As a part of a new series, I will be putting out travel guides for a few of my favourite places. These are the places and trips I get asked about the most. I am not here to tell you how you should travel, but maybe this will inspire some ideas of your own! This is the Ultimate Colombia Travel Guide.
I arrived in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast in early November 2017. I spent 7 weeks exploring all this incredible country had to offer. While I was nervous of the reputation, I had been reassured by friends who travelled Colombia that it would quickly become my favourite spot. And they were 100% right! There were two things that made this country my favourite in South America. The incredibly warm and welcoming locals who made me feel right at home. And the ever changing landscape and culture that each new destination boasted. Catering to everything from marine activities, mountain adventures, the birth place of salsa and everything in between. There is something for everyone in this incredible country. Ready to book that trip? Here’s everything you need to know…
Colombia is a country with an undeniably violent past steeped in corruption and war. From FARC to the world’s most notorious drug dealers, it has been hard for this beautiful country to shake its reputation. But over the past decade Colombia has undergone an incredible transformation. And what was once the most dangerous country in the world is now topping traveller bucket lists and blowing expectations out of the water. While there is still crime and violence in various parts of the country, most of the fear is misplaced. And what remains are incredibly welcoming locals and a landscape more diverse than most imagine.
Colombia is often the country that punctuates trips through South America and bridges trips to Central America. But with such vast a varied landscape, one could spend two months here and still not see it all. Colombia is a country that does not shy away from its past but instead uses it as a stepping stone to show the world how far it has come. Welcoming you in with open arms, it is impossible not to fall in love with the country of Colombia.
WHEN TO GO?
The seasons, like those in most Central American countries, are broken into rainy and dry. Colombia’s relatively consistent temperatures are due to close proximity to the equator, with altitude as the only major factor for temperature variants. The best time to visit is the dry season, which falls between December and March or July and August. This is the best time to plan trips centered around hiking as many trails become inaccessible or dangerous with heavy rainfall. Low season, as expected, corresponds with the rainy months. And while you can expect some dramatic weather and cooler temperatures, you will be rewarded with light crowds and discounted rates.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST YOU?
As one of the more affordable countries in South America, it is possible to have it all and not break the bank. Even with a lean budget, you can cover accommodation, food, activities and still have a few spare pesos for a well-earned cerveza.
Daily Budget: $40/day CAD
How much for…
Hostel: $12-18/night in a dorm
Bottle of Club Colombia Beer: $2 in a bar or $1 on the street
Comida del Dia: 7,000 COP or $3.20 includes soup, main and juice of the day.
3-day jeep tour to Punta Gallinas: $70, organized independently.
Cuidad Perdida Trek: $250 USD for 3d/2n trek including guide and equipment.
Entry to Medellin Nightclub: 15,000 COP or $6
Entry and all you can drink at Teatron in Bogota: 40,000COP or $18
TIPS TO HELP YOU SAVE
Eat Comida Del Dia. While you can dine in restaurants relatively cheaply, the best way to stretch a budget and sample the local cuisine is to look for Comida Del Dia or meals of the day. These will run you about $4 and includes a soup, a main and a juice. If you’re lucky, some places throw in a little dessert to finish off. In Cartagena, be sure to visit Restaurante Coroncoro in Getsemani for the best Comida Del Dia I had in Colombia!
Sample the street food. Around every corner you will find street food carts selling everything from fresh squeezed orange juice to homemade empanadas. If you’re looking for a bite to eat, you can’t go wrong with these dirt-cheap snacks to go. Street food is often available in most Latin countries. But Colombia offered some of the best I have had outside of South East Asia.
Take local transportation. With shorter distance bus journeys, you can save yourself a few coins and amp up the adventure by taking a local bus. While space may be a bit tight and schedules unpredictable, you can cut your transportation costs in half. As with all South American transport, be sure to hold on to your valuables.
WHERE TO STAY
Media Luna Hostel, Cartagena ($20/night for dorm)
Located in Getsemani, a short walk from the old city, this hostel is legendary for their Wednesday night rooftop parties. Perfect for those looking for a bit of luxury and a great vibe. Cool off in the lush courtyard pool after a long hot day of exploring. If budget is a concern, Aussie owned Mama Llena is located directly across the street and offers great budget accommodation, a kitchen and a fun little bar at street level.
Drop Bear Hostel, Santa Marta ($13/night for dorm)
Located in a former cartel house, this sprawling hostel has everything you need in Santa Marta. A short walk from a grocery store if you’re wanting to cook your own food, plus a delicious menu of pizzas and burgers if you don’t. A large Netflix room inside and a penis shaped pool outside are the perfect places to nurse the hangover. The unique red leather bar throws it back to cartel days, and if you ask the staff nicely they may show you where the hidden doors are.
Casa Elemento, Minca ($18/night for dorm)
High up in the Sierra Nevada mountains overlooking Santa Marta and the Caribbean Sea beyond, Casa Elemento is a must visit for the incredible panoramic views, mountain adventures and the largest hammocks in the world. Explore the nearby waterfalls, tour coffee plantains or just go for a walk in the lush jungle. The in-house restaurant serves up incredibly delicious eats, be sure to sign up for the nightly family dinners!
The Dreamer, Palomino ($18/night for a dorm)
This hostel is more like a backpacker resort than a hostel. It is the perfect vacation from your travels if you are willing to shell out a few extra dollars a night. Located at the end of a dirt road, steps from the main beach, Dreamer has a well… dreamy set up. Oversized, thatched roof huts house dorms and private rooms. A gorgeous pool is centered in midst of a vibrant tropical garden. The restaurant serves up everything from local fare to wood oven pizzas. It is a true slice of paradise.
Bona Vida Hostel, Riohaca ($13/night in a dorm, includes free breakfast)
The perfect place to launch your adventures to the most northern tip of South America. Boasting a well-stocked kitchen to cook up a feast and kitted out bunks, complete with privacy curtains. The helpful and friendly staff offer guidance for organizing trips to Punta Gallinas. Plus, they serve up a WICKED free breakfast! There are two locations in Riohaca and both are beautiful and welcoming places to stay.
Casa Kiwi Hostel, Medellin ($16-$18/night in a dorm)
Located just around the corner from the legendary party hostel Happy Buddha. Casa Kiwi feels like home away from home. Comfy oversized bunks, tv room with a large projector, well stocked communal kitchen and rooftop bar with a plunge pool. It is the perfect combination of party and chill. An awesome place to meet people and walking distance to all the clubs, bar and restaurants in the trendy neighbourhood of El Poblado.
The Cranky Croc Hostel, Bogota ($16-$22/night in a dorm)
This hostel located in the heart of Candelaria is a perfect base for Bogota adventures. They offer great activities, both day and night, organized daily by the amazing staff here. Beautiful facilities are kept super clean and there is a well-stocked kitchen free for use. While the price is a bit higher, the beds are amazing, the activities are well thought out and the staff go above and beyond. Don’t be surprised if you fall in love with Bogota, it doesn’t take much to penetrate the cold and unwelcoming reputation and discover all the incredible things this city has to offer.
TOP 15 THINGS TO DO IN COLOMBIA
Once the most dangerous barrio in the murder capital of the world, the infamous Comuna 13 has undergone one of Colombia’s most inspiring transformations. We booked a graffiti tour through Toucan Café which partners with a charity in the Comuna called Casa Kolacho. This foundation works with the youth of the community. They provide free art and music classes amongst a safe and inspiring community of artists. The tour took us through the colourful winding streets of this hill top barrio. Down the famous bright orange escalators. We sampled local delights like the most famous ice cream in all of Colombia. All while linking its stories from its checkered past and inspiring transformation with the vibrant murals throughout the Comuna. If you’re a lover of street art, be sure to take the Bogota Graffiti Tour as well! The guides are incredibly knowledgeable and the art is beyond inspiring!
Go to where the desert meets the sea in Punta Gallinas
The most northern tip of the continent and one of the most unexpected landscapes in Colombia, merge to create the remote Wayuu land of the La Guajira Peninsula. Trips to these far northern communities are completely off the beaten track and require an adventurous spirit and about 4-5 days. The peninsula tour will take you three days, with a night on either end in Riohaca to organize and recover. Those brave enough to endure the bone rattling ride to the end of the continent will be rewarded with vast desert landscapes, iridescent turquoise water, near complete solitude and the remote communities of some of Colombia’s lesser known natives.
Stand amongst the world’s tallest palms in Salento
The legendary and Instagram worthy Valle De Cocora near Salento is a must visit. Home to the tallest palm trees in the world and a stunning 11km hike through the valley, it makes the perfect stop between Medellin, Bogota and Cali to the south. Reward yourself post hike at the Salento backpacker institution Brunch. Every western food you have missed is on order here in colossal proportions. Their breakfast burrito is the size of newborn and their peanut butter brownie is to die for. Another must do while in Salento is to try your hand and learn the ins and outs of the famous Colombian Coffee Industry.
Get your adrenaline fix in San Gil
The adrenaline junkie capital of Colombia is the place to go for all those wanting extreme adventures. From paragliding to white water rafting, there is no shortage of activities to get your blood PUMPING. Be sure to keep seasons in mind as certain activities are not available through the rainy season.
Trek to Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) in the Sierra Nevada
The elusive Ciudad Perdida is a long-lost city the was “discovered” in 1970 after being hidden for centuries by the thick unforgiving jungle up in the Sierra Nevada mountains about 40km from Santa Marta. Accessible only by foot on a 3-day trek, you have to work for the rewards of this magical ancient treasure. You don’t need to be a serious hiker in order to visit the amazing Lost City, you just need a good pair of shoes, an adventurous spirit and about $250 USD.
Watch the sunset over Bogota
The sprawling metropolis of Bogota is rimmed by a ring of towering mountains climbing up over 3,000 meters above sea level. One of the best experiences while exploring this concrete jungle is to watch the sunset over the city from the top of Montserrate. Accessible by foot or cable car, head up with ample time before sunset and watch the sky soften and the lights of the city take over the night sky. During the holiday season, Montserrate gets a Christmas light makeover. Extremely long lines to attend mountain top services mean you should leave at least 2 hours before sunset. And after sunset, explore the explosion of colourful lights to help you get into the Christmas spirit.
Dance with the locals at the Carnaval De Independencia in Cartagena
Immerse yourself in the incredible and vibrant afro-Caribbean culture of Cartagena during the week of November 11th. Every year the colourful city explodes with personality to celebrate the independence of Cartagena De Indias. Daily parades, live music and dancing, colourful costumes and the Miss Colombia beauty pageant are all rolled into this amazing week of festivities.
Explore Tayrona National Park
Explore the rugged coastline of the incredible Tayrona National Park just north of Santa Marta. Sleep in hammocks, hike between beaches and melt into the irresistible Caribbean Sea. Nearby Journey hostel is a short 20min walk to the entrance gate. They will also store your backpack for you while you explore the park.
Play paintball at the summer home of Pablo Escobar
Battle it out with paintballs around the summer home of Colombia’s most notorious drug lord. While some claim it feeds into the glamorization of Pablo’s atrocities against the country. The tour includes a background about the drug war that gripped Colombia for so many years. Divide into teams and battle it out on the grounds surrounding the stable house. Explore around the bombed out main house and pool, enjoy lunch on the property and finish the day with a visit to Guatape and 740 steps to the top of El Penon.
Sit in the world’s largest hammock in Minca
Perched high in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada overlooking the Caribbean coastal city of Santa Marta. This amazing spot is an instagrammers dream, a nature lovers paradise and the perfect place to relax for a few days.
Party at the largest gay club in Latin America
Made up of 5 stories and 13+ themed rooms, a night out at the legendary Teatron nightclub in Bogota is a must do. Show up early to avoid crazy lines, explore the rooms while its quiet, filling up your free drink cup along the way and get ready for one of the best nights out!
Tour Medellin on foot with Real City Walking Tours
Nearly every city throughout South America offers a “free city walking tour”. But all pale in comparison to the emotional, cultural and educational tour offered by Real City Tours in Medellin. Focusing on the downtown core of the city, the theatrical and engaging guides take you on a journey through Medellin’s political and violent past. They guide you through the cities incredible transformations and traditions. Engaging and powerful the 4hr tour FLYS by. One of the highlights of my entire Colombia experience.
Learn to Salsa in Cali
Break up the journey south towards equator by heading to Colombia’s third largest city and the birthplace of Salsa. Take lessons during the day and head out in the evening to one of the city’s many clubs and show off your new moves.
Spend a night on the water at Casa En El Agua
Located two hours from Cartagena by boat, built on a reef in the Caribbean Sea amongst the San Bernardo islands lies a truly unique hostel called Casa En El Agua. Translating to “home in the water”, this hostel is eco-friendly, boasts a wide variety of aquatic adventures and a hangover curing jump from the bed to sea. A bit of a budget buster, but worth every penny for this incredible and unique experience.
Explore the Amazon River from the remote village of Leticia
If you’re looking to include a taste of the Amazonas on your trip or are looking for a unique way to head into brazil, then the remote village of Leticia is the place. Leticia is located on the Amazon river and bordering with Brazil and Peru in an area known as Tres Fronteras. Book multi-day Amazon adventures in lush jungle lodges. Or voyage into Brazil on a 5-day river boat that transports you from Leticia to Manaus.
Thanks for reading!
Did this help you? Anything you think I missed? What were your Colombia highlights?
Looking for more inspiration? Check out my other ULTIMATE TRAVEL GUIDES
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