Colombia has been rising in popularity in the past few years as adventurous travelers return from their trips with rave reviews. Formerly a dangerous place known for drug production, Colombia is reinventing itself with a focus on tourism.
My friend Sam and I had been contemplating a few destinations for a break from work. We discovered that due to currency fluctuations, the country had gotten even more inexpensive for travelers over the past couple of years. We planned a two and a half week trip through the country, hitting the must-sees with plenty of time to relax in between.
2.5 weeks in Colombia – Bogota, Salento, Coffee Farms, Medellin, Guatape, Cartegena, Rosario Islands, Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park, Costena and Zipaquira
16 days, 15 nights
- Day 1: Travel day, arrive in Bogota late evening
- Day 2: Bogota to Salento – Flight to Armenia or Pereira, bus to Salento, explore Salento
- Day 3: Salento – Hike Valley de Cocoras
- Day 4: Salento to Medellin – Coffee plantation tour, bus to Medellin, nightlife in parque lleras and parque de poblado
- Day 5: Medellin – Parque arvi, Botero sculptures
- Day 6: Medellin – Nacional soccer stadium tour, Nutibara hill
- Day 7: Medellin – Day trip to lake Guatape, El Penol
- Day 8: Medellin to Cartegena – Flight to Cartegena, visit historic walled city
- Day 9: Rosario islands – Overnight trip to explore islands
- Day 10: Rosario islands to Santa Marta – Boat to Cartegena, bus to Santa Marta, explore Santa Marta
- Day 11: Santa Marta to Tayrona – Bus to Tayrona, hiking in Tayrona Park
- Day 12: Tayrona to Costeno – Hiking in Tayrona, bus to Costeno beach, relax in Costeno
- Day 13: Costeno beach – Relax and surf
- Day 14 Costeno to Bogota – Relax in Costeno, bus to Santa Marta, flight to Bogota, nightlife in Zona T
- Day 15: Bogota – City bike tour, cerro monserrate
- Day 16: Bogota – Day trip to Zipaquira salt cathedral
- Day 17: Bogota – Police museum, Botero museum, Museo de Oro, National Museum
- Day 16: Travel day
If you have extra time:
Sailing to Panama from Cartagena is a cool option if you can add a significant amount of time to your trip. The journey takes 3-4 days by boat, so plan to add a week or more to your trip to do some sightseeing in Panama when you arrive.
Cali is a popular city in the southwest of the country, widely known as the “world capital of salsa dancing”. The city has tons of great options if you’d like to take dancing lessons in a studio or private setting.
Tips for a great trip:
- Many Tourists come to Colombia expecting to find evidence of a cocaine-infused drug culture and economy. While the country continues to work to eradicate the presence of illegal drugs, everyday Colombians are eager to move on from this past and showcase the wide breadth of culture and industry they have cultivated.
- Busses in Colombia are comparatively expensive to many other travel costs. VivaColombia is a budget airline that offers cheap flights to many domestic destinations. In many cases, we discovered that we paid less for short flights than other travelers did for very long bus rides. Plane tickets do tend to increase significantly in price in the weeks before the travel date, so traveling by plane requires some advance planning.
- Drinking amazing Colombian coffee is actually somewhat difficult in the country since nearly all the quality Arabica beans are exported. For great export-grade coffee, go to a Juan Valdez coffee shop (think Colombian Starbucks) or take a tour of a farm in the coffee region.
We arrived in Colombia late in the evening and spent the night in Bogota before heading to Salento the next morning. We took a flight from Bogota to Armenia (flights to nearby Pereira are also available; both flights take around 40 mins). We transferred from the airport to the bus terminal and hopped a bus to Salento. Busses leave every 20 mins to 2 hours depending on the time of day.
Once we arrived in Salento, we checked into Plantation House, which is a working coffee farm that also has a small group of accommodations. We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out after a couple days of traveling and wandered about the town square.
The next morning, we got an early start to the day and set out to do some hiking at Valley de Cocoras. We piled into a jeep from the Salento town square and rode about 20 minutes to the valley. We spent the entire day hiking the loop trail, checking out the forest, a hummingbird sanctuary, and the valley of tall wax palms. The evening was spent celebrating a great hike with dinner and drinks at a few of Salento’s town bars.
Our final day in Salento started with a coffee farm tour at Finca don Eduardo (owned by Plantation House). The owner conducted an English tour starting at 9am, which lasted around 3 hours. There are several other coffee tours available surrounding Salento, but we felt that from talking to other travelers our tour went into the most detail about the history of coffee in Colombia and the farming and production process.
Salento is an amazingly tranquil and relaxing town, and is a great place to take in Colombia’s coffee culture. Plan to spend 2-3 days of your trip enjoying the slow pace of this quaint town.
We headed for Medellin via bus from Salento (although flights are also available from Armenia or Pereira), and arrived early in the evening. We spent the night checking out a salsa club near parque lleras and had beers with the locals in parque de poblado – both of which were awesome and highlights of the trip. Medellin is a city known for its nightlife, and spending the weekend in the city didn’t disappoint. We stayed near parque lleras, which was a great location (although it did get loud in the evenings).
The next morning, we took the commuter train and then a cable car to parque arvi, a nature park just outside the city. We walked around for an hour, but decided that the cable cars to get there were a cooler experience than the park itself. The cable cars, which are part of the commuter transportation system, were built to give residents of the slums access to central Medellin. They offer a unique way to see how everyday Colombians live without risking walking through some of the more dangerous areas of the city.
On our way back, we saw the Botero sculptures in downtown Medellin before heading back to our accommodations.
We set out with no real plans for our third day in Medellin, and after finding out that several of the museums were closed on Mondays, we happened to score a free(!) but Spanish-only tour of Colombia’s Nacional team soccer stadium. We then walked to the top of Nutibara hill and took in views of the city before heading back to grab dinner and drinks at Burdo near parque lleras.
Our last day, we took a day trip to nearby Lake Guatape. We used the company Van por Colombia, but regular direct busses are also available. Guatape is known for its colorful murals on houses, which were interesting, but the rest of the town seemed pretty commercialized for tourists.
We spent the afternoon climbing El Penol, which is a huge rock with a staircase built onto the side. It has amazing views of the lakes that were created when the surrounding area was flooded to redirect water for a hydroelectric dam.
Medellin is one of the most cosmopolitan, fashionable cities in South America with incredible nightlife. It’s a can’t miss destination but is best experienced over a weekend. Spend 3-4 days of your trip in Medellin, adding a day or more if you want to visit the museums.
From Medellin, we hopped an early morning flight to Cartagena (1 hour), and spent the entire day exploring the historic walled city and the surrounding area. We got a lay of the land via a free walking tour and then wandered about the historic San Felipe castle (and took a ton of awesome pictures).
The next day, we took a morning boat to the nearby Rosario Islands. Boats leave from near the walled city from 8 – 9:30AM, so get there first thing in the morning and be ready to negotiate (we saved 30% by talking to a few tour operators). After an hour boat ride to the islands, we got to our hotel and took an afternoon hammock nap.
We took a walk around the island, and after dinner went for a swim in a secluded bay that was known for bioluminescent algae. It was AWESOME! I had never seen it before, and I was enthralled from the moment I jumped in the water. After a long swim and walk back to our hotel, we called it a night so we could catch a boat back to Cartagena early the next morning (1.5 hrs).
Cartagena is a popular regional tourist destination with a lot of history and close access to island beaches. While it wasn’t my favorite beach destination I’ve ever experienced, it’s certainly worth checking out the city and surrounding islands for 2-3 days. Consider a day trip to the islands if you’re short on time.
Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park and Costeno Beach
After getting back to Cartagena’s mainland, we headed to the bus terminal and took a bus to Santa Marta (5 hrs). We decided to stay at a former drug cartel house-turned-hostel called Drop Bear. With a mixture of private and dorm rooms, an onsite restaurant, pool and bar + tons of hammocks, we were perfectly happy to spend the afternoon relaxing with some beers (heads up: the place does get a dance club vibe later at night). That evening, we wandered into the town’s main square to find dinner and found that some of the restaurants even had live music.
The next morning we grabbed a bus (30 mins) to Tayrona National Park, an ocean-side park with a network of hiking trails along the beaches. Camping is available in tents or hammocks rented from the park. There are also some pricey but awesome-looking bungalows available. The park has a restaurant and basic facilities at each of the major beaches, which are available regardless of which accommodation you choose.
To enter the park, visitors are required to watch a short safety video, pay admission and have baggage briefly inspected. About 45 minutes later, we were on our way.
We hiked to El Cabo beach (2.5 hrs) and reserved hammocks to sleep in for the night (they begin allowing check-ins at around noon, and they sell out early so it’s best to get there around 11:30). Once we had our hammocks picked out, we spent the rest of the day relaxing on the awesome beach. We had dinner at the beachside restaurant and spent the rest of the evening drinking beers and listening to the waves.
After a night in the outdoor hammocks, we had breakfast and began our hike out of the park. A couple of travelers we had met were heading back to Santa Marta but discovered they were short on cash to catch a bus. We gave them the few (thousand) Colombian Pesos they needed (+ travel karma), but it served as an important reminder – bring a chunk of cash to Tayrona since there are no ATMs and entrance to the park is relatively expensive.
We caught a bus to Costeno beach – only 20 mins east of Tayrona. We stayed at Costeno beach surf camp. We had heard about it from so many other travelers that we had to fit it into our trip. Our couple days on the beach were great – between trying to do some surfing (although the waves were pretty rough), laying in hammocks and generally not doing much.
From Costeno, we happened to find a cheap taxi to take us directly to the Santa Marta airport, but we had planned on taking the bus back to the terminal and taking a cab from there.
Santa Marta and the surrounding beaches was a highlight of our trip to Colombia. If remote, natural beaches devoid of crowds are your idea of a great getaway, plan on spending 4-5 days in the area.
Our flight from Santa Marta to Bogota (1.5 hrs) took off in the early evening. After checking in at our accommodation in the historic la candelaria district, we were persuaded by some other travelers to check out a ‘Gringo Tuesday’ event at a bar in Zona T, a popular nightlife district. The event caters to locals and tourists, playing a mix of top 40/EDM and Latin music.
Sam had arrived in Colombia a few days before me and had already explored Bogota. The next morning I got the lay of the land from him before he headed to the airport for his flight home. I spent the afternoon on a bike tour of the city that highlighted several Bogota neighborhoods, public art and graffiti, fruit markets, the game of Tejo, and a small coffee roasting factory. It was a great way to cover a lot of the city and explore with a group of active travelers.
After the tour, a small group of us decided to check out the sunset from the top of Cerro Monserrate. The church is located high above the city and connected via cable car. We spent over an hour watching the sunset and snapping pictures of the city at night.
Other travelers had offered amazing reviews of an underground cathedral in an active salt mine nearby. I set off the next day to discover it for myself. I took a morning bus (1.5 hours) to Zipaquira and asked for directions once I got there to the salt mine. I happened to arrive just before an English guided tour which was included in the price of my ticket. Make sure to ask when you arrive what times the tours are for that day. While I didn’t need the tour to appreciate the sheer beauty and craftsmanship of the space, it was helpful to hear the details about its construction.
I also checked out the miners path, a 45 minute walk through the active portion of the salt mine. It wasn’t the most immersive tour, but did give some great perspective on how a salt mine is actually run. After that tour concluded, I snapped a few more photos on my way out of the mine and grabbed a bus back to Bogota.
I wrapped up the day at dinner with a friend at Central Cevicheria in Zona T, which was all-around amazing.
My last day in Bogota was packed with some of the city’s many museums. First, I checked out the Police museum which has lots of cool historic police memorabilia and many of Pablo Escobar’s belongings.
The museum is free and has several police who work as tour guides. I had a private tour as I was the only one that hour interested in an English tour. I had the opportunity to ask my guide lots of questions about his views on the safety and security of the country. In total, I spent about an hour there.
Next, I headed to Museo Botero, which houses several works of Fernando Botero and other notable artists (I saw at least one Picasso). Entry is free, and I spent around 2 hours taking in the art and other cultural works.
Then I was off to Museo de Oro, which describes nearly everything you could want to know about gold mining, refinement and production of historic jewelry and other artifacts using precious metals. There is a lot to read in this museum, but it’s also a great walkthrough to see the artifacts. I spent just over 2 hours before heading to my final museum of the day.
The National Museum houses an eclectic collection of old and new cultural works from a wide variety of Colombian artists. It also has many historic documents and relics. The building itself is a converted prison, which is one of the oldest buildings in the country. I spent an hour and a half before heading back to my hotel to pack up for the flight home.
Overall, I found Colombia to be an incredibly diverse, affordable, and immersive country whose people were very warm and helpful. It was evident that everyday Colombians see tourism not only as a growing source of revenue, but as a way to showcase their way of life and move past their historic reputation as a dangerous place known only for producing cocaine. If you’ve gone to Colombia and want to share your own experience or have questions, leave a comment below!