Colombia – a country once known solely for its bloody, cocaine-fuelled years, but now better known for salsa, football and its wonderful people, has experienced an incredible resurgence over the past 20 years and is firmly on the South America backpacker trail. No longer under the drug lord Pablo Escobar’s corrupt reign of terror, it has flourished into one of South America’s most beautiful and culturally fascinating destinations. We spent one month exploring, from the northern sun-drenched coastline to the Amazon basin in the south, and we were constantly wowed by the beautiful scenery, fascinating history and friendly locals.
There is never enough time to see everything but one month is a really good amount of time to get a real feel for Colombia and explore both the countryside and vibrant cities.
Here’s what we would recommend:
Capurgana (two nights)
We cruised into Colombia’s Caribbean coast by speed boat after four days exploring the beautiful San Blas Islands. The pumping beats of reggaeton combined with salsa and vallenato greeted us as our boat pulled up to the dock in Capurgana, a laid-back little town with a distinct Caribbean beach town vibe.
Highlight – The gentle picturesque hike up to the natural fresh water springs where you can soak in the waters, looking out over the ocean whilst surrounded by tropical jungle.
Where to stay – Hostal Capurgana. This hostel is in the heart of town just a few feet from the dock. It was recommended to us by the San Blas Adventures crew. It is good-value, clean and has a nice little communal garden area. Perfect for a one or two night stop-over in town.
Onward travel – To get to Cartegena, you will need to head to the office by the waterfront to buy a boat ticket to Turbo for the following day. The speed boat takes approximately two hours. From Turbo, you can walk to the bus stop, it isn’t far at all from where you get off the boat and you don’t need to hop in one of the tuk tuks waiting. Get on a local bus to Cartagena which takes about seven hours.
Cartagena (three nights)
Without a doubt, one of Colombias most beautiful cities, Cartagena is a colonial town with cobbled streets, colourful street art and tasty food. We loved pottering around the historical old town with many beautiful squares and historical architecture. We also went on an excellent free (tip based) street art tour around Getsemani, the old, walled town, which used to be the slave quarter. It departs daily from the Plaza Trinidad.
Highlight – 50km northeast of Cartagena lies an active miniature volcano where you can climb to the top by some specially built stars and be covered in lukewarm mud. After floating around in the bubbly mud and getting a brisk massage you head back down again to have the mud washed off rather vigorously by some Colombian ladies in the river running adjacent to the volcano. It is rather a bizarre experience but good fun and it leaves your skin feeling silky smooth.
Where to eat – The best and cheapest place to grab a tasty bite in town is at one of the street food stalls in the Plaza de la Trinidad, which is also a fun place to head to in the evenings to sit in the square and watch local life. Try the delicious local mazorka dish (made with fresh corn, melted cheese, sauces and topped with crunchy potato and bacon or chicken). For dessert, there is also a fantastic ice cream place in the square.
Where to stay – Mamallena. This hostel is in a good location in the Getsemani district, close to plenty of great restaurants and bars. It has a nice communal outdoor seating area. However, it is rather on the pricey side of things.
Onward travel – To get to Santa Marta there are regular daily buses that take about five hours.
Santa Marta (A base for four/ five nights in between other destinations)
In total we probably spent about five nights in Santa Marta. It is a great place to use as a base in between various other destinations such as Minca (in the countryside), Palermo (beach town which sadly we didn’t have time to get to), the Lost City trek and Tayrona National Park. We must admit we didn’t actually venture in to town. We heard it was a nice for a meal and explore but our hostel was a little way from the centre and had a resort vibe to it. It did an excellent job of keeping us there relaxing by the swimming pool and drinking in the bar.
The Lost City Trek (three nights) – This challenging four day trek is definitely a must-do if you are a keen hiker and want to see some beautiful scenery. Prepare to sweat like you’ve never sweated before!
Tayrona National Park (one night) – We went to one of Colombia’s most beautiful national parks for two days of hiking interspersed with some much needed relaxation on the palm-fringed beaches. We would recommend getting an early bus to the park (the hostel can organise this for you) and after paying at the entrance and receiving a map, you can get a shuttle bus to the beginning of the trail to begin hiking. It is around a two hour hike to Cabo San Juan on well maintained easy trails following the coastline. The earlier you can get to the beach the better because it is first-come first-served for renting a hammock on top of the rock.
We had a lovely afternoon relaxing on the beach but then the rain started…and it didn’t stop! We had rather an eventful evening sheltering in the little restaurant and drinking wine with our new fellow hammock friends but then had to cross (what was earlier a small stream but now was a fast flowing river) in our underwear to get back to our rock. We survived the night and woke up (rather damp!) to the most incredible sunrise.
Minca (two nights) – We went to Minca for three days to relax and recover after completing the Lost City Trek and the two additional days in Tayrona National Park. Minca is a small rural village with beautiful surrounding scenery and walks. Our main reason for heading to Minca was to stay at Casa Elemento; a hostel just outside of town (either a half an hour bumpy ride on the back of a motorbike or a two hour hike up the hill). As well as having fantastic food, friendly bar and little swimming pool, it has the most incredible giant hammock with views down the valley. Give yourself some time in Minca itself and have a delicious meal at The Lazy Cat Cafe.
Where to stay in Santa Marta – The Dreamer Hostel. A resort style hostel complete with fun bar with nightly activities, a swimming pool, upstairs kitchen and living area. It is a nice place to relax in between hikes, have a dip in the pool, meet people and swing in the hammocks lining the garden. The staff are really helpful and you can book everything through them including the Lost City trek and transfers to Tayrona Park and Minca. Say hi to Diego for us if you go!
Onward travel – From Santa Marta, it is possible to find cheap flights on to Medellin with Viva Colombia. Or you can book an overnight bus via the handy app Busbud. It takes 17 hours and is very comfortable. We didn’t have any problems with theft on the overnight buses but always be careful not to put any valuables in the overhead or out of sight under your seat. Either keep you bag on your lap or in between your legs where you can see it.
Medellin (four nights)
Once the most dangerous city in the world, Medellin has changed to an unrecognisable extent. It is now a vibrant, welcoming and beautiful city. Potter the streets of Poblado and have a drink in a swanky cafe, visit the excellent aquarium or maybe wander the botanical gardens searching the tree-tops for their one, elusive sloth. There’s another excellent free walking tour, tons of history and sites to take in and if you’re after night life, you need look no further!
Highlight – Take the cable car up to Santo Domingo for incredible views across the city and over the areas that you now see featured in the shows like Narcos.
Where to stay – Black Pine. We loved this beautiful brand new hostel right at the south of Poblado, a very trendy part of town with great bars and restaurants. The bedrooms and common area were clean and comfortable and the staff were lovely and welcoming.
Onward travel – From Medellin it is just a two bus journey to the nearby town Guatape. There are regular daily buses.
Guatape (one night)
We fell in love with Guatape, a colourful lakeside town in the countryside, a two hour drive from Medellin. The perfect place to escape from the city and relax for a couple of days. Many of the houses are decorated with bright, quirky designs and it’s lovely to wander around and have a hot chocolate in the square where some exceptionally friendly ladies will served you.
Highlight – Climb the 659 steps up the La Pierda del Penol (the rock of Guatape) and gaze at the incredible views across the lakes. The hard climb up the rock is definitely worth the effort…Colombia has even claimed it’s the best view in the world!
Where to eat – Guatape is a great place to try the delicious regional speciality, Bandeja Paisa. We went to La Fogata restaurant, right opposite the lake, to try it and it was very tasty. We would recommend sharing one as the portions are huge!
Where to stay – Galeria Hostel. This friendly little hostel has incredible views across the lake. It is located a five minute drive from the centre and there are tuk tuks you can take to get to and from town. When getting the bus from Medellin ask to get dropped off by La Piedra del Penol and the hostel is just a short walk away. We really enjoyed reading in the garden and having drinks on the balcony.
Onward travel – From Guatape, we got the bus back to Medellin, realised we were in the wrong terminal, transferred by taxi to the south terminal and then just managed to catch the minibus to Salento. The buses depart daily and regularly.
Salento (two nights)
A small and decidedly rural town, Salento is a great place to get a sense for what Colombia’s cooler and greener climes are like. It’s home to a selection of excellent restaurants and cafes, some great bars, fantastic walking, coffee plantations and a strange and rather explosive game called tejo. You can’t go to Salento without doing the day hike in the Cocora Valley. This valley is greener than I’d thought really possible, home to some unique palm trees and a hummingbird sanctuary.
Highlights – The Cocora Valley and other walks up into the Paramo, including some right up to the glaciers. There is also an excellent family-run coffee plantation called Don Elias that is well worth a visit to see how the coffee is made, taste it and also meet the farm animals.
Where to eat – Brunch. This places is famous in Salento, but don’t underestimate the portion sizes – they are huge! Try a burger and the famous peanut butter brownie.
Where to stay – La Serrana Hostel. A beautiful estancia that is home to a selection of dorms, private rooms and fantastic glamping. The breakfast is also amazing (with delicious fresh fruit options) and the bathrooms have beautiful copper fixtures.
Onward travel – You can hop on a local minibus from the main square in town to Pereira which takes about 45 minutes. From there, you will need to change and get on another bigger bus to Bogota for another seven hours. We had a slightly interesting journey as our second bus broke down a couple of hours from Bogota but after waiting for an hour or so, another one arrived and we transferred to that one. It’s a long day of travelling along winding roads but at least the scenery is beautiful!
Bogota (three nights)
We were very excited to explore Colombia’s capital city. Pete’s younger sister lived there for a year and absolutely loved the energy of the city, great food and buzzing nightlife. We were staying in the colonial part of town; La Candelaria, a beautiful part of town with cobbled streets, courtyards, cafes and amazing street art. This area is a stark contrast to the rest of the city’s modern towers.
*Colombia is perched at 2,600m and therefore altitude sickness can be a problem if you’re coming from sea level. We would suggest drinking coca tea, taking it easy on the first day and not drinking too much! We weren’t too badly affected, although Antie did have a slight headache. It is also quite chilly – be prepared with a warm jumper and rain coat.
Highlights – It’s definitely worth doing the free (for tips) street art tour around the La Candelaria, which departs daily from the Plaza de Bolivar. We had an excellent guide who was very informative about the politics of the city and explained the history of street art. It was interesting to hear that street art is actually illegal in Colombia, artists need to gain permission from the owner of the house they wish to paint on.
We also went to the interesting Museo del Oro (gold museum), perfect for a rainy morning. It has over 34,000 gold pieces from the indigenous communities in Colombia, pre-Spanish rule. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great when we were there and so we didn’t hike the 1,500 steps up the Cerro de Monserrate. It towers over the city and has great views of the city on a clear day. Or if you’re feeling lazy there are funicular or teleferico (cable car) options.
Where to eat – La Puerta Falsa is a Bogota institution and was founded in 1816. The atmosphere is great and the staff are really friendly. It may sound rather strange but definitely try the chocolate santafereno (hot chocolate with cheese and bread), it’s absolutely delicious! Although we were slightly skeptical about putting the cheese in to the chocolate like the locals do. There are also lots of mouth-watering desserts.
Where to stay – Cranky Croc. A nice hostel with comfy beds and cosy communal areas. It is in a good location in the La Candelaria, very close to the Plaza de Bolivar. There is a kitchen and also a little restaurant with tasty budget meals on offer.
Onward travel – From here we flew down to Leticia in the Amazon with VivaColombia, right at the bottom of the country, bordering Peru and Bolivia. They have regular flights and it wasn’t too expensive, approx. £70 per person.
Leticia (two nights)
Leticia is a fascinating little isolated Amazonian town, where you can have breakfast in Colombia, lunch in Brazil and dinner in Peru! Quintessentially Amazonian, the town is small, chilled, safe and although there isn’t much going on, it’s worth a visit just to see how people live and to explore the jungle that surrounds it for hundreds of kilometres in every direction. If you’re looking to go through the Amazon to either Peru of Brazil, this is the place for you.
Highlight – We mainly just used Leticia as a base to get deeper in to the Amazon. You can book a three-day camping trip through the hostel but we decided to go and stay in Puerto Narino instead as we’d been recommended it by a friend. We enjoyed exploring the town and were also there for a random Amazonian rock festival, which took place in the main square. We saw some great local bands and the atmosphere in the main square was lively and fun.
Where to eat – We had some cheap and delicious Tamales (rice, meat and veg steamed in a banana leaf) at a little street stall. There is a man making them on the street and a couple of plastic chairs to sit on. You can find him somewhere on the corner of Calle 8 and Carrera 10.
Where to stay – Anaira Hostel. It is nice, clean, friendly and just a short walk from the centre of town and the port. One of the members of staff also made us excellent caipirinhas, which was a plus. There is a tiny little kitchen and a swimming pool as well as a couple of playful cats. They have storage space to leave your bags if you plan to head off on an Amazon trip for a few days.
Onward travel – From Leticia, we headed up river to Puerto Narino. We went to the ticket office opposite the dock (it’s inside a little shopping strip) and booked a one-way ticket there. It takes two hours and the boats leave at 8am and 10am.
Puerto Narino (two nights)
It is definitely worth travelling two hours upstream to Puerto Narino from Leticia. It is a peaceful village with no motor vehicles and lots of children and dogs playing in the streets. It’s a great place to unwind for a couple of days before onward travel and to catch a glimpse of local life in an untouched Amazonian village. It is quite handy to have at least some basic Spanish under your belt whilst you’re here, you will be able to get a lot more out of the experience if you are able to chat to the locals.
Highlights – During our three-day stay we went on a night hike in the jungle with a guide and also we were taken piranha fishing! We would definitely recommend doing some of these activities. The night walk was an amazing experience to see wildlife as well as some creepy crawlies. We also were lucky enough to spot a baby anaconda hanging from one of the trees. It was amazing but also rather scary as everything, including the plants, seems to want to poison or sting you. There are also the seven lakes you can visit. To visit more than one or two requires an overnight stay somewhere, but speak to the locals to organise this.
Where to stay – Alto del Aguila. Run by a Spanish monk and home to a selection of animals of varying degrees of domestication, Alto del Aguila is like something from a Gerald Durrell novel, if he’d set them in the heart of the Amazon. Come here to get a taste of real Amazonian life, complete with night walks through the jungle, monkeys running free and a health dose of disconnection. Just what the jungle doctor ordered. Get your hostel to ring ahead and let them know you’re coming, or you could just risk turning up, they seem pretty relaxed either way.
Onward travel – You basically only have one choice, assuming you’re not hopping on a plane again (don’t! The other option is so much cooler!) – a boat. There are no roads, so the Amazon is your highway. Travel west to Peru, or East to Brazil. This is a little logistically complicated, so read up on how to do this here. If you are heading to Iquitos in Peru you don’t need to go back to Leticia but can go directly there from Puerto Narino, which takes about two hours off the journey.