Colombia. I love everything about you. The people, the cities, the towns, the culture, the scenery, it’s making its way back on the tourist and backpacker map and once you’ve visited it’s easy to see why.
Known for its drug trade and violent history, Colombia has so much more to offer than many people realize.
I spent a month traveling through the country and had a hard time tearing myself away from it. When I arrived, I had no idea what to expect. I’d heard it was a cool country but didn’t know much about it. By the end of that month, I was hooked and could have easily spent another month exploring more. To this day, it remains a favorite.
Go to Colombia. It’s amazing.
And when you do, here is a must-visit guide for all the places you need to see.
Cartagena is the gem of the Carribean. It’s a beautiful city located on the Carribean coast and offers endless sunshine and warm temperatures; it’s easy to see why the Spanish decided to take it. The brightly colored buildings and walls of Cartagena’s ‘Old Town’ is a must-explore when visiting.
Consider going to the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and spend the extra money to get the guided tour for a better understanding of the castle. Cartagena is a great jumping off point for trips to Playa Blanca, Isla de Baru, and Isla de Rosario.
And if you want to get a feel for the traditional Colombian nightlife, head to Plaza Bolivar on the weekends for live music and dancing the in the Carribean heat.
How to Get There
Cartagena is easily accessible by plane, bus or boat. Buses are cheap in Colombia, but so is flying. Avianca and Viva Colombia are the country’s two budget airlines, and it’s possible that you’ll spend as much on a flight as you would on a bus ticket. Do your research and consider both options.
Both airlines also fly internationally to Ecuador and Peru. Make sure to double check the baggage fees and weight restrictions when booking tickets.
Santa Marta & Tayrona National Park
Santa Marta is a smaller city on the Carribean coast. Honestly, there’s not a ton going on there, but it’s a great starting point for all kinds of adventures in the area. From Tayrona National Park and La Ciudad Perdida trek (The Lost City trek), or day trips to Taganga or Minca, the city allows you access to all kinds of surrounding adventures.
How to Get There
It’s possible to fly to Santa Marta from Bogotá, Medellín, and maybe Calí (double check that, though). From Cartagena, it’s a super easy four-hour bus ride that should cost around $25/person.
Where to Stay
La Brisa Loca
I love this hostel. It has a pool inside with an open air ceiling and the best rooftop deck ever. This hostel was my home-base when going to Tayrona National Park and doing La Ciudad Perdida trek. The staff is friendly and helpful, the beds are comfortable, it’s safe, right downtown, and cheap!
The Dreamer Hostel
I’ve heard great things about this hostel, too. It’s further out of the city center but close to Tayrona and Minca. If you have plans to go to these places it may be a better option for you.
Tayrona National Park
Tayrona National Park was one of the first places I read about when I started researching Colombia. When I saw the pictures, I knew I had to go. Tayrona is a picture perfect beach in a national park. You can camp or go for the day, but I highly recommend staying a night or two. Hiking, horseback riding, snorkeling, and sunbathing are just a few of the activities available to you in the park.
Make sure to bring lots of snacks because food is limited and expensive in the park. Also, try not to bring your big backpack. You’ll be hiking throughout the park so leave your stuff at the hostel and bring only what you need.
How To Get There
Buses regularly leave to make the 45-minute trip from Santa Marta to Tayrona’s park entrance. From the park entrance, it’s about one-to-two hour hike to various campsites and beaches. It’s also possible to rent horses.
Where To Stay
Cabo San Juan is the main beach and campsite. You won’t find traditional backpacker hostels but some cool camping arrangements and a nice set of palm trees to set up your hammock. You can also rent them if you don’t have one.
There are various accommodations throughout the park for many budgets and comfort levels.
Pro tip: Get to the park early in the day so you can reserve your spot wherever you’re staying. Tayrona is a popular spot, especially with backpackers, so make sure to plan ahead, so you don’t end up walking all day to find a place to sleep.
Medellín is my favorite city in Colombia and was the cherry on top for falling in love with the country. When beginning my trip, I planned to skip it for Bogota. But, after various conversations, it became apparent that Medellín is where I needed to go, and I’m so happy I did.
The city has seen a lot of violence in the last 30 years and to see it rise out of the ashes is pretty amazing and impossible not to love. It’s beautiful, safe, offers excellent public transportation (the only metro in Colombia) with loads of activities, whether they be outdoors in the many parks or culturally in the various museums. Don’t miss Medellín!
Where to Stay
I stayed here, and it was perfect for what I needed. It’s social, in the Zona Rosa district, has a kitchen and good accommodations for what you’re paying. Booking ahead is a smart idea as Medellín is a popular destination for budget backpackers and suitable accommodations fill quickly.
This is where everybody told us to stay, but unfortunately, it was completely booked when arrived. We did hang out there a couple of nights because it’s right down the street from Casa Kiwi and it’s a very nice, social hostel.
This Irish hostel is also in Zona Rosa, and I’ve heard from other people it’s a fun place. If you happen to be in Medellín for St. Patrick’s Day, this is the place to be.
What to Do
Botanical Garden of Medellín
An easy metro ride from wherever you’re staying, the Botanical Garden of Medellín has hundreds of species of plants in it and a beautiful butterfly enclosure. It’s also just a nice place to sit outside and read your book for a few hours on a warm day
Parque Arvi Nature Reserve
When you take the cable car to Parque Arvi Nature Reserve, you’ll get a great birds-eye view of the city as your taken to a beautiful park right outside the city. There’s also a nice market there during various days of the week where you can score delicious food and cool treasures.
Pablo Escobar Tour
While it’s a little expensive, the Pablo Escobar Tour is fascinating and informative. In my opinion, it’s worth the money. During this tour is when my eyes were opened to the violent past of Colombia and Medellín, and just how much things have changed.
Real City Free Walking Tour
A friend told me to do this, and I loved it. This tour is what made me fall in love with Colombia. It’s a fun, free, and safe way to see city landmarks.
How to Get to Medellín
As one of the major cities in Colombia, Medellín it’s easy to get there and leave. Going by plane is easier and faster, and you can also take a bus from virtually anywhere in Colombia. Keep in mind that Medellín is in a mountains region and the ride has been known to cause some to get motion sickness.
The picture-perfect coffee town was off the beaten path but is gaining notoriety quickly. Salento sits in between Medellín and Calí and is the perfect escape between the two bustling cities. The charming town offers great shopping for Colombian treasures and outdoor activities in a gorgeous setting.
Where to Stay
If you visit Salento, you have to stay at La Serrana. It’s one of my favorite hostels ever, and it’s located on a beautiful property with incredible views all around. My favorite part: the hostel has an onsite restaurant that offers a family-style dinner every weekday, making it a fun way to meet people. Did I mention the free breakfast, too? Book ahead if you plan to stay here, it’s popular.
What To Do
Salento and the surrounding area offers a seemingly endless supply of outdoor activities. If hiking is your thing, you’ll feel like The Lorax as you walk among the world’s tallest palm trees to a hummingbird sanctuary. The region offers great mountain biking through the lush, rolling coffee hills and it’s easy to rent a bike in town for the day. And while you’re there, don’t miss the opportunity to tour one of the many coffee farms in the area.
How to Get There
Chances are you take a bus from either Medellín or Calí. It’s possible to take a direct, seven-hour bus from Medellín to Salento.
To Calí, there is a bus to Armenia, and there you change buses to Calí. The entire trip takes about five hours.