Colombia vs. Peru: Which South American Country Should You Choose?

Cartagena, Colombia

Finding it hard to choose between Colombia and Peru for your South American adventure? We’re not surprised, as both countries lure travelers with their stunning scenery, amazing wildlife, beautiful coastline, culinary delicacies, and rich local culture. That being said, while Peru and Colombia enjoy plenty in common, each one has its own vibe and unique offerings. To help you choose the country that best suits you, we put them head to head in a number of categories, including attractions, beaches, safety, and more. 

Attractions in Peru and Colombia

View from Plaza de Armas Cusco Hotel, Peru

Colombia is the larger of the two countries and its range of cities is a large part of its attraction. From Medellin’s cable car to Bogota’s Monserrate shrine, there’s plenty to see and do. Beyond the urban attractions, the coffee plantations of Salento, the color-changing river of Cano Cristales, and the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira are all prime spots worth exploring. Oh, and don’t forget about the former estate of one of Colombia’s most infamous characters, Pablo Escobar. Several Escobar-inspired sights attract solid tourist numbers, but Hacienda Napoles, his ex-residence-turned-theme-park in Puerto Triunfo is a top pick. 

Meanwhile, the majority of tourists flock to Peru for Machu Picchu, but there’s plenty to see once you’ve tackled the bucket-list Inca Trail hike. See the erotic pottery in Lima’s Museo Larco, explore the stunning Convento de San Francisco and its catacombs, try the country’s famous pisco drinks, or go sandboarding in the desert town of Huacachina.

Cities in Peru and Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Visitors who want to enjoy city life will find an amazing experience in both countries, but Colombia has the edge in terms of variety. Most tourists fly into Lima, Peru’s capital, and plenty stay there with the odd excursion to Machu Picchu. And there’s more than enough to keep folks entertained. Hit the Larcomar shopping center, enjoy the nightlife and the arty enclave of Barranco, tour the colonial architecture of Plaza de Armas, and cycle the Miraflores boardwalk for epic views of the coast. Away from Lima, the old colonial-era capital of Arequipa is Peru’s next largest city (yet still one-tenth of the size of Lima in terms of population). Visit for its stunning, historic beauty backdropped by mountains.

In Colombia, Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena can all compete as the home base for your trip. Bogota is a thriving city with plenty of cultural attractions. From Museo Botero to the city’s amazing street art (graffiti was decriminalized in 2011), the Jardin Botanico to the eclectic architecture of La Candelaria neighborhood, Bogota’s charms could easily keep you from exploring beyond the city -- that is, if it weren’t for Medellin and Cartagena. The home of Pablo Escobar, Medellin is famous for its cartel affiliation, but it’s too beautiful to be overlooked. Plus, it has transformed over the past 20 years. Hang out in the Plaza Botero, hit the nearby town of Guatape, and party in El Poblado. In Cartagena, visitors will get a totally different experience than in Bogota or Medellin. Here, your can mix visits to museums and markets, like the Museo del Oro and Mercado de Bazurto, with lounging on the beach, hitting the nearby islands, or partying on a chiva, the traditional Colombian party bus. With at least three great big cities to choose from, Colombia is the pick for travelers who want plenty of urban adventure. 

Beaches in Peru and Colombia

Bocagrande, Colombia

Few people travel to Colombia or Peru solely for the beaches, but that’s not to say there’s not plenty of beautiful coastline in both countries -- particularly Colombia. Much of Peru’s southern coast is prone to foggy, gray skies, so you’ll find the best beaches in the north, where the sand is flanked by desert on one side and the Pacific on the other. The most famous of Peru’s secret beaches are in Mancora, a small coastal hideaway that has become a laid-back party town for locals and travelers alike. The combination of sun, sea, and golden sand makes it the go-to spot on the northeast coast. Other Peruvian beaches worth visiting include Huanchaco (for excellent surfing) and Punta Hermosa (for a fun, easy trip from Lima with a resort vibe geared toward tourists).

With Pacific and Caribbean beaches, Colombia is the clear winner in this category. Along with the sandy coastline of the mainland, the country has no shortage of small islands that boast their own beaches. One such island beach is Playa Blanca, located on Isla de Baru, off the coast of Cartagena. Fine white sand, deep azure waters, and lush vegetation make it one of the country’s finest sandy stretches -- just keep in mind that plenty agree, so you won’t be there alone. Colombia’s beaches are closer in appearance to those in Tulum or Playa del Carmen (picture white sand, sparkling blue water, and palm trees) than in Peru. Other notable destinations include Palomino, a gorgeous sandy strip bordered by encroaching vegetation and backdropped by the Sierra Nevada mountains and the dramatic coast of the Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona.  

Wildlife and Ruins in Peru and Colombia

Machu Picchu, Peru

Home to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, Peru is more accommodating to tourists wanting to explore the country’s wild places. Colombia, on the other hand, has fewer agencies and travel companies organizing excursions from its city centers, making it a little harder to go off the beaten path. Still, the country is not lacking in amazing landscapes (it’s the most biodiverse country on earth, after all) or ancient ruins, starting with the Lost City. Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Teyuna has been described as the new Machu Picchu, when, in fact, the ancient Lost City was formed over 600 years earlier. After a four- or five-day trek, hikers will arrive at a huge expanse of ruins built into the landscape, where stone roads connect terraces and platforms. So far, only a small percentage of the site has been uncovered and reclaimed from the vegetation. Visitors worried about the altitude at Machu Picchu will find a more palatable level of 4,000 feet at the Teyuna ruins. Plus, the four-day guided expedition is cheaper than Machu Picchu. Those with time on their hands can arrange special (and often expensive) tours of the country’s diverse wildlife, from whale watching in Buenaventura and Los Llanos safaris to spotting sea turtles in Choco and adventures up the Amazon.

Hiking the Inca Trail and seeing Machu Picchu is an iconic bucket-list item. This four-day trek to the ancient city passes through villages, jungles, and some incredible passes at a high altitude. But there’s plenty more to do, too. Explore the Amazon basin on a bird, jaguar, and monkey safari, take a day trip from Lima to Palomino and San Lorenzo islands to spot Humboldt penguins, tour the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve for spider monkeys and pink dolphins, and enjoy an aerial tour over the ancient Nazca Lines. If that’s not enough, sail Lake Titicaca, hike the Colca Canyon (keeping an eye out for condors), and surf the waves of Mancora.  

Safety in Peru and Colombia

Walled City, Cartagena

Colombia’s reputation for safety is worse than Peru’s, but for all its links with domestic terrorism and cartels, the country is a different proposition to the no-go destination it once was. The U.S. Department of State regards Colombia as a Level 2 on its travel advisory scale (the same level as Mexico), advising visitors to exercise increased caution. While violent crime is still a problem in some areas of the country, and kidnappings do occur, Bogota, Cartagena, and Medellin (once almost solely associated with cartel violence) are relatively safe to visit, especially if you stay in the popular tourist areas and remember to use common sense. Traveling on highways after dark, walking home alone at night, and excessive drinking in less-salubrious areas are all warned against. On an official level, Peru is the safer of the two countries, with the U.S. Department of State labeling it a Level 1, advising visitors to exercise normal precautions. The border between Colombia and Peru is off-limits to U.S. nationals, but the destinations that tourists are likely to visit in Peru are considered safe -- after all, Machu Picchu alone attracts over one million tourists every year

Other Factors to Consider in Peru and Colombia

Getsemani, Cartagena

The food in Peru and Colombia isn’t likely to have a huge bearing on which place you visit. Yes, Peruvian cuisine is delicious (it’s the home of ceviche and plenty of adventurous delicacies, like guinea pig), but Colombia’s traditional dishes can be just as appealing, particularly the heavy bandeja paisa platter and tasty tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Visitors should also plan on brushing up on their Spanish before arriving in either country, especially when traveling away from the cities. 

Finally, there's the weather. While southern Peru can be overcast much of the time, the north sees more sun. Summers in Lima are beautiful, with sunny skies hanging around for up to six months before being replaced with clouds. Bogota in Colombia is slightly cooler than Lima, when comparing the two capitals, and gray, cloudy skies provide their fair share of rain. Overall, the weather doesn’t seem to split the two countries. If you want guaranteed sun, you can find it in both. 

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