Colombia is a stunning country, but for a long time it was a dangerous place for tourists. With drug lords practically ruling the country, travelling to Colombia for fun and sightseeing was simply not an option.
But, the days of Pablo Escobar are a thing of the past, and tourism is booming in the country. As it should – Colombia is a breathtaking country, with an abundance of national and nature parks that boast gorgeous nature. It is a country that has a lot to offer to anyone, whether you’re looking to spend your time sightseeing, or exploring the wild outdoors.
And we’re here to help you figure out which places in Colombia are worth your time, and which aren’t. From the mesmerizing beaches of Cartagena, to the vast coffee plantations around Salento – here’s our two-week itinerary for this wonderful South American country!
Getting Around Colombia
Although this itinerary includes several different places that are all in different parts of the country, there’s really no need to rent a car. Roads in Colombia are not the best, and they’re going to be stressful for anyone who is used to highways. Or they are incredibly fun – it really depends on what you think of neverending curves.
To get from one place to another, we recommend you either take the bus or fly. Plane tickets for local flights are actually really cheap – around $30 for one-way tickets – and flying everywhere wouldn’t really do that much damage to your bank account. Especially if you’re travelling on your own, or with just one other person – in that case, flying everywhere is cheaper than actually renting a car.
Bus tickets are a lot cheaper than plane tickets even, but you wind up paying with your time. A quick, hour-long flight is equivalent to six or seven hours on curvy roads. The upside is that most of the country’s roads are scenic, but the landscapes aren’t that enchanting that you want to look at them for seven hours straight.
Cartagena: Days 1-3
Your first shop in Colombia should ideally be Cartagena. It will make you instantly fall in love with the country. Well, as long as you’re a fan of azure blue sea and white sandy beaches, that is!
The best way to get acquainted with the city is to head downtown and explore the historic center. We really enjoyed the free walking tour – it’s not actually free since you’re expected to give a tip at the end, but it really is a wonderful experience.
The “free” tours are normally run by locals, who tend to be friendly and charismatic people. They will tell you all sorts of stories about various parts of the city, including some that are very personal to them, and that you can’t read about in tourist guides or TripAdvisor reviews. And that’s one way to make your entire trip quite personal and unforgettable.
You should also head to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. The 17th century hilltop fortress has spectacular views of downtown Cartagena, and it offers you an opportunity to learn more about the city’s history.
Cartagena is famous for its white-sand beaches, so obviously this itinerary calls for a day on the beach. We loved Playa Blanca, but we visited during off-season. I heard that it tends to get really crowded during peak season, with a lot of people leaving trash behind on the beach.
But if you visit in the off-season, I think you will really love it – it is very picturesque, with the white sand and azure blue sea.
The only off-putting thing about Playa Blanca is that it is very far away from the center of Cartagena. You can get to it in about 45 minutes if you’re okay with going on a boat. Otherwise, it can take up to two hours to reach it by bus.
If we could pick just one Colombian city where we would love to party again, it would be Cartagena. Why? Well, because one of the most popular tourist attractions is a party bus with unlimited amounts of rum and beer. The ticket prices depend – you can haggle, and get them down to maybe $8-10.
Just don’t expect a lot. Once the bus departs from its main station, it’s going to ride around different neighbourhoods and pick up a lot of other people. Eventually, it’s going to get really crowded, and not as enjoyable. But at least they will drop you off right at the club, so you can continue partying all night long!
And if riding around on a bus with copious amounts of alcohol isn’t your thing, that’s fine – there are plenty of other places in Cartagena where you can enjoy yourself. Our favorites are Bazurto Social Club, which always has insanely cold beers, and the Taboo Disco Club where you can really dance the night away.
Tayrona National Park: Days 3-5
Tayrona National Park is Colombia’s jungle haven with some of the best beaches in the country. It’s a place anyone can enjoy – the sandy beaches are perfect for those who just want to lounge in the sun, while the park’s hiking trails appeal even to the most experienced of hikers.
But, keep in mind that as of 2019, anyone who is travelling to nature parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Colombia is required to be vaccinated against Yellow Fever. You will have to present proof of vaccination upon arrival, so be sure to get that done at least 10 days before you leave for Colombia!
Oh, and bring your passport because you are required to present it when buying tickets.
From Cartagena To Tayrona National Park
First you’ll have to make your way from Cartagena to Santa Marta. You can take the bus, which will get you there in about four hours. And then it takes another four hours to get to the national park from Santa Marta.
Tayrona National Park is one of the best places in Colombia for avid hikers. It boasts numerous hiking trails throughout the entire park, which are of various difficulties.
Our favorite trail was actually one of the easiest – the trail that takes you from El Cabo to El Pueblito. It’s a short, 2.4 km trail that you can complete in less than two hours. And when you arrive to El Pueblito, you’ll be amazed; it is an archeological site with remains of a pre-hispanic town that provides a lot of insight into the lives of the indigenous people of the area.
Enjoy The Beaches
Tayrona National Park is well known for its fabulous beaches, and it would be a waste of time not to enjoy them. Plan to spend at least one day lounging on the beach, staring at the azure blue Caribbean sea.
There are more than 50 beaches throughout the national park, but an honorary shoutout goes to Playa Cristal. You’ll have to take a boat ride to get there, but it is 100% worth. Playa Cristal is popular for the white sand and crystal clear, calm sea. It’s the perfect beach for those that are just looking to relax and spend a day enjoying themselves to the fullest.
Another beach worth your time is Playa Arrecifes. It is northeast of Playa Cristal, and you have to walk through a jungle to get to it. But It’s a relaxing and scenic walk, which rewards you with mesmerizing views of the Caribbean once you arrive to your destination – doesn’t that sound dreamy?
Medellin: Days 6-8
Colombia’s most infamous city is nowadays a really popular tourist spot, and we definitely recommend visiting it. Crime rates have decreased for over 95% percent since the days of Pablo Escobar, and the locals don’t like to be reminded of the city’s dark past.
So, leave your Escobar t-shirt at home, and refrain from asking questions about him. That’s a simple recipe to three days of fun in Medellin!
From Tayrona National Park To Medellin
It’s about a three-hour bus ride from Tayrona National Park to Barranquilla, and then an hour-and-a-half flight from Barranquilla to Medellin. And since you have to cover more than 800 kilometers total, flying really is the only option.
But, at least the plane tickets are inexpensive – a one-way ticket is only about $30.
Fernando Botero is one of Colombia’s most famous artists. He was born in Medellin, and he is known around the world for his art style, Boterismo, which is characterised by exaggerated proportions.
In other words, Botero is known for creating fat paintings and sculptures. Fat people, fat animals, fat limbs – virtually anything the man created was fat. But in a fun and interesting way, not in an insulting one.
If you want to see some of his artwork in person, head to Botero Plaza. There you will find 23 sculptures by the famous artist, which are incredibly amusing to observe.
Free Walking Tour Of Medellin
One of the easiest ways to get to know the city quickly is to take a free walking tour. You can sign up for one online, and you are not expected to pay in advance. Tour prices are based on tips, which are usually pretty high due to the amazing guides that lead them. But high for Colombian standards.
These tours last for about 3.5 hours on average, and they take you through the most important spots in downtown Medellin. And, since the tour guides are actually just really cool locals, you will get to hear a lot of amazing stories – some that are personal, and others that are just urban legends or tales from the city’s history.
Once again, you’re advised to refrain from asking questions about Escobar and his days, unless the tour guides start talking about them of their own accord.
Medellin’s previously most notorious neighbourhood is now crawling with tourists, all of whom are excited to see the colorful street art, picturesque views of the city and an opportunity to see some break dancers perform live.
Contrary to popular belief, Comuna 13 is not exactly a barrio. It’s a commune, which consists of several different neighbourhoods. It is in a hilly area, and there are a lot of stairs to climb to get to the top. There are escalators that help you get to the top quicker, but you should still wear your most comfortable pair of walking shoes.
And before you even ask – yes, it is worth it to climb to the top, just to enjoy the most spectacular view of this Colombian city.
Parque Arvi is a vast ecological nature preserve, about 30 kilometers away from the center of Medellin. Since it is quite big and far away from the actual city, it’s best to set aside an entire day for a trip to the park.
The best way to get to the top of the park, which is on an elevation of 8000 feet, is with a cable car. You will have to ride in two different gondolas, and you will have amazing views of the city below from both of them.
Parque Arvi is known for an abundance of hiking trails, so it’s a great spot for avid hikers and trekkers. There are also walking trails, for those that don’t really like difficult hiking trails, and you also have the option of taking a guided tour – perfect for those that are inexperienced in hiking and don’t want to get lost.
Salento Coffee Region: Days 9-11
Although quite far away from Medellin, Salento and its surroundings are definitely worth a visit. No, getting there won’t be quick and easy, but it will without a doubt be worth it.
For one thing, there aren’t that many tourists in the area, specifically because it’s not so easy to reach. It’s sort of a hidden gem of Colombia, one that all coffee drinkers will want to call their home.
From Medellin To Salento
Medellin is about 300 kilometers away from Salento, so it’s not going to be super easy to reach it. You have two options – taking the bus or flying.
If you’re pressed for time, flying out of Medellin is what you should do. The flight doesn’t even last an hour, one-way tickets are only $30 and you will land in Pereira. From there, you can either take the bus into Salento or just take a taxi.
But if you’re on a budget, then you will probably opt for the bus. Bus tickets are about $14, so only about $16 cheaper than plane tickets. Taking the bus won’t save you a lot of money, and the ride lasts for about 6 hours, over winding roads. Which is why we prefer flying.
Plantations, Plantations, Plantations…
More than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world every day. And I’m not ashamed to admit that my coffee consumption probably accounts for about half of that. Well, not really, but I do what I can to help increase the number.
Colombia is one of the top three producers of coffee in the world, and it would be shameful to travel to the country and not visit its main coffee regions. Especially if you’re one of those 2.25 billion cups.
There are many plantations around Salento, with loads of different operators offering tours. Go with whichever one you think is best for you – the tours are all very alike anyway. You will be taken to a plantation of your choice, where you will learn what exactly happens with coffee, how it goes from seed to cup and its history in Colombia.
Additionally, you might also get an opportunity to pick your own coffee beans – the tour that we know for sure includes this activity is the Ocaso Premium Coffee Tour.
And of course, you will get to try the coffee! But they won’t let you drink it as ravenously as you do in the mornings. Instead, you will be urged to focus on the different flavors and aromas, as well as taste the distinctions between different preparations of coffee.
Although we would honestly be happy to spend our time in Salento just bathing in coffee and consuming it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are some other things that are considered a must in this region. Like hiking Cocora Valley, which is best known for the gorgeous Quindío wax palms that dominate the landscape.
To get to the hiking trails of Cocora Valley, you will have to grab a ride in one of the Jeeps. They transport tourists from Salento to the hiking trail all the time, so this should be the easiest part of the journey. Oh, and that ride will only cost you about $1 per person.
When you get to Cocora Valley, you will have a choice between the two main hiking trails. One is short and scenic, and the other one is long and uphill – choose wisely, depending on how much you want to challenge yourself.
As the hiking trails take you through the forest, it’s recommended that you have a GPS device on you. Or at least download offline Google Maps of the area, so you don’t get lost in the vast Colombian forests.
After you’ve explored both hiking trails of the Cocora Valley and the plantations around the charming town of Salento, it’s time to move on to our final destination in Colombia. And we can’t think of a better place to end this exciting journey, then Bogota, the country’s capital city.
Bogota: Days 11-14
While it might not be as popular with tourists as the beaches of Cartagena, Bogota is still the best city to visit if you’re truly interested in learning about Colombian culture. It is, after all, the capital of the country with many monuments and museums that speak about the country’s varied history.
From Salento (Pereira) To Bogota
To get to Bogota, you will have to travel back from Salento to Pereira. From there, you can either take the bus or the plane.
Airplane tickets are around $30, for an hour-long flight. This is the quickest and easiest way to reach Colombia’s capital from its gorgeous coffee region.
Bus tickets are somewhat cheaper ($15-25), but it’s a much longer journey. It takes about 9 hours to get from Pereira to Bogota, on top of that hour you need to get from Salento to Pereira.
Bikes are the most popular mode of transportation in Bogota, so a bike tour of the city is more than appropriate. The guides will take you to all the popular tourist spots in Bogota, including plazas, public parks and all the interesting landmarks and monuments.
They will also tell you about Bogota’s varied history, so this will actually be a very informative city tour. And since you’re on bikes, you won’t get too tired and you will have plenty of energy to continue exploring this amazing city even after the bike tour is over!
Museo Del Oro
Head to Bogota’s Gold Museum if you truly want to be amazed. It is home to artefacts from pre-Columbian times, which includes not just extravagant gold statues, but also various ceramics and stones.
The museum also has a cafe on site, where you can pop in for a quick cup of coffee before you move on to the final must-see spot in Bogota!
Views From Monserrate
Monserrate is a mountain near Bogota, and getting to the top of it is an absolute must. Especially because it’s almost within the urban area of Bogota, and there are two ways to get there.
You can either hike to the top of the mountain, which would take about an hour from Bogota’s La Paz or Las Aguas neighbourhoods, or you can take the cable car that takes you to the top in less than five minutes.
You’re the one who has to climb to an altitude of 3,200 meters, so it’s entirely your choice how you want to get there. Of course, both approaches have their advantages – if you take the cable car, you will have more time to spend at the top of the mountain, enjoying the spectacular views of the city. And you can even have a meal or a drink in one of the several restaurants that await at the top.
But if you decide to hike, you’ll get to enjoy some wonderful views along the way. And you will be able to take lots of photos, as well as chat with some locals who might have a cerveza or two to share with you!
That concludes your two magical weeks in Colombia! If you have any questions, let us know – we love to help out our fellow travellers!