Best Places to Visit in Colombia
Almost without fail when I say I’m in Colombia people gasp and say how dangerous that is for anyone, much less a girl traveling solo. Travelers who have visited the country are the exception to that rule. Instead of panicking, they swoon and tell you passionately about how Colombia is their favorite. This polarizing attitude is due to the drug cartels that ruled the country for years, Pablo Escobar the most famous among them.
In 2019, Colombia is not without its faults and, like any country, can be unsafe if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, its old reputation shouldn’t keep you from planning a trip here ASAP. With friendly locals, colonial cities, mango pops, salsa dancing, and incredible nature all around you—Colombia has something for everyone to love.
A colonial-style town with pastel-colored shops and cobblestone streets sits next to a line of skyscrapers in a contrasting scene by the ocean. In the streets, there is an equally puzzling mixture of cultures. African American women with vibrant traditional garb sit on street corners balancing woven baskets of fruit atop their heads while Latin American locals walk by peddling bracelets and hats to tourists. Both cultures live in harmony with each other with neither being more foreign in Cartagena than the other.
It feels simultaneously touristy and charming and soon you find yourself wandering aimlessly down the narrow streets, absorbed in the bustling atmosphere of the city.
Take salsa lessons, sample some local food, or spend an afternoon reading at Abacus Books and Coffee. Then sign up for a free walking tour to discover why so many cultures are present in Cartagena.
A tiny town tucked away in the mountains, Minca is not without its charms. People who’ve visited this jungle escape speak about it in reverent tones, “Have you been to Minca? I don’t know how I managed to leave. I loved it!”
With just one street dotted with a handful of restaurants and small tiendas (gas station fare without the gas pumps), it’s initially difficult to see why people are so smitten. As the tension starts to leave your neck and shoulders and you relax into your setting, you begin to think, maybe there is something to the hype. Then when your choice every morning is just whether to go left or right down the path to numerous waterfalls and swimming holes, the simplicity of the beautiful way of life here hits you. It’s uncomplicated and easy and suddenly you realize that is exactly what you needed to recover your energy and enthusiasm.
Four backpacker hostels nestled next to a stretch of beach between two mountain ranges are all that make up Playa Costeño. Like with the simplicity of Minca, you soon recognize this as an endearing feature. After all, what more do you need in life than good friends, a place to chill by the beach, and delicious food options? Even if you’re solo, you’re sure to quickly meet like-minded travelers. The general cadence of the day is: wake up for sunrise, sway in a hammock until breakfast, lay out on the beach until lunch, and then play volleyball or spend more time in a hammock until it’s time for dinner, watching sunset, and dancing.
If you need a break from being a beach bum, you can go hiking in the woods nearby, take a day trip to Tayrona Park, or go river tubing with the Rio Hostel group.
This self-proclaimed “adventure capital” of Colombia is the perfect spot to check a few experiences off your bucket list. Surrounded by mountains and with a river running right through the town, you feel incredibly close to nature despite being in a relatively busy town.
The fruit market in the center has the cheapest and largest avocados I’ve ever seen along with tons of interesting fruits that I didn’t recognize. Stock up on fresh produce, then walk across the street and buy groceries so that you can cook many of your meals while in San Gil. You’ll need that saved money for all the activities you’re sure to want to try here.
So what is there to do? Go paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon, white-water raft down a river with category-five rapids, bungee jump 140 meters, rappel down a waterfall, or go canyoning for a day of cliff jumping and abseiling. The options here are limitless and you can reduce your bucket list without breaking the bank since prices are reasonable.
The overwhelming sense of Medellín is that of redemption and resurrection. Once known as the most dangerous city in the world, it has clawed its way out of the gutter to become a favorite city among travelers (many of whom end up working remotely here long term).
Neighborhoods made of colorful shacks are built into the hills that comprise the city’s topography. Combined with the skyscrapers and surrounding nature, the shacks make one of the most interesting and sprawling skylines ever.
People in London, New York, and big cities all over the world are proud of their metro systems but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who speaks with more pride about a metro than someone from Medellín. It was built during the 90s when they were going through one of the roughest periods of their existence and is a beacon of hope to the city. It is also the cheapest public transport I’ve ever ridden in, costing less that $1for rides and transfers within and hour and a half of each other.
Learn about the city’s tumultuous past by taking a free walking tour around downtown. My guide, Julio, was one of the most passionate guides I’ve ever had. Then top off your history with the Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour which tells the story of tragedy and redemption. Both tours give you insight into how city planners took dangerous areas and filled them with art or sculptures to change the entire vibe of the space.
Staying in the Pablado neighborhood will put you among expats and travelers. The area is catered to gringos so you’ll find vegan restaurants, pizza places galore, and incredible coffee shops (definitely check out Kiwi-owned Hija Mia). The Exito grocery store is enormous and has food for all allergies and restrictions. After traveling through the rest of Colombia where the meals are primarily deep fried, you’ll be happy to eat gringo food again for a while.
Colombia is a dangerous place to visit because you may never want to leave. Even the sketchiest neighborhoods I visited had a certain charm to them and while English isn’t widely spoken, you’ll feel at home among the outgoing locals if you try to immerse yourself in their culture.
When planning your trip, remember that Colombia is a huge country and travel times via bus are 8-14 hours between the main cities. The night busses I’ve taken so far have been very comfortable and I’ve gotten a full night’s sleep on them, but if you’re short on time, look into flying which is pretty cheap within the country.
A common route among backpackers is to start in Bogota, then go to Salento to see the giant palm trees, and then to Medellín before flying to Cartagena and the northern coast. I did the reverse of this except that I skipped Bogota in favor of San Gil. Another place you’ll want to add on if you love to dance is Cali where salsa is a way of life.
It’s hard to go wrong in Colombia since every place is unique and incredible in its own way. The one place I’d say to be sure to go is Medellín because its story is so inspirational and will teach you that it is possible to survive anything that life throws your way. Be sure to stay at Los Patios Boutique Hostel if you do because it’s hands down the best hostel I’ve stayed at on my trip. Maybe ever.
If you have any questions about my experiences in Colombia or need help planning your trip, just leave a comment below or send me an email.