I can’t get enough of Colombia at the moment. It’s the rising star of South America that seems to have everything any self-respecting backpacker could desire – iconic treks, adventure sports, a fascinating history, stunning beaches, friendly people and a location that’s still, somehow, off the tourist trail.
It’s no wonder that I just had to give Colombia a massive High Five a couple of weeks ago. If that Blog post got you googling all thing Colombia-related, this one will have you getting out your credit card and booking a flight.
I’ll take you through how to get there, when to go, what to do, what you just can’t miss and, of course, what to eat in South America’s most vibrant country. Ladies and gentlemen, flashpackers and backpackers – I give you the Beginners Guide to Colombia.
Parque Tayrona, one of the many beautiful sights Colombia has to offer | Image by szeke
The Beginners Guide to Colombia
How to get there
Well, you ain’t swimming! Grab a cheap flight to the capital Bogotá, and let your Colombian adventure commence.
When to go
Dry season is between December to March and in July and August – definitely the best time to go if you’re planning on doing the Lost City Trek or a similar hike.
What to do
Where do I start? If you’re flying in to Bogotá, it’s worth taking a few days to explore. Once considered a place to avoid, Colombia’s capital has emerged as one of South America’s hottest cities. If you don’t fall in love with it straight away, don’t let that deter you from getting under Bogotá’s skin. Take a few days, explore its beautiful buildings, sit in a few cafes and get involved in the buzzing nightlife, and you’ll soon discover its hidden charm. Our 4-day Bogotá Welcome Package will get you settled in nicely.
Discover Bogotá's cultural side | Image by Joseph A Ferris III
Next on the list has to be The Lost City Trek. This 5-day hike will take you through the jungle to The Lost City, an ancient site that’s being billed as the new Machu Picchu. A pretty amazing site but, to be honest, it’s the trek itself that gets me really excited. Washing in waterfalls, sleeping in the wilderness and hiking along indigenous jungle paths?! What could be better than that?
If a 5-day trek sounds a bit much, head straight to the beach instead. A 2.5 hour trek or horse ride through the Parque Tayrona jungle will take you to some of the most beautiful white sands you will ever lay eyes on. Spend the night on the beach at Arrefices in a hammock – some monkeys might even pop along to keep you company.
Buses are the way to get from A to B – they’re cheap, but don’t expect to sit back and relax! They can range from the bumpy to the vaguely terrifying, as your driver attempts to navigate the traffic, particularly in big cities. To get across to the coast from Bogotá, an internal flight in your best bet.
Consider a group adventure tour like the 12-day Colombia Highlights. Not only does a tour make getting around super-easy, with all transport included in the price, you also get your very own local tour guide, and a guaranteed group on travel buddies. Plus, you get to do amazing things that you might not necessarily manage on your own.
See a different side to Colombia on a group tour
Don’t just take my word for it, though – here’s what our marketing manager Louisa, who did this tour, says was one of her highlights: “Trekking bare foot along a jungle river, hanging off tree roots, clambering over boulders and through rapids for 2 hours to reach a gorgeous remote waterfall where you can dive into the pool and swim under the waterfall. Then we tubed back down the river and had lunch in the guide’s amazing jungle house that he made out of bamboo. Loads of fun!”
Food and drink
Where better to get your caffeine fix than in one of the world’s biggest coffee exporters? Head to the coffee region in Manizales and see where the coffee is grown and how it goes from the field to your cup.
Wash down your coffee with a nice handful of, err, ants. Ants are to Colombia what guinea pig is to Peru – a bit of a novelty food that probably isn’t that widely eaten anymore, but hey – when in Rome and all that!
Ants for dinner, anyone? | Image by we-make-money-not-art
The ants (called Hormigas Culonas in Colombian Spanish, which literally translates as ‘big-ass ants’) are soaked in salty water and then roasted. Bizarrely, research shows that ants are actually an excellent source of protein!
For an excuse to get really messy, head to the Carnaval de Blancos y Negros in Pasto on the 5-6th January. This festival has in routes in the time of Spanish rule, when slaves were permitted to party on 5th January. Their masters joined in, painting their faces black, while the slaves painted their faces white the next day. These days, the whole city joins is, grabbing talc, chalk, flour and anything substance vaguely black or white and adhesive, and everyone gives each other a good paint down.
The Carnaval de Barranquilla, meanwhile, takes place forty days before Easter and is the second biggest in South America, next to Rio de Janeiro’s. Head to the normally dreary port city of Barranquilla for four days of drinking, dancing and general merriment.
Don a costume and get involved in the Carnaval de Barranquilla | Image by Michele Mariani
Tips from those in the know
Sometimes the best tips are from those who’ve been there before you. We spoke to some STA staff who’ve already fallen in love with Colombia and grilled them for their insider knowledge:
Ian A says, “Cartagena and Santa Marta are really cool, with windy, cobblestone streets. Taganga has a nice quiet beach for those who want to get out of Santa Marta. San Gil is brilliant for all sorts of activities – caving, kayaking and white water rafting.”
Clare B says, “Leticia, near the Amacayacu National Park, is a mad, crazy frontier town where you can cross into Brazil and back again without even realising. If you cross the road, they speak Portuguese. Turn the corner and they use reals instead of Pesos. And if that wasn’t weird enough, cross the river and you’ll find yourself in Peru.”
Vicky F says, “Go to Medellin which is a big city up in the mountains. It’s famous as it’s where [infamous drug lord] Pablo Escobar lived, but it’s a really cool city with lots of street art and really friendly people.”