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 very much open for business. So just to get this out of the way: apart from a few trouble spots (and so long as you take regular safety precautions), you should feel confident in visiting Colombia. 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 ill-advised 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, the culture of Colombia is wonderfully vibrant and its people are at times heart-achingly welcoming. I have been to over 45 countries and Colombia is, hands down, one of my personal favorites.
There is an emerging backpacking circuit in Colombia, with hostels and other low-cost accommodation in ample supply.
Why you should go
- Huge variety in climate and topography. Colombia has it all: a Caribbean and a Pacific coast, rainy jungles, 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 lot going on, and it’s a country with a very strong identity. You’ll be fascinated to learn about its (often dark) history but also be intrigued by Colombian life today.
- Friendly people. Generalizations are usually true, and generally Colombians are a very welcoming bunch. They are happy to see travellers and will sometimes really go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I found that Colombia is often a country of smiles.
- Great for backpacking. Hostels are springing up rapidly all over the country. Colombia is not really the cheapest country in Latin America but it doesn’t have the break the bank either. Bus travel is affordable and quite comfortable, and very cheap internal flights can be found through domestic carriers such as Viva Colombia.
Bright colours in the colonial old town of Cartagena
Nearly one third of Colombia is covered by the Amazon rainforest. When looking at a map of Colombia, you’ll find that most destinations are in the west and north. The map further below shows you some of the main destinations that I’ve chosen to highlight.
If Colombia is your sole destination, then you’ll find an increasing number of direct flights to Bogota from many points around the world. 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 very reckless, but generally speaking this is a dangerous no-go area. If you want to travel between these countries without flying, I can strongly recommend sailing from Panama to Cartagena or vice versa as this is an incredible experience that is vastly 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 coffee region (where the small village of Salento, close to Cocora Valley, is a popular backpacker destination), the city of Cali (famous for its obsession with salsa), and not too far from here is also Tatacoa desert, which has some interesting scenery.
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 touristy areas. If you want to go into the Amazon, flying to Leticia is basically the main (essentially the ‘only’) option. There are border connections in Leticia with Peru and Brazil.
Places to visit in Colombia
These are a few of the best places to visit and top things to do in Colombia:
The Old City of Cartagena
Cartagena is easily among 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 ringing the town are also worth a wander.
Enjoy a mud volcano bath
This is a fun weird to do on a day trip from Cartagena. This mud volcano lets you swim inside it, and 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. Good silly fun.
Trek to the Lost City
This 4 to 6 day trek is beautiful, and leads to an ancient pre-Colombian city atop a mountain. It’s not exactly Machu Pichhu, but then again it’s also nearly not as busy (it gets just 1/100th the number of visitors) so you get to enjoy it so much more.
Read About This Experience: Hiking Past Indigenous Tribes To Reach Colombia’s Lost City
Adventure sports in San Gil
San Gil in the Santander region is the capital of adventure sports. Go there for rafting (up to class 5 rapids, which is the safety maximum), paragliding (starting at $30), mountain biking, and more.
Go paragliding in San Gil or Medellin.
Colombians love to party. Most bars play a mix of dance, merengue, bachata, raggaeton and salsa. Going to a bar or club can be an interesting experience: often it will have groups of people actually seated at tables, and they’ll dance around the tables when their favorite tunes come on. It’s a sort of social salsa vibe that is different from typical nightlife in Western countries, which I thought was really cool. The city of Medellin has some of the best nightlife, followed by Bogota and Cali.
See the world’s tallest palm trees
The small mountain town of Salento in central Colombia is worth visiting for a number of reasons. It’s a nice place to go on hikes, it is in the middle of the coffee region so you can visit a coffee farm and learn about how coffee is grown and roasted, and you can visit nearby Cocora Valley, alledgedly home to the world’s tallest palm trees. It’s a very surreal out-of-this-world kind of place.
Go on a tropical fruit tasting tour
Both in Bogota and Medellin you can sign up to amazing tours that take you to the local markets where you can try every exotic fruit imaginable.
Learn to scuba dive in Taganga
While the diving around Taganga is not really meant to be the best in the world in terms of seeing unique marine life, it’s a great place to get certified with internationally competitive rates. Taganga is also a big backpacker party destination.
Medellin has connected some of its poorer neighborhoods on the hills to the city with cablecars.
Enjoy the city of Medellin
A lot of big cities in Central/South America don’t appeal to me much as they are often chaotic and overwhelming. Medellin on the other hand has a real cultural heart that’s easy to love. While it seems quite grungy on the outside, it is actually quite a pleasant city to be in (Medellin has been getting many innovation rewards for its recent urban renewal).
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.
Visit Guatape and the big rock
Near Medellin is a quaint colorful village called Guatape where all the houses have been painted in bright colors in traditional ways. It’s worth a day trip from Medellin. Near Guatape is also a very unusual looking rock that you can get on top of, giving you amazing views of the surrounding landscape.
Learn salsa in Cali
Dancing classes can be found all over Colombia, though Cali is truly the salsa capital. It’s great even for just soaking up the salsa atmosphere in its many bars. If salsa seems too complicated, try taking a bachata or merengue class (as these require much less footwork).
Eat some giant ants
Giant fat-bottomed ants are, for some reason, a delicacy in and around San Gil. Read my culinary review here.
Relax on white sand beaches
Don’t expect the beaches in Colombia to be great everywhere; for example, the beaches around Cartagena aren’t all that nice. For those amazing ‘picture perfect’ beaches you’ll have to go to Tayrona Park for example, or venture into the more remote pacific regions. Another great option is to fly to San Andres Island, which oddly is actually closer to Nicaragua than Colombia. San Andres is a huge diving and snorkeling destination, and it’s culturally of interest as well as it has a multicultural mix of Spanish, English and Creole influences. I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to visit the island, but if you’re looking for more info on San Andres I recommend checking out SanAndres-Colombia.com.
Enjoy observing the street life in Cartagena
You can find cute colonial towns in different places around the country. This one is Barichara.
Suggested hostels in Colombia
Enjoying your trip is as much about where you’re staying as where you’re going. Fortunately Colombia is a very backpacker-friendly country with lots of affordable guesthouses and cozy hostels available. Here are a couple of excellent hostels and low-budget places to stay:
|El Viajero||Cartagena||Cozy hostel with narrow central courtyard making it very easy to meet people. Dorms and private rooms.|
|Drop Bear Hostel||Santa Marta||Fun hostel with common room, swimming pool and kitchen facilities. Unique twist: the building used to be a cartel headquarters. If you’re lucky, the owner will give you a tour of all the building’s little secrets. I wrote about this hostel here.|
|Black Sheep Hostel||Medellin||Friendly, homely hostel in Medellin’s popular Poblado area. Has on-site Spanish school. Relaxed atmosphere|
|Casa Kiwi||Medellin||Also in Poblado. Features a pool, hammocks, and a small bar. Good base from which to go out to Parque Lleras.|
|Open House||San Gil||Hostel with small patio courtyard in paragliding/rafting mecca San Gil. Essentially a small family-run guesthouse. Dorms and private rooms.|
|La Serrana||Salento||Great hostel in the town of Salento in the coffee region. Bonfires at night. Restaurant sources its ingredients from the on-site vegetable gardens.|
|Casa Bellavista||Bogotá||Top rated hostel in the capital.|
Is Colombia safe?
People keep asking this question, which is understandable given the country’s reputation in the past. There are two different parts to answering it.
- Regular crime (pickpocketing etc.) – As with any country exercise reasonable caution. If you go out, take a taxi home instead of walking around the streets drunk. Crime does obviously exist in Colombia, though to me it certainly seemed not so rough around the edges as Peru, Honduras or Guatemala (just to name a few). Those with a bit of prior travel experience will probably not be so intimidated.
- Drugs violence / kidnappings / Pablo Escobar shooting you in the face – This is not truly an issue anymore. One caveat: remote jungle areas not listed in travel guides (including the entire Amazon region apart from Letitia) may still have a FARC rebel presence and are best not visited unless you really know what you’re doing. There is a peace process in progress, but various remote parts of Colombia (typically well off the tourist trail) are still rather iffy. Consult your country’s travel advisories for current details. That said, a normal traveller should have no trouble in Colombia.
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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 alcohol 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
Tayrona has some of the better beaches in the country (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
- What we spent in Colombia – Along Dusty Roads
A nicely detailed cost of travel breakdown
- Trekking to the highest waterfall in Colombia – Tammy and Chris on the Move
- All my posts about Colombia – Indie Traveller
Browse all my travel reports from Colombia
More info on Colombia: check out the WikiVoyage page for some more destination info. Looking for a more comprehensive guide? You can grab the Lonely Planet guide to Colombia right here, available in book form or as PDF which you can use at home or consult on your smartphone or tablet while you travel.