The Definitive Guide To Colombia Travel

by | Oct 11, 2018

Whether you’re planning a trip to Colombia or still making your mind up about visiting, we’ve put together an unbeatable guide to Colombia travel to help you to decide when to go, where to stay and what to do when you get there.

We’ve used our insider knowledge and local experience to cover everything from the best cities, the best towns, included some handcrafted itineraries for short and longer stays, details about the best Colombian festivals, best times to travel and how to stay safe when getting around. Read on or simply download the guide in full now!

wandering the streets of zipaquira, cundinamarca, colombia

About Colombia

Located in the North West of South America, Colombia is one of the most diverse countries on the planet.

With a rich and lustrous landscape –  from snow-capped mountains to pristine exotic beaches – Colombia is brimming with awe inspiring natural wonders, breathtaking views and is absolutely packed with authentic Latino culture.

We think there is no place on earth quite like it.

Until recently though Colombia has unfortunately been a bit of a ‘no go’ destination for travelers, thanks mainly to its long and chequered history of drug cartels, crime and civil war.

However, after the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombia Government and guerrilla group FARC in 2016, Colombia has begun a long awaited transformation (socially, politically and economically) and is now emerging as a ‘must-see’ destination.

Although Colombia does still struggle at times to shake off its shady reputation, it is the resilience of the Colombian people; their warmth, passion and friendliness towards foreigners – not to mention their obsession with salsa and partying – that ultimately makes Colombia THE place to visit.

When you arrive you can expect a warm welcome from the locals who are eager to share their food, culture and coffee.

You’re in for one unforgettable experience.

Breathtaking Parque Tayrona in Colombia

Colombia Facts

Colombia vs Columbia?

It’s a common mistake but the South American country is spelt ‘Colombia’ and is not to be confused with ‘Columbia’ which is a district in the United States, now known as Washington DC. We can confirm that these are two very different places.

Where is Colombia?

Colombia, is a situated at the north of South America and shares borders with Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela.

Geography:

Colombia is approximately 1,138,910 sq km (5 times bigger than the UK) and is the 2nd largest bio diverse country in the world. This is largely due to the diverse geography and terrain that Colombia occupies. Split by the Andes Mountain range, with a small share of the Amazon Rain forest and Caribbean coast lines, Colombia offers the chance to experience tropical jungles, exotic beaches and snow-capped mountains.

Colombia’s Climate:

If the best time to visit Colombia heavily depends on getting the most amount of sun then generally speaking you won’t be disappointed – Colombia is very much a year round destination. However, Colombia is a HUGE country with a uniquely diverse geography and climate per area so it’s best to check out individual destinations for a more accurate view of the weather.

Colombia’s Population:

As of 2018 the population was recorded at 49 million, making it the 2nd largest country in South America (behind Brazil). The capital city of Bogota has a population of around 8 million.

Language:

Like almost half of South America the dominant language in Colombia is Spanish. This is due to the fact that Colombia was colonised by Spain in 1525 until 1819 when Colombia gained back independence.

Currency:

Colombian Peso is the currency in Colombia. Unlike its neighbouring Latin American countries, the US dollar is not legal tender or widely accepted so make sure you arrange your money before traveling. It is also possible to withdraw cash from local ATMs (although please check with your bank before traveling).

Political Situation:

Colombia is Latin America’s oldest democracy. In 2016 the Colombian government and FARC rebels signed a historic peace agreement to end 52 years of armed conflict in the country. Colombia’s newest President, Ivan Duque – a conservative – was elected in June 2018 after campaigning on a ticket to rewrite the peace deal signed with FARC. He represents many Colombian voters who were outraged by concessions given to the former rebels, including reduced sentences for those who confessed to their crimes. This remains a highly inflammatory topic in Colombian politics. Mr Duque also took office pledging to reunite the country, tackle corruption and reignite economic growth.

Religion:

Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion in Colombia with over 75% of the population identifying with the faith. However, other religious beliefs are freely practised, and the country’s government policies encourage a tolerant environment.

Getting There:

There are direct flights to Bogota from many countries. From London it will take around 11 hours, 5.5 hours from New York and 22 hours from Sydney.

Visas:

In general most visitors to Colombia can enter without a visa and stay for 90 days with adequate evidence of a return ticket home. Some exceptions do however apply so it’s a good idea to check your own country’s guidelines about traveling to Colombia. It is also possible to apply for a visa extension of up to 180 days per year if required.

Vaccinations:

Most countries recommend being vaccinated against Hepatitis and Tetanus as a must and Diphtheria, Typhoid and Yellow Fever as a precaution. If you plan on visiting Tayrona National Park then they do request that you’re vaccinated against Yellow Fever and will ask to see vaccination certificates upon entry to the park.  Our advice on vaccinations is to research the individual locations you plan on visiting in Colombia and check the advice issued by your own country.
Guatape reservoir in Colombia

The Best Cities in Colombia

Visitors to Colombia are often surprised by how vibrant its cities are. Colombia is host to several major thriving cities. Each have a great energy with lively atmospheres making them fantastic places to explore, hang out and enjoy great food, nightlife, and adventure.

Bogota

Bogota is Colombia’s capital city and cultural heartbeat. The vibe here is bustling, cosmopolitan, cool and hip, and typical of a big and sprawling city. It’s location in the Andes region of the country means it is set in the valley of large imposing mountains. However, this provides a spectacular and humbling view of the contrast between traditional colonial architecture and modern city skyscrapers and due to its high altitude (8,661 feet) the climate is generally cooler than in most other parts of Colombia. Bogota is quickly gaining a reputation internationally for its thriving art scene, buzzing nightlife, and awesome food (although it’s not such a secret to the locals).

La Piedra del Penol

Medellin

Medellin is a city on the up! Known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ Medellin is a city well worth a visit.

Medellin is probably more famous for being home of drug lord, Pablo Escobar, and its portrayal on the Netflix series Narcos, but there is definitely a lot more to explore in this vibrant city. Most people are surprised and impressed by the clean and modern infrastructure of Medellin. They have highly functional transport systems and a highly innovative metro cable gondola system which connects the city with the poorer neighborhoods up in the mountains. In fact, in 2013, Medellin was named ‘world city of innovation’ due in large part to such projects. The views in Medellin are something to experience.

Nestled deep within the Andes mountains, the mountain ranges appear to tower over most of the city. This also means there are plenty of vantage points to climb for spectacular views of the city below. In spite of Medellin’s undoubted renaissance, it remains a city of contrasts. Impressive modern architecture, leafy residential streets, and trendy restaurants all sit within eyesight of mountains brimming with overpopulated slums. The remnants of Medellin’s darker history.

Find out everything you need to know about Medellin in our ultimate guide with over 58 things to do in Medellin. 

Mountain biking in beautiful Santander

Cartagena

If you’re looking for a slice of tropical paradise, Cartagena is it! Cartagena is a hot, sassy, and an utterly seductive port city set on the golden shores of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Expect high temperatures humidity and an altogether slower pace of life compared with the urban sprawls of Bogota and Medellin. The jewel in Cartagena’s crown is the walled Old Town—an UNESCO world heritage site, full of cobbled streets, quaint plazas and strikingly colorful architecture. Cartagena is the perfect place to go in Colombia for sunshine, cocktails, rest and relaxation—and, of course, to experience the infamous warm and friendly Colombian/Caribbean culture.

Mountain biking in beautiful Santander
wandering the streets of zipaquira, cundinamarca, colombia

The Best Towns in Colombia

Colombia is absolutely full of these amazing little pueblos (towns) packed with so much charm, color and character. If you really want to know what Colombia is all about then you need to get outside of the cities and go visit them. They are delightfully colorful, immensely quirky and it’s a bit like stepping back in time about 100 years.

Guatape

GUATAPE: located about 2 hrs outside of Medellin, Guatape is the most colorful town in Colombia (and possibly the world)? There is a HUGE rock (la piedra) which you can climb (and when we say climb we mean take the 765 steps) where you’ll be treated to jaw-dropping views over the spectacular Guatape reservoir. And then the town itself is great for just wanderinging around and taking in the explosion of color. You can also do a variety of activities on the lake itself – boat rides, wakeboard, zipline etc…

Santa Fe de Antioquia

1 hour north of Medellin, Santa Fe de Antioquia was the historical capital of the state of Antioquia before Medellin took over. Beautiful Colombian town filled with wonderful colonial architecture, traditional churches and hidden squares. It is also home to the spectacular Puente Occidente suspension bridge. Due to the relentless heat, it’s much hotter here than in Medellin, the pace of life is much slower. One of the best things to do is a ‘Dia del Sol’ in the swimming pool of one of the towns luxurious hotels. We LOVE Hotel Mariscal Robledo

Jardin

3 hours south of Medellin, and giving Gautape a good run for its money as most colorful, and certainly a candidate for the most beautiful town in Colombia, is Jardin. It’s a little bit further from Medellin but absolutely worth the effort. It’s a great little town for just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere but also great for hikes and visiting coffee plantations.

Vialla de Leyva

Located in a high altitude valley in the state of Boyacá,and about 3 hours north of Bogota, this extremely picturesque town is very well preserved and has seen little development in the last 400 years. Much of the town is centred around the Plaza Mayor, which at 14,000 square meters is the largest square in Colombia and believed to be the largest entirely cobbled square in South America. It’s well worth a visit and as you roam the towns charming streets expect to stumble across churches, convents, monasteries, and locals flying kites overhead.

Salento

This charming Colombian town, located at the epicentre of Colombia’s coffee region, is the perfect base for exploring the nearby Cocora Valley and Los Nevados National Park. The local pace of life is extremely relaxed, the restaurants are famous for their locally sourced freshwater trout and there is a thriving community of craftsmen and artisans as well as remaining one of the region‘s most prolific coffee producers. If you’re heading to this part of Colombia to enjoy the nearby nature then Salento is the perfect place to stay.

Mountain biking in beautiful Santander

10 Things You MUST Do in Colombia

1. SALSA like a local – Colombians are famed for being some of the hottest salsa dancers in the world and much of the best salsa music originates from the country. Don’t just observe from the sidelines, go take a lesson and then head to a bar and get those hips moving!

2. HIKE the magnificent mountains – Colombian is blessed with an abundance of hiking trails which (somehow) don’t get the same attention as some of its neighbours. Andean peaks, snow-capped glaciers, dense jungles, hidden civilisations – the variety is mind-blowing. Make sure you do at least one hike while in Colombia!

3. DEVOUR bandeja Paisa – rice, beans, chicharrón, minced beef, chorizo, fried egg, plantain, avocado and arepa all one one plate – it’s a beast! Think full English breakfast but better. This is Colombia’s most popular dish and if you really want the full Colombian experience it’s a must. 

4. TRY learning some Spanish – you don’t need to be fluent but a little will go a long way and the locals love it when they see foreigners make the effort. Try to learn the basics before you arrive and why not do some lessons while you’re here?

5. DRINK ‘tragos’ of Aguardiente – literally meaning ‘Fire Water’. It’s the Colombian alcoholic drink of choice and whenever you go to a bar you’ll see that most groups will have a bottle at their table. When in Colombia…!

6. DISCOVER the sounds of Colombia – you’ve probably already heard of Salsa but what about Vallenato, Cumbia, Reggaeton, Merengue, Porro, Champeta or Bachata? Colombia is literally brimming with music so make sure you take the time to experience it all.

7. LEARN about the rich culture and painful history – don’t just see Colombia, go speak to its people, learn about their culture and listen to their stories (hint – not everything is about drugs and Pablo Escobar).

8. VENTURE outside of the cities – Colombia has some of the most amazingly vibrant cities but the real magic lives in the pueblos (towns). Seek them out, slowly wander through, admire the preservation of the ancient customs and interact with the locals. Do this and you will truly start to understand Colombia.

9. SAVOUR the exotic fruits – Colombia is spoiled with an array of exotic fruits that you probably can’t pronounce and have most likely never heard of. Make it your mission to get through each and every one of them (hint: granadilla is worth trying at least twice).

10. GIVE BACK – Colombia is still a developing country and tourism has the potential to be a real positive force within the country. Make your visit count! Spend your money with the local companies, seek out good causes, and spread the word back home about all of the amazing things you experience during your visit.

Mountain biking in beautiful Santander

There’s More…

Here we’ve provided quite a lot of information to help get you started on planning your trip…but it doesn’t end there. We’ve put together an incredibly detailed guide that you can download now and read when you’ve got a bit more time.

This 96 page guide to Colombia Travel is packed with information about getting around, staying safe, Colombian Festivals, public holidays, cultural considerations and 4 incredible hand-picked itineraries for 1, 2 and 2 plus weeks in Colombia that will take you to the best places and most beautiful destinations Colombia has to offer.

If that wasn’t enough, we’ve also included detailed information about Colombian cuisine, the best places in Colombia for natural beauty, the weather by region and even more information about what Colombia has to offer.

Why Download OUR Guide?

We are self-professed obsessives when it comes to Colombia. As a 30-something British / Colombian married couple and founders of Other Way Round, we’re passionate about our mission to share the REAL Colombia. Want to experience Colombia like a local?  Download our guide now! Did we mention it’s free?

wandering the streets of zipaquira, cundinamarca, colombia