Before I travelled Colombia, I had no idea just how tremendously large the country is. Ideally, in order to visit every town and city worth seeing and get to know the culture in depth, you should aim for a minimum of three weeks travel time. There is a clear gringo route which spans as far as the Caribbean coast in the north, to towns just a few hours from the southern border with Ecuador. The distances between each stop are often between twelve and twenty hours, so be prepared for some long and often overnight bus journeys!
As always happens when backpacking, once you’re in the country you’ll no doubt mix with other travellers, who will help you to know which places to visit and what each has to offer. To help you plan though, here’s my list of places worth heading to as part of your travels in Colombia.
A city that features romantic colonial architecture and cobbled stone pavements, surrounded by the beautiful city walls of the old town. Cartagena offers backpackers a safe starting point in Colombia as one of the major airport destinations. From here you’ll have easy access to nearby beaches, such as Playa Blanca and Isla de Rosas.
Must do activity: Day tour to the Totumo Volcano mud baths.
Recommended time needed: 2-3 days maximum. Mud baths of the Totumo Volcano, Colombia
The city itself leaves a lot to be desired and by far has the craziest drivers I experienced anywhere in Colombia, however Santa Marta is the perfect jumping-off point for many nearby sights and activities, such as the Tayrona National Park and Ciudad Perdida. Base yourself in Santa Marta to easily access other areas but try to avoid venturing out too much after dusk, as muggings are common.
Must do activity: Tayrona National Park for treks and beautiful bay-enclosed beaches.
Recommended time: 3-4 days to allow for trekking, 2 days if not.
As a small fishing village just a twenty minute drive north of Santa Marta, Taganga is popular for diving and party hostels. You can opt to stay here or in nearby Santa Marta as a local bus runs between both locations all day at a cost of just 1,700 pesos one way.
Must-do activity: Many of the restaurants that line the beach have sunbeds that are free when you purchase food or drink, this includes bottles of water!
Recommended time: 2 days.
Located inland in the Santander department of Colombia, San Gil is an adrenaline junkies paradise. Offering whitewater rafting, paragliding, horse-riding, canyoning and caving, this town has an array of activites available to travellers. For those looking for scenic walks and waterfalls, San Gil is also your place as it is close enough for day trips to idyllic towns, such as Barichara.
Must-do activity: Canyoning and Caving La Antigua and the 2-hour trek from Barichara to Guane.
Recommended time: 4-5 days.
For backpackers, this city is all about partying in the El Poblado district and making a couple of trips to parks and towns within a couple of hour’s drive. Medellin itself is incredibly hectic and densely populated, but the metro system is easy to use and features a cable metro, which allows for incredible views over the enormous city and it’s many favellas.
Must-do activity: Parque Arvi, at the top of the tourist cable metro line and El Pinon, a rock you can climb near the town of Guatape.
Recommended time: 3-4 days.
The Colombian capital is more often than not a pit-stop for travellers entering and leaving the country by plane, but there are a few sights to see here and despite it being a major city, Bogota feels very safe overall.
Recommended activity: Hike or take the cable car up to Cerro Monserrate for incredible views over the city and a peaceful retreat away from the city hustle and bustle.
Recommended time: 1-2 days.
Solento & Cali
Both located towards the south of Colombia, these places are known for being part of the main coffee-producing region. I, unfortunately, was unable to visit due to time restraints but I’m told by other backpackers that there are some nice hikes and tours of coffee regions in these areas. Cali is also popular for taking a bus into Ecuador.
Must-do activity: Take a Colombian coffee tour.
Recommended time: 2 days.
So there you have it, a quick snapshot into the places to visit when travelling Colombia. I hope it’s provided you with enough info to start planning a rough itinerary, but remember to be flexible and try not to be too set on a route, I’m sure there’s plenty of other places to explore on a whim!