Colombia is an interesting and diverse country. There are tons of cool cities and nature to visit and adrenalin-inducing activities to do. Besides hiking and rafting, you can also go paragliding, bungee jumping and many other activities.
In this post, you’ll learn more about Colombia: the best places to travel through when backpacking Colombia and where to sleep. What is the best Colombian food and where to find adventurous things to do in Colombia?
Keep reading this Colombia backpacking guide to find the best travel tips for the country of coffee and salsa!
Let’s dive in!
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Colombia Backpacking Guide
Colombia is a large country. Therefore, it can be difficult to set an itinerary if you don’t have a lot of time. Distances are large and sometimes flights are quicker and cheaper than taking a bus.
A Colombia itinerary for 2 weeks can easily be expanded to an itinerary for 3 weeks or more. Just add a few extra stops and add a few extra days in the places you love most. In fact, when we went backpacking in Colombia, we spent 6 weeks in this marvelous country. We could easily have stayed much longer.
There is just so much to see and do in Colombia. You can visit beaches as well as deserts, jungles, and metropolitan cities. There’s a little bit of everything for everyone. Adapt your Colombia backpacking route to fit your needs exactly.
Let’s divide the places to go into a few distinct categories!
Where to go - The cities
Some large cities in Colombia feel like European cities. Each of them has their own character and unique feeling.
You might not be able to visit them all.
So we listed a few of the most interesting cities in Colombia and explain why they’re so interesting.
Bogota - Capital of Colombia
The capital of Colombia is truly massive. The city is bulking with culture and museums, like the Botero Museum and the Gold Museum. The Candelaria district is a must-visit in town, even though it can be very crowded sometimes. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a little peace and quiet, take a stroll through the Jardin Botanico.
From Bogota, you can easily plan day trips to lagoons like the Laguna de Guatavita or hike up the Cerro de Monserrate.
Before going totally crazy in the Bogota nightlife, read this warning about Scopolamine poisonings.
LGBT Film tip: La Luciernaga or the Firefly is a lesbian film which is partially set in Bogota.
Botanico Hostel Bogota
Medellin - City of Everlasting Spring
One of our favorite large cities in Colombia is Medellin. That’s why we spent ages in the city of eternal spring. There are loads of activities you can do in town, to begin with.
But you can also go on day trips or weekend trips away from Medellin. We enjoyed Parque Explora and the planetarium a lot, but there are tons of other museums as well.
The Medellin metro system is one of the best and most modern metro systems in South America.
One section of the public transportation system takes you up into the mountains where you get a nice view over Medellin. If you take the same line even further, you end up in Parque Arvi and be surrounded by nothing but nature.
As for day trips, visit El Penon in the village of Guatape.
Sugar Cane Hostel
Cali - City of Salsa
City of Latin party and salsa… You must visit this city if you want to take salsa classes or experience the Latin salsa culture. After all, Cali is world famous when it comes to salsa.
At the same time, there are a lot of other things to see and do in the city and surrounding area. Cali has countless museums and parks to keep your wandering spirit busy.
When traveling through Colombia, Cali should not be skipped.
Hostal Ruta Sur
Cartagena - City by the sea
This large city by the Caribbean sea is a travel hub into the national parks by the water. With this in mind, most backpackers travel to Cartagena in order to make their way into Tayrona National Park and La Guajira peninsula. Cartagena is a large city with a beautiful old town and ancient city walls that look out over the Caribbean.
Usually, temperatures are high in Cartagena. So you should look for a room with a decent fan or air-conditioning and make sure to spend a few days on one of the beaches in Cartagena.
If you include Cartagena into your itinerary, don’t skip the old town and Castillo de San Felipe.
Casa del Pozo
Popayan – Lush scenery and colonial streets
The town Popayan is a slightly smaller town en route to Ecuador.
It’s a perfect stopover for travelers who continue their journey into Ecuador.
We actually passed through Popayan twice: once on our way into Colombia and once on our way out.
Popayan is a great place to leave some of your warm clothing.
You can pick it back up on your way South in order to travel a little lighter.
This city might not have been very high on your radar before. You’ll find that you can spend a lot of time in this charming colonial town in the south of Colombia.
Hostel Caracol Popayan
Best beaches in Colombia
Colombia has beaches on both sides, Pacific as well as Caribbean.
And with these, we’re not even talking about the picture-perfect islands of Colombia, like San Andres.
Some beaches in Colombia are part of a larger natural reserve, while other are crowded and metropolitan.
We listed some of the best beaches around Cartagena, but Colombia has tons of other beaches to visit.
Pacific Colombia beaches
The Pacific beaches of Colombia are a little more difficult to reach, but that also means that you’ll find less crowds and tourists on these.
Between the major cities in Colombia and the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find a lot of jungle area, where most travelers don’t travel to.
Locals aren’t as used to tourists and backpackers and it might be a little more difficult to get to the places you want to visit, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it!
One of the most beautiful beaches on the Pacific side is Nuquí, which can be a perfect stopover between Cali and Medellin.
Caribbean Colombia beaches
Up north, close to the border with Panama, Capurgana and Sapzurro are probably the best beaches in Colombia. They used to be pretty much off grid due to their location close to the Darien Gap, but today they’re frequently visited by travelers who travel from or to Panama by boat.
Parque Tayrona is a popular tourist destination located in the Parque National de Tayrona.
We talk about the beaches in Tayrona in one of the next paragraphs or you can read our post about visiting Parque Tayrona in Colombia.
Between Santa Marta and Riohacha, Palomino is just a small beach town, but it offers some of the best stretches of beach in northern Colombia.
Islands of Colombia
San Andres is the most popular island that is part of Colombia and it’s located in the Caribbean in front of the Nicaraguan coast. San Andres and Providencia are close by each other and frequently visited by Colombian tourists. Both islands are beautiful and they have pristine Colombian beaches on all sides.
Even though they’re physically closer to Nicaragua, they’re situated in Colombian water and therefore property of Colombia. Visiting the islands is usually done by flight from one of the larger Colombian cities.
Isla de Baru is located north of Cartagena and it has some pristine beaches to offer, just like the close by Islas de San Bernardo. Travelers can reach the islands easily by ferry from Cartagena.
On the Pacific side, Isla Gorgona and Isla Gorgonilla used to be a prison island, but it has been a natural reserve for quite a while now. The only access to the islands is by boat from the Pacific coast of Colombia.
Where to go - Interesting places
Colombia really is a magical country with many interesting places.
Books have been based on surreal places in Colombia and other books have taken place there.
Coffee region and Salento
The coffee triangle of Colombia is a popular destination for people who are backpacking through Colombia and that’s for a good reason. The coffee region is beautiful and easy to travel. The area has a lot of natural beauty to offer and there’s loads to see and do.
Most travelers use Salento as their main travel hub, as we did.
Salento is a nice and cute town in the mountains, not too far from the famous Valle de Cocora with its huge coconut trees and beautiful hiking conditions. Read more about hiking Cocora Valley below!
From Salento, access to coffee plantations and coffee tours is easy and you won’t have a hard time booking a coffee tour from your hostel or from one of the tourist offices in town.
Viajero Hostel Salento
Guatape - Stones and water
Guatape can be visited as a day trip from Medellin, but we suggest spending at least one night in the lovely and colorful village, just because it’s pretty and life goes by so slowly when sitting in the little town square.
Most people visit Guatape just as a day trip in order to climb El Penon.
We actually wrote an article about Guatape and its Penol.
Casa Encuentro Guatape
San Agustin is a smaller town in Colombia where you can do some interesting activities. The town can be visited from Popayan, but it’s along and bumpy ride, which takes around 5 hours and is partially unpaved. When we were there, they were working on a road to San Agustin, so you might be in luck once this road is finished.
Most travelers who are backpacking in Colombia, visit San Agustin to see the famous pre-Columbian statues that the region is known for. The archeological park of San Agustin and Parque de Los Idoles are different from most we’d seen before and the statues are peculiar.
San Agustin is also a great place for a jeep tour, which takes you on a tour of the waterfalls in the area.
You’ll also visit El Estrecho on this tour, where the Rio Magdalena is very narrow and the huge mass of water is driven through a narrow rock formation with parts of it underneath the rocks.
Mompos - Surreal and magical
Mompos has been the inspiration for Gabriel Garcia Marquez when he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude. If you haven’t read this book yet, I recommend doing so before visiting Mompos.
The desolate colonial town of Mompos is a Unesco Heritage site. You need a little more time in order to reach the town. That’s because it’s surrounded by wetlands and the Magdalena river.
It’s for a good reason that Gabriel Garcia Marquez used this town as a base for his magical surreal town called Macondo. This is truly a place where you can watch life float by while standing still in time.
Parque Tayrona is another magical place in Colombia. The stunning beaches with their weirdly formed rocks can only be reached on foot or on the back of a horse or mule. So you need to hike for a few hours in order to reach this sheer beauty and you’d better prepare to sweat.
In Parque Tayrona, you can spend the night in a tent or hammock. We recommend visiting Tayrona in off season and during the week to avoid the growing crowds that are currently flocking the beaches of Tayrona National Park.
Inside the park, you can hike another few hours to the ruins of Pueblita.
Read more about Parque Tayrona and Cabo San Juan.
Guajira and Riohacha
If you ever read the book Papillon by Henri Charriere, you might remember Papillon taking refuge in Riohacha for a few years. That is this Riohacha. If you haven’t read the book yet, I definitely recommend it, along with these other cool travel novels.
Guajira consists of a stretch of Caribbean beaches which are less touristy than any other beaches in Colombia.
Riohacha is more of a large city from which you can hike into Cabo de la Vela, one of the most scenic beaches in the area.
Pura Guajira Hostel
Valledupar is the greenest city in Colombia and temperatures are similar to the coastal region, so depending on where your itinerary leads you: prepare for the heat in Valledupar.
The city itself is a colonial city and it’s fun to walk around in.
Nearby it’s possible to go swimming in the Badillo river, which is famous for its weirdly shaped large boulders, or to visit the indian village of Nabusimake.
Provincia Hostel Valledupar
San Gil happens to be the capital of adventure sports in Colombia and that’s also the reason many backpackers don’t skip this small town in Central Colombia. Scroll down a little to find out about the adventure options in Colombia.
The Rio Fonce runs close by San Gil and is mostly used for white water rafting and some occasional river tubing. Bungee jumping, mountain biking and caving are a few other popular activities to do while you’re in San Gil.
Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva is a popular weekend destination for Colombians, so when you’re making your itinerary, plan Villa de Leyva during the week.
The old colonial town of Villa de Leyva is charming and cute.You could easily spend a few days in this town in order to stroll around, visit the prehistoric garden and climb up the mirador viewpoint.
Aha! The Darien Gap!
I must admit that this region speaks to my imagination, maybe just because it has been off grid for ages.
This immense area of vast jungle used to be a place where people could easily disappear and it still is.
The Darien Gap is the strip of land that connects Central America with South America and it has been the play garden for the FARC for a very long time. People didn’t dare going in unless they had a death wish. If you didn’t survive your trip, it was either because you encountered a group of rebels or because you just didn’t survive the dangers of the vast and impenetrable jungle. Expeditions trying to travel through have been lost.
The Darien Gap is the only place where the Pan American Highway is interrupted because of the difficulty to get through the jungle.
At this time, it’s possible to visit the Darien Gap, but only with a good guide to take you. Check this post be Expert Vagabond to find out more about expeditions the this exceptional stretch of land in Colombia and Panama.
Adventure travel in Colombia
Colombia is country of adventure and thanks to its diversity in landscapes and abundance of rivers and waterfalls, most of these adventure activities can be done in multiple places in Colombia.
Check out these prime adventurous activities which are a perfect addition to your journey in Colombia.
Paragliding in Bucaramanga
Bucaramanga is the capital of paragliding in Colombia, as well as the capital of dental work.
Many US residents travel to Bucaramanga in order to visit dentists, who works for less than half the price of US dentists.
Back to the paragliding, Bucaramanga is an awesome region to do paragliding and the Casa Guane is the perfect place to book this experience. You can paraglide on your own if you have experience, but with the Casa Guane tours, you can also book a duo flight with a guide who speaks English.
Of course you can also try out paragliding in other regions in Colombia.
Other Aerial adventures
In Colombia, there are also quite a few options for ziplining in almost every corner of the country. Check these options and ziplining experiences per region. Bungee jumping is another popular backpacker activity in Colombia, mostly done in San Gil.
Colombia is the place for adventure travel and backpackers will definitely find a few awesome opportunities in Colombia.
White water rafting, canyoning, rappel, and waterfall abseiling are all possible.
You can rent a mountain bike in almost any place in Colombia.
Most travelers plan it into their stay in San Gil, the capital of adventure sports in Colombia, but Salento is also an awesome region to do some mountain biking.
Caving in Colombia
Rafting, canyoning, and caving tend to be combined into one expedition when booking a Colombia adventure tour. But you could also try caving as a separate activity.
Do you want to overcome your claustrophobic tension?
Or would you rather want to walk through huge cave rooms? All of this is available in Colombia.
Best hikes in Colombia
Many places in Colombia are excellent for hiking.
Not all are equally popular or frequently visited.
We could never come close to listing all of the best hikes in Colombia, but we will give it a shot and list some of the best hikes in Colombia right here. Many travelers who start their adventure to go backpacking in Colombia, are in it for some adventure and some nature hiking.
So here’s what we got!
Since we didn’t gather too many hikes in Colombia, we’d like to lead you in the right direction to the Sarepa blog where you can find a few epic hikes in Colombia.
The Cocora Valley hike can be done from the town of Salento. In the main square of Salento, you’ll see a bunch of jeeps waiting in the morning, but they drive up and down the road to Cocora all day, so you don’t necessarily have to do it in the morning. The jeeps will take you to the entrance of the park for a small fee, where your hike can begin.
Cocora Valley hike isn’t too difficult, but it includes a dozen of river crossings over bridges that aren’t necessarily the types of bridges we like to call bridges. In short, some of them are scary and unsafe!
The Cocora Valley hike is a loop and it can be done in both directions. On your way, you’ll be able to see the tall and recognisable coconut trees. The hike takes about 5 hours.
Read more about hiking in Cocora Valley in this article by Goats on the Road.
Ciudad Perdida Hike
The four-day hike to the lost city is quite a memorable trek which takes you through the magical scenery of the Sierra Nevada. After days of jungle hiking, with regular stops for lunch and the occasional river plunge, you’ll eventually reach the stunning lost city.
Prepare to sleep in a few basic jungle camps along the way, so you better take your flashlight and some insect repellent.
Planning a trip to Colombia
Colombia is a rather large country and you might experience some trouble to fit your backpacking Colombia itinerary seamless together. If you have plenty of time, buses are widely available, but expect to spend entire days riding in buses.
We tried to make our trip go faster by taking one airplane from Medellin to Cartagena and the airplane was quicker and cheaper at the same time. So if you don’t have any issues with taking airplanes, make sure to check if a flight isn’t cheaper than a long and exhausting busride.
When planning your itinerary, always count in extra days for day trips and if you want to see all of Colombia, you’ll need at least 4 weeks, preferably longer. Check the backpacking itinerary we created for Colombia!
Before you take off… check out these interesting books about South America and prepare your mind for the Latin culture!
Best time to visit Colombia
Dry season in Colombia consists of two different periods. The first set of dry months is from December to January and the second set of dry months are July and August. These periods of time, weather is usually dry and hot.
Rainy season is from April to May and from October through November. During these months, weather can still be hot, but you’ll experience more rainy days.
Since the rich biodiversity in Colombia, its hard to pin down the exact seasons. If you travel higher up into the mountains, temperatures will drop a little, while the beach regions experience high temperatures all year round.
The best time to visit Colombia might be different for different travelers, but if you’re traveling in Colombia, you might want to choose the dry season months in order to make the most of your time in Colombia.
Colombia Travel Budget
The currency in Colombia is the Colombian Peso or COP.
1€ is worth around 3500 COP, but these number fluctuate, of course.
Average spending budget per person per day in Colombia is around 90.000 COP or a little less than 30€, but you can always do it cheaper.
Budget travelers who are backpacking Colombia can travel with as little as 32.000 COP or 10€ per day, while travelers who want to splurge will easily be able to spend 260.000 Cop or 75€ per day.
A basic lunch or almuerzo will set you back around 8000 COP or 2,5€. Alcohol is a little more expensive and one beer in a bar will cost you 9000 COP or almost 3€.
For a one week visit to Colombia, count around 370€ per person.
Everything about your budget for Colombia depends on which accommodation you choose, where you have dinner and how many activities you want to do and pay for.
Transportation - Getting around Colombia
Getting around Colombia is easy and quite cheap. Buses are the backpacker way to go, but if you regularly check prices for flights, you’ll notice that a flight may be cheaper than a long haul bus.
Traveling from one city to another or from one city to a small village can be done by bus and that’s also the option most travelers who are backpacking in Colombia use. National flights are the second option, which also widely used and is sometimes cheaper than travel by bus. Usually it’s also faster.
There are options to travel by train in Colombia. We haven’t tried this option, but is supposedly over 3000 km of railroad available in Colombia. Most of the passenger railway lines are neglected and they’re not used.
Most large cities in Colombia have awesome public transportation, like buses and metro systems. This type of transportation is cheap and straightforward. If you want to travel within a city, these are the best types of transportation and they’re also very budget-friendly.
Especially in places like Medellin, Bogota, and Cali, public transportation is good and reliable. Medellin has one of the most sophisticated metro systems in the world and it is a pleasure to use it.
Most other cities use a system with buses or trams.
Another way to get around within cities is the use of taxis. This is mostly more expensive, but it can be the safe way to go when you’re moving around at night.
It’s recommended to ask the phone number of a taxi service in your hostel and call a taxi instead of hauling one down the street. Taxi drivers sometimes take the long drive home in order to charge you more for your ride.
Is Colombia safe?
Even though Colombia used to have a reputation and was bulking with drug lords and trafficking, this is no longer the case and Colombia is a safe country to travel to.
You can still indulge on knowledge about the history of violence in Colombia by doing the Pablo Escobar tour in Medellin and there are probably a few other options.
There is always a chance to encounter a robbery or a common travel scam, but in essence Colombia is no more dangerous than any other country in the world. In major cities, you’ll have the same chance of getting into trouble as you have in any metropolitan area in the world. Colombia does have a few regions that are more dangerous than other, like jungle areas bordering the Amazon basin and currently border regions with Venezuela.
Check current travel warnings for Colombia on WorldNomads.
Extra safety tips for Colombia:
- Don’t buy drugs in Colombia
- Don’t accept drinks from strange men
- Be aware of your surroundings
- You’re more vulnerable when you’re drunk
- Don’t flash your belongings
- Use your common sense
Drinks and food in Colombia
Colombia has a lot of tasty and typical food to offer, street food as well as complete dishes.
We enjoyed a lot of these treats and recognised a few typical foods that we already encountered in other Latin American countries as well.
These are the most typical drinks and food to try in Colombia.
Aguardiente can be translated as ‘burning water’ and that’s exactly what it is.
Trying to get over a flu or laryngitis?
With aguardiente you’ll make sure to kill anything on its path. This stuff is so hot in your throat and it will get you drunk within no time.
Aguardiente is a clear drink, but you can distinguish two types by the bottle cap. The stuff with the red cap contains more sugar than the ones with the blue cap, so it tastes better, but you won’t notice how quickly you get drunk!
Empanadas in Colombia resemble the Mexican empanadas a lot, but the best empanadas we ever had, were in Medellin. Empanadas are stuffed pastries and they can be stuffed with a diversity of hearty stuff, like meat, veggies, cheese or more of a sweet dessert-like filling.
If you encounter these, you must most definitely try them. Papas rellenas are potatoes that are stuffed with the most delicious filling. In the center, there’s a boiled egg.
Bandeja Paisa is the typical Colombian dish of rice with fried plantain and beans. It usually also has avocado and sometimes bacon. This dish is more typical in the Medellin area.
Arepas are common in Latin America, but Colombia has their own variant to the traditional arepa. The corn wrapping is filled with different stuff, like cheese or an egg.
Crossing the Colombian Border
Crossing the Colombian border isn’t that hard if you’re traveling on the regular and frequently used routes.
We listed the regular routes first and the unusual routes after.
Most people who are backpacking in Central and South America, travel to Panama or Ecuador, but some backpackers choose different route, like Venezuela or the Amazon.
Keep reading to find out the different options.
Traveling from Colombia to Panama
Traveling from Colombia to Panama may look easy on the world map, but it isn’t. Because of the Darien Gap blocking the way, overland travel isn’t possible. You’ll also notice that there’s no roads crossing this piece of land that divides Central and South America.
Traveling from Colombia to Panama can be done with a flight, which isn’t that exciting at all, so opt for the second choice: by boat.
The most popular method to travel between Colombia and Panama is by sailing boat. Tours are available where you can do some beach hopping along the way.
Stop at the beaches of Sapzurro and Capurgana and maybe throw in a few Caribbean islands as well
Traveling from Colombia to Ecuador
If your Latin America backpacking trip has room for multiple countries, you’ll probably be traveling overland to Ecuador, which is easy. Your last stop in Colombia will be Popayan or maybe Pasto, before crossing the border in the direction of Otavalo in Ecuador.
This border crossing is simply stunning and I’d recommend keeping your eyes on the window and the scenery outside while taking this trip.
Take a break right before the border in order to visit the Las Lajas church which is built in a steep valley. You can visit this place by stopping for a few hours or you can spend the night in Ipiales, which doesn’t have much to offer and isn’t the safest place to be in.
We spent the night in Ipiales just to visit the church and we didn’t really like the village, but the church was cool enough.
Read the complete guide on how to cross the border between Ecuador and Colombia.
Traveling from Colombia to Venezuela
Traveling from Colombia to Venezuela may sound like a great idea and it would be, if it wasn’t for the unrest that is currently causing a lot of trouble in Venezuela and the border region with Colombia.
Venezuela is a beautiful country and the most obvious border crossing is in Cucuta, where you can travel to San Cristobal in Venezuela and on to the beautiful Merida. This was actually part of the route we were supposed to travel once, but we ended up not doing this border crossing dua to the many problems and the unsafety in the region.
Traveling from Colombia into the Amazon Basin
For the adventurous backpacker, traveling through the Amazon basin by slow boat is a very cool and interesting option.
You can do this from the border town of Leticia in Colombia, which is already on the Amazon. Getting to Leticia, on the other hand, is only possible from Peru, Iquitos to be more specific.
The South-East side of Colombia consists of hundreds of kilometers of vast jungle with only a few small towns and communities every now and then. So traveling from the mainland of Colombia, straight into the Amazon basin is not only very difficult, it’s probably impossible to do, unless you want to face the jungle like a local!
Colombia for LGBT travelers
Colombia is quite LGBT-friendly and in most cities you’ll be perfectly fine. WorldNomads warns for LGBT intolerance in rural areas, but we didn’t notice any of this at all.
We were even kindly met by two gay youngsters who went through a lot of effort to make us feel at home in their country.
Bogota and Medellin are extremely LGBT-friendly and you’ll find the largest gay club, Theatron, in Latin America in Bogota. Most LGBT bars and nightclubs in Colombia are oriented towards gay men, but as soon as we find a lesbian bar or nightclub, we’ll add it right here!
Don’t forget to read our LGBT page about Colombia!
LGBT film tip
La Luciérnaga is a film about how a tragic accident brings two women together. The film is directed by a Colombian filmmaker and parts of it are filmed in the Colombian capital Bogota.