Yep, everyone still thinks Colombia is dangerous. They think of 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. The cliche images from the past can take a long time to wash away.
But trust me on this: traveling in Colombia is so much fun and it’s so much safer today. In fact, having done almost the entire Latin American “Gringo Trail”, Colombia is one of my top favorite backpacking countries.
Plan your Colombia backpacking trip
Why go backpacking Colombia?
Colombia just has it all: there are both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts (which are very different), the start of the Andes mountain range, and 40% of the country is covered by the Amazon Rainforest. Colombia’s cities have various climates and characters that make them highly worth exploring.
Variety is really Colombia’s strong point. Within its borders you’ll find anything from lush jungles to dusty deserts. Coastal areas often have an Afro-Caribbean vibe, while higher elevation areas may remind you of indigenous mountainous regions in Peru or Bolivia.
Thanks to its geography and diversity you can almost think of Colombia as a South America taster menu.
One thing Colombia arguably does not have: some kind of singular iconic bucket list sight, like Machu Picchu in Peru or Iguazu Falls in Brazil. Some travelers may find this disappointing but I think it’s an advantage: not having all the attention on one overtouristed hotspot makes the Colombia backpacking trail more spread out and more relaxed.
Did you know Colombia has the world’s second highest biodiversity? (Second only to Brazil, a country 7 times larger!)
The wildlife and nature experience are really on another level. Consider treks like the Lost City Trek, whale watching on the Pacific Coast, or birdwatching in Minca. A lot of people associate Costa Rica with nature activities but Colombia is secretly amazing for ecotourism as well.
It’s not unusual to see a bunch of monkeys in the jungle or a toucan flying past. One time I was taking a long nap on the bus and just as I woke up, a hummingbird hovered beside my window and looked at me as though to say, “hey buddy, remember you’re still in beautiful Colombia?”. It really can feel a bit like paradise at times.
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.
Of course, it’s not surprising that many backpackers want to learn about Colombia’s often dark history — and Pablo Escobar tours are definitely a thing. But you’ll be equally intrigued by life in Colombia today.
Culture and coffee are two ‘c’s that I associate closely with Colombia. The other ‘c’, cocaine, much less so.
Many Colombians despise the drug because of what it has done to their country. So, it’s not really a thing unless you were to specifically seek it out. There is enough wholesome cultural interest to satisfy anyone, so coming for drugs (and quite a crappy drug, let’s be honest) is definitely not what traveling Colombia is about.
Easy to travel on a budget
Colombia is not the cheapest in South America but also not the most expensive. It’s actually a better deal than it used to be: the exchange rate with the US Dollar or Euro in recent years has made it about 30% cheaper than it was 7 or 8 years ago.
You can get some great value for money in Colombia. Hostels and guesthouses are quite affordable and food is cheap, especially if you find the truly local places.
A set meal for lunch including soup, a main dish with meat and many sides, and fresh fruit juice will typically cost about 10,000 COP, which is about $2.50. Not bad! Hostel dorm beds typically cost about 50,000 COP, and it’s 100,000 COP and up for a basic private room.
Certain experiences like the Lost City Trek (should you wish to do it) can be fairly expensive, but day-to-day you can manage on a backpacker budget quite easily.
Unlike some other countries, there is less of a set backpacker route in Colombia, with different travelers going to different places (or in a different order). Choosing your route can also often be hair-pullingly difficult.
There are just too many great places to go to. If you’re feeling overwhelmed… I’ve been there!
Some countries just make it easier to see the highlights in a couple of weeks. If you’re backpacking Belize you really need just a week; backpacking Nicaragua takes 3 weeks at the most. But Colombia is very big and has such a wealth of destinations that it either takes more time or just more deliberate choices for where to go.
I backpacked through Colombia for 3 months and still felt like I wasn’t done. I can easily see at least another 3 months of experiences that I’d love to come back for.
But that’s also what makes this such a great destination. You get to choose from a lot of different possibilities. It means that different backpackers can end up having somewhat different trips in Colombia.
Because there are so many routes you could take, I wrote this waaaay-too-comprehensive guide to creating your own Colombia itinerary, which also has several sample itineraries you can follow.
It’s a good idea to have a rough idea of the trip you’d like to do, but leave some room to improvise during your trip. You may want to stay longer or shorter in places depending on how much you like them.
Where to travel in Colombia
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 mostly covered by the Amazon rainforest. These parts are not as easily accessible. Most of the travel destinations are in the more populated areas.
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 there). It’s a beautiful place with an old center, albeit touristy and more expensive than elsewhere in Colombia.
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.
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 is also home to its second-largest city of Medellín, a fascinating place that you definitely shouldn’t skip.
In the south are the capital Bogota, Colombia’s coffee region, 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. If you want to go into the Amazon, flying to Leticia is the most reliable option. This town also has border connections with Peru and Brazil.
How much time do you need?
Honestly as much time as you have. But if you have at least 2 or 3 weeks, you can do a fun route that includes a lot of places.
If you are traveling long-term, then know that the standard visa-on-arrival will give you 90 days in Colombia, so you really can go slow if you want to.
I first got to know Colombia while I was in the midst of a 2-year round-the-world backpacking trip. I loved Medellin so much that I stayed for 4 weeks just in this city, living a mini-life there for a while. I met some backpackers who did the same but in Cali, taking salsa classes every single day for weeks on end while diving into the local dancing scene. This is just to warn you that you can easily get stuck!
In general Colombia is a destination you can take your time in as it has loads of variety and a great atmosphere.
Accommodation in Colombia
What’s the hostel scene like?
The hostel scene in Colombia is extremely good. The quality of the hostels is very high across the board and it feels like they are trying to outdo each other with unique concepts or just having a great vibe.
If you are into younger/party hostels you can find many of them in the cities, particularly Medellin. Some party hostels also exist in Palomino on the coast and in other areas.
Most hostels are chill/social traveler hostels though with guests’ ages spanning a fairly wide range. Some hostels (for example in Minca) are more like ecolodges, offering individual jungle huts instead of dorms. You can find some specific advice on the best hostels in Medellin and the best hostels in Bogota.
Amazing hostels in Colombia
My favorite hostel in La Candelaria, the old town of Bogota.
Black Sheep Hostel
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.
Hostel in a colonial house with epic views of the mountains
Should you book ahead? Well, if you’re not picky you can always find a bed, but the top-rated hostels do often book out completely. For example, Costeno River Hostel in Minca is extremely well-rated and I found out it was 100% full for the next few weeks when I tried to stay there. If you book with Hostelworld they usually let you cancel for free up to 24 hours before your stay, letting you still travel in a flexible way.
Best hostel chains: If you’re looking for slightly more premium hostels, then check out Selina, a hostel chain that is very active in Colombia. There are a whopping three (!) Selinas in Bogota alone (check out the main one in La Candelaria). The Selina in Quindo caught my eye as it’s the middle of the coffee country, as well as the one in Villa de Leyva which is in a beautifully restored colonial building. The Selina formula is to basically offer hotel-like amenities while still trying to maintain somewhat of a hostel-like atmosphere.
My favorite hostels: Personally, I prefer staying in smaller independent backpacker hostels. Some of my favorites include Black Sheep Hostel and The Wandering Paisa in Medellin (both are a bit like traveler institutions and great for making friends), Casa Loma in Minca, Utria Hostel in Bahia Solano, and Viajero Hostel in Cartagena.
Unique concept hostels: There are a couple of very unique hostels in Colombia. One that always gets mentioned is Casa en el Agua, a hostel near the San Bernardo Islands literally built on the water. You can’t book it through any platforms anymore; only via an online form, with payment only via PayPal, and availability only updating every 60 days. (I guess you have to be dedicated.)
Another ‘concept hostel’ can be found south of Medellin: Casa en el Aire, which is built on a cliffside where you can chill in hammocks suspended over a valley. Pretty crazy! They get their business through word-of-mouth only; you can contact them via Whatsapp.
Eco hostels: Many hostels are basically in the style of ecolodges or are in converted fincas (coffee farms). The Colombian hostel chain Masaya has two incredible eco-hostels: the Coffee Reserve La Manchuria and the Masaya San Agustin. In Tayrona, check out the Viajero Tayrona Hostel & Ecohabs. Although quite secluded, these accommodations can be a destination in and of themselves.
Another one I can highly recommend is Finca Carpe Diem in the Paso del Mango valley, which is just north of the major backpacker hub of Minca. It’s one the highest-scoring hostels in all of Colombia so this is another one worth putting in a reservation for if you want the chance to stay there. The view from the upper swimming pool is nuts.
Apart from the hostels, there are many great local hotels and guesthouses. I usually stay about half my time in hostels and the other half in hotels or guesthouses. It’s best to use Hostelworld for hostels, but use Booking.com to find smaller (budget-friendly) hotels.
Is Colombia safe?
The safety situation in Colombia is absolutely nothing like what it was during the bad years in the 1980s or 1990. Colombia travel guides from at least a decade ago may still warn of kidnapping risks or drug gang violence but modern editions are free of such warnings.
For the most part and purely from the perspective of a tourist, it’s just a normal South American country to travel through (much like Peru or Ecuador). Still, the old image persists.
Of course, as with many countries in South America, you do need to remember to pack your brains. So… maybe don’t walk into that dark alley at night. But if you travel responsibly, you’ll find that Colombia is just an incredible backpacking destination.
I get the sense that Colombians are actually a bit sick of constantly being asked about safety by tourists — in the same way that Germans have that “sigh, here we go again” look on their faces when someone mentions the Nazis. They’re probably a bit tired of it.
Then again, Colombia is definitely not a crime-free paradise — and in some specific regions, it can be worse than other South American countries.
Here are some things to know in order to travel responsibly:
- Check safety guides for any ‘bad areas’ and simply don’t go to them. They’re mostly areas close to the borders with Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama, or very deep in the Amazon. I like the safety map provided by the UK foreign office as it’s very clear. Don’t bother with the US State Department report for Colombia which uses an excessively paranoid and alarmist tone. For a more balanced take, check out the Australian, UK, Canadian, or other reports.
- Do take a bit more care in the cities; don’t show off expensive gear, carry only cash you need for the day, and take official taxis (or use ride-hailing apps), particularly at night. Ask your hostel or hotel staff if there are any bad neighborhoods in the city, just to be sure you don’t wander off somewhere you shouldn’t wander.
- Do take extra care in the nightlife too; don’t get too drunk, keep your nose clean, and don’t accept drinks or cigarettes from strangers. Drugging/spiking is sadly known to occur; this is important to know for girls but especially for boys. If a Colombian woman in a club or on a Tinder date seems extremely and unrealistically motivated to get in your room right away, be very alert as this could mean waking up with a very bad hangover and/or amnesia and all your shit being stolen. If it feels like you’ve inexplicably become an irresistible chick magnet in Colombia, be very suspicious and immediately switch control away from your engine room and back to the bridge (i.e. your brain).
- Colombia is generally a country where it’s better to take public transit like coaches/buses than to self-drive (unless you’re well-informed and know what you’re doing). Car rentals are very expensive in Colombia anyway.
While these tips will help keep you safe, it’s still wise to take out a good travel insurance plan for your trip. That way, you won’t ever get financially ruined by hospital bills, theft, or emergency expenses should anything unfortunate happen. It will also provide you with a trusted helpline you can call or text if needed.
I use Heymondo Travel Insurance, which is backed by AXA (one of the world’s biggest insurers). They cover almost any kind of sport or adventure activity you might do in Colombia, such as paragliding, horseriding, or trekking, as well as full coverage for a wide range of eventualities.
I’ve been using and recommending Heymondo for several years now because they simply have a better offering and for less money than other brands like World Nomads. You can get a quote for travel insurance at Heymondo here.
Psst, do you have insurance for Colombia?
Travel insurance will cover you for theft, medical expenses, cancellation, and more. Heymondo offers great coverage, COVID-19 included, zero deductibles, and an app with 24/7 assistance & doctor chat.
Backpacking Colombia tips
Colombia is not an ultimate cheapie like some other Latin American countries (e.g. Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru or Bolivia). However, it’s also not nearly as expensive as some others (e.g. not anywhere close to Costa Rica).
While everything depends on your personal travel style, I recommend budgeting around $40 a day when traveling as a backpacker. If you’re frugal, you can do it for about $30 a day, but it’ll probably involve cooking some of your own meals and avoiding any day tours for the most part.
Budgets are all a bit dependent on the currency exchange rates which fluctuate over the years. In Colombian pesos, consider a daily backpacker budget of around 130,000 – 180,000 COP.
Here are a few money-saving tips:
- Try to keep your itinerary compact so you spend less money on transportation (it’s much cheaper on average to travel one region than trying to see every corner of Colombia).
- Avoid tours and try doing things yourself; for example, often it’s possible to hike to a waterfall instead of taking a paid organized tour
- Stay in hostels with kitchens and make your own meals
- Make lunch your main meal of the day and look for ‘platos del dia’ or ‘menu executivos’. These offers typically include a hearty soup, meat with several sides, and a fresh fruit juice for about 10,000 COP.
- Contact hotels directly and ask for the best deal they can offer if you book through them. I got a room almost 50% cheaper than the Booking.com price by just showing up and asking. (This hack won’t work with hostels so much.)
- Always ask locals about the local prices. Things may be much cheaper than you realize! In a local coffee town, I had a coffee and croissant for just 1,000 COP. It was so low I actually thought they had made a mistake. On the other hand, shops sometimes cheekily charge foreigners more, so inform yourself of the real prices.
The favorable exchange rate with currencies like USD and EUR in recent years has made Colombia more of a bargain than it used to be, so now is quite an advantageous time to travel there.
Do you need to know Spanish?
You’ll find that most people in Colombia do not speak English, but you can still survive just fine without Spanish. Some hostel/hotel staff and some of the tour guides may speak English. Not knowing the language will be limiting in many ways, but it’s entirely doable.
Knowing at least some basic Spanish will definitely enhance your experience. It’s worth taking some Spanish classes if you have the time. Language exchange events also offer fun opportunity to meet locals. Read more tips here: Do you need Spanish to travel in Latin America?
Internet in Colombia
Besides WiFi, it’s easy and cheap to get a local SIM card (if you feel the need to be online of course). Just get your SIM in an official shop in a larger city. For example, search for “tienda claro”. Claro is one of the main mobile service providers.
Once you have your prepaid data sim, you can always top it up in any small shop or grocery store that has the Claro sign (even in very small towns). Ask them to buy a ‘paquote’ (a top-up package) and get the seller to enter the code for you.
The internet is usually quite fast with at least 4G coverage. Less so in remote regions of course.
Getting to Colombia
To fly directly to Colombia, check your options on Skyscanner or Google Flights. There are numerous direct flights from around the world to Bogota. A few also go to other cities (for example Amsterdam to Cartagena is a direct route these days).
A nice option can be to fly via Miami. This airport is super well-connected internationally and with Colombia. I flew from Portugal (where I live) via Miami to Cartagena, then I ended my trip flying back from Cali to Miami and home. This avoided any backtracking within Colombia and enabled me to do a north-to-south overland route.
Are you on a bigger journey? Then keep in mind you can’t go to or from Panama overland! Well, you theoretically could if you were some crazy Bears Grylls-style survivor, but the so-called Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia has no roads at all and is bursting with smugglers and jaguars. The prudent thing to do is to fly across.
If you prefer not to fly, you can also sail from Panama to Cartagena or the other way around. This takes 4 or 5 days and you’ll need to find a bed on one of the private sailing boats that run this route. I did this journey and it was spectacular.
How to get around
The best way to get around on a backpacker budget is by bus or coach. Some can be booked online, but many you can only buy tickets for at the local bus terminal.
The bus stations can be a bit confusing at first as there’ll be loads of desks representing different bus companies and destinations. There won’t be a centralized departure board. Ask around if you’re unsure.
Besides the buses for long distances, you may use minivans, taxis, or moto-taxis for more local trips. The moto-taxis are especially fun; you’ll go on the back of the motorbike while your backpack will be in front between the wheel and the driver. They’re a cheap way to get around.
Keep in mind that in Colombia not everything may run 100% smoothly. Maybe your journey goes perfectly or maybe you’ll have some delays.
Or maybe you happen to be in Colombia exactly on the fiesta de Virgin Del Carmen, the patron saint of transportation — a day during which all the bus drivers are far too busy driving their decorated buses in zig-zag patterns across all available lanes, shooting fireworks from the windows, and honking continuously to get you anywhere you need to be in any reasonable timeframe. (Uh yeah, so that’s one thing that happened to me. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it though!)
Yellow fever vaccine
Officially speaking you need a yellow fever vaccine to enter Colombia. Technically they might not check it, but it’s best to just get it, as it’s a vaccine that will last your entire life. It’s also a vaccine that’s been around since the 1940s so it’s been tested in every imaginable way.
That’s just one less disease to worry about — yay for vaccines! Make sure you keep your proof of vaccination that you can show if asked.
Now for a bit of inspiration, let me share just a few of the best backpacker places in Colombia.
Colonial City of Cartagena
While its modern parts reminded me faintly of Miami with its high-rise condos along the waterfront, Cartegena 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 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 quite a bit higher than elsewhere. The neighborhood of Getsemani — which was once a backpacker district, but now much more gentrified — still offers more budget options than inside the walled city.
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.
Explore Tayrona Park
Is a 5 day hike a little too long for your itinerary? Then you’ll find some shorter walks in Tayrona National Park.
The 3-hour hike through the jungle to the ruins of Pueblito is one option, as is a hike to the beach of Cabo San Juan.
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 backpackers 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.
Stay in Minca
Minca is a fascinating example of a destination that’s become ‘discovered’ by backpackers in just a few years. When I backpacked Colombia for the first time in 2012 no one had heard of Minca and everyone just stayed in Santa Marta or Taganga. When I went to Colombia again in 2022, Minca was all anyone would talk about. A new road had made this town more accessible and turned it into an ecotourism hotspot.
It’s in fact an amazing little place. The small mountain town itself is not so hugely remarkable, though it has some nice cafes and restaurants. But the most amazing areas are in the jungles around the town, offering epic views of the Sierra Nevada National Park.
There are lots of hostels in Minca with an amazing vibe. Everyone just comes to Minca to relax, to see tropical birds, to hike, or to ride a scooter around the mountain roads. I think it’s worth staying 3 nights at the least.
Don’t miss my guide for the best places to stay in Minca.
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 $40), kayaking, canyoning, mountain biking, and more. I did some tandem paragliding here which was great fun.
Besides the adventure activities, the town of San Gil is worth having a look at 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 letdown 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.
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 touristy but fun 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 and jet skiing.
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 offload 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. After spending time in the cities, you may just wish to wind down for a while in this slow-paced rural place (though it’s been getting more crowded in recent years).
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.
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, and 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. 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. A 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 amazing.
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Thanks you for the tips …and wow very nices places to visit hope sameday i can see some of them live! I really enjoy reading and looking over your post!
I went to Colombia in 2011 with my two children. We visited Cartagenta De Indies and Santa Martha. It was a long flight to get there complicated with fog. We made a Colombian friend which helped us plan day trips which was really lovely.
this website along with many others omits Cali as a place of interest. is there much to do in Cali other than Salsa dancing because right now i am considering skipping it out and spending more time hiking in the north and in the other cities etc.
Very helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write it
In Colombia as I write this, I’m happy to report your tips are still 100% up to date 4 years later! I particularly appreciate that you included Tatacoa as an off-the-beaten-path recommendation.
For the commenters with questions about Medellin, I had the same. To answer them I went to the extreme of going through over 50 blog posts written about the city and consolidating all their recommendations here: https://theunconventionalroute.com/super-medillin-travel-guide/
Anyways, can’t wait to see what happens in Colombia in the next four years. It feels like it’s reaching a tipping point. Which way it tips is the question…
Hey Chris, that’s a relief as I always worry about things changing! One of these days I’ll no doubt return but in the meantime it’s good to know I’m not too off the mark. That’s a really great resource on Medellin. Love your posts on Venecia and other places as well!
I have a few questions in regard to Colombia. Theres currently a travel advisory for Canadians for Colombia, do you have any experience with this when you went?
I’m also planning on travelling in May, which I heard is the rainy season, what month did you visit and have you heard of anyone who travelled there in May?
Also, Im having a tough time fitting Medellin into my itinerary, how did you travel to and from Medellin?
Hey Karley. Yes – I went to Colombia when it had a travel advisory (which was essentially the same as now). This is normal for many countries. It’s good to read them so you’re aware and can avoid major trouble spots, but they can also make you way too scared as they only focus on the negatives. You can still travel responsibly along the tourist trail in Colombia.
Don’t know what it’s like in the rainy season, sorry!
I took a bus to Medellin from San Gil, and left Medellin by bus to the coffee region.
Hi Marek, Im loving the page!! Im planning on being in Cartegena by the end of January/early February after travelling down through central America. Once there, how long would you recommend it takes for me to travel south roughly as above? I’ll be on a tight budget as I plan to go into Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia too.
Hey Joe. It’s always difficult to say as it depends of course on how much you want to cover (and how long you’ll stay in each place). You could do a quick run to the south in 2 weeks, or you could spend a month and include the Ciudad Perdida trek, stay for a while in Medellin, etc.
Perfect, thank you, I was looking at possibly three weeks so it seems to fit nicely. While im on the topic any recommendations of where to spend xmas in central america? I arrive in Belize on 16th December.
Hi Mark. A really great article!
1 question: How easy is it to catch buses from one destination to the next? Do you need to book in advance to gusrantee a seat? Any bus companies to look for/avoid?
Hi Lee. Not difficult at all. Typically at a bus station you find ticket booths of many different bus companies, often with several serving the same route. I usually just showed up. Booking in advance might be a good idea though on special days like Easter.
Love the article! I definitely took note of some of the things to do and see. Justin and I will go there in November– we can’t wait! Thank you!
Glad you liked it Devan! I know you guys are going to have a blast in Colombia. Medellin was quite possibly my favorite city on the whole continent 🙂
“Playa Branca is a beautiful beach about an hour’s drive outside the city”… Did you mean Playa Blanca here?
Yep, thanks for spotting the typo! 🙂
What can you tell to a mother worrying about … drugs, kidnapping and… ?
European mother of a daughter travelling. She is adult, but a mother is sill a mother!!
Hi mother 🙂 It’s an understandable concern as Colombia used to be in the news a lot for these things!
What I can say is that kidnapping cases peaked in 2000 and dropped by 95%+ since. Drug trade still exists but (unlike the 90ies) it’s gone underground and is invisible to a tourist.
To be safe, tell your daughter to stick to known travel destinations listed in travel guides and to only take official licensed taxis in the cities. The places where travellers normally go are quite safe nowadays.
Great Blog! I am heading to Columbia in about 7 weeks with my sister and we were wanting some advice on travel plans and the best way of travelling across the country/whether we need to book flights far in advance and what airlines to use.
For domestic flights you should be OK booking just a few days in advance, if you want your plans to stay flexible. Viva Colombia is a popular domestic airline. Avianca and LAN are also worth checking out.
Really nice article. Just curious what software/widget you use to make your map?
I make them by hand using vector maps and Adobe Illustrator. I wish there was an easy widget for it! 🙂
Excellent article! Thank you for all the practical tips.
I am interested in travelling around Peru and Colombia for 5 weeks. What is your suggested amount of time in Colombia and suggested travel route?
You’ll probably want to have a flight from Bogota to Lima in your plans somewhere, so in that case I’d suggest going around Colombia for about 14 – 20 days, then heading to Lima (as you can do the typical southern Peru circuit including Machu Picchu in about 2 weeks, give or take). Places like Cartagena, Medellin, and the coffee region are popular in Colombia. Best route depends 100% on your specific interests really!
Surely missing San Félix, located in Salamina, Caldas. There you can spot a lot more wax palm trees than in Cocora Valley. Also, the town (Salamina urban area) is gorgeous.
Nice article! Hey, when you were in Colombia, did you have to book Hostels in advance, or did you just show up and ask for a bed?
In most places you can just show up, though I did find it useful to book ahead (only a day or two in advance) in order to ensure a spot in a high-rated hostel rather than just any bed. 🙂
How long did you stay in Colombia all together? and how much time did you spend at each place? 🙂
I stayed there for over a month. I’m not sure how useful it is for me to specify how long I stayed in places though, as I tend to be very flexible with my time. (For instance, I stayed 10 days in Medellin, while most people would spend much fewer days there.) You can make a Colombia trip as short or as long as you want. 🙂
Nice summary, Ballpark figure of 40$ A day is too low. You’ll be hard pressed to find places to stay at 40$ a night in Colombia, especially in the cities. Cartagena old town is expensive and although you can maybe stay and eat that cheap in the cities, those areas are not recommended for tourists. Bogota for example has six districts ranging from the most unprivileged in the South to the G district in the North which is basically like walking in the upper westside.
I suggest Hostel Breezas in Tayrona (which is a must visit).
I’m focusing mainly on backpacker style travel, so if you get a hostel bed for about $10 a night (or share a cheap room between 2 people) you still have plenty of budget left for food and sightseeing. Of course, I realise budget estimates are hugely dependent on travel style and locations, so you may have different experiences. 🙂
Hey Marek, This is a really useful article and it is great that you are getting the word out about this amazing country!!! I am the owner of the Purple Monkey Hostel in El Poblado, Medellin and we are consistently rated on Hostelworld as the first or second best hostel in the city. It would be great if you could feature us on your website! You can find us at http://www.purplemonkeyhostel.com Thanks!!!
Hi there, just wondering how long you would recommend staying in Medellin? Thanks Tamara :
Depends on how much time you have! You can stay a whole week and have plenty of stuff to do, maybe even longer. Why not play it by ear and stay or leave depending on how you feel?
Hello! Love the blog. I am heading to South America in probably about 2 weeks. I was going to fly to Columbia then go down to Peru to Bolivia to Chile. I have never spoke spanish so i wanted to take a course in bolivia bc that is where you said it was the least expensive. But I am also wanting to start off in columbia for the cost savings on a plane tickets.
so first question
1. do you think i could find an inexpensive spanish course for 5 or so days in columbia
2. do you think columbia is an easy place to meet other travelers? or is peru a better place to start off your south american travels?
What do you think?
Hey Rachel. I already sent you my reply via email, but just to repeat it here for others to see: I think if it makes sense for you to start in Colombia, you should simply start there. A week of Spanish lessons in Colombia should cost about $150-$200 (if I recall correctly) which may be more expensive than Bolivia, though for one week it wouldn’t be worth changing your travel plans for. If you start in places like Cartagena, Medellin or Bogota and stay in backpacker hostels it’s very easy to meet people. Both Peru and Colombia are great starting points, so I don’t think you can make a wrong choice here. Good luck!
Yeah there are bunches of cheap courses throughout the country, especially right now that the dollar is strong. I believe most will be in Cartagena, Bogota, and Medellin.
I am studying at Colombia Immersion Spanish School in Medellin right now and highly recommend. 500.000COP per week and they have cheap lunches, tours, and events.
ah and the site is http://www.colombiaimmersion.com/ if you want more information.
Hey Guys If you’re going to San Gil I highly recommend Karla, is a girl in who helped us a lot in our stay there. She speak a good English, she was our guide and drove us where we need, and helped us in all that we needed like a accommodation, San Gil was much better that we thought thank to Karla. Her number is 3183928463
Excellent article! I’m heading to the Caribbean coast next week and cannot wait to what it has to offer.
Hi Mark, nice entry. We loved traveling in Colombia, the people were amazing and like you said there is so much diversity! We found it to be cheaper than Bolivia, our budget was $20.50 per day for 30 days, including rafting and paragliding. The avg hostel price was less than $6 per night for a dorm bed. We have a new blog about our budget travels around the world. What we did in Colombia, were we stayed and what we paid can be seen at http://stingynomads.com/colombia/ Safe travels!
That’s a great guide to travelling in Colombia on a budget. I think your daily spend is probably a bit lower than most people, so well done. 🙂 I’m surprised you managed to spend less than Bolivia… this should be a good example for others to follow.
That’s a great article and very informative on Colombia. I think more emphasis should be put on Medellin. It is such an important city in Colombia with the countries first Metro system and it’s people are very proud of how far their city has come. Area’s like Laurleles are excellent area’s to hang out other than Poblado. Envigado is also a great suburb for Spanish Classes in Medellin. I highly recommend Colombia Immersion. They mix classes and an immersion environment where everyone lives and learns together.
Nice to read some positive stories about South-Amerika 🙂
You haven’t been to Argentina?
I’ve been to Argentina (and loved it), just haven’t gotten around to writing about it much yet!
Nice article! This is very informative. Divanga Hostels, Taganga
Nice summary of what to see and do here in Colombia. This is a great country that, while becoming more popular, is still overlooked by a lot of travelers…