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Colombia: What you need to know
If you rewind about 20 years, Colombia was not a place that was talked about as a tourist destination. Pablo Escobar and the Colombian drug cartels made the country one of the most dangerous places in the world for many years, and the ongoin civil war there meant that even after Pablo’s death Colombia was still not a safe place for tourists.
Thankfully, these days it’s really quite safe to travel in Colombia (provided you don’t stray too far off the beaten path). Crime levels in the country have dramatically dropped in the last 10 years. In 2010 tourist boards around the world began declaring areas of the country safe for travel. It’s still a place where you need to have your wits about you, but as long as you exercise a degree of caution then you’re not likely to have any major problems travelling throughout the country.
Travelling in Colombia
Over the last 5-10 years, Colombia has steadily grown in popularity as a tourist destination. Particularly among backpackers it’s become one of the new hotspots for tourism in South America. Here’s what you need to know and the places you should see.
- Population: Around 49 million
- Capital city: Bogotá
- Official Languages: Spanish
- Currency: Colombian
Places To Go In Colombia
The capital city of Colombia, Bogotá is located in the Andes, 2640m above sea level. It gets a bit of a bad rap as a dangerous city. And while it can be if you do the wrong thing or stray into the wrong area, as long as you’re careful you shouldn’t have any problems. I spent close to two weeks there and never had any issues. It’s definitely worth at least a few nights.
Probably the most popular tourist destination in Colombia. Cartagena is situated in the north of the country on the Caribbean coast. It’s a beautiful old city, and a good place to base yourself to explore some of the beaches of the coast. Three nights is ideal.
Santa Marta / Parque Tayrona
Another popular place to head to on the Caribbean coast.
I didn’t go so much on Santa Marta itself. But the national park close by, Parque Tayrona, was an amazing place to explore. It’s possible to camp overnight or sleep in hammocks on the beach there, which is a great experience.
Santa Marta is also where most of the tours / hikes to La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) depart from. It’s generally around 3 days hiking as part of a tour group, and lots of the companies let you leave your big backpack in their office in Santa Marta and just take a small pack with you. It’s absolutely worth doing if you have the time.
- Tip: My advice would be to spend just a night or two in Santa Marta itself, and spend the rest of your time in the region exploring Parque Tayrona and trekking to La Ciudad Perdida
- Four days hiking: Guide to The Lost City Trek in Colombia
Amongst backpackers, one of the most popular cities in Colombia. It’s famous for its nightlife, has a great atmosphere, and of course you can do a few tours to learn all about Pablo Escobar. You can easily spend a week in Medellin and never get bored.
One of the most colourful cities in the world. It’s also home to El Peñon de Guatapé, a huge rock that you can climb to get great views of the region. You can either travel to and stay in Guatapé for a couple of nights, or visit the area as a day trip from Medellin (it’s probably the most popular day trip to take from Medellin).
Other places to visit
Even though I spent almost five weeks in Colombia, I didn’t get to visit everywhere I wanted to see. Other places that are popular to visit include:
Palomino: A little town on the Caribbean coast, a little further to the east of Santa Marta. It’s becoming really popular among backpackers as a place to spend a few days and relax. To get there you can get a bus from Santa Marta.
Zona Cafetera (The Coffee Zone): I started my trip there with every intention of visiting the coffee zone, but ended up running out of time. It’s a zone in the centre of the country, between Medellín, Bogotá and Cali. Most things I read seemed to say you needed 3-4 nights in the region. Here’s one of the websites that I used when we were researching (it’s for organised tours, but it’s a good starting point even if you’re gonna visit yourself).
Cali: Most things that I heard about Cali were that it was a great place to party. It didn’t quite fit into my itinerary, and there were too many other things I wanted to see, so I didn’t quite make it there.
Travel Tips And Things To Know
Best time to visit:
There isn’t really a ‘best time to visit’ Colombia. The weather is pretty good for most of the year, and as it’s not overly touristy it shouldn’t ever be too busy. The dry season is from December to March, but it’s generally pretty dry all year round.
There are two options here, by bus or by plane. 10-15 years ago you would have been mad to bus around Colombia, but now many people do safely. Saying that, you do still need to be a little careful which routes you take and where you go… I went into more detail on that here.
Lots of travellers do choose to travel by air in Colombia. It’s faster, safer and generally really cheap. Viva Colombia has really cheap internal flights within Colombia, that you can usually book a week or less in advance.
Colombia is a relatively cheap country to travel in. A cheap meal out should cost 10,000 $Co or less (around €3.50 or $AUD 4.50). You can find a dorm room in a hostel for less than $30,000 $Co. If you’re budget travelling, you can get by pretty comfortably on around 100,000 $Co per day (around €35, or less than $AUD 50 per day).
Common places to go from Colombia are either to Panama or Ecuador.
If you’re going to Panama, options are to either fly or to get a boat. The boat trip is the popular backpacker route, and you can read more about it here and here. Flying is the more expensive but maybe slightly safer option. NOTE: Do not try to cross the border to Panama by land. It’s apparently impossible and very dangerous.
If you’re going to Ecuador, you can either get the bus or fly. I was warned against getting the bus, and so i chose to fly. The border with Ecuador has historically been dangerous. I did hear of some people crossing the border via bus, but if you’re going to do that then talk to people there to make sure it’s a safe route.