Bienvenidos a Colombia!
Colombia is hot! Lonely Planet named the country No. 2 in its Top 10 Countries to Visit in 2017. It’s been a long journey, a journey that is perhaps best symbolised by Medellín. Once the most violent city on the planet, today it serves as a model of urban planning on a global level. Yet, Colombia is more than just one dynamic city…
Only one country in South America has both Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. Colombia. Where can visitors laze on a Caribbean beach and sail down the Amazon? Colombia. Whether you want to wander around Pre-Colombian archaeological sites or explore the Andes, Colombia has it all!
Travel Warning: Colombian people are often friendly and hospitable. The scenery is extremely varied. YOU MAY NOT WANT TO LEAVE!
First Impressions of Colombia
‘Even my cousins were attacked,’ the English girl in the seat beside me remarked.
‘Was that in Bogotá?’ I inquired.
‘No, in the street in Pereira,’ she responded casually.
Ten minutes to go. The plane was preparing to land at El Dorado Airport. I could feel my stomach tightening. Would there be money changing facilities at the airport? Luckily, I had changed some euro back in Madrid, I thought. Were the taxis safe? The girl beside me hadn’t reassured me with her tales.
Within an hour of our conversation, I would discover that the airport was surprisingly modern. Not only were there money changing facilities, but one look at the rate was enough to make me feel sick. Really sick! The taxi ride from the airport was another surprise. In thirty minutes, the weather shifted from overcast to sunny and then changed back to overcast and rainy. Add in a chatty and friendly taxi driver. I almost felt as if I was back in my native Ireland, but speaking Spanish! Bogotá was already somewhat of a surprise. The first of many…
Highlights of Colombia
In a country twice the size of France, it’s almost hard to know where to begin. However, don’t leave Colombia without visiting some of the towns in the Coffee Triangle.
Bogotá, although far from breathtaking, is steeped in culture. Its Museo del Oro is possibly one of the finest museums in South America.
Medellín is a complete contrast to the sometimes dowdy capital. Known as the City of Eternal Spring, its people are as warm as its climate.
Alternatively, the towns and landscapes of the Coffee Triangle could keep travellers busy for weeks on end. Try to visit at least one of the ‘Heritage Towns’ that are dotted around the country.
Meanwhile, those who want sun and sand may prefer to succumb to the charms of the Caribbean coast. And then there’s always the Amazon!
Make sure to visit
Bogotá– The capital may lack the warm climate of its Antioquian rival. However, it has culture. The Museo del Oro showcases fine examples of Pre-Colombian craftwork. Visitors will understand why the Spanish believed so fervently in the existence of the mythical El Dorado…Spend a day exploring the historic Candelaria district. Art lovers are sure to appreciate the Botero Museum. Then, before leaving, see the city from the dizzy heights of Montserrate. Although it may not be love at first sight, Bogotá rewards those who take the time to uncover its charms.
Medellín– Dynamic. Progressive. Warm. Is it any wonder that so many digital nomads have set up their base in this Colombian city? Although Medellín packs a punch, he who tires of Medellín is not tired of life. Quite simply, he takes the bus to Guatapé for a dose of colour and fresh air. Poor old London is so sadly lacking…
Coffee, Culture and The Great Outdoors
The Coffee Triangle– Colombia and coffee are practically synonyms. Unsurprisingly, the country’s coffee towns offer visitors an unrivalled variety of stimulating experiences. Think brightly coloured streets, traditional fincas, coffee culture, and adventure. Hang off the back of a jeep as you whizz through the countryside. However, don’t stop in Salento. Towns like Filandia and Salamina will reward travellers with more authentic experiences.
The ‘heritage towns’– These are the towns that personify the history and traditions of the country. Salamina, with its coffee and bright facades, is one of them. Yet, there are plenty others such as the out-of-the-way Mompox, a town known as the ultimate García Márquez destination.
The Caribbean Coast– Sapzurro and Capurganá often welcome travellers coming from Central America. Moreover , the coast is alive with other opportunities for visitors. Do you want to see a traditional colonial city? Cartagena. Do you want outdoor adventures? Tayrona National Park. Do you want nature and tranquillity in a small town setting? Minca.
The Whole Country
Due to its size, it’s hard to see the whole country. That said, as long as you’re a fast traveller who doesn’t mind taking planes and going on overnight buses, it’s possible. Fly into Bogotá and, after a day’s rest, fly out to Leticia. This is the base where you can plan and execute an Amazon adventure. Zoom back to the capital and take a bus onto Desierto de la Tatacoa. Experience a unique microclimate. Bus it back to Armenia, which will serve as a base to discover the Colombian Coffee Triangle. Make sure to spend some time in one of the coffee towns such as Salento or Filandia. Then, your next pit stop will be Medellín, the City of Eternal Spring. Explore the city and take a day trip to Guatapé.
Now it’s time for the Caribbean Coast. Visitors love Capurganá and Sapzurro and it’s possible to fly to the former from Medellín. Travelling east along the coast, there are some real highlights. Stop in Cartagena to admire its Old Town. Heading on, Minca is another destination that gets rave reviews from lovers of the Great Outdoors. Finally, choose between a wild adventure in Tayrona or embark on your final lap.
An overnight bus will bring you from Santa Marta to Bucaramanga. Join the adventurous in San Gil. On your last legs, see Barichara and Villa de Leyva, two of Colombia’s finest small towns, before collapsing in a heap in Bogotá.
Minimum Duration: 3-4 weeks
Optimal Duration: 6 weeks
The Capital and the Coast
Start again in Bogotá. Spend a few days exploring its museums and its barrios. After the city’s cloudy skies and cool temperatures, it’s time to heat up in Cartagena. Taking a small step outside the city, laze on the beach or do a tour of the nearby islands.
The next stops are Santa Marta, greatly beloved by domestic tourists, and Minca. The latter is a great place to go on hikes and to immerse yourself in a rich tropical landscape. However, it doesn’t stop there. Tayrona National Park provides a blend of Caribbean beaches and luxuriant backdrops. Adventure lovers may want to take a hike to the lost city or Cuidad Perdida, as it’s known in Spanish. Finally, the truly adventurous may even try to make it as far as La Guajira, a desert-like region that’s almost Venezuela rather than Colombia.
From there, it’ll be back to Bogotá via Santa Marta for a chance to cool down after all the sunshine. Cheer up, there are lots of day trips outside the capital…
Minimum Duration: 2 weeks
Optimal Duration: 3-4 weeks
The Capital and The Coffee Triangle
From Bogotá, fly to Armenia, from where Salento is but a stone’s throw. Apart from visiting Salento’s coffee fincas (don’t miss the Finca El Ocaso Premium Tour), Parque Nacional Los Nevados is a great place to take a hike. Leaving Salento, Filandia is a genuine coffee town that’s well worth a few days. Then, it’s time for a dose of urban life in Manizales, the main hub of the Coffee Triangle. Climb its cathedral, the tallest in the whole country. You’ll probably need a coffee or something stronger in the café on the way down.
Chinchiná, a short ride south of the city, is the archetypal Colombian coffee town. Drink in its charms for a few days. After that, it’s back to Manizales for another bus trip, this time to the National Heritage town of Salamina. From here, the next stop should be Jardín, requiring either a detour back to Manizales or an adventurous series of bus trips to Antioquia. Travellers love Jardín’s mix of authenticity and a developing tourist infrastructure. Easy. Plenty to do… Fly out from Medellín or return to reality from Bogotá- the choice is yours.
Minimum Duration: 2 weeks
Optimal Duration: 3 weeks
Getting there and getting around
Although there are some direct flights into Cartagena and Medellín, El Dorado Airport in Bogotá tends to be the starting point for most journeys into the country. Those coming overland from Ecuador will cross the border at Ipiales, a relatively easy trip from Quito. Meanwhile, travellers from Central America will arrive via the San Blas islands to either Capurganá or Cartagena.
Booking well in advance will lead to good flight deals for those who want to cover a lot of ground quickly. Viva Colombia is a low-cost airline that operates in the country. Also, there are often good flight deals for those who have a more flexible itinerary or who shop around.
Overnight buses are usually safe and secure. However, come forewarned, drivers tend to set the air-conditioning to Antarctic mode. Bring plenty of layers of clothes in your day pack.
Daytime travel allows visitors to cover ground quickly and to see more of the country. Buses vary in quality and always watch your possessions at busy bus stations. There are no train services in Colombia, apart from some basic services in Bogotá and the metro in Medellín.
Costs are competitive in Colombia. However, accommodation costs can be much higher in Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena. Outside of these areas, it’s quite easy to get a room for $20 per night.
Despite the relatively cheap price of transport in the country, costs can start to mount for those who want to cover long distances. Also, last minute booking of flights may result in higher prices, particularly on or around Colombian national holidays. There are quite a few of these, so make sure to check the calendar before you go.
Colombian food tends to be of the peasant variety. Bandeja Paisa, in particular, risks filling the stomach for a few days. South American veterans who loved the grub in Peru will bemoan its lack of lustre. On the other hand, the country no longer exports all of its good coffee, so coffee aficionados are in for a real treat. In addition to this, provided you do a bit of research, it’s possible to find some excellent cafés and restaurants.
Tell people that you’re going to Colombia and they’ll possibly have a mass said for you. Why? Well, let’s say that the country has yet to live down its reputation as the home of Pablo Escobar. Needless to say, it’s wise to take precautions. In fact, the same could be said if you were going to Copenhagen instead of Cartagena. As anywhere in South America, use local knowledge. Tourism is a developing industry and people will usually be forthcoming with advice.
Bus terminals are always places to be on the lookout. Keep your most valuable possessions with you at all times. Don’t flash expensive items and keep a copy of your documents. Travel insurance may seem like an unnecessary expense until you most need it! Road accidents are more common than in most western countries, so make sure that you cover every eventuality.
Be vigilant in cities! Areas like La Candelaria in Bogotá acquire a really unsavoury feel at night. Don’t walk around deserted streets on your own in the dark. If the locals don’t do it, then you should probably follow their example.
The official site of the new Colombian Tourist Brand
Flavors of Bogota– this site, the brainchild of an American expat, should be the first port of call for all foodies planning a trip to the country
Thomas, a German expat, has constructed a cool website with lots of tips for backpacking in Colombia
Viva Colombia is the home of low-cost flights in Colombia