymeric.
- Admire the desert landscapes of La Guajira with Beatrice.
- Hike to the famous Lost City with Fanny.
Orinoquia region: Cowboy life and safari
The Orinoquia region consists of four departments that occupy Eastern Colombia. It is known for its unique folk, food, Colombian safari, and cowboy-like traditions.
👉 Must read: Our guide for exploring Los Llanos.
Departments of this Colombian region
The Eastern Plains feature rivers, a large savannah, and a wide variety of fauna and flora. It’s also a cattle-raising region.
Arauca is on the Venezuelan frontier on its north side and shares many traditions with that neighboring country. After being hit by decades of violence, Arauca is trying hard to become an area where ecotourism can move part of its economy. This region offers excellent food, music, dance, and a friendly welcome to visitors. The beautiful Arauca River adorns this beautiful region of Colombia.
Casanare is one of the departments that has experienced the most significant growth in the last 20 years. Yopal, its capital, is an excellent starting point for organizing a safari in the nearby nature reserves. Its vast plains, flooded in the rainy season, are ideal for animal watching and photography. Casanare shares many traits with Arauca, such as their unique llanero culture.
Traditionally, Meta has been the most developed department of the four. And you, as a visitor, can see it in the road infrastructure and the size of the rice, banana, and wax palm tree plantations. Villavicencio has become a big city with a broad range of entertainment, hotel, and restaurant offers. In the surroundings, you can visit ranches where you can see the cowboys in their everyday activities.
Vichada (Puerto Carreño)
Vichada is the most secluded department of the four and, therefore, one of the wildest natural regions. If you want to get there, you must travel by plane. The XIX-century scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt referred to Vichada as the eighth natural wonder of the world. This is because of its rich vegetation and river network. Natural park El Tuparro is an absolute marvel.
Los Llanos Culture
People, or llaneros, in the four departments of the Orinoquia area share almost the same traditions. These are hard-working people with great values regarding friendship and seriousness when doing business.
Meat is the main ingredient of the “mamona a la llanera” barbecue style, which consists of nailing on the floor iron sticks with meat and a bonfire in the middle. For the meat to be tender, the process lasts a few hours. Llaneros also have a passion for capibaras and other wild hunted animals, but this practice has become less common as time passes.
Joropo is the typical rhythm and dance in the whole region. The harp takes center stage, accompanied by a small, four-string guitar known as “cuatro” and capachos, a kind of maracas. Joropo is also a dance in which men and women stomp their feet on the ground, a talent requiring technique and physical fitness.
Llaneros work hard on the ranch or in the savannah while gathering cattle. This task can take them days. They can also work without food for days, and when they get back home, one of these slender men can eat, in one go, all he didn’t eat on previous days. Women are friendly and hard-working too.
Best things to do in Los Llanos
- It is one of the best Colombia natural regions to observe animals. Ask Laura to plan your safari.
- Admire the incredible Caño Cristales rainbow river with Bruce.
Pacific Coast Region: Romantic beaches and whales
The Pacific lowlands coastal region is not easily accessible and is less developed than the Caribbean sea coastal towns. However, it offers some of the country’s most beautiful sceneries, pristine beaches, forests, and rivers.
👉 Must read: our guide for exploring the Pacific Coast.
Departments of this natural region of Colombia
The region covers almost all the departments of El Choco and the coastal areas of Nariño, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca.
Valle del Cauca (Cali)
Cali, the main city, is known as the world capital of salsa. Green mountains and valleys surround the whole department. The main crops are sugar cane, which makes the department’s landscape. The food, the culture, the great warm weather, and the friendly people are part of the magic of this part of the Pacific region.
In Choco, 82% of its population is of African descent and 12 % indigenous. Also, almost half of the population is under 15 years old. This is one of the wettest regions in the world and a sparsely populated area in the country. It has beautiful unspoiled beaches and forests, including part of the Darien Gap.
Located in the country’s southwest, this region offers a variety of natural and archaeological attractions. Popayan, the capital, is known for its Easter celebration and historic center. The department has positioned itself as a gastronomic destination through a well-known annual food festival.
Nariño is the southernmost department of the country and borders Ecuador. It’s known for its magnificent landscapes that include lakes and volcanos. Pasto hosts the Festival de Blancos y Negros, one of the oldest and most important in the country. Guinea pigs are part of the diet in Nariño.
Culture on the Pacific coast
Between the delicious coconut rice, the giant speakers, and the fishing trips, you will have plenty to be excited about.
The Pacific Region is the most varied in terms of food. Cuisine in Choco is strongly influenced by its African roots, while the food in Cauca is a fusion of cultures and international cuisine. Food in Nariño is similar to that of other regions of Colombia, such as Cundinamarca and Boyaca, where potatoes are essential.
Like food, music influences in the three departments are opposite. Music in Choco is rich in drums and rhythm, while Cauca and Nariño resemble the rhythms of the Andean region. Music in Cauca uses marimba, drums, and flutes.
People in Cauca and Choco are more open and outgoing than in Nariño, where locals are timider due to the cooler weather and traditions. However, Nariño also has beaches and an African-descent population in places such as Tumaco in southern Colombia.
Best things to do on the Pacific Coast
- Find a lovely ecolodge on the beach and let the staff takes care of everything. I love the beaches around Guachalito or El Valle.
Amazon Region: one of the wildest Colombian natural regions
About 10% of the total Amazon territory is located in this South American country.
👉 Must read: Our guide for exploring the Colombian Amazon rainforest
Departments in this region of Colombia
The Colombian Amazon region is divided into five departments, some of which have different influences from neighboring areas.
The only way to get to Leticia, the capital, is by plane. This department doesn’t have road connections with the central part of the country. It borders Peru (west) and Brazil (south & east). Going to Amazonas is like switching off the world you know and getting to experience the magnificence of nature in its wildest form. Boat trips on the Amazon River and mind-blowing stays in remote ecolodge are the way to go.
Hit by violence for decades, the people from this department decided to start over and offer visitors an authentic life experience through their cuisine, culture, places of interest, and natural regions. Rivers, waterfalls, fauna, and great food will make you fall in love with this diamond in the rough.
Even for Colombians, Guainia is one of the least known natural regions because access to it is only by plane. Cerros de Mavecure, monoliths in the middle of the plains surrounded by the Inirida river, are great to visit (by boat).
Guaviare (San Jose del Guaviare)
Guaviare was yet another Colombia department struck by guerrilla violence. However, today is a place that offers access to many natural wonders, such as the 12,000-year-old cave paintings of Cerro Azul, Chiribiquete National Park, natural tunnels, and Caño Sabana, a cheaper alternative to Caño Cristales.
This department is located in the south of Colombia. It borders Ecuador and Peru. Six kilometers from the capital Mocoa, you will find El fin del Mundo (the end of the world), a preserved place in the middle of the jungle with a 75-meter-high waterfall. Caves, rivers, natural pools, and numerous animal species make it one of the most remarkable departments.
Culture in the Amazon
These departments have many things in common, such as different indigenous people’s settlements (Huitotos, Ticunas, Macunas, Mirañas, Boras) and specific traditions.
Fried fish or fish soups are predominant in many areas of the Amazon region. They accompany those dishes (with plenty of catfish) with fried or steamed manioc or plantain. The departments that share borders with Orinoquia have adopted a love for cowboy-style meat. Strong, hot chili and tortoise eggs are also part of their diet.
The indigenous communities of this region have a more substantial influence on the music played in the Amazon. These sounds are produced with drums and flutes. The departments that share borders with Orinoquia and the Andean region have taken some of their rhythms, such as joropo (from the Llanos) and bambuco, a beat typical of Tolima and Huila.
One can only visit some of the indigenous communities in the Amazon region. Those accessible to the public are welcoming but somewhat shy. The non-indigenous population is more open and friendly. They are very proud of their ancestors and are willing to share their culture with travelers.
Best things to do in the Amazon
- It’s one of the best natural regions of Colombia to plan a wild adventure. Axel’s ecolodge will be perfect for this experience.
- Explore the hidden secrets around San José del Guaviare with Julian.
Insular Region: remote paradises
Colombia’s natural regions include several islands in the Caribbean and Pacific oceans.
Most Colombian islands are paradisiacal.
San Andres and Providencia Archipelago
These two islands are known for the beautiful, seven-color sea that surrounds them. San Andres is an island where you can stay for a few days, with plenty of shopping and nightlife. Providencia is more for travelers looking for a peaceful atmosphere. Locals speak Spanish, English, and their own language.
Bolivar (islands San Bernardo and Islas del Rosario)
This paradise-like group of insular region spots makes up the Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park, which belong to the departments of Sucre and Bolivar. They’re located 45 km from the harbor of Cartagena.
This island in the Pacific Ocean used to be a prison from 1960 to 1984 for the most dangerous inmates. After that, it became a national park protected by authorities and is one of Colombia’s most astonishing little secrets. You can travel there by boat and stay on the island, where you can see the ruins of the old prison, take showers in a natural cascade, walk around (be careful with the snakes), see whales, and dive.
Valle del Cauca (Malpelo island)
This island is 500 km away from the Colombian coast. If you’re a fan of diving among hammer and whale sharks, Malpelo is the place to go in Colombia’s Pacific ocean.
Culture of the islanders
Islanders on the Pacific coast and the Colombian Caribbean coast are friendly people. They make a living in tourism, so they are used to seeing visitors from abroad.
Food in San Andres and San Bernardo islands is based on sea products, fish, plantain, coconut, and manioc. The diet is similar in the islands of the Pacific, although with some nuances in terms of preparation.
The African roots of these islands reflect in the music. Reggae, calypso, currulao, and salsa are popular rhythms and dances.
Most islanders are African descendants. They have their own religious creeds, between Catholic, Protestant, and ancient beliefs. People are friendly and festive.
Best things to do in the insular region of Colombia
- It’s the best natural region of Colombia for diving.
- Read our post about the best Colombian islands
- Discover our guide about the Rosario Islands
Bottom Line: Natural regions of Colombia
To make your trip even more interesting, I advise you to first learn about the atmosphere and characteristics of these 6 geographic regions of Colombia.
You’ll quickly realize they are very different from each other, and each one deserves special attention.
The 8 best experiences you shouldn’t miss
Visit Caño Cristales (the most beautiful river worldwide)
Explore San José del Guaviare (an off-the-beaten-path destination)