Countries still shaking off outdated bad stereotypes often make the best hidden gem travel destinations. Colombia is the perfect example – this country and its warm-hearted people left by far the strongest impression on me amongst the South American countries I visited.

Once marred by decades of violent conflict, the idea of visiting Colombia still raises safety concerns for many. When I told my mum I’m off to Colombia I was more or less presumed as good as dead or at the very least kidnapped. The reality of course is far from the outdated reputation and means less tourist hordes – but not for much longer. Most South American countries can boast outstanding nature and heritage, but what makes really puts Colombia above the rest are its people. Colombians are truly some of the warmest and life-loving souls you’ll encounter, welcoming to the point that I nearly teared up both times upon leaving the country.

I hope you’ll feel the same on your travel and want to share what I think is a great itinerary for visiting Colombia for the first time.

 

The Ultimate 2-Week Colombia Itinerary

Colombia Travel Itinerary Map

 

For a full-flavour 2-week itinerary, I recommend you focus on 2 regions – the tropical, Caribbean north and the central Medellin/Coffee Triangle cluster. If Bogota is your start/finish point then add a day or two in the capital. Take flights where you can to save time – there are plenty of low-cost options and road journeys often take far longer than the distance suggests. In my case, the itinerary started in Medellin and ended in Bogota but the abundance of internal flights makes it very flexible. The below itinerary is on the intense side for 2 weeks so if you’re not constricted to days off at work, make it 3 or 4 weeks instead!

  • 2-3 nights Medellin
  • 1 night Guatape (a 2-hour taxi or a bus ride from Medellin)
  • 3 nights Salento. Connected by bus from Medellin, Bogota or Cali – takes 6-10 hours. Nearby airport Pereira has good connections to the rest of the country.
  • 1-2 nights Cartagena.
  • 2 nights Isla Baru. A 2-hr taxi + boat from Cartagena.
  • 1 night Santa Marta / Taganaga. A few hours coach from Cartagena, but also connected to main cities via its airport.
  • 1 night Tayrona National Park. A boat ride from nearby Taganaga or a 1-hr bus from Santa Marta.
  • 1 night Bogota.

Prefer slow travel? Focus on either the North cluster for Caribbean vibes, or just the Central regions for what I think is the best representation of Colombia.

Medellín

A vibrant & reborn city of contrasts recovered from a dramatic past 

 

Medellin Barrios from Cable Car

I’m not a big fan of large cities but there is something special about Medellín and its citizens. The metropolis is spread along a picturesque Andean valley, the many beige-coloured shanty towns cascading down its steep hillsides and paradoxically enjoying the best views. 

Its centre doesn’t impress so much with architecture as much as it does with the many symbols of its complicated past. As a former home of Pablo Escobar, Medellín has suffered too much violence from “regular” warfare to numerous bombings the signs of which remain today. Fernando Botero’s sculptures dot the centre, including some in Plaza Botero still bearing holes from an explosion in 1995. A walking tour is especially recommended both to learn of its past but also for the guide to keep you on your toes in some of the dodgier corners.

Medellin Street Art

The city has transformed itself since then and is now Colombia’s most advanced and international. It boasts the country’s only metro system (with a life-saving aircon!) which makes getting around refreshingly easy and connects with the modern Metrocable cars up above and into the colourful barrios for some majestic views of local life and the city. There are 6 routes to choose from and I’d especially recommend the oldest from Acevedo to the barrio of Santo Domingo.

Guatapé

The most colourful town in the world by a lake, and a climbable giant rock.

 

Guatape Colourful Street

The vividly colourful small town of Guatapé delights the eye. Just about every house is a work of art: besides the bright paint, most homes feature fresco-like panels called “zocalos”. These often represent village life and make you want to explore every nook and cranny of the town’s windy steep streets.

Guatapé is only a couple hours’ drive from Medellín, but I recommend at least an overnight stay to make the most of it. In the mornings you can enjoy the ridiculously photogenic streets almost all to yourself before the day-tripper crowds from Medellin arrive.

Guatape Rock El Penol

Besides Guatapé itself you have the equally famous rock, El Peñol. What was once a nuisance to farmers, some ambitious man carved a staircase into the rock eventually making it a tourist attraction. The sweaty hike up 649 steps is absolutely worth it for the views, including one of the most scenic toilet views you’ll ever come across, and a refreshing michelada (a beer with mango, lime and some salt on the rim). El Peñol sticks far above a large man-made serpentine lake and provides 360 views for miles.

Laguna Guatape
View from top of El Peñol

If climbing the Guatape rock isn’t enough exercise for you, I recommend renting a bike or a scooter and making your way (mostly) down a twisty and very picturesque road to the town of San Rafael. If cycling, a regular local bus can happily take you and the bike back up.

How to get from Medellín to Guatape

Easy. Buses run from Terminal Norte in Medellín, if unsure just ask for Guatape buses, the locals are very helpful. It will take 2 hours. A legit taxi from Medellín should take just under 2 hours and should cost you $35-45 after a little negotiation. Just don’t take one of the taxis pretending to be an Uber as you may get ripped off.

Salento

A quaint, hilly coffee region with beautiful scenery and giant palm trees

 

Salento Street, Colombia

The charming, easy-going town of Salento is at the heart of Colombia’s coffee triangle in Quindio department, roughly equidistant to Medellin, Bogota and Cali. It’s near-2,000m altitude offers an ideal comfortable climate and there’s plenty to do in the area to enjoy Salento for a few days.

 

Cocora Valley Jeep, Salento

Probably the most classic day out is a fairly easy hike amongst giant palm trees in the nearby Cocora Valley. This involves getting into (or onto) one of the jeepneys from the town square which is a fun ride by itself. 

The other local attraction is, of course, coffee (which by the way I didn’t find particularly great in Colombia!). It seems like they export the best stuff abroad. Either way, there are plenty of small coffee farms surrounding Salento offering cheap tours and an espresso or two to finish. I got the feeling the coffee farms are mostly around for tourism with avocado plantations otherwise taking over (someone needs to match Western demand for smashed avo on toast!), but I still recommend a tour for the surroundings and a pick-me-up.

 

Coffee Triangle Countryside Trail Salento

A little further you could venture out to Santa Rita Waterfall, which is one of those destinations where you’ll find the way there and back more interesting than the actual destination. It’s hike-able from Salento, but you could also rent a sturdy mountain bike to make this a fun 2-3 hour trip.

Bonus tip: Weekends are busier in Salento, but try to catch Friday night and head to town centre to really soak in the atmosphere and witness locals enjoying life and dancing salsa. And maybe even join in!

For a less touristy but similar alternative in the Coffee Triangle, consider the nearby town of Filandia.

How to get to Salento

You’ll likely want to take a bus from Medellin. The distance is deceptively short and wouldn’t take more than 3 hours if it were a normal highway. Alas, from Medellin the route takes 7 hours with a little luck, or more if you’re unlucky with traffic and roadworks. From Bogota, buses typically take you to Armenia or Pereira before needing to change.

Alternatively to save time you can fly into the Quindio region airports of Armenia or Pereira then take a bus or a taxi (around an hour in both cases). There are usually plenty of affordable flights from Colombia’s main cities including Cartagena and Bogota.

Cartagena

Caribbean vibes, seafood and a colourful colonial old town!

 

Getsemani Street, Cartagena

The charming colonial city is admittedly also Colombia’s most touristy – a victim of its location on the Caribbean cruise ship trail. Hence it’s more pricey and especially busy with mostly Venezuelan migrants offering you anything from water to coke every few metres.

But that shouldn’t stop you from visiting – Cartagena has a very special past. Its distinctly colonial architecture takes you back to its Spanish Empire times (when it served as a major slave trade port). Cartagena is a wonderful, picturesque city to explore by foot with its colourful narrow street barrios, flower-filled balconies and gastronomic gems. Food on Colombia’s Caribbean coast is probably the country’s most impressive (especially for seafoodies), taking in both African and Spanish influences. Cazuela de Mariscos, the hearty seafood soup is a definite highlight, as well as the corn-based street food classics – arepas & empanadas. And then you have a deluge of lobster and fresh fried fish of all kinds usually served with coconut rice.

Isla Barú

Switch off by idyllic Caribbean sea, snorkel at night among fluorescent plankton

 

Isla Baru Beach Hammock

2 nights in Cartagena was enough for me, and I preferred to make the most of the world’s best sea by relaxing in Isla Barú. It’s a 2-hour journey by car & boat from the city and offers a few great value beachfront options including Hostal Media Luna (who can arrange the transport to get you there).

Besides pure beachside relaxation, there is a host of memorable trips that can be arranged from the boat. Like a day trip to the nearby Rosario Islands, with a visit of Escobar’s abandoned party palace and a snorkel over a mystery plane wreck. My absolute favourite (and somewhat trippy) experience was a night-time snorkel amongst fluorescent plankton, which I highly recommend. 

How to get to Isla Barú

This is easiest done by pre-arranging transport with your hostel or hotel, which uses a combination of a taxi / van from Cartagena then a motor boat to get you to your seaside resort. It takes around 2 hours each way.

Tayrona National Park

Sleep in a hammock on a beautiful beach, hike in the coastal jungle

 

Tayrona National Park Beaches

Tayrona is all about hiking in the oh-so-humid jungle, spotting some wildlife and finally making it through to one of its beautiful beaches for a well-earned swim. Then climbing into a hammock at Cabo San Juan Beach to spend the night or two feeling like you’re in paradise. Only the mosquitoes remind you that it isn’t quite paradise.

You could of course go for the day, basing in Santa Marta or the backpacker-swarmed Taganaga, but it’s a bit of a rush as the park closes at 5pm. And you’ll be kicking yourself for not falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves at least 1 night.

How to get to Tayrona: Local buses leave regularly from central Santa Marta & Taganaga. My top tip is to bus it one way and take a speedboat back to Taganaga for a thrilling ride along the lush green coastline. Worth the price over the fairly boring bus ride.

Bogotá

Colombia’s chilly metropolis, likely your point of entry in Colombia

 

Bogota Panoramic View

I didn’t care as much for cloudy Bogotá, but it’s likely to be your start/finish spot so worth spending a day or two in. But that’s subjective and I know plenty that loved the capital.

The “fridge” as the rest of Colombia often calls it, sits at a high altitude and often “enjoys” the sort of weather you’d expect from somewhere in Scotland sometime in April. Much of the year it’s under a blanket of clouds, not particularly warm and often drizzly. Far from the Caribbean vibes you’d see in the North of the country, and this seems to reflect in the local people who seem more reserved than up North.

 

Bogota Street Food Corn

Being a capital, Bogotá has a big food scene and the best decision you can make here is to take a street food tour. Besides trying the many delicacies on offer, this will give you a decent idea of the city centre. The central historical La Candelaria district is interesting to explore by day and likely to be your accommodation if you stay in hostels. For entertainment, head to Zona Rosa in the capital’s Northern part. It’s quite safe and pedestrian friendly.

The other “must-do” is a cable car / funicular up to Monserrate Mountain. The views from up top really make you realise just how massive Bogotá is. Up top you’ll find a church and decent street food / souvenir market. Be warned that the queue to go up can be long so try to get there early and avoid weekends. And if you happen to be around on a Sunday, hire a bike and enjoy the city streets entirely free of cars thanks to a popular initiative Bogotá introduced in the 90’s.


 

5 Things Not To Miss in Colombia

A little “bonus” list of some things you’ll want to experience while in Colombia:

Try the hot chocolate & cheese combo

 

Colombian Hot Chocolate with Cheese

At first it seems a bizarre combination.. but it actually works! Probably because all cheese in Colombia is of the white, very mild-flavoured kind which actually mixes really well with the sweetness of hot chocolate. So don’t be put off by the idea and try it.

Play a round of Tejo

Football aside, Colombia’s other national sport, Tejo, involves throwing a disc at some gunpowder sat on clay which explodes if you hit it just right. Sort of like Colombia’s rough answer to bowling. It’s actually quite difficult to get the little things to explode which makes it all the more rewarding when you finally do. You’ll find Tejo Clubs all over Colombia right down to the villages.

Here is a little video on what it’s like.

Enjoy a refreshing Michelada

Colombian Michelada with Mango

Colombia’s most refreshing beverages, meanwhile, mixes light beer with mango slices (or another fruit), a little lime, ice and some salt around the rim. While not exclusive to Colombia, there’s is nothing more refreshing than a michelada on a sweltering day!

Go on a free walking or cycling tour

Getsemani Cycling Tour, Cartagena

The walking and cycling tours in Medellin, Bogotá and Cartagena are a fantastic way to get familiar with the cities while learning about their past from locals who lived it. For foodies, food walking tours take you to the sort of establishments you’d otherwise have completely passed by and really widen your experience of the local cuisine. Fancy trying capybara, the giant jungle rat?

As with anywhere else in the world, most tours are based on tips which is expected if you’re happy with the tour. Be generous.

Eat all of the fruits!

Chances are that the place you call home doesn’t have anything like the variety of fresh, ridiculously flavoursome tropical fruit and juices for mere pennies. Including ones you’ve never seen before. Trust me, make the most of it every day!

Is Colombia safe?

If you were like me and are ferociously Googling safety in Colombia before going, don’t get yourself stupidly anxious and know that like with reviews, a disproportionate number of people who actually had some bad experience are likely to write about it. Most that were fine – will not.

Yes, by and large the places you’re likely to visit are safe. I felt entirely safe just about everywhere, with a little more caution needed in the bigger city centres.

Muggings do happen just as they do in London or New York, but f you follow common sense you’ll be very unlucky to have something happen to you. The Colombians have a phrase “No dar papaya”, meaning “Don’t give papaya”. It means if you show your papaya (i.e. offer opportunity for someone take advantage of), someone will take it. Some common tips to follow:

  • Don’t flash your valuables i.e. phone/camera especially in big city centres
  • Get official cabs recommended by your ho(s)tel, or Ubers
  • Don’t walk alone at night in big city centres (specifically safer areas should be fine)
  • Lock your stuff up at the hostel / hotel

So stop worrying, get your flights and book a holiday to one of the most welcoming nations in the world!

Medellin Friendly Smile Cafe

 

What’s the Best Time to Visit Colombia?

With so many climates, there is no one best time to visit Colombia. November to March would be the best bet during which most of the country is at its driest. Then again, most other months are generally fine too – I visited in September and really had no issues with the weather bar the occasional thunderstorm. Keep in mind that the best weather months of December-January are also the busiest (and more expensive) especially in Cartagena which is the most touristy place in the country.

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