After being deemed too dangerous to travel to for many years, Colombia is now safe to visit and in the last few years, it’s become a favourite destination for travellers to South America. Colombia has a lot to offer for all kind of travellers and is a must-go destination if you love nature, rich culture, street art, music, sunshine and beautiful beaches.
There is so much to keep you busy in this stunning country and no matter how long you spend there, you’re unlikely to be bored or able to cover off everything it has to offer. But as a first-time visitor, there are some places you just shouldn’t miss. They’re enough to give you a real first taste of the country.
Three weeks would be a good start to explore the best parts of this amazing country, so here’s the best three-week Colombia itinerary (I might be slightly biased!).
Bogotá (3 days)
You’ll more than likely fly into Bogotá. The capital of Colombia might just be another big city but it’s not one you should avoid. It’s bustling and trendy and it has much to offer.
Check yourself into a hostel or hotel in the historic district of La Candelaria, so you’re close to the main sites. Then, start exploring! Lose yourself in the colourful streets of La Candelaria, visit the Gold Museum and take some of the free walking tours.
The Bogotá Graffiti Tour is one of the top things to do in Bogotá. Bogotá has a very interesting street art history and you’ll be amazed by some of the murals you’ll see and the stories you will hear along the way.
The daily free city walking tour is an excellent way to learn more about the city’s history. Did you know that not that long ago, Bogotá’s city centre was almost all burnt to the ground?
Take the cable car up to the Monserrate Hill for the best views of the city or, if like us you like a challenge, hike up there instead! However, if you’re coming from sea level, this could be very tough so don’t do it until the third day when you’ve had time to acclimatise. Monserrate is at over 3000m in altitude.
Read more about Bogotá here.
Villa de Leyva (2 days)
The colonial town of Villa de Leyva is three hours from Bogota and the best place to get your fix of old-time Colombia. Take a bus to here from Bogota and spend a couple of days just enjoying this charming town with its whitewashed buildings and cobblestone streets.
Although you could see all of its attractions in a day, spend a night there to truly relax and enjoy it properly, rather than spending 7 hours of your day in a car driving to and from Bogota. That’s a lesson we learnt the hard way!
Read more about Villa de Leyva here.
Salento (3 days)
Getting there: The quickest way to Salento is to fly from Bogota to either Armenia or Perreira and then catch a bus. If you’re on a budget, you can travel there by bus but be prepared to waste more than 10 hours doing so. That’s not ideal if you are not in Colombia for long.
Salento was our favourite place in Colombia. It’s just so pretty and it’s a town we could easily have stayed in for a while. Salento is in the heart of Colombia’s coffee country and it’s also a very picturesque and colourful town.
If you’re a fan of coffee, visit one of the nearby coffee plantations for a tour and to enjoy some of the best coffee in South America.
While in Salento, don’t miss seeing the famous towering wax palms of the Cocora Valley. Catch a Willy Jeep to the start of the valley, where you can choose to hike the full loop (about 6 or 7 hours) or just an hour’s round-trip walk to the palms themselves. We recommend tackling the hike if you can. There’s some incredible scenery along the way.
On day three, take a trip from Salento to Filandia, another stunning little town in the coffee region. Also, don’t miss playing a game of Tejo while in town. It’s Colombia’s traditional sport and it’s explosive and loads of fun!
Read more about Salento here.
Medellín (3 days)
Getting there: Once again, the quickest way is to fly from Armenia but the bus ride is a little shorter, this time around 6 hours direct from Salento. However, if there are road works along the way, it could easily extend to 8 to 10 hours. Because of that, flying might be a safer bet unless you’re travelling on a budget.
Medellín was once the playground of Pablo Escobar but since then, the most dangerous city in the world has become one of the safest cities in South America. The city of the eternal Spring has worked hard to clean up its image and it is now a very cool city to visit. It’s not a pretty city, but it sure makes up for it in many other ways.
Take a free walking tour with Real City Tours to hear the inspirational story of how the city managed to break from its dark path. Medellín’s history is so interesting and this free walking tour was the best city tour we took during our entire year of travelling. It will help you understand a lot about the city and about Colombia itself.
Another excellent tour to take while in Medellín is the Comuna 13 walking tour. Comuna 13 was the most dangerous suburb in the most dangerous city in the world. Pretty scary, right?
Just a few years ago, no-one would have dared to visit Comuna 13. You probably wouldn’t come back alive. But the simple act of installing electric escalators up the hillside transformed Comuna 13 and it’s now the best suburb to visit to learn more about the transformation Medellin has undergone in the last ten years. It’s also a fabulous place to see street art at its best.
A visit to Parque Arvi is a must while in Medellín. The ride up there is half of the fun. You’ll need to catch the cable car up but it’s worth it for the extensive views over the city on the way up. Once on top, you can hire a guide and tackle some of the hiking trails along the park.
Medellín also has a great party scene, so take time to enjoy the city. Visit Parque Lleras in Poblado or La Calle 70 in Laureles for a great night out.
If you’re an early riser, hike to the top of the Cerro de las Tres Cruces for the best views at sunrise.
Read more about Medellín here.
Guatapé (One day trip from Medellín)
Rise early and take a bus to Guatapé from Medellín. Guatapé is Colombia’s most colourful city and it is just a two-hour bus ride from Medellín. Exit the bus near El Penol and start by hiking the 740 steps to the top of this huge rock. From there, the views will make the hike up worthwhile. Once you reach the top, be sure to get a Coco Lemonada as a reward for your efforts!
After the hike, catch the bus or hire one of the many tuk-tuks (around 10,000 COP) and head to the centre of Guatapé. Then, just lose yourself in this super photogenic town. You’ll be snapping away for hours but try to leave enough time for an hour-long boat ride on the Laguna de Guatapé.
Read more on Guatapé here.
Santa Marta – Minca (2 days)
Getting there: Fly into Santa Marta from Medellín. There are buses but the journey is over 20 hours long so it’s not worth it; especially since the buses aren’t a lot cheaper than the flights.
To reach Minca, catch one of the collectivos near the main central market. It takes about an hour to get there. Minca is a quiet and laid-back town with a bohemian vibe. There is plenty to do there and it’s all about enjoying nature!
You can visit the jungle swimming holes (such as Pozo Azúl) and take a refreshing dip, or take a coffee or chocolate tour. Take a moto-taxi or hike (if you’re crazy!) to Casa Elemento to lounge around on their giant hammock with some amazing views! You can visit Minca on a day trip from Santa Marta or spend a night at one of the hostels in town.
We weren’t impressed with Santa Marta itself but it is the gateway to Minca and the Tayrona National park.
Tayrona National Park (2 days)
Getting there: From the central market of Santa Marta, you can catch a bus to Tayrona. They leave frequently throughout the day. It takes less than an hour to get there.
In Tayrona you can visit some of the most stunning beaches in Colombia. Make sure you start super early and arrive at the park entrance for opening time.
We hiked from the Calabazo entrance which was so quiet compared to the main entrance. However, it takes a lot more effort to get to the beaches from there.
If you plan on camping for the night in one of the hammocks in Cabo San Juan, it might be wiser to start at the main entrance. That way, you’ll arrive early enough to claim your hammock (you can’t pre-book them).
Spend a day or two exploring the park, relaxing on the beautiful beaches and swimming in the impossibly clear water.
If you prefer to stay outside the park, there are many stunning and quiet beaches near the park that you can visit on your second day. We loved Playa Los Cocos which seemed to attract more locals than tourists.
Read more about our hike in Tayrona National Park here.
Cartagena (2 days)
Getting there: From your hostel in Tayrona or Santa Marta, you can arrange an organised transfer to take you straight to Cartagena. It costs a bit more than the bus but it’s quicker and much easier. If you’re on a budget, you can catch a bus from Santa Marta. They leave a few times a day.
The Walled City of Cartagena is the most touristy spot of Colombia for a reason. It’s rich in history, it’s super photogenic, it has awesome street art and the best food you may find in Colombia. With two days there, lose yourself in its streets, climb its walls and snap away. Eat great food and sip cocktails as you watch the sunset over the Caribbean sea. Last but not least, visit Getsemani.
Read more about Cartagena here.
Rosario Islands (2 days)
Catch a boat from Cartagena to the Rosario Islands for some Caribbean fun. Snorkel in the crystal clear water, relax on the white sandy beaches and swim with bio-luminescent plankton. Enjoy the good life!
Do you have more time?
Perfect, because let’s face it, the more time you spend in Colombia the better! We spent six weeks there and were never bored. I would happily have spent longer.
If you enjoy a challenging hike and are not worried about sweating buckets, bug bites and stinking heat, the Lost City Trek has been highly recommended to us. This multi-day hike is one of the best hikes in South America and has you trekking through the dense jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. After a lot of sweat and effort, you’ll finally reach the ancient ruins of a lost city hidden deep in the jungle.
Things to know about Colombia
The official currency of Colombia is the Colombian Peso and unlike its neighbour, Ecuador, the US dollar is not generally accepted. It is, however, widely exchanged. Credit cards are not always accepted and many smaller hostels only accept cash. Make sure you always have cash available.
The official language of Colombia is Spanish. So, if you have no Spanish under your belt, it may be a good idea to learn a few words to get by before heading to Colombia. English is spoken a little in the touristy areas but don’t rely on it. We had to practise our Spanish a lot while travelling through Colombia.
The beds can be very hard
One thing I noticed in Colombia was how much they love their hard beds! Sometimes it felt like I was sleeping on the floor; some of the beds were that hard! It wasn’t so great for my back but we did survive six weeks of it, so it’s not a big deal.
People are ever so friendly
Colombians are some of the friendliest people we’ve met on our travels. Nowhere before have I been hugged by the host when I checked out of a hostal. It happened twice in Colombia.
We were treated like friends as soon as we checked in. People are generally so happy to see tourists after everything that’s happened to the country and they give you the best treatment they can. They want you to go home and tell everyone how wonderful Colombia is. Which is exactly what we do now because, it’s true, Colombia is a wonderful country and Colombians are wonderful people.
Is Colombia Safe to travel?
Colombia is a long way from what it used to be. It is a safe country to travel in as long as you stick to the tourist trail and use common sense. Don’t go to remote areas that you are not sure about, don’t flaunt your wealth, don’t visit parts of cities that are known to be dangerous and don’t walk around late at night. Lastly, listen to the locals, they know what’s safe and what’s not.
There’s a saying in Colombia, no dar papaya. It means “don’t put yourself in a position where people can easily take advantage of you”. If you keep your wits about you and follow that rule, more likely than not you’ll be totally fine in Colombia.
Trouble can still happen!
But I’m not going to lie, we did ourselves run into trouble in Colombia and on our first day there! I have to admit, it wasn’t a great introduction to the country. What happened? Well, we walked the five minutes from our hotel in Pasto to the bus station. We had all our belongings on us. Simon was carrying our camera bag across his shoulder. We’d done the same trip the afternoon before, after our long trip from Quito and our border crossing experience at the Ecuador/Colombia border. We didn’t encounter any problems then.
But that morning, someone on a motorbike drove past us, twice. Simon noticed him the first time but because the guy kept going, he lost interest.
But as we were about to cross the road, rolling both our suitcases, our attention was elsewhere for a split second. The same bike rider drove past again and snatched the camera bag from Simon’s shoulder, sped up and disappeared into the distance. The strap snapped and he and the bag were gone before we could react.
Had it involved a gun or knife, this could have been much worse but it was just petty crime. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens in a lot of countries. It was upsetting and it tarnished our first couple of days in Colombia. We spent hours in a police station filling out a police report for our travel insurance claim. However, we encountered no further issues in our 6 weeks there. Plus, the police were really friendly and apologetic!
How to get around Colombia?
Some destinations are easily reachable by bus. Buses are cheap and most are quite good. However, it depends on where you are going because the roads might not always be that great. Sometimes, it can take forever to reach your destination.
Colombia is a huge country, so if you are short on time and want to see as much of it as possible, spending hours on buses is not the right thing to do.
Thankfully, in Colombia, internal flights can be of good value. Be sure to check flights before booking a bus as sometimes they are just about the same cost and will save you hours! Easyfly, Avianca and Viva Air all offer internal flights within Colombia.