5am, we awoke to one of Colombia’s very special sunrises. Mother nature understood this would be our last time enjoying the grace of the Caribbean and treated us to a special show. Tayrona national park was shining bright with oranges, purples and reds. Waving us good-bye as we were about to head south. Every step, every bus ride taking us further away from the Caribbean’s warm oceans and white sands. There was a bittersweet feeling hanging in the morning breeze, but this moment was one of those special ones travellers search for.
Why you SHOULD Travel to Colombia now!!!
Colombia is a hugely exciting country to travel right now. It is home to everything travellers seek out.
Colonial towns like the ones in Cartagena or Barichara boast some of the most romantic and colourful streets, flower’s cascade down balconies around every corner. The nature reserves such as Tayrona or the sprawling views from Guatape rival any in the world. Hikers rejoice, discover lost cities throughout jungles of Colombia.
If you need to get back to a modern metropolis, Medellin is a city for you. Reborn from the terror reign of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, Medellin has gone from the world’s bloodiest city to its’ most innovative (2013). The city thrives with art, culture, and tourism. The coffee lovers like myself will be glad to note, export quality beans are staying local in artisan coffee houses, popping up across the main cities.
As a traveller Colombia is a country I had built up immensely, which is why it is so satisfying that it surpassed all of my hopes and expectations. Once you are enchanted by Colombia, you’ll never want to leave!
San Blas, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia – $550USD each
Like most people we did not want to go by road from Panama to Colombia (The Darien gap). It is far too dangerous. Instead you can sail around the San Blas islands then onto Cartagena, Colombia in 5 days.
It was a huge highlight and one of the best decisions we have made on this trip. We cannot stop raving about this unique adventure!
We went with Blue Sailing for a 5 night sail from Panama to Colombia. The first 3 days are spent sailing around the idyllic San Blas Islands followed by 2 days of open sea.
Harry and his first mate/chef Cesar captained our boat Big Fish along with an awesome boat full of companions making this trip even more special for us. They cooked us up feasts of delacacies fit for kings. Lobster, Tuna and Barracuda, caught straight from the back of the boat. We ate our fill and some. Never were we left wanting anything. Blue Sailing gets full marks and we really recommend anyone to use them.
Cartagena to Santa Marta – $20,000 COP each
If you are staying in the old town then you will need to take a taxi for around 30mins to the bus station just outside of Cartagena. Here you can buy your ticket to Santa Marta direct.
Santa Marta is a perfect hub from which you can leave your big backpacks at hostels, while you enjoy day/overnight trips to nearby destinations.
We did a number of these:
- Palomino – Catch a local bus from the side of the road direct to Palomino this will cost you $9000 COP and takes roughly 2 hours each way.
- Minca – Hostels organise collectivo’s straight from Santa Marta to Minca town. This costs $8000 COP and takes an hour.
- Taganga – A local bus can get you to Taganga for $1400 COP and takes 30minutes. As it is so close to Santa Marta you can also take a taxi for around $10,000 COP door to door (perfect for groups)
- Tayrona national park – Take the same local bus towards Palomino but get off at the clearly marked park entrance. The bus costs $8000 COP each way and takes an hour and a half.
Santa Marta to San Gil – $70,000 COP each
We opted the overnight bus option to San Gil as it would take us 11 hours to get there. Use the website busbud.com to book tickets online. It is an easy to use English language site.
Advance booking is recommended as the popular route often sells out. Print off your email confirmation before arrival to present at the bus company kiosk. Here you will get the real tickets. We used the company Expreso Brasilia who boast wifi, air conditioning and large reclining seats.
I didn’t mind the bus ride but on the other hand Brett has trouble sleeping on all busses and was very uncomfortable… I blame his long limbs.
San Gil to Barichara – $4600 COP each
After our overnight bus from Santa Marta we bought our tickets to Barichara at the same bus terminal. The bus will take you to another local bus station where you will need to change buses (included in the price). The ride takes 45 minutes and is very windy.
San Gil to Medellin – $70,000 COP
Again we opted for a night bus as it takes 12 hours from San Gil to Medellin. We booked onto the 8pm which includes a change at Bucaramanga. Departure is from the same main terminal we first arrived at San Gil in.
Medellin to Guatape – $13,000 COP each
Head to Terminal Norte station and catch a bus direct to Guatape. This journey only takes 2 hours and buses leave every half an hour until 6pm.
Medellin to Salento – $43,000 COP each
This bus leaves at terminal Sur. Departures are every hour starting from 9am. If you go in the morning I suggested going to the bus station an hour early to book your tickets, as it is a shuttle bus spaces in the car is limited.
Salento to Ipiales – $40,200 total each
We committed to a full travel day while we tried to get as far south as we could. We had over stayed our itinerary in Colombia and still wanted to see Las Lajas near Ipiales – a beautiful gothic style cathedral built across a deep gorge.
At 6.30am we left from Salento and changed at the below bus stations, to arrive in Ipiales in a staggering 17hrs of transit later at 1.30am
See below bus changes and prices
- Salento to Armenia – $4200 COP each (1 hour)
- Armenia to Popayan – $36,000 COP each (6 hours)
- Popayan to Ipiales – $30,000 COP each (8 hours)
Ipiales, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador – $8.90 USD total each
Crossing the Colombia/Ecuador border was once a very difficult task, not anymore. We took a 10 minute collectivo (group taxi) ride from Ipiales bus station to the border $1500 COP (0.50cents).
There are no exit fees out of Colombia, nor entrance fees into Ecuador. Once you receive your exit stamp you will need to cross the bridge on foot to the Ecuador immigration building for your entry stamp.
The whole process does not take very long unless you are met with a line.
Another collectivo from the border to the Tulcan bus terminal is $2.20 each. Here you can catch a bus direct to Quito for around $6.00 each, approx 5 hours.
Green house hostel, Cartagena – $25,000 COP pp/pn 6 bed dorm
Hostel is in a great location right in the middle of the old town, walking distance to everything and in a safe area. A decent cooked breakfast of eggs and fruit is also included.
The only downside to this hostel is that there is no proper communal/hangout area, making it harder to socialise and in with people.
Dreamer hostel, Santa Marta – $35,000 COP pp/pn dorm bed
Very popular hostel amongst backpackers. Dreamer hostel has a very communal set up with all the dorms surrounding a garden, pool and bar area. The hostel is clean, and the kitchen is well equipped for making meals. Dreamer sits perfectly located to where all the busses connecting to the surrounding destinations pass. They also offer a safe place to store bags for a few days at a time while you enjoy the lost city trek, Tayrona national park or Minca.
We highly recommend staying at this hostel.
Oscars place, Minca – $32,500 pp/pn dorm bed, $25000 COP pp/pn Hammock
Many travelers stay at Casa Elemanto home to the world’s largest hammock. It was fully booked when we arrived so instead we stayed at Oscar’s place. The entrance is a 15 minute walk from town through a dense forest (bring a headlamp or torch for night time). Once you arrive the views are very special. Sweeping hillside descends into the distance where the bustling city of Santa Marta sits on the horizon. In September 2016 he was adding in more rooms and facilities. Although there is a kitchen it is not for the use of guests. Still relatively new and has an eco feel.
Republika Divanga, Taganga – $21,000 COP pp/pn 4 bed dorm
We really enjoyed our one night stay in Taganga. Republika is clean and we were welcomed warmly. A sister hostel up the road is open’s its facilities to Republika guests with a pool and bar in the evenings. Lucie the owner was very helpful, she recommended a good, well-known company to do our diving with and hooked us up with a great deal. Little did we know Lucie is also the resident DJ the decks all night at the sister hostel bar! If you are lucky you could experience some DJ Lucie deep house live!
El Cabo San Juan, Tayrona National Park – $20,000 COP pp/pn hammock
El Cabo San Juan is a pristine postcard beach in Tayrona national park. You must trek 2/2.5 hours or a take a horseback ride from the park entrance. Stay at El Cabo San Juan in hammocks for the evening. Make sure you arrive before 12.30pm and line up early to secure a good spot. Pack light, as whatever you bring you will need to carry in and out again. Food and drinks are sold at the park for reasonable prices. Lockers are also available although BYO padlock.
This national park was one of our favourite adventures in Colombia, we recommend staying here for minimum one night.
Tinto hostel, Barichara – $27,000 pp/pn COP 4 bed dorm
Barichara is one of those places you unexpectedly fall in love with. This quaint town stole our hearts as soon as we hopped off the bus. The icing on top was where we stayed, Tinto hostel. A relaxed and elegant vibe, lovely rooms with most comfortable beds, a highly equipped kitchen and a beautiful view to sit down and admire. Free coffee and fruit are provided. Staff were also super helpful and had the answers to all my many questions.
Add Barichara to your Colombia list and fall in love with it just like we did.
Casa Kiwi, Medellin – $30,000 pp/pn COP 4 bed dorm
Love it when travelling rumour’s come true? Casa Kiwi is one of those. We are pleased to say the hostel (run by a half kiwi Paul, don’t listen to lonely planet.) is as good as they say.
Hostel has plenty of different areas for whatever mood you find yourself in. Have a few drinks on the deck, around the pool table or upstairs or take it easy away from the noise in the theatre room, take a swim in the pool or relax in a hammock. Facilities are provided for anything you need and the coffee’s always hot and ready to go. Located right in the heart of a modern district thriving with café culture. Not only were the staff super helpful with information and organisation, their colours shone through when it really mattered. Unfortunately our friend became very sick from a mosquito in Santa Marta. The staff went way above and beyond providing all the care and support of a surrogate mother. Any place that truly cares like they did is a place worth staying at! It also has the name kiwi in it so you know its good! 😉
We recommend visiting Casa Kiwi and Medellin in the weekend so you can party in the cities amazing nightlife. It can get busy so book in early!
InMedellin Hostel, Medellin – $20,000 pp/pn COP 6 bed dorm
If you are looking for a quieter and cheaper place that is still walking distance from Poblado then InMedellin hostel is the place to stay. It is a clean, relatively new hostel with nice amenities and lovely staff to help you out with any information. The hostel is situated on the top floor of an apartment block, different but the hostel manages to give a warm and homely feel.
Lake View Hostel, Guatape – $25,000 pp/pn COP 4 bed dorm
This is a great place to stay if you end up doing a few nights in Guatape. Located walking distance to the colourful colonial town. They provide clean rooms and a few small hangout areas. A Thai restaurant right on their rooftop provides their point of difference. If you are like us and miss some delicious Thai food then treat yourself here, the delicious Thai cuisine is worth every penny.
Estrella de Agua, Salento – $20,000 pp/pn COP 3 bed dorm
Found this lovely hostel just by walking the streets after getting off the bus. Cheap, excellent Wifi and located very close to the main square of Salento. An outdoor kitchen has just enough to get by in a simplistic hostel. I would recommend staying here if you want something cheap and without frills.
Plus it is only a 2-minute walk to the ‘Brunch’ restaurant, the best restaurant on our trip by far!
Check out the food section for more details.
Hotel Metropol, Ipiales – $25,000 COP per room
If you just need a place to crash for the night because you are en route to Ecuador or getting up early to see Las Lajas, then hotel Metropol is the place to stay. Located opposite the bus terminal and arriving after midnight is not a problem. The bedroom itself is simple and cheap, you pay what its worth. We didn’t stay long here as we only came to see Las Lajas Cathedral before crossing into Ecuador.
- Arepa – Can easily be found on the street and is a good quick snack. It is a type of bread made with cornmeal that is filled with cheese or meat.
- Ajiaco – A delicious hot soup. With chicken, at least two types of potatoes, avocado and sour cream.
- Sopa de Mondongo – Tasty vegetarian soup made with potatoes, peas, carrots, corn and corriandor. Great starter for a meal.
- Empanada’s – The Colombian answer to the Kiwi pie. Chicken meat and sometimes vegetables covered in a crispy potato coating/pastry. Empanadas look like a pasty and are deep fried into deliciousness. Served with Hogao, a sauce made with tomatoes and onions slightly fried.
- Bunuelos – Another delicious snack, easily found on the street. Potato balled fritters filled with either a variety of meat, veges and an egg. This is super tasty and a filling on the go meal.
- Sancocho – Typical Colombian dish that includes a meat (chicken, pork, beef or fish), plantains, yucca corn and potatoes. A delicious heart meal.
- Lulo – A popular Colombian fruit. It is only found in Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. This delicious fruit is one of a kind and makes a refreshing juice or ice cream. Some can find the fruit itself too sour. We loved it.
- On a hot day or with dinner, enjoy a frosty cold cerveza. Aguila is commonly found everywhere in Colombia and is very cheap. For a more boutique beer try BBC beer, brewed in Bogota and has a more exciting flavour.
Cartagena – Coffee at San Alberto – A café that cares! Take your pick of the express method and let the baristas do the rest with their delicious beans. Very good coffee.
- Barichara – The best ice cream in the world is at ‘Panaderia central’. Mixed between ice cream and frozen yoghurt. It will have your mouth making funny noises. You can even get feijoa flavour!
- San Gil – Sam’s steak house restaurant. If you are looking for some quality red meat, you will not regret your decision to eat at this restaurant. Great way to get your iron levels up! Both the Steak and Ribs are highly recommended.
- Medellin – Café Al Alma’s. Serves all day breakfast everyday, after a night out of partying treat yourself with some delicious eggs Benedict to cure your hangover cure. They also do some out of this world smoothies!
– Pergamino café – is another place to eat out and offers some really good quality coffee
- Medellin – Empanadas El Machetico Las De Nico – best empanadas in town!
- Salento – ‘Brunch’ – My favourite restaurant so far! The food is simply outstanding, large portioned and utterly delicious. Lots of different food on the menu, so there is a favourite for everyone.
We feasted on the holy guacamole burger and the famous peanut brownie, both where as amazing as each other and I am dreaming about next time I can eat a peanut butter brownie.
Must see & do
- Explore the cobbled streets of Old Town – Beautiful Streets colourfully painted doors and grand cathedrals are around every corner of this stunning colonial city.
- Volcan de Lodo El Totumo – Mud Bath Volcano – Treat yourself to a soak in a volcanic mud bath. A strange experience but well worth it. Book a tour through one of the many tourist centres in Cartagena. Float in the thick consistency of the soothing volcanic mud. Get washed down by a helpers near the river but watch out, they wash every crack and cranny. We were left feeling near spotless.
Note: if you would like photos taken on your camera, mud massages or to be cleaned you will need to bring cash to pay for these services.
- Playa Blanca – take a day trip to a nearby beach, relax and soak up some sun. Enjoy an alcoholic drink in a pineapple.
- Take a free Walking tour around the old town of Cartagena. These tours are a favourite of mine from Europe, they take you to all the sights, share some local knowledge and interesting facts about the city.
Santa Marta is often used as a base for travellers, as it allows easy access to all the surrounding area’s and their activities.
Taganga – A nearby coastal fishing town with real character. The beachfront boulevard has restaurants selling fresh caught fish. Dive-shops are dotted around the area will take you out for an impressive dive in the marine reserve.
- Tayrona National Park – Spend the night in a hammock under the stars on a beautiful Caribbean beach and surrounded by untouched tropical forest.
- Palomino Tubing – After a 40 minute hike through jungle with a giant floatation tube jump in the river and relax as you float down stream, beer in hand back towards town.
- Minca – is a small village up in the mountains surrounded by coffee fincas (farms). Plenty of hiking and horse riding to be done here. We recommend visiting El Pozo Azul, the nearby waterfall to cool off. Also check out La Victoria coffee finca, you can join in on one of the tours or relax in the onsite café with fresh cakes and a delicious fresh coffee made to taste.
- Lost city trek – This hike is fast becoming Colombia’s answer to Peru’s famous Inca Trail. A 20km long hike through the dense Colombian jungle to a grand site of ancient ruins. The hike takes just over 5 days. Some say the trek itself is more rewarding than the archaeological ruins. If you like hiking we recommend doing it.
- A gorgeous whitewashed small town around 45 minutes from San Gil. The buildings are beautifully decorated with different flowers and colourful doors. This is a popular tourist destination for Colombians, therefore is busy on weekends. During the week, you can nearly have the town all to yourself. Walk around the beautiful streets, hike one of the surrounding trails or book your adventure activities such as white water rafting here.
Adventure activities can also be booked from San Gill
- Pablo Escobar Tour – The home of the cocaine war, Medellin has lots of recent history surrounding the infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
- Microbrewery – The nightlife in Medellin is renowned! Pry yourself away from the clubs of Poblado and venture out to the Medellin Brewery, only an $8000 COP cab ride away (if staying in Poblado). Entry to the Brewery on a Friday night costs $29,000 COP which comes with a tour of the brewery, 6 beers and a live band. Enjoy a night out that is something a little different.
- Explore the metro system – Medellin’s metro system includes two gondolas. Take a ride to the top of the gondola for an incredible view of Medellin from above. See the streets of Medellin in a totally unique way.
- Free walking tour – Another great tour to do. This lasts 4 hours and is full of informative local knowledge. Don’t miss it!
- Botanic gardens – Get amongst the 40 acres of outdoor space dedicated to plants, trees and all things nature. It is beautiful to walk around and get your nature fix.
- Explore the quirky boutiques and delicious cafes in the hipster/tourist district, Poblado.
See our food section to see our favourites of Medellin.
- La Piedra – Climb the 740 steps to the top of an enormous rock mountain. On top is possibly the best view in Colombia, looking over Guatape’s man made lake.
- Walk around the colourful town of Guatape, every corner you turn the buildings are painted all sorts of colour that will brighten anyone’s day. It is a truly unique and beautiful town.
- Visit Pablo Escobar’s mansion ruins. For $70,000 per boat be taken out to the remains of Pablo’s lake front mansion. An extra $5,000 will give you a 30min-guided tour around the site.
- Alternatively visitors can storm the upper mansion and blast away the other team in paintball combat.
- Don Elias coffee farm – Salento is home to some of Colombia’s finest coffee. Coffee from Salento is exported all over the world. Don Elias coffee tour located 3km from town takes you on a highly informative hour-long tour of the eco friendly coffee plantation. Topped off by a cup of Colombia’s finest. It would be rude not to.
- Valle De Cocora – Take a jeep from the main square out to the valley for $3600 each. Finally depending on time, choose the short 15min walk or a 4 hour hike through the valley culminating in the world’s largest palm trees. Truly a remarkable sight… even in the dense cloud cover we experienced.
- Venture to the Lookout point over the town. Walk along Carrera 6 north from the main square. You will see some brightly coloured steps heading up the hillside. Climb all 240 steps and get a really special view of the town. Head here for sunset.
- Tejo – Throw rocks at gunpowder while you drink beer. The Colombian version of Pétanque is highly explosive and can be played throughout Colombia.
- Give your tastebuds the experience of ‘Brunch’ – see more under the subheading ‘FOOD’.
- Las Lajas cathedral is the most noteworthy attraction and a worthwhile pit stop before crossing the border to Ecuador. Las Lajas is a magnificent sanctuary built dramatically across a cascading bridge. After seeing our fair shar of Europes marvellous Cathedrals, we believe this beautiful architectural piece sits comfortably amongst the very best.
Tips & Advice
- Currency is Columbian Pesos – COP
- The majority of the good coffee is exported, you have to hunt for a the best coffees.
- You can drink the tap water in the big cities, such as Cartagena, Medellin, Cali and Bogotá
- If you are visiting Tayrona national park and are a student, don’t forget to bring your student card. It must be an international card such as ISIC to be accepted. It is nearly a quarter of the price so well worth the money saved.
- Make sure you always put mosquito repellent on everywhere in South America especially at Tayrona national park. One of our friends got severe Dengue from there.
- Instead of saying “de nada” (your welcome), in Colombia you say “con gusto.”
- At a certain time Colombia was not safe due to violence with cartels. Now it is generally safe, just be weary and smart with your belongings like you are in most countries.
- High season is around December to March, prices generally hike up this time. As it is close to the equator temperatures are normally stable all year round, however September to November can be wet.
- If you are in Colombia for a long time, consider buying a sim card as it is very cheap to make local calls – Claro has the best coverage.
- In most Colombian towns there will be an Exito, not only can you buy cheap food and drinks but also clothing, electronics and medicine.
- When getting cash out at the ATM’s you will tend to be given your money in $50,000 COP notes, try to break these, as change is scarce in rural areas. Supermarkets and bus stations are great places to break these big notes.
Helpful words and phrases
The main language is Spanish in Colombia
Please Por Favor
Thank you Gracias
You’re welcome De Nada/ Con Gusto
Pardon me Perdone
English? Habla Ingles?