Occupying a corner at the top of South America, Colombia is a country that, geographically speaking, has it all. To venture there is to hit the jackpot for a curious traveler keen on exploring everything from tangled jungles to misty mountain towns, scorching sugary beaches and everything in between. In planning a trip to this South American nation, certain destinations regularly score a place on the tops of “must-do” checklists. Medellín, Cartagena, Guatapé, Bogotá, and Tayrona Park are all such examples (and for good reason… these spots are simply beautiful). There are, however, two Colombian gems seated comfortably in the middle of the Andes whose praises are less often sung by backpackers and expats alike—the volcanic hot spring locations of Santa Rosa de Cabal and San Vicente.
Though often left out of the conversation, these thermal springs are the image of tranquility and worthwhile destinations both for nature lovers and those looking for a relaxing time abroad. These stops in the coffee region are red-hot— literally. Below, a tell-all description of what to keep an eye out for through all that steam.
Santa Rosa de Cabal
The hot springs— or termales — are the perfect spot to unwind in Santa Rosa de Cabal, which is located just 30 miles away from Salento — arguably the most popular place to visit in Colombia’s coffee region — and halfway between Medellin and Cali. This is the place to go to release muscle tension or to lose track of time while having a deep conversation. Up in the scenic mountains where lush trees and flowers cover every square inch, these hot springs are located in a truly idyllic spot. Most awe-striking is the spa focal point: a 95-meter waterfall that overlooks the piping-hot thermal pools. Split into five streams, frigid waters cascade over foliage-covered rock and trickle downstream along the edge of the thermal baths. Here, travelers can take in the setting basking in the naturally-heated water while sipping glasses of wine or margaritas until close to midnight.
Just outside of the facility, log cabin-style restaurants and hotels line the streets affording this hot spring destination a quaint aesthetic. Walking along the main dirt road, visitors are likely to spot several grills outside of traditional restaurants with batches of chorizo sausage sizzling away. Don’t skip out on ordering some for lunch or dinner; chorizo is one of Santa Rosa de Cabal’s claims to fame. People from this town make the sausage by hand and have perfected all of their own recipes. This is why tourists will so often notice the smokey BBQ scent in the middle of the day when Colombians settle down for almuerzo, otherwise known as lunch or their main daily meal.
When not soaking in the thermal pools, visitors scoping out the region should plan a day of horseback riding or hiking. Since Santa Rosa de Cabal is mountainous, it has so many incredible views that can’t be missed. One thing to keep in mind though is that even though you came to relax in balmy pools, the outside temperatures in the Risaralda department can get pretty chilly (think mid-60s and below). Best pack closed-toe sneakers and a warm jacket. It’s especially cool at night and in the morning.
Colombia’s magical realism is alive and well in in the lush green space of San Vicente where clouds are made of steam and the pools aren’t frigid like one would expect, but as hot as bath water. San Vicente is located just an hour away from Santa Rosa de Cabal so if looking to explore these steamy baths, it’s too easy to take in both locations. It could also be a potential stop en route to Los Nevados National Park, Pereira, or, most popularly, coffee region hot-spots. This thermal spa has a more natural aesthetic with multiple pools dotted along a central mountain stream. While some of the baths are tiled and surrounding by manicured landscaping, others are left rugged and completely untouched. To spend an afternoon here is to bask in hot waters pooled at the side of an exposed rock face or underneath canopies of waxy leaves and moss-covered vines. It seems unnatural that these mountains creeks don’t run freezing cold and that’s the novelty of taking a day to explore all it has to offer. Really, this is one of those places where you almost don’t want to blink and miss a split-second of its beauty.
Those who visit can (and should) spend the day pool hopping letting stress melt away. There’s a main pool large enough to accomodate a group of friends as they take in mountain views. Next to it are cozier little tubs positioned amongst flower beds and an algae bath to replenish the skin. Downstream, is where natural steam rooms have been set up (if you can take the heat) and at the very edge is where visitors will find the springs that have been left completely raw. These steamy lagoons inside forested area aren’t obvious to a passerby so make a point to seek them out.
In general, the San Vicente springs are a blissful place to escape and get away from the gringo trail. From the main baths, a bridge goes over the top of rushing waters below providing a walkway to the restaurant. (Tip: both fresh squeezed juices and trout are menu items that give this region bragging points, don’t miss out.) If a day isn’t enough to enjoy this peaceful Colombian destination, there’s also a series of charming lodges to post up for a night or two.
Extend the vacation...
Stop-over for a night in Pereira
Foreigners are likely well aware of Colombian cities Medellín and Bogotá and positioned approximately halfway between these two hubs, these hot springs aren’t close to either. If wanting to extend the getaway to an urban setting though, the city of Pereira is easily accessible. (Shuttles actually run from San Vicente to Pereira so it won’t complicate travel plans.) This Colombian city has its own unique personality. Locals have an impeccable style favoring edgier fashion and skillfully-done tattoos. As for the food and bar scene, Pereira is rife with craft brews and cocktails in artsy spaces that each seem to have their own themes from colonial-style mansion to Italian eateries decked out in vintage decor.
Continue the roadtrip to Salento
Yes, the hot springs are a lesser-known stop for foreigners visiting Colombia but if looking to get back onto the well-beaten path, Salento and the neighboring Cocora Valley are really close by. Salento is one of the most popular places for tourists spending a vacation in Colombia and for good reason: it’s stunning. This town is home to hummingbirds, avocado trees, gorgeous pink sunsets and perfect weather. Coffee farm tours are a big draw here as this location sits at the prime elevation for cultivating the quality beans that Colombia is so well known for. The other big attraction is the Cocora Valley which is home to the world’s tallest wax palm trees. After completing the hike through the valley, these towering, skinny trees that can grow up to 200 feet tall are a rewarding sight.