Bienvenidos a Colombia! Nestled in the heart of South America, Colombia offers travelers an amazing blend of breathtaking landscapes, vibrant cities, and rich cultural heritage. From the colorful streets of Guatape to the mountainous Cocora Valley, there’s no shortage of adventure to be found. This Colombia travel guide will show you the best places to visit, things to see, where to experience culture, and so much more. Your unforgettable journey to the gateway to South America begins here!
Disclosure: This itinerary is the 9-Day Colombia Express Itinerary that I experienced during a creator trip with G Adventures.
Table of Contents
Things to Know About Colombia
The official language in Colombia is Spanish, and it’s definitely recommended to learn some basic words and phrases. While English is commonly spoken by tour guides and largely touristic attractions – it’s not commonly spoken by locals overall. Luckily, Colombian Spanish is one of the easiest dialects to understand because it’s often spoken clearly at an understandable pace. I highly recommend downloading Google Translate and saving Spanish for offline use if you’re not at a conversational level.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s only hot in Colombia! The country’s weather conditions are as diverse as its landscapes, thanks to its unique geographical features and varying altitudes. There’s a range of climate zones, from tropical rainforests along the coasts to temperate highlands in the Andes Mountains. In cities like Bogotá, located at high altitudes, you can expect cool temperatures year-round. On the Caribbean coast, cities like Cartagena are extremely hot and humid. Overall, you’ll want to plan well and pack for a range of conditions.
The official currency is the Colombian Peso, often symbolized as “$” with the currency code “COP.” While credit and debit cards are widely accepted in urban areas and tourist hubs, it’s a good idea to carry some Colombian pesos for smaller businesses and markets, especially in more remote or rural locations. Generally, you can exchange currency at banks, currency exchange offices, or ATMs throughout the country. The best place to exchange would usually be an ATM since they normally use the most accurate exchange rate. Just make sure you decline the exchange option so you’re charged in the local currency!
Data & Phone Usage
Using data in Colombia is generally hassle-free! The country has a well-developed telecommunications infrastructure, and you’ll find reliable mobile network coverage in most urban areas and popular tourist destinations. To stay connected while exploring, you can purchase prepaid physical SIM cards from local providers like Claro. If your phone only takes eSIM (iPhone 14 models or later), you can install an eSIM using the Airalo app.
Important: Make sure your your phone is unlocked before your trip so you can use a local SIM card and remember to check your phone plan’s roaming policies. Here are instructions for how to do this on an iPhone or Android.
Is Colombia Safe for Tourists?
One of the most common questions I get is “is Colombia safe to visit?” While I can only speak to my personal experience, safety in Colombia has statistically improved and many areas of the country are now considered safe for tourists. As in any destination, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. The phrase “No dar papaya” is a common Colombian saying, which roughly translates to “Don’t give papaya.” It basically means don’t make yourself an easy target. This means being discreet with expensive items, avoiding scammers, and being mindful of pickpockets in crowded areas. It’s recommended to stay in the major tourist areas and keep an eye out for the latest travel advisories.
More tips for staying safe in Colombia:
- Use Reputable Transportation: Opt for official taxis or rideshare services.
- Keep Documents Secure: Safeguard your important documents by storing them in a secure location, and carry photocopies instead of originals.
- Avoid Illegal Activity: Be cautious of offers or situations involving drugs, prostitution, and other typically illicit activities.
- Get an Anti-Pickpocket Bag: Consider using an anti-pickpocketing bag with security features such as lockable zippers, RFID-blocking compartments, and slash-resistant straps to further safeguard your belongings. I swear by this one from Travelon.
Getting Around Colombia
Getting around Colombia is relatively convenient, thanks to its well-developed transportation network. In my opinion, the best way to experience a variety of cities is to take short-haul domestic flights. They’re super affordable, and let’s face it: sitting on 8-12 hour bus rides is a severe waste of time!
Within cities, taxis and rideshare services like Uber are readily available. In larger cities, public transportation systems, including buses and metro systems, are efficient and affordable. For exploring more remote or off-the-beaten-path destinations, consider using organized tours. While Colombia’s transportation infrastructure has improved significantly in recent years, it’s still important to check safety conditions, follow local advice, and stay updated on any travel advisories for specific regions – especially in more rural areas.
Colombia Travel Guide: Day 1
Fly Into Bogota ✈️
Flying into Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a convenient gateway to exploring this diverse and vibrant country. El Dorado International Airport is modern, easily navigable, and has several routes from North America. As you start to descend over the Andes Mountains, you’ll catch glimpses of Bogota’s sprawling cityscape and the surrounding highlands. From here, you can embark on an adventure to explore Bogota’s rich heritage, lively neighborhoods, and the captivating energy of Colombia’s capital city.
Depending on what time you arrive and how long your travels were, you might just want to grab a bite and ease into your hotel for the day. That’s what I did! If you were lucky enough to have an early arrival – or just want to hit the ground running, here are top points of interest in Bogota:
- Gold Museum (Museo de Oro): Immerse yourself in Colombia’s history and admire an impressive collection of gold artifacts, pottery, and jewelry.
- Mount Monserrate: Ascend this iconic mountain by cable car or funicular to enjoy panoramic views of Bogotá and visit the sanctuary at its summit.
- Plaza de Bolivar: Explore the historical heart of Bogotá, where you’ll find important landmarks like the Catedral Basílica Metropolitana, the Capitolio Nacional, and the Palace of Justice.
- Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral Visit: Venture to the nearby town of Zipaquirá to explore the extraordinary Salt Cathedral, an underground marvel carved within a salt mine, showcasing stunning salt sculptures and architecture.
Visit Paloquemao Fruit Market
As one of Colombia’s largest and most famous markets, Paloquemao showcases the country’s incredible diversity of fruits, vegetables, and local products. Wandering through its bustling aisles, you’ll encounter exotic fruits like lulo and guanabana, stacks of freshly harvested vegetables, spices galore, and stalls selling a variety of Colombian street food delicacies.
Fly Into Armenia ✈️
Take a short, one-hour nonstop flight from El Dorado International Airport (BOG) to El Edén International Airport (AXM).
Check Into A Traditional Finca
Escape the hustle and bustle of city life by finding your peace at a traditional homestead. A “finca” in Colombia refers to a rural estate or farmhouse typically surrounded by lush greenery and often dedicated to agriculture. For tourism purposes, these fincas have been transformed into charming guesthouses, offering an authentic experience. We opted to stay at Hostería Mi Mónaco in Quindio, where you’ll find a simple blend of comfort and tradition. Nestled amidst the natural landscapes, this finca provides cozy accommodations, warm hospitality, and the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Armenia region’s coffee culture.
Visit the Recuca Coffee Farm
Nestled in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region, the Recuca Coffee Farm is a captivating journey into the world of coffee production. Here, visitors can trace the entire coffee-making process from bean to cup while surrounded by lush coffee plantations and picturesque landscapes. The farm offers an immersive experience, allowing guests to participate in hands-on activities like harvesting coffee cherries, learning about traditional coffee processing methods, and even tasting freshly brewed coffee. The visit not only provides insight into the meticulous craftsmanship behind Colombia’s renowned coffee but also offers a glimpse into the lives of the dedicated farmers who cultivate this cherished crop. Be sure to also have lunch on-site to try bitute (bee-too-tay) – a hearty plate consisting of beans, rice, arepas, fried egg, ground beef, and fried pork rind.
Hike Through the Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora)
Nature lovers, this one’s for you! Nestled in Colombia’s coffee region, the Cocora Valley is a must-visit gem. Marvel at the towering wax palms – the tallest palm trees in the world that can reach up to 200 feet tall! But this valley is more than just impressive trees – it’s a place of lush greenery, biodiversity, and wildlife. Hiking enthusiasts will adore the trails leading through wildflower-speckled hills with panoramic valley views. For a great photo opportunity, hike up to the giant hand sculpture (pictured above) . Be sure to also visit one of the open horse pastures to get up close with these beautiful animals.
Note: You can also book horseback riding experiences if you’d rather avoid the hiking.
See Salento, the Town That Inspired Disney’s Encanto
Visit the Colombian town that helped inspire Disney’s Oscar-winning film, Encanto! Set amid the mountains, Salento is a picturesque heritage town adorned with vibrant buildings and lively streets. It’s a well-kept secret, boasting traditional architecture and a unique atmosphere. Whether you’re a dedicated “Encanto” fan or simply a lover of whimsical destinations, it’s a great stop to do some shopping and exploring.
While in town, stop at Cancha De Tejo Los Amigos to learn how to play Tejo (te-ho), Colombia’s national sport. It’s a traditional throwing game where you score points by hurling a heavy metal disc, or “tejo,” at a clay target called the “bocín.” What makes tejo exciting is the use of gunpowder to make explosive targets that erupt when you hit them!
Colombia Travel Guide: Day 5
Fly into Medellin ✈️
Take a short 40-minute flight from El Edén International Airport (AXM) to Jose Maria Cordova International Airport (MDE).
Take a Walking Tour of Downtown Medellin (El Centro)
Downtown Medellín, commonly referred to as “El Centro,” is the bustling heart of the city. This economic center is full of historic architecture, iconic squares and landmarks. As you navigate its bustling streets, you’ll encounter a lively mix of commerce, culture, and daily life.
Points of Interest in Downtown Medellín:
- Plaza Botero: This iconic square is a tribute to Colombia’s most celebrated sculptor, Fernando Botero. It’s adorned with a collection of his oversized bronze sculptures, showcasing his distinctive style of exaggerated figures. Visitors can stroll among these captivating artworks and even explore the adjacent Museo de Antioquia, which houses a comprehensive collection of Botero’s works and other Colombian art. Also spot the exterior of the uniquely checkered Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture.
- Peatonal Carabobo: Known as Carabobo Pedestrian Street, this lively avenue is a hub of activity. It’s lined for blocks with shops, restaurants, and street vendors. It’s the ideal place for shopping, savoring local cuisine, and experiencing the vibrant atmosphere of Medellín’s urban life.
- Parque de las Luces (Park of Lights): This beautifully illuminated park is a symbol of Medellín’s transformation. It’s known for its tall, slender illuminated pillars that light up the night sky.
- Catedral Basílica Metropolitana: Located in the heart of El Centro, the Metropolitan Cathedral is an architectural masterpiece that stands as a testament to the city’s history and faith. Its striking façade and ornate interior are worth exploring, and it’s an important religious and cultural landmark in Medellín.
- Palacio Nacional: This nearly century-old building, originally designed by a Belgian architect in 1925, once served as the headquarters of significant government institutions in Antioquia. Today, the regal building houses over 400 shops and art galleries.
Party on a Chiva Bus
Get the party started on a colorful, moving fiesta! Complete with a DJ, flashing lights, and a BYOB policy, a chiva bus is a party on wheels that zooms through the streets of Medellín. This adventure offers an fun way to experience the city’s nightlife and dive into the vibrant spirit of Medellín. Whether you’re sipping on your favorite drinks, dancing, or simply soaking in the lively atmosphere, a chiva party bus ride is a quintessential experience that promises unforgettable memories and a night of pure fun. This tour with a DJ and street food is a good way to experience the chiva bus.
Colombia Travel Guide: Day 6
Take a Day Trip to Guatapé
Guatapé, nestled in the lush hills of Colombia’s Antioquia region, is a vibrant town renowned for its stunning landscapes and the vibrant colors that adorn its buildings. From Medellin’s city center, it takes a little under two hours by bus. You can find your way there using local transportation, but the easiest way is to take a guided tour. This guided tour includes transportation from the city center, lunch, and a boat ride. Here’s what you should do when you visit.
Climb El Peñón de Guatapé
El Peñón de Guatapé, usually referred to as “El Peñol,” is a huge granite rock that stands as an iconic natural wonder near the town of Guatapé. This towering formation has a staggering 740-step staircase carved into its side, leading to a scenic viewpoint. After making the trek, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing 360-degree view of the lush landsapes and emerald reservoir! Overall, the climb wasn’t nearly as intense as it looked. It’s definitely worth it, and surprisingly only took about 30 minutes to get up to the top. However, keep in mind there’s a cash-only fee of $20,000 Colombian pesos per person (about $5.00 USD) to climb it.
Explore the Colorful Town of Guatapé
Afterward, feast your eyes on one of the most colorful towns in the world: Guatapé, Colombia. Perched in the heart of the Antioquia region, this vibrant town has a photo op around every corner! Stroll through the streets and admire the colorful buildings – be sure to get your inner Instagram model on with a mini photoshoot. Don’t forget to admire the zócalos, those ornamental symbols that adorn the base of each building, narrating tales of Guatapé’s rich heritage. Grab one of the colorful motochivas (pictured above), a tuk-tuk taxi that’ll zip you around the streets to see more of the town.
Hot Tip: Don’t miss lunch at Restaurante Mirador del Lago to try the Bandeja Paisa.
Witness the Incredible Transformation of Comuna 13
Comuna 13, a neighborhood in Medellín, Colombia, has a remarkable story of transformation. It’s a must-visit when you’re in Colombia! Once infamous as a cartel stronghold, it was trapped in a cycle of violence, gang activity, and kidnappings. However, in 2002, a turning point occurred when Colombia’s president initiated Operation Orion, a controversial military intervention aimed at reclaiming the area. It marked the beginning of a turning point for the community. Government investments in infrastructure, such as electric escalators and cable cars, linked residents to the city center. This move was instrumental in providing improved job opportunities and reducing crime rates. Fed up with violence, locals turned to creative expressions of their history. Art, dance, and music helped lead to a remarkable change.
Comuna 13 Today
Today, it stands as a vibrant neighborhood adorned with colorful murals, pulsating with dance and rap artists, good food, and celebrating its rich culture. Comuna 13 serves as a testament to a community’s resurgence, illustrating how it transformed from a place affected by violence into a hub of innovation and social progress.
While in Comuna 13, a great way to delve deeper into its inspiring story is to take a graffiti tour! These guided tours allow you to explore the neighborhood’s vibrant street art scene, providing insights into the history, struggles, and triumphs of the community. Graffiti tours often take you on a journey through the colorful murals, each painting telling a piece of the neighborhood’s narrative. It’s a powerful and educational experience that enables you to witness firsthand how art and creativity played a pivotal role in Comuna 13’s transformation. It’s a must-do activity during your visit.
Dinner & Nightlife in El Poblado
Later, explore Medellín’s vibrant El Poblado neighborhood for lively nightlife. The Provenza district comes alive after dark, offering a variety of restaurants, bars, and clubs. If you love rooftop bars, head to Envy, The Marquee Hotel Rooftop, and Panorama to elevate your experience to new heights – literally. With breathtaking views of twinkling lights, these rooftop bars are the perfect places to grab a drink.
Fly Into Cartagena ✈️
Take a short one hour flight from Jose Maria Cordova International Airport (MDE) to Rafael Núñez International Airport (CTG).
Exploring Cartagena is like stepping into a living postcard. This enchanting Colombian coastal city, with its cobblestone streets, pastel-hued buildings, and colonial charm, captivates travelers at every turn. Wandering through the historic Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, you’ll encounter centuries-old fortifications. See the iconic Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and stroll along the city walls. The lively plazas, such as Plaza Santo Domingo and Plaza de Bolívar, brim with energy, music, and street vendors. Cartagena’s culinary scene offers a fusion of Caribbean and Colombian flavors, best enjoyed at local restaurants. As the sun sets, the city transforms into a hub of nightlife. Whether you’re exploring its rich history, relaxing on the beautiful beaches, or savoring the city’s flavors, Cartagena is a must-visit destination that exudes magic and romance.
Afro-Colombians, Palenqueras, and Palenque
Something else that makes Cartagena special is its high population of Afro-Colombians, due to being the first Spanish colony in Colombia – and the first sanctuary for freed African slaves in the Americas. Their influence is deeply woven into the city’s culture, music, and cuisine. Take a picture with the stunning palenqueras (pictured above), often seen donning colorful traditional dresses and balancing baskets of fresh fruit on their heads. These women are descendants of people from Palenque, the first free African town in the Americas.
Located just a short drive from Cartagena, Palenque provides an opportunity to explore the roots of Afro-Colombian culture. There, you can witness traditional dance performances, taste local cuisine, and gain insights into the resilient spirit of the people who have preserved their culture for centuries. The Freedom Tour is a fascinating journey if you have extra time.
Colombia Travel Guide: Day 9
Fly Out of Rafael Núñez International Airport (CTG) ✈️
From the heights of the mountains to sunkissed beaches, from its bustling cities to tranquil villages, Colombia’s diverse culture leaves an undeniable mark on all who visit. I hope this Colombia travel guide helps you plan your trip! I can’t wait to see your adventures.