Despite its sordid history with the drugs cartels, Colombia has undergone a major transformation over the last 20 years. And although Catholicism is still strong here, Colombian society is often considered more tolerant compared to its neighbors because of the diversity within the population. It is however worth noting that the machismo attitude still persists quite strongly in rural areas, particularly near the coast.
Legal rights and protections for LGBTQ+ people in Colombia are considered among the most progressive in Latin America. Same-sex marriage was legalized in April 2016 in Colombia with the first same-sex wedding taking place in Cali on 24 May 2016. In addition, Congress passed a law banning discrimination on sexual orientation in 2011, adoption for same-sex couples was legalized in 2012 and the right to change your gender has been in place since 1993. Colombia’s progressive legal rights and protections has won the destination the title of best LGBTQ+ emerging destination at the FITUR 2017 travel trade show in Madrid, and is one of the reasons why Colombia was considered the Leading LGBTQ+ Destination in South America in 2018, by the World Travel Awards.
The two main cities, Bogota and Medellin, each have a large gay neighborhood—especially Chapinero in Bogota where you can find the megaclub Theatron, the largest LGBTQ+ club in Latin America. On the Caribbean coast, Cartagena is Colombia’s most visited city and also popular with LGBTQ+ travelers. Colombia is definitely a country with appeal for LGBTQ+ travelers thanks to its many fascinating places.
Why Visit & When to Go?
Colombia is a destination you can visit throughout the year. In terms of weather, it varies depending on where you go. The capital city, Bogota, lies in the Andes mountains at 2,640m (8,661 ft). Bogota is colder than other parts of the country with average temperatures between 12-14C (54-57F) throughout the year. On the other extreme, Cartagena has a very humid, tropical climate with average temperatures staying over 27C (80F) throughout the year. Medellin is the perfect compromise between the two. The weather is more spring-like, with average temperatures at around 15-18C (60-65F) throughout the year. For this reason, it is nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring.
You might also consider planning your trip around one of the many festivals taking place throughout the year. Some of the best include the carnival in Barranquilla in February, the Flower Festival in Medellin in August or the Salsa Festival in Cali in September.
Interesting Cities to Visit in Colombia
Bogota is the capital of Colombia and also the largest city. It has a developed LGBTQ scene, based around Carrera 9 street between Calles 58 to 60 in the Chapinero neighborhood. There are many bars to check out, like El Recreo de Adan, Estacion, Color House Café Bar, Brokeback Mountain and many more. The main highlight of Bogota for visitors is the megaclub Theatron. This is the largest LGBTQ club in Latin America, split into 13 mini clubs spread over five floors. Each one has its own theme, i.e. one room is devoted to modern pop hits, another room is only for women, another is men only and another for reggaeton. Bogota is also the ideal base to check out sightseeing highlights like Monserrate Mountain, the Gold Museum, the Candelaria neighborhood or a day trip to the Salt Cathedral. Bogota also has a big drag scene and hosts many drag events throughout the year. Read more about Bogota from Passport Magazine >>
Cartagena’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a maze of pretty cobblestone alleys and colorful colonial style buildings dating back to the 1500s. There is a small gay scene in Cartagena with bars like Le Petit, La Plancha and Roma Club. In July there is a circuit-style festival called Rumours, which runs alongside the city’s Pride festival.
Medellin used to be considered the crime capital of Colombia; however, over the past 10 years it has undergone a huge transition to become one of the safest and most advanced places in the entire country. Medellin is also a very LGBTQ-friendly city, which can be attributed to the paisas (people of Medellin) being very welcoming. The LGBTQ scene here includes bars like Bar Chiquita, Donde Aquellos and the Viva gay club. Poblado is the main tourist heart of the city, with all the best restaurants, bars and hotels. In the evening, around Parque Lleras in Poblado, the city comes to life, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. Read more about Medellin from Passport Magazine >>
Interesting Attractions to Visit in Colombia
THE OLD TOWN OF CARTAGENA
The Old Town of Cartagena is the most popular attraction of Colombia. This historic old town was initially built by the Spanish conquistadors to safeguard their gold from pirates. The Old Town today has become a tourist hotspot within the city, with many high-end restaurants, luxury and boutique hotels, bars and few local residents. It is also famous for its street-art murals, which celebrate different facets of Colombian culture and politics.
EXPLORE THE ZONA CAFETERA COFFEE REGION
The region around Medellin is called Zona Cafetera, or the coffee zone, because this is where the country’s famous coffee plantations are found. You can reach most parts of the coffee regions via inexpensive flights from either Medellin or Bogota with Viva Air Colombia. One of the best places to visit is the Cocora Valley, where you can take guided hikes to vantage points and see close up the distinctive wax palms that grow up to 200m (656ft) high. Hikes also combine other pretty nearby towns like Salento and Filandia.
THE SALT CATHEDRAL OF ZIPAQUIRÁ
The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is an extremely impressive underground cathedral carved entirely out of salt and is one of only three such structures in the world. The other two are in Poland. The salt cathedral is located in Zipaquirá, which you can visit on a day trip from Bogota by taxi, around one hour away from Bogota central. Once there, entry is 50,000 pesos (around US$17) per person, which includes a tour in English.
THE CAÑO CRISTALES “RAINBOW RIVER”
The Caño Cristales, a river deep inside what used to be dangerous Farc rebel territory, is one of Colombia’s natural wonders. Prior to 2014, Caño Cristales was off limits to tourists. Since 2014, it has opened its doors and become a safe place to visit, but only with a reputable tour operator. The river itself is impressive. It is nicknamed the rainbow river because at the right time of year (around September/October), it becomes five colors—red, orange, yellow, green and blue. It is caused by a mix of aquatic plants, tricks of the light and circular rock pools, which combine to produce this liquid rainbow effect. To reach the river you need to take a flight from Bogota to La Macarena. The official tourism season in Caño Cristales is between July to December, but the best time is September/October when the likelihood of tropical downpours is minimal as rain can mute the colors. As such, like the Northern Lights, there are no guarantees that visitors will see the full spectrum of colors when visiting.
SAN ANDRES AND PROVIDENCIA ISLANDS
These two islands are the most famous in Colombia, located in the Caribbean near the coast of Nicaragua. San Andres is the more developed, and larger of the two because it has direct inexpensive flights from Medellin and Bogota. Providencia is the true hidden jewel, with some of the best beaches in Colombia and only a handful of places to stay. It is located 90 km (56 miles) north of San Andres. There are no direct flights from the mainland, so you first have to fly to San Andres, and then either take a 3.5-hour catamaran service or a connecting 20-minute flight. As such, it is less visited than San Andres but well worth the effort.
VISIT GUATAPE AND CLIMB EL PEÑOL
Guatapé is a gorgeous town located about two hours away from Medellin by bus. Each building in the center is decorated with vibrant zocalos (bas-reliefs), with motifs representing the owner’s occupation or interests. It’s extremely charming and worth a visit. Just outside of Guatapé is the famous El Peñol—a huge natural rock standing 198m (650ft) high. It has 740 steps you can climb to reach the top. On a clear day, the impressive 360-degree views from the top span the entire valley. You can easily visit Guatapé and El Peñol as part of a day trip from Medellin, or better still, stay overnight in Guatapé.
TREKKING, RAFTING AND RAPPELLING IN TABIO
Tabio is a small agricultural town with a population of around 4,000, located about two hours’ drive away from Bogota’s downtown. It’s a popular place to come for an adventure day trip or weekend. Highlights include trekking at Tiger Creek Mountain, rappelling down the 75m (246 ft) Barandillas waterfall and rafting the wild rapids of the Rio Negro (“Black River”) on inflatable rafts.
Experiencing Colombian Food
Colombia has rich and diverse cuisine with a strong influence from the highlands as well as the Caribbean. The bandeja paisa is the signature dish of Medellin and the surrounding Antioquia region. People from this area are referred to as paisas and bandeja means tray in Spanish. The bandeja paisa is a large plate with a hearty mix of rice, ground beef, red beans, chicharron (pork rinds), chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), fried egg, avocado, arepas and plantains.
Chicharron are deep-fried crispy pork belly snacks, which look like thick slices of bacon, but with a large chunk of fat and only a sliver of meat. They are popular in the Andean regions and either served as a stand-alone dish or included as an accompaniment to dishes like bandeja paisas.
Arepas are a breakfast snack and popular street food in both Venezuela and Colombia. They are deep-fried corn cakes, which come in different sizes and varieties. In Medellin and the surrounding area, arepas are usually small white and round, served plain as an accompaniment in place of bread. In coastal cities like Cartagena and Barranquilla, the arepas are much larger, and they are stuffed with other ingredients to produce a more filling snack.
Ajiaco is a chicken and potato soup, which is particularly popular in Bogota. The capital city is located deep in a mountain basin of the Andes, so has a much cooler climate compared to Medellin and the tropical coast. Therefore, hearty soups like ajiaco are very popular here.
Safety Considerations for LGBTQ visitors to Colombia
Although Colombia has some very progressive LGBTQ laws, society remains quite conservative, particularly by the coast, where a machismo attitude prevails. LGBTQ visitors are therefore advised to exercise common sense and a bit of caution when traveling outside the big cities. As LGBTQ travelers to Colombia, you are very unlikely to face any practical problems, especially in touristy areas. As with most countries in the world, there will always exist an element of homophobia, particularly in rural communities around the coast. Colombia is very much a deeply Catholic country despite its LGBTQ-inclusive laws, so society can still be quite conservative.
LGBTQ Travel Tips for Colombia
Bogota is the country’s #1 LGBTQ destination with one of the largest gay clubs in the world—Theatron on Saturday nights. Most of the big cities have a small pride parade in June, July or August. The largest ones are in Bogota and Medellin. The pride of Cartagena coincides with the circuit-style dance festival called Rumours. In Bogota, there is a large and popular LGBTQ festival for Halloween, which attracts many from the LGBTQ community across the country.
Another popular event with an LGBTQ segment is the Carnival in Barranquilla in February. During the Carnival there is one day for the LGBTQ community, which is always the most colorful and popular. It takes over the entire city, everyone joins in, dresses up for it and partying continues through the night till the early hours.
We are gay couple Stefan and Sebastien from London, who left our lives in London in 2014 to travel the world. We write about the different gay scenes in each destination we visit in our gay travel blog called Nomadic Boys.