Colombia travel guide | Best Colombia travel tips
You planning on visiting Colombia and you are asking yourself which are the best travel tips for your visit? Here is our Colombia travel guide – we wrote the most important things you need to know before your visit.
We had no idea how long we will spend in Colombia, we came there without any expectations and we ended up staying for more than 2 months. We fell in love with this beautiful country and the people living there. The hospitality and warmth of Colombians are out of this world.
Everybody knows about the drug wars and conflicts between the cartels and the government. Well in the last couple of years things have changed, this is in the past and Colombia is now a much safer country to travel to. Actually, it is becoming a very popular tourist destination for many of us out there.
We get annoyed that every time we mention Colombia to others, they all connect it with Pablo Escobar and the Narcos series. Don’t get us wrong, we weren’t much different before our visit. But Colombia is so much more than just Pablo Escobar – it is full of art, outstanding nature, delicious coffee, ancient sites, paradise beaches, salsa, adventure, and colonial cities.
Many locals find relating Colombia with Escobar and drug cartels really offensive and we don’t blame them. Connecting such a beautiful country just with its dark past is really not the way. Colombia also has one of the nicest people we ever met on our travels. We absolutely love it!
Here is our Colombia travel guide, we hope it will come in handy!
Is Colombia a safe country to travel
When we first arrived in Colombia it was a bit scary for us. You probably all heard the stories about cartels and violence, and all of us probably watched the series Narcos. We soon found out that Colombia is actually not a scary place at all. After 2 days we felt completely safe and never felt threatened or in any kind of danger.
You just need to be aware of your possessions (all the time!) and avoid dangerous parts of some cities. Don’t show around your possessions, have little money on you. Its also not recommended to wander around at night, stay close to tourist areas. Every city has areas that have a bad reputation, avoid them.
Visa + Vaccinations + Water – Colombia travel guide
Citizens of Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, and Britain don’t need a visa for a stay up to 90 days. Besides your passport, you may be required to show an onward or exit ticket. But this rarely happens.
Some recommended vaccines for Colombia: Hepatitis A&B, Yellow fever, Rabies, Typhoid. We did shots of Hepatitis A and Yellow fever.
Another good thing in Colombia – tap water is drinkable in some areas. You can pour a glass of water and drink it in all major cities – Medellin, Bogota, Cali. We drank it, the water is good. We also drank tap water in Zona Cafetera, San Gil, Minca, and some other parts. If you not sure just ask the locals and they will let you know.
When to visit Colombia – Colombia travel guide
Our opinion is that you can visit Colombia all year round. We started in February and had it all – cold, rain, and crazy heat. Climate does vary through all the country because of the terrain which changes from North to South (beaches, tropical forest, and mountains). The temperatures are determined more by regions and not the season. It will be always colder in the mountains and hotter on the Caribbean coast.
If we have to choose the best time to visit, we would say from December to March (this is the dry season) and it is also the time of the famous carnival in Barranquilla.
Money in Colombia – Colombia travel guide
The official currency in Colombia is the Colombian peso (COP $). I brought quite a lot of cash with me, I thought to exchange my money in Colombia. Well, it didn’t happen. If I would exchange it, I would lose more than 10%. You will be better off using ATMs in Colombia, they have a much better exchange rate. Also, be careful of counterfeit money, check the bills every time.
Be careful and don’t accept old and torn bills, you will have problems using them.
Most banks have the maximum withdrawal at 300.000 COP (72€;82$) but we found some with 600.000 COP, or more (BBVA bank, Davivienda). We recommend that you withdrawal as much as possible so you don’t need to be all the time on the ATM and paying withdrawal fees.
Language in Colombia – Colombia travel guide
We won’t lie, you will be much better off if you speak Spanish in Colombia. Spanish is the official language and it is spoken all around the country. We were lucky because one of us (Tjasa) speaks Spanish which helped us a lot. English is not a very common language in Colombia, we met only a few English speakers and it was only in bigger cities.
Where to stay in Colombia
Accomodation in Colombia varies in size and quality and it offers choices for all budgets.
We were usually staying in smaller simple hotels or family homes with breakfast included. We did all the bookings a couple of days before and we used Airbnb or Booking. If you are making your first reservation with Airbnb click HERE and get up to 41€ discount on your first stay – the minimum booking value is 65€!
For a double room with a simple breakfast included we were usually paying from 60.000 – 80.000 COP (14-20€;16-22$).
Transportation in Colombia – Colombia travel guide
If you are backpacking like us, your main transportation will probably be the bus. I don’t want to discourage you, but we lost some nerves with buses in Colombia. They are always late and when I say late I mean really late. Once we arrived with an 8-hour delay. Also, the roads are not in the best condition, at least at some parts it can get quite bad.
While traveling we also had some problems due to the roadblocks built by indigenous people. They were protesting against government discrimination and lack of economical support, by blocking the roads (and we don’t blame them). We had to change our travel plans because of that. All the roads south of Cali were blocked, no traffic was going in that direction. It is good to be aware of that as well.
For one hour of drive with the bus you will usually pay between 4.000 – 8.000 COP (1-2€;1,1$-2,2$).
This is definitely the best way to travel if you have long distances ahead of you. You will pay more for a flight that’s for sure, but if you compare more than 12+ hours of an uncomfortable ride with a bus to a short flight, we think it’s worth paying 30 to 50 euros extra.
I think one of the most common flights among travelers is the one from Medellin to Cartagena or Barranquilla and the other way around. The flight takes less than an hour and when you compare it with the 12-18 hours bus ride, the difference in the price is not so big.
We always search for our flights on Skyscanner.
Food in Colombia – Colombia travel guide
It is super easy to say that we love Colombia but it would be a bit hard to say that for Colombian food. We are not big fans of Colombian food. We don’t like arepas, we don’t like their cheese, we don’t like their snacks and we don’t like their bread. It was good for a month or so but after that, we found out that everything tastes the same, they use a lot of sugar everywhere, also in burgers and pizzas. For one month we mostly cooked by ourselves.
But Colombian fruits are the best, absolutely delicious. The best fruits we had in the whole of South America!
We also liked the daily menu (Menu del dia), you usually get a soup, main course and a drink. It usually cost between 8000 – 16000 COP (2-4€).
Things to do in Colombia – Colombia travel guide
Colombia is a very beautiful country with a lot of things to see and do. It is also very diverse – we went from paradise beaches to colonial cities to coffee plantations and incredible jungle. Here are some of our highlights:
We started in Bogota, which is also the vibrant capital of Colombia, you should spend at least 3 days there. It is one of the highest capital cities in the world, situated 2640 meters high. Bogota’s historic downtown is full of perfectly preserved Colombian buildings, where we find Plaza Bolivar, museums, shops, bars, restaurants, and hotels. You can find almost all the main tourist attractions in La Candelaria, which is Bogota’s most beautiful historic district.
Museo del Oro is highly recommended it is Colombia’s best museum and one of the best museums in all South America. We don’t regret visiting it, but we weren’t impressed. The museum is huge and our focus was gone after one hour.
For us, the highlight of Bogota was for sure the historical downtown and climbing to Monserrat, the mountain above Bogota, which is 3153 meters high. Monserrate with a church on the top is a pilgrim destination and also a tourist attraction. If you don’t want to walk, you can take a cable car, which looked super cool. We walked and it was hard but the views on the top were worth it!
San Gil + Barichara
San Gil is a town in Northeast Colombia, around 300 km away from Bogota and it is Colombia’s adventure capital. A very cool place with super steep streets, beautiful plaza, and nice people. Everybody who likes extreme sports will feel at home here. The most popular is the white water rafting, it will get the adrenalin pumping all over your body.
Besides that, you can try yourself in bungee, paragliding, canyoning, caving, hiking and more.
Barichara is a small town only a 45 minutes bus drive from San Gil. It is known for its colonial architecture and stone-paved streets. If you like telenovelas, many of them are filmed in Barichara. It is a picturesque town – one of the most beautiful towns in Colombia as they say. A perfect place to stroll the streets and relax.
Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City)
This trek was one of the highlights of our 7 months travel, it really was the journey of our lives. We started in the city, continued through the Caribean coastline, walked through the jungle, and trekked the Sierra Nevada, which is the highest mountain coastal region in the world.
The hike is 44 kilometers long and it takes 4-6 days to complete. You have agencies all around Santa Marta, we recommend booking directly at the agency, we picked Expotour. We paid 1.050.000 COP (253€;287$) for a 4 nights/5 days trek – the price includes transportation, accommodation, food, English speaking guide, porters for your food, snacks, and water. Everything was taken care of.
If you want to get away from the busy streets and heat of Santa Marta, Minca is a great place to go. It is a small town, only 40 minutes away from Santa Marta, surrounded by beautiful green forest, coffee farms, and stunning views.
Minca sits 650 meters high above sea level, its located in the forest of Sierra Nevada mountain range. If you are into waterfalls, fresh mountain air, crazy motorbike drivers, huge hammocks with outstanding view, hiking trails, and toucans – go to Minca.
Tayrona National Park
Palm trees, beautiful sandy beaches, crystal clear water, crocodiles, coconuts, Caribbean sea, monkeys, coral reef, jungle, nature, horse riding in the jungle, snorkeling, huge boulders. All of this is possible in Tayrona National Park. Far away from roads with beautiful Caribbean coast in front of you and the jungle of Sierra Nevada behind you. The Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest mountain coastal range.
Cartagena de Indias
A World Heritage Site and probably the most touristic city in the country is located on Colombia’s northern coast. Once, the biggest Spanish colonial port in South America has a really charming old town. Also called the queen of the Caribbean where you can really feel the colonial vibe, with all the colorful houses, decorated with flowers.
We were excited before we visited Cartagena, the city has a big reputation. We wanted to stay there for a couple of nights but in the end, we decided to stay only one night because the city is very touristic and it really gets overcrowded with tourists. In one day, we managed to see all the main attractions and also feel the city a bit.
Finally some alone time. We were the only foreigners in this easy-going cute little beach town. We heard that the place is really popular with locals and that it is one of the most visited destinations in this area. But only by locals, no foreigners come here and we have no idea why. We loved Tolu! Actually, I would go back there right now!
If you want to get away from the crowds like you will see in Cartagena for example, you must come to Tolu. Here you will find beauty and authenticity. We came there for 2 nights and we ended staying 5, we loved this place a lot.
Capurgana is perfect for travel, it is a small town in Colombia, close to the border with Panama, surrounded by the jungle of the Darien Gap. It’s off the gringo trail, accessible only by plane or speed boat. Yes, there are no cars in this paradise, it really is a hidden gem on the Colombian coast. When we read about this place in the guide books and later on the internet we knew, we have to go there.
Who would say no to this place? It was exactly what we were searching for! Laid back, away from tourists, great for snorkeling, with beautiful beaches. Actually, the most beautiful beaches I have seen in all of Colombia.
Medellin + Guatape & Piedra de Penol
Once known to be the most dangerous city in the world, today is called »The City of Eternal Spring« and we felt completely safe there. We actually love Medellin, after a whole week there we could easily stay longer. The second biggest city in Colombia is squeezed in a valley and surrounded by hills all around.
You have so many things to do in Medellin, you won’t get bored, that’s for sure! One of the things we really loved was riding the metro cable all the way up to Parque Arvi, the views are really something special. We partied in the El Poblado area and explored Plaza Botero with huge bronze statues. We loved the vibe of this city and I think I can say that this was our favorite big city in Colombia.
Medellin is also known for transforming dangerous and violent communities into tourist attractions. The most know is Comuna 13 – once the most dangerous neighborhood is today completely safe and it has incredible street art, talented street artists, and graffiti tours. There is so much stuff going on there that it will have you occupied for a whole day.
Piedra de Penol and Guatape
One day you need to leave for Guatape and its famous Piedra Del Penol (about one hour drive out of Medellin). If you are in Medellin you can’t skip this, trust me.
Piedra De Penol (10 minutes drive from Guatape) on the other hand is even more touristic that Guatape but it is also worth going. Piedra de Penol is an enormous monolith, one of the largest in the world. You need to climb more than 700 stairs to get to the top but the views from up there are amazing! It can get crowded though.
Guatape is an amazing relaxed small town with the most beautiful houses, so many colors everywhere. It is quite touristic but in this case, this didn’t bother us so much, we loved Guatape.
La Zona Cafetera + Cocora valley
The greenest region in the country. Colombia’s coffee region will blow your mind away!
Colombia is one of the biggest coffee producers in the world and you can’t leave this country without visiting its famous coffee region. It is located between Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia which are the biggest cities in this area and there are good bus services to all of them from Medellin, Cali, and Bogota. Pereira is the capital of this region and it has the most connections.
We recommend staying in a smaller town where you can really feel the vibe of this place. We loved Salento, which is 24 km northeast of Armenia, it is also where we stayed. There are also other small towns where you can stay: Marsella, Filandia, Salamina,…
Don’t forget to visit a Finca (coffee farm), try their premium coffee, and learn the whole process of traditional Colombian coffee production. You also have a lot of hiking options and nature is really breathtaking.
Valle de Cocora
Here you can spend a whole day. If you are staying in Salento it won’t be hard to reach it, there are frequent local jeeps driving every hour, they will drop you at the entrance to Cocora valley. We recommend you to hike there, it will take a whole day.
When we were visiting it was rainy and foggy and we weren’t sure if we will even see something cause the visibility was so bad. After walking through pastures, cloud forest, we crossed rivers, farms and in the end, the sky became clear. We were extremely happy when we saw the tallest palm trees in the world, the wax palm which is also the national tree of Colombia. Unforgettable day.
We knew that Colombia is a really diverse country but we had no idea that there is a desert too. Tatacoa desert is the second largest dry area in the country, so Tatacoa is actually not a desert but a very dry tropical ecosystem. We couldn’t stop taking photographs of this place, it really is something out of this world. Even Or (he is not a big photography enthusiast) couldn’t let his camera down.
We recommend taking a tour, you can also spend the night in the desert. We started in Neiva, drove to the desert, and spend a whole day there. On the tour, you will usually have transportation, traditional lunch, and a guide included. We also visited the star observatory but we weren’t impressed. The rest of the tour was great!
We love Colombia
You probably figured out this by yourself already. For decades this country was torn up by drug war and violence but today this is all history. Colombia became a safe and popular travel destination and it is attracting more and more visitors.
After more than 2 months in Colombia, seeing a lot of places, one thing is for sure. We will most definitely return back and explore more, it is a big country with lots of natural wonders. Next time we will definitely go and see the Pacific coast that we had to skip on this trip. We want to see where the jungle meets the sea and the rumors are that this place is still quite undiscovered. Next time!