Guide to Colombia

South America is a childhood dream for me. I used to picture myself joining the vibrant and colorful carnivals of Brazil, dancing passionate tango in Argentina and reliving the ancient history of Peru on top of Machu Picchu. I don’t think I ever gave Colombia a thought back then, and yet it ended up being the first South American country I visited. But Colombia turned out to be the answer to my childhood dream. Here follows my best guide for this spectacular country.

Bogotá

Bogotá unexpectedly became one of the highlights of the trip, especially since many advised us “to skip the capital”. My advise is instead “whatever you do, don’t miss Bogotá”.

Where to stay?

My boyfriend and I used AirBnb as our only source for accommodation. There are plenty of great AirBnb stays in Bogotá and many of which are located in the most interesting areas of the city. We stayed at three different places in total to really get the best experience out of Bogotá. One in the hip Chapinero area, one in the mountains and one in the hipster area of Usaquen. One main goal with the trip was to improve our Spanish skills, and therefor we chose to stay with families rather than staying on our own. Despite it being a great option for improving Spanish it can sometimes feel overwhelming to socialize all the time. So, maybe you want to treat yourself with a private accommodation a few nights, unless you’re an inexhaustible extrovert.

Things to do in Bogotá

Discover Bogotá from a bike with Bogotá Bike Tours. The tour lasts a couple of hours and gives you a unique chance to get to know the city better. Engaged and knowledgeable guides take you through jaw-dropping fruit markets and to scenes where the series Narcos was shot. You will also participate in some local activities at a bar and taste coffee from heaven at a coffee roastery. You do not want to miss out on this tour, given the fact that it takes you to places you normally wouldn’t find without a local.

Enroll in a Spanish course

Why not combine travelling with some Spanish language skills while you’re in a Spanish speaking country? My boyfriend and I took Spanish classes in both Bogotá and Medellin with Nueva Lengua school, and we were very pleased with the course. Nueva Lengua offers Spanish classes in Bogotá, Medellin and Cartagena.

Visit the Gold Museum

In the district of La Candelaria you find Museo del Oro – the Gold Museum. This is one of the most famous museums of all of South America and can brag with its huge collection of gold. Join a guided tour at this museum and be prepared for a thorough history class in the theme of gold.

Where to eat in Bogotá?

Finding great restaurant options in Bogotá won’t be a problem for you if you know where to look. If it’s lunchtime it’s even easier – just follow the locals to the nearest restaurant and grab a menu del dia – the lunch of the day. For a mere pittance you can eat plenty. Fresh juice, some soup, a bowl of fruit and a main course; normally rice with some meat or fish and veggies.

For later meals you should head to the districts of Chapinero and Usaquen, where several awesome restaurant await.

Chapinero

Mini-mal

By far our favorite restaurant in Bogotá. A fusion between traditional Colombian tastes and international food makes exciting plates. Try the grilled shrimps in passion fruit marinade served with coconut rise. Simply delicious! Also take a look at the drinking menu and find some adventurous and mouth-watering cocktails.

El dia que me quieras

This Argentinian steakhouse serves top notch steaks cooked to perfection. The tender meat comes with some chimichurri and sides of your choice. Have a look at their wine list as well, which shouldn’t disappoint you.

Usaquen

Probably the hippest district of Bogotá and with lots of cool places to have a great meal. If you’re staying in Bogotá for some days you should definitely make a visit to Usaquen. I can guarantee that if the rest of Bogotá didn’t quite do it for you, Usaquen will.

Abasto

Breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, an evening snack? It’s up to you, but whatever you go for this place will make your taste buds swing. I went for the breakfast option and found myself thrilling over buttery pancakes, French toast, fresh fruits, home-baked bread and excellent coffee. Everything at this restaurant is organic and locally produced and the ambience is just super charming.

WOK

An Asian food chain, and some of the best Asian food I’ve eaten outside of Asia. Choose from Cambodian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai food and save some place for dessert. WOK alone makes a trip to Bogotá worth while. Best food chain in the world if you ask me and Bogotá is the only place in the world where you’ll find it. Jeez!

Bogotá Beer Company

Also a food/beer-chain in Bogotá, but with burgers on the menu rather than sushi. Treat yourself with some crispy fries and order a good old beer while watching a soccer game from one of the many screens.

Go to the cinema in Usaquen

If you’re in Usaquen (which you definitely should), you have to make a visit to the cinema. They show English movies with Spanish subtitles (not dubbed). Sit down in one of the comfy sofas and order in some food, drinks (yes, even alcohol consumption is allowed here) and snacks while enjoying the best cinema-experience of your life. Such an awesome activity after a long day of walking or on a rainy day.

Cook the food yourself!

One of the things I tend to miss the most after travelling for a while is cooking my own food. Moreover, one of the things I love to do the most when I’m in a new place is to visit a local supermarket. Staying at an AirBnb gives you the luxury to have your own kitchen, which was an opportunity we took advantage of a lot of times. Visit a local supermarket and be amazed by the enormous selection of fruits and vegetable, and rediscover the joy of cooking.

Barichara

240 kilometers north of Bogotá lies Barichara – probably one of the most charming and picturesque villages in the world. You come here to escape the stress of the bigger cities and to indulge in relaxation and the breathtaking beauty of this place. The architecture is stunning and the coffee and food make you marvel.

Accommodation

We stayed in Barichara for two nights, which was enough time to explore the village. If I would go back today I would however book a couple of nights in the outskirt of Barichara to get an even more spectacular view over the surroundings. Take one or two nights in the village, and a couple in the countryside for the best experience. Some hotel suggestions:

In the village of Barichara:

Casa Barichara Boutique

In the countryside of Barichara:

Casa Mahanaim Barichara

Hotel Terra Barichara

Serrania del Viento

Restaurants

Carambolo

I had one of my best restaurant experiences of my life at this place, and everything was delicious. A passionate chef runs the place and the menu varies depending on the season and the chef’s mood. One could class this restaurant as fine-dining, but with friendlier price tags.

Shanti

At this colorful and slightly funky place you can eat fresh salads with an Asian touch to it and drink amazing freshly squeezed juices. A mojito and pineapple juice became a strong favorite for us. However my favorite Colombian juice – or Jugo natural as they call it is without a doubt the passion fruit one, which goes by the name Maracuja. This place is also a great choice if you’re a vegetarian.

Medellín

Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia and appears to have a solid first place at many travelers’ top list. The weather, often described as “an endless spring”, could be one of the reasons for its likeability. It’s a lot warmer than in Bogotá, and yet not as humid as in Cartagena and on the Caribbean coast. Medellín is surrounded by layers and layers of green hills and majestic mountains and not far from here you find the coffee area of Colombia.

However Medellín hasn’t always had this great reputation, and for many years very few dared to set their foot in the city. As many might already be familiar with Medellín was actually the nest for drug cartels for many years and was ruled by the controversial and notorious narco gangster Pablo Escobar. Despite Medellín’s shattered history the city is now flourishing and keeps growing in popularity among tourists.

Where to stay?

As mentioned before my boyfriend and I engaged in Spanish studies on our Colombia trip, and because of that we chose to rent a room at the school during our stay in Medellín. The Nueva Lengua school is located in the area El Poblado, which is considered to be the safest and most vivid area of the city. For us it was a perfect accommodation. Check out accommodations alternatives at Nueva Lengua here.

Restaurants in the El Poblado area

There are several restaurant options in El Poblado and you can choose from both local cuisine and international cuisine. The area is quite small and restaurants can be found on every street. My best tip is to just head to El Poblado and take it from there. Let your senses decide what you feel like eating. Meat, fish, seafood, vegan food, fast food, healthy food, there is really something for everyone here. Check out this list for inspiration.

What to do in Medellín?

Hop on the metro cable

A ride with the metro cable is a must when in Medellín. It is a great way to get a closer glimpse of the stunning scenery around the city. From the cable you admire the spectacular and hilly landscape as well as urban skyscrapers and colorful favelas. At the end station you find Parque Arví, which is a nature park with focus on eco tourism and environmental awareness. Take a stroll in the park and make sure to bring a warmer sweater since the air is a lot breezier up here.

Pueblito Paisa

Make a small excursion to the cute neighborhood of Pueblito Paisa. This area is one of the main tourist attractions of Medellín and you come here to spot snug little houses, visit a Catholic church and enjoy an ice cream or a coffee.

Guided tours

Comuna 13, guided graffiti tour

If I could only recommend one guided tour in Medellín, it would be this one. Mainly because you get a unique chance to experience the life of most of Medellíns inhabitants, who are not living in the modern area of El Poblado, but rather in the shantytown. Comuna 13 is one such place where unemployment and poverty is the norm and where violence is a natural outcome due to these issues. One does best in not coming here alone, but with a local guide in order to be safe and to show respect to the people living here. The tour serves not only as an eye-opener in terms of experiencing the unchartered part of the society and become more humble as a tourist and as a human being. But also to marvel over the creativity and the driving spirit among the talented youths that call this place their home.

Walls are covered with dashing graffiti and the neighborhood is home to plenty of artists of various kinds. Dancers, singers, rappers, painters and so on and so on. Our guide himself was a rap musician and spoke with pride about this community. The tour finishes off with a visit in the music studio.

Pablo Escobar Tour

Indeed a much more controversial tour than the one before and maybe I would do best in not recommending it at all, but unfortunately I cannot resist. The Pablo Escobar tourism is expanding in the city after the popularity of Netflix’s Narcos series. Dedicated viewers want to experience the violent history of Medellín with the ghost of Pablo as their guide.

As one might realize this morbid fascination and narco-exotism among tourists isn’t always appreciated by locals. However there are some who take advantage of the huge interest in Pablo Escobar and make money out of it. This guided tour is an example of just that, where even former villains see a way to earn some extra cash. On our tour we find out that the bus driver himself was no other than the private life guard of Gustavia Escobar, Pablo’s cousin. And when one thought it couldn’t get more surreal, Robert Escobar, the brother of Pablo appeared at the last stop on the tour after having served several years in prison for involvement in many crimes.

The tour lasts a couple of hours and takes you to places that are somehow connected with Pablo Escobar. For example we visited the tombstone of Pablo and one of the many houses he owned. Most of the properties that used to belong to Pablo now stand empty since few have an interest in buying them partly due to superstition.

Guatapé and El Peñol

Sadly I didn’t myself have time to go on this tour, but it’s on my top list of things to do next time I travel to Colombia. From Medellín one can book a guided bus tour to these places. For more information look here. Once you arrive you get to stroll around a village of quirky and colorful houses, climb up some squiggly stairs and visit an artificial lake. Guatapé is located two hours from Medellín by bus.

Santa Rosa de Cabal

Santa Rosa de Cabal is a Colombian city in miniature. Maybe you don’t come here for the city itself, but instead to warm yourself in the natural hot springs, to see some kick ass waterfalls and to visit the coffee plantations outside of the city.

Termales Santa Rosa de Cabal is the go to place for hot springs and dazzling waterfalls. To get here you need to take a bus from Santa Rosa de Cabal, which you’ll easily find since the town is really small and the bus station is right at the town square. Or you can just ask anyone on the streets and they will take you to the bus you need to get.

Accommodation in Santa Rosa de Cabal

Coffee Town Hostel

We spent two or three nights at this simple yet affordable hostel. If I were to travel here again I would have chosen to stay in a finca up where the coffee plantations are. Why? Because Santa Rosa de Cabal gets quite boring after a day or two and is a rather sleepy village. Not saying it’s not worth visiting at all, but you might not want to spend two much of your precious time here.

Finca del Coffee Tour

Needless to say, a visit to the coffee plantations is kind of a must when you’re in this part of Colombia. Who would want to miss out on tasting the most delicious coffee in the world anyway? We spent half a day at a coffee farm with a local farmer and went through the whole process of coffee making. From picking the ripen coffee beans, roasting and grinding them, and of course the best part – tasting the coffee through different brewing methods. This coffee farm also offers accommodation options, which I would definitely recommend. Not only because of the coffee and the experience, but also because of the breathtaking scenery that surrounds the coffee plantation. Hard to beat that dawn over the finca, something extraordinary to wake up to.

When you’re in the area make some time for visiting the cute colonial towns in the neighborhood. One such charming town is Salento, which we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit. When I go to Salento I want to stay at one of these places.

Cartagena

Enchanting Spanish-colonial architecture, houses painted in childish and happy colors and adorable Catholic churches. The list could go on, but what I’ve mentioned so far gives you a hint about the reasons for the huge popularity of Cartagena as a tourist destination. Throw in some stunning beaches, a turquoise sea and some delicious seafood and you’re home. And if that doesn’t do it for you, add some Afro-Colombian music and imagine sipping on a fresh Mojito while you build up a thirst for swinging your hips along to some live Latin music at a local salsa pub. Don’t fancy alcohol? No problem, Cartagena is the king of fresh juices where you can pick and choose from more fruits than you even thought existed. Without ever having put my food on Cuba I picture Cartagena as a Havana in miniature.

Accommodation

We stayed at an AirBnb with a family of three near the ocean. The old lady and owner of the house provided us with fresh mango juice with mangos picked from her mango tree outside of her house every morning. Her two sons and plenty of animals of various kind shared the household with her.

Even though we had a very pleasant stay at this place, mostly due to the family’s great hospitality, one might want to go for a more central accommodation in Cartagena. At least if you’re only there for a few days. Whatever accommodation option you go for make sure you have air condition, because if not your trip will probably turn into a nightmare. If I go back to Cartagena I want to stay here or here or here.

Beaches near Cartagena

Check out the Culture’s trip list over the most beautiful beaches around Cartagena. Since we only spent a few nights in the city (way too short time), we unfortunately didn’t have time to go to some of the most stunning beaches. Instead we enjoyed the beach outside of our house, which wasn’t too bad either. But it’s worth to mention that you won’t find the dreamiest beaches around the city center. However you don’t have to go very far to find them. The beaches of Rosario Islands are supposed to be magic, and about every local recommended it.

Cafés in Cartagena

Abaco libros y Cafe

A really cute little hub that is a must-go-to-place for the bookworm. Escape the midday sun and enjoy some great literature – preferably by a Colombian author while sipping at a wonderful cup of coffee.

Café Havana

This place includes salsa nights and live music accompanied by fresh mojitos. If you’re a fan of Cuban rhythms this cafe/bar is great, even though there probably are even better places for live music in Cartagena.

Cartagena is full of interesting restaurants, cafes and bars, you just need to spend some time in the city center to find them. I recommend at least two-three days in the city and then two-three days more to experience the surroundings.

Santa Marta

Santa Marta is another Caribbean pearl really worth visiting. It’s less known by tourists, but very popular among locals. Maybe it’s not the city in itself that makes Santa Marta so attractive, but more so the spectacular nature and exciting adventures that surrounds it. Santa Marta is the gate to some of Colombia’s most famous and beautiful places, such as Tayrona National Park and Ciudad Perdida. You do however want to spend some time in the city itself, since it surely has its certain charm.

I recommend to spend one or two nights in the city, and then use the city as a base when traveling to for example Tayrona and Perdida. We stayed at an AirBnb with a family in the outskirts of Santa Marta. I recommend you to find a place more central in order to use your feet rather than a taxi to go to restaurants.

Tayrona National Park

The depth of the jungle hides some unexpected and outright amazing beaches with the bluest of water. The reward doesn’t come without a struggle, because the ticket to get here is a two hour long hike through the jungle. It is totally worth it though, and if you’re lucky you can spot some exotic and shy animals along the way. We did it as a one day excursion which was fine, but if I’d do it again I’d definitely spend a night in a hammock by the sea and enjoy some beach life.

Ciudad Perdida

Also called “the lost city”. We unfortunately didn’t manage to get there, but heard from other travelers that it was fantastic. If you have time you should really make an effort to get here but be prepared for quite a heavy hike. As I understood it you have to do the hike with a guide. Together with the guide you follow the traces of Colombia’s ancestors and reach the lost city at sunrise. Read more about the hike and Perdida here.

Food in Santa Marta

Ouzo

After discovering Colombian food for three weeks we craved for some good old pizzas and Mediterranean food. And the pizzas at this place are simply delicious and baked in a wood oven. Really friendly waiters, yummy drinks and so, so good food. You have to eat here at least once if you’re in Santa Marta.

Cabo de la vela

If Santa Marta, and especially Tayrona is all about the perfect combination of jungle and beach, Cabo de la Vela is instead about a magic combo of beach and desert. The fruit paradise is long gone, due to the dryness of this place only cactus survive. Cabo de la Vela is also all about going analogue, and where you quickly need to switch your cellphone to a book. This notorious place is home to the indigenous population of Colombia called Wayuu, that also live at the other side of the Venezuelan border. The Wayuu people are some of the poorest people in the country and every year people die due to lack of water access.

How to get there

It is a bit tricky to get to Cabo de la Vela, which is situated in the very north of Colombia. Having that said, it’s not impossible and I would recommend anyone to go here. Most of all because it’s total unique and doesn’t resemblance any other place in Colombia. If you decide to go there, make sure to first get to the city Riohacha. Spend a night there and be ready to leave for Cabo de la vela early next morning.

Don’t try and get there by yourself, it will only lead to exhaustion. It’s a bumpy road that is best tackled with by four-wheeler. We booked everything at our hotel in Riohacha, and in the city center you also find some travel agencies that offer trips to Cabo de la Vela. Find more information on how to get to Cabo de la Vela, and what there is to do there here. At this website you can also book the trip online in advance.

Accommodation and food

Once you arrive in Cabo de la Vela you can take a motorbike taxi to get around the island. And for dinner, try some gratinated lobster and just enjoy the relaxed vibe and feel the stress wash away. We slept in a hammock right in front of the sea and the accommodation was included in the price that the agency provided for the trip.

Playa del Pilon

This is the beach you want to look for when you get to Cabo de la Vela. It is quite breathtaking and at least when we were here the opposite of crowded. We spent a whole day here and met some new Colombian friends and enjoyed beer, some good laughs and conversations, beach football a lots of swims together. One of the highlights of our trip for sure, and probably the most spectacular sunset on our journey.

What to skip!

Punta Gallina

If you go to Cabo de la Vela agencies want to tell you that you should also pay a visit to Punta Gallina – the most northern point of Colombia. We did it, and it was honestly like throwing money in the trash can. What you find in Punta Gallina, as supposed to desert landscapes and pretty beaches, you will also find in Cabo de la Vela, and the money they charge for the trip to Punta Gallina is simply not worth it, according to me.

Once you arrive to your accommodation at midday there’s nothing left to do but wait until sunrise. Moreover the service at the place we stayed and on the tour was terrible. And I don’t blame the people for it! From my understanding only wayuu people lives here and are struggling to survive for themselves. Besides, one could feel that it was not them themselves that had set the rules and conditions for their business and the whole place shined with its misery.

If you want to support the wayuu people I recommend that you instead buy some of their beautiful handmade textiles. Their specialty is a colorful and gorgeous bag called Mochilla bags.

What to think about before travelling to Colombia

Vaccine against the yellow fever

It’s not required to take this vaccine if you go to Colombia, but I would highly recommend it if you intend on traveling to various parts of the country. There are some areas where the virus exists and it would be really unnecessary to be diseased, don’t you think? Besides, you could run into some problems if when you travel from Colombia to another country, where they might not let you in if you cannot show evidence of having the vaccine. One really cool thing is that you actually can get the vaccine for free when you arrive in Bogotá, either at the airport or at the bus station.

But I want to give you a little heads up here. You have to fill in a blanket and answer some medical questions before receiving the vaccine. I have diabetes (which was one of the questions) and was therefore denied the vaccine due to some vague explanations about insulin not working with the vaccine. After talking to my doctor in Sweden this information turned out to be false, and I had to visit another private clinic (not free anymore) and lie about my diabetes, by saying I didn’t suffer from it. So, if you’re a diabetic like me or have another diseases you’re treated for I really recommend you to fix the vaccine at home before traveling. It will save you some energy and worry.

How to get around safely

Taxi

We used Uber during our whole stay in Colombia and it was great. It’s also considered to be a lot safer than taking a regular cab, because there are reports on robberies in taxis. Be safe.

Bus

Flights may be more convenient and faster, but we used the bus every time we went to a new place or city in Colombia. It’s a bit more friendly to the environment and also gives you an opportunity to catch some stunning scenery from the window as you go. You should however think about the safety aspect when it comes to traveling by bus also. Use one of these bus companies, don’t gamble. Also make sure to bring a blanket or put on some warm clothes for your bus ride. For some reason they love their air condition a bit too much, and the temperature can get really cold.

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