Backpack Colombia: Where to go

If you are considering a vacation through Colombia and you have expressed this to friends and family, their reactions were probably full of solemn concern. I know it well. Before traveling through this amazingly beautiful country for two weeks, friends, family, and complete strangers alike were very, very worried about my safety. Although I do appreciate them dearly, and it is important to remain somewhat vigilant in any new destination, most fears went unwarranted. So if you do go to Colombia, you want to go to Colombia, or if you’re dreaming of going to Colombia, please do not take seriously the advice of people who have not visited this truly enchanting country before. And if you do find yourself there one day, here is some advice on what to do and how to go about doing it.

I will preface this post by saying that it would be best if you or a travel mate spoke or understood Spanish. My friend and I both had elementary understandings of the language. Although our skills improved in a short time, we could have avoided a lot of embarrassing situations had we had a better grasp on Espanol. Yet with that being said, most every one we came across was incredibly patient and accommodating when communicating with us. I truly believe that the Colombian people are aware of the country’s reputation to outsiders, and because of this they do their best to make foreigners feel welcome. Whether it was using simple phrases and speaking slowly or participating in a mutual game of charades, they never made us feel bad or guilty. That is truly saying a lot.

So if you do find yourself in Colombia, you have to figure out what you’re going to do. Kara and I were surprised to find that every city we visited was drastically different than the one we had left. Accents differed, the climate, the landscape, the dress, everything. It was amazing. We chose to travel to four cities with the help of the incredible Uncover Colombia team (thank you so much!) and although we didn’t have the time or budget to travel south, we felt we got a fairly good understanding of the culture in the short time we had.

Medellin

We started our trip in Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia. Once we had landed and chatted with a few people who had traveled extensively throughout the country, they told us Medellin would be our favorite city. They were right. We’re not quite sure what it was about this city in particular, but we fell in love. The night life, the food, the excursions, Medellin had it all.

We decided to stay at the Tiger Paw Hostel from a friend’s recommendation and we couldn’t have been more pleased. It had a wonderful location, good food and drink specials (happy hour every day) and the staff was always willing to help. If you decide not to stay here, I certainly suggest staying somewhere in El Poblado, a more modern and safe area in the city full of other curious travelers.

Once we had arrived in the city, we were ready to explore. We found our way to the bus terminal, Terminal del Norte, and traveled about an hour to Guatape. The perfect day trip, this brightly colored village is a good getaway from chaotic city life. Kara and I zip lined across the lake that sits in the middle of this quaint town. You can take boat tours if you choose, as well. Near Guatape is El Penol, simply put a giant rock. You can climb the 600-some stairs to the top for a stunning view of it all.

If you stay in Medellin, there is no shortage of things to do and see. One of our favorite things was taking the cable cars up to Parque Arvi. To do this, take the metro to stop Acevedo. Here, you hop on the cable cars that will take you up (and provide a beautiful view of the city) to the stop Santo Domingo. Keep going up and you’ll reach the park. There are horse trails and bikes available to rent. Walk through this beautiful park, eat at one of the many restaurants or cafes, and enjoy the enchanting sights.

If you have some extra time in the city, consider taking the Pablo Escobar tour. The man responsible for much of the violence in Medellin, this tour will take you through his rise to the top and his fall, even making a stop at the place he was killed. We spoke with people who had done this tour and they highly recommended it. My friend and I were a bit reluctant to go because of the language barrier, but they are available in English. Ask your hostel for help if you would like to go on this one-of-a-kind trip.

Cartagena

From Medellin, we took the 17-ish hour bus up north to Cartagena. Others told us it was warm, but I believe they meant to say unbearably hot. The climate differed so drastically from Medellin and Cartagena (and we would soon find out the rest of our destinations). If you do make a trip to this lovely city, I recommend a stay in El Viajero. The hostel was clean, had AC in every room, and free breakfast for a great price. Although it was a bit loud at times, we enjoyed our stay. If you don’t stay at this particular hostel, make sure you do stay somewhere within the walled city.

This charming city was certainly the most beautiful we visited in all of Colombia. Getting lost inside the walls was one of our favorite activities. There is a good amount of shops and restaurants, from high-end to street meat.

Outside the city, there are many nearby excursions that reveal the real beauty of Colombia’s coast. We took the small trip to Islas del Rosario, about an hour outside Cartagena by boat. Our hostel arranged our ticket and we found the port with just a little confusion. Once we boarded our vessel, we were off! Little did we know that on top of the ticket price and additional taxes paid at the port gate, we had to choose between going to an aquarium or going snorkeling, both of which cost more money. Since neither Kara nor I spoke Spanish, this proved to be troublesome and we had to pay for snorkeling when we returned to the city. My advice for those who might take this excursion: stay at the beach. Before going to the aquarium/snorkel spot, the boat will make a stop at La Playa Blanca, a beautiful (although crowded) white sand beach. There is no additional fee to get off here and your time will most likely be more enjoyable.

Looking for something relaxing that won’t break the bank? Stop by one of the numerous squares located generously throughout the city. Kara and I visited Fernandez de La Madrid Square almost every night to drink a coffee, read a book, and browse the various vendors.

Santa Marta

A short 4-hour bus ride later, we were in the city of Santa Marta. While not as hot as Cartagena, this city was more hectic than we had expected. The honking barely drowned out the whistles we became accustomed to hearing, but still, we enjoyed this city just the same as the others.

We decided to stay at La Brisa Loca, a recommendation from friends. The hostel had a great location, the staff was tremendously helpful, and the food was cheap. Although it did get a bit loud at times and non air conditioned rooms were almost impossible to sleep in, I would certainly suggest this hostel to anyone visiting.

We decided to get in touch with our adventurous sides in Santa Marta and took a few excursions to explore nature at its finest. Our first trip was to the wildly popular Tayrona National Park. Located only an hour from the city and easy to get to by bus, this park has some of the loveliest beaches we’ve seen. It’s possible to stay in the park overnight by renting a hammock or tent. There are numerous trails to explore and beaches to lounge upon. No matter if you spend one or ten days here, you won’t regret it.

Our next excursion was to the lesser-known Minca, our favorite day of the entire trip. Our tour guide, Joe, took us to his beautiful bamboo house he built on his pristine 6-acre land. He cooked for us, took us birdwatching, and taught us about Colombian culture. We trekked to a “lost waterfall,” fell off rocks, got attacked by plants and ants, and feared for our safety at times. Easily one of the most memorable days of this trip and off my travels thus far.

If you have more time, consider visiting the nearby fishing village of Taganga. A popular destination with tourists, it also provides budget diving if you so desire. It’s too close to Santa Marta not to go.

Bogota

Our last stop was the nation’s capital, and after a 22-hour bus ride we had finally arrived. And wow, it was cold. At least cold compared to what we were used to. I’m not sure how many feet above sea level the city sits, but if you do visit, make sure to pack your jeans and long sleeved shirts.

There are tons of budget accommodations for you to choose from. Kara and I went with Alegeria’s Hostel, a break from the chaos that goes hand in hand with big cities. There was free breakfast, large rooms, and it was always quiet. The hostel is located in La Candelaria, a safe, inexpensive, friendly area that I would recommend all travelers to stay in. If you have the budget, you can also stay in Zona Rosa where much of the nightlife is located.

One of our first stops in Bogota was Monserrate. Easy to spot from our hostel, it is a mountain that sits high above the city. We took cable cars to the top (about $7 USD round trip) and found the view to be stunning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sky so blue. There is a church at the top, as well as numerous cafes and restaurants, even an exercise zone if you so desire.

Kara and I happened to be in Bogota on the weekend, so we were fortunate enough to visit the Usaquen Street Market that sets up every Sunday and on holidays. It was fun to walk around the stands, to see the handcrafted jewelry, homemade treats, and unique soaps, though just about everything was for sale. Sample some of the food and certainly try some of the fresh pink lemonade.

Colombia is home to some of the best gold museums in the world, so make sure you visit Museo del Oro in Bogota, perhaps the best in the country. Kara and I would like to say we did, but we made the unfortunate choice to go on Monday. The museum is closed on Mondays. Take note when making plans!

Overall, the trip was incredible. We walked away with a new love for the Colombian culture and people. After landing with unsettling fears, we laugh at the misconceptions now. Not only should travelers want to visit Colombia, they should feel safe doing it.

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2 thoughts on “Backpack Colombia: Where to go

  1. Hello! We are glad you had a good time in Colombia and thank you for kindly mentioning us in your article. Needless to say we agree with your views. If someone really wants to know what Colombia is like, they should talk to someone who has actually been there, or better still… come and see by themselves! Thanks for your article, a fair and balanced depiction of the realities of travelling in Colombia. Hopefully you will come back again one day!

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