Backpacking in Colombia: Costs, Tips and Places to See
Colombia was once more famous for murders and cocaine than colonial towns and beautiful vistas, but those old preconceptions are changing. It’s so much more than it’s violent past, and is quickly becoming one of those must-see countries in South America. As is the case with most people who visit, Colombia is somewhere I often rave about when talking to fellow travellers. What can you see when backpacking in Colombia though? Lucky you stumbled on my little travel blog, because I’m about to show you.
Sapzurro / Capurgana
I arrived in Colombia by boat from Panama, so my first ports of call in Colombia were the tiny seaside towns of Sapzurro and Capurgana. These sleepy frontier towns are fun to explore for a few days and this area feels very different to the rest of Colombia. You can even walk to a beach in Panama, meaning you have to pass through a little immigration post. People typically travel by boat / bus from Capurgana to Cartagena, which seems like the best route.
FURTHER READING: A Boat Trip From Panama to Colombia Via the San Blas Islands
Camera wielding tourists have long since replaced marauding pirates in this historic walled city on the Caribbean coast. It’s one of the nicest colonial cities in the Americas and is on most people’s Colombia itinerary. The old streets contain countless treasures, and the seaside setting and laid-back feel of the city make it somewhere you’ll want to linger for as long as possible.
FURTHER READING: Behind the City Walls of Cartagena
Tayrona National Park
This national park on the Caribbean coast promises relatively easy hiking trails and some great viewpoints and beaches. In the end I felt it was a bit overrated, but I’m definitely in the minority with that opinion. Most people camp there for a night or two but we did it as a day trip from nearby Santa Marta (which wasn’t the best option). We expected to see lots of wildlife (we saw none) and more viewpoints (most of the tracks were through the forest). Don’t let me put you off Tayrona National Park though, as everyone else I’ve talked to about it loved it! Santa Marta is four hours from Cartagena, and the park is another 30 minutes from there, so you can easily do this hike if you’re only in Colombia for a short time and are based in Cartagena.
Barichara isn’t on the typical Colombia backpacking route, but it’s easily worth the detour. Located in the Santander region (an overnight bus ride from Santa Marta), Barichara is a tiny colonial town featuring cobblestone streets, elegant old villas and relaxing countryside views. It’s the prettiest town we visited in all of South America. There are other, even smaller old towns in the area and you can walk along historic tracks to reach them. It’s such a peaceful place — try and add it to your itinerary if you can.
FURTHER READING: The Best Things to Do in Barichara
I first heard of Medellin when watching Entourage. Season four of that show centres on the making of “Medellin”, a movie about Pablo Escobar. Try to watch it if you’re planning on backpacking in Colombia.
Medellin the city is an interesting mix of rough hillside suburbs, upper class big city living and overweight figures sculpted by national icon Fernando Botero. We had a nice couple of days exploring the Medellin the highlight being the cable car ride up to the top of the city.
FURTHER READING: A Quick Taste of Medellin
We journeyed to Guatapé or more specifically the massive rock a few kilometres from town, on a day trip from Medellin. The rock requires a fair bit of stair climbing to conquer, but the panoramic views from the top are worth the struggle. From what I’ve seen and read it’s one of the best viewpoints in Colombia and is a bit of a must-do if you’re in the area.
Guatape is the nearby town and (apparently) it’s pretty cool. We didn’t do our research properly and ended up skipping it. We were only a couple of kilometres away in the end but it was late and we were tired, so we ended up waving down a bus back to Medellin. I’ve since seen photos of Guatape’s colourful streets and it looks amazing — so frustrating!
The Coffee Zone
Zone Cafetera, AKA the Coffee Zone, is one those iconic Colombian destinations. You can try some of the best coffee in the world at small local plantations and go hiking in the Cocora Valley, an emerald green expanse full of giant palm trees and tiny hummingbirds. We based ourselves in Salento, the most touristy town in the region, but there are heaps of other towns to choose from. You’ll want to spend at least three or four days in this part of the country (or more if you can spare the time).
FURTHER READING: Salento and the Cocora Valley: Exploring Colombia’s Coffee Zone
The inevitable big city, Bogota was actually more interesting than I anticipated. There are some cool old buildings, great places to eat and it’s safer than I expected. Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend staying more than a day or two if you have limited time as there are more interesting places nearby. It depends what you’re into though — if you’re keen on partying for days on end you’ll probably want to spend more time there.
FURTHER READING: 7 Things to Do in Bogota: A Day in the Old Town
Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva is another captivating colonial town. Apparently it vies with Barichara for the (unofficial) title of Colombia’s nicest small town. Cobblestone streets and rows of ancient white houses abound in Villa de Leyva, and the surrounding countryside also features some interesting sights. You can see some (possibly toxic) green pools, an artistic terracotta house and the remains of ancient creatures (the area surrounding Villa de Leyva is a fossil hotspot).
FURTHER READING: Villa de Leyva: 130 Million Years of Colombian History
The cracked earth and parched river beds of the Tatacoa Desert draw in a small amount of tourists, but this place is pretty far from the beaten path. We spent a night in a small guesthouse in the desert and went for a couple of short walks. The scenery is pretty surreal in parts and it’s so different to the greener terrain we saw in the rest of the country. It’s only around five hours from Bogota and it makes sense to stop off for a day or two if heading south towards the border with Ecuador.
FURTHER READING: A Night in the Tatacoa Desert
San Agustin is home to one of Colombia’s top archaeological sites. It features hundreds of statues carved by an ancient people who historians know very little about. The statues, located in forests, small clearings and the tops of hills, are impressive in their detail. Many even appear to be smiling. It’s an enjoyable place to visit and it only takes a few hours, meaning you only need to stay in town for a night or two. There are other statues scattered around the area but you’ll need transport / a tour to see them.
FURTHER READING: The Smiling Statues of San Agustin
We only spent a day in Popayán as we made our way to the border. As is generally the case in Colombia, it’s an old city full of centuries old buildings and plazas. It’s more bustling, in a local way at least, to the other places we visited outside of Medellin and Bogota.
A common way to exit Colombia is to cross the border into Ecuador at near Ipiales. Before you do that, make sure to visit the Las Lajas Sanctuary. This church / bridge hybrid sits in a stunning location, and if you visit on a Sunday you’ll see masses of locals making their way to worship. It’s a good way to finish a trip to Colombia.
FURTHER READING: Crossing the Border Between Colombia and Ecuador: Ipiales to Otavalo
Getting around Colombia
The bus system in Colombia is excellent, but can be expensive compared to nearby countries. You can actually bargain the price of tickets, but this only worked a couple of times for us. It’s best to book your bus ticket a day or two before you travel (if it’s convenient) but you can generally roll up on the day and get a ticket. The buses were modern and safe (in our experience) but it always pays to be careful of your belongings, especially on overnight buses.
Colombia Travel Costs
We generally paid 30,00 – 50,000 COP ($10 – $16 USD) for nice double rooms in Colombia, with Cartagena, Medellin and Bogota being at the top of that scale. Eating at local establishments costs a few dollars and you’ll generally get soup, a meat dish and a drink. Buses added up (50,000 – 80,000 COP for long journeys) but the exchange rates were a little less favourable when we were there. It’s definitely an affordable country — you can travel in pretty decent style on a small budget.
Backpacking in Colombia: Is it safe?
We spent a month in Colombia and never felt threatened. The locals we met were all really friendly and talkative and seemed genuinely interested in tourists. I remember waking up on a night bus and my bag had slid over to the other side of the aisle. Nothing was taken. Bad things do happen though (as is the case in most countries), so do be careful, especially in the big cities at night.
Are you planning a trip to Colombia? Which places are you most excited to visit? Let me know in the comments below!