Colombia is so large, travelling from Cartaenga on the coast to Bogota the capital, is like travelling from Manchester in the UK to Paris. It’s such an incredible and fascinating country, that it would be hard to see and do everything unless you have few months to travel.
To help you, I have pulled together my top 10 recommendations of what to see and do from my 6 weeks in Colombia, and even I didn’t get to do everything. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
1) Parque Tayrona
Parque Tayrona has some of the best beaches that Colombia has to offer and is Colombias most popular national park. To get to the beaches you will need to hike a minimum of two hours, through the jungle and along the beautiful coast line. Make sure you take plenty of water with you, as its pretty hot and humid.
I would recommend you leave you big bag at the Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta and take enough for 1 night 2 days, and spend a night in the park sleeping in a hammock at El Cabo San Juan. If you get there early you can claim a hammock overlooking the sea high up on the lookout point, otherwise it will be a sweaty tent.
Expect there to be lots of other travellers doing the same. Alternatively you can book one of the many hostels and eco hotels just outside the park.
Make sure you take plenty of bug repellent as the mosquitos and sand flies are pretty ferocious here.
Getting to the Park
- Shuttle from Santa Marta – most hostels provide a daily shuttle service to the park 15,000cop/£3.60
- Local bus from Santa Marta – Take the bus headed to Palomeno and ask for the park. 10,000cop/£2.50
- Taxi from Santa Marta – 30,000-40,000cop/£7-£9
There are a few trekking options
- 6-7 hour round trip through the jungle via El Pueblito where you will find some indigenous locals. Access vis Colionas de Calabazo entrance and return via the coast route to the main entrance.
- 4 hour round trip along the coast. This is the same beautiful trek there and back and takes 2 hours. For a quicker route back follow the horses, as it only takes 1 hour 30 minutes through the jungle.
- To access this route via the main park entrance and take the minibus to the start of the trail.
- Accommodation – Hammock 25,000cop/£6 – Hostel 25,000/£6 – Eco Hotel 163,000cop/£40
- Park entrance 48,000cop/£12 (require your passport)
- Minibus 3500/£1
For the ultimate relaxation, I recommend you stay a few nights in the mountains, in the middle of a finca (coffee farm) 1600m above sea level close a a little village called Minca. This hidden gem is relatively new on the tourist trail, so therefore a lot less commercial than its neighbouring tourist traps.
There are some Hostels in Minca, but take the extra 30 minute motorbike ride deep into the jungle and stay at Casa Viajes. You won’t be disappointed with the view, the hostel or the friendly staff. And it was the best cooked meal I had had at any hostel. To help you relax even more and switch off from the world, you wont find any wifi, although there is a computer to use if required.
Make sure you take advantage of the daily organised hikes, yoga, bird watching and the tour of the La Victoria coffee farm. La Victoria is a self sustainable coffee farm that uses the nearby waterfall to power the coffee bean processing and supplies electricity for surrounding inhabitants, including Casa Viajes.
- transport from Santa Marta – 15,000cop £4 hostel bus – taxi from Santa Marta 60,000cop/£14
- motorbike taxi up the hill – 20,000cop/£5
- Accommodation – Dorms 34,000cop/£8.5 – private room 89,000cop/£22 – Breakfast 10,000/£2.50 – Dinner 21,0000cop/£5
top tip – take plenty of money as there are no cash machines
3) Water rafting in San Gil –
San Gil is the best place in Colombia to try out all the adventure sports like, rafting, bungee, rappelling, zip lining and mountain biking . Some of the cheapest you can find in South America, so make the most of it. I would recommend the rafting on the class 4/5 river, it was really well organised by Colombia Rafting, the rafting guides are all part of the national rafting squad.
It is a half day activity, with three hours on the river and an hour each way traveling, lunch is provided. If you haven’t experienced rafting before, this is the best place to try for your first time, as they use larger rafts so your are less likely to fall out. However it does still happen so be prepared.
- 130,000cop £36
4) Watch a live football match
The Colombians are such a passionate nation and no more so than when it comes to their football. One of the highlights of visiting Colombia is going to watch a football game at one of the many stadiums in the big cities. I’m not a football fan particularly, but I loved the atmosphere, listening to the many chants the fans sing throughout the whole match.
There tends to be a local team and the national team. Both give an incredible experience, although the level of football will differ massively. Oh and the Cerveza is alcohol free so don’t be fooled by the vendors.
Buying at the stadium is much cheaper than going on a organised tour
- Entry Price 25,000cop £6
- Organised tours 70,000cop/£17
top tip – buy a football shirt for 25,000/£6 from one of the street vendors, as everyone will be wearing one.
5) Take a Salsa lesson in Cali –
Salsa is the national dance of Colombia and everyone can dance it, all be at differing levels. You will hear Salsa or Regatón blaring from every bar, club and car in Colombia. Dancing Salsa is the best way to meet the locals. So take advantage of the many free Salsa lesson on offer when in Cali or request a private lesson. You won’t be disappointed.
El Viarejo Hostel has free salsa lessons for all guests.
If you get to stay in San Gil, then make sure you do the day trip to Barichara. A beautifully unspoilt village with cobbled sandstone roads, whitewashed single story buildings with terracotta roofs. This is by far one of my favourite villages in Colombia and with very few tourists. Try and take the bus in the morning and have lunch at one of the cute restaurants around the square.
If you feel energetic then take the 5km, three hour hike to Guane and take in the spectacular views of the valley beneath. The road reminded me of Dorothy’s yellow brick road initially, but as we ventured further into the wilderness, it became more isolated and arid from the scorching sun beating down. I had visions of Jesus walking to Nazareth – don’t ask me why….
You reach quaintest little Colombian village and if you have time, stay the night at the beautiful Casa Misia Custodia Hotel.
How To Get There
- Catch a bus from the small Contra San Gil bus station on the corner of Calle 17 / Carrer 10.
- Ask for Barichara and the bus leaves every 30 minutes.
- The bus will take 45. Minutes
- Costs 6000cop £1.50
7) Cathedral de Sal
If you have a few days in Bogota then the Salt Cathedral is well worth the two hour bus journey 30km. You may wonder, why build a Cathedral hundreds of metres underground in a salt mine. All will be answered by the guide that will take you on a one hour tour. I was totally amazed at what man can still acheieve, an in in such a short time.
How To Get There
The B74 from Las Aguas bus terminal to Portal North was simple enough, you buy a plastic bus pass for 6500cop/£1.60 which includes your bus fare. Walk to platform 2 through the underpass to catch the B74, don’t wait under to sign that says B74 as it’s wrong and you will wait like me for twenty minutes before you realise this isn’t the stop. The bus network is pretty impressive and easy to use.
After about 45 minutes your arrive at Portal Norte, and you go through the barrier to the intermunicipal platform and look for a bus with Zipa in the window. Get on and a young guy will take your fare once you are on the road (5000cop/£1.20). The bus takes about 45 minutes, once in Zipa get off around carrer 10a and then walk the rest of the way to the Cathedral. It’s a small town and easy enough to find the cathedral from the main square.
- Entrance 48,000cop/£11.90 one hour guide
- Bus 5000cop £1.20 each way
Guatapé is one of those places that is on the tourist trail, but worth taking the two hour bus journey from Medellín. The climb up the 750 steps to the top of Piedra del Peñol (the rock) is worth it. The Stunning view of the Embalse del Peñol, a large lake beautifully sculptured by green peninsulares and home to some wealthy Colombians swimming in their pools.
From the rock you can catch a tuk tuk to the town of Guatapé, make sure you haggle the price, as 11000cop seemed a bit steep considering it was only 3km away.
Once in Guatapé you can take a boat out on the lake and visit some of the peninsulares or zip line across the water. Or do as i did, and sit and have their local dish of grilled trout while watching the action on the lake.
There is much too see in the town, it is full of the most beautifully painted buildings, little shops and cafes to meander around, but not for too long as the last bus leaves at 18:30
How To Get There
- Take the metro to Caribe Station – 4800cop/£1.19
- Take a bus from the North Bus Terminal next to Caribe metro station. Buses leave four times an hour and cost 13000/£3.20
- Entrance to the Rock – 18,000cop/£4.50
- Tuk tuk 10,000cop/£2.50 (try and take it with other tourists to share the cost)
9) Cascadas de Valencia
There are many waterfalls to see while in Colombia, some spectacular and some just meh. The dream is to swim under the waterfall and there is no better place than Cascades de Valencia. There are five waterfalls in total, with three that can be easily accessed and each having a clear pool of warm water to swim in.
How To Get There
- Either take a local bus from Santa Marta or Palomino that goes to Parque Tayrona and ask the driver for the Cascades and he will drop you off at the entrance.
- Bus 10,000/£2.50 – 15,000cop/£3.70 depending on where you come from
- Entrance fee 3000cop/74p
If there is any city that should be on your list while in Colombia, this city is it. By far my favourite city in Colombia, and one I would even consider moving too. The place is just so alive and full of energy, it has character, and not too impacted by the western world, unlike the Capital Bogota.
I would say that Colombians are probably the friendliest and kindest nationality I have ever met, yet the Paisans from Medellín are even friendlier and will go out of there way to help you.
I have to admit it’s the not the most attractive of cities, but the people and vibe more than make up for that and in a way masks its ugliness.
It’s amazing to hear the stories and see for your self first hand what the city has been through over the last 30 years, and if ever a city has transformed and prospered the most in such a short time, then Medellín can show a lot of cities how its done.
Twenty years ago it was the most violent city in the word thanks to the drugs trade and the man that cannot be named ‘Pablo Escobar’. It’s is beacuse of this, the people of Medellín have such belief and determination in their city and own life, that it’s hard to stop or disagree with. It’s quite infectious.
In today’s Medellín I couldn’t have felt more safe walking around the City, obviously still being aware of my surroundings and understanding where to avoid, like in most big cities.
They have a saying in Medellin “dont offer the papaya”. If you offer papaya it will be taken. This basically means dont give someone the opportuibity to take, as they will. It’s a nice way of making tourists think about their belonings and what they do.
A great way to see the City and understand its past is to take the free city walking tour or visit Community 13, and witness the transformation yourself.
- Medeilin Free walking tour – Real City Tours meets at Alpujarra Metro station morning and afternoon. This requires online registration.
- You pay a tip at the end of the tour, based on the experience – normally 30,000cop/£7 per person
Where to Stay
- Sugar cane Hostel – chilled and relaxed vibe – 31,000/£8 for a dorm
- La playa Hostel – more of a party vibe but not too much – 39,000/£10
- Airbnb from 39,000cop /£10 double room – ideal for a longer stay
- treat youself – Dann Carlton Hotel
Where to eat
- Malevo – Argentina steak – really cute and perfect for a quiet dinner for 2 or dinner with friends. The Steak was amazing, with a good selection of Argentine wine. The Argentinian staff were really friendly and welcoming.
- Cafe Zorba – Pizza and Humous with a really lively atmosphere, it’s gets really busy at weekends.
- Lenteja Expresa – great little vegetarian place that does quick and easy food.
- Verdeo – Vegetarian , with amazing iceream. The resataurnat is set on the second floor, with a great open feal and lots of plants to make you feel relaxed. It has a real scandy feel to it. Amazing food too.
- Mondongoz – the perfect place to try out the typical Paisan cuisines. Full of locals and a great atmosphere.
- Chiclayo Cocina Peruana Envigado – the best place for ceviche in Medellin
Where to Drink
- Victoria Regina – probably the coolist bar/restaurant in Medellin. Tends to have live music at the weekends.
- Chiquita – little kitsch and camp bar with really fun decor. Good to start the night here for drinks.
- 37 Park – great place to sit outside amongst the trees drinking sangria – gets lively at night when the music is turned up.
Where to Dance
- Victoria Regina at weekends is perfect – they often have live music and is always full of locals and ex pats.
- Son Havana – best place in town to try out your salsa moves – its small and is full to the rafters with locals on Thursdays and Saturday when they have live salsa bands.
- Salon Amador – where the hottest people hangout for a night of dancing until 3am.
Now I never managed to get here, but everyone else that I met had recomended it and said it was wonderful and one of the higlights of their trip. Its full of Coffee plantations and has some of the best trekking in Colombia.