Word is slowly getting out about traveling in 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”!
Colombia has a dizzying number of sights and points of interest, previously inaccessible or in ill-advised areas but now ready to be explored. Colombia’s geography is so diverse that you could think of it as a big South America taster menu, offering tons of variety in an area that’s about twice the size of France.
Not only that, but the country has a wonderfully vibrant culture, and its people can be heart-achingly welcoming. I’ve gone backpacking in over 55 countries, and Colombia is one of my personal favorites.
Why you should go
- Variety in climate and topography. Colombia has it all: a Caribbean and a Pacific coast, lush jungles, vast 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.
- Brimming with culture. Colombia has a strong cultural identity, and its cities (notably Medellin and Bogota) are among the most booming and cosmopolitan on the continent. It’s fascinating to learn about its often dark history, but you’ll be equally intrigued by Colombian life today.
- Amazing biodiversity. Colombia has some of the highest biodiversity on the planet and is home to countless species of birds, fish, mammals, etc. making it an excellent destination for activities like trekking and scuba diving.
- Great for budget travel. Colombia is not quite 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 a third of Colombia is covered by the Amazon rainforest and is 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 a few of the top places to visit on the map below.
In the north of Colombia, you’ll find the old colonial city of Cartagena, which has long been the country’s main tourist draw (even during the bad years). The north also has the city of Santa Marta, which is not so notable in itself, but it makes for a good launching point for exploring the beautiful Tayrona National Park or for doing the Lost City trek. The town of Taganga, a short ride from Santa Marta, is Colombia’s leading destination for scuba diving and is also a bit of a backpacker party hub.
In the middle is San Gil, which is Colombia’s adventure sports capital (with paragliding, wild water rafting, caving, etc.). Here you’ll also find Colombia’s second-largest city Medellin, which is a fascinating place that you definitely shouldn’t skip.
In the south, you’ll find 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. It’s also where armed rebels are reportedly still present, so these are not usually areas suitable for tourists. If you want to go into the Amazon, flying to Leticia is the only mainstream option. Leticia has border connections with Peru and Brazil.
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 airline 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 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 have at least 4 or 5 days available, I recommend sailing from Panama to Cartagena or vice versa as this is a phenomenal experience that costs about as much as a one-way flight.
Top places to visit in Colombia
These are just a few of the best places to see in Colombia. 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 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.
This blog has an overview of all the adventure activities available in San Gil. 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, and they’re a local delicacy.
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.
Accommodation in Colombia
Colombia has a growing network of backpacker hostels, and unless you go well off the beaten track, you’ll surely be able to find hostel-style accommodation. Below are a few recommended ones, but you can also browse all Colombia hostels.
Suggested hostels in Colombia
El Pit Hostel
The top-rated hostel in the capital. Quiet (social but not party) and in a safe neighborhood.
Has two locations in the popular La Candelaria barrio. I stayed in the second house which I think is the best of the two.
Black Sheep Hostel
Friendly, homely hostel in popular Poblado area. Has on-site Spanish school & relaxed atmosphere.
Also in Poblado. Features a pool, hammocks, and bar. 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
Drop Bear Hostel
Fun hostel with a unique twist: its building used to be a cartel headquarters.
Great hostel with bonfires at night & restaurant sources its ingredients from the on-site vegetable gardens.
Hotels in Colombia aren’t quite so dirt cheap as in Bolivia or Ecuador, but you can easily find a decent room for about $30 a night. Below are a few picks that have an authentic character and good vibe.
Suggested hotels in Colombia
Sweet Dreams Candelaria Magica
Guesthouse with vintage decoration, garden with BBQ, $30/night.
Pitstop Guest House
In Poblado area, with outdoor pool and fitness center. Double rooms start at $20.
Hotel La Magdalena
Local hotel inside the Old Town, and a 10 minutes walk from the beach.
Posada Casa Salento
A traditional posada with rooms starting at $30/night.
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.
Is Colombia safe?
The one question I keep getting 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, broadly speaking, not so different from other countries in Central- or South America, and that 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 affect tourists whatsoever, but it probably still speaks to the overall safety level and so you might want to be a bit extra careful in Cali.
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 and so did every traveller I met. 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 ultimately be.
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. It’s also always a good idea to get travel insurance, in case of theft or emergency.
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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 entertainment or better accommodation and that could rise to $50 and beyond.
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 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 centres or a la carte meals are closer to $5-10. A domestic beer costs about a dollar.
Supermarkets are easy to find in the 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
Around the web
- 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 – great resource on the tropical islands of San Andres (which are actually closer to Nicaragua than Colombia)
- Hiking the Cocora Valley – The Adventure Junkies
- Things to Do in Medellin: Ultimate Insider Guide – Other Way Round
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