Colombia has an emerging tourism industry; they are welcoming travelers with open arms and trying to shed their reputations. It’s true, this used to be a dangerous country, but that is simply not the case anymore. We were invited into people’s homes more often here than anywhere else, and the genuine happiness people showed at our presence was certainly unique. To many Colombians, the fact that tourism exists is a sign that the times have changed.
Since a lot of the infrastructure is new, you will find really nice accommodation, and clean, decent buses and bus stations. Lodging costs will vary pretty significantly, with private rooms in hostels running from about $25-30 per night in the south, to $40-50 per night on the Caribbean. Where beach is present, you can usually locate a hammock for as little as $6 per night. Buses cost approximately $2-3 per hour. Booking inter-country flights in advance can lead to heavily discounted fares – sometimes the same price of a bus ticket. Food is quite good, and offers a lot of variety between the mountain and the coastal areas. -September 2014
When crossing from Ecuador, the first town you will encounter is Ipiales, the home of a very nice church. Continuing further north, and passing through Pasto, you will reach the first tourist destination of Popayán – a colonial city with beautifully uniform white-plastered buildings.
In the Valle del Cauca lies the important city of Cali. This is widely considered the home of salsa, which is intimidatingly fast here. Cali is not on the tourist track, and certainly has a more grimy feel than other large Colombian cities, but for city people it’s a great destination. Staying in the Bohemian neighborhood of San Antonio, full of restaurants and cafes, is recommended.
The Zona Cafetera (sometimes called the Eje Cafetera) is located just south of Medellín, encompassing the departments of Caldas, Risaralda, Quindío, and the SE corner of Antioquia and NE corner of Valle del Cauca. The principal cities are Armenia, Periera and Manizales. The small city of Salento is the biggest tourist draw, lying on the south edge of the Valle de Cocora and Los Nevados National Park. There are many working coffee fincas here, most offering tours. Even if you aren’t into coffee, some of these tours are excellent and the beauty of the surrounding countryside is worth the visit.
On the north side of Los Nevados National Park, Manizales is certainly worth a stop. The city offers access to the national park and is close to some major coffee fincas as well, but the highlight is the city itself. Consider this a warm-up for Medellin, complete with gondolas and fantastic architecture.
Medellín sets the pace that everyone else follows. It’s a city that has become a shining example of the power of urban design to completely transform a city. Less than 30 years ago this was the most dangerous city in the world – today it is one of the most enjoyable cities that I have ever spent time in. Effortlessly use the metro to see the beautiful architecture and Botero statues downtown, party around Parque Lleras in El Poblado, and explore the urban forest at Parque Arví.
A popular day trip is to nearby Guatapé. The view from La Piedra del Peñol is priceless, and the lake offers many outdoor watersports and activities. It’s a pleasant town, so stay a few nights if you have the time.
CARIBBEAN COAST & LA GUAJIRA
The beautiful city of Cartagena is definitely worth a visit, but for your own sanity you should stay someplace with air-conditioning, and probably visit outside of the rainy season. We also recommend staying in the more affordable, but also more colorful neighborhood of Getsemaní.
Santa Marta is possibly the best situated city in the country. With Parque Tayrona only a few minutes outside, the beach town of Taganga a short taxi ride away, and Minca located an hour up the mountain-side, many people end up staying here. Santa Marta won’t win any awards for beauty, but if you find the right hostel (we recommend La Villana), this area of Colombia will treat you right. Like Cartagena, if you’re here during the rainy season, be prepared for oppressive humidity and lots of bugs.
For the adventurous, head for Riohacha, the gateway to the Guajira Peninsula. This is home to the Wayúu people, and one of the few places in Colombia you won’t hear Spanish spoken as the principal language. Cabo de la Vela is a tourist destination during the winter holidays, but is otherwise a ghost town. Watching the distant lightening storms while the Caribbean water lapped gently at the foot of our hammocks was a surreal experience. Tours from here can be arranged to the northern most point of the continent, Punta Gallinas.
SANTANDER, BOYACA AND BOGOTA D.C.
Bucaramanga is the principal town in the Boyaca department. A few hours to the south is San Gil, where you can find all sorts of adventure sports (like rafting and paragliding). A visit to the nearby colonial town of Barichara is recommended. Another beautiful town that’s worth a visit is Villa de Leyva. It’s a little more pricey, and you should avoid the weekends when it’s full of Bogotanos.
For more outdoor activities, Sogamoso is a perfect place to spend a few days and visit Lago de Tota (Colombia’s largest lake), the Páramo de Ocetá, and the El Cocuy National Park. Monguí and Iza are recommended for day trips.
You won’t find too many travelers expounding on the merits of Bogotá, but for city lovers this is a must-visit. The size of the city defies comprehension and it seems like a place full of possibilities – there’s probably something for everyone in Bogotá. While not as sexy as the Medellín’s metro, the Transmilenio is a wonderful system that nicely connects the city. Spend lots of time in La Candelaria, a student section of the city that Bogotanos and toursists agree is muy vacano.
For a day trip, consider climbing up Monserrate for epic views of the city (recommend not doing this on a weekend) or travel out to Zipaquirá to visit the massive Catedral de Sal in an old salt mine.
OTHER PLACES IN COLOMBIA
Colombia is certainly a big country, and 8 weeks turned out to be insufficient to see everything. Sticking with our plan of never setting foot in the jungle, we missed places like Leticia and didn’t do the Lost City trek outside of Santa Marta. We also didn’t spring for flights to the Colombian pacific coast (whale watching) or Caribbean islands of Providencia and San Andres.
The most impressive ruins in Colombia are located near San Agustin, which would make a good stop if heading for Bogotá from Popayán. Jardín and Santa Fe de Antioquia were some other talked-about destinations in the Antioquia department.
Located an hour inland from Santa Marta is Minca, up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. With cooler nights and fewer bugs, this would be a great side trip to escape the oppressive coastal weather. Palomino is beach town located to the east of Tayrona National Park.
Harder to get to, but probably worth the journey is Santa Cruz de Mompox. Said to be the inspiration for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional Macondo (One Hundred Years of Solitude), this town is located up the Magdalena River, about 4-6 hours from the coast. We heard that a new bridge into town is set to open soon and will potentially turn this colonial backwater into a tourist destination. Best get there sooner than later.