Travelling around Colombia can come with some difficult choices to make: it’s a big country with lots of beautiful destinations and travel times can take quite longer than originally planned. If you only have three weeks time (like us) and you don’t want to spend half of it on buses, this itinerary can be a good starting point to map out your route. This route rewards you with all kinds of destinations, mixing the hustle of bustling cities like Bogotá and Medellín with the down-tempo Zona Cafetera, the blistering Cartagena coastal area and the lush green hills of the Sierra Nevada. The perfect way to discover Colombia’s rich culture and friendly inhabitants!
(Sidenote: Parque Nacional de Tayrona is not included in this route as it was closed for ritual cleansing by the native tribes, happening at least once a year. It’s advisable to check this on the local website before getting there.)
Travelling around Colombia
We flew directly from Amsterdam to Bogotá (with KLM). After 3 days in the capital we flew to Salento in the Zona Cafetera, stopping in Medellín afterwards. From Medellín (and a sidetrack to Guatapé) we continued up north to the Sierra Nevada and Santa Marta, right before getting back south to Mompox and ending in Cartagena. From here, KLM flies you directly back to Amsterdam. Domestic flights, bus tickets, hotels and restaurants are relatively cheap in Colombia, with the northern Cartagena area being more expensive than average. This region has already been welcoming (North American) tourists for some years, unlike the more authentic inland of Colombia.
Many tourists skip the capital of Colombia because of its reputation of being dangerous or an empty shell. We beg to differ: Bogotá is a bustling and trendy city and according to us a must-visit when going your way around this beautiful country. Fair enough, some areas are best not visited after sunset, but whoever keeps their mind with the Colombian saying “no dar papaya” (which means ‘don’t give papaya’ or ‘don’t make it easy for them’) will see that Bogotá has a whole own pleasant vibe to discover. Curious where to go or what to do to get the best out of this big city? (2,5 days)
Salento & de Cocora Valley
Without any doubt one of the highlights of Colombia. Colourful Salento is the perfect basecamp to discover the astonishing Cocora Valley and is easily reached from the nearby cities of Pereira and Armenia (we flew with Avianca from Bogotá to Pereira and then shared a taxi to Salento). Despite the town being a prominent backpackers haven, the tranquility of this area will still make you wish you could stay some time longer. Find our recommendations for Salento right here. (2,5 days)
Medellín will grip you by heart, whether you like it or not. Is it a beautiful city? The answer will mostly be no. Is it worth a visit? Definitely yes. Medellín will show you on every corner how the local Paisas are trying to rebuild their lifes and their beloved city after a long period of violence. In every part of it you will see how Medellín transformed (and is still transforming) from the capital of cocaïne to the place to be for young people. It’s no surprise that Medellín is currently the leading South-American hub for international start-ups and entrepreneurs. Read more about Medellín here. (3-4 days)
Guatapé is the perfect daytrip if you feel like escaping the always busy Medellín. Or you can choose (just like us) to stay a night and completely submerge yourself in local life. This way you’ll also get the perfect morning or evening sunlight shining on the colourful houses. A photographer’s dream! (1 day)
Paso del Mango
A one hour car ride from Santa Marta will take you into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Paso del Mango is the lesser known sister of another backpackers hotspot called Minca, peeking on the other side of the hills. After an uncomfortable ride on the back of a mototaxi from Bonda, you’ll arrive in a green oasis with fresh streams of mountain water. It’s an excellent place to have a rest in the middle of nature, read a book in a hammock and do some rewarding hikes to waterfalls. (2-3 days)
This sleepy, boiling hot riverside city in the wetlands of Colombia is still off the beaten track, mainly because it isn’t that easy to reach. However, it’s more than worth the detour. For us, Mompox was best reached from Santa Marta, although this meant having to get up at 2 AM for a 6-hour collectivo busride. Don’t expect a city full of landmarks and tourist activities. Expect a swelteringly hot colonial town with a long afternoon siesta, coming straight out of a novel of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. And that’s the beauty of it. This is colonial Colombia just like Cartagena, but without the many tourists. Some even say that Mompóx is the city where Bolivar started his revolution. Read our tips for Mompóx here. (2 days)
The colonial city of Cartagena will make your heart beat faster, both figuratively and literally. The sun burns without excuse while you’re strolling through the many small and cheerful streets. Every corner has its surprises. Tourists are abundantly present, which can sometimes dampen the authenticity, but there are ways to avoid the crowds and to fully enjoy this coastal city with its beautiful buildings. Find out why you shouldn’t miss out on Cartagena. (2-3 days)