Colombia Travel Guide

Step into history and explore the lost cities of Colombia

From the soaring and dramatic Andean mountains, to the unspoilt Caribbean coastline and the mysterious Amazon jungle, Colombia plays host to al the wonder and magic associated with the South American coastline.

It’s here that backpackers can enjoy diving, climbing, rafting and trekking all along the varied terrain, visiting the unofficial adventure capital of the Colombia: San Gil, home of the ancient ruins of the Tayrona civilisation.

There are also options to explore the numerous ruins and archaeological sites form multiple different ancient civilisations that once roamed the Colombian landscape. These include the Ciudad Perdida, once the Tayrona capital and first built between the 11th and 14th centuries.

Whether you’re looking to explore the Amazon rainforest, hike up the Andean mountains, visit remote and untouched islands, or rediscover lost cities, there’s something from everyone in this northern corner of South America.

In Colombia you never quite know what you’re going to get – and that’s what makes it so much fun. Plus, we have all the tips and insider knowledge to make your trip great.

Where to Go

Tucked away in the north west of South America, Colombia is an incredibly diverse country complete with beaches, mountains, major cities, and more national park and nature reserves than you could hope to visit. As a result, there are a lot of different locations to visit and stay in, all with their own unique offerings.

It might sound daunting, but to make things a bit easier we scoured and hunted for the absolute best places to go to experience all the best the country has to offer.

Isla Grande

A stunningly beautiful and remote island just an hour away from Cartagena, Isla Grande has the great claim to fame of hosting one of the coolest hotels in all of Colombia. The Paraíso Secretor is a hostel collective set in a series of once-abandoned mansions, originally belonging to Emerald barons.

The hotel is not the only reason to visit, however. The island also plays host to fantastic mangrove forests, crystal clear, turquoise waters, and some of the best seafood on the continent.

Bogotá

The capital city of Colombia, Bogotá may not be off the beaten track but it’s still a must for any backpacker’s itinerary. Despite being a capital city, Bogotá is actually pretty ignored by travellers to Colombia – likely because the country offers so many unique and interesting experiences and places to see – but it’s definitely worth the stay.

With cheap accommodation, and one of the best foodie scenes in the country, it’s the perfect respite from the natural wonders of Colombia. Wander through the streets and enjoy the various live music dotted around, as well as the multiple cultural festivals.

Villa de Leyva

Heading north from the capital of Bogotá will see the beautiful colonial town of Villa de Leyva in Boyaca. Travellers often visit to wander through the cobbled streets that circle the Plaza Mayor, which is one of the largest town squares in the Americas, as well as marvel at the colonial architecture and discover the uniquely interesting museums. Relatively unknown and off the beaten track, it’s the perfect respite from an otherwise manic and very busy itinerary – while still being an amazing place to explore.

Cartagena

A port city nestled on the northern coastline of Colombia, Cartagena is a fantastic blend of the Caribbean and Latin cultures blending and clashing. The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with lines of colourfully painted houses, balconies adorned with flowers, and a maze of streets interspersed with bustling plazas. There’s a number of bars, cafes, boutique shops and more to fill the days, as well as historical sites such as the city’s fortified thick walls, and Castilla de San Felipe de Barajas.

Playa Blanca 

Just across the harbour from Cartagena is the beautiful sparkling white beaches of Playa Blanca , set along the coastline of the island of Baru. The shoreline has been kept pristine and r4elativly untouched as tourism hasn’t quite made its way to this part of eth country yet, which means the local’s touch is everywhere to be seen. Whether that’s in the steamed fish freshly caught that will be offered every night, or the nights spent sleeping above the waves in hammocks, or huddling around the one single TV set to watch the Colombian football team, the bare tourism here is intertwined with the local’s culture and daily lives.

What to Do

Whether you’re interested in bird watching, hiking up some beautiful mountains, visiting the iconic Amazon rainforest, or exploring cultural and historical sights – such as the Lost City – everything about Colombia combines to make it one of the most unique and interesting places you’ll ever visit.

Horse riding at Cafetal de la Trinidad

Originally a family-run coffee plantation, Cafetal de la Trinidad was first founded in 1906 and was initially abandoned due to occupation by the FARC guerrillas, which made it too dangerous for the family to continue to live and work here.

Recently, the youngest son of the family has returned, restoring the farm and opening it up to visitors. The prime attraction, aside from the history, are the horse-riding opportunities that take visitors through the breath-taking scenery and across the countryside.

Scuba diving in Cartagena

Most people visit Cartagena to witness the ancient city walls, winding cobbled streets, and aesthetically colourful balconies that decorate the houses. However, it’s also one of the best spots in Colombia to explore the underwater treasures and sights that lie in the ocean.

Avid scuba divers here can see the Rosario Islands, which is a nature reserve made up of 43 tropical islands, an underwater museum, coral reefs, and shipwrecks. Plus, the Paraiso Dive school on Tierra Vomba island is the perfect place to learn how to scuba dive properly, exploring the shallow reefs, deep walls and sunken art.

Birdwatching in Serranía del Perijá

Colombia is the natural habitat of over 1,900 different bird species, the highest in the world, and the Perijá mountain range along the border between Colombia and Venezuela is one of the best spots in the country to see these incredible birds – a lot of which can’t be spotted anywhere else.

Once occupied by guerrillas, the Perijá mountain range has only recently opened up to the public, with the most notable spot being the Chamicero del Perijá Reserve. Head to the middle of the mountains, among the Andean forests, to witness the paramo ecosystem unique to Colombia.

Whale watching

It might be the wet season for half the country, but that doesn’t mean June through to October is a complete write off. In fact, these months are the best times to see the incredible humpback whales, which visits the Colombia Pacific coastline of Nuquí as part of their migration season.

The mother whales and their new-born calves swim past every year, enjoying the warm waters and lack of a strong current – making it perfect for the younglings.

Trek to the Lost City

The Lost City is Colombia’s version of Machu Picchu, but with the added bonus of being cheaper and hosting fewer tourists. According to legend, the Lost City was actually founded roughly 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu, and the city is a sacred place of the indigenous Tavrona tribes.

Getting there consists of an intense two and a half day trek that takes backpackers past waterfalls, natural pools, rivers, and more.

Read More About Colombia

Best Time to Visit Colombia

While it does technically have a wet and dry season, Colombia is essentially a year-round destination to visit, as the weather is never extreme enough to stop you doing what you want.

The country is home to a number of different climatic zones, s depending on what you want to see you might have to plan accordingly. Typically the dry season for the Andes is the wet season for the Amazon and vice versa, which can be frustrating, but overall the driest period across the country falls between December and March.

In terms of cost, the high season s between December and January, which sees prices sky rocket. So, if you’re looking to save a bit of cash then the best time to travel is November, February, or March, which sees fairly dry weather combined with decent process.

For festivals and events, the Barranquilla Carnival takes place in February – the second-largest carnival celebration in the world. June sees the unique and surreal Yipao Festival in Calarca, while August is the time to go if you want to witness the famous Flower Festival in Medellin.

How Much Does it Cost

Not the cheapest country in South America, Colombia is still fairly cheap to travel around in – especially compared with western countries like the USA.

A daily budget here would be roughly $48, if you’re staying in a hostel, eating local food and using public transport to get around.

Typical costs while backpacking across Colombia:

Hostel

$9-14

Day tour

$9

Budget hotel

$18

Pint of beer

$0.93

Street food

$0.15-4

Attraction entry

$1.50-31

Public transport

< $1

Restaurant meal

$3-5

Budget Tips

Colombia may not be one of the cheapest countries in the continent, but it’s still possible to save money while you’re there. A backpacking trip here doesn’t have to break the bank.

One handy tip to save some cash is to eat like a local, or even cook your own food. Street food here is ridiculously cheap, with empanadas available from just 15 cents, and a typical grocery shop costing roughly $15 for three days’ worth of food.

Another way to keep the costs down is to avoid any accommodation along the Caribbean coast, which are not only very expensive but they’re also pretty shoddy compared to the rest of the country, with average facilities.

What to Pack

Colombia is home to a diverse landscape, so your packing list should include items suitable for al different kinds of weather. To put it in perspective, the country is home to some of the best beaches in the world, as well as the iconic hiking and mountainous regions of the Andes, and even parts of the Amazon rainforest.

So, you’re packing list needs to be all inclusive. The essentials include insect repellent, a water purifier, travel friendly camera, smartphone, laundry bag and toiletry bag – including soap and toilet roll – rain jacket, wool clothing, travel pants and jeans, and a good pair of hiking shoes.

Backpacker Accommodation

Hostels are the most obvious choice for accommodation in Colombia, with most towns and cities having plenty on offer. It’s worth nothing that Medellin and Cali can be fairly expensive in comparison to the rest of the country, and places can fill up fairly quickly during the peak season.

Typically, a hostel in Colombia will set you back about $12, although a double room is only $25 so it’s worth getting a private room if you’re travelling as a couple.

An alternative is to take a camping hammock with you, especially if you’re going to be trekking and hiking through the jungles. Just pitch it to a couple of trees and get away with a few free nights of accommodation in the ultimate backpacker’s retreat.

Food and Drink

Colombia, like many South American countries, has. Rich and diverse cuisine full of interesting dishes foreigners have to try during their visit.

The ultimate Colombian dish is the Bandeja Paisa, otherwise known as the Colombia heart attack. That’s because the dish includes rice, ground beef, red beans, chicharron (pork rinds), chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), fried egg, avocado, arepas, and plantains – all just for one person. It was designed for peasant field workers in order to provide them with a full day’s worth of energy.

Other notable dishes include arepas con huevo, which is corn bread stuffed with egg that’s been deep fried, and Ajiaco, which is an Andean soup made from chicken and potatoes.

In terms of drinks, Colombia offer something called Aguardiente, an incredibly strong drink made from sugar cane with an aniseed flavour. In fact, it’s so string that aguardiente translates to “burning water”.

Cultural Tips

Colombia is home to a very diverse culture, with a number of different customs and traditions that will vary depending on where you are in the country. However, there are some general things that are good to bear in mind while you’re backpacking through Colombia and making friends with all the locals.

  • Men always shake hands with direct eye contact, while women will typically grasp forearms rather than shaking hands at all
  • Always refer to people by the appropriate honorific title and their surname
  • Hands should always be kept visible when eating
  • Hosts will typically say “buen provecho” as an invitation for people to start eating
  • It’s polite to leave a small amount of food on your plate when you’ve finished eating

Handy Phrases

Like much of South America, Colombia’s main language is Spanish, so it’s useful to know a few handy Spanish phrases before your trip.

  • Phrase
  • Holá
  • Buenos dias / tardes / noches
  • Como estás
  • Por favor
  • Sin bolsa de plastic
  • Perdon
  • No entiendo
  • Discúlpe
  • Me puedes ayudar, por favour?
  • Translation
  • Hello
  • Good day / evening / night
  • How are you
  • Please
  • No plastic bag
  • Excuse me
  • I don’t understand
  • Sorry
  • Can you help me, please?

Getting Around

The best way to get around is using public transport. Typically, a bus journey will only cost between 30 and 80 cents, while the metro – which operates in most major cities – costs roughly 76 cents for a single ride.

There are also taxis, which are incredibly cheap and will hardly ever cost more than $6 if you’re travelling through cities.

Or, live like a true Colombian local and travel around in a collective; a Colombian minibus, shared taxi or large jeep, collectives are run by private owners and are used for the shorter journeys between towns. Negotiate ahead of time for the price, but typically they will be more expensive than a bus because they’re quicker and more direct.

Visa Requirements

Luckily for backpackers, most travellers from around the world don’t actually need a visa to enter Colombia, which is very handy if you’re looking to go on a road trip through South America. In fact, you get between 60 and 90 days to travel Colombia completely free – just double check with your local embassy to see how your country fits in.

Is It Safe?

Overall, it’s easy to stay safe in Colombia, but the key is to stay incredibly vigilant and cautious. While it’s not likely that you’re about to get stabbed or kidnapped, there is a lot of petty crime.

The key is not to flash your valuables about at all. The expression in Colombia goes “no dar papaya”, which essentially means you shouldn’t leave anything sweet out in the open, and its used to refer to leaving valuables where people can easily see and take them.

Make sure not to wander around at night too much – especially by yourself – and avoid drugs. This should be a rule anywhere, but Colombians are very keen to shed their drug-related past, which means partaking in the recreational activity is seen as very offensive and insulting to locals.

A Brief History

Once upon a time, Colombia was home to a number of different tribes, made up of hunter-gatherers and famers. These tribes were constantly vying for dominance, until the Tairona and Muisca civilisations were formed, organised in tribes and then each ruled by one main chief. Over time both of these societies developed and grew until they were almost on par with the Peruvian Inca civilisation.

It wasn’t until the mid 1500s that the Europeans discovered Colombia, with the Spanish founding the first settlement of Santa Marta in 1525. Then, in 1538, Bogota was established, growing quickly to become the capital of Colombia – and other Spanish interests in the area – in 1717.

In 1813, Colombia gained independence from the Spanish forces, forming the Republic of Greater Colombia in 1819 with their first president being Simon Bolivar, a military hero. Since its independence, the country has been privy to two civil wars; the first from 1899 until 1903 known as the War of a Thousand Days, and the second from 1846 until 1957.

Interesting Facts

  • Colombia is the world’s leading source of emeralds
  • 12% of the world’s coffee is produced in Colombia – even though coffee isn’t native to the country
  • Pablo Escobar, notorious drug lord, once offered to pay off the entire country’s national debut of $10 billion in order to improve his reputation
  • In 1991, Medellin in Colombia was the murder capital of the world, with 17 murders a day
  • Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, and is one of only 17 megadiverse countries across the globe
  • It is the 5th most popular hub for cosmetic surgery
  • For an unknown reason, people in Colombia will put blocks of salty cheese into their coffee when they are finished drinking, and eat the mushy blobs of coffee-soaked cheese

Extra Resources

If you really want to make the most of your time in Colombia, then check out these useful resources. When you’re backpacking, it’s always better to be safe and prepared than winging it.

  • Links incoming

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