Everyone thinks Colombia is dangerous. They’ve heard about Pablo Escobar, they’ve heard about drug cartels, they’ve seen Narcos on Netflix and think they know what Colombia is like today.
I get it. Yes, the country used to have a certain reputation. But let me also say this: traveling in Colombia is so much fun. And it’s not (usually) unsafe.
Of course, as with many countries in South America, there may be some cautions around crime. So… maybe don’t walk into that dark alley at night? But Colombia’s problems have long been on the wane and, as the Colombian tourism board used to say, “the only risk is wanting to stay”.
What got me really excited about backpacking in Colombia was that, all along the Gringo Trail, backpackers who’d been told me it’s amazing. And they were right. I liked it so much that I ended up spending twice as long as planned!
Plan your Colombia backpacking trip
Why you should go
Colombia has it all: there’s both the Caribbean and Pacific coast, half the country is part of the Amazon rainforest, the Andes mountain range (which is perhaps better known from Peru or Chile) actually starts in Colombia, and you’ll find anything from lush jungles to dusty deserts as you backpack around the country.
The geography is so diverse that you could think of Colombia as a South America taster menu, offering loads of variety in an area that’s about twice the size of France. By South American standards, that’s actually pretty compact! It means that in Colombia you’re never more than an overnight bus away from a totally different place to explore.
Colombia has some of the highest biodiversity on the planet and is home to countless species of birds, fish, and mammals. This makes it an incredible destination for activities like trekking (like the Lost City trek) and scuba diving (the most popular spot is Taganga).
Bursting with culture
The cities of Medellín and Bogota are among the most booming and cosmopolitan on the continent, filled with street art, salsa dance, and colorful culture. While it’s fascinating to learn about its often dark history of Colombia, but you’ll be equally intrigued by life there today.
I had a blast in Barranquilla, the original home of Shakira, when I was there during carnival (it is, in fact, the second biggest in world after Rio!). And I loved learning about Colombian coffee in the coffee-growing region of Salento.
What made a huge impression on me was how Colombians were so chill and welcoming everywhere. I’ve gone backpacking in over 60 countries and Colombia is still one of my personal favorites.
Great for budget travelers
Whether you like to stay in hostels or prefer local guesthouses, you’ll find there is a solid backpacker circuit in Colombia. It’s also pretty easy to do on a budget.
While Colombia is not quite the cheapest country on the continent (Peru and Bolivia are much cheaper), travel in Colombia still offers some great value for money.
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Accommodation in Colombia
A trip is as much about where you’re staying as where you’re going. Luckily, Colombia has it all, from cozy traveler hostels all the way to luxury hotels.
If you like to stay in hostels, then you’ll be happy to know they’re great in Colombia! Expect the same kind of amenities and standards as in other developed or middle-income countries.
Colombia’s growing network of backpacker hostels is used by international as well as plenty of Colombian backpackers. Below are a few recommended ones, but you can also browse all Colombia hostels.
If you’re more into hotels but you’re still on a budget, you can usually find decent rooms for around $USD 30 a night. Colombia has lots of local guesthouses with an authentic character and good vibe. I usually have the most success in finding them on Booking.com, which has a lot more mom ‘n pop-type hotels than other platforms.
Finally, you may have pretty good luck on Airbnb, which has really taken off in Colombia. It’s great for finding cottages, cabins, and tiny houses in rural places, as well as apartments in the cities. You can browse Airbnbs in Colombia here.
Amazing hostels in Colombia
Has two locations in the beautiful La Candelaria barrio. I stayed in the second house which I think is the best of the two.
Friendly, homely hostel in popular Poblado area. Has on-site Spanish school & chill atmosphere. 15 min walk to the most fun nightlife area
Also in Poblado; has a pool and is more party oriented than Black Sheep.
Cozy hostel with narrow central courtyard making it super easy to meet people. Dorms and private rooms.
$$ Santa Marta
Fun hostel with a unique twist: its building used to be a cartel headquarters!
Hostel in a colonial house with epic views of the mountains
Colombia backpacking route
When looking at a map of Colombia, you’ll quickly notice that most travel destinations are in the west and north.
Why? Well, it’s simple: the eastern half of Colombia is largely covered by the Amazon rainforest. These parts are not as easily accessible and may also have specific security concerns.
The destinations mentioned here are all on the travel circuit, easily reached by public transport, and are considered not only sensible but amazing places to visit.
In the north of Colombia, you’ll find the old colonial city of Cartagena. It has long been the country’s main tourist draw (even during the bad years, as cruise ships could still dock here). It’s a beautiful place with an old center, albeit a tad touristy and more expensive.
The city of Santa Marta is not so notable in itself, but it makes for an excellent launching point for exploring the beautiful Tayrona National Park or for doing the Lost City trek. The nearby town of Taganga is Colombia’s leading destination for scuba diving and a bit of a backpacker hub. Although I missed it on my trip, the small town of Minca, also near Santa Marta, is a laidback backpacker destination among the jungles and waterfalls.
In the center is San Gil, Colombia’s adventure sports capital. Go here for paragliding, wild water rafting, caving, and more. The center of Colombia’s is also home to its second-largest city of Medellín, a fascinating place that you definitely shouldn’t skip.
In the south is the capital Bogota, Colombia’s coffee region of Salento, the city of Cali (famous for its obsession with salsa), and Tatacoa, a desert where years of erosion have created some unusual landscapes.
The Amazon at the heart of Colombia is super remote and even home to some uncontacted indigenous tribes. These areas are reportedly difficult to explore. If you want to go into the Amazon, flying to Leticia is one established option. This town has border connections with Peru and Brazil.
Getting to Colombia
If you’re planning to fly direct to Colombia, you’ll find an increasing number of direct flights to Bogota from many points around the world. Colombian airline Avianca connects with Madrid, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, London, and many others.
If you’re traveling around Latin America, keep in mind that it is not possible to enter Colombia from Panama overland. Well, you theoretically could if you were some crazy Bears Grylls style survivor, but the so-called Darien Gap has no roads and is brimming with smugglers and jaguars, so it’s broadly considered a no-go area.
If you want to travel between these countries without flying and if you have at least 4 or 5 days available, then a great option is to go sailing from Panama to Cartagena or vice versa. I loved this trip perhaps even more than I loved traveling Colombia itself, so I can highly recommend it if it’s within your (time and money) budget.
Top places to visit in Colombia
These are just a few of the best places to see in Colombia — at least, they were the ones I most enjoyed. They’re roughly in a north to south order.
Colonial City of Cartagena
Cartagena is lovely. While its modern parts reminded me faintly of Miami with its high-rise condos along the waterfront, the city 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 bananas and other fruits. The walls and fortresses that ring the town are also worth a wander, offering some vantage points into the cobbled colonial-era streets below.
Budget travelers should know that photogenic Cartagena is essentially 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 Blanca 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 trip!
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 center of gravity again.
Look, whatever… just go do it. It’s hilarious.
Trek to the Lost City
The Lost City Trek is one of the best hikes I’ve done 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 along clear river streams and through lush green jungles.
You sleep in hammocks or bunks in primitive lodges—they’re just some roofs without walls, really, so you’re essentially sleeping out in the open save for your mosquito net. At night you’ll fall asleep to an orchestra of crickets, frogs, and monkeys. It’s quite simply one of the best experiences I’ve had in all of South America.
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 travelers 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), kayaking, canyoning, mountain biking, and more. I did some tandem paragliding here which was great fun, though I did later realize this was at Curtiti which has mainly some hills and farmlands and not over Chicamocha Canyon, which has much more spectacular views. It’s also possible to paraglide over Medellin, which I imagine would have given some great views as well.
Besides the adventure activities , the town of San Gil is worth having a look as well, which has some nice botanical gardens and vendors selling plates of fried giant-bottomed ants. They’re crispy and salty like popcorn. Om-nom-nom!
Visit the 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 give it another look and 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, one of them doubling as an open-air mini-museum featuring sculptures by Fernando Botero.
I recommend checking out the Plaza Botero, the Minorista market (a traditional farmer’s market), and Parque Lleras at night (a fun nightlife area where people spill out from the bars into the streets and patios). Be sure to ride the metrocable up to Parque Arvi, go to the Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden, and visit the Medellín Museum of Modern Art as well. I can also highly recommend going on a tropical fruit tasting tour.
If you’ve got the chance to see a football match in Medellin, be sure to take it. The level of passion from the supporters is sure to leave an impression. Things can get very mosh-pitty when they score a goal though, so go with a little group if you can, and be sure to watch your pockets.
Many travellers stay in the Poblado area of Medellin, which is a high/middle-class residential neighborhood with a good reputation for safety, and within walking distance of the Parque Lleras nightlife as well. You’ll also find a high concentration of hostels and guesthouses in Laureles (and the adjacent Libertadores), which has fewer hipster cafes than Poblado and more of a local vibe. I enjoyed staying in both these neighborhoods.
If you want to learn more about Medellin’s past, go on the Real City tour. 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 the country. After this tour, you’re guaranteed to feel a new emotional connection with Colombia and a deeper understanding of what’s happened here over the past few decades.
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 half of every facade. There are some arts and craft shops, and some historical colonial-era churches.
But the main highlight is 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 around the rock you’ll also find a range of tourist activities such as boat tours around the lakes and extreme sports such as 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 usually 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 eye-catching street art as well, and get to sample unusual tropical fruits at the local market.
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 artefacts.
Finally, it’s worth taking the cable car to Monserrate Mountain, from where you get a superb view of the city below.
Coffee farms in Salento
The small town of Salento in Colombia’s coffee region is a great spot to stay for a few days. Tours of some of the local organic coffee farms can educate you about the coffee growing and roasting process, though there is much more to see and do in Salento. After spending time in the cities, you may just wish to wind down for a while in this slow-paced rural place.
Make sure you hike to the Cocora Valley, home to some gasp-inducingly tall wax palm trees.
Growing up to 70 meters, they’re claimed by some to be some of the tallest in the world. The hike starts along a mountain stream, crosses over some old swing bridges, passes through some cloud forests (don’t miss the hummingbird sanctuary), before finally reaching the valley with the imposing palm trees.
The area is also a favorite 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!
Stargaze in Tatacoa desert
The Tatacoa Desert, not far from the southern city of Neiva, is one of the hottest places in Colombia. It’s remote and has only a few places to stay (and no internet), which makes it all the more worth it. You’ll find yourself in the middle of an arid expanse, home of vultures and eagles, with the start of the Andes mountain range off in the distance.
A labyrinth of rocky canyons formed by years of erosion is the main attraction here — it’s a surreal little place that’s fun to get lost in.
Due to the low light pollution, it’s also a perfect spot for stargazing, either by yourself perhaps while sitting around a campfire, or at the local observatory. The resident astronomer gives presentations every night, which were unfortunately hard for me to follow with my limited Spanish. But he did say “Goopitar” a lot (I think that was Jupiter), and he probably said some things about the expansion of the universe. Either way, I got to see the rings of Saturn through a telescope, which was totally amazing.
Is Colombia safe?
The one question I keep hearing is this: is Colombia safe? Understandably, safety is something that’s still on people’s minds when it comes to Colombia.
The short answer is that the safety situation in Colombia is, generally speaking, not so different from other countries in Central- or South America. Things have improved a lot in recent times.
Colombia travel guides from at least a decade ago may still warn of kidnapping risk or drug gang violence but modern editions are free of such warnings. Of course, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t apply common sense, such as taking taxis at night and not wandering idly into sketchy neighborhoods on the outskirts of Bogota or in Medellin’s hillside barrios.
Statistically, Colombia is way safer than it was in the 90ies, though the city of Cali, in particular, remains in the worldwide top 30 for most murders per capita. This relates to the criminal underworld and may not directly affect tourists, but it probably still speaks to the overall safety level and so you might want to be a bit extra careful in Cali, among other places.
Still, you won’t be facing Pablo Escobar (he’s long dead now). On a personal level, I felt very much at ease in Colombia. It’s still rough around the edges, but the security situation (especially for tourists) seemed better to me than in Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil and even South Africa, subjective as such impressions may be. However, it’s important not to drop your guard, and I recommend reading up on some of the common sense safety precautions you can take.
Petty crime is of course a reality as anywhere, and be sure to consult further info if you’re going into remote jungle areas far off the tourist trail.
That said, it’s a good idea to comprehensive travel insurance before traveling to Colombia. You can view my comparison of travel insurance with my recommendations.
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).
While everything depends on your personal travel style, I recommend budgeting at least around $40 a day. Of course, spend more on things like dining out or better accommodation then that number would rise.
A hostel dorm bed will typically set you back USD $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 restaurants: 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 centers or a la carte meals are closer to $5-10. A beer from a domestic brand will cost about a dollar.
If you don’t want to eat out every night, then it’s do-able to cook your own meals. There are plenty of modern supermarkets in the cities, and hostels often have kitchen facilities available.
English is not widely spoken in Colombia so some knowledge of Spanish will be very helpful. If you’re traveling 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. I thought it was really fun to learn Spanish there, as there were many language exchanges where you can meet and converse with locals. Many Colombians love a chance to brush up their English!
Around the web
These are some other resources and travel blogs I recommend reading.
Another great source for Colombia travel tips are Facebook groups and forums like Reddit. When you post questions in such places, do yourself a favor and spell Colombia correctly (i.e. Colombia, not Columbia, which is a city in America). Regulars in these forums, especially locals, can be quite sensitive about this!
- What we spent in Colombia – Along Dusty Roads
- Daily Travel Costs in Colombia on a Shoestring Budget – My Funky Travel
- Trekking to the highest waterfall in Colombia – Tammy and Chris on the Move
- The Best Things To Do In Medellin: Not Your Typical Guide – The Unconventional Guide
- Solo Travel in Colombia – Girl About the Globe
- San Andres Colombia – a great resource on the tropical islands of San Andres
- Hiking the Cocora Valley – The Adventure Junkies
- Things to Do in Medellin: Ultimate Insider Guide – Other Way Round
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