Discover our favourite places to enjoy gay Colombia outside Bogotá

Thrown into disrepute by the Medellín Cartel in the 1980s, humble Colombia has spent decades shirking its old reputation of drug violence and corruption. A true diamond in the rough, the nation now presents edgy modernity and well-preserved cultural history amidst pristine natural surroundings. The country’s major cities, Cali, Medellín, Bogotá et al, are where you’ll find sumptuous colonial plazas just moments from bustling commercial districts flanked by futuristic skyscrapers. Amidst it all, burgeoning gay scenes gain traction, from the nightly dance parties of Medellín to the cobbled gay romances of Cartagena. Outside of the cities, explore Afro influences along the Caribbean coast before escaping in solitude to the Andean mountains, stopping on the way for forays into the Amazon Rainforest. Whatever you enjoy – be that searching for lost ancient cities or parading in feathers – Colombia has got you covered. Discover our favourite places to enjoy gay Colombia today.

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Photo: Joshua Earle

LGBT travellers in Colombia

On the face of it, Colombia seems to align with conservative Latin America in its attitude towards homosexuality, but delve a little deeper and you’ll soon find a strong queer undercurrent all around the nation with diversity championed throughout, particularly in Bogotá and Medellín. It may still be wise to remain low-key about your sexuality in public, but more and more you’ll see that the local and international LGBTQ+ community are in fact welcomed. As well as holding nationwide anti-discrimination laws, Colombia has legalised same-sex marriage and recognises trans identities; all of which helped Colombia to be named the best emerging LGBT destination by FITUR in 2017. A first port of call on the Colombia gay scene must be Bogotá – a city home to a vibrant gay community and the largest gay bar in Latin America. But gay Colombia doesn’t end there, as you will soon find out…

Cartagena | Photo: Ricardo Gomez Angel

Photo: Bryan Castrillon

A bit about Bogotá

While we don’t wish to allow the Colombian capital of Bogotá to steal the show, it would be remiss of us not to mention him. A city with a sordid past and a coked-up history of violence, Bogotá absolutely redeems itself with well-preserved heritage and dreams of tranquillity in the region. With fewer drugs and better safety now in Bogotá, it’s easy to have a trouble-free holiday here. Today you’ll find boutique hotels, fancy stores and world-class restaurants, all of which drives Bogotá to becoming one of South America’s trendiest capitals, while still maintaining a fair amount of grit. Experience all-night gay parties in Chapinero, stunning natural surroundings and a modern food scene that’ll leave you wanting more. While fiestas are commonplace in Bogotá, arrive in July for the street party of them all; Bogotá Pride. Book in at Casa Legado in the upmarket neighbourhood of Quinta Camacho for utmost relaxation and 50s elegance with the party just down the road. Can’t get enough? Discover more about the city’s many attractions in our dedicated Bogotá travel guide.

Bogotá

Bogotá | Photo: Flavia Carpio

1. Medellín

A city that’s as fun to say as it is to visit, is the beautiful Medellín (pronounced meh-deh-yin or meh-deh-jin depending on whom you’re talking to). The birthplace and resting place of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, Medellín was for a long time known as the most dangerous city in the world, made so by the trail of violence, corruption and drug warfare Escobar left in his wake. Taking a few decades to cool off after Escobar’s bloody demise, Medellín now stands as a testament to transformation, having undergone radical shifts in power and reputation. Today the city is known as one of the most progressive cities in South America, and, despite a little roughness around the edges, a place of innovation and modern gastronomy with a rich social tapestry that celebrates diversity.

If this is not your first stop in Colombia, you’re sure to hear about the wild nightlife and liberal atmosphere in gay Medellín before even arriving. So it will come as no surprise that Medellín holds the biggest LGBT community outside of Bogotá, much of which is on full display. Track down queer life easily in the city, by heading to the hip neighbourhood of El Poblado around Parque Lleras. As well as hosting mixed bars, clubs, restaurants and grand malls, Poblado is where most gay clubs and LGBT events take place. Try asking your hotel staff for specific recommendations ranging from electro parties of Latin dance spots. You may also choose to brave the rough and ready bars around downtown or keep it sophisticated within the residential area of Laureles, a short Uber ride from the centre. Medellín Pride takes place at the end of June, bringing the celebration into the streets. At any other time, make your own fiesta with a post-party hike up to the Hills of Three Crosses or arrange a relaxed gay meeting at the Park Ciudad del Rio on weekends, the perfect place to wind down after a noteworthy night out. Uncover more of the secrets of the city with our full Medellín travel guide.

Photo: Kenzie Kraft

Medellín | Photo: Daniel Vargas

2. Cartagena

And on to Cartagena, a fortress city with a spicy Caribbean climate in the north of Colombia. One of the oldest parts of the country, enclosed by 11 kilometres of crumbling fortifications serving to protect the city from pirates (of the 18th century), Cartagena retains its old-world charm whilst embracing a lively cosmopolitan spirit. The centre’s cobblestone streets, overlooked by bougainvillaea-draped balconies, sprawl through the heart of Cartagena, passing buzzing plazas and stand-out colonial buildings. Not the most happening place for queer travellers, gay Cartagena maintains its allure thanks to its relaxing vibes and recreational opportunities, with a coastline that can’t be beaten. Cartagena gay scene centres on two fun gay venues, and while not a reason to visit on their own, the gay-friendly party scene as a whole will come as a pleasant surprise, especially after midnight. Try the popular old town and Getsemani areas if you’re in search of a good party, starting by mingling with locals over al fresco cocktails nearby.

By day, simply go with the flow joining smiling locals in Zumba class in the plaza outside San Pedro Claver Church, where local barbers will be happy to give you a trim before a big night out. Cartagena’s beaches meanwhile offer the ideal hangover cure, and despite the lack of official gay spots, you won’t be disappointed by the array of options, both near the old town in the Bocagrande area and further out. For a leisurely day trip consider hopping on a boat to Isla Baru’s Playa Blanca, a popular weekend retreat with crystal-clear waters and white-sand shores lined with delectable seafood restaurants.

Cartagena | Photo: Ricardo Gomez Angel

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The fourth-largest city in Colombia and home to a large concentration of writers, artists and musicians, Barranquilla will win you over with its joyful approach to a life centred on the charming streets and plazas around Paseo de Bolívar

3.  Barranquilla

Birthplace of Shakira’s hips, Barranquilla is, of course, a force to be reckoned with. Like Cartagena, Barranquilla has a Caribbean soul, basking in a tropical haze on the delta of the Río Magdalena, where mangroves forests inch out towards the Caribbean Sea. The fourth-largest city in Colombia and home to a large concentration of writers, artists and musicians, Barranquilla will win you over with its joyful approach to a life centred on the charming streets and plazas around Paseo de Bolívar, the historic centre. As well as an infamous carnival to rival the likes of Rio, Barranquilla goes one better with a day-long parade dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community. This is Barranquilla Gay Carnival, an event talked about all over the country for its queer celebrations and epic gay parties. Come to gay Barranquilla towards the end of February to experience the entire festival, with events taking place up to weeks in advance before culminating in the unapologetically camp ‘Guacherna Gay’ parade.

After carnival ends, you’ll see that Barranquilla empties out considerably, leaving a rather more peaceful city to be explored. If you decide to stick around with the resident costeños, you’ll be rewarded with a bellyful of culture spanning authentic port lifestyles, landmarks and museums, the best of which being the Barranquilla Modern Art Museum and the Castle of San Antonia de Salgar. Leave some room to enjoy Barranquilla’s Caribbean-influenced food scene, featuring mouthfuls such as sancocho de guandú con carne salada (pigeon pea soup with salted meat) and bollos de yucca (cheesy cassava balls), all washed down with exotic beverages of corozo, sapote and loquat.

Barranquilla | Photo: Dawin Rizzo

4. Caño Cristales (AKA “Rainbow River”)

We move from Colombia’s urban gems to its natural wonders as we head deep into Serrania de La Macarena mountain range, within what used to be Farc rebel territory. Off-limits to tourists until 2014, La Macarena National Park has since reopened its doors, allowing visitors to safely explore the park through reputable tour operators. The main attraction within La Macarena is the so-called ‘Rainbow River’ which snakes through the landscape in hues of red, orange, yellow, green and blue. Otherwise known as Caño Cristales, the river is a sight to behold, tinted by the aquatic plants and algae that line the rock pools in certain parts. Ever-changing with the weather, Caño Cristales is best visited between the dry months of September and October, but the tourism season is officially marked between July and December. Organise a tour from Cali or Medellín, or fly from Bogotá to La Macarena and hire a local guide on arrival.

The 100-kilometre river may be the star of the show, but remove your blinkers to discover some 6,000 square kilometres of preserved national park to the north, at a point where the Amazon Rainforest, eastern Llanos plains and the Andes Mountains collide in a symphony of nature. As well as the distinct ecosystems of the rainforest, Serranía de la Macarena also hosts dry forest and savanna making it one of the world’s most biodiverse settings, home to thousands of rare and endangered species, including anteaters, cougars, jaguars and eight species of monkey. While looking out for the region’s unique flora and fauna, visitors can also take time to appreciate roaring waterfalls and natural pools, before setting off on a trip along the Guayabero River. Caño Piedra and Caño Cristalitos are also two lesser-known alternatives for travellers keen to veer from the Gringo Trail.

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Host of the World Salsa Festival every September, Cali moves as one to Afro-Colombian rhythms throughout its diverse barrios and vast club network, all year round

5. Cali

The dance-happy residents of Cali welcome you to their city of Salsa, the nation’s third-largest metropolis guarded by the 26-metre statue of Christ located high up in the Hill of the Crystals. Host of the World Salsa Festival every September, Cali moves as one to Afro-Colombian rhythms throughout its diverse barrios and vast club network, all year round. Dance ‘til dawn at any of the exciting gay parties hosted during Salsa Festival or come earlier for Cali Pride in June when gay events take over the entire city. At all other times, Cali gay scene refuses to stop thrusting its hips, particularly within Comuna 3, gay Cali central just south of the Parque Natural Bataclán.

Save some energy to explore Cali in its entirety, getting a more staid cultural experience at any one of the esteemed museums across the city. Museo la Tertulia and Museo Arqueológico are two of the hottest, exhibiting contemporary art and pre-Colombian archaeological collections respectively. Cali’s art world is not confined to its institutions, however, as you’ll find tributes to national artists across the city, such as at Gato de Tejada park. Barrio San Antonio meanwhile is where Cali’s historic centre can be found, a colonial-era setting filled with vibrant cafés, bars and fine restaurants a short way from the 18th century Iglesia de San Antonio, a famed church and hillside park boasting encompassing city views.

A sight never far from view while in Cali is the Cristo Rey statue, and though not quite on par with Rio’s Christ the Redeemer is still pretty impressive up close, allowing for unparalleled views and the option of a cutesy jaunt through Andoke butterfly farm while in the area. Fans of the Netflix drama Narcos will also want to stop by the Edificio Coltabaco and Plaza de Caicedo where iconic scenes were shot. For a full day activity, get yourself to San Cipriano a rural Afro community on the banks of Río Danubio known for its waterfalls and river tubing excursions. Back in the city, refuel with local snacks such as a cheesy pandebono and an alcoholic lulada before putting on your best salsa shoes and heading out for the night.

Cali | Photo: Francisco Lozano

6. Salento and the Cocora Valley

Sniff out the rich aromas of our next destination before even arriving. We’re on the way to Salento, coffee region Colombia at its finest! Like the Bermuda Triangle of coffee, the plantations lie between the three cities of Pereira, Armenia and Manizales, hidden between volcanic peaks and Los Nevados National Park to the east. With perhaps the exception of gay Manizales, let the cities alone and head straight towards the smaller towns – with laid-back Salento being our number one choice. Here you’ll find brightly painted houses in that crumbling colonial style, served alongside the best coffee you’ve ever tasted, amidst incredible natural surroundings. The chilled vibe here is why Salento receives such love, with visitors able to join in on community sports, rest up in secluded fincas and learn artisan crafts at any pace they choose.

More than just a pretty face, Salento Colombia is an adventure town also, proffering paragliding, hiking and horseback adventures deep in the lush Cocora Valley. Hail Willy’s Jeep from Salento town square for bumpy expeditions in any direction. Find a guide for any adventure you want or take off on your own for circular hikes over wax palm country. Of all the things to do in Salento however, learning about Colombian coffee production is a must. The world’s third-largest coffee producer after Brazil and Vietnam, discover why your beans taste so good in a region listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique cultural landscape.

Photo: Fernanda Fierro

7. Tayrona National Park

Just a short way from the port city of Santa Marta and a two-hour drive from the aforementioned coastal city of Barranquilla is Tayrona National Park. You’ll find beautiful stretches of coastline all around Colombia but it’s Tayrona that will leave you speechless. With palm-fringed beaches backed by verdant mountains, Tayrona is a paradise for beachgoers and trekkers alike. Comprising 30 square kilometres of marine reserve and 150 square kilometres of land, Tayrona is not only home to the nation’s best beaches, but also staggering biodiversity that includes bats, fish, birds, reptiles and monkeys, not to mention over 700 species of plant. Enter through the main point of Zaino to come closest to the park’s main sights and its most convenient camping spots. Alternatively, choose gay Santa Marta or the sleepy neighbouring town of Taganga for a more comfortable base served by regular buses into Tayrona.

Spend at least two nights to see the best bits of the park, alternating between the beach, for reef snorkelling and sunbathing, and the forest, for mountain trekking among ancient ruins. As well as boundless wildlife, the mountains and forests here are also home to a number of indigenous communities, some of which are accessible to tourists. If you have time and more trekking in mind, don’t miss a visit to the Ciudad Perdida, one of the highlights of the region ‘rediscovered’ as recently as the 1970s. This is the nation’s ‘Lost City’, a famed archaeological site deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. Bear in mind that the best weather for Tayrona is had between January and March, with peak season tending to fall from December to mid-January and again from mid-June to mid-July. February and March are most promising however thanks to the balance of smaller crowds and milder temperatures.

Photo: Daniel Pelaez Duque

8. San Andrés and Providencia

Nestled close to Nicaragua is our final destination; the archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia. Known for their remote beaches and marine life, the islands here are the perfect escape into nature, with the added intrigue of British colonial heritage fused with Afro-Caribbean Creole cultures. While many travels to the islands in search of duty-free goods, it’s easy to find serenity, particularly on Providencia where the beaches are much less commercialised. San Andrés meanwhile is home to the airport and acts as the gateway to the smaller islands. Despite the home comforts, be careful not to wind up near the commercial centre which is touristic and slightly dodgy. Besides the all-inclusive resorts flanking the best beaches, visitors can also find quieter spots just south of centre. Even further down, San Luis is another world entirely, offering authentic local culture and deserted beaches made all the better with one or two reggae bars alongside. Paddle out chest-deep in these waters to find Rocky Cay, a craggy islet boasting a shipwreck, great views and little more.

For ultimate solitude and breath-taking scenery, however, Providencia can’t be beaten. Part of the Caribbean coast, Providencia is home to the third-largest reef system in the world, covering an area of just under 10 square kilometres. Protected under the Old Providence McBean Lagoon National Park, the island’s reefs surround a number of islets – including Crab Caye and the smaller Three Brothers Caye – the entirety of which is often referred to as the ‘Sea of Seven Colours’ and is home to over 70 species of bird and dense mangrove forests. Accessible only on a certified boat tour, Crab Caye has some of the best snorkelling spots in Colombia, home to barracuda, boxfish, small rays and more. Another tiny island worth venturing to on your tour of Providencia is Santa Catalina, the least developed and arguably most beautiful spot on the archipelago. Opt to stay around Freshwater Bay for handy amenities while still maintaining utmost tranquillity.

Photo: Guillermo Bresciano

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