Top 10 things to do in Colombia 

Colombia is so large, travelling from Cartaenga on the coast to Bogota the capital, is like travelling from Manchester in the UK to Paris. It’s such an incredible and fascinating country, that it would be hard to see and do everything unless you have few months to travel. 

To help you, I have pulled together my top 10 recommendations of what to see and do from my 6 weeks in Colombia, and even I didn’t get to do everything. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. 

1) Parque Tayrona 


Parque Tayrona has some of the best beaches that Colombia has to offer and is Colombias most popular national park. To get to the beaches you will need to hike a minimum of two hours, through the jungle and along the beautiful coast line. Make sure you take plenty of water with you, as its pretty hot and humid. 

I would recommend you leave you big bag at the Dreamer Hostel in Santa Marta and take enough for 1 night 2 days, and spend a night in the park sleeping in a hammock at El Cabo San Juan. If you get there early you can claim a hammock overlooking the sea high up on the lookout point, otherwise it will be a sweaty tent.

Expect there to be lots of other travellers doing the same. Alternatively you can book one of the many hostels and eco hotels just outside the park.

Make sure you take plenty of bug repellent as the mosquitos and sand flies are pretty ferocious here.

Getting to the Park

  • Shuttle from Santa Marta – most hostels provide a daily shuttle service to the park 15,000cop/£3.60
  • Local bus from Santa Marta – Take the bus headed to Palomeno and ask for the park. 10,000cop/£2.50
  • Taxi from Santa Marta – 30,000-40,000cop/£7-£9 

There are a few trekking options 

  • 6-7 hour round trip through the jungle via El Pueblito where you will find some indigenous locals. Access vis Colionas de Calabazo entrance and return via the coast route to the main entrance. 
  •  4 hour round trip along the coast. This is the same beautiful trek there and back and takes 2 hours. For a quicker route back follow the horses, as it only takes 1 hour 30 minutes through the jungle. 
  • To access this route via the main park entrance and take the minibus to the start of the trail.

     Costs 

    • Accommodation – Hammock 25,000cop/£6 – Hostel 25,000/£6 – Eco Hotel 163,000cop/£40
    • Park entrance 48,000cop/£12 (require your passport)
    • Minibus 3500/£1


    2) Minca


    For the ultimate relaxation, I recommend you stay a few nights in the mountains, in the middle of a finca (coffee farm) 1600m above sea level close a a little village called Minca. This hidden gem is relatively new on the tourist trail, so therefore a lot less commercial than its neighbouring tourist traps. 

    There are some Hostels in Minca, but take the extra 30 minute motorbike ride deep into the jungle and stay at Casa Viajes. You won’t be disappointed with the view, the hostel or the friendly staff. And it was the best cooked meal I had had at any hostel. To help you relax even more and switch off from the world, you wont find any wifi, although there is a computer to use if required.

    Make sure you take advantage of the daily organised hikes, yoga, bird watching and the tour of the La Victoria coffee farm. La Victoria is a self sustainable coffee farm that uses the nearby waterfall to power the coffee bean processing and supplies electricity for surrounding inhabitants, including Casa Viajes.

    Costs – 

    • transport from Santa Marta – 15,000cop £4 hostel bus – taxi from Santa Marta 60,000cop/£14
    • motorbike taxi up the hill – 20,000cop/£5
    • Accommodation – Dorms 34,000cop/£8.5 –  private room 89,000cop/£22 – Breakfast 10,000/£2.50 – Dinner 21,0000cop/£5

    top tip – take plenty of money as there are no cash machines 


    3) Water rafting in San Gil

    San Gil is the best place in Colombia to try out all the adventure sports like, rafting, bungee, rappelling, zip lining and mountain biking . Some of the cheapest you can find in South America, so make the most of it. I would recommend the rafting on the class 4/5 river, it was really well organised by Colombia Rafting, the rafting guides are all part of the national rafting squad. 

    It is a half day activity, with three hours on the river and an hour each way traveling, lunch is provided. If you haven’t experienced rafting before, this is the best place to try for your first time, as they use larger rafts so your are less likely to fall out.  However it does still happen so be prepared.

    Cost

    •  130,000cop £36 


    4) Watch a live football match 


    The Colombians are such a passionate nation and no more so than when it comes to their football. One of the highlights of visiting Colombia is going to watch a football game at one of the many stadiums in the big cities. I’m not a football fan particularly, but I loved the atmosphere, listening to the many chants the fans sing throughout the whole match.

    There tends to be a local team and the national team. Both give an incredible experience, although the level of football will differ massively. Oh and the Cerveza is alcohol free so don’t be fooled by the vendors. 

    Buying at the stadium is much cheaper than going on a organised tour

    Costs

    • Entry Price 25,000cop £6 
    • Organised tours 70,000cop/£17

    top tipbuy a football shirt for 25,000/£6 from one of the street vendors, as everyone will be wearing one.


    5)  Take a Salsa lesson in Cali –

    Salsa is the national dance of Colombia and everyone can dance it, all be at differing levels. You will hear Salsa or Regatón blaring from every bar, club and car in Colombia. Dancing Salsa is the best way to meet the locals. So take advantage of the many free Salsa lesson on offer when in Cali or request a private lesson. You won’t be disappointed. 

    El Viarejo Hostel has free salsa lessons for all guests.


    6) Barichara 

    If you get to stay in San Gil, then make sure you do the day trip to Barichara. A beautifully unspoilt village with cobbled sandstone roads, whitewashed single story buildings with terracotta roofs. This is by far one of my favourite villages in Colombia and with very few tourists.  Try and take the bus in the morning and have lunch at one of the cute restaurants around the square. 

    If you feel energetic then take the 5km, three hour hike to Guane and take in the spectacular views of the valley beneath. The road reminded me of Dorothy’s yellow brick road initially, but as we ventured further into the wilderness, it became more isolated and arid from the scorching sun beating down. I had visions of Jesus walking to Nazareth – don’t ask me why….

     You reach quaintest little Colombian village and if you have time, stay the night at the beautiful Casa Misia Custodia Hotel

    How To Get There

    • Catch a bus from the small Contra San Gil bus station on the corner of Calle 17 / Carrer 10. 
    • Ask for Barichara and the bus leaves every 30 minutes. 
    • The bus will take 45. Minutes
    • Costs 6000cop £1.50



    7) Cathedral de Sal 

    If you have a few days in Bogota then the Salt Cathedral is well worth the two hour bus journey 30km. You may wonder, why build a Cathedral hundreds of metres underground in a salt mine. All will be answered by the guide that will take you on a one hour tour. I was totally amazed at what man can still acheieve, an in in such a short time.

    How To Get There

    The B74 from Las Aguas bus terminal to Portal North was simple enough, you buy a plastic bus pass for 6500cop/£1.60 which includes your bus fare. Walk to platform 2 through the underpass to catch the B74, don’t wait under to sign that says B74 as it’s wrong and you will wait like me for twenty minutes before you realise this isn’t the stop. The bus network is pretty impressive and easy to use.

    After about 45 minutes your arrive at Portal Norte, and you go through the barrier to the intermunicipal platform and look for a bus with Zipa in the window. Get on and a young guy will take your fare once you are on the road (5000cop/£1.20). The bus takes about 45 minutes, once in Zipa get off around carrer 10a and then walk the rest of the way to the Cathedral. It’s a small town and easy enough to find the cathedral from the main square.

    Costs

    • Entrance 48,000cop/£11.90 one hour guide
    • Bus 5000cop £1.20 each way 



    8) Guatapé 

    Guatapé is one of those places that is on the tourist trail, but worth taking the two hour bus journey from Medellín. The climb up the 750 steps to the top of Piedra del Peñol (the rock) is worth it. The Stunning view of the Embalse del Peñol, a large lake beautifully sculptured by green peninsulares and home to some wealthy Colombians swimming in their pools. 

    From the rock you can catch a tuk tuk to the town of Guatapé, make sure you haggle the price, as 11000cop seemed a bit steep considering it was only 3km away. 

    Once in Guatapé you can take a boat out on the lake and visit some of the peninsulares or zip line across the water. Or do as i did, and sit and have their local dish of grilled trout while watching the action on the lake. 

    There is much too see in the town, it is full of the most beautifully painted buildings, little shops and cafes to meander around, but not for too long as the last bus leaves at 18:30


    How To Get There

    • Take the metro to Caribe Station – 4800cop/£1.19
    • Take a bus from the North Bus Terminal next to Caribe metro station. Buses leave four times an hour and cost 13000/£3.20
    • Entrance to the Rock – 18,000cop/£4.50
    • Tuk tuk 10,000cop/£2.50 (try and take it with other tourists to share the cost)


    9) Cascadas de Valencia 

    There are many waterfalls to see while in Colombia, some spectacular and some just meh. The dream is to swim under the waterfall and there is no better place than Cascades de Valencia. There are five waterfalls in total, with three that can be easily accessed and each having a clear pool of warm water to swim in. 

    How To Get There 

    • Either take a local bus from Santa Marta or Palomino that goes to Parque Tayrona and ask the driver for the Cascades and he will drop you off at the entrance. 
    • Bus 10,000/£2.50 – 15,000cop/£3.70 depending on where you come from
    • Entrance fee 3000cop/74p 


    10) Medellín 



    If there is any city that should be on your list while in Colombia, this city is it. By far my favourite city in Colombia, and one I would even consider moving too. The place is just so alive and full of energy, it has character, and not too impacted by the western world, unlike the Capital Bogota. 

    I would say that Colombians are probably the friendliest and kindest nationality I have ever met, yet the Paisans from Medellín are even friendlier and will go out of there way to help you.

    I have to admit it’s the not the most attractive of cities, but the people and vibe more than make up for that and in a way masks its ugliness. 

    It’s amazing to hear the stories and see for your self first hand what the city has been through over the last 30 years, and if ever a city has transformed and prospered the most in such a short time, then Medellín can show a lot of cities how its done.  

    Twenty years ago it was the most violent city in the word thanks to the drugs trade and the man that cannot be named ‘Pablo Escobar’. It’s is beacuse of this, the people of Medellín have such belief and determination in their city and own life, that it’s hard to stop or disagree with. It’s quite infectious. 

    In today’s Medellín I couldn’t have felt more safe walking around the City, obviously still being aware of my surroundings and understanding where to avoid, like in most big cities.

    They have a saying in Medellin “dont offer the papaya”. If you offer papaya it will be taken. This basically means dont give someone the opportuibity to take, as they will. It’s a nice way of making tourists think about their belonings and what they do.

    A great way to see the City and understand its past is to take the free city walking tour or visit Community 13, and witness the transformation yourself. 

    • Medeilin Free walking tour – Real City Tours meets at Alpujarra Metro station morning and afternoon. This requires online registration.
    • You pay a tip at the end of the tour, based on the experience – normally 30,000cop/£7 per person

    Where to Stay

    • Sugar cane Hostel – chilled and relaxed vibe – 31,000/£8 for a dorm
    • La playa Hostel – more of a party vibe but not too much –  39,000/£10
    • Airbnb  from 39,000cop /£10 double room – ideal for a longer stay 
    • treat youself  – Dann Carlton Hotel 

    Where to eat

    • Malevo – Argentina steak – really cute and perfect for a quiet dinner for 2 or dinner with friends. The Steak was amazing, with a good selection of Argentine wine. The Argentinian staff were really friendly and welcoming. 
    • Cafe Zorba – Pizza and Humous with a really lively atmosphere, it’s gets really busy at weekends.
    • Lenteja Expresa – great little vegetarian place that does quick and easy food.
    • Verdeo – Vegetarian , with amazing iceream. The resataurnat is set on the second floor, with a great open feal and lots of plants to make you feel relaxed. It has a real scandy feel to it. Amazing food too.
    • Mondongoz – the perfect place to try out the typical Paisan cuisines. Full of locals and a great atmosphere.
    • Chiclayo Cocina Peruana Envigado – the best place for ceviche in Medellin 

    Where to Drink 

    • Victoria Regina – probably the coolist bar/restaurant in Medellin. Tends to have live music at the weekends.
    • Chiquita – little kitsch and camp bar with really fun decor. Good to start the night here for drinks.
    • 37 Park – great place to sit outside amongst the trees drinking sangria – gets lively at night when the music is turned up. 

    Where to Dance

    • Victoria Regina at weekends is perfect – they often have live music and is always full of locals and ex pats. 
    • Son Havana – best place in town to try out your salsa moves – its small and is full to the rafters with locals on Thursdays and Saturday when they have live salsa bands. 
    • Salon Amador – where the hottest people hangout for a night of dancing until 3am.


    Silento 

    Now I never managed to get here, but everyone else that I met had recomended it and said it was wonderful and one of the higlights of their trip. Its full of Coffee plantations and has some of the best trekking in Colombia. 

    Hello Ecuador…

    Quito and Climbing Volcanos 🌋

    I finally left Colombia and made the twenty two hour journey from Cali to Quito. Crossing the border was simple enough, just remember to get your exit stamp from the Colombian side and walk across the bridge to Ecuador and queue for the entry stamp. This can take some time depending on the time of day, I queued for an hour at lunch time.

    Arriving in Tulcan you immediately see and feel how much more poorer this border town is, compared to Colombia. All the buildings are run down and there are a lot more street vendors. The seven hour bus to Quito was only $6, however the buses are much like the buildings here. They have seen better days and they are constantly stopping to pick up and drop off locals or food sellers during the journey.

    On the road I am instantly taken in by the staggering scenery, the bright blue sky, against the grey rocky mountains that scale many 1000 of metres above you. Passing through Otavalo I see my first snow capped Volcano, ‘Volcán Imbabura’ towering over the town and the water from the lake bekow glistening in the evenings sun. Not much protection for the people of Otavalo if she was to ever blow her top, maybe it’s an extinct Volcano…

    Arriving in Quito, it’s late and we haven’t booked a hostel, so I use my rough guide in iBooks for a recommendation . Bluehouse Hostel seems good enough, and after a $8 taxi ride we make it to a large house that would have once been owned by a rich family in the one of only two areas its safe to stay, centre-north.

    Laura , Ronja – our new German traveller friend – and myself luckedout with a private room with an ensuite and balcony for the price of a dorm. Which we had for our entire four day stay. Bluehouse was a great place with a really chilled vibe, and mostly friendly staff. 

    I say “mostly”, because the miserable dwarf like woman, that just shouted was not nice. We nicknamed her ‘Orc’ . Breakfast of , fruit, porridge, toast and coffee is included in the $10 price and you even get a towel.

    Not having wifi for 24 hours meant I hadn’t had a chance to see what the local guides were like in Ecuador. To my surprise, they were more attractive than I had imagined. 

    After getting the usual increase in messages, primarily because of being one of only a handful of gringos that seemingly use the same local guide app.

    After sifting through, I reply to Danilo, a Brazilian who lives in San Fransisco but is on vacation for one day in Quito. Sounds mad right, 12 hour flight for just a day!!!

    Anyway we agree to meet and see the city together, taking in the many colonial buildings and stunning Church’s and Cathedrals, like La Compañía de Jesús. We even stumble across a mass taking place inside the extravagantly gold decorated La Compañía. Interesting to see so many young families in the congregation, very different to the blue rinse brigade back home.

    After what was probably my most expensive lunch on the trip so far at $20, we decide to try out one of the 6 best locations to see the whole of the city. 

    1. El Panecillo, Old Town
    2. La Basílica, Old Town
    3. Parque Itchimbía, Old Town
    4. Guápulo, centre-north
    5. Parque Metropolitano, Northeast
    6. El Teleférico, Volcán Pichincha

     The Basílica del Voto Nacional was the closest and it is hard to miss when exploring the City.

    As Quito is the second highest seat of Government after La Paz at 2850m, it’s best to take your time when walking about. Poor Danilo was having a tough time walking up the hill to the Basílica.

    Paying the $1.50 for entry, I was pleasantly surprised at how high you could climb to get the best view of the city. I imagined just taking the stairs to the first level, and that would be it. Oh no you walk across narrow wooden planks that cover the eaves of the inside roof, and up a few ladders to the top of one of the main turrets. It Reminded me of Tom Hanks being chased in the film ‘Angels and Demons’.

    From the top, you can see and take in the expanse of the city that just goes on for as far as the eye can see, or until a steep mountain or Volcano gets in the way. Which I soon come to realise, there are a lot of in Ecuador. I bid Danilo farewell, and give him some tips for his trip to london in December. ‘Sink the Pink’ being a must.

    The old town of Quito is small enough to do in one day, as most of the points of interest are there. However there are plenty of day trips to take advantage of to the surroundings areas, which can be booked at most hostels. 

    The closest Volcano to Quito, is Volcán Pichincha. Still an active Volcano last showering Quito with ash back in 1999, it has two summits and two posible climbs. Ruca being the easier and Guagua being the harder, but both reaching 4700m at its summit. Ruca can be accessed easily by the Teleférico, which takes you to 3947m/12,950ft – this would be my highest altitude yet.

    After a twenty minute ride up on the Teleférico, the city gets smaller and further away, the cloud got thicker and the air thinner. To think I still had to climb another 700m was daunting, but the excitement of trying to achieve it drove my determination and I had Laura to keep me company who was equally as excited.

    The advice is not to attempt the summit after 11am, otherwise you will be coming down in the dark as the suggested round trip time is 5-7 hours, depending on your fitness. Thankfully both of us are in pretty good shape and the climb was quite gradual, climbing ever higher with the clouds parting and forming around you all the time.

    As we got higher, our pace got slower and the vegetation disappeared to just grey rock, it felt like we were walking across ‘Mordor’ with Frodo and Sam. This is when I learn that Laura and I are massive Lord of the Rings fans. As we get higher, the terrain is more difficult, with steeper climbing. One wrong foot and it’s goodby from me.

    The cloud gets thicker and the temperature drops as we get to the top. No sooner had we made it, but we had to come straight back down due to a hale storm with hale stones the size of marbles falling from the black sky, and the rumble of thunder getting ever closer. We were not prepared to see out a storm 4700m high, where anything could happen.

    A bit disappointed we couldn’t enjoy our achievement a little bit longer, we make the climb down on the advice of some pro climbing Germans. We managed to reach the summit in just over three hours and made the decent in under two hours. As a first time climber, I would definitely recommend Pichincha to get you ready for some of the higher peaks.

    Still quite giddy from our achievement, that evening we hatch a plan to climb Cotopaxi the highest active Volcano in the world and take the four day Quilotoa Loop.

    Stay tuned to see if I make the 5000m climb

    San Gil to the Caribbean Coast

    San Gil was a perfect fours days of relaxation, adventure sports and nature. There is something to do for everyone here, no matter what your fitness level or lack of enthusiasm for extreme sports. There were less expats than anywhere I have been so far, which makes for a nice change so I can practice my Spanish.

    Forty five minutes away on the bus is the most beautiful little village called Barichara – taken from the Indian word barichala meaning “a good place to rest”. The whitewashed walls and clay tiled single story houses, and stone slabs roads make it idyllic. It is by far the most beautiful little village I have visited and it appears to have escaped the negative impact of tourism that you can find in so many similar places.

    Feeling energetic from our morning run, Laura and I decide to take a two hour hike (5km) to a tiny Hamlet called Guane. The hike had spectacular views of the valley and surrounding mountains and was relatively easy.

    The road reminded me of Dorothy’s yellow brick road initially, but as we ventured further into the wilderness, it became more isolated and arid from the scorching sun beating down. I had visions of Jesus walking to Nazareth – don’t ask me why….

    Arriving into Guane some chickens run past us into the whitewashed house, and we follow the stone road that leads us to the main village square, which was so perfectly unspoilt and Colombian. Some old guys sitting playing games, and local women sweeping outside their beautiful white homes.

    We stumble across a fantastic little boutique hotel Casa Misia Custodia , that would be perfect for a quiet getaway or to book with friends for a special occasion. A central courtyard, has about 10 beautifully designed rooms along 2 sides, and a swimming pool and restaurant along another. 155,000cop £39 per night for a double room when booking two nights.

    Arriving back into San Gil, it is time to say say good bye to laura for now. I leave her watching the Colombian game against Paraguay, and agreed to meet her in Cali in a few weeks, before heading south.

    The Bus journey to Santa Marta is my longest so far at 12hours, but still much cheaper than flying at 60,000cop £15. A quick tip is get the hostel to book your bus, I saved 30,000cop £7.70 compared to the online price. I am so glad it was through the night, as the bus would overtake every lorry on a blind corner as we descend the mountain, and this was a super windy road.

    I arrive at the Dreamers Hostel in Santa Marta along with the other gringos off the bus. Oh and Gringo just means foreigner, nothing bad like it’s made out to be on T.V. Apparently it originates from locals saying “green eyes go”, so I was told by a Colombian.

    I check in and see a poster for a trip to the closest beach in Tayrona Park “Playa Bahia Concha”. I put my name down and take the last spot. My name is called by someone I would say could be the hottest Colombian I have met so far.

    I squeeze into his 4*4 and meet 6 guys from Belgium on their holidays. We drive through a rough part of town to get to this dirt track and drive for 30 minutes through the jungle.

    We arrive and so too have quite a few buses of locals and gringos. We reach the beach and I’m confronted with a row of gazebo style shelters with chairs and lots of locals. Not quite the picturesque national park I was expecting.

    img_6232

    Thankfully Orlando – the driver takes us to the other end of the beach where it is empty and exactly what I had imagined. After four hours of sunbathing, swimming in the clear very warm sea, playing ball with the Belgium boys, and eating an expensive lunch the rain comes and it is time to leave. Most things in the park are overpriced, so take provisions with you if you’re on a budget.

    As we walk back, I use it as an excuse to practice my Spanish with Orlando and much to my surprise he compliments me on my accent and how easily he understands me. Obviously I’m super chuffed.

    It’s my First night in a 6 person dorm, I have a top bunk, it has a fan and a/c and a cute guy from oz. I’ll be fine I’m sure. Well that changed when I decided to get an early night to prepare for my day of hiking, and I find a guy and girl in the bunk below me.

    Obviously I didn’t tolerate the bunk moving for too long and popped my head over and made it clear it wasn’t going to continue. Thankfully they listened and I went to sleep.

    The hostel is super lively with lots of young Traveller’s in groups, and no surprise there are tons of Dutch. Colombia must be the top holiday destination for the Dutch, as they are everywhere and always really friendly.

    Tayrona Park is Colombias most popular national park. A jungle that hugs the coast line between Santa Marta and Palomeno, and has some incredible beaches. The entry is 48,000cop £12, there are a few hiking options you can take to get to the beaches. I opted for the 2 hour hike along the coast, not the 4 hour up and over the mountain to get to Cabo San Juan the main stop for visitors.

    You have the option to stay the night in the park in tents or in a hammock right next to the beach. I decided to stay in Hotel Chayrama just outside the park and enjoy a private room to myself. Chayrama was perfect, really relaxed and Danny who checks you in and then is your waiter for the evening, also takes you on local tours for free.

    I would definitely recommend staying over at least 1 night and spend 2 days exploring the area. Outside the park their are some great waterfalls like Cascades de Valencia where you can swim and escape the 90% humidity that drips continually down you neck.