Colombia, Colombia, Colombia...where to start with Colombia. Colombia’s come a very long way within the past 30 years, and it’s now in the midst of a tourism renaissance. Internationally infamous for drugs, violence and danger, you’d never know it by visiting this beautiful country today. The people are happy, the cities are expanding, and the culture is rebuilding itself after a tumultuous few decades in the 90’s. It’s a deeply culturally rich country with so much historical value and a tremendous amount of natural value to match. From the tropical coast up north to the steamy Amazon jungle down south, separated by the chilly Andes straddling the middle, there is genuinely something for every type of traveler in this accessibly small country -- whether you like cold, warm, or mild temperatures.
For this travel route, we'll start in Cartagena and move through Colombia’s main highlights: Santa Marta, Minca, Medellín and Salento. We will be skipping Bogotá, because I didn’t go there, and from what I hear, I didn’t miss a whole lot. Feel free to adjust as you see fit, but if there’s anything I can guarantee you, it’s that I’ve tried and tested this itinerary, and it hits all the major criteria of an awesome trip.
Food & Drinks to try in Colombia
Bandeja Paisa- the official dish of Medellín. It’s an enormous platter of rice, beans, 3-4 types of meat, plantains, avocado and arepas. Do not eat this before going on a run.
Empanadas- Colombian empanadas are deep fried & they are damn tasty
Oblea- sort of a stroopwafel filled with cheese. Very tasty.
Buñuelos- sort of cheesy donut holes. Great with a cup of coffee.
Chocolate con queso- hot Chocolate with cheese. I know what you’re thinking but the cheese is mellow and actually very tasty.
Granadilla- orange fruit with insides that look like alien eggs. Delicious as hell
Maracuya- South American passionfruit. Have smoothies and/or cocktails with this daily.
Aguardiente- the national liquor of Colombia. Liquoricey. Not my favorite, but when in Rome!
Safety in Colombia
Alright, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Ever since people caught wind of thee show Narcos, the world has been petrified to venture into Colombia, picturing gunshots on the street, mass tourist kidnappings and drug violence. Is Colombia the safest country in the world? No. Is it as bad as your overbearing mother thinks it is? Definitely not. There was a time in Colombia’s history where these images were real. But today, it’s a totally different story. Truthfully I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe when I was in Colombia, and hardly met anyone who had any horror stories to share. I have heard that areas near the borders with Venezuela and Ecuador can be somewhat sketchy, so best to steer clear of them (this itinerary doesn’t include those cities), and I have also heard rumors of sketchy cops planting drugs on tourists in exchange for bribes. So be alert, be safe, don’t draw attention to yourself, and you should be absolutely fine.
Sparknotes Version: be aware of your surroundings, always be respectful of the country you’re in, but definitely do not let the fear of danger stop you from coming here.
2-Week Colombia Itinerary
Day 1: Cartagena
Other than being a generally beautiful vacation destination, Cartagena is a perfect place to start your Colombia trip because it’s so well situated. Right on the Caribbean coast of the country, this will be the easiest part of Colombia to get to from North America. Cartagena is a colonial beach city, and it’s evident as soon as you land. Pastel colored traditional buildings make up the bulk of the Old City, and they’re surrounded by this imposing stone wall built in the 1600’s to defend the town from pirates. It’s a genuinely picturesque place -- the kind you can make a day of just walking around.
Because of time constraints, I didn’t get to experience much of Cartagena short of walking around and seeing the walls, but there’s much to do if you’re feeling up to it.
What to do in Cartagena
Walk Around the Old City
The Old City is notably different from the morem modern part of Cartagena, and if you can picture it back in the day, it looks like a colonial village out of a pirate book. Grab some street food and walk around in the walled interior of the city. Check out the colorful buildings, the sea wall and the local lifestyle.
Go to the Beach
Cartagena’s local beaches are somewhat disappointing because they’re so close to the city, and therefore loud and kind of dirty. However, there is no shortage of local tour companies that’ll take you on a day trip to the nicer and harder-to-get-to beaches like Playa Blanco or the Rosario Islands.
Being the backpacker hub that it is, Cartagena has tons of nightlife options, from local salsa bars to loud nightclubs. Grab some friends and walk around town to check out some of your many, many options
Day 2: Santa Marta
Okay, I’m not going to lie. I didn’t spend enough time in Santa Marta, and if there’s any part of this itinerary I wish I had more time for, it’s Santa Marta. A quick 4 hour drive from Cartagena, Santa Marta is less impressive for its buildings or roads, but more so for its nature, beaches and jungles. It’s situated on a picture perfect coast right by Tayrona National Park, flanked by jungle, and only hours away from the nearby cloud forest. It’s easy to spend a lot of time in Santa Marta for this reason: there are so many different types of landscapes all around.
What to do in Santa Marta
For you adventure-seekers out there, Taganga (a town a short cab ride away from Santa Marta) is widely known for its cheap & affordable world-class diving. This is one of those things I wish I’d had more time to do, as I’m told the aquatic life in the Tayrona region is pretty spectacular.
Trek in Tayrona National Park
If you’re trying to feel like you’re in a pirate movie, Tayrona National Park is the spot for you. A quick cab ride from downtown Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park has stunning white sand beaches, crystal clear blue water, and lush jungles that creep all the way up to the coast. Do a day trek or camp out in the park. Check out the nature and spot some wildlife (there’s some incredible animals that live in Tayrona). I missed out on Tayrona because of the Lost City Trek, and I know for a fact that I have to come back to Colombia just to see it.
Learn some history at La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino
Just a quick 5 minute ride outside the city, La Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino is a sugar refinery and colonial hacienda. Take a tour and learn about Colombian history and its role in shaping the current South American landscape. You can also tour the garden if you feel you’re missing a bit of that nature experience.
Wondering where to stay in Santa Marta? I recommend The Dreamer Hostel (it's also a great spot to book your Lost City Trek)
Days 3-6: Lost City Trek
Okay, now for the reason we drove all the way here: La Cuidad Perdida (or the Lost City). The Lost City Trek is a 4 day hike deep into the jungle of Colombia’s Tayrona region in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The goal of the whole ordeal is to hike all the way up to the Lost City: an ancient indigineous civilization built in 800 AD, once populated by the Tairona tribe that built it. Long story short: the ruins are fantastic, the history is fascinating, and the indigenous people you get to interact with on this trek are detailed and proud of their traditions. It’s challenging; it’s mostly uphill; and it is so absolutely worth it.
I’ve heard from a lot of people that this trek is less about the destination as much as it is about the hike itself, and I definitely agree. The ruins are definitely spectacular, but if you’ve been to Machu Picchu or some of the other Mayan ruins, this won’t exactly compare. However, I’ve hiked a lot in my life, but I’ve never been this deeply entrenched in the jungle as I was on this trek. Everywhere you look looks like an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider movie. It’s such an authentically secluded experience in the best possible way.
Book your tour with a company in Santa Marta (I recommend using the company that operates out of The Dreamer Hostel). It will generally come with an experienced guide, lodging for all 3 nights (basic camping), home-cooked meals, and transportation to and from the starting point. You’ll usually be in a group of 8-15.
Lost City Trek Difficulty
I’m not going to lie to you, this is the best hike I never want to do again. Maybe it's because I got injured on day 3, but I struggled a bit on the way back. Somewhere down the line, my knees started locking and I needed to use a mule on day 4. But even so, it was a really unique and incredible experience, so I say if you have the time and physical fitness to handle it, definitely go for it. It’s unforgettable.
Tips for the Lost City Trek
Go Waterproof. Depending on what season it is, it may rain daily around 3PM. It did every day for us. Pack a waterproof cover for your backpack so you’re not damp the entire trek. My friends and I joked that we were moist for 4 straight days. Don’t be like us. Chafing is a serious issue here, folks.
Bring a lot of socks & keep them dry. There are many (I think 6) times when you’ll have to cross ankle-deep rivers, and you’ll want to keep your feet dry.
Wear good hiking shoes. The path is up, down and topsy turvy, and often rocky and uneven. Your ankles and knees have to stay in working condition the whole time, so make sure to wear the right shoes, or bring steadying insoles if you need them. Trust me on this one.
Pack smart. You'll be carrying your backpack the entire hike, so you don’t want anything bulky weighing you down on the inclines. However, you’ll be at least 8 hours away from civilization the entire time, so make sure you have your essentials (bug spray, sunscreen, medication, contact lenses, etc.).
Days 7-8: Minca
If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to unwind after your grueling Lost City hike, and there’s no where better to do it than in Minca. My suggestion is to get back from your trek, grab a much deserved good night's sleep, and catch a cab to Minca the following morning.
Only an hour away from downtown Santa Marta, Minca has a dramatically different ecosystem. It’s located in a cloud forest- a sort of mashup between a temperate forest and a dense jungle. It’s picturesque, comfortably cool and jam-packed with butterflies, exotic birds, and yes, you guessed it...coffee! Minca is genuinely the perfect mountain getaway to rest your tired & achy body after a long and steamy hike.
What to do in Minca
Hike around the mountains (especially for sunset)
If you’re still up for some trekking, the weather in Minca makes it perfect for some nice and easy hiking. Many hostels have trails that connect them, and there are a few waterfalls to check out, so find a map and take yourself on a self-guided tour of the cloud forest. Grab a group for a little sunset hike. It’ll be buggy, but the view is totally worth it, with Santa Marta in the distance lighting up as the sun sets.
Go Bird Watching
on’t look at me like that - bird watching in Minca is actually kind of amazing. I’m a huge nature nerd, but my friends are definitely not, and even they thought it was a great time. The cloud forest is home to tons of really beautiful birds like Emerald Toucans, parrots and more. It’s a bit of an early wake-up time though, so you’ll have to be an early bird if you’re interested in this tour (I know...great pun, me).
Take a Coffee Farm Tour
Coffee, coffee, coffee. If there’s anything about Minca that’s a must-see it’s one of its many coffee farms. Our hostel at Casas Viejas was situated right on a coffee plantation, so we got a really good deal on a tour (not to mention free coffee any time of day). It’s some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, and I brought home legitimately 6 packs of it.
Check out the waterfalls
Minca’s got some spectacular waterfalls to accompany it’s gorgeous forests. You can either hike to them, or if you’re like me, you can hire a cab to drive you to them for the day. Prices for this are relatively cheap and worth it if you want to cover a lot of ground.
Take pictures at the Casa Elemento Hammock
Now insta-famous, this party hostel has a big old hammock overlooking the entire cloud forest, perfect for a mini-photo shoot or a beer with friends. I wouldn’t really recommend staying here unless you’re in your early twenties. It’s not that nice of a hostel and apparently can get quite loud at night, but it’s definitely worth a visit while you’re in the area. Entrance for those who aren’t guests is really cheap, anyway.
Do some outdoor Yoga
I’m by no means a yoga guy, but there’s something really peaceful and refreshing about doing it outdoors in the jungle. Many hostels have setups with both local & traveling yoga instructors, so check your front desk to see your options.
Wondering where to stay in Minca? I really can't recommend Casas Viejas more
Day 9: Getting to Medellin
Perhaps if Medellin wasn’t such an amazing city, it wouldn’t be worth the hassle of getting to from Northern Colombia. But unfortunately for all of us, it’s pretty damn amazing, so we have to make the effort. Grab a one hour bus from Minca back to Santa Marta, and from there take the 4 hour bus back to Cartagena. At this point, I’d recommend crashing at a hostel for the night.
You could do all these buses and fly to Medellin in the same day, but I knew myself too well to think I could make a flight in time with all those factors in play. If you can, though, more power to you! You get an extra day in Medellin!
For those of us too scared to schedule a flight on a day with two other bus rides, catch some sleep at a hostel in Cartagena before catching a morning flight to Medellin. It’s a wild ride from start to finish, but as soon as you get to Medellin, you’ll see why it was worth the effort.
Days 10-12: Medellin
If you had nightmare scenarios involving drugs, guns and kidnappings for this trip, Medellin is where they would take place. Plagued with gang violence for two decades in the 80’s and 90’s, Medellin had a deep, infamous reputation of being the most dangerous city in the world. Going there now, however, you’d have absolutely no idea that it used to be so bad. Medellin today is a thriving, vibrant, fully developed metropolis, turned around from the brink of collapse. It’s exceedingly safer than it once was, is incredibly unique, and is very much in touch with its controversial past.
Medellin is an important city to visit, if nothing else than for the cultural respect that you should have for a country that’s been through hell and back. But on the same token, it’s worth the visit for the copious amounts of sights, attractions and things to do. I kept saying that I could easily see myself picking up and moving to Medellin, simply because it’s so picturesque and modern. You can go out partying one night, and spend the next day sipping coffee at a Bohemian hipster cafe. It’s got everything.
What to do in Medellin
Take the Free City Tour
On every one of my trips, I do at least one free city walking tour. They’re always engaging, informative, and super helpful for orienting yourself in a new city, not to mention great for meeting other travelers. The Medellin walking tour is excellent because it takes you around town with a local guide who explains the city’s checkered history from the perspective of someone who lived through it, and more importantly someone who knows people who didn’t. It was incredibly powerful and very tasteful. I know a walking tour can sound lame, but it really isn’t. Just remember to tip your guide well after the fact.
Take a day trip to Guatape
I didn’t have time to do this unfortunately, but get an early start and catch a bus 2 hours to Guatape, a beautiful lake town dotted with colorful colonial buildings. The thing to do in Guatape is hike El Penol, a giant rock 740 steps up from the ground. The view is well-worth it, from what I hear.
Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour
This unique tour takes you to a very specific portion of the old city, where gang violence used to control the neighborhood. Nowadays, though, it’s become a haven for artists to depict their stories and experiences in beautiful graffiti all around town. It’s later in the day and a perfect thing to do when you want to sleep in.
Go to a Fútbol (Soccer) game
This was easily one of the coolest things I did in Colombia. The main soccer stadium in Medellin is only a 20 minute train ride from El Poblado (the upscale part of town where you’re likely staying). The tickets are cheap, the drinks are non-alcoholic (we found out the hard way), and the energy is electric. Pre-game with some friends and head over for a fun way to start your evening.
Ride the metrcable
It sounds super touristy, and I guess it is, but the metrocable is easily the coolest way to see Medellin. Used primarily for commuters who live on the outskirts of the city, you can grab a ride up to the edge of the city on the metrocable for some seriously scenic views. There’s also a market at the top worth checking out if you want some tasty Paisa street food.
Do a Molecular Gastronomy Tasting at El Cielo
Okay so this isn’t necessarily a Medellin-specific thing to do, but my friends and I really wanted to try it. El Cielo is one of those fancy Chef’s Table style tasting menu restaurants. 13 courses; all tiny, beautifully artistic plates. Sounds expensive as all hell, right? Well at El Cielo, a 13 course tasting menu will only run you about $50-60 USD, with another $50 if you decide to do the wine pairings. Much more expensive than every other meal on your trip? Yes. Spending $100 USD on a meal that would normally cost about $500 in the US? Worth it. The chef created a beautifully curated meal utilizing Colombia’s traditional foods and resources, all presented with bubbles, jellies, smoke and steam. I’m really, really glad I did it.
Wondering where to stay in Medellin? I really recommend Los Patios Hostel (a trendy, clean boutique hostel with a nice rooftop bar)
Days 13-14: Salento
Getting to Salento
Getting to Salento isn’t difficult, but the way we did it was a bit rushed. We caught a 9 hour night bus from Medellin to Salento, ensuring that we’d arrive with the entire day to do what we wanted to do. If you have any wiggle room in your itinerary, I’d recommend spending an extra day in Salento to give yourself more time, but we managed just fine with this setup. Pack some snacks and download some podcasts though, because it’s a long trip.
Once you’ve been dropped off by your night bus, head over to your hostel and do the whole check-in thing. Luckily you’ll have the whole day to do most of what Salento has to offer, and there’s a lot. Salento is a temperate and colorful town in the center of Colombia, and people generally come here for trekking, specifically to see the world’s tallest palm trees. The town itself, however, is quaint and cute, with a unique and distinct vibrant pattern on all of them. With more time, you could easily sit and relax here, but unfortunately we’ve got a lot to do.
Hiking Cocora Valley
Cocora Valley is easily one of the coolest day hikes I’ve ever been on. A cool and temperate region, Cocora has the largest wax palm trees in the world. They jut up almost comically high and legitimately look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.
The hike will take you up around the valley so you can get some scenic views of the wax palms, and then back down into the forest and through the rivers. The hike itself isn’t really all that hard, and can be done in about 4 hours. Definitely pack a rain jacket though. It can get wet.
Acaime Hummingbird House
At one point during the hike, you’ll have the option to split off and check out the Acaime hummingbird house. There’s a bit of controversy over whether or not it’s worth the detour, but to nature-bird-loving-me it definitely was. With your nominal entrance fee, you get a hot chocolate with cheese (a Colombian staple), and an up close and personal view of the regions vibrant hummingbirds. I took at least 50 slo-mo videos and even more pictures, so I thought it was worth it.
Day 15: Back to Medellin; Fly Home
After your brief detour in Salento, catch a bus back to Medellin and spend the day relaxing or seeing more of the city before heading back out from the airport. Colombia is really quite huge, and there’s definitely more to see, but hopefully by this point you’ll feel that you hit most of the highlights. Get ready to pack up, head home, and brag to people about how you did a 4 day long hike.
If you’re interested in seeing other parts of the world, you can always check out my other itineraries right here. Happy travels, my friends!