When readers ask, “I’m traveling to Colombia. What should I do? Where should I go?” We’re left wondering how we’ll keep it short.
Because the country is so huge and diverse and serves so many different styles of travel, the answer is: it really depends on what you’re after.
To help (us and you), we created this experiential guide to travel in Colombia. It follows the sequence of our three weeks in the country. For any particular entry, maybe you like the image, perhaps the activity grabs your attention, or maybe both. Our intent is to offer some diverse inspiration and practical advice to round out your Colombia itinerary, to help you add a new destination to it, or to give you the building blocks to create your own from scratch.
1. Eat a Breakfast Tamale the Size of Your Head
If you don’t think tamales (steamed, stuffed cornmeal parcels) are a breakfast food, think again. When we found these on our first morning in Bogota, shaking off jet lag from our long flights from Berlin, we looked at one another and smiled, “It’s good to be back in Latin America.” After one of these, you might not need to eat for the rest of the day.
2. Enjoy a Cold Beer on Barichara Main Square
Barichara is an almost movie-perfect colonial town in the Santander region of Colombia. It’s no wonder that many of our friends and Facebook community suggested we spend some time there to relax. We found no better way of doing so than sampling a few of Colombia’s finest brews at a cafe right on the main square and watching the town go about its evening motions.
3. Trek the Camino Real to Guane
At the edge of Barichara you can find the Camino Real, an ancient indigenous trail that connected all the towns and villages in the region, and follow the path several hours to Guane, another adorable colonial town just down in the valley. It’s a good walk and not especially strenuous, but get started early in the day to manage the effects of the blazing sun.
4. Brunch at San Gil Central Market
If a solid, inexpensive breakfast is your thing, the San Gil central market is your place. We enjoyed two cheese-stuffed arepas, two coffees, a huge fruit salad, and fruit shake for less than $4. Local markets like this also serve as the perfect venue to sample Colombia’s vast selection of locally grown fruit.
5. Go Off-Piste in Chicamocha Canyon
Although the park rangers and guards at Parque Nacional del Chicamocha will think you’re crazy, there is a way to trek down into Chicamocha Canyon. Walk to the end of the parking lot (after the water park) and follow the path down towards the canyon floor. There is supposedly a village three or four hours down, but we’ll never know since we got lost (a common theme with us, you’ve surely noted). We found the views on this side of the canyon even more beautiful than on the other side where the gondola runs and crowds gather.
6. Face Your Fear of Heights on the Chicamocha Gondola
Chicamocha National Park is best known for the 6km gondola that takes you deep into the canyon and back up the other side of the mountain. It’s a gorgeous ride, but can test your nerves if you have a fear of heights. Though entry into the park to enjoy this ride is not cheap ($15) and the park aesthetic is rather commercial, we still recommend it since Chicamocha Canyon is quite beautiful.
7. Eat Breakfast Soup at Villa de Leyva Market
The Saturday market in Villa de Leyva was our favorite in all of Colombia for the diversity of people, produce and morning soups. Although we were frightened at first by the large cauldrons of steaming liquid filled with swirling bits of unidentifiable mystery meat, we asked questions, persevered and enjoyed some of the finest down home soups and food of our trip. Unless you are strictly vegetarian, check out the Mute Boyaca / Santandereano, a fresh corn soup mixed with beans, herbs and bits of beef. Fabulous flavor and the local hearty choice for breakfast.
8. Take a Coffee Tasting Course in Quindio
We’ve all heard of wine tasting, but coffee tasting? Turns out there is an art and science to it. At Recuca coffee farm we even took a course. We were taught the difference between aroma and fragrance, as well as various flavor profiles and defects found in coffee. Then we were put to the test. The experience was enlightening, and when one begins to ham it up like a false aficionado, a lot of fun.
9. Relax in a Hacienda Jacuzzi (Armenia)
The photo pretty much sums this one up. Let’s just say we all enjoyed returning to Hacienda Combia, a coffee farm turned bed and breakfast, after a day of activities in coffee country or Cocora Valley. Order your drink of choice, and sink into a sort of inescapable relaxation. This is inertia at its best.
10. Walk in the Cloud Forest of Cocora Valley
The morning we set off for a walk in Cocora Valley, we looked to the skies of gray, felt a light drizzle and wondered if our day would be ruined. Think again. “Rain is a gift,” Henry, our G Adventures guide would say. High up in the reaches of the Cocora Valley amidst the waxed palms, so true. The mist provided just the right atmosphere and mood. Although our trek took three hours, we’re told the typical full Cocora Valley circuit takes 5-6 hours. Highly recommended and a universal highlight of the trip.
11. Watch Old Men Play Billiards in Salento
The town of Salento, what might be considered the developed epicenter of Quindio provice coffee country, is cute. However, it can feel a bit touristy at times. Once you’ve had your fill of its colorful streets and taken your photos, poke your head into one of the town’s darkened billiard halls and you’ll get a feel for where the real action is happening, where real life – albeit sometimes very slowly — takes place. Join the local crowds to cheer them on.
Salento tip: Visit Café Jesús Martín for an excellent cup of coffee and a stash of coffee beans to take back home. Note: We’ve been told that the town of Finlandia is less touristy — “imagine Salento ten years ago” — if you’re looking for alternatives in the area.
12. Take the Cable Car into Hills of Medellin
Medellin’s rough and rowdy narco-history reputation precedes it. When you visit, push that aside and take the local metro public transportation across town and prepare to be amazed. The real sense of transformation, though, sets in when you catch the public transportation cable car across the river, up the hill and into what was once one of Medellin’s most dangerous neighborhoods, Santo Domingo. Although bullets once flew freely in these parts, it’s now quite livable. Have a conversation or two with one of the local children and get their story, too.
13. Learn About Pablo Escobar at His Brother’s House
To the dismay of many Colombians, when people think of Colombia, Pablo Escobar, founder of the infamous Medellin drug cartel, still comes to mind. To this end, we took a tour of the old Escobar compound with Pablo’s brother, Roberto. Whether or not it is recommended to do this is highly debated. And after gauging our own response as well as the response of others who took the tour with us (let’s just say we all needed a stiff drink afterwards), we understand why. It’s complicated. While we do feel it’s important to learn about Pablo and the impact that he had on Colombia, it doesn’t feel quite right to see money go to people who still revere him.
14. Track Howler Monkeys Tayrona National Park
It’s just about impossible to fully comprehend the extent of Colombia’s biodiversity. But a jungle walk through Tayrona National Park serves as an excellent start. Easily-spotted bird species, large jungle rodents called agutis, and three types of monkeys (howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins and titi monkeys) frame the visit.
15. Sleep on the Beach at Cabo San Juan
After a jungle walk at Tayrona National Park, there’s nothing better than beach-hopping, including to Cabo San Juan beach. As the sun dipped slightly behind the clouds and the edge was taken off the heat, we drifted into a surprising deep slumber on those sands. Fortunately, we overheard someone say, “We should go back in the water” and didn’t miss our group departing. And, we managed to get one last swim before we had to turn back for the day.
16. Listen to the Colombian Police Orchestra in Cartagena
The night we chose to have dinner on Cartagena’s Plaza Santo Domingo, the Colombian Police Orchestra happened to be in town. You know the culture is different when the orchestra director leads a cumbia step with the crowd between movements. The music — the traditional orchestral bits as well as the adapted pieces — was terrific. The involvement of the crowd, particularly the dancing kids, was infectious and could bring a smile to even the most hardened. Nothing better could sum up Colombian spirit and culture than this.
17. Crash an English Class in Barrio San Francisco
If you have a little extra time in Cartagena and wish to see life at the opposite end of the spectrum from the polish of the core of the old town, consider a tour of San Francisco barrio with community leader Alex Rocha. Catch a glimpse of life in strato 1 (there are 6 “stratos” or classification levels of neighborhoods in Cartagena and in Colombia, with 6 being the most wealthy), visit the local school, walk through the neighborhood, see the school Shakira built on the hill, and meet some kids in the neighborhood along the way.
18. Float in Totumo Mud Volcano
If you are looking for a fun day-trip excursions in and around Cartagena, the unusual and often laugh-out-loud experience of floating in the Totumo Mud Volcano is absolutely for you. Although the mud volcano pit is supposedly hundreds of feet deep, don’t worry. The consistency of the mud, though much like I would imagine quicksand to be, burbles, gurgles and keeps you totally buoyant to the point where full relaxation is required to maintain your stability. Once you’re out, local women will help you get all that mud off by scrubbing you down in the nearby lagoon. That’s quite an experience, too.
19. Hunt Street Art in Getsemani, Cartagena
Cross from spiffy, polished old town Cartagena into Getsemani, the hip-but-doesn’t-quite-know-it-yet working class neighborhood. Loads of old, unfinished stone, bits of beautiful decrepitude and locals reading newspapers in the shade. Very much living — and lived-in — history
20. Chow Down on Seafood and Coconut Rice in Cartagena
Fish and seafood lovers, be on the lookout in Colombia, particularly as you make your way around the Caribbean coast and Cartagena. There’s no shortage. One especially delightful, low-key and inexpensive meal: the lunch special at La Mulata in old town Cartagena (Calle Quero 9-58, Monday-Saturday breakfast and lunch). The fish was very good, the coconut lemonade rich, and the seafood soup remarkable. Poke your head into the kitchen to say hello to the staff and catch a look at the ginormous soup cauldrons on your way out.
21. Follow the Footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez
We learned a little more about Cartagena’s past and present by following the path of some characters from the novels of Nobel laureate and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The approach of this Marquez themed walking tour proved an amusing and fascinating way to add some texture, color and reality to the apparent polish of Cartagena, and to get some insight into the life of Marquez himself.
Working as a journalist in town, he would spend time at warehouses and docks after hours and talk with guards, workers, prostitutes, and drunks to get the real scoop. Along the way, he collected bizarre stories and characters that he later used in his novels. If you’ve ever read a Marquez novel, you know how eclectic these can get so it’s fun to know from where the inspiration came.
22. Find the Lost City
For a deep dive, we recommend reading our guide for Colombia’s Lost City Trek. Take a multi-day jungle hike through the rainforest to reach Teyuna (The Lost City) at 1300m (4265 ft). Perched on a mountain ridge in the Sierra Nevada range, it’s believed that the capital of the Tayrona civilization was built in 800A.D., pre-dating Machu Picchu by 650 years. The journey there and the site itself are both more diverse and remarkable than most photos of the site might indicate.
23. Drink Hot Chocolate with Cheese in Bogota
Hot chocolate with cheese, a traditional Colombian snack, is what restaurant La Puerta Falsa in Bogota is best known for. Supposedly this is what professional Colombian cyclists fuel with when they compete; it’s like a meal in itself. We’d also recommend inviting some friends and giving the ajiaco (Colombian chicken stew) a try as well. La Puerta Falsa, a friendly family-run restaurant in the Candelaria neighborhood, is now in its sixth generation. and during our visit we had the chance to meet three generations at once.
More Bogota eating and drinking tips: If you like microbrews, be sure to check out Bogota Beer Company. And if you have a hankering for Asian food, we can vouch for Wok as all the dishes we sampled there were delicious and made with locally sourced ingredients. We also found this Bon Apetit article on Bogota restaurants to be quite useful.
24. Learn About Colombia’s “False Positives” Through Street Art
Under what was known as Plan Colombia, a U.S. military and diplomatic aid initiative aimed at combating Colombian drug cartels and insurgents in Colombia, one measure of “success” was the number of guerrillas killed. Activists claim that the Colombian military, in an effort to demonstrate success, would dress up homeless and marginalized Colombians in guerrilla clothing so they could murder them. The victims are now known as the “false positives.” It’s estimated that 10,000 false positives, including anywhere between two and five thousand indigenous people, were killed in this manner. The Bogota Graffiti walking tour ends on Calle 20 in front of this politically-charged mural with a message to not forget these people.
25. Buy an Avocado to Eat with Seafood Cazuela
Looking for something local to eat in Bogota? Check out the lunchtime seafood restaurants at and near the corner of Carrera 4 and Calle 20, just down the way from DJ Lu’s street art pictured above. Most places are flush with locals, including the one we chose and enjoyed, Los Sobores del Mar. If seafood is your thing, try the cazuela (casserole). Although we gluttonously ordered fish (also good), a medium cazuela ought to be enough for two. Top it off by buying one of the huge avocados from the vendor seated outside the front door. The whole thing is especially fun as locals look on and help you with your transaction. We should note: the avocado vendor is friendlier and happier than he appears!
We know that this is just the tip of the Colombian experience iceberg. Which quintessential — or accidental — Colombian experiences do you suggest? Leave a comment and tell us what and why.
Most of experiences above were from the G Adventures Colombia Experience Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!