Backpacking in Colombia is a must-do.
Colombia is a beautiful, diverse country, with something to offer every backpacker. You can soak up the Latino culture and party in big cities, swim or scuba dive in the warm Caribbean, hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains and sample some of the world’s best coffee.
We loved Colombia and ended up spending over six weeks touring the country. During our time there, we picked up tips and advice on how to plan your trip, how to get around, how to cross from Colombia to Ecuador and what to expect beforehand. We’ve included sample itineraries at the end for two, three, four and six week trips backpacking in Colombia.
This post is a bit of a whopper (again, brevity is not my strong point), so just click on any section in the table of contents to skip to that part of the post.
How we spent six weeks backpacking in Colombia
Bogota – 4 days
We flew from Jamaica to Bogota and began the South America leg of our trip in Colombia’s capital city. We’d been warned to minimise our time in Bogota but we loved it – the city is full of culture, art and history. It’s also 2,640m above sea level which means it’s nice and cool, making exploring the city easier. We were very grateful for this when we climbed the 1,500 steps to Montserrate, a church on a hill towering over the city, with great views of the sprawling metropolis below.
La Candelaria is the historic centre and popular tourist area. We stayed in a hostel there but also visited the Zona Rosa and Chapinero neighborhoods, which were funkier. We played tejo (a Colombian sport like bowling, but with gunpowder) and went on the best bike tour we’ve ever done – six hours cycling around the city with Bogota Bike Tours.
San Gil – 4 days
From Bogota, we took a six hour bus north to San Gil in the Santander department. It’s dubbed Colombia’s adventure capital, and for good reason. We stayed at Sam’s VIP Hostel, a gorgeous spot with a balcony overlooking the pretty town square.
Four nights in San Gil was just enough time to cram in the most adrenaline-heightening activities we could handle. We went paragliding at 2,000m over the Chicamocha Canyon, white water rafting (and falling out of the boat!) on terrifying level 5 rapids and canyoning and rappelling down massive waterfalls. I was totally fine with the paragliding and white water rafting, but freaked out when I had to lower myself using just a rope over the cliff-edge of a crashing waterfall.
Back to Bogota – 3 days
Despite spending four days in the capital, we hadn’t had our fill of Bogota so we came back to tick off a few more activities. We went to Andres Carne de Res, a famous meat restaurant slash crazy nightclub an hour outside Bogota with Andy & Lozzy (CuppaToCopaTravels). Despite nursing terrible hangovers, we also managed a graffiti tour and a walking tour.
Cartagena – 3 days
Cartagena is the most colourful, pretty city to walk around and soak up the Colombian culture. We spent three days taking photos of the rainbow of houses, watching the sunset over the city from the rooftop bar in Townhouse Boutique Hotel and going for walks along the waterfront. In the evening, the city transforms and there’s street food, performances and dancing in the old town and a hectic nightlife that goes on until morning.
Santa Marta – 2 days
Santa Marta isn’t the best Colombia has to offer, but we liked it anyway. It’s six hours from Cartagena, but close to all of the other spots on the north coast that you’ll want to visit.
This makes it the perfect jumping off point for backpacking across Colombia’s north coast. You can stock up on money, snacks and whatever else you need before going remote. There’s fantastic, cheap restaurant and most hostels have pools, free breakfast and party vibes (we stayed in Republica).
Taganga – 3 days
To locals, Taganga is actually part of Santa Marta. It’s a small beach town five kilometres from Santa Marta’s centre and is popular with Colombian holiday-goers on the weekends.
For backpackers, it’s the place to learn to scuba dive. We did our PADI courses in Honduras, so we just went to Taganga to do some fun dives on the Caribbean reef.
If you’re planning to dive from Taganga, don’t go with the cheapest companies. We made this mistake initially and their safety practices were not good. Pay a few dollars extra for a safer, better experience. Poseidon are the best company in town, and worth the money.
El Rio Hostel, Buritaca – 1 day
El Rio is one of those ‘destination hostels’ that we’re always banging on about. It’s in the middle of nowhere, set a few kilometres back from the road on the Buritaca river. We just spent one night but loved the chilled vibes, great bar and amazing food. You can book your Lost City Trek through the hostel, and it’s the closest point to the start of the hike.
Lost City Trek – 4 days
We both agree that the Lost City Trek was our highlight in Colombia and it was where we realised that hiking is our favourite travel activity. You trek for four days through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in north Colombia, stopping every evening to swim in movie-worthy waterfalls at jungle campsites.
On the third day, you arrive to La Ciudad Perdida, The Lost City, for a guided tour of the forgotten Mayan ruins. Our group, guide and translator were all fantastic and we had a brilliant time. We’re going to write a specific blog post on this – stay tuned!
Palomino – 2 days
Palomino is a sleepy beach town that gets mixed reviews but we loved it. We spent one night in the Dreamer Hostel which is right on the beach. They have fun river tubing and great food and drinks, but the prices are more expensive than we’re used to. Dreamer was sold out the second night so we moved to Bella Flor Hostel which was much more chilled out and half the price.
Our favourite thing to do in Palomino was walk along the long, isolated beach. If you walk for about forty minutes, you reach a point where the river descends into the sea. At this point, early in the morning, you can see snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains while standing in the warm Caribbean sea.
Cabo de la Vela – 3 days
This increible, unique place is at the very northern tip of Colombia ‘where the desert meets the sea’. Most backpackers don’t bother with Cabo de la Vela because it’s hard to get to but the journey is half the fun – DON’T MISS IT.
We took a bus from Palomino to Riohacha, then a shared taxi from there to Uribia. In Uribia, you get on a 4X4 for a bone-shaking two hour ride across the desert to get to the small indigneous town.
We spent three nights, but two is normally fine. You sleep in hammocks right on the beach for next to nothing and eat $5 lobster dinners. Private 4X4 tours go every afternoon and hit all of the main sights in the area, finishing with a beautiful sunset stop. This is also the place to visit Punta Gallinas, the most northern point in South America.
Costeno Beach – 1 day
Costeno Beach took us by surprise. It’s just a long, quiet stretch of beach with hostels and beach huts tucked away among the palm trees, making it the perfect place to relax. We stayed in beach bungalow dorms at Los Hermanos, which has great pizza and parties – what more could you want?
The best reason to stay at Costeno Beach is that it’s only a ten minute drive from the entrance to Tayrona National Park, making it an ideal base to visit the famous park. Instead of taking an early one- or two-hour bus from Santa Marta, stay at Costeno Beach and zip to the park entrance on a motorcycle taxi. Los Hermanos had secure, free bag storage and we left our big rucksacks behind while we visited the park.
Tayrona National Park – 2 days
Tayrona National Park was a mixed bag for us. We’d heard stories about this idyllic, isolated national park where you hike for hours to get to a secluded beach, sleeping in hammock
s with waves crashing around you. I think this is how it used to be.
Now, isolated or secluded are not words that can be used to describe the park. Boats arrive from Taganga to the most popular beach – Cabo de San Juan – several times daily, carting hundreds of tourists who spend the afternoon littering the beach.
We still enjoyed the mucky hike through the park and we slept in hammocks. But it wasn’t the dreamy paradise we were expecting.
Minca – 3 days
Minca was one of my favourite places in Colombia – it’s a small town, surrounded by lush green mountains with waterfalls, coffee fincas and tons of hiking trails. The real draw are the gorgeous, upmarket hostels tucked away in the hills.
We stayed at Casas Viejas and it was incredible. Our dorm had a balcony with hammocks overlooking the valley with views of Santa Marta and the Caribbean in the distance. The food was better than any Colombian restaurant, with healthy options for breakfast and delicious set lunches and dinners, which went perfectly with the cheap wine and cocktails at the bar. The hostel runs tours and yoga classes and the staff also give information on self guided activities.
Medellin – 5 days
Medellin is Colombia’s most infamous city with a stigma surrounding it because of the history of drugs, war and crime. Those issues still exist nowadays, but it’s mostly hidden from the view of tourists. The dark past makes it such an interesting and diverse city to visit, with something for everyone.
Some of our favourite things in Medellin were: the Real City walking tour, the Comuna 13 walking tour, Plaza Botero, going out in El Poblado and eating burgers in Chef Burger.
If you’re planning to visit Medellin, check for accommodation on Airbnb. We got a whole apartment with a washing machine so we could do our laundry for free, and it was cheaper than a hostel.
Guatape – 1 day
Most people opt to visit Guatape as a guided day tour from Medellin, but we recommend staying over for just one night. The bus is four hours each way and cramming it into one day will be exhausting. As well as that, you’ll hit the town at peak tourist times.
Instead, bus from Medellin and spend the afternoon wandering the pretty, colourful streets of Guatapé. Stay over in one of the cool hostels (we stayed in Estaciones). The next morning, you’ll have the place to yourself before the day-trippers arrive. Get up early to climb to El Penon, the famous rock jutting above the flooded wetlands.
Afterwards, enjoy the peace in the city over coffee and lunch and get an afternoon bus back to Medellin.
Jardin – 2 days
Jardín is still a little removed from Colombia’s gringo trail so it’s worth a visit to escape the crowds. We arrived late to our hostel, Sgt. Pepper’s, on a bus from Medellin, then had one full day exploring before getting a bus to Salento the next day. This is plenty of time to have a lazy day walking around town and admiring the colonial main square while people-watching and drinking coffee.
There’s not much else to do in town, but if you want to stay for longer you’ll find plenty of activities in the surrounding areas – coffee tours, paragliding, horse-riding and bird-watching.
Salento – 3 days
Salento is the most famous town in Colombia’s zona cafetera, the coffee region. You could easily spend more time exploring the whole region, visiting places like Pijao or Manizales, but we decided to stick with Salento as we were conscious that we were spending far longer than we expected in Colombia.
Three days was perfect for everything we wanted to do. We explored the town and took a coffee tour at Finca El Ocaso. The next day, we hiked Valle de Cocora, famous for having the tallest palm trees in the world. The hike is easy to do without a guide; just get up early, take a jeep (which are strangely called Willys) from the main square to the beginning of the hike and follow the path.
We loved staying in Yambolombia, a locally owned eco-hostel a thirty minute walk from town, but really close to the coffee fincas. In town, make sure to visit Brunch de Salento cafe for amazing all-day food and travel tips – they’ll even give you a map for Valle de Cocora.
Onward travel: Colombia to Quito, Ecuador
What a journey. What an undertaking.
We expected this border crossing to be tiring, difficult and long. We’d heard stories about twelve hour waits at the border to get your passport stamped. Because of the political and economic problems in Venezuela, lots of residents are fleeing and end up as refugees in other South American countries, trying to move on for a better life. Hundreds of refugees without paperwork are trying to cross the borders. For this reason, we expected the trip to Quito to take us anything up to 48 hours.
How to travel from Colombia – Ecuador
Our Colombia – Ecuador border crossing journey went like this:
- Willy, Salento hostel – Salento terminal: 0.5 hours, COP4,000 / $1.20US
- Bus, Salento – Armenia: 1 hour, COP4,500 / $1.50US
- Bus, Armenia – Cali: 3 hours, COP23,000 / $7US
- Bus, Cali – Ipiales: 12 hours, COP67,000 / $21US
- Shared taxi, Station – Border: COP2,000 / $0.60US
- Walk, Border Crossing: 3 hours, Free
- Shared taxi, Border – Tulcan, Ecuador: 0.5 hours, $1US
- Bus, Tulcan – Quito: 5 hours, $6US
- Taxi, Quito terminal – hostel: 0.5 hour, $3.50US
Obviously we had to wait a little between each leg, so the journey took us 26 hours in total, which we were pleased with. All of the prices above are per person, and we spent a total of $41.80US each. This is considerably cheaper than flying from Colombia to Ecuador, but if that’s within your budget it would be an easier option.
Tips for planning a backpacking trip in Colombia
Split the country into three sections
When we began planning our Colombia trip, I was overwhelmed by how big the country is and how much there is to see. If you split the country into three sections based on around the big cities, it makes it easier. This is not genius geography, but it helps break it up.
- Bogota & surrounding areas: Bogota, San Gil, Barichara
- Cartagena & North Coast: Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, Costeno Beach, El Rio, Tayrona National Park, Cabo de la Vela, Palomino, Minca
- Medellin, Cali & Coffee: Medellin, Guatape, Jardin, Salento, Cali, Tatacoa Desert
Plan which order to do these three sections
Choose the order that you’ll do these three areas based on cheap flights internation an internal flights. Also consider where you’re going afterwards. If you’re flying to Colombia, it will be cheapest to fly to Bogota, so start there. If you’re travelling to Ecuador afterwards, end in the Medellin/Cali area.
Consider taking internal flights
Internal flights are often as cheap as buses – we got flights from Bogota-Cartagena and Santa Marta-Medellin for around $30 each. LATAM are the best airline and VivaColombia are more basic and budget (think Ryanair). Do take into account some of the hidden costs though: the airport in Medellin is an hour outside the city so it will be an expensive Uber ride. In Bogota and Cartagena, they’re quite central.
Don’t try to squash everything in
Don’t try to squash things in if you’re short on time. We met people on three week holidays trying to do everything in the three ‘sections’. It’s not worth it. If you’re on a short trip, decide to leave out a section, or just focus in on one area.
Schedule in a few days downtime
Colombia is intense. You’ll end up hiking, sight-seeing, partying and tons more. Avoid burnout and make some time for relaxation. Cabo de la Vela and Minca are ideal for this.
Don’t forget vaccinations
You’ll need the yellow fever vaccine to go to Colombia, and they can ask you for your certification when you arrive. As well as that, make sure to get all of the other vaccinations you need.
Proof of onward travel
If you fly to Colombia, you’ll likely get a visa for 180 days. To make sure you won’t exceed that, you may be asked for proof of onward travel. Luckily this hasn’t happened to us, but we have a hack if it does. Friends in Central America taught us that you can book a flight on Expedia and get free 24-hour cancellation. Book your flight, show it to security, get your visa and then cancel.
Shady, but it works.
Consider learning some Spanish
In hostels and restaurants in the more touristy areas in Colombia, people will generally speak English. But to get off the beaten track a little and learn from the locals, it’s great to have some Spanish.
We’ve written a whole guide on learning Spanish for travel in Latinamerica – that should help you weigh up the pros and cons and decide whether to take a few classes.
Take safety into account
Take safety into account. Colombia today is perfectly safe to visit, if you visit the right areas. There’s been a peace agreement between the guerillas and the government but apparently the FARC still rule the Pacific Coast, and it’s not so safe to visit there. Be generally sensible too, don’t do any stupid drug-related tours or visit illegal marijuana farms.
Have some cop on, in other words, and you’ll be grand.
How to get around in Colombia
Buses in Colombia
The bus system in Colombia is great: cheap, comfortable and easy. For longer journeys, we booked buses a day or two in advance with Copetran. For shorter journeys, just arrive at the bus station and get on the next local bus. This is perfect for travel across the north coast or going from Medellin to Guatape, Jardin or Salento.
Flying internally in Colombia
As we’ve mentioned, internal flights are super cheap in Colombia. It does mean that you need to lock in your itinerary a little and book flights at least a week in advance. Flying would definitely suit travellers on a shorter holiday, but watch out for hidden costs and make sure to print your ticket and check in early.
Uber in Colombia (illegal, but widely used!)
Uber is illegal in Colombia, but still operates in the big cities. While this isn’t an issues for tourists per se, it does mean that drivers can cancel without notice or warning, which can be frustrating if you’re in a rush. We still used it in Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin.
We use Uber all of the time, as well as a ton of other apps to help us travel easier. Check out the list of apps here.
Taking taxis in Colombia
People can be afraid of taxis in foreign countries, but we felt safe taking them in Colombia. Just make sure to fix a price with the driver before your journey. If you’re in a group make sure it’s the total price, not the price per person to avoid any unwelcome surprises.
Suggested Colombia Backpacking Itineraries
Backpacking in Colombia: Two Week Itinerary – The Capital & The North Coast
|Bogota (2 days) – Cartagena (2 days) – Costeno beach & Tayrona Park (4 days) OR El Rio & Lost City Trek (4 days) – Palomino (2 days) – Minca (3 days) – Santa Marta (1 day)|
Backpacking in Colombia: Two Week Itinerary – Cities, Culture and Coffee
|Bogota (3 days) – Medellin (4 days) – Guatape (1 day) – Jardin (2 days) – Salento (3 days) – Medellin (1 day)|
Backpacking in Colombia: Three Week Itinerary – Cities, Beaches, Trekking, Desert
|Bogota (3 days) – Cartagena (2 days) – Costeno Beach (2 days) – Tayrona Park (1 day) – El Rio (1 day) – Lost City Trek (4 days) – Palomino (2 days) – Cabo de la Vela (2 days) – Minca (3 days) – Santa Marta (1 day)|
Backpacking in Colombia: Four Week Itinerary – More Cities, Beaches, Trekking, Desert
|Bogota (3 days) – Cartagena (2 days) – Costeno Beach (2 days) – Tayrona Park (1 day) – El Rio (2 days) – Lost City Trek (4 days) – Palomino (2 days) – Cabo de la Vela (3 days) – Minca (3 days) – Santa Marta (1 day) – Medellin (3 days) – Guatape (1 day) – Medellin (1 day)|
Backpacking in Colombia: Six Week Week Itinerary – The Ultimate Colombia Trip
|Bogota (4 days) – San Gil (4 days) – Cartagena (3 days) – Santa Marta & Taganga (3 days) – Costeno Beach (2 days) – Tayrona Park (1 day) – El Rio (2 days) – Lost City Trek (4 days) – Palomino (2 days) – Cabo de la Vela (2 days) – Minca (3 days) – Medellin (4 days) – Guatape (1 day) – Jardin (2 days) – Salento (3 days) – Medellin (1 day)|
Colombia is a spectacular, culturally rich and diverse country. So many backpackers we’ve met have said it’s the best country in South America and we agree.
Backpacking in Colombia is easy and safe and there’s so much to do. We hope that this post has helped you, or maybe inspired you to plan a trip to Colombia.
Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else in Colombia that should be on this list!