Colombia has a bit of a rough reputation for historical reasons, but it’s a fantastic place to visit. Since leaving Mexico back in February, we felt most at home in Colombia. I don’t know if it was the people, the food, or the sheer diversity of climates we experienced, but we constantly found ourselves enchanted by what we saw, wandering down streets unplanned to listen to some live music, watch people dancing, or just enjoy the spectacular graffiti. For a country with a history of such violence due to narcotraffic, we found it open and welcoming. Life is on the street and we loved being a small part of it. We started by spending several days in tropical, coastal Cartagena, and then wound our way south through the mountains to Medellin, Bogota and Cali before crossing into the Andes in Ecuador. We hit the big cities, but we know there’s a TON we didn’t have time to explore and we’ll be back before long.
As far as Latin American destinations go, Colombia is an easy one to travel in. It’s an easy flight away from the US, major Latin American cities, and Europe. We flew to Cartagena from Panama and then took night buses through the rest of the country. The transportation network is well-developed and we were glad to see that Uber was present in all of the big cities. In terms of language, Colombian Spanish is clearer than many other countries and most people in the tourism industry speak English fairly well.
- Economy: Colombia is one of South America’s larger economies and has grown quite rapidly over the last 20 years or so. Most of their exports are agricultural commodities like coffee, bananas, and flowers, but they do also export coal and petroleum, making them vulnerable to price swings. Recently, more industrial and manufacturing exports have been growing steadily thanks to several Free Trade Agreements. Per capita GDP is just over $14k USD.
- Interestingly, Colombia is also a cultural powerhouse and regularly exports pop culture, including music by world-famous artists like Shakira, Juanes, and Carlos Vives.
- Money: Colombia uses the Colombian peso, which traded at 3,030 to $1 USD as of 11/7/17. (See here for updated exchange rates.)
- It’s important to have cash as it is not uncommon to find stores or restaurants that are 100% cash-based. Roughly 40% of the grocery stores we went to accepted credit card. 20% of the hostels we visited took credit card, buy only 5% of the restaurants did. We paid for 1 our of our 6 long distance buses with card. That being said, we went to mostly lower-end restaurants and hotels. Higher-end places would likely accept card more often.
- People: There are about 49 million Colombians, making it the third-most populous country in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico. According to CIA World Factbook, almost 9.8 million people live in and around Bogota, followed by 3.9 million in Medellin. It’s one of South America’s most urbanized countries, with 77% of the population living in a city, making it a great destination if you like exploring cities. The rural areas in the southeast have a very spread out population and are ripe for off-the-beaten-path travel.
- Language: Spanish is the main language.
- Cartagena: A gorgeous colonial beach city with an impressive city walls first built in 1586. The old city and the Getsemani neighborhood, where we stayed, are something straight out of a history book. We spent days wandering the streets, popping into small stores during the day and then enjoying live music in Getsemani in the evenings. It’s a great shopping and beach destination that also has something for the serious history buffs.
- Medellin: My personal favorite city in Colombia. It has a stellar transportation network (metro, tranvia, cable cars, and buses), beautiful public parks, and the sunset over the mountains is just gorgeous. The city creeps up the surrounding mountains and most buildings are brick, which resonates with me and my North Carolina roots. Also, as the home of the famous Medellin Cartel, there is lots of history to explore. I’d especially recommend Museo Casa de la Memoria, Parque Arvi, Comuna 13, and Pueblito Paisa.
- Bogota: The political heart of Colombia, metropolitan Bogota is nestled into the beginning of the Andes. There’s a LOT of history to explore. We enjoyed walking through the hilly streets, seeing the Botero Museum, taking in the sheer variety of fashion in the local markets, and seeing the main buildings of the Colombian government. There are a million museums, and most of them are very affordable.
- Cali: The only major city on the Pacific side of the country, Cali is known for its spicy salsa clubs. We didn’t spend much time here, but many travelers stay for weeks. There are several good museums and an interesting river walk through the center of the city.
- Top 10 Other Destinations:
- Guatape: Located only 2 hours away from Medellin, Guatape is known as Colombia’s most colorful town and is a delightful place to walk around. We hiked La Piedra, or el Penol, which is a massive rock that juts straight into the sky and has beautiful views of the surrounding lakes and islands.
- Parque Tayrona: Nestled in the northeast of the country, Parque Tayrona is a large reserve that covers both the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, and a large amount of Caribbean coastline.
- Cabo de la Vela: A remote indigenous village on Colombia’s northern tip, it’s hard to get to, but supposed to be more than worth it as you get see some often-forgotten scenery and pristine beaches.
- Ciudad Perdida: Also in the Sierra Nevada in the northeast, the Lost City is quite literally lost in the jungle, requiring an off-road multi-day hike to access.
- Popayan: Known as the white city. Picturesque colonial city with chalk white buildings.
- San Agustin: A relaxed small town surrounded by incredible landscapes and the ruins of a forgotten civilization. The archaeological park is home to more than 500 monoliths, statues, petroglyphs, and sarcophagi, mostly created between 100 A.D. and 1200 A.D. The pre-Incan culture that built everything is surrounded by mystery.
- San Gil: An old colonial town in northeast Colombia founded by the Spanish in 1689. It’s known as the region’s tourism capital due to the abundance of outdoor activities like mountain biking, rafting and kayaking. Less adventurous types can explore the local cathedral (built in 1791), Parque La Libertad, Parque El Gallineral, and Plaza de Mercado, a covered market with an impressive variety of local food.
- Santa Marta: Small town close to Tayrona.
- Eje Cafetero: Coffee producing zone that is sure to please caffeine all enthusiasts.
- Leticia: A great base for eco-tourism, wildlife safaris, or hikes into the Colombian Amazon to learn about the local indigenous tribes. You have to fly in from Bogota, but can take a boat down the river to Manaus in Brazil or up the river to Iquitos in Peru.
- Tourist Friendliness: We felt quite welcome in Colombia and made friends pretty easily in Medellin. Bogota and Cali were a bit colder, but we got along well with all the locals we met at hostels, museums, restaurants, and so on. Andrea blended in perfectly but I, as usual, stuck out like a sore thumb. The bus network is easy to understand, but you’ll have to go to the bus stations to get your tickets.
Planning a Visit
On average, we spent about $24.94/person/day. We stayed in hostels, took night buses to save on hostels, and cooked some of our own meals, mostly breakfast and sandwiches for lunch.
Colombia can be done easily by bus or plane, depending on your timeline and budget. We flew to Colombia from Panama using miles, but then traveled exclusively by bus with no problems whatsoever. We highly recommend you use the Rome2Rio app to figure out your route and also ask around to double check ALL THE TIME.
Our average long distance bus cost was $24.09 USD/person and the buses were good. We took night buses from Cartagena –> Medellin –> Bogota –> Cali.
Our average Uber/taxi within cities was $3.83 USD.
Colombia was a foodie’s paradise, even for us on a budget. We enjoyed great seafood in Cartagena, hearty Paisa fare in Medellin, and a touch of Andean cuisine in Bogota. There’s a lot of variety and we tried as much as we could. We ate out 18 times (including snacks and street food) and paid an average of $4.62/meal for the two of us, not including snacks. Speaking of street food, I highly recommend you try arepas and empanadas! Our average daily food cost (restaurants, snacks, and groceries) was $4.72/person.
There’s a lot of variety on the higher end of the price spectrum, and if you’re looking for anything particular, I’m sure you can find it with a little work.
We stayed in 5 hostels and 1 hotel, the rest of our nights being spend on buses. We paid an average of $9.90/night/person and had good experiences.
All the hostels we stayed in had clean dorm beds with WiFi, decent common areas, and a kitchen. AirBnb is definitely an option in the cities if you’re looking for more privacy, but we did just fine using HostelWorld.
The CDC recommends you get vaccinations for:
- Measles, Mumps, and Rubella
- Hepatitis A and B
- Yellow Fever, malaria and rabies if you’re visiting certain areas.
When we flew in from Panama, no one checked our vaccination records.
Get Out There!
We fell in love in Colombia during our short visit and are confident you will too. From the massive Arvi Park (a big nature reserve) accessible by metro in Medellin, to the impressive presidential palace in Bogota, to this hidden church by the Ecuador border, we were never bored and were constantly meeting friendly people. That being said, we only scratched the surface. Colombia has a LOT to offer, no matter if you’re looking for hiking, shopping, beach, or mountains.
It’s easy to get into Colombia through one of the major airports and bus transport through the country is very doable as well. We loved seeing the bigger cities and can’t wait to visit again to get off the beaten path. If you want to read more about our experiences there, see this article on our journey from Cartagena to Ecuador.