Colombia really has everything you could want in a travel destination: miles of untouched beaches, lush jungles to venture upon, and cosmopolitan cities to explore. Both a luxury holiday destination and a budget backpacker’s paradise, it is the perfect gateway between the vibrant and diverse terrains of South America and the western-influenced, tropical climates of Central America.
Is It Safe?
It is no secret that the dangerous, guerilla-warfare territory that Colombia was just ten years ago is long gone, making it both safe for travel, and a good choice in light of this due to low cost airfare and hotels. Plus, the locals are so friendly, they are more than happy to share their beautiful country with travellers. In a country so recently reformed after a rocky past, the residents are very aware of how far they have come, and all the more grateful for visitors; whether you stop for coffee or spend a few hours in a local bar, you will find that whoever serves you is more than keen to discuss their rich culture with you.
My Adventure To Colombia
My journey to Colombia almost didn’t happen.
I had arrived to Panama on a sailing yacht, and decided off the cuff to do some traveling. I checked into a hostel in Panama City, hoping for some alone time to wander the cobbled streets, people watch in coffee shops and write. Anyone who has ever stayed in a hostel will know that not making friends is almost impossible, and within the first hour of checking in I had made a dorm room full of travel buddies and knew my quiet time was not going to happen! Before long, my newfound group was headed off to their next destination: Colombia.
I was unsure. Although I feel ashamed to admit it now, I was still stuck back in the 90’s with my opinion of Colombia, and didn’t know if it was a wise decision to go.
After some research (I always check the gov.uk website on the safety of a place before heading there) I had no excuses, thought ‘to hell with it!’ and off I went! I embarked on a 5-day adventures on-board a catamaran ‘The Jacqueline’ which took us all through the beautiful San Blas islands, and across to Colombia, dropping us off in the town of Cartagena.
What followed was a 3-month love affair with Colombia.
As soon as I stepped off the boat and onto the winding streets, busting with rich culture and colour, I was hooked. From the town of Cartagena, to the beaches of Palomino, the jungles of the Sierra Nevada, coffee towns, and bustling cities, I enjoyed every thing about this country. If you are still no convinced, here is my best of Colombia, which I hope will have you grabbing your passport and scrambling for the next boat, train or plane headed Colombia’s way.
Incase you need more convincing, here are 8 reasons you should visit Colombia!
1. For a Luxurious City Getaway – Cartagena
Cartagena is a picturesque, walled town, which almost has you thinking you are in Europe with its coffee shops and quaint boutiques. It is brimming with history, art and culture, and acts as the perfect taster of Colombian life. With a great nightlife and hostel scene, it is a very fun place to be, plus there are so many great restaurants to begin your Colombian culinary adventure. If you are after a city break with lots to do, see, eat and drink, this is your place. I loved the Sofitel Santa Clara hotel for its jaw dropping courtyard and location on one of the prettiest squares in the whole town.
Daytrips – There are lots of things to do in the area. We took a day trip to the Totumo mud volcano, where you climb down into the mouth of an actual mud volcano! You can have a massage for just a few dollars once you are happily floating in the mud, and when you have had your fill of the natural spa treatment you wander down to the nearby lake where local women will bath you like a baby. It is a surreal experience, but well worth it for the silky soft skin, friendly locals, and the funny photos.
2. To Turn off your phone and disappear – Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
This region of Colombia is amazing. Miles and miles of green jungle, along with small towns to explore such as Minca and the surfer town Taganga. Nestled up in the depths of mountainous jungle, Casa Elemento is the best place in the world to truly escape and become part of a unique hostel community.
Getting there – From Minca you take a bike-taxi for about 45 minutes up through the jungle on a dusty road (we saw a tarantula on the way, and it took me some time to feel brave enough to look down!) The view from the hostel gets you first. Looking down from their garden and pool area, you see nothing but green jungle for miles below you. Your connection to the outside world has vanished: there is no internet, shops, or anything other than the unique hostel community that is Casa Elemento. And the feeling is exhilarating!
The friendly English owners are really welcoming and will treat you as a dear friend. Along with cooking you meals, they will invite you to do all sorts of random activities, such as treks up to watch the sunset, BBQ’s, and bonfires. But if you want to do your own thing that is more than okay, and with a pool and a hammock that rests over the side of the mountain, quiet reflection is alluring too. It might take some convincing to ever leave this place. When we did finally bring ourselves to return to the world below we hiked back down to Minca with only a hand-drawn map for directions – We ended up on a beautiful 4-hour walk through dense jungle: a trek that I will remember forever. Be sure to explore Minca when you return, and head to the local artisan chocolate maker Jungle Joe’s for a lesson in the rich resources of the jungle!
3. For A Beach Getaway – Palomino
Palomino is one of those places that steals days from your life. One minute you are checking in to one of the few hostels and cabanas along the beachfront, and the next you have been in the same hammock for 3 days. With a wild mile or more of white beach, a dozen shops, hostels and bars, and a gathering of travellers who stopped by and never left, Palomino is the best place to kick off your shoes and let go. We stayed at Finca Escondida, a hostel where you can rent a private room, dorm bed, or hammock; and eat every meal from their café style restaurant. Evenings were spent drinking their cocktail of the day, playing cards, and talking to people from far and wide. When you do crave the outside world, a few blocks away from the shore you will find a few quirky bars that offer pool tables, fire pits and live music.
Nearby – Be sure to stop by Tayrona national park for a night camping under the stars and enjoying more of the stunning greenery Colombia has to offer.
4. For A Trendy Cosmopolitan City Break – Medellin
From the fine restaurants and hotels, to the great shopping malls, bars and clubs, Medellin is your place if you really want the city experience. Medellin is certainly on the style map, and with trendy boutiques and stylish bars you can see why. The El Poblado area is a great for a lux city break, with the pretty Via Primavera being the perfect place to wear your heels, shop in gorgeous boutiques, and drink cocktails at the trendy bars and coffee shops. Head to Parque Lleras later on for the best nightlife in town! Ciudad del Rio is a great area to check out with its lovely cafes, plus the Parque Poblado and Parque Berrio are gorgeous too. Be sure to head to Plaza Botero too for the great statues, and the art gallery Museo De Antioquia which has lots of work by the great Colombian artist Botero.
History – Pablo Escobar Lived here, and you can learn all about it from one of the free walking tours that will show you the city and teach you all about Colombia’s turbulent past.
Getting around – Downtown the subway will take you everywhere and is safe and reliable. Be sure to take the cable car which goes right up over the city and offers breathtaking views.
Where to stay – Budget – Casa Kiwi is a great budget choice in the The Zona Rosa. Lux Hotels – Art hotel is a gorgeous boutique hotel in La Poblado and The Diez hotel is a stylish choice. For a truly unique, top-notch experience, The Charlee Lifestyle hotel in La Zona Rosa is terribly chic.
5. For The Active Traveller – Guatapé
Just a two hour bus ride from Medellin will land you in this mystical place that is Guatapé. Worth a good few days of your time, it is a town that is at the centre of man-made lakes that twist and turn through the green hills, with the dark shadow of el penon or “the rock” overlooking. Kayaking and fishing is a must here, as is a hardcore walk up the 740 stairs of El Penon to take in one of the most beautiful views in the world: it’s a big statement but wait until you see it for yourself. Worth the thigh-burn the next morning, I promise!
6. For The Photographer And Coffee Lover! – Salento
This region is just beautiful. You can drive for miles through the coffee plantations without seeing a single building, and when you do come across the small town of Salento, it is so picturesque you realize that it is one of Colombia’s best kept secrets. The pastel buildings and hilly streets are a photographers dream!
To do –
- Not only is it a quiet little historical town where you can escape for a few days, it is a town full of culture and art with it’s indoor artisan markets being a major draw. Be sure to pick up some treasures to take home.
- Climb the steps to the viewpoint where you can capture the whole town in one frame.
- For a great daytrip, head to the centre of the town and take a ride on a jeep to the Cocora Valley cloud forests, home of the sky scraping wax palms, for a beautiful trek.
Food and drink – Salento is the best place to be if you are a coffee lover. Try my favorite coffee shop Cafe Jesus Martin for the best coffee in town. For romantic dining and cocktails check out Camino Real Parrilla Bar where you can sit in candle light in their lush outdoor courtyard area.
7. For A Dose Of History – Popayan
Popayan is a gorgeous white walled city (which is why it is known as the “white city”!) and is one of the most important religious centers in Colombia. It is a great example of the old Colombia, and will offer the perfect place to learn more about Colombia’s history.You will find a lot to see here – from museums to churches to art galleries. Be sure to spend time in the beautiful main square – it is a great place to sit and people watch!
Visit – The Natural History Museum is a good way to spend a few hours and learn about Colombia’s wildlife. Hike up the steep hill to get a great view over the whole city, and lastly be sure to check out the Religious Art Museum – it is really impressive and a reason itself to visit the city.
8. To Venture On To Ecuador – Ipiales
The last stop before the border to Ecuador is Ipiales. Like every border town it is not especially noteworthy, and wasn’t a destination we had on our list. However the basilica church ‘Las Lajas Sanctuary‘ is like nothing you will have ever seen before. Many travellers miss this wonder of the world due to its location, however for those lucky ones that do find it, it will be one of the things they always remember about their trip.
More like a European castle than a church, you notice it miles before you reach it down in the valleys below the town (ensure to make the taxi stop for a photo on the way), and when you trek down the road to reach it your eyes will be fixed upon nothing else. An absolutely stunning architectural triumph, there are so many points to stand to absorb its beauty – it Stands on a stone slab in the middle of the Guáitara river canyon – and is just magical from every angle whether that be above or below.
And now you are so close to the border, you might as well hop over and explore Ecuador, too!
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