The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Colombia

Mark Stewart Travel Tips, Trip Planning 6 Comments

Twenty years ago, few would dare to venture into Colombia without good reason – very good reason. Even fewer would consider it a holiday destination. Even a decade ago it seemed only the brave ventured within its borders. Now, things are changing – and fast. With arms wide open, in less than ten years, Colombia has quickly risen to one of the top travel destinations on earth. Now more than ever before is the time to put this stunning nation at the top of your list, and with our guide to backpacking Colombia, we are here to help.

It’s Time to Visit Colombia

Colombia has for decades been synonymous with Pablo Escobar and the cocaine empires of the narcos. Unfortunately, it’s a label that has been refuelled with the popularity of the Netflix show of the same name.

Thankfully, the vast majority of that aspect of Colombia is in the past. In recent years, the government has taken back control from the drug cartels and made relative peace with the rebels in the countryside. Although there is still work to be done, things are looking very promising for the future.

So Why Now?

Over the past decade, the country has been undergoing significant changes. The government has stepped up its security presence and poured money into troubled areas. Schools and community centres are popping up all over, giving youth a chance to flourish rather than fall onto a path of crime.

The transport system across the nation is outstanding, everything is well connected, easy to navigate, and comfortable. From dense, green jungles and rain forests high in the Andes mountains to arid deserts and bustling world-class cities, it’s quite literally a country that offers something for every taste. Colombia also boasts coastlines on both oceans with the entire north coast dotted with pristine Caribbean beaches.

Best of all: It’s fantastically cheap! Just don’t wait, the word is out, Colombia is gaining popularity incredibly fast and prices will inevitably follow in years to come.

We recently spent over two months backpacking around this glorious country and will share as much as we can from our experiences to help you along in your own adventure.

So enough about this, let’s get to our collection of Colombia travel tips!

Must-Visit Locations – These Should be on Everyones Colombia Itinerery

Caribbean Coast

Colombia has over 1700 kilometres of beautiful Caribbean coastline along its northern edge, including several stunning islands. With world-class scuba diving, to deserted crescents of white sand and exquisite, fresh seafood; it has some of the best beaches in Colombia.

Cartagena

Cartagena is a breathtaking city catering to every level of traveller. The towering steel and glass skyline and sleek, white condo towers are reminiscent of Miami or Australia’s Gold Coast. The rugged and beautiful colonial architecture and cobbled streets of the Old Town contrast the hyper-modern skyline just nearby.

What to Do

Weekends are often much busier than weekdays, but don’t let that fool you. Every night of the week you’ll find some fantastic, vibrant activity in the old town. From buskers and street performers to all-out concerts, the streets of Cartagena come alive.
Several beautiful islands and beaches are easily accessible as a day or overnight trip. However, there are also a few just on the edge of town where you can easily access on foot and are a great way to enjoy a quiet beach for only a few dollars – and that’s only if you choose a sun tent and beer!

Eat and Sleep

As well, Cartagena boasts some of the best food in the country. Including mind-blowing ceviche, grilled seafood with coconut rice, and Colombian classics like empanadas.

Most of the budget accommodation is in the Getsemani area, just southeast of the Old City. Here you’ll find a ton of great hostels fitting any backpacker budget. Head a little further, across the bridges in Manga, there are plenty of great AirBNB’s with a little more of a relaxed atmosphere.

Boats in a harbour at sunset with the skyline of Cartagena in the background.

The Stunning Cartagena Skyline

Santa Marta

Only a few short hours away from Cartagena is the smaller and much more laid-back town of Santa Marta. Although it’s not nearly as polished as it’s bigger cousin down the coast, Santa Marta is a prime destination for so many reasons!

First of all, being a little more out of the way, Santa Marta is much less busy and considerably more relaxed than Cartagena. It’s also much cheaper. Although there is still a decent selection of higher-end restaurants and hotels, the lack of cruise-ship tourism keeps the crowds – and prices – much lower.

What to Do

The town centre itself doesn’t really offer a whole lot and the beaches are nothing to write home about. However, there are plenty of great activities nearby. Arguably, the two biggest draws to Santa Marta are Scuba diving and the Lost City Trek.

The crystal clear waters along the coast north of the city have not only some of the BEST diving in the country but also the cheapest. Head just north to Taganga for a plethora of dive shops offering everything from fun dives to Divemaster courses.

While it’s not something you can do on your own, every tour operator and agency in town will be able to organize the Lost City Trek. Probably the best hike in the entire country, this four to five-day journey will see you hiking deep into the jungle, high in the mountains in search of Teyuna, the lost city.

Eat and Sleep

Santa Marta is a budget travellers paradise when it comes to food options. Throughout the day, street carts line many streets offering classics such as grilled meats, fried snacks and tasty sweets. When the sun goes down, outdoor food courts such as THIS ONE open up selling all kinds of fantastic local and foreign foods. These are a great way to mingle with locals in a really cool, lively setting.

There are actually three areas in and around Santa Marta where people base themselves. The nicer area, with a few fancier hotels and resorts, is at Playa Blanca, south of Santa Marta. North of town is Taganga, which is probably the cheapest place to stay but has also become quite rough over the last few years. Many of the gangs that have been forced out of Santa Marta have moved up this way.

In Santa Marta itself, you’ll find the biggest selection of hostels centrally located near the main beach.

Travelling between Santa Marta and Cartagena is super easy, click here to learn more!

Colourful graffiti on a concrete wall.

Some of the fantastic street art you’ll find in Santa Marta

Cities

Bogotá

It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll spend some time through Bogotá during your stay. Likely either when you fly in or are heading out. Even if you’re crossing the region by land, you’ll probably find yourself passing through Colombia’s capital at some point.

The massive, sprawling metropolis, Bogotá, is a fantastic city, rich in culture and history. Here you’ll find everything from small shops selling artwork and traditional food from the indigenous community sitting alongside modern skyscrapers and international chain restaurants.

Like many big cities in Latin America, there are often issues come dark, even in tourist-oriented areas. It’s never recommended to walk at night, and unfortunately, even taxis in Bogotá can be problematic. More on the Bogotá taxi situation in the Health and Safety section below.

What to Do

The majority of activities are in and around La Candelaria, a small barrio on the southeast end of the centre. Aside from the many great shops and restaurants in this part of town, just north of the area, you can take the cable car up to Monserrate for some spectacular views of the city below.

The free graffiti tour is one of the most popular things to take part in while visiting Bogota. The groups can get quite large but the artwork you’ll see and the information you’ll receive is fantastic. If you’re a fan of street art, you can’t miss this tour!

Check out our Photo Essay featuring some of our favourite Colombian graffiti!

Eat and Sleep

As with any modern city, you’ll find something for every taste. Right in the city centre, there are dozens of great restaurants from craft gastro-pubs to traditional Colombian fare and modern steakhouses.

For accommodation, most of the budget hostels are in and around La Candelaria, with a few others spread throughout the city. As well, cheaper hotels and AirBNB’s are found across the city.

Do you only have a day or two to spend in Bogotá, read this post to help plan your visit!

A sunny street with colourful buildings and skyscrapers in the back.

The colourful backdrop of Bogotá

Medellín

Once the most dangerous city in the country, Medellín has shed it’s notorious image and is becoming one of the most popular destinations in Colombia!

We actually rented an apartment and stayed in the city for a full month, where it quickly became one of our all-time favourite cities! With its youthful vibe, incredibly connected metro system and great cost of living, the city of eternal spring, is one of the best destinations in Colombia.

What to Do

Medellín is just an incredible city with so much to offer. After four weeks we’d barely scratched the surface. One of the coolest experiences is to hop on a tour through the barrio of Comuna 13. Once the most dangerous areas in town, it’s the perfect place to witness first hand the fantastic transformation that’s happening across the country.

The city is also full of some beautiful parks, including Arvi Park, which is on the outskirts of town high above the hills. Another great aspect of the hillsides of Medellín are some amazing opportunities for Paragliding!

Here are some of our favourite things to do in Medellín!

Eat and Sleep

There is no shortage of budget accommodation in Medellín, it’s a wildly popular city for digital nomads and expats alike. El Poblado and Laureles are the most popular areas for travellers. While both have a wide selection of fantastic budget hostels, prices in Laureles are cheaper overall. Laureles is the backpacker area while El Poblado is a little more touristic, with hotels, pubs and nicer restaurants.

You’ll have no trouble eating well in Medellín. El Poblado has a vast selection of hip cafes and great brew-pubs. Spread throughout the city are a plethora of options suiting every taste and budget. For self-caterers, huge supermarkets are everywhere and prices are hard to beat!

Colourful buildings on a hillside, typical of Medellín, Colombia

The colourful hillside barrio of Communa 13, in Medellín

 

No Pablo

With the recent popularity of Narcos on Netflix, Pablo Escobar tourism is a bit of a booming business in Medellín. Given the history, there are a lot of mixed feelings about Escobar around the country, especially in the city.

Those born after his time see him in a different light, mostly due to a mixture of pop culture and ignorance of what happened. There are also a few people in the poorer areas of town that actually respect him because he paid for infrastructure and built houses for them when the government ignored their pleas.

However, to most people who are old enough to remember those days, he is a stain on their history and they only wish to forget his name. They view any charitable acts he did as a form of bribery, taking advantage of those in need and buying their support. Whatever good he may have done for a few, in their eyes, could never make up for the blood he shed.

Many locals will even ask you not to say his name out loud while speaking with them to avoid drawing unwanted attention.

This isn’t to tell you one way or the other what to do. Just sending out a little heads-up, you may not get the reaction you expect.

Backpacking Colombia’s Coffee Country

Salento

Often the first spot outside of Bogotá for most travellers, is Salento, a true gem of Colombia. Situated high in the Andes, is this little town, surrounded by lush jungles and coffee plantations as far as you can see in all directions.

What to Do

While there are many activities to do when visiting Salento, including mountain biking and visiting coffee plantations; the biggest draw is the hiking Colombia’s legendary Valle de Cocora.

The Cocoa Valley is easily one of the most beautiful hikes we’ve ever done. Just outside of Salento itself, the valley is home to the tallest palm trees in the world. With some reaching as tall as 60 metres, they’re a sight that cannot be missed.

Eat and Sleep

Given its popularity with hikers and backpackers, there is no lack of options for cheap food and accommodation. While many are situated immediately surrounding the central square, there are some great and often cheaper options a few streets away. For accommodation, just choose what fits your budget, whether you want to be in the town or not they are all great options! After you sort out where to stay, it’s time to eat some of the best food in Salento!

Tall palm tress and large green hills under a dark, cloudy sky. A must on any Colombia travel itinerary!

The breathtaking Cocora Valley, in Salento, Colombia

Filandia

Filandia is an excellent place to visit and to experience a different view of coffee country. Though it’s only 40 minutes from Salento, the landscape is vastly different. Not only that, but it’s also not huge on the foreign tourist map yet, so crowds are smaller and prices are cheaper!

What to Do

Filandia might not boast the Cocora Valley but it certainly has some fantastic activities. From riding bicycles through the countryside or hiking to a beautiful double waterfall hidden in the jungle, it’s a perfect spot to kick back away from the crowds of Salento.

Eat and Sleep

As it hasn’t yet reached the popularity of Salento, the selection of accommodation is considerably less. That being said, options still exist and are perfect for budget backpackers. If you ask around, there are even a few farm-stays that operate at certain times throughout the year. Just make sure you have wifi if you need it, and some accommodation is outside of the town, so make sure they have places to eat or get food.

Filandia is one of the best spots to sit back and enjoy some of the local speciality. Pop into Cultivar Café and take in the breathtaking views of the countryside.

For an incredible culinary experience, check out Helena Adentro, famous across Colombia for its fusion of local ingredients with modern preparations.

Trees and a colonial cathedral at dusk.

The central square of Filandia at Dusk.

Elsewhere in Colombia

The Tatacoa Desert

In a country as green and lush as Colombia, the Tatacoa desert stands out as one of the most unique places in the country. Boasting such a vast expanse of rugged sand and lunar-looking landscapes, it’s a great place to get into some hiking in Colombia. Also, due to its remoteness – and lack of trees – it’s also one of the best stargazing spots in the entire country!

You can do just a day trip to the area, however, there are several small hostels in the area, just remember that this is the desert, don’t expect to be pampered (or have wifi!). There is also a luxury eco-hotel in the area that seems to be popular with many people, although we haven’t stayed there so can’t say for ourselves. Many go for a more authentic experience and bring (or rent) camping gear and sleep under the stars.

Villavieja may be considered the main entrance to the desert, though there’s not much to see in this dusty town. Neiva is the closest city to the region and is easily accessible from Bogotá or Salento.

The orange-brown earth of the Tatacoa desert.

The Tatacoa Desert in Southern Colombia
Photo Credit: Nicole Reyes

 

Unique Experiences

Casa en el Agua

Alright, we’ve mentioned before that we don’t typically recommend specific hostels, especially if we haven’t stayed there ourselves. However, we’re breaking that rule here. We wanted to stay here so badly while in Colombia but costs and logistics of our time in the area didn’t allow for it.

This stunning hostel built in the water, just off the coast, is one of the coolest places we’ve never stayed! Minimalistic living, simple food caught fresh from the sea, hammocks for beds, all in the open air and surrounded by an almost artificially blue sea.

There are only two things to keep in mind if planning to stay here. First, luggage storage is limited, it’s best to keep your large packs in storage on the mainland. Second, check the weather. We’ve met people who were staying there during a storm and things got a little sketchy in the wind. Aside from that, we haven’t yet heard a bad review about this spot, and it remains high on our list for a future visit.

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá

Located 50 kilometres north of Bogotá and 200 metres underground, lies the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. Carved by salt miners nearly 100 years ago, it still functions today with several thousand devotees worshipping each Sunday.

The entire cathedral is over 70 metres long and 25 metres high and features twelve different chapels interconnected by tunnels. Salt carvings throughout depict different scenes of Christ and the bible.

Admission for foreigners is around 54,000 COP. Guided tours are also available for a bit more, but are worth it for the information you’ll receive.

Church pews under a purple light, deep underground. A cross stands in the background.

The Dark, Cavernous Cathedral, deep beneath the outskirts of Bogotá
Photo Credit: Jimmy Baikovicius

Tayrona National Park – Where You’ll Find the Best Beaches in Colombia

Just outside of Santa Marta, you’ll find Tayrona National Park. Postcard-perfect white sand beaches wrapped cosily by the green forest is your only obstacle to cross into some of the clearest water in the world. It’s difficult to put into words how beautiful this place truly is.

If you can break yourself away from the beaches, there are some wonderful hikes through the forest where you can spot some of the resident animals. Tayrona is home to several species of monkeys, lizards, deer, and hundreds of birds – some critically endangered.

To get here, simply hop on a bus from Santa Marta Carerra 9, just north of Calle 12; prices vary, but it should be around 4,000 COP. Entrance to the park is 54,000 COP as of May 2018. You must bring your passport to register.

Although day trips are possible, considering the entrance fee, you might as well spend some time! Camping is available at Cabo San Juan or Cañaveral. Simply bring your own tent or rent one of theirs. Hammocks are also available for less.

A deserted beach with clear blue water.

Beautiful Bahia Concha, Tayrona National Park

Bahia Concha

If your budget is tight, another option to experience Tayrona is at Bahia Concha. Although this lovely spot is technically within the park, it’s accessed through private land so you don’t pay the high park fees, or hike through the park. Instead, simply pay 10,000 COP to cross the land.

Simply take the local bus to the outskirts of the park on the edge of Santa Marta and take a shared jeep or moto-taxi the rest of the way. Ask at your hostel for the best bus name/number as there are several making this route. Go early in the morning to have the beach to yourself!

Caño Cristales

The River of Five Colours as it’s known is truly a sight to behold. Located in Serrania de la Macarena National Park, from June till November every year, brightly coloured plants and algae on the riverbed cause the entire river to appear like a living oil painting.

The only way to access the park is on a tour from the town of La Macarena, and the easiest way to get here is to fly from Bogota further north. There are also some strict rules regarding sunblock and insect repellant if you plan on swimming, in order to preserve the aquatic plant life. The best time to go is September through to November, check the rain amount because too much rain will not allow for the colours to be as vibrant.

While the costs and effort may not fit into everyone’s plans, if you’re lucky enough to see it for yourself, it’s totally worth it!

A pool of water, the riverbed a mixture of yellows and reds.

The impossibly colourful river of Caño Cristales
Photo Credit: Pedro Szekely

 

Lesser-Visited Destinations

Jardin

Bright and colourful Jardin is quite possibly our favourite town in the entire country. This tiny little village high in the Andean coffee region is the perfect spot to wind down after spending some time in Medellín. It’s a popular spot for locals living in the city to escape the chaos on the weekends, but it hasn’t quite made it to most Colombia itineraries yet, so during the week it’s just peaceful Jardin.

Spend your days wandering the steep hillside paths that wind through quaint little farms with friendly dogs and smiling locals. Catch your own lunch at one of the many trout farms nearby or brave the antique cable car across the valley.

However you decide to spend your days, be sure to get back to the town square for sunset. As the jeeps slowly roll into town delivering produce from the hillside farms, watch as the old farmers in cowboy hats and ponchos sit back for an evening beer.

The easiest way to reach Jardin is the four-hour bus from Medellín’s south bus terminal. The southern coffee region near Salento also connects to Jardin but requires several transfers and a very interesting ride over a high mountain pass in a Chivas – a rickety old bus built on a flatbed truck.

Kylee overlooking a deep, green valley with a village far below.

Kylee taking in the stunning views above Jardin

Minca

Less than an hour from Santa Marta, up a steep and windy mountain road, you’ll find the charming little backpacker haven of Minca. Long closed off from tourism, this laid-back town is now easily accessible to all.

Hike in the hillsides around town or head to Pozo Azul for a dip in the beautiful pools. If exercise isn’t your game, simply relax at one of the great restaurants, or enjoy some healthy, organic eats at some of the local cafes. 

Minca makes for a fairly simple day trip from Santa Marta but also has quite a few budget hostels if you’d like to soak in the vibe a little longer!

Catch a bus on Carerra 9, just north of Calle 12. It’s a bit of a chaotic market area but easy enough to find. At the time of writing, the cost was 8,000 COP per person, each direction.

Palomino

If you love the chill vibes in Minca but prefer to kick back in the sand, Palomino is where you should head. Located just over two hours from Santa Marta, on the other side of Tayrona Park, lies the sleepy town of Palomino.

There isn’t a vast number of activities to do here, but that’s the whole point. Start your day with some sunrise yoga then eat breakfast while mingling with locals at the market. Before the sun gets too hot, head up and hike the lower Sierra Nevada mountains before relaxing in a tube as you float down the jungle river.

Finish your evening off sipping a cold beer while the sun sets over the Caribbean.

Sleep.

Repeat.

The Laid-Back Beach at Palomeo

The Laid-Back beach at Palomeno
Photo Credit: TravelMag.com

Amazonia

Although it takes up the largest percentage of the country, the Colombian Amazon is by far the least developed area.

Most experience the Amazon here through the town of Leticia, which hovers the borders of Peru and Brazil, on the southern tip of the country. Here you’ll find the most options for accommodation and tourist needs, albeit very few when compared to more popular destinations.

The town itself is a relatively simple border town, the main attraction is the jungle beyond. Tours are offered from Bogotá and Medellín as well as Leticia itself. The only real way to get here is by plane, which is generally quite cheap in Colombia. Just don’t forget your bug spray!

Nuqui

As we mentioned at the start, Colombia has two beautiful coastlines. Even so, nearly all of the typical destinations are on the Caribbean side. Nuqui is where to go on the Pacific.

Swim under stunning waterfalls in the dense rainforest while colourful toucans watch from the branches. Treat yourself at a relaxing spa at one of the eco-resorts on the coast after a long day of surf lessons. And if you’re lucky enough to be visiting between August and December, you might get the chance to not only witness nesting sea turtles but also the migration of humpback whales.

Of course, the reason this place has yet to have a tourism boom is the access. With the dense jungle cutting it off from the rest of the country, the only way in is to fly. Frequent flights are available from both Medellín and Bogotá.

 

If You Only Do One Thing…

If for some inexplicable reason you only find yourself in Colombia for one day, you must experience Tejo! The unofficially official sport of Colombia, depending on who you ask.

Though the rules can get a little complicated when scoring points, the basic premise is this: drink beer and throw lead pucks at explosives.

Sure you get points for hitting the centre of the ring, or for proximity (much like horseshoes), but you aren’t playing for points, are you? You’re playing to make things go boom while getting drunk.

Unique to Colombia, you’ll find this nowhere else in the world. Although there are tejo courts around the country, the easiest ones for foreigners to show up and walk into are in Bogota and Salento. If you want to learn the proper way, reach out to Chris while you’re in Medellín. Chris is an American expat who actually plays professionally in Colombia and teaches Tejo on the side!

Kylee throwing the lead puck in a tejo match.

Kylee in perfect Tejo form!

Colombian Food


Colombia actually caught us off-guard when we first arrived. As travelling chefs, we considered ourselves at least fairly knowledgeable in world cuisine. Of course, there are the all-stars: Mexico, Thailand, India, Japan, Italy, France… But never, not once had we heard of Colombian cuisine.

The food of Colombia might not be as diverse and unique as that of Asia, but it’s certainly gunning for a place on the world scene and is beginning to make its mark.

Must Try

Coffee

Look, we can’t have a list of Colombian specialities without including coffee. It’s truly some of the best in the world. Neither of us are coffee connoisseurs but we know good coffee from bad. And the Colombian stuff is good.

Although you’ll be able to find quality grind all over the country, do yourself a favour and enjoy it as close to the source as possible. Visit the towns of Salento, Filandia or Jardin in the coffee region, tour a plantation, meet the locals who pick and roast the beans the old-fashioned way. Then sit back and take in the entire moment with every sip.

Arepa

Found across the country in several different forms, you won’t eat in Colombia without trying an arepa. Made of white corn, it’s almost like a very thick tortilla that is often served grilled or fried to accompany a meal. However, our favourite way to enjoy an arepa is stuffed! 

All across the country, you can find restaurants and carts selling these simple corn cakes overflowing with meats, cheese, beans, avocado and plenty of salsa ajo.

A corn flatbread stuffed with pork, avocado, and cheese.

A delicious arepa, filled with pork belly, avocado, cheese, and garlic sauce

Bunuelos

You’ll find these tasty, fried snacks all over the country. From street carts to bus stations, to cafes. These simple, round doughnuts stand above the rest due to one fine detail: there’s cheese in the dough. Who needs any more than that?

Grab a few of these prior to a long bus trip, or pick some up with a coffee for a quick breakfast. If you really want to experience them properly, head to a cafe in Bogota late in the afternoon and have one with a slab of fresh cheese and a pint (yes, pint) of hot chocolate! Ask for ‘Pandebono y chocolate y queso’ and you will be pleasantly surprised – just don’t expect a light snack.

Aguardiente

You can’t visit Colombia without sampling their unofficial national beverage. Aguardiente is an anise-flavoured liquor, similar to Ouzo or Sambuca.

A common sight in afternoons and evenings all over the country are men and women sitting around small tables in front of little shops. Between them are several tiny plastic cups and a bottle of Aguardiente. It’s more than just an evening drink, it’s part of the culture.

Bandeja Paisa

Ah, the almighty bandeja Paisa. Found mainly in the Antioquia region, home of the Paisa, this dish is one to behold. It’s an intimidating dish comprised of rice, shredded beef, fried pork belly, sausage, roasted plantain, beans, avocado, arepa, and a fried egg. Occasionally you’ll find a little bit of salad in there – but not always.

Perfect for sharing!

A plate topped with several types of meat, an egg, and rice.

Bandeja Paisa – Why Colombia Travel can make you fat!

Chicha

Chicha is an overpoweringly sweet and sour beverage produced from fermented corn. It’s an indigenous drink in which the recipe pre-dates even the Inca.

Found all over South America, each region has their own style. In Colombia, the recipe is simple: corn of different varieties, and sugar, which is then fermented for a week or two. It’s primarily found in shops around Bogota’s La Candelaria barrio.

Watch out though, this stuff packs a punch!

Festivals


Colombians LOVE to celebrate, it’s engrained in their culture. There are always festivals happening throughout the year, but here are a few worth noting.

Carnaval de Barranquilla

A four-day festival that like the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Always held in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, this is a not to miss! Make sure to book accommodation far in advance and don’t plan to travel on religious holidays, sometimes buses won’t run.

Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro (Bogotá)

In Bogota. Happening every two years this 17-day festival is the largest performing arts festival in the world. It happens on every even-numbered year, so if you can be in Bogota for this festival you should definitely check it out, there is something for everyone.

Festival de las Flores (Medellín)

In Medellin. A festival held at the beginning of August is a ten-day long party which contains a LOT of BOOZE and a LOT of FLOWERS. Don’t miss the flower parade where hundreds of people walk the streets carrying large flower displays.

World Salsa Festival (Cali)

Held in August, and all about salsa (the dance not the food!) Lessons, shows workshops and talks all about salsa.

People in colourful clothing dance in the street

Colourful dancers in the street during Carnaval de Barranquilla
Photo Credit: Carnaval

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good

It’s Tough to Beat the Cost

Easily one of the greatest parts about visiting Colombia is how incredibly cheap it is. Of course, there are cheaper places to visit in Latin America, but few that are so well developed. The quality of product and service compared to the cost is difficult to beat!

It Offers Everything

As cliché as it is to say, it really has something for everyone. Whether your a budget backpacker like us or a luxury cruise-ship traveller, you’re covered. From inexpensive dorms and high-end hotels and resorts, to dirt-cheap street eats and fine dining, it suits all styles of travel.

And it’s not just that, it’s the landscape. Mountains covered in towering palms and green jungles, white-sand Caribbean beaches and a rugged Pacific coast. Dense rainforest and barren deserts. There are few countries that can claim such a variety of experience on such a relatively small landmass.

The Bad

The Buses are Cold

The buses themselves are great. Nearly all of them are big, modern buses you’d expect to find anywhere in Europe. Most of them have washrooms, comfortable seats, and air conditioning.

Air conditioning that never turns off. Night bus? Air-con. Raining outside? Air-con. Even when it’s sweltering outside, if you’re on a bus for any significant amount of time, be sure to have a blanket or a sweater, or you will be cold.

You’re Probably Going to Get Fat

Again, much like the buses, the food itself is amazing. It’s just not the healthiest food on the planet, nor is it the most vegan-friendly if that’s a concern you have. It’s a very meat and carb based diet, different variations of fried doughs and grilled meat, and fried dough stuffed with meat.

Let’s just say that you’re going to want to grab a salad every once in a while during your visit.

The Ugly

The Cocaine Trade

Colombia has come a long way since the notorious days of Escobar and the violence in the streets, but there’s still a ways to go. The worldwide demand for cocaine isn’t slowing down and that demand requires supply.

Thankfully, the days of car bombings and all-out war in the streets are a thing of the past. The ongoing fight against the manufacturers typically remains far from anywhere travellers will find themselves.

The Important Bits

Colombia Travel Costs


For the sake of simplicity, all prices are listed in USD unless otherwise specified.

Budget

$25 – 50 for a solo traveller.
$40 – 60 a day for a couple.

We spent an average of $38 per day on our budget and lived very comfortably – no dorms and only a few shared bathrooms. We typically stayed in private rooms and home stays/AirBNB’s.

If you make sure your accommodation has a kitchen and cook a lot of your own food, the budget can stay quite low. Eating street food and not in restaurants save a lot as well. Buying beer from the stores rather than the bars, picking only activities you really want to do, and using local transportation will also help save.

 

For those of you on a very tight budget, Click here for a list of activities we did for close to free in Medellín.
Mid-Range

$60 – 80 a day for two people
$50 – 65 for a single

Splurging a little more will get you nicer hotels overall but is not necessary, since most of the cheaper accommodation is of decent quality in Colombia. This budget will allow you to eat out at more restaurants, and go out to pubs a little more often, as well as go on plenty of excursions.

A few private tours, maybe the Lost City Trek and some ventures into the Amazon will push your overall average into this range.

High

$100+

Colombia is a surprisingly modern country, cities like Cartagena, Bogotá and Medellín have hotels and restaurants that are world-class. Hire private drivers and guides, do all of the activities!

If you’ve got the money, go nuts!

 

Average Daily Costs

These figures are based off of our own expenses and those of friends who have spent time in Colombia, each with different travel styles.

Accommodation

Dorm bed: $7-14 (always look for hostels that include breakfast!)
Private Room (double bed, shared bathroom): $20 – $35
With Bathroom (double bed): $25 – $40

Transportation

Short distance in a shuttle (1-3 hours) $2.50 – $10
Medium distance on bus (3-5 hours) $10 – $20
Long distance bus (5 hours and up) $20 – $40

Beer

In a bar: $1 and up
In a store: $0.50 and up for a 355mL can

Food

In a restaurant : $2 and up for a light snack, $5 and up for a meal.
On the street: $0.50 for an Empanada or pastry.
Make at home: $0.50 and up depending on what you want.

Money

Currency

Colombian Peso (COP)

Approximate value at time of writing:
1 GBP = 3820
1 CAD = 2196
1 USD = 2892
1 Euro = 3321

The paper money in Colombia will come in notes of $1000, $2000, $5000, $10,000, $20,000, and $50,000 COP. There is a big counterfeit problem in Colombia, so make sure to get your money out of an ATM and make sure it looks like what you have seen when you get change. The cashiers will always check the larger notes when you pay with them.
Coins will come in $100, $200, $500 and $1000 COP

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ATMs

Accessing cash is fairly simple all around Colombia. Almost all major international banks are supported, but will usually add on a fee for transactions. Most banks have a maximum withdrawal limit which is normally $300,000 COP per transaction. In some remote areas ATMs can sometimes be hard to find or run out of money, especially on weekends. Though it’ll unlikely be an issue for most travellers, always bring extra cash when heading somewhere remote.

Tipping

If eating out and getting service to your table or getting a Taxi, round up to the nearest 500 or 1000 to tip as well if you don’t want all the change. Colombians (as we were told) don’t usually leave more than the little change unless you are at a more upscale or touristic restaurant.

However, usually at these restaurants they will automatically add a 10% gratuity to the bill for service so be sure to look closely at the bill before paying extra. They are supposed to tell you but sometimes they “forget”.

Visa Requirements

For most passports, No visa is required for stays up to 90 days or less. Your passport must be valid for at least six months prior to entry.

Always check prior to arrival for your specific country, as things can always change.

Countries Requiring Visas

Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, India, Kenya, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lesotho, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Oman, Qatar, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Serbia, Seychelles, Swaziland, Thailand, Tanzania, Tajikistan, East Timor, Togo, Tonga, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu , Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Exit Tax

When leaving Colombia by air there is an exit tax which is usually included in the price of your flight ticket.

For Canadians

Unfortunately, Canadians have to pay a special ‘reciprocal fee’ to enter the country, this is due to added costs placed on Colombians by the Canadian government. It cannot be avoided. The good thing is that Canadians have their own line at the Bogota airport and it moves much quicker.The amount at the time of writing is 160 000 COP which equivalent to $88 CAD. Also worth noting that this should be paid in Pesos. When we entered, they allowed us to pay with credit card but friends of ours were forced to pay cash.

Colombia travel is easy, but Canadians pay an extra fee.

Getting Around Colombia

By Air

If you have carry-on only the flights are very cheap and well-connected throughout the country. On popular routes, they’re sometimes just as cheap as taking the bus, just much faster. Like most budget airlines, the real costs sneak up when checking bags. Just be sure to carefully read any fine print.

By Bus

Check out BusBud.com for the lowest rates. If you’re not in too much of a hurry, these are your cheapest option. Due to the windy roads and changing landscape, they often take many hours. Often on longer distances, you’ll have an overnight option, which is a nice way to save on one night’s accommodation. Just remember that the A/C is often on full crank the entire ride, so bring a blanket or sweater just in case.

Rent a Car

Car rentals cost about $35 a day, roads are usually in great condition and are well-marked. Make sure to check about insurance anytime you rent a vehicle in any country, as well as how many drivers you can have with the insurance. Sometimes this is covered under your credit card.

Jeep Willys and Shared Rides

Jeeps Willys and other small trucks are often found in the mountains or around smaller towns. They’re perfect for going short distances and are usually very cheap.

Uber & Taxi

Uber is widespread in Colombia, especially in bigger cities. It’s a great alternative to taxis in Bogota, where they often aren’t recommended.

It is usually safe to flag them down in Medellin or Cartagena as well as other smaller towns, but always be cautious – especially in Bogota. Do your best to always call for a taxi or use an app like Tappsi so your car and driver are registered. By law, taxis must display their licenses and rates and use meters.

Local Buses & Metro

Bigger cities all have fairly reliable public transit systems that are well-connected and cheap. Bogota has a really well put together bus network and Medellín’s metro system is one of the best in Latin America.

Hitchhiking

We hitchhiked several times, mostly in the coffee region and only for short distances. We can’t suggest or recommend that you do it, because safety is always an unknown, but the few times we used the method, we had no problems.

When backpacking Colombia, Jeeps are often your transport.

Accommodation

We found great accommodation all around Colombia and all for really great prices. Typically we use a mix of hostels, AirBNB’s and occasionally hotels.

Due to always fluctuating prices and changing of ownership (and resulting quality), we’ll almost never recommend specific business unless in special cases or where we were truly blown away.

Hostels

There are many different varieties of hostels in Colombia and are found in most towns. Costs and quality vary significantly, as does the atmosphere. While most hostels are quiet and laid back, occasionally they get a little rowdy. Choose wisely depending on your style.

In lesser-visited areas, hostels can usually still be found but options may be quite limited.

Hotels

Hotels are everywhere and are typically mid-high end. If your hostel days are over and have a little extra cash in the budget, you’ll have no problem finding a great hotel almost anywhere.

AirBNB

We use AirBnb for most of our travels to keep costs down. You don’t meet as many travellers but you get a chance to meet local families, which we really love.

Nearly all of our accommodation aside from AirBNB is booked through Booking.com

Self Catering

When cooking for yourself, staying local with ingredients will keep costs down. Local produce is very affordable, as is rice and beans.

Most big cities will have supermarkets such as Jumbo or Exito where you can stock up on nearly anything you could need. In smaller towns you’ll likely have a much more limited selection but should have no problem picking up the necessities.



Booking.com

Electricity

110 Volts AC at 60 Hz
Plug Type: B

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Language


Spanish is spoken with a few varying dialects throughout the country. Here are a few of the basic phrases to get you started.

Hello/hi: Hola
What is your name?: Como Te llamas?
My name is___: Me llamo _____
How are you: Como estas?
How much is this?: Cuanto Cuesta?
Where is the bathroom/toilet?: Donde esta el bano?

Best bet is to download a translator app like Google Translate as part of your Colombia travel plans.

Make sure to know the basic numbers, so you know how much things cost. A good idea is to have the calculator app on your phone, or even carry a small calculator so the cashier can input the cost.

Take into consideration that you will need to know the larger numbers as the Colombian Peso values are quite high:

1,000 = mil
1,001 = mil uno
1,500 = mil quinientos
2,001 = dos mil uno
4,000 = cuatro mil
6,500 = Seis mil quinientos
20,000 = viente mil

Weather and Climate


Bogota: Average temperatures yearly are between 15 – 20˚C the hottest month being November, with April and October being the wettest.

Medellin
Known as the city of eternal spring for a reason, it has a year-round average of 20˚C with the warmest month being July and September the coolest. The wettest months of the year are April/May and October.

Caribbean Coast
Average temp. 25 – 30˚C year round, with hottest months being April to September. Dry season December to April, driest being January, February and March. The wet season being May to December, the wettest being September, October, November.

BEST time to travel to Colombia: January to March due to the dry season. If travelling in March make sure to try to get to the Carnival de Barranquilla festival, but make sure to book ahead!

Health and Safety


Emergency numbers: Dial 123 from any phone within Colombia for emergency

Most of the major cities it is advised that you take a cab or uber late at night, and stick with a group. Never walk alone at night.

Although the country is much more stable than it has been in decades, gangs still operate in larger cities and crime is always a risk. Different neighbourhoods of each city have varying levels of safety, and these are often changing. Always get up to date information on any destination prior to arrival.

Taxis

Make sure they have papers before getting in, also make sure they turn the meter on. If taking a taxi from a bus station or airport, get in line for the taxi station, they will register the taxi number to ensure nothing sketchy happens.

Taxis are notoriously untrustworthy in Bogota, so much so that many locals won’t even use them. They’re known to scam in various ways, from simply overcharging to outright armed robbery. Never flag a taxi down on the street in Bogota, always phone ahead or use an app like Tappsi. If arriving at the bus station or airport, use the kiosks and have someone there book the taxi for you. Using apps, kiosks, or phoning causes the drivers license to be registered to your pickup, which so they’ll be less likely to try anything dodgy. The safest option is to take public transit or Uber.

Drinking Water

Water is safe to drink from the taps from most major cities and smaller towns. However, the more remote you are, quality isn’t always guaranteed. If relying on purified water, always use a reusable container, don’t buy plastic bottles. Most hotels and hostels provide purified water.

Illness/Sickness

The most common illnesses in Colombia include altitude sickness, stomach problems relating to diarrhoea, and vomiting.

In Jungle areas, there are chances of Malaria, dengue fever, and Zika as well as yellow fever. Please contact your health service department before visiting.

Vaccinations

It is advised to get the Yellow Fever vaccination but not necessary to enter the country at the time of writing. However, there are regions of the country that will require you show proof of vaccination:

The departments of Amazonas, Caqueta, Casanare, Cesar, Guainia, Guaviare, Guajira, Meta, Putumayo, Vaupés and Vichada, where more than 80% of municipalities are classified as high risk.

The Department of Magdalena: The district of Santa Marta and the municipalities of Ciénaga and Aracataca.

The Department of Norte de Santander, Catatumbo area: Convention municipalities, El Carmen, El Tarra, Teorama, Sardinata, Tibu, El Zulia, Hacarí and San Calixto.
The Department of Chocó: Rio Sucio, Carmen del Darién, Juradó, Nuquí and Unguía.

The Department of Antioquia: Dabeiba, Mutatá, Turbo and Yondó.

We hope you found our Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Colombia helpful. Enjoy your adventure!
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One of the hip cafe’s you’ll find in Colombia

 

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Sarah
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Wow this article is super comprehensive and I now wish I was going to Colombia! I’ve flown through Colombia but didn’t pluck up the courage to stay yet as I’ve only heard bad things. This article has changed my mind and it looks/sounds like a beautiful place to go!

Stacy
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Thanks for sharing this guide to visiting Columbia. While we have been to Columbia on a couple of occasions on cruise ships, I can see that we need to make a plan to spend more time in the country. I absolutely love the details that you have in this article … it really makes planning a trip that much easier. I just shared on Flipboard and will save to Pinterest and G+. Plus, I’m about to retweet this too! Thanks again!

Debbie Graham
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Excellent Post! We are moving to Ecuador and Columbia is on our short list, I will head back to YOUR blog for info. Great job! 🙂