Being the world’s most biodiverse country per square kilometer and having an outstanding cultural heritage, Colombia is a potential world-class sustainable tourism destination.
Colombians are beginning to realize that natural wealth is the key to the country’s development, when managed with responsibility and respect.
Following the guidelines of sustainable tourism can be challenging, however there are numerous destinations apt for sustainable tourism in Colombia and communities willing to preserve the environment while showing to the world the beauty of the country’s biodiversity.
Let’s talk about what sustainable tourism is, why it is important in recent times and some sustainable destinations in Colombia.
Defining Sustainable Tourism
The World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as a form of “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.
In this way, there has to be a balance between these three dimensions for sustainability to exist and last. In 3 concepts, sustainable tourism is: conservation of biodiversity, social welfare and economic security.
To understand better, think of these principles of sustainability in the tourism industry:
- Natural resources are a crucial element in the development of tourism, they should be optimally used as long as there are processes that guarantee the conservation of biodiversity and natural heritage.
- Tourism should respect the sociocultural heritage of host communities, ensuring the preservation of their traditions and the promotion of interculturality.
- Tourism-based business models should generate economic benefits fairly distributed among all stakeholders, representing opportunities to the host communities to develop a better quality of life.
With the tourism sector gaining importance in Colombia, more tourists coming each year and generating more employment and income, it is essential to regulate how the operators and travelers impact the environment and the host communities’ welfare and economy.
Colombia has an immense natural and cultural wealth that needs to be preserved for the future generations.
How to Support Sustainable Tourism
If you are interested in supporting sustainable tourism, but don’t know how apart from visiting these certified sustainable tourism destinations in Colombia, here are some tips:
- Do research. Making informed decisions when choosing a tour operator, a hotel or any other service is the key. Choose those who are local based and that return profits to the community.
- Prefer local agencies, local restaurants and local guides. Who knows better the region that its inhabitants?
- Appreciate the work of natives. Buy crafts and souvenirs hand-made by local communities, it is their way to obtain income.
- Choose activities with low environmental impact. Ecotourism activities such as hikes, camping, wildlife tours and interaction with host communities are becoming more popular just as the eco-friendly trend.
- Be aware of your habits. Don’t depend on the destinations or the hotels’ sustainability policies, but adopt ecological and socially responsible habits in your everyday life so you don’t leave a negative footprint in the places you visit.
Sustainable Tourism Destinations in Colombia
Governmental bodies such as the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism (MinCIT), the Ministry of Environment and the Vice-ministry of Tourism, along with the ICONTEC and Universidad Externado de Colombia issued a technical standard to certificate tourist destinations as being of tourist quality, once they met all the sustainability requirements.
This certificate complies with the Colombian Sectorial Technical Standard NTS TS 001-1, which includes the necessary environmental, socio-cultural and economic requirements.
This technical standard seeks to promote sustainable tourism, where economic, social and aesthetic needs can be met, while respecting cultural integrity, ecological processes and diversity.
Today, there are 20 certified sustainable tourism destinations in Colombia, as specified in the official document here.
Here you have a brief of what you can experience in each of these amazing destinations.
Parque Arví, Medellín
Parque Arví is a public park where everyone can have a great time in contact with nature. It is on the outskirts of Medellin, easily accessible by cable car, which is connected to the city’s public transportation system.
It has a wide sustainable tourist offer that includes day and night hiking, bird watching, picnics, bike tours, archaeological and cultural tours, and even obstacle course races!
Within its commitment to the environmental conservation, Parque Arví offers an environmental and cultural agenda in its Ignacio Vélez Escobar Center, has educational tours to learn about traditions, flowers, birds, recycling and much more!
Another Colombian Heritage Town, Jardin, attracts hundreds of national and international tourists for its beauty, but recently, for its sustainable tourism offer. It is located 130 km away from Medellin, which means a 3-hour ride south.
What stands out the most are its bright-colored houses that match the joyful inhabitants. All tourist activities are engaged in protecting natural resources and using them adequately, and fostering the job creation by employing locals with fair conditions and supporting the commercialization of local goods and services.
This is an important bird watching destination in the western Andes of Colombia, here you can find the Gallito de las Rocas Reserve, where there is the Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus), and the Proaves Bird Nature Reserve Loro Orejiamarillo (Ognorhynchus icterotis).
This colorful little town appeared on the radar of Colombians when Madre Laura Montoya, born in Jericó, was canonized by Pope Francis in 2013, becoming the first Colombian saint. Apart from visiting her house museum, you should climb the Cristo Rey hill and enjoy the view of the village from the top, where a statue of Christ with open arms lies.
The main square in front of the church has big trees and the houses are embellished by bright colored designs.
The verification process to certify Jericho as a sustainable tourism destination lasted a year and a half. This qualification was endorsed by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and the National Tourism Fund (Fontur).
One of the aspects that deserved the recognition of this population was the preservation of the historical center and the environmental actions to preserve it.
Armenia is a major city of the coffee region and the Coffee Cultural Landscape, apart from being an important trade and tourism center of the Western part of Colombia. In Armenia, the process of certification as a sustainable destination began in 2017 and ended in December 2018.
The city hall and its surroundings make the sustainable tourist zone up and include spots such as the Bolivar square, the Cathedral, the metropolitan cultural center, some museums, parks and malls. You can visit the Park of Life, one of the largest green lungs of the Quindian capital.
With a total area of about 8 hectares, this eco-tourist space serves the inhabitants of the city as a paradise amid the concrete and chaos of daily life. You can also visit The Botanical Garden of Quindío, 30 minutes from Armenia, in Calarcá, a significant pole of scientific exploration and environmental training.
This garden has one of the largest collections of butterflies and palms of Colombia and the earth.
Salento is home to the Quindío wax palm that serve as bridges between the ground and the sky, reaching up to 60 meters. The Cocora Valley is Salento’s biggest attraction, is known as ‘the first natural wonder of Quindío’, and borders Los Nevados National Park.
The landscapes and natural wealth of this valley dazzle every tourist that gets there to hike or go bird watching. The architecture of the town maintains the colonial style typical of the coffee region.
Filandia is a village northwest of Salento that gained recognition for its model of sustainable tourism. Before, it was inhabited by the Quimbaya indigenous group, now it offers several cultural and natural attractions.
Viewpoints with jaw-dropping sights, the main church, the Bolívar square, the artisan neighborhood and museum, the Rio Barbas canyon and religious festivities make Filandia worth visiting.
Santa Rosa de Cabal, Risaralda
15 km from Pereira, the capital of Risaralda, is this beautiful town part of the Colombian Coffee Triangle. Although coffee is the axis of its economy, the tourism activity has increased in recent years.
The main attractions are hot springs resorts, a lake of medicinal mud, the typical 20th century houses with flowered balconies, the main square with its church and park and let’s not forget the chorizos santarrosanos -the specialty of the village.
Also near to this town, there is an interesting birding point, at Finca Cortaderal where the Fuertes’s parrot (Hapalopsittaca fuertesi) is easy to observe.
Marsella has a national reputation of being a green town and it is a main destination in the department of Risaralda.
Apart from being the only village in Risaralda with its own botanical garden, it has La Nona municipal park and hundreds of hanging gardens in the balconies of the colonial houses.
Landscapes vary from the riverbanks of the Cauca river to a forest reserve over 2,000 MASL.
The capital of Caldas, Manizales, is located in the Central Andes range, in the central western part of Colombia. Today it has great economical, industrial, cultural and tourist importance and hosts the famous Feria de Maniales and the Theater International Festival.
The historic center has tourist spots such as Bolivar Square, the Cathedral Basilica, historic houses, cultural centers and streets such as Calle del Tango. Its proximity with Nevado del Ruiz and Los Nevados NNP makes Manizales a good destination for ecotourism.
Take a look on our Coffee triangle Birdwatching tour here.
Buga, Valle del Cauca
The historic center of this small town, about 1 hour northeast from Cali, is quite visited by Catholics, since there is the Señor de los Milagros (Lord of the Miracles) Basilica. Pilgrims go there to ask for favors and thank for the blessings granted.
Guadalajara de Buga -its actual name-, is one of the Heritage Towns of Colombia and boasts a classic architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries. Also, it has natural attractions around such as Laguna de Sonso natural reserve, Lago Calima and El Vinculo Regional Natural Park.
Usiacurí is one of the oldest towns in Colombia’s Atlantic coast, founded in the most important indigenous territory of the region. The name is made up of Usía (lordship) and Curí (name of the regional indigenous chief).
Mineral water wells
Its medicinal water sources are the town’s most known attraction, since visitors from all over have come to treat their diseases. Other tourist spots are the Santo Domingo de Guzman church, Julio Florez museum and square, and the Panama hat plant handicraft stores.
Here it is also posible to visit the Luriza Regional Integrated Management District, where conservation objects are the artisan tradition with Iraca palm (Carludovica palmata) and the protection of the tree species Carreto (Aspidosperma polyneuron), the typical bird communities of the Tropical Dry Forest, the bodies of water, and the ancestral knowledge about medicinal plants.
This town nestled on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, close to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is an strategic site of transit of people travelling to La Guajira, Barranquilla and the center of Colombia.
It boasts many water bodies such as lagoons, rivers, hot springs and, of course, the sea. Among its attractions are the beaches, cultural heritage sites including churches and historic buildings, and an archaeological zone.
La Piscina Beach, Tayrona NNP
La Piscina is one of the few beaches in Tayrona National Natural Park where you can have a relaxing and private bath, far from tourist spots. Although small, this beach is gorgeous and is between Cabo San Juan and Arrecife beaches.
Its name comes from the rock barrier that surrounds the place, reducing the waves and simulating a pool.
Santa Cruz de Mompox is a remote heritage town in the Caribbean region of Colombia that is worth visiting. Goldsmithing, architecture and gastronomy are some of its highlights.
Go visit its several swamps and gorges, tour the streets to find artisans of different disciplines, a lot of churches and go looking for exotic birds.
Cartagena de Indias, Bolívar
‘The heroic city’ of Cartagena is perhaps the most visited city in Colombia, thanks to its history, architecture and 11 km of Caribbean beaches that offer plenty of options for luxury travel.
The historic center and Getsemaní neighborhood, where the wealthy families used to live, are the sustainable tourism destinations in Cartagena. The San Felipe Castle and the walled city are a must.
From Cartagena it is possible to depart to Corales del Rosario and San Bernardo National Natural Park where marine-coastal ecosystems are protected in order to contribute to the provision of environmental and / or ecosystem services.
You will find Coral Reefs, Seagrasses, Sedimentary Funds, Tropical Dry Forest, Coastal Lagoons, Rocky and Sandy Coastline and Mangrove Forest and its associated species.
To know more about nature destinations is Cartagena visit our entry The Most Awesome Nature Destinations to Visit in Cartagena.
Villa de Leyva, Boyacá
Villa de Leyva is one of the top tourist destination in Colombia. It is a must-visit when you are travel to Colombia, thanks to its architecture heritage and natural wonders around the town. Its central square is the largest in the country, with 14,000 square meters.
Cobbled paths keep unchanged the colonial style, while the plenty museums preserve landmarks of the Colombian history.
Paleonthology, archaeology, astronomy and adventure tourism play an important role in the success of Villa de Leyva in national tourism.
From Villa de Leyva you can visit Iguaque Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, where you can find the Sacred Lagoon of Iguaque that, according to Muisca mythology, is the cradle of humanity.
There are a total of 7 lagoons of glacier origin in the Sanctuary, altitudes between 2,400 and 3,800 MASL, and one of the main areas of oak in the country. Visit our entry Discover the Natural Attractions of Villa de Leyva, Colombia to find more nature attractions in Villa de Leyva.
Monguí is part of Colombia’s heritage towns list and is known as one of the prettiest towns in Boyacá. Its architecture is incredible and well-preserved, religious landmarks stand out and nature is well-represented by the wonderful Paramo de Ocetá, a water factory and biodiversity shelter.
Craftsmanship is big in Mongui, since it is the mecca for the hand-sewn soccer balls.
La Macarena, Meta
To he south of Meta department, part of Los Llanos Orientales, is La Macarena. The municipality shelters a great natural heritage, being Sierra de la Macarena and Caño Cristales -the 5 color river– its highlights in ecotourism.
Other tourist spots are Parque Los Fundadores, Salto del Aguila, Los Pailones, Caño Intermedio, Caño Escondido and Los Pianos trails, and Cristalitos viewpoint.
La Tatacoa Desert, Huila
A 40-minute ride north from Neiva takes you to Villavieja, the municipality where La Tatacoa Desert is.
Out of the 3 zones of this amazing dry area, Cuzco, a reddish zone of 256 hectares, is a certified sustainable tourism destination.
This place is quite attractive because of its eroded soil adorned with mazes of gullies, cactuses and little wildlife.
Colombia offers quite a lot of ecotourist destinations for all tourists, if you want to learn more about them, click here.
- Colombia Travel
- Colombia’s potential to be a world class sustainable tourism destination
- Sustainable tourism destinations in Colombia
- Technical standard NTS 001-1
- World Tourism Organization
About the author
Ana María Parra
Modern Languages professional with emphasis on business translation. Interested in cultural adaptation of written and audiovisual content. Passionate about knowing new cultures and languages, tourism and sustainable living.
Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.