Colombia is a unique destination for travelers. As global citizens, we know you’re all about discovering the unknown and embracing cultural diversity. This guide is jam-packed with tips on where to go, what to do, and how to stay safe.
Colombia Travel Guide Quick Links
- 5 Quick Tips for First-Time Colombia Visitors
- When is the Best Time to Visit Colombia?
- Things to Do in Colombia
- Top Destinations to Visit in Colombia
- The Best Spots to Take Photos in Colombia
- How to Stay Safe in Colombia
Sip on Smooth Colombian Coffee. Known for producing some of the best tasting coffee in the world, you can’t visit Colombia without indulging in a cup (or two, or four). Visit a coffee plantation or coffee roaster and listen to the stories of the families behind the beans.
Leave Your Narcos Talk at Home. Just 25 years ago, Colombia was in the middle of a drug war, led by the Narcos-famous Pablo Escobar. The twists and turns of the popular Netflix series may be exciting to talk about, but the cartel, and the displacement and violence that came with it, was a tragic reality for many Colombians, most of whom just want to move on.
Tipping Is Included. Check before you leave a tip. Often a 10% gratuity charge has already been added to your bill.
Use Ubers. You can order an Uber from almost anywhere in Medellín, Bogotá, Cali or Cartagena. It will cost you about a third of the price of taking a taxi, but there’s a catch. Uber isn’t strictly legal in Colombia, so when you take one, make sure to sit in the front seat.
Packing Smart. The safest way to get around Colombia is to stay as low-key as possible. Leave the Louis Vuitton suitcases for Europe. This ain’t that kind of trip. Pack what you need in an anti-theft backpack. With secret pockets and a built-in lock, you won’t have to worry about watching your back.
Colombia’s proximity to the equator brings a warm tropical climate year-round. Temperatures barely fluctuate throughout the year, but do vary by altitudes across the country. While you won’t have to worry about bringing a winter coat for the cold, you will have to bring a rain coat for the tropical rain.
For cities like Medellín, appropriately named the city of eternal spring, you can’t go wrong with a visit any time of year, but there are better times. The same goes for Bogotá, Cali and Cartagena. The dry season (and high season) begins in December and lasts until March, with temperatures averaging 72°F (22°C) year-round. The rain holds off a little longer in Cartagena, with showers starting to pour in May and last until September.
If you don’t mind some rain, plan your visit anytime just before or after the high season in November or April to avoid crowds and high prices.
Whether you like to spend your time on the beach, in the hills, or soaking in the culture, Colombia has activities for every type of traveller.
If you’re looking for a real jungle challenge, spend four or five days in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada near Santa Marta trekking the Ciudad Perdida trail. Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City, is an ancient site older than Machu Picchu and is much lesser known, but some say even more breathtaking. The city was abandoned for about 350 years and was only rediscovered in 1972. Prepare to find yourself battling sweltering jungle heat and humidity, while crossing rivers, facing challenging ascents, and passing through remote tribal villages.
If you fancy something a little less intense, make your way over to Guatapé, just two hours by bus from Medellín. The town is famous for their brightly decorated houses, but the real gem of the area is the natural landscape that can be seen from the top of Piedra del Peñol. The view is definitely worth the 675-step climb. Alternatively, you can rock climb the side of the rock and rest in a cliff-side hammock.
Located on the Carribean coast, Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is easily one of the most beautiful spots in Colombia. The rich biodiversity and white sandy beaches bring a lot of tourism to the area, even though the only way to access the beaches is by boat, by horse, or by foot. The first beach waits at the end of a 2.1 mile (3.4km) coastal jungle path. There are several beaches to explore, so consider staying the night at a campsite, in a jungle hut, or at a hotel in the city of Santa Marta.
A vacation isn’t complete without some island hopping and nightlife. Lucky for us, Cartagena has the best of both worlds. Spend your days exploring the Rosario Islands by boat, sipping on mojitos or limonada de coco, and snorkeling in the turquoise ocean. At night, walk the colorful streets of the town and pop into a bar for a taste of aguardiente, a Colombian liquor made from sugarcane, and dance the night away.
If you haven’t had quite enough beach time or want to discover a truly unique mix of culture, plan a visit to San Andrés. This Colombian island is a Carribean paradise, with white sand beaches, coral reefs and the sounds of reggae music flowing through the air. Go kitesurfing, snorkelling, indulge in fresh seafood, or all of the above. A popular vacation spot for Colombian locals and international tourists alike, the best time to visit San Andrés is late-December through April.
Bring your dancing shoes, people! Colombia, specifically the city of Cali, is considered the salsa capital of the world. You can find locals as well as visitors dancing in salsatecas, caught up in the rhythm and energy of the music, from the afternoon until the dawn. Salsa wasn’t born in Colombia, but early adopters were quick to bring it from New York back to Cali, where they now have their own style of salsa, Cali Salsa. But Colombia’s dance scene isn’t just about salsa. Pop by a class and give traditional Colombian dance styles like Cumbia, Porro, and Bambuco a try.
On the topic of rhythm, Colombia is home to some of the world’s most popular Reggaeton songs and successful Reggaeton artists. The rise in popularity of these party beats has brought Colombian artists like J Balvin, Maluma, and Bad Bunny into the global limelight.
One of the most inspiring facts about Colombia, and Medellín in particular, is the role street art and music has played in the revival of the place named the most dangerous city in the world just 25 years ago.
When in Medellín, make sure to visit the city’s once most notorious neighborhood, Comuna 13. At the time of the drug wars in the 1980’s and 90’s, this neighborhood had an astronomical murder rate. The cartel-controlled community was a high crime area and left many residents displaced and in constant fear.
After years of violence, residents of Comuna 13 raised their voices through street art, which depicted white flags and a cry for peace. They used music as a vehicle for political expression and after a brutal raid in 2002, the government stepped in with improved access and transportation, roofing for houses and community centres to help reinvent the city. If you don’t visit Comuna 13 for the art, visit it to learn about their tragic and inspiring history.
Colombia is a country so full of lush landscapes and vivacious culture, it’s difficult to choose just six destinations to recommend, but we’re going to try it anyway.
Cartagena. Aside from the obvious draws of a Carribean climate and secluded beaches, there is a rich history of castles and treasures inside this famous walled-city.
Medellín. The story of reinvention in the city is enough reason to plan a visit to Medellín, but it is also a growing hub for tech startups and has a budding digital nomad community.
Bogotá. So, you want a taste of the city life? Bogotá’s got a buzzing nightlife and unique neighborhoods. It’s also home to many sculptures by the world-famous artist Fernando Botero.
Cali. “The Capital of Happiness” isn’t the only nickname given to Cali. This sports-centered, salsa-obsessed, lively town is also the center of sugarcane farming.
Quinido. This region is most famous for producing amazing coffee, but the landscape is what makes the trip. Visit Salento to experience the slow-paced life of rural Colombia.
Santa Marta. Consider this a base for short trips to Tayrona National Natural Park, the jungle trek to the Lost City and scuba diving in Taganga.
Landscapes, beaches and coffee farms won’t be the only things you take photos of in Colombia. Here are some of our favorite spots we haven’t yet mentioned in this guide:
- Sofia Hotel, Cartagena. The rooftop of this boutique hotel has sweeping views of the Walled City and a sunset you’ll never forget.
- Caño Cristales (River of Seven Colors), Tayrona National Park. The name says it all. This liquid rainbow river is most vibrant July through November.
- Cocora Valley. The tallest palm tree on the planet lives here. This surreal scenic hike is just outside of the famous coffee town of Salento.
- Casa Elemento. If the tallest palm tree isn’t your thing, how about the world’s biggest hammock? You’ll get a thrill and an incredible view of the mountains and the sea.
Don’t give papaya. Okay, we know this quirky Colombian phrase doesn’t make sense, but it will in a moment. Colombia has come a long way from it’s darker past, and while even cities like Medellín have changed for the better, it’s still smart to have your wits about you. Don’t let thieves feel like stealing from you is a piece of cake. It’s simple. Don’t leave papaya out, if you don’t want your papaya taken.
- Pay Attention to Your Change. Navigating an unfamiliar area is enough to steal your attention, but don’t forget you’ll be handling foreign currency. Colombian Peso notes are colorful, but can cause confusion. A 1,000 peso note is a similar red as the 10,000 peso note, so don’t let taxi drivers or street vendors short change you.
- Keep Your Phone Close to You. As a general rule, don’t walk around with your phone out. Keep it safe and hidden in your pocket or your bag. Bonus points if your backpack has a secret spot for it! Your phone could be gone before you even notice a motorbike has driven past you and swiped it right from your hands.
- Stay in a Safer Neighborhood . Big cities like Medellín and Bogotá are much safer than they were in the 80’s and 90’s, but there are still some neighborhoods that are best to avoid. In Medellín, stay in Poblado. In Bogotá, stay in Park73 and in Cartagena, stay in Getsemaní, within the Walled City or Bocagrande.
- Be Aware of Your Surroundings . Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to experience someone following you at times, or people paying special attention to where you put your belongings. Violence is rare and petty theft is the most common crime against tourists, but be aware of where you are and never walk alone in the dark.
Colombia is a vibrant country, full of wonder, gorgeous landscapes, and culture. Whether you’re looking for a beach getaway, a jungle adventure or a steamy salsa night, Colombia has something for every traveler. Are you ready for your tropical trip to Colombia? Grab an Anti-Theft Lifepack so you can spend less time worrying about your belongings, and focus on exploring this incredible South American gem.