«Oh! Colombia? But … is it safe there?» If you are reading this post then you have probably had to face this question many times. Before continuing, let me give you a boost and encourage you more than you already are about visiting Colombia. Yes, it has a bad name. Yes, there might be insecure moments. But if you stick to the places I talk about here and you go cautiously, you will not have any problem as far as security is concerned.
Colombia is one of those countries in which people fall in love with by just walking through its streets and conversing with its people. Are you thinking about taking the leap? No idea where to start? Take a look below for an outline of my two week trip to this wonderful South American country. ¡Adelante! Or as they say in Colombia: ¡Bien puedan!
Day 1. Arrival to Bogotá
On the first day, we arrive to Bogotá. The capital and most populous city in the entire country. Despite the comments I had received beforehand, my first impression could not have been better. The center of the city, La Candelaria, is the oldest part and is the best place to start your visit to this country. It is a good area to go for dinner the first night and take a short walk around the streets. Near the Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo, there are several restaurants that offer menus with decent prices and allow you to taste the culinary delights of Colombia for the first time.
Day 2. Bogotá
Although the capital of Colombia offers many days worth of attractions, in this plan we condensed the best into one day. Be sure to get up early to take advantage of the first hours of the morning. We go first to the Hill of Monserrate, which rises up to 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) above sea level and offers unique views of the Bogotá metropolis. You can go up in a funicular or cable car, depending on the hours. It can also be climbed by foot, but it is not recommended as it can be dangerous.
Back in the lower part of the city we make our way to the impressive Museo del Oro, where the Spanish dreamed of finding El Dorado in the Colombian lands: thousands of beautifully carved pieces of gold by the Native Americans which show the techniques of these first settlers of the region and how they worked with the precious metal. Before eating, we can take a walk along Carrera 7 to Plaza de Bolívar where we can visit the Cathedral and admire the official buildings of the capital.
In the afternoon, we venture into La Candelaria neighborhood, where the Museo Botero is located and where you can learn about the main works of the most well-known Colombian contemporary artist. There are also many cultural centers in the area located in beautiful colonial buildings. If you see one with an open door, you can go inside to admire its whitewashed patios and observe the interior of a colonial house in Bogotá To end the day, we can explore the neighborhood of La Macarena, one of the most alternative neighborhoods of Bogotá or El Chapinero, where you can find a wide variety of bars and restaurants for dinner or a drink.
Day 3. From Bogotá to Medellín
The best way to go from Bogotá to the other great Colombian capital, Medellín, is by air. The company Viva Colombia offers competitive prices, but of course, without expecting much in return. Ryanair style. The largest airport in Medellín and the one that operates most of the flights is José María Córdova. This one is quite far from the city and, considering the chaotic traffic around Medellín, it is necessary to know in advance that you will lose a morning or an afternoon in just reaching the city itself.
After arriving in the city, feel free to discover some of its corners in the early afternoon. A good place to have a first impression of the city is by going to the Parque Arví by Metrocable. Thanks to this transport system, we can enjoy magnificent views over the entire city, floating above the communes. At the end of it, there is the previously named, magnificent park, in which to take a nice walk around sunset.
Day 4. Medellín
It is time to discover what was once the Narco-state capital. Starting from the outskirts, we will visit the Botanical Garden, one of the most importants in the country. After visiting it, and thanks to the efficient metro system of the city, we return to the center to visit the Antioquia Museum and the Plaza de Botero.
We can quickly eat in one of the stalls in the center and continue our visit in the afternoon to the rest of the neighborhood’s attractions, such as the churches of La Candelaria and Veracruz, the eclectic Palacio Centro Comercial and finally get to know the Parque Bolívar and the Catedral Metropolitana.To end the day, we take a walk around the neighborhood of El Poblado, the most animated and safest area of the city. Full of bars and restaurants, this area has places for all tastes, as well as the best places to eat in the city. You can go from canteen to canteen trying the typical ‘plato paisa’ to gastrobars where you can try the finest of Colombian cuisine.
Day 5. Santa Fe de Antioquia
With a base in Medellín, we venture out to visit one of the oldest villages in the region of Antioquia: Santa Fe de Antioquia. This city was, in fact, the previous capital of the region until industrialization made the government offices move to Medellín.
You can get to Santa Fe from Medellín by bus or «colectivo». You can take these from the North Terminal and it takes slightly more than an hour to arrive. The village can be very quiet and one can visit the main points of interest without any difficulties. The first attraction can be found as we leave the bus stop at the Juan del Coral Museum. Here the history of the city is told, focusing on the declaration of the independence of the region at the beginning of the 19th century.
The center of the city is the main park where the Church of Santa Bárbara is located. From there, we can visit the rest of the squares and churches of the city, such as the Plaza de la Chinca or the Church of Jesús Nazareno.
In the afternoon, we can go by motocarro (about 15,000 pesos) to the Puente de Occidente (West Bridge). This structure is the oldest suspension bridge in all of the Americas. A walk that is highly recommended.
At night, we return to Medellin, where we will continue discovering and enjoying paisa gastronomy.
Day 6. El Retiro, el Peñol and Guatapé
Not far from Medellín, within the limits of the region of Antioquia, are some of the most emblematic places of the center of Colombia. While it’s easy to go by public transportation, we chose to hire a taxi for a day trip so we could discover more places that we couldn’t have visited by moving on our own. The price was 250,000 pesos. Between four people, it did not even reach 18 euros.
The first place to visit is the small village of El Retiro, an authentic jewel still undiscovered by tourism. Here you can breathe the true rural paisa atmosphere, with its little square and its whitewashed streets. Then we’ll go to El Peñol, whose main attraction is its church carved into a rock and «El Peñol antiguo», a reconstruction of the old village that, after the construction of the neighboring marsh, was swallowed by the waters. It’s a bit pastiche, but it looks good anyway.
One of the great attractions of the region is the Rock of El Peñol or the Rock of Guatapé (both sides dispute the possession of it). Some say that it is a meteorite that fell from the sky and, whether or not it is true, the 740 steps to the top are worth the pain. The views from above are spectacular!
Finally, the last point to visit on our route through Antioquia is the colorful town of Guatapé. The self-styled city of the zócalos has the most original architecture in all of Colombia. All houses have beautiful zócalos painted with bright colors that tell stories, show rural motifs and geometric figures.
Day 7. From Medellín to the Colombia Coffee Region (Pereira)
We leave Medellín behind and head towards the true essence of Colombia: the Colombia Coffee Region (Eje Cafetero). It can be reached by bus (about four hours) or by plane (leaving this time from the local airport Olaya Herrera, located in the center of Medellin). Curiously, the Argentine singer Carlos Gardel died in this same airport back in 1935.
It is important to think through where your base will be while visiting the area. We chose Pereira, the largest city of the region, and perhaps the ugliest and not very well communicated with the rest of the attractions of the region. Other options can be Manizales or Salento, the latter being the smallest and the best located with respect to other attractions in the area but offering fewer leisure options.
In the case of choosing Pereira, we can visit the center during the afternoon. The points of interest are the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Pobreza and Parque Bolívar (of course). Parque Bolivar de Pereira has the most extravagant statue of the liberator of Colombia. It is a naked Bolívar and, they say, it is the only one of its kind. Curious more the less.
Day 8. Coffee Region: Salento and Cocora Valley
If we leave Pereira early, we can reach the small village of Salento, which is one of the most picturesque of the Coffee Region (excluding Filandia, which we did not have time to visit). From Salento, you’ll find some typical jeeps from the Second World War (known here as willies) leaving for the Cocora Valley every half hour.
This natural park is one of the most impressive in all of Colombia. In addition to having jungles, rivers and exuberant nature, the valley has a part known as the Forest of the Palm Trees. In it, gigantic wax palm trees rise to the sky in a totally dreamlike landscape. If you get confused on the way, you’ll find an arduous hike towards the top of the mountain. Without a doubt, it’s worth it.
Day 9. Coffee Region, visiting a coffee plantation
You can not go to the Coffee Region without visiting one of the coffee plantations that dot the entire region. Depending on our base town, we will have to decide one or the other, depending on what is closest to us. There is also the possibility of visiting different types of farms. We decided to visit a small and more familiar farm: The Don Manolo farm. It is a small farm outside of Pereira, where Don Manolo himself and his family explain the whole process from when the fruit is in the tree to its commercialization by Juan Valdez (the Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers, not Juan Valdez himself).
To get to the farm it is necessary to take a taxi or an Uber. But be careful, because in Google Maps there are two locations for Finca Don Manolo, it is important that you know exactly which one it is. Click on this link and you will have the correct one.
If you decide to stay in Pereira, you can spend the afternoon enjoying the natural wonders that surround the small town. Nearby you’ll find La Florida, which can be accessed by bus. From this small town you can get to the vicinity of the National Park of the Nevados and, if the weather is on your side, you can even take a dip in the rivers.
Day 10. From the Coffee Region to Cartagena de Indias
On the tenth day of our adventure, it is time to leave the interior of the country to discover one of its major tourist attractions: the Caribbean coast. It is one of the two that Colombia has along with the Pacific, making this country the only one with coasts in both the ocean and sea.
If we arrive in Cartagena de Indias at night, it will show us the best of its faces. The animation of the historic center of the capital of the Colombian Caribbean is the most acclimated in the country. Around the Getsemaní neighborhood, whose epicenter is in the Plaza de la Trinidad, you will find bars, restaurants and street performances for all tastes. Cartagena is Colombian joy in its purest form.
Day 11. Cartagena de Indias
Assuming that we’re still alive from the night before, we can go see everything that this important city has to offer in one day.
We start in the old town, preserved magnificently since colonial times, which treasures most of the city’s tourist attractions. We enter the walled city through the Puerta del Reloj, which gives access to Plaza de Los Coches. Wandering around, we can find jewels such as the Cathedral or the Church of Santo Domingo, which is beside the Spanish consulate, a beautiful palace with a patio that can be visited for free.
The bastions and the Plaza de la Aduana are other places we can discover in Cartagena, without forgetting the impressive Palace of the Inquisition. In reference to the Black Legend from the Spanish Empire, we are told here about the dark times of the Spanish Inquisition as well as other passages of the fascinating history of this city.
In the afternoon we will leave the historic center to discover the largest fortress ever built in the territories dominated by the Spanish monarchy: the Castle of San Felipe de Barajas. The most recommended way to get there is by taxi, as it is located away from the center. Although it is a pity that it doesn’t have a museum nor much content, the views of the city from above are more than impressive.
Day 12. Islands of Rosario
After having known the greatness of Cartagena, we go on to discover the surroundings of it. Its maritime surroundings, to be more exact. While I normally like to discover places on my own, I had no choice but to book an excursion to the Rosario Islands because it worked out being much cheaper. At the same time much more cumbersome.
For 60,000 pesos, we discovered the beautiful and ravishing islands of the Rosario, passing by the fortresses that once guarded the bay of Cartagena from the English attacks: the fort of San Fernando de Bocachica and the battery of San José.
In the Rosario Islands, you can visit the Oceanarium or go snorkeling. My recommendation is the second option since it is much better to see the little fish being free than in a giant fish tank.The afternoon was spent in Playa Blanca, on the island of Barú (although it really is a peninsula and not an island). Another recommendation for visiting this zone is to not do it during the weekend. Saturday, Sunday or holidays result in all the locals taking a bath in the placid and crystalline waters and it can become a bit too much.
Day 13. From Cartagena de Indias to Tayrona
We leave «civilization» to go on to discover more of the Colombian nature. About 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of Cartagena is one of the most important ecological destinations in all of Colombia: Tayrona National Natural Park.
To get to it from Cartagena, you can arrive by bus to Santa Marta and from there take another bus that leaves you at your accommodation. You can stay in the same park, which must be accessed before 5 o’clock in the afternoon, or in the surroundings, where you can also find hotels and hostels among the vegetation and on the beachfront.
On the way to the park, we can take advantage of the stop in Santa Marta to discover its different monuments such as the Cathedral, the old Town Hall or the small Malecón.
Day 14. Tayrona National Natural Park
If we stay outside the national park itself, we can not leave the area without discovering the abundant Atlantic forest and the stunning Tayrona beaches. It is advisable to arrive early in the morning, to take advantage of the day as well as to avoid the queues that can be formed upon entering. The entrance is expensive: 48,000 pesos if you are not Colombian but you can enjoy the park all day (until 5:00 pm, of course).
Walking from Cañaveral, a route through the jungle will take us first to Arrecife, then to Playa Arenilla, where swimming is not allowed due to the dangerous currents of the area. We continue on to the pool and end at the alluring beach of Cabo San Juan. In this last one, you can take a good dip quietly in one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Colombia. At the time of returning to the exit of the park, keep in mind that you must leave Cabo San Juan, at the latest, around 3:00 pm in order to arrive with time and not stay locked inside.
Day 15. Relax and return
Nothing like a restful last day on a trip that we have traveled miles and miles on while exploring one of the most beautiful and unknown coasts (still) of the Caribbean. If you stay in one of the beachfront establishments, you will not be short of reason to want to stay not one more day, but a week, relaxing in a hammock, under a coconut tree and enjoying a Club Colombia.
Feeling any doubts about Colombia?
In the next post I will expand the information of this small two-week travel itinerary through Colombia, but if you have any questions in the meantime or you want to know something else, ask me in the comments!
Translation: Layne Ivy