My family were pretty nervous about me backpacking around Colombia, the world’s cocaine capital, without a set itinerary nor fluent Spanish. For most foreigners, Colombia is now synonymous with Pablo Escobar and Narcos. If your only reference point is Netflix you might be surprised though – there’s a lot more to this country than cartels, cocaine and coffee plantations. My month long backpacking trip wasn’t exactly pre-planned but I’d highly recommend all the stops we made.
It’s easy to understand people’s trepidation about visiting here. Medellin was once named as the world’s most dangerous city by Forbe’s magazine with 17 murders a day in 1991. The peace deal with the FARC was only signed off recently. Foreigners are still advised against travel to certain cartel-controlled regions. But this is a country determined to shake off it’s dark past and every Colombian we met was eager to set the record straight, reminding us that there is much more to this beautiful country than drug-peddling Pablo’s bloody regime. We were frequently reminded of the fact it’s the 2nd most biodiverse country on earth, the world’s 3rd biggest coffee producer and the only country in South America that has a coastline on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Colombia is a country of startlingly contrasted landscapes, from bewildering archaeological sites to flamingo-dotted national parks, idyllic deserted islands to cosmopolitan cities pulsating with salsa. But where do you start when trying to plot out your travel itinerary and fit everything in? Firstly, don’t try to fit everything in as you’ll never do it all justice. This place is VAST so it’s best to prioritise. You’ll also have to be pretty flexible with plans as inevitably national parks close without much warning, flights get cancelled and public transport dictates the pace at which you can travel. So here’s how we spent one month backpacking from Cartagena to Bogota…
Day 1 – SAIL INTO CARTAGENA
There’s no better way to arrive in Colombia than sailing into the marina of Cartagena aboard a 50 foot catamaran via the stunning San Blas islands:
After disembarking and bidding farewell to the new friends we’d made during the 5 day sail trip, we dumped out bags at Arsenal Boutique Hostel, a flashpacker’s dream complete with a sparkling pool in a pretty courtyard.
We spent three nights in Cartagena but in hindsight, two would suffice. It’s a beautiful city with its to explore but the stiflingly humid heat can make it unbearable at times. We devoted our first day to ambling around the old town, which bustles with horse-drawn carriages trotting past photogenic streets and crowded plazas. It’s a tourist mecca so my advice is to go there late in the afternoon when the heat is less oppressive and watch the sunset from Cafe del Mar across the bay.
Getsemani was our favourite area so opt to stay here if you can. It’s less touristy than the old town but has some equally beautiful colonial buildings emblazoned with colourful graffiti. The best thing to do here is just to wander around and let yourself get lost, soaking up the atmosphere of the busy residential streets, where fruit carts and taxis compete for right of way. For a bargain lunch spot head to Laguna Azur for the cheapest but tastiest ceviche in town. 16,000 pesos (£4.30) will buy you a generous portion of fish ceviche with chunky slices of avocado and crispy fried plantain.
In the evening, head to Plaza Trinidad in Getsamani for a mouthwatering array of tasty street food (meat sticks, empanadas and arepas) and buy cheap beers from the local shops. There’s a carnival like atmosphere as gringso and locals dance, play guitar and people watch.
Day 2 – ROAD TRIP AROUND CARTAGENA
On our second day we went on a chiva bus tour of the city, taking almost all the sights Cartagena has to offer on a traditional wooden bus. But be warned, this trip is really long (1.30pm start but we made our excuses at 6.30pm when we still had an old tour walking tour and visit to the emerald museum left to do), the guide translates very little into English (it’s mostly Colombian tourists) and you can sweat it out for hours in congested traffic just looping around the city’s hotels picking up more people.
On the plus side, it’s pretty fun winding up the road to the monastery but the buses have ear piercingly squeaky breaks and all the sights were crowded with bus loads of tourists shuffling around and jostling selfie sticks for the best shot of the panoramic view. It’s also pricey at 60,000 pesos per ticket (£16.20) but you do get a guide and entry to all the sights including the city’s famous fort. For juicy steak and towering burgers had an epic dinner at Chachara Restaurante in Getsemani.
DAY 3 – EXPLORE THE OLD TOWN
To avoid the heat we spent the morning lounging by the gorgeous pool at Hostel Arsenal Boutique, one of the best places we stayed. Not bad for $15 a night…
We had a memorable lunch at La Cevicheria, the catch of the day (red snapper) with coconut rice was to die for. In the afternoon we haggled for woven bags and beaded bracelets with the street hawkers and went in some of the city’s churches.
DAY 4 – TRAVEL TO FOODIE HEAVEN, SANTA MARTA
Bidding farewell to colourful Cartagena, we hopped on a private minibus to Santa Marta (organsised by the hostel). My advice would be to use public buses over private transfer (if you can share a cab to the bus station). We opted for the private option out of ease (and not much more expensive) – supposedly more comfortable and door to door but it was cramped, stopped frequently and dropped us at the bus office instead of our hostel as agreed. We stayed at the ex Cartel-owned mansion, Drop Bear Hostel – a bit out of town but great communal areas, helpful front desk and on site motorbike rental. It’s worth staying here for the pool alone…
Santa Marta gets a bad write up in Lonely Planet but we really enjoyed it. It’s the gastronomic capital of the Caribbean coast with a plethora of great restaurants, try Lulo (below) for a superb dinner of inventive arepas piled high with steak, prawns and avocado. We loved Ouzo for pizzas and invention meat dishes and brunch / lunch at Carambolo for healthy food like baked eggs and jam jars of smoothies.
Day 5 – BIKE TO TAYRONA
Santa Marta makes a great base from which to explore so we met up with friends and rented bikes. At Drop bear hostel you can rent a scooter for 125,000 pesos for the day. We set off for journey hostel, a new place on the edge of tayrona park and on the road to Palomino. Sadly the Tayrona park was closed when we were there so I’d suggest spending less time in Cartagena and doing a night or two in the park instead if it’s open. We were a bit beached out after San Blas so one day here suited us fine. We parked our bikes at Journey Hostel where the friendly staff gave us directions and a rudimentary map to the beach, which is a pretty 30 minute walk through lush jungle. You’ll have to cross two rivers to get there but it’s part of the adventure. Keep your eyes peeled for monkeys and lizards along the way. After a gentle hike you’ll be rewarded with a stunning stretch of beach that snakes into the Tayrona park.
Technically you’re in Tayrona once you’ve crossed the last river so we kind of sneaked in when it was closed but there’s an ongoing dispute between Tayrona and the local community about who owns this picturesque area. If you get lost on route, ask at one of the local fincas for directions or just head in the direction of the sea. Watch out for caymans in the river though! This stretch is marked on the map at Journey Hostel. I’d actually recommend staying here if you have a bit more the home, the hostel was built recently by a very welcoming Canadian-Colombian guy – you’ll spot the tree house like structure from the road. It had just been approved by Hostel World when we were there so won’t be long before word gets out.
Day 6 – FIND AN OASIS OF CALM IN MINCA’S MOUNTAINS
We checked out of Drop Bear hostel and got a 4×4 to Minca. They run every hour and depart when full. Minca town isn’t far from Santa Marta and the trip is particularly scenic but getting to the fabulous Casa Elemento is an adventure in itself! There are two options – 20,000 pesos for a motorcycle taxi or 120,000 for a 4×4 (which you could split with others). We opted for the cheapest option but be warned, the road is REALLY treacherous and this option isn’t for the fainted hearted. It’s not uncommon for motorbikes to topple over on the steep, pot holed ascent and two girls we met sustained serious burns from falling off their rides. Whilst we had fun going up (gripping to our drivers for dear life!), we opted for a 4×4 going down which is still fun but infinitely safer.
We spent the afternoon and evening lounging in giant hammocks, watching the sunset over the mountains, singing around the campfire and tucking into a delicious but humongous family style dinner at the hostel. There’s a pool and bar on site too and it’s a great place to meet other travellers and escape sticky Santa Marta. If you can, stay in dorm Relax which has its own private hammock or book one of the quirky treehouses. The hostel also organises coffee tours for 10,000 pesos and early morning bird watching trips.
Day 7 – HIKE TO WATERFALLS IN MINCA
Get up early and hike up to the viewpoint to see the snowy peaks. Then drop down to Cascada de Marinka, where you can swim beneath the majestic falls and have a snack or beer at the cafe above. The hike back up is pretty tough going but it’s still preferable to attempting the road on a motorcycle taxi. Don’t forget your bikini…
Day 8 – CHILL OUT IN PALOMINO
Our next stop was the popular backpacker town of Palomino. 4x4s are easily organised from Minca but you’ll need to change onto a bus at Santa Marta. Stay at Dreamers hostel, a well equipped party hostel in the best location right on the beach. If you can’t get in, just go for a drink and to use the lovely pool. They also offer early morning yoga sessions on the beach – mats are provided and novices made welcome.
Day 9 – TUBING THROUGH THE JUNGLE
Palomino hasn’t got at lot going on apart from a long pretty beach and it’s infamous river, which attracts tourists for tubing. 10,000 gets you a tube (inflatable ring to us Brits) and motorcycle taxi to the river. It’s a a steep 30 minute walk to the river so take flip-flops and tie them to your tube. Beers and rum optional but advised! Try and get there late morning as it gets a bit cloudy and therefore chillychilly mid afternoon. It’s quite pretty amazing 2 hours floating down the river toward the sea, passing children playing, herons hunting for fish and the most jaw-dropping scenery along the way. We got a bus back to Santa Marta late afternoon but you could go to Taganga instead.
Day 10 – SCUBA DIVING IN SANTA MARTA OR TAYRONA
We booked through Caribbean Pro Dive and I really can’t rate these guys highly enough. For 15o,000 pesos (just over £40) we got a two tank dive, transport, snacks and our own boat / dive master to ourselves! Plus we were given all the brilliant underwater photos free of charge. Visibility isn’t great and the current was strong but the marine life was really diverse. We saw a plethora of fish, from clown fish to angel fish, lobster, Moray eels and our second dive took us to a small wreck. I didn’t receive any discount or incentive for writing about these guys, I just found them really friendly and professional.
Day 11 – FLY TO MEDILLIN AND TAKE THE FREE CITY TOUR
On arrival go on the real city tour (free but you’re expected to tip and must book your place online advance). You’ll be taken to all the main sights downtown including the Plaza of Botero. It’s a long tour so take a hat, water and comfy shoes.
Stay at the amazing Los Patios Boutique hostel, head to the local Exito supermarket to buy stuff for a bbq on the roof. Sunset at the stunning rooftop tiki bar is particularly special, even if you aren’t a guest you can pop in for a drink.
Day 12 – EXPLORE MEDILLIN’S NATURE
Take the cable car to the top of the city or for something more leisurely, visit the jardin botanical (free) where you can have lunch at various restaurants within the grounds. Make sure you visit the butterfly house (closes at 4pm). Eat dinner at Olivia’s which serves up the best pizzas, salads and Sangria. The go bar hopping in El Poblado, backpackers tend to head to Happy Buddah but if you’d rather mingle with well-heeled locals then head to the swankiest bar in Poblado… the rooftop of Charlee’s hotel. But you’ll have to dress smart to get in and men won’t get in without an equal number of women in their group.
Day 13 – 15 : VOLUNTEER IN A GANG-CONTROLLED BARRIO
We spent 3 days volunteering at Angeles de Medellín, a truly inspiring charity located in a gang-controlled barrio, Regalo del Dios or “Gift From God”. Run by the charismatic Marcos, the small foundation supports families displaced by the drugs conflict in numerous ways – education, outreach and nutrition programmes. They are a 100% volunteer run so will be hugely grateful for any time you can give.
You can volunteer for as little as one day but all volunteers must donate 80,000 pesos to help cover running costs, which is fair enough when you consider they receive no funding and entirely on donations to fund operations. As a volunteer you’ll meet lots of other travellers, be met at the metro by the founder who will tell you all about his amazing story and how he gained the community’s trust and help with English classes, playing with the kids whilst their mums take sewing courses and on Wednesdays the charity cook lunch for the elderly and disabled. To find out how to help, visit http://www.angelesdemedellin.org
Day 16 – PAINTBALL IN PABLO ESCOBAR’S MANSION
This was one of the highlights of our trip. We booked with Escobar Paintballing for the great value full day tour which includes transport, lunch at Pablo Escobar’s now derelict mansion (owned by his ex Gardner who we met), a high speed boat ride across the, a visit to Guatapé including a free coffee in the main square and ending with a magnificent climb to the top of El Peñón de Guatape. 700 steps to the top but the views are pretty spectacular.
Day 17 – PICK YOUR OWN COFFEE IN SALENTO
You can fly or get three buses there (we flew but it was delayed and then we still had to get a 45 minute bus from the airport). Salento is a small mountainous town in the heart of zona cafeteria (the coffee region). On arrival, we dumped our bags at El Viajero hostel and headed straight to one of the local organic coffee farms to pick our own beans and learn about the traditional cultivation and harvesting methods still employed today.
Colombia is the world’s 3rd biggest coffee producer after Brazil and Vietnam so even if you’re not a coffee drinker, you’ll want to visit a finca. We had dinner at Brunch of Salento where huge portions of American and Mexican food dominate the menu. For those with a sweet tooth and hungry appetite, the peanut butter brownie is big enough to share.
Day 18 – HIKE THROUGH A VALLEY WITH THE WORLD’S TALLEST PALM TREES
2 nights here will suffice to see all the sights. We woke up early and ate a big breakfast before emarking on a fabulous half day hike through the valley of the palm trees. In a country full of beautiful landscapes, Valle de Cocora is one of the most impactful and should definitely be on your Colombia bucket list.
For an authentic Colombian experience, we spent the evening drinking poker and playing tejo, a national a sport which involves throwing metal disks into a pit of clay with the aim of hitting packets of gunpowder and setting them alight. Fiendishly difficult but great fun.
Day 19 – LEARN TO SALSA IN CALI
Before leaving Salento, we climbed yhe steps to the the look out point for views over the town. You can pick up some good souvenirs from local artisnal shops around the main Plaza. We then hopped on a bus to Armenia (every 15 minutes from salento) and onto one of the frequent connecting buses to cali (3 1/2 hours). We had originally booked to stay at Colombia house hostel but the staff were particularly rude and the place really untidy and cluttered so we checked out and found a dorm at El Viajero instead – a gorgeous hostel with one of the best hostel pools I’ve used in Colombia. Staff are a great source of local knowledge and there is an on site salsa school.
Day 20 – TAKE AN UNUSUAL TRIP TO THE PACIFIC COAST
We hit the Pacific Coast for a day in San Cipriano where we hiked to beautiful waterfalls and tube through the jungle. The most memorable part of San Cipriano was the unique transportation to reach it… you take “brujitas” (meaning “tiny witch”), a wooden makeshift cart using the abandoned railway and powered by a motorbike! Amazing fun. This was undoubtedly one of our highlights of the entire trip – if you want to do something ‘off the beaten track’ and totally unique, put this place on your list.
Day 21 – EAT YOUR WAY AROUND CALI’S FOOD MARKET
At 11am join the street food tour with Callejoros Tours where you’ll try every type of exotic Colombian fruit imaginable including the hugely popular local chontaduro (or Peach Palm Fruit) which you’ll see sold all over the city. Considered the “national viagra” despite no scientific evidence, locals believe it increases libido and stamina. No wonder Colombian men were queueing up to buy them! If you can stomach the unusual taste (kind of like a sweet potato or squash) they have as much protein as eggs and help lower cholesterol:
In the evening, have a salsa lesson at Viajero hostel (free for guests) before heading to one of the city’s famous salsa joints. If you’re there on a Wednesday, go to La Topa Tolondra, also in the San-Antonio neighborhood, which has a really authentic feel to it.
Day 23 – EXPLORE A COLONIAL GEM
Guane is a beautiful colonial town just 45 minutes by bus from San Gil. Wander around the churches, paper factory and don’t miss the cementary. The hike for 2 hours on the fossil paved El Camino de Guane, stopping for a fresh juice at a family home on route. Grab a beer for the bus ride back to San Gil and head to Gringo Mikes for dinner. The 70% chocolate brownie is to die for and the spicy Mexican chicken salad and blue cheese burgers are also great. This place also serves the best cocktails in town, try the premium margarita. We stayed at Sam’s VIP hostel which was fabulous and they organised our paragliding trip for the next day.
Day 24 – PARAGLIDE OVER A CANYON
Book with Parapente Chicamocha
, by far the most professional and friendly company I’ve come across. It’s 170,000 pesos but you’re driven to a perfect spot at the top of the canyon and are taken on a mesmerising 30 minute flight over th3 rugged mountains below. The pilots will be happy to show off their acrobatic skills at the end if conditions allow – you’ll have a strong stomach for this! Tye guys are often up for organising a pub crawl so enquire about this after your flight.
Day 25 – VISIT VILLA DE LEYVA
Don’t miss this stunning colonial town, a historic site and playground for rich Bogotoans escaping the city for the weekend. Foodies will love El Mercado Central for slow roasted pork and lamb – beautifully presented and served with inventive accompaniments. We are still fantasising about the heavenly desserts – the coconut pie and dark chocolate pot are to die for. Stay at Alfondoque Hostal if you like to party and want to be in a picturesque, central location. The owner, Santi, will be happy to show you around the city and is somewhat of a social butterfly so can point you in the direction of any happening nights or events.
Day 26 – HIKE TO THE TOP OF THE TOWN
Get up early to avoid the sun and walk the steep ascent from Renacer Guesthouse to the viewpoint over three village. Reception will happily lend you a map and escort you to the start point of the trail. It’s pretty slippery so take it slow and wear sturdy footwear. Have a fun BBQ lunch at La Feria. The specialities include the Chorizo Santarrosano (charcoal grilled beef and pork sausage sundried in the Villa) but don’t miss the gigantic mazurka (grilled corn with salty butter) and the delicious ensued La Feria which makes a great side to all the charcoaled meat dishes. Get the 2.30pm direct bus to Bogota which takes 4 hours.
DAY 27 – VISIT THE SALT CATHEDRAL
On our first day in Bogata we did a day tour to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, an underground network of towering crucifixes and chambers carved into rock salt. About 50km north of Bogota, it makes an unusual sightseeing trip. The Cathedral was first built in 1954, but the architectural problems and safety issues led the authorities to close it down in 1990. The present church was built in the 90s approximately 200 feet below the ancient shrine, using the hallways that were deserted by the salt mining. In Bogota, we stayed at the gorgeous Masaya hostel (pictured below), where staff can arrange all sorts of trips and tours including the Salt Cathedral, Graffiti Tour and City Tour. There are also free salsa lessons, events and classes so you don’t even have to leave your hostel to have a good time.
DAY 28 – DO BOGOTA’S GRAFFITI TOUR
Artists come from all over the world to paint a wall in Bogota. This informative free walking tour will give you an insight into Colombia’s ongoing corruption problems and also introduce you to some of the most famous pieces of street art, street sculpture and murals around La Candelaria and the centre. Have lunch at Dos Gatos Y Simone where Mexican fare is given an inventive twist. After lunch take el teleferico to Monserrate, the iconic church perched high above the city. A great vantage point to admire one of South America’s biggest cities.
DAY 29 – BIKE TOUR OF BOGOTA
Save the Bogota bike tour for the last day of your trip. A fun, free wheeling four hours exploring all sides of this gritty city – from the red light district to the salubrious neighbourhoods of the north. You’ll drink coffee after watching it roasted in the adjacent factory and hear fascinating stories along the way.
NOTE: Thanks to Los Patios Boutique Hostel in Medellin, El Viajero in Salento and Cali, Sam’s VIP in San Gil, Masaya Hostel in Bogota and Alfondoque in Villa de Lleya for hosting us. Whilst we do occasionally collaborate with hotels and hostels, all my reviews are unbiased and reflective of our experience.