The word is slowly getting out about Colombia. While many still mistakenly associate the country with only crime and violence, Colombia’s problems have long been on the wane and today it is ready to receive visitors once again. As its tourism board says, “the only risk is wanting to stay”. It’s amazing how many sights and points of interest there are around the country, previously inaccessible or in ill-advised areas but now ready to be explored. Colombia’s geography is so diverse that it’s like a portrait of South America in miniature, offering tons of variety in an area that’s about twice the size of France. On top of that, Colombia has a wonderfully vibrant culture and its people are at times heart-achingly welcoming. I’ve gone backpacking in over 55 countries and Colombia is, hands down, one of my personal favorites.
Why you should go
- Huge variety in climate and topography. Colombia has it all: a Caribbean and a Pacific coast, lush forests, dry deserts, the start of the Andes range and a big slice of the Amazon. It’s almost like a compressed version of South America as a whole, with a different environment only ever a bus ride away.
- Huge biodiversity. Colombia has some of the highest biodiversity on the planet and is home to countless species of birds, fish, mammals, etc. making it a wonderful destination for trekking and scuba diving.
- Brimming with culture. Colombia has a strong cultural identity and its cities (notably Medellin and Bogota) are among the most booming and cosmopolitan in South America. You’ll be fascinated to learn about its often dark history though equally intrigued by Colombian life today.
- Great for budget travel. Colombia is not the cheapest country in Latin America but not the priciest either. Bus travel is affordable and comfortable, and low budget domestic flights are available via carriers such as Viva Colombia. There is an emerging backpacking circuit, with hostels and other low-cost accommodation in ample supply.
Nearly one third of Colombia is covered by the Amazon rainforest and not easily accessible. When looking at a map of Colombia, you’ll find that most places to see are in the west and north. I’ve highlighted some of the top places to visit in the map below. If you’re flying to Colombia directly, you’ll find an increasing number of direct flights to Bogota from many points around the world. Colombian carrier Avianca connects with Madrid, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, London, and many others. If you’re on a regional trip, keep in mind that it is not possible to enter Colombia from Panama overland. Well, you theoretically could if you were extremely reckless, but generally speaking this is a no-go area filled with smugglers and jaguars. If you want to travel between these countries without flying, I strongly recommend sailing from Panama to Cartagenaor vice versa as this is a phenomenal experience that is far superior to flying. In the north of Colombia you’ll find the colonial old city of Cartagena, as well as Santa Marta which is not so notable in itself but makes for a great base for exploring Tayrona National Park (home to beautiful white sand beaches and jungle) as well as a good point from which to make the Lost City trek. The town of Taganga, a short ride from Santa Marta, is Colombia’s main destination for scuba diving and is a bit of a backpacker party hub. In the middle is San Gil, which is Colombia’s adventure sports capital (including paragliding, wild water rafting, caving, etc.). Here you’ll also find Medellin, which is a fascinating city that should not be skipped. In the south you’ll find the capital Bogota, the popular coffee region, the city of Cali (famous for its obsession with salsa), and Tatacoa, a desert in which where years of erosion have created some unusual landscapes. The amazon at the heart of Colombia is super remote and is even home to some uncontacted indigenous tribes. It’s also where FARC rebels are reportedly still present, so these are not exactly areas suitable for tourists. If you want to go into the Amazon, flying to Leticia is essentially the only mainstream option. Leticia has border connections with Peru and Brazil.
Places to see in Colombia
These are a few of the best places to visit and top things to do in Colombia. They’re roughly in a north to south order.
Colonial City of Cartagena
Its modern parts reminded me a bit of Miami, but Cartagena also has one of the prettiest colonial town centres in South America. Picture lots of quaint houses with flowers hanging from balconies and leafy squares where people play chess and street vendors sell grapes and bananas. The walls and fortresses that ring the town are also worth a wander.
Budget travellers should know that photogenic Cartagena is basically the tourism crown jewel of Colombia and so prices are significantly higher than elsewhere. There is a small backpacker district around Calle 34 just outside the old town with good budget options. Playa Branca is a beautiful beach about an hour’s drive outside the city; it’s much better than any of the city beaches so it’s worth the drive!
Float in Totumo Volcano mud baths
Okay, I won’t pretend this isn’t a silly tourist trap, but it’s too much fun not to mention. A day trip from Cartagena, this mud volcano lets you swim inside it. The viscosity of the mud makes you float on top of the surface, like you’re swimming in the Dead Sea. Sometimes you keel over and have to paddle like a dog to find your centre of gravity again. Look, whatever… just go do it. It’s hilarious.
Trek to the Lost City
This is one of the best hikes in South America. It takes 4 to 6 days departing from Santa Marta. The trek runs through lands owned by the indigenous Kogi up to an ancient pre-Colombian city atop a mountain. The ruins may not exactly be Machu Picchu, but they are not truly the point of this hike. The destination is just an excuse for the journey, which meanders past clear river streams and lush green jungles. You sleep in hammocks or bunks in primitive lodges — they’re just some roofs without walls, really, so you’re effectively sleeping out in the open save for your mosquito net. At night you fall asleep to an orchestra of crickets, frogs, and monkeys.
Explore Tayrona Park
Is a 5 day hike a little too long for your itinerary? Then you’ll find some shorter walks in Tayrona Park, in the northeast corner of Colombia. While I didn’t do the 3 hour hike through the jungle to the ruins of Pueblito, it’s been tipped as a cheaper and shorter alternative for those with limited time. Tayrona Park itself has several beautiful secluded beaches and a chance to see a lot of wildlife. You can camp overnight inside the national park in Cabo San Juan and sleep in a hammock or tent. Some budget travellers do complain about the somewhat inflated prices for food and accommodation inside the park, though realistically you can overnight in Tayrona for as little as $20. It’s best to book your hammock or tent in advance though as spaces are limited.
San Gil: the hub for adventure sports
San Gil in the Santander region is Colombia’s capital of adventure sports. Go there for rafting (up to class 5 rapids, i.e. there’s some crazy rafting here), paragliding (starting at $30), mountain biking, and more. I had a great time paragliding in San Gil, though the town itself is worth having a look as well, with some nice botanical gardens and vendors selling plates of fried giant-bottomed ants (they’re crispy and salty like popcorn – it’s a local delicacy).
Visit the town of Barichara
The cute colonial town of Barichara
Barichara is a town in northern Colombia known for its cobbled streets and colonial architecture. It makes for a nice day trip from San Gil. You’ll find some old churches and cemeteries, a few small museums, and a historical walking trail that takes about 2 hours and connects the picturesque towns of Barichara and Guane.
Discover cultural Medellin
Many big cities in Latin America can be a let-down as they tend to be chaotic and overwhelming. Medellin on the other hand has a real cultural heart that’s easy to love. It may look grungy at first glance, but given another look you’ll find a fascinating city to explore. Its urban renewal over the past few years has been earning Medellin many international innovation awards, with squares that were once the sites of cartel battles now becoming thriving public spaces that double as open-air mini museums featuring sculptures by Fernando Botero.
Medellin has connected some of its poorer neighborhoods on the hills to the city with cable cars.
Places I recommend checking out in Medellin: Plaza Botero, Minorista market, Parque Lleras at night (a fun bar area with people spilling into the streets), ride the metrocable up to Parque Arvi, go to the Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden, and visit the Medellín Museum of Modern Art. I can also highly recommend going on a tropical fruit tasting tour. Many travellers stay in the Poblado area of Medellin, which is a middle-class residential neighborhood with a good reputation for safety, and it is within walking distance of the Parque Lleras nightlife as well. Laureles (and the adjacent Libertadores) has more of a local vibe and has a high concentration of hostels and guesthouses as well. I enjoyed staying in both these neighborhoods. If you want to learn more about Medellin’s past, go on the Real City tour(that’s the name of the company): it’s one of the best city tours I’ve done anywhere. It tells you in very emotionally engaging ways about the history of the city and Colombia. After this tour you’re guaranteed to feel a new emotional connection not only with the city but with Colombia in general.
Climb the big rock of Guatape
A great day trip from Medellin (perhaps even warranting an overnight stay) is the historical town of Guatape, famed for its colourful houses with beautifully sculpted depictions of village life adorning the lower halves of every house. There are some arts and craft shops, and some historical colonial era churches. But the main highlight is the rock of Piedra del Peñol. This unusual rock formation was once worshipped by the indigenous tribes and given the imposing look of this monolith it’s easy to see why. You can climb stairs to the top from where you have a great view of the surrounding lakes. Guatape is a bit of a resort town for Colombians, so in addition you’ll find a range of tourist activities (such as boat tours around the lakes) and extreme sports (including hang gliding).
City tours & museums in Bogota
The capital of Bogota has a lot of things to see and do, but I’d recommend doing several things in particular. First, go on a Bogota bicycle tour. You’ll be able to cover a lot of ground and gain a greater understanding of the city. You’ll see things you normally wouldn’t see: for instance, why are all these shady-looking men loitering outside this one particular building? Turns out they are grey-market emerald dealers trying to off-load their gemstones to the highest bidder. You’ll see some of the city’s most amazing street art as well, and get to sample unusual tropical fruits at the local market that you can’t find anywhere in the west. Bogota also has a large number of museums. Don’t miss the Botero Museum and the National Museum, and especially the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) which has a stunning collection of pre-Columbian gold artifacts. Finally, it’s worth taking the cable car to Monserrate Mountain, from where you get a superb view of the city below. The area is also a popular place to go trekking or horseback riding. A fun thing you can do in town during the evening is to play Tejo, a traditional Colombian game that involves throwing metal balls at a target lined with gunpowder. It’s good explosive fun!
If you are in Colombia end of February / early March be sure to go to the carnival in Barranquila. It’s the second biggest in the world after Rio.
Cost of travel in Colombia
Colombia is not an ultimate cheapie like some other Latin American countries (e.g. Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru or Bolivia). However, it’s also not as expensive as some others (e.g. Costa Rica or Brazil). As a ballpark budget around $40 a day, depending on your personal travel style. Of course, spend more on things like entertainment or better accommodation and that could rise to $50 or more. A hostel dorm bed will typically set you back $10 – $15. The higher end of that range is mostly found in Cartagena as it’s the prime tourist spot. Food can be very cheap if you eat in local eateries – a daily set meal typically with soup, meat and rice, and fried plantains will usually sell for as little as $3-5. Food in urban centres or a la carte meals are closer to $5-10. A domestic beer costs about a dollar. ‘Exito’ supermarkets are easy to find in cities, and hostels usually have kitchen facilities available.
English is not widely spoken in Colombia so some knowledge of Spanish will be very helpful. If travelling for a while, it might make sense to learn Spanish if you don’t speak any. There are many Spanish language schools around the country; Medellin in particular is a popular place to take lessons. For more information see my post 5 Ways To Learn Spanish When Traveling Latin America