If you are like me who enjoyed the dramatic representation of the drug lord, Pablo Escobar, and Colombia in the famous Netflix series Narcos, you may have second doubt about visiting Colombia. I'm here to report that that stigma about violence in the country is completely gone.
Today, Colombia offers visitors a variety of unique experiences like being around one of the friendliest people in South America, learning the beautiful salsa dance that is second to none, and a nature that has yet been ruin by mass tourism.
This itinerary will cover all the information you need to backpack through Colombia independently while enjoying everything the country has to offer.
Why go to Colombia?
Colombia is a country that lacks big attractions to draw in tourists like its neighbors Ecuador (Galapagos) and Peru (Machu Picchu). but the country compensated that with its crazy fun dance culture, amazing selection of coffee and a great many hidden gems for travelers like you to discover. From the suspiciously tall palm trees in Salento to the beautiful coastal colonial town of Cartagena, one month is a perfect amount of time to get to understand the country and maybe learned some salsa in the process.
When to Go
The months with the highest number of tourists are from December to February but Colombia covers a wide range of climates from the hot and humid coast of the north, to the mountainous, often wet Andes region so if you plan to travel the whole country, you will very likely experience all of these climates. That said, I think the best time to visit Colombia is during the shoulder season right before the high season so that the weather is more or less stable and the cost of traveling is still relatively cheap compared to the high season.
How to Get Here
The best way to get here is to fly into Bogota. There are several flights from the US and Europe that goes directly to Bogota. I would recommend you browse through Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight from where you live to Bogota that best fit your itinerary.
How To Get Around
Tourist buses offer the most comfortable and safe way to get around the country. Although the road condition in Colombia is not the best, and it gets worse as you traveled south, you can opt-in for a cheap domestic flight instead.
VivaColombia offers a cheap way for you to skip 20 hours of bus ride without breaking the bank. Although they are often delayed and not the best service you can get.
In big cities like Medellin or Bogota, the safest and fastest way to travel around is by Uber. It is reliable and relatively cheap, more so than getting a taxi. For Medellin, the sky train is also a viable option.
Bogota - Urbana Hostel - 13USD/Night (Perfect location in Zona Rosa, a less touristic area, much safer and are surrounded with local party places)
Minca - Casa Elemento - 16USD/Night (In the middle of the mountain, with gigantic hammocks that goes over a cliff side!)
Santa Marta - Hostel Masaya Santa Marta - 13USD/Night
Cartagena - El Arsenal Hostel Boutique - 18USD/Night
Medellin - Hostal Lleras Calle 8 No. 2 - 9USD/Night
Salento - Yambolombia Hostel - 8.50USD/Night (A little further from the city but the location is wonderful and quiet)
Popayan - Hostel Trail - 9USD/Night
San Agustin - Hotel La Casa de Francois - 9USD/Night
Pasto - Chacana Hostal - 10USD/Night
Internet in Colombia is actually very fast especially in big cities like Bogota or Medellin. I bought a sim card from Claro and got myself a 2GB 30 Days plan that costed me 46000 COP. The coverage was very good around the country except maybe San Agustin. All in all, I highly recommend Claro. For more information, visit this page.
This place is cheaper than most countries but not dirt cheap. Expect to pay around 30 - 50 USD per day per person including accommodation and food.
Keep in mind that this is just a suggested daily budget based on my style of traveling, which is leaning more toward the budget side of things. If you want to stick to this budget, expect to sleep in dorms, eat out only a few times, and be comfortable using the cheapest and most convenient way of transportation, which often times involves walking.
If you are looking for a travel insurance to go along with your trip to Colombia, I would recommend WorldNomads.com, which is what I use to look for a travel insurance that fits my kind of adventure. They have a simple and flexible search system that allowed me to find the right insurance for the right amount of time at an affordable price in seconds. If you need a travel insurance, give WorldNomads.com a try.
I had the best time being in Bogota with local friends of mine and there is no better way to get to know Colombia's local culture than knowing someone there but if you do not have a friend in Colombia, there is a service you can check out that helps connect you with the local people and they will help plan your trip for you. I am working with ViaHero to offer you a 5% discount if you sign up with the link mentioned here. They will connect you with a local Hero and they will help plan your trip for you. Check them out.
One Month Itinerary
When most people come to Bogota, they usually stay in the Downtown area. Dare I say, that is not the best part to be as it can get a bit sketchy as some locals had warned me. When you are in Bogota, Stayed in the Zona Rosa area, where you can have access to the great parties Bogota has to offer.
On your first day, from Zona Rosa take an Uber to downtown and check out the Plaza de Bolívar square and the colonial part of the city on the foot of the hill.
Visit the Botero museum, one of the happiest museum I have ever been to, featuring a collection of Botero's best work and on top of that, it is free.
Once you are done, be sure to go up Monserrate and watch as the sun set behind the horizon and the city lights lit up. This is possibly one of my favorite place in Bogota.
If you are there on a Tuesday night, be sure to drop by La Villa bar near Zona Rosa and get to know Colombians and learn some Spanish at their weekly Gringo Tuesday event. The location is shown below:
If you are there on Friday or Saturday night, grab a bunch people and hit Theatron, one of the best club I have ever seen. The club is set in an old theater building featuring 5 floors and a dozen rooms of unique themes and genres of music. Given that it is a gay bar, no matter you preferences, you will enjoy it anyway. The location is show below:
If you are there on a Sunday, during the day, take an Uber and go to Usaquén. Every Sunday, the locals come out and gather at this Sunday market indulging themselves in the sun, the street performances and all the cool hipster items they can buy there.
For more info about Bogota, read our ultimate guide to Bogota article.
Santa Marta (1 night)
From Bogota, get a flight and fly to Santa Marta. From the airport, get a public bus to the city centre and stay there for a night before heading off elsewhere. There is not much to see in Santa Marta itself but the surrounding area has quite a lot to offer. From Santa Marta, you can launch yourself into Tayrona National Park, Minca or even the famous Lost City trek.
Tayrona National Park (1 night)
First you can do a 2 days hike in Tayrona National Park and sleep in either a hammock or a tent by the beach. For me personally, it was a little to crowded and the hike was not that challenging but it is still quite a good place to relax.
Minca (1 night)
From the hot and humid Santa Marta, Minca was a breath of fresh air. Located in the coffee region of the north, Minca offers you a great chance to see the beautiful mountains of northern Colombia on a motorbike, taste some of the finest coffee in the country and find solitude in the middle of the mountain as you relax on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento hostel.
When you arrived in the town, you will see a motorcycle stand where you can hire them to show you around. Most of the things are quite far apart so I highly recommend you get a motorbike.
First, visit La Victoria coffee farm and get some dose of their finest coffee while learning how the farm operates. Be fascinated by the fact that some of their equipments are from 1892, and the smart ways they operate without the use of electricity.
Once you are done, tell your mototaxi driver to take you to Los Pinos viewpoint, stop for a photo and then head to Casa Elemento hostel.
Spend a night there and enjoy the nature and take cool photos with the iconic hammocks they have there.
The Lost City - La Ciudad Perdida (4 nights)
I was unable to do the trek due to my workload and timing but I have met many people who enjoyed hiking the trek to the lost city. You first have to get a tour which will cost you around 70,000 pesos and then they will provide you with places to sleep, usually hammocks, food and guide you through the deep jungle of the Andes to the forgotten lost city. Beware of insects and mosquitoes as the north of Colombia can be quite tropical and the insects love that.
For more information, you can read more here.
Cartagena (2 nights)
From Minca, get back to Santa Marta and take an early bus to Cartagena. The trip should take no more than 6 hours. Cartagena is a colonial city by the northern coast of Colombia. It is possibly one of the most photogenic colonial town in Colombia, hence the number of tourists you will find here. Despite that, the old town part is definitely worth a visit.
You can also experience a wonderful sunset from the top of the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas fortress, located just a few minutes drive away from the centre.
Medellin (5 nights)
Medellin has quite a lot to offer in terms of hiking and culture. As some of you may know, Medellin was the stage for the drug lord, Pablo Escobar and his reign of terror so in order to understand the history of the city and where it came from, going on a Pablo Escobar tour might help you understand the truth about the conflict a little bit more.
You can also do another coffee tour in Medellin that gives you access to private properties on the hills around the city and see what sustainable living is all about. I went to one of the coffee farm and was fascinated by how they were able to grow almost everything they needed together with coffee in the same farm.
If you are there on a Tuesday or Saturday night, you can hop over to Dancefree workshop to learn free Colombian salsa dance lesson from energetic and professional instructors there. You can also ask to dance with anyone you want. The best way to learn is to ask the Colombian there to teach you as you stumble your way through the dance floor. They love to help out struggling foreigners.
Parque Arví offers a great nature hike completed with guides and facilities. This one is a little more tame and I would suggest you go with the free guide they provided since it is quite difficult to figure your way around the thick forest of the park.
Within reach, there is a hike called Tres Cruzes and you can do it in an hour. From the top you can get a nice view of the city and the mountains that surrounded it.
If you have a day extra, be sure to go to Guatape for a day trip to one of the most photogenic place in the area. Take a bus from the terminal to El Peñol and climb up the La Piedra meteorite, a 10 stories high rock that had fallen to earth millions of years ago. The view from up there is nothing short of extraordinary. See the photos above if you don't believe me.
Salento (2 nights)
Salento is where the adventure is at. Spend a full day hiking around the Cocora valley, where all the tall palm trees are. Get up to Finca Acaime for a nice warm coffee break and witness the hummingbirds up close.
From the finca, hike down and around the valley to complete the loop. The cool part of the valley where you can see all the tall palm trees up close is at the end so be patient. To get to Cocora Valley, you have to be in the city centre early in the morning around 8am and get a jeep there. The jeep runs quite often but the earlier you go, the less crowded it will be.
Popayan (3 nights)
After quite a relaxing itinerary, it is time for a real adventure. Near Popayan is a volcano called Purace where you can take a bus at 5AM from the terminal up to the trail head by 8AM before starting an 8 hours hike to the summit and back. The trail takes you through private properties so a guide is needed but you can start the hike independently and when you arrive at the registration office on the trail head you can pay for the guide there. You can also get hot breakfast from the office.
The trail is long and rugged while the wind can be unbearably strong so be sure to equip yourself with layers. The view from the trail is nothing short of spectacular.
I did not have the best weather on the summit but at least I have this dog to congratulate my success with me.
After the first day hiking the volcano, rest up and walk around the white colonial town of Popayan for a day. The city is quite charming, although nothing compared to Cartagena.
San Agustin (2 nights)
San Agustin is a gateway to learning about the Pre-Columbian history of this region with plenty of stone statues scattered around the archaeological site. Parque Arqueologico is one such site and I highly recommend taking a tour to see the others. Since San Agustin is a small town in the middle of no where, transportation is hard to come by and by taking a full day tour, you eliminate the trouble of getting from one place to another and back.
The day tour usually includes visiting a sugar cane factory and a visit to several stunning waterfalls in the area, some in private properties.
From San Agustin, you have to make your way back to Popayan and take an afternoon bus to Pasto, our last stop before crossing the border to Ecuador.
Pasto (1 night)
Since the ride from San Agustin to Pasto can be horrid, it is important to stop in Pasto so you can wake up early in the morning and make your way to the border of Ecuador. Why? Right at the border, there is a cathedral built on the side of a mountain called Las Lajas and even though the cathedral itself is not worth a visit if you don't plan to cross the border to Ecuador, it would be stupid not to see this magnificent cathedral on your way down south.
Take a morning bus from Pasto to Ipiales and from Ipiales, you can find plenty of taxi to take you to Las Lajas. Walk around the cathedral for a bit and when you are ready to take off, get another taxi and tell them to drop you off at the border and then from there cross the border to Ecuador and head to Quito.
There you have it, a one-month itinerary from north to south of Colombia with a way to Ecuador at the end. What do you think about the itinerary? Do you have any suggestion? Do let me know if I miss anything in the comments below.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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