If you want to take away just one thing from this blogpost it’s this: Yes, Colombia is absolutely safe to travel, the people are extraordinary and you should plan a visit there soon!
With this out of the way, let’s dive into this fascinating country I may have developed a little crush on. So where should I start? I honestly loved being in this country from start to finish! While the country gained a (very) sketchy reputation during the 90ies, it’s currently working its butt off to turn this around nowadays and free itself from its past. Front and center are its people. It’s not in every country that you are given phone numbers and offers from people left and right who want to make sure you’ll have the best possible time in their country. I have encountered one of the most welcoming, kind-hearted people in Colombia and can easily see why some travelers simply just stayed to live there permanently. If you’re not planning to stay there forever and want to see as much as possible, please do read on.
When looking at the map you might get the impression that it’s fairly easy to travel around in a loop to see the top sights in Colombia in 2-3 weeks of time. The most common places of interest usually being Bogotá – Salento – Medellín – Cartagena – Palomino/Tayrona National Park – Barichara – San Gil – and maybe Cali if you’re really into Salsa. Of course, there are other interesting places like Filandia, Minca, Tatacoa Desert, La Guajira, or Punta Gallinas, just to name a few. But I’m getting side-tracked here… Compared to its neighboring countries like Brazil or Peru, Colombia might seem small. With over 1.1 million km2 it’s bigger than you’d think (and yes, I totally realize this is coming from a citizen from one of the smallest countries, but STILL!). And other than other South American countries, tourism here is still relatively young and getting from one place to another
can sometimes be a bit of a pain is a pain and this is because of two main reasons: mountains and tiny roads.
How to get around in Colombia
As said, traveling over land is more often than not an uncomfortable undertaking. There are (day or night) bus routes connecting the most points of interest, but don’t expect comfy semi-cama seats like i.e. in Argentina or Peru. From what I’ve experienced (I only have experience with day buses), it’s more of a minibus, crammed with people, the aircon either set to freezing or none at all. The aerial routes are far more developed and will get you efficiently and affordably from one place to another. With this in mind, you are most probably going to have to decide if you would like to see more of the coffee zone or the colonial zone – or bring a loooot of time to spare. We visited Colombia on our trip around the world in February 2019 had about 3 weeks time before our pre-booked sailing ship to the San Blas Islands in Panama left harbor in Cartagena, and the route shown below is the one we took (and no, we didn’t drive it, thank godness). Our stops included Bogotá – Salento – Filandia – Medellín – Santa Marta – Cartagena.
Suggested itinerary for 3 weeks Colombia
Bogotá (2-3 days): So Bogotá doesn’t exactly win a price for prettiest city around, but we found it to be interesting nevertheless. We started our Colombia adventures here and booked a small apartment from a company called lifeafar. We were lucky enough to be one of the first guests in the newly opened Urban Heights property and got to join all the opening events and immediately got introduced to Colombian hospitality from locals and expats alike. What we loved about lifeafar is that you have your own little room or apartment, but you also have the anemnities of a hotel (like somebody at the front desk to give you valuable recomendations). A big plus for us was also the opportunity to use the laundry machines for free. We stayed at Urban Heights in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood, which is an up and coming (and safe) area and can totally recommend it!
Besides hanging out in our apartment (we loved having so much space for a change!) we visited the gold museum (El Museo del Oro), which contains the largest collection of gold artifacts in the world.
Another very worthwile experience was the Free Walking Tour, during which we learned a lot about Colombia’s past and present, passed through the Botero museum, got to sample local dishes and drinks and saw some awesome street art.
If you want to get some excercise done or if you simply want to see Bogotá from above, you can hike to Cerro Monserrate (or take the cable car up). Since Bogotá is already on 2600 meters above sea level, you’ll feel the altitude hiking up. It can also get pretty steep, as you are hiking up to 3’100 meters above sea level. We decided to hike up and take the train down.
From Bogotá, you can also arrange a day trip to the Salt Mine Zipaquirá or Laguna de Guatavita, which is filled with gold from several ritual offrings from indigenous people (and from where the El Dorado story comes from, as many Europeans have tried to dry the lake to reach the gold).
Where to eat in Bogotá: When you’re walking around old town of Bogotá (Candelaria district), you can stop at the restaurant La Puerta Falsa and try the Ajiaco dish. A thick chicken soup with three kinds of patatoes and corn in it, served with rice, avocado, capers and some white stuff. This dish will leave you stuffed for hours…I actually recommend sharing a plate to safe room for hot chocolate with cheese – another local favorite.
Salento (2-3 days): From Bogotá we flew to Armenia and from there we took a taxi to Salento (approx. 30 minutes). Alternatively, you can take a bus, or fly to Pereira and take a taxi/bus from there, which takes about the same time. Salento is a picturesque little town in Colombia’s coffee region.
It goes without saying that one of the activities you have to do here is visit a coffee farm and drink as many cups of coffee you can get your hands on. We were warned, though – and will pass on this warning to you: This experience will most likely ruin your morning coffee at home. I can recommend the small organic coffee farm from Don Elias (not the best coffee, but very interesting to learn about organic coffee production). Side note: One of the best coffees you can taste in Salento is at Cafe Jesus Martin. You can either walk to the coffee farm or take a Willy Jeep from the main square for a couple of bucks. I’d recommend walking at least one way, because it leads you through the lovely countryside and you absolutely can’t get lost, even if you tried.
From Salento you can take a Willy (Jeeps, 8’000 COP/P for a round-trip) from the main square and head out to the Cocora Valley for a hike among the tallest palmtrees in the world.
I’ll be honest here: I was expecting more. The properties you hike through are private and depending on if you hike the loop clockwise or counter-clockwise, you’ll be forced to pay between 3’000 to 5’000 COP per person (counter-clockwise being more expensive and taking around 3 hours without the hummingbird place). The hike itself is beautiful, though. But I wouldn’t just come for the palmtrees.
Other activities you can try out in Salento: go Horseback-riding, hang out in a hammock (hammocking is a massively underestimated activity, trust me!), or take a Willy to Filandia for a half day/day. Filandia is a colorful little town, surrounded by lush, green hills and lots and lots of coffee. If you’re looking for a good restaurant in Salento, check out Bernabe. We ate here twice and everything we tried was super delicious!
Medellín (3-4 days): We decided to take a bus from Salento to Medellín and boarded a direct bus at around 8 in the morning. The drive should have taken us 6 hours (for 250km), but we ended up being on the bus for at least 9 hours. As a city guide in Medellín later stated: «if you think about taking the bus from Salento to Medellín, you might want to think about that two or three times more», and I totally agree. It was okay for one leg of the trip, but this will cost you a full day of traveling and you might come out of the bus with a nasty cold from the A/C being on Antarctica-mode.
To start your adventure in Medellín, I highly recommend going on a (free, tip-based) walking tour with Real City Tours. Our guide Juan was a fantastic storyteller and during 3.5 hours, he took us through Colombia’s and Medellín’s past and present and made every minute of it an experience. He shared personal stories, as well as historic facts in a way I have only seen very few guides do. After the tour, you will have seen the most important sights around town and you’ll have a deep respect for the Colombians and their ability, to make a party out of life, even if everything around them is falling apart.
Another great walking tour was the Comuna 13 tour with Zippy Tours. This free (tip-based) walking tour takes you through the streets of Comuna 13 and you get to see some mind-blowing street art. The downside of this: This is probably the most touristy thing I did in whole Colombia. The usual tourist situation in Colombia is this: If you meet one, you’d better introduce yourself. Because you’re going to see each other around again and again and you’ll notice this because there are so few tourists. It seemed like literally every tourist coming to Colombia was on this Comuna 13 tour and while I think this is a great source of income for the guides living in Comuna 13, it was a bit too overcrowded for my taste. The street art was beyond imagination, though. I mean, just look at the pictures!
One of the most thrilling experiences I had on our trip around the world also took place in Medellín. In San Felix, to be exact, where you can take off for a paragliding flight over Medellín! We booked our flights with Paragliding Medellín and had a great experience! The guys knew what they were doing, pointed out interesting sights and made sure we had a great time. I felt safe during the whole time in the air and just loved my time up there! You can book a 20 or 30 minute flight with/without a GoPro and this all costs around US $70.- per person.
From Medellín, you can also take a day trip to Guatapé and the famous La Piedra de Peñol rock. There are mini buses that run every half hour (from 5:30 AM to 6:00 PM) from Medellin’s North Bus Terminal to Guatape. The price per person is around 14’000 COP and the ride takes about two hours. I unfortunately had to leave this experience out because of limited time (and 4 hours on yet another bus didn’t sound too appealing during that time), but have been told that it’s a great visit.
Food in Medellín: Finding healthy food and vegetables can be a little bit of a challenge in the central part of Colombia. I was craving vegetables and we were lucky enough to have one again been able to book a small apartment with kitchen from another lifeafar property in Medellín. So we ended up cooking quite a bit, but also loved some of the restaurants in the El Poblado quarter. You’ll find an abundance of good restaurants there. One we really liked is called La Causa, and Betty’s Bowls for breakfast.
From Medellín we flew up north to the Carribbean Sea. Our first stop was Santa Marta, from where we initially planned to visit Tayrona National Park. Unfortunately, the park closes down for a month each year, so nature can recover and the ceremonies of the indigenous people can take place. Unfortunately for us, this was exactly during the time we visited in February.
If you come from the mountainous region like Salento, Bogotá or Medellín, you’ll be shocked about the temperature difference when you hit the North. While it was already warm in the hills of Medellín, it was HOT in Santa Marta. Keep this in mind when looking for accomodation. You’ll thank yourself if you book a place with a pool (Hotel Casa Carolina looked liked heaven, but unfortunately wasn’t in our budget range). We stayed at Hostal El Faro de Alejandría, which was unbeatable price-wise, but on the outskirts of the «safe zone» and had the alarm going off almost every night.
Santa Marta itself didn’t seem like it offered too much and quite frankly, it was also too hot to do a lot. We took the bus to Minca for a daytrip and hiked to the world’s largest hammock (which was surprisingly uncomfortable!) The hike was nice, the hammocks have seen better days and I don’t recommend staying or eating at the hostel there. If you get hungry, bring your own food for along the way or wait until you’re back in Minca and check out the restaurant Lazy Cat). If Tayrona is closed, there is really not much of a point in going there.
Many people just come to Santa Marta to trek to the lost city (ciudad perdida) in the surrounding mountains. There are a couple of tour operators in town, offering this 4-6 day hiking trip (do some research before you book with one!). We didn’t go on this trek because of many reasons: the price is relatively high (USD 340 for 4 days), you sleep in hammocks, it’s super hot and humid, you go back the same way you come in, and last but not least, the lost city just didn’t look too appealing to us. We’ve both already been to Machu Picchu and thought we could only be disappointed by the lost city. If all this doesn’t put you off, you’re good to go!
Food in Santa Marta: Most restaurants are centered around Plaza de los Novios, which is also where I’d recommend you try to find your accomodation. We had great food at Eli’s, Carambolo, or Lulo.
From Santa Marta, you can book a service called Puerta a Puerta (i.e. with the company Marsol), which is a bus-service picking you up at your accomodation in one place, and dropping you off at your accomodation at the other place. We booked this service for our transfer to Cartagena (3-4 days), our final stop in Colombia.
You can read all about Cartagena in this separate blog post.
If you’re keen on traveling to the South of the country, I’d recommend you check out the blog posts of a really cool Slovak travel couple over here, whom we’ve been lucky enough to get to know during our sailing adventure from Cartagena to the incredible San Blas islands in Panama.