Colombia is an interesting and diverse country. There are tons of cool places 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 go and where to sleep. What is the best Colombian food and where to find adventurous things to do in Colombia?
Keep reading this Colombia travel guide to find the best travel tips for backpacking the country of coffee and salsa!
Colombia has been off the grid for travelers for a long time. Safety warnings have been issued by every government. In recent years, Colombia made efforts toward safety. Backpacking Colombia is now possible without facing too many risks.
So if you ask us: is Colombia safe?
Yes! It is perfectly safe to go backpacking in Colombia. We encountered hospitable people and we felt welcome everywhere we went. More about safety later.
Let’s talk about Colombia first!
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!
Colombia backpacking route – places to go
Best cities to visit when backpacking Colombia
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.
LGBT Film tip: La Luciernaga or the Firefly is a lesbian film which is partially set in 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.
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 backpacking Colombia, Cali should not be skipped.
Cartagena – Ancient 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.
If you include Cartagena into your backpacking Colombia itinerary, don’t skip the old town and Castillo de San Felipe.
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 after backpacking Colombia. 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.
Colombia has beaches on both sides, Pacific as well as the Caribbean. And with these, we didn’t mention the picture-perfect islands of Colombia, like San Andres yet. Some beaches in Colombia are part of a larger natural reserve, while others are crowded and metropolitan.
Pacific Colombia beaches
The Pacific beaches of Colombia are more difficult to reach. For this reason, you meet fewer crowds. Between the major cities in Colombia and the Pacific Ocean, a vast jungle area blocks the route to the Pacific. That’s why most travelers don’t travel there. Locals aren’t used to tourists and backpackers. So it might be a little more difficult to get to these places. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it!
One of the most beautiful beaches on the Pacific side is Nuquí, 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 the grid due to their location close to the Darien Gap. At this time they’re frequently visited by travelers backpacking Colombia. Also by travelers who travel 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. You can also read our post about visiting Parque Tayrona while backpacking Colombia.
Between Santa Marta and Riohacha, Palomino is just a small beach town. 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. It’s located 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. It is a natural reserve for quite a while now. The only access to the islands is by boat from the Pacific coast of Colombia.
Interesting places in Colombia
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 is a popular destination for people who are backpacking through Colombia. And that’s for a good reason. This region is beautiful and easy to travel. The area has a lot of natural beauty to offer and there are 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. It’s a great hub to visit the famous Valle de Cocora with its huge coconut trees and beautiful hikes. Read more about hiking Cocora Valley below!
From Salento, access to coffee plantations and coffee tours is easy. You won’t have a hard time booking a coffee tour from your hostel or from one of the tourist offices.
Guatape – Stones and Water
Guatape can be visited as a day trip from Medellin. We suggest spending at least one night in the lovely and colorful village, just because it’s pretty. In Guatape, watch life go by slowly while 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.
San Agustin is a smaller town in Colombia. You can do some interesting activities in this area. The town can be visited from Popayan. But it’s a long 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 in San Agustin are there 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 a tourist highlight. They’re interesting and different than most archeology we’d seen before and the statues are peculiar.
San Agustin is also a great place for a jeep tour. This adventurous day trip takes you on a tour of the waterfalls in the area. You also get to visit El Estrecho. In this place, the Rio Magdalena is very narrow. A huge mass of water is driven through a narrow rock formation with parts of it underneath the rocks.
Mompos – Home of Magical Surrealism
The town of Santa Cruz de Mompos was the inspiration for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 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. 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. This way, you can avoid the growing crowds that are flocking the beaches of Tayrona National Park.
Inside the park, you can hike another few hours to the ruins of Pueblita.
Guajira and Riohacha
Did you ever read the book Papillon by Henri Charriere? In this book, Papillon takes refuge in Riohacha for a few years. That is this Riohacha. If you haven’t read the book yet, I definitely recommend it.
Guajira consists of a stretch of Caribbean beaches which are less touristy than any other beaches in Colombia.
Riohacha is a larger city from which you can hike into Cabo de la Vela, a scenic beach area.
Valledupar is the greenest city in Colombia and temperatures are similar to the coastal region. 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 you can go swimming in the Badillo river, which is famous for its weirdly shaped large boulders. Or you can visit the Indian village of Nabusimake.
San Gil – Capital of Adventure
San Gil happens to be the capital of adventure sports in Colombia. That’s the reason many backpackers travel to 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 used for white water rafting and river tubing. Bungee jumping, mountain biking, and caving are a few other popular activities to do in San Gil.
Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva is a popular weekend destination for Colombians. When planning your Colombia itinerary, try to fit Villa de Leyva in during the week.
The old colonial town of Villa de Leyva is charming and cute. Spend a few days in this town to stroll around. You could also visit the prehistoric garden and climb the Mirador viewpoint.
Aha! The Darien Gap!
I must admit that this region speaks to my imagination. Maybe that’s because it has been off the grid for ages.
This immense area of vast jungle used to be a place where people would disappear and it still is.
The Darien Gap is the strip of land that connects Central America with South America. It has been the play garden for the FARC for a very long time. People didn’t dare to go 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 maybe 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. It’s just too difficult 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 by Expert Vagabond to find out more about expeditions to the Darien Gap.
Adventure travel in Colombia
Colombia is a country of adventure. Thanks to a diverse landscape and abundance of rivers and waterfalls, most adventure activities are available everywhere in Colombia.
Check out these prime adventurous activities. All of these are a perfect addition to your backpacking 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 work for less than half the price of US dentists.
Back to the paragliding… Bucaramanga is an awesome region to do paragliding. 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 zip lining experiences per region. Bungee jumping is another popular backpacker activity in Colombia, mostly done in San Gil.
Check how to plan this activity on Tripadvisor.
Colombia is the place for adventure travel. People who are backpacking Colombia will definitely find a few awesome opportunities in Colombia. Whitewater 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.
Check out the best biking tours in Colombia on this page.
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.
According to Tripadvisor, these are the coolest caves in Colombia.
Best hikes in Colombia
Many places in Colombia are excellent for hiking.
Not all are equally popular or frequently visited.
We could probably never come close to listing all of the best hikes in Colombia. But let’s give it a shot. Many travelers who go backpacking in Colombia, want some adventure and nature hiking.
So here’s what we got!
Since we didn’t gather many hikes in Colombia, these are 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. They drive 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, where your hike can begin.
Cocora Valley hike isn’t difficult. But it includes some river crossings over bridges that aren’t decent bridges. In short, some of them are scary and unsafe! This hike is a loop and it can be done in both directions. On your way, you’ll see the tall and recognizable 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. It takes you through the magical scenery of the Sierra Nevada. After days of hiking, with regular stops for lunch and the occasional river plunge, you reach the lost city.
Prepare to sleep in basic jungle camps along the way. Don’t forget too bring your flashlight and insect repellent!
Read this post about the entire adventure on Sarepa.com.
Colombia Itinerary – how to plan your Colombia itinerary
Colombia is a large country. It’s not always easy to configure a perfect backpacking Colombia itinerary. If you have plenty of time, buses are widely available. But with the large distances, expect to spend entire days riding in buses.
We tried to make our trip go faster by taking one airplane from Medellin to Cartagena. Our flight was quicker and cheaper at the same time. If you don’t have issues with taking airplanes, check if flights are cheaper than a bus ride.
When planning your itinerary, always count in extra days for day trips. If you want to see all of Colombia, you need at least 4 weeks, preferably longer.
Best time to visit Colombia
The dry season in Colombia consists of two different periods. The first set of dry months is from December to January. After that, the second set of dry months are July and August. During these periods of time, the weather is usually dry and hot.
Rainy season is from April to May and from October through November. During these months, the weather can still be hot, but you’ll experience more rainy days.
Since Colombia has a rich biodiversity, it’s hard to pin down the exact seasons. If you travel into the mountains, temperatures will drop. Beach regions experience high temperatures all year. The best time to visit Colombia might be different for different travelers.
Budget Colombia – What’s the cost
The currency in Colombia is the Colombian Peso or COP.
1€ is worth 3500 COP, but these numbers fluctuate all the time.
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. Travelers who want to splurge can easily 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. 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 your choices. Which accommodation do you choose? Where do you have dinner and how many activities you want to do?
Transportation – Getting around Colombia
Getting around Colombia is easy and quite cheap. Buses are the backpacker way to go, but the rides are usually long and exhausting. Regularly check prices for flights, because 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. That’s the option most travelers who are backpacking in Colombia use. National flights are the second option, which also widely used. Sometimes these are cheaper than travel by bus. Usually, it’s also faster.
There are options to travel by train in Colombia. We haven’t tried this, but there is over 3000 km of railroad available in Colombia. Most of the passenger railway lines are neglected and unused.
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 and cheapest types of transportation.
Especially in places like Medellin, Bogota, and Cali, public transportation is good and reliable. Medellin has one of the best metro systems in the world and it’s a pleasure to use. This city even has a public cable car system to take you over the hills into Parque Arvi.
Most other cities use a system with buses or trams.
Another way to get around within cities is the use of taxis. These are more expensive, but getting a taxi is safer when moving around at night.
Ask for 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.
And then there’s always tuc tucs… just like everywhere else in Latin America. A tuc tuc is cheap and fun. You should try it at least once!
Is Colombia safe?
Colombia used to have a reputation and was bulking with drug lords and trafficking. A lot of things have changed and Colombia is a safe country to travel to. You can still indulge in knowledge about the history of Colombia by doing the Pablo Escobar tour in Medellin. There are probably a few other options as well.
You can always encounter a robbery or a common travel scam anywhere in the world. In essence, Colombia is no more dangerous than any other country in the world. Colombia does have a few regions that are more dangerous than others. Jungle areas bordering the Amazon basin and border regions with Venezuela are high-risk areas.
Check current travel warnings for Colombia on WorldNomads.
Extra safety tips for Colombia:
- Don’t buy drugs in Colombia
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Don’t accept drinks from strange men
- 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 many treats and recognized a few typical foods that we also encountered in other Latin American countries. These are the most typical foods and drinks to try in Colombia.
Aguardiente translates as ‘burning water’ and that’s exactly what it is.
Trying to get over the 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. It tastes better, but you won’t notice how quickly you get drunk!
Empanadas in Colombia resemble the Mexican empanadas a lot. The best empanadas we ever had, were in Medellin. Empanadas are stuffed pastries. They can be stuffed with a diversity of hearty stuff, like meat, veggies, cheese or 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 hard if you travel 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 a 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. There are 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. But you can also 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. Make sure to 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 can travel overland to Ecuador. Your last stop in Colombia is either Popayan or Pasto, before crossing the border towards Otavalo in Ecuador.
This border crossing is simply stunning. I recommend keeping your eyes on the scenery outside while taking this trip.
Take a break right before the border 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 spend the night in Ipiales. The town of Ipiales doesn’t have much to offer and it’s not that safe.
We spent the night in Ipiales to visit the church. We didn’t really like the village, but the church was cool enough.
Traveling from Colombia to Venezuela
Traveling from Colombia to Venezuela sounds like a great idea. But at this time, Venezuela is not the safest place to be.
Venezuela is a beautiful country and the most obvious border crossing is in Cucuta. From there, 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. We ended up not doing this because of the reason we mentioned above.
Traveling from Colombia into the Amazon Basin
For the adventurous backpacker, traveling through the Amazon basin by slow boat is a 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 a vast jungle. In this area, only a few small towns and communities are hidden in the jungle every now and then. Hence, traveling from the mainland of Colombia, straight into the Amazon basin is very difficult. It’s probably even 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. 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. You’ll find the largest gay club in Latin America, Theatron, in Bogota. Most LGBT bars and nightclubs in Colombia are oriented towards gay men. As soon as we find a lesbian bar or nightclub, we’ll add it right here!
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.
This post is also available in: Nederlands (Dutch)