Colombia is rapidly gaining popularity among travellers. The country which was once seen as fairly dangerous, now welcomes tourists with open arms. Locals are kind and helpful, and landscapes are varied and beautiful. Usually a cheap destination for western travellers, there is no better time to discover Colombia, as it is destined to become more and more popular. It is a large country, with everything from tropical rainforests, pristine beaches and sprawling cities. With so much to see, it can be hard to decide on a time frame to really make a trip here worth it. Any amount of time spent in Colombia is better than nothing! However, I think the minimum needed to really take in the highlights of Colombia is 3 weeks, so here I have put together the perfect 3 week itinerary for Colombia. I have also added a few suggestions for ways to make it longer if you have the time!
Bogota : Days 1-2
Most visitors to Colombia enter via the capital of Bogota. Set at an altitude of 2600 metres, Bogota enjoys a lot milder weather than most of the other areas of Colombia. It can be surprisingly cold here, so don’t forget to pack a jumper if you are expecting all of Colombia to be baking hot! Whilst in Bogota, I highly recommend the free walking tours by the “Beyond Colombia” company. They also offer free food, graffiti and history tours. It is a great introduction to the history of not only Bogota, but Colombia as a whole. Another great activity is walking or taking the train up to Montserate, a church set upon a hill. The view from here is spectacular and gives you a stunning panorama across the whole of Bogota. Don’t leave the capital without paying a visit to the highly informative Gold Museum. Costing only 3000 cop for entrance, the museum contains over 55,000 gold artifacts and is a great option for escaping the ever changing weather in Bogota.
Cocora Valley : Days 3-4
After Bogota, I would suggest taking a night bus to Armenia or Periera. On arrival, hop onto a local bus and head to Salento. Salento is in the heart of the coffee region and used by many as a base for exploring Cocora Valley. Salento itself is a very tiny town centered around a main square. Take a full day to catch a “willy” (shared jeep) from the town centre to the start of the Cocora valley hiking trails. Here, you will hike among the huge wax palm trees and you can also visit a hummingbird hotspot. Another day can be spent walking from Salento to a nearby coffee farm, where for only around 20,000 cop you can watch how coffee is produced from the bean all the way to the cup, with some free tastings and chance to buy organic produce!
Medellin : Days 5-8
Often hailed by those who have visited as the best place in Colombia, people tend to fall in love with Medellin. Once known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world and controlled by guerrilla groups and drug lords, it is now a far cry from its unstable past. Re vamped, modernised, and home to the country’s only metro, Medellin is now a cosmopolitan and interesting city. Most travellers choose to stay in the leafy and residential suburb of El Poblado, which has everything from budget backpackers to high end hotels. There are also a lot of very good western style restaurants, as well as a wide selection of vegetarian food here for anyone who is looking frantically whilst in Colombia!
Whilst in Medellin, make sure you take a tour of Communa 13 to learn about the history of this fascinating neighbourhood. Once completely off limits for tourists due to the high levels of violence, it is now a vibrant community full of artists, street performers and local characters. Here you will find graffiti covering every wall and open air escalators to transport you up in the hillside. You also shouldn’t miss taking a ride on the cable cars. These cable cars were built as a solution for those living on the very edge of Medellin, as a way for them to get into the city and work. They are still very much a normal mode of transport for locals, but also double as a cheap activity for tourists and offer a birdseye view of the city. In the city centre, marvel at the quirky bronze statues of artist Frank Botero and learn more about his work in the “Museo de Antioquia”.
Cartegena : Days 9-12
Next, head for the Carribean coast and feel the very different atmosphere as you explore the northern coastline of Colombia. I recommend flying to Cartagena if you are coming from Medellin (see my section below about getting around). Cartagena is a true Caribbean town, full of colour and party vibes. Take a stroll along the city walls, and hang around for sunset for a real treat. If you have time, take a boat trip to one of the nearby islands such as Baru or Rosario for a day trip of a few nights. Wander around trendy Getsemani and marvel at the hectic streets lined with colourful flags and umbrellas. You may not think wildlife spotting would be a possibility here, however Parque de Centenario in the middle of the city offers the chance to see some interesting animals! A rather dodgy looking park, of you wander around inside you will most likely see people looking up into the trees. They have either spotted one of the resident Sloths, a huge Iguana or some small monkeys.
Santa Marta : Day 13
Around a 4 hour bus drive from Cartagena, Santa Marta is a great gateway to some of the Caribbean coasts top towns. Whilst I personally don’t rate the city itself, you can spend a day exploring Parque de los Novios and the night partying at La Brisa Loca. If you are trying to cram as much into your 3 week Colombia itinerary, you may want to just use Santa Marta as a transport hub and spend an extra day in a different place.
Minca : Days 14-15
Around a 45 minute ride away, Minca is a firm favourite among backpackers. To get there from Santa Marta, hop in one of the shared jeeps that leave from the busy city centre market area and pay 8,000 cop. When you arrive in the small town, there are plenty of moto taxis ready to take you to your hostel. Some hostels are very close by, whilst others are a half hour motorbike ride away, so it is also really wise to check the location of your hostel. Minca boasts some of the best hostels in Colombia, but some of the really popular ones can get booked up quickly. Casa Elemento is home to the infamous hammock which is said to be the world’s biggest. You can stay here, or alternatively do a day of hiking from Minca town and reward yourself with a beer and some amazing views at Casa Elemento. Casa Viajes is another great choice and offers beautiful views and delicious food. Be sure not to leave Minca without checking out a coffee plantation and sampling some of the local produce!
Tayrona Park : Days 16-17
Accessible via boat or bus, Tayrona Park is a must visit destination. Not too far from the hub of Santa Marta, you can do a day trip if you are short on time. I would highly recommend staying over night though, so you can really get into the park and enjoy the long stretches of deserted beach and pristine rainforest walks. Be aware there is an entrance fee (currently 42,000 cop but likely to rise) and there is accommodation inside the park but it is much more expensive than elsewhere in Colombia. Most backpackers opt to pay for a hammock to keep costs down.
Caribbean Coast Wildcard! Days 18-20
There are a few options for your last few days as it depends what you would like to do. Cramming so many places into a just 3 weeks in Colombia can be hard, but there are several places on the Northern coast where you could spend your final days. If relaxing on the beach or perhaps floating lazily down a river with a beer in hand sounds appealing, consider heading to laid back Palomino. It is around 2 hours from Santa Marta by public bus and costs 10,000 cop. You could also head to Costeno Beach hostel or the famous El Rio to get in some final nights of partying on the Caribbean coast. If you are a diver, or would like to learn, then get yourself to Taganga. Once a sleepy fishing town, this place has become popular among backpackers thanks to the many dive shops who offer dive trips and courses at incredibly low prices. Diving in Taganga offers a chance to dive in the colourful Caribbean without the price tag you might expect!
Exit point : Day 21
Chances are you will be heading home via Bogota or Cartagena, so it is time to head to your airport of choice! Allow me to share a bit of advice with you. If you are leaving from Colombia, particularly on an expensive international flight, get to your departure point with a lot of time to spare. Transport is unpredictable here, as I learnt myself. I booked my flight home to the UK from Bogota at around 11pm. I was all the way up near Santa Marta though, and because I really wanted to go to Baranquilla festival, it meant I would be flying to Bogota the same day as my departure flight. Not one who likes hanging around in airports, I thought giving myself 5 hours to connect in Bogota was being sensible enough. Fast forward to me sitting on a plane, staring out at a huge thunderstorm over Bogota and being told we were diverting to Medellin. Thankfully, 10 minutes later the pilot changed his mind and we did a U turn back to Bogota for a very bumpy landing. Lesson learned!
A few other helpful hints for Colombia…
There are lots of quality, long distance bus companies plying the popular routes. They are usually comfortable and relatively safe. The only problem I have found is the very strong air con! Be warned that some routes in Colombia can take twice as long as they are timetabled for, and flights are relatively cheap. I would always suggest flying between major cities. The not so brilliant Viva Air, and the much better Avianca fly many domestic routes.
Please tip for any free tours. I saw a couple of people literally running away from some of the free tours I took so that they could avoid tipping the guide at the end. This is so disrespectful. Yes, these tours are advertised as “free”, but everyone knows that they are expected to contribute at least a little money to their guide. These people are extremely knowledgeable, and a small tip is the fraction of the cost you would pay for a paid tour.
UBER is a great app to use in the bigger cities of Colombia. There is always the threat of being scammed by taxi drivers in foreign countries. Using UBER avoids this; however, you need to be vigilant. Always check the number plate against the car that arrives, and only use drivers with high ratings. UBER is either illegal or very frowned upon by other taxi drivers (I have heard both versions so I am not exactly sure which is true!) so often the UBER driver will not enter airports or bus terminals and will always ask you to sit in the front seat.
You didn’t hear this from me… but a little bird told me that if you have perhaps left your student card at home, that most people wont make a fuss and will happily give you a student discount…!
It is really useful to learn at least a few key Spanish phrases. English is not widely spoken, and just a few simple phrases will make things so much easier!
So with all that in mind, the only thing left to do is book you flight, pack your bags and say hello to 3 weeks in the amazing Colombia!