Travel to Colombia: First Impressions

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Last Updated on January 6, 2022 by Audrey Scott

Call it my imagination. While I looked forward to our visit to Colombia, I harbored the occasional image of thuggy bush-mustached Colombian narco-gangsters and aggressive gold cap-toothed street thieves shaking me down in the back shadows of Bogota or Medellin. (Yes, I realize I’ve probably watched one too many bad airplane movies.)

Colombia, thankfully, was altogether different. We spent time on our own, under the auspices of friends, on tours, in cities, way up in the hills, on the coast, and in destinations in between.

No narco-gangsters. No untoward experiences, for us.

Guane, a lazy Colonial village on the ancient Camino Real trail.
Guane, a lazy Colonial village on the ancient Camino Real trail.

Trying to understand a place is not only about jettisoning stereotype ballast, but also about absorbing details, parsing quotes, and plumbing idiosyncrasies to comprehend a culture for ourselves.

So we did — in barrios, on buses, in markets, on miradors.

And this is our initial unpacking of our Colombia experience, our first brush of impressions of the country, across dimensions.

1. You really don’t know how big Colombia is.

Really, you don’t. Or, at least we didn’t. Hint: combine the landmasses of Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Yes, Colombia is that big.

Chicamocha Canyon Views - Colombia
Exploring Chicamocha Canyon, one of biggest in world, in eastern Colombia.

It’s also more geographically diverse than we realized. The Andean mountain range, once it enters Colombia, splits into three branches; the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea sit west and north respectively. Throw in the Amazon rainforest, the plains, the desert and top it off with the Sierra Nevadas, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, and you have Colombia. And I’m sure someone will tell us we’ve missed something.

Cocora Valley, Colombia
Trekking through the cloud forest, Cocora Valley.

Because of this and the contours of landscapes, people and vibe, Colombia can sometimes feel like several countries rolled into one. In fact, given all that we learned during our trip about Colombia we now have an even longer travel wish list than when we first arrived, including San Agustin, Nuqui, Caño Cristales and many other areas that we've heard are fantastic for trekking and mountain biking.

Tayrona National Park Beach - Cabo San Juan, Colombia
The beaches of Tayrona National Park, Caribbean coast.

Note: When planning your travel around Colombia, check distances and bus times and consider flying the longer segments. The country features an impressive network of airports and domestic flights, which were previously intended to circumvent the danger found on roads due to FARC and paramilitary groups. Nowadays, violence is less a factor than it once was, but road conditions, distances and the recent introduction of low-cost airlines like VivaColombia make flying an easier choice. It will save you a lot of time and help you avoid some of the pains of enduring winding mountain roads.

2. Colombian People: Exceptionally Friendly, Courteous, Helpful

Sure, we’d heard Colombians were friendly and open — especially from Colombians themselves 🙂 — but there was still a part of us that wondered whether we’d meet the gangster stereotypes conjured in our heads by bad movies and media. (Think: Vinnie Chase as Pablo Escobar from the TV Show Entourage for a start).

Um, no. The exact opposite, to an extreme.

Grandfather and grandson - Guane, Colombia
A family moment in a park in Guane.

What struck us about Colombians, especially in areas less impacted by tourism, is not only how open they were towards us, but also how they went beyond whatever we asked. They wanted to help. Take for example the employee at Chicamocha National Park who insisted on standing in the rain after her workday ended to ensure we boarded the correct bus. Or the random guy at a busy Bogota TransMilenio (public bus) station who went well out of his way to walk us to our correct bus stop. Beyond that, teenage kids in villages greeted us politely and wished us good evening. People stopped and gave us rides. Sure, this wasn’t happening in the midst of downtown Bogota or in the crowds of Cartagena, but it did happen. And it seemed more par for the course than the exception.

A girl tending her family fruit stand, Villa de Leyva.
A girl tending her family fruit stand, Villa de Leyva.

We were told that Colombia’s violent past made it somewhat difficult for the Colombian people to trust one another, not to mention outsiders. The openness we found — not only toward us as gringos, but to other Colombians as well – made this all the more surprising.

I understand that we often point out how friendly people are just about everywhere we go. But in general, and specifically in Latin America, Colombians' distinction for being notably open, polite and helpful will stay with us.

Kids of San Francisco Barrio - Cartagena, Colombia
Kids from an after-school program in the San Francisco barrio of Cartagena.

Note: Knowing how to speak some Spanish, even if imperfectly, will greatly aid your engagement with Colombians. Especially compared to its neighbors, there’s not a great deal of fluent English spoken…yet.

3. Give Security Forces a Thumbs Up

In some destinations, armed men in military fatigues on the side of the road could be cause for alarm. In Colombia, however, the scene is common and welcome. In a country that lived through decades of instability and violence, the presence of military and national police indicates: “This area is safe. We are here to protect you.”

Near Choachí, an area that used to be known for kidnappings.

Colombians indicate their gratitude and support by giving the thumbs-up sign to the security forces. Even better, imagine that the big guys with semi-automatic rifles often give the thumbs-up sign right back, with a smile.

However endearing the gesture, it reflects something deeper: how appreciative Colombian people are for the security and stability they now have. Until 10 years ago or so, large swathes of the country were off-limits and road travel posed serious threat because of guerilla roadblocks and kidnappings.

Should they sense unease, Colombians may also assure you of your safety, sometimes to even humorous effect. In the town of Barichara, our hosts opened with the following welcome: “It's very safe here. Don't worry. No one will offer you marijuana or other drugs.”

4. Colombia, A Vegetarian Dream, But Only in the Markets for Now

Walk into a market in Colombia and you’ll likely find piles of fruit, herbs, vegetables, roots and tubers you’ve never encountered before. To what do we owe this vast selection? Colombian biodiversity. Mountains, coast, and rainforest, each with their own climate and soil. It’s among the best of all worlds, agriculturally.

San Gil Central Market - Colombia
Downstairs at the San Gil market overflows with produce.

When you visit a fresh market, be sure to chat with vendors to get a mini-tutorial on all that they are selling. Sample whatever you can, from gooseberries to lulo, from yucca to malanga. And don't forget to check out the avocados the size of small footballs. As you do, keep in mind #2 above: people are friendly, don’t be afraid to engage.

Among the Colombian fresh markets we recommend: Mercado Paloquemao in Bogota, the San Gil central market, and the Villa de Leyva Saturday market.

Saturday Market in Villa de Leyva - Colombia
The fantastic Villa de Leyva Saturday market seems to have everything, all with an Andean twist.

The disappointing flip side to these amazing markets? It remains more difficult than it ought to be to find all these vegetables used creatively in local dishes and in local restaurants. There are some chefs and menu designers in Colombia trying to change this, but it’s taking time.

Piles of Fruit at Mercado Paloquemao - Bogota, Colombia
Piles of delicious, unusual fruit at Mercado Paloquemao in Bogota.

A note for gluten-free travelers: Colombia is a surprisingly decent destination for gluten-free eaters. Many dishes, soups and treats are corn-based, and various other baked goods are actually made with tubers such as yucca and suga.

5. “No Dar Papaya” (Don’t Give Papaya)

The story behind this phrase and advice: just as it’s hard to resist eating a sweet, ripe papaya that’s placed in front of you, it’s hard not to thieve something that is left out or waved around carelessly in front of you.

Thievery is not necessarily met with approval in Colombia per se, but it does not come as a surprise to a Colombian should you expose yourself indiscreetly. So take care with your belongings.

Another interpretation of this concept that applies more broadly: you shouldn’t expose weaknesses in yourself so that others may take advantage of you. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be open, but rather be deliberate and careful regarding what you share, how and with whom.

What does this say about the culture and the Colombian mindset? The optimist says good advice: Don’t be careless and remain realistic about human nature. The cynic says: a cultural justification and rationalization for bad behavior.

You decide.

While we are here, let’s further address the issue of safety in Colombia. During our more than three weeks with friends, on our own, on a tour, in cities and in hills, we never once felt threatened or at risk during our visit. We walked about quite a bit on our own, but we also know that there are notoriously dangerous areas that are to be avoided altogether. Ask someone with local knowledge where it’s safe, and don't try to prove anything to anyone. Should you choose to venture into an area known for crime (as we did in Barrio San Francisco, Cartagena), be sure to go during the day with someone from the community who knows the lay of the land.

6. Stratos, A Hierarchical Society

Colombian society is systemically hierarchical and class-based, which is not unlike many other countries in Latin America. However, the government has taken it a step further by formalizing it through a classification of neighborhoods by socio-economic status into levels called stratos (with stratos 6 being the highest level). The idea: those living in richer neighborhoods subsidize the utility bills of people living in poorer neighborhoods. While this subsidy may be beneficial in some respects, it also stigmatizes and systematizes a sort of social class caste system. Some suggested to us that even today it’s nearly impossible to move up from, or date and marry outside of one’s stratos.

Alex Rocha Youth Center - San Francisco Barrio, Cartagena, Colombia
Visiting a community center in a stratos 1 neighborhood of Cartagena, part of a Context Travel tour.

As with many of its neighbors, much of Colombia’s turbulence and political upheaval has been rooted in socioeconomy and the yawning wealth gap between rich and poor. Guerrilla movements like the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and criminal warlords like Pablo Escobar have all employed strains of populist rhetoric to justify their actions and the violence left in their wake. (Note: For an entertaining, yet sad, primer on Pablo Escobar and the rise of Colombian football, watch The Two Escobars)

For the traveler who spends all her time in Bogota’s Zona Rosa or Candelaria, Colombian coffee country, and the old town core of Cartagena, it's possible to believe that Colombia's richness has been for the benefit of everyone. But walk a few blocks off the path, and you may find a very different story.

Life in Getsemani neighborhood, Cartagena.
Life in Getsemani neighborhood, Cartagena.

7. Urban Planning for Social Change

Imagine your favorite city in the U.S. or Europe closing off vast segments of its roads on a Sunday to enable cyclists and joggers to move safely in an automobile-free environment. You’d think we were crazy, no?

But that’s exactly what Bogota does every Sunday with its Ciclovía when it cordons off over 400km of continuous roadway for the benefit of those who want to walk, jog, cycle or otherwise get some exercise and fresh air. Impressive, especially in a city of over eight million people.

Medellin's Public Transport Cable Cars to Santo Domingo Barrio -
Medellin's impressive public transport system, includes cable cars to outlying neighborhoods.

Medellin serves as another fascinating case study in urban planning for social change and public safety improvement. Officials there invested in public transport, including a very cool cable car system into several poor and often gang-riddled barrios (neighborhoods) in the hills so that residents would have better access to the city. Additionally, other public works, including the Spain Library in Santo Domingo, were built to provide clean, safe learning environments for residents and children. The infrastructure and resulting impact also encourages people from other parts of the city to visit these neighborhoods, thereby aiding the normalization of relations between once disparate parts of town.

Kids in Santo Domingo Barrio - Medellin, Colombia
Kids from Santo Domingo, hopefully with a more peaceful neighborhood to grow up in.

Although Medellin still has its share of problems, the transformation that the city has undergone in the last decade, especially in its poorer barrios, is worth watching. One may argue as to the sustainability of all these measures, but as a local teen told us: “We used to be at war with the barrio down there. Now we have a bridge that connects us.”

Beat that.

8. Impressive Street Art Culture

Another surprise from Colombia: fantastic street art. Not just some, but loads of it, at an astonishing level of quality, typically to make a political or cultural statement. Even more surprising, the acceptance and support from officials. Occasionally, the artistic process is even monitored by local police to ensure the protection of the artists.

Street Art in Candelaria, Bogota - Colombia
Respect. Just one piece of the colorful Bogota street art scene.

Unsurprisingly, Botoga serves as the epicenter of Colombia’s street art scene. Travelers tempted to view the city as a transit point or a destination to be avoided altogether, think again. It's worth a visit, even if for a day or two. Wander the streets in Candelaria or around the area of Calle 20 and Carrera 4 in the Centro for the most message-laden pieces of street art.

Bogota Street Art - Colombia
Street murals carry political and social messages in Bogota.

In Cartagena, we really enjoyed the street art in Getsemani, the neighborhood just across the way from the core of its famous colonial old town. This area was originally where escaped slaves and the lower classes lived, but today it features a hip not-quite-fully-discovered vibe that serves as a worthy contrast to the polish and finish of the old town center.

Street art and local scene in Getsemani, Cartagena
Catching up on the news under a mural. Getsemani neighborhood, Cartagena.

Note: To understand the history behind the Bogota street art scene and the story of some of its most important artists, sign up for the Bogota Graffiti Tour (10 AM every day).

9. Arepas Unite!

In a country so vast and diverse in climate, culture, and geography, there’s one corn-based constant that unites it all: the flatbread arepa.

Arepas de Choclo con Quesito - Medellin, Colombia
Arepas de Choclo con Quesito (sweet corn with farmer's cheese). Part of our Medellin street food tour.

Each region does its arepa a little differently, none with less pride than the other. After tasting dozens over the last couple of weeks, we can attest to the fact that not all arepas are created equal. Arepas range from the appallingly dense and hockey-puck like to the crisp and delightful brine-cheese filled, from the cardboard tasteless, to the soft, sweet cornmeal.

Our favorites include the super crispy Arepas Boyacense and the warm, moist Arepas Santandereano. There's a stand at the Bogota Mercado Paloquemao that serves up amazing cheese-stuffed Boyacense arepas.

Cheese-Stuffed Arepa at Mercado Paloquemao - Bogota, Colombia
Arepas Boyacense, Mercado Paloquemao in Bogota.

10. Colombian Coffee

Does an image of Juan Valdez come into your head when you think of Colombian coffee? If so, there’s a reason for that. The Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers created him in a brilliant marketing move in 1958 to be the “face” of the country’s coffee to the rest of the world. Yes, Juan is kind of cliché at this point, but the campaign worked.

Colorful Coffee Country - Quindio, Colombia
Colorfully painted houses in Colombia's coffee country.

Today, Colombia stands an impressive #3 in the world for coffee production after Brazil and Vietnam. What differentiates Colombia is that it tends to grows the more difficult, and often more prized, Arabica coffee bean rather than the higher yielding Robusta beans.

Visit coffee country around the town of Armenia and you will see plantation hills covered with coffee bushes, while in the Sierra Nevada mountains you’ll find an occasional bush planted by an indigenous family trying to diversify its income stream. In other words, coffee is everywhere in Colombia.

Coffee Beans at ReCuCa Coffee Farm - Quindio, Colombia
When a coffee beans turns red, it's ready to pick.

A visit to one of these coffee farms will help you appreciate all that goes into making your morning cuppa', including the people. A surprising coffee factoid: 100 kilos of picked coffee berries yields only 13 kilos of final product roasted beans. Coffee pickers are paid 500 pesos ($0.25) per kilo of beans. In one day, a good picker can make around $20-$25 from picking 100 kilos of beans. We were sent into the fields to pick beans; it’s immensely difficult work, especially in the energy-sapping heat. So, next time you peer into your cup of coffee, take a moment to think of everyone who helped create it.

Coffee Tasting at ReCuCa Farm in Quindío, Colombia
Coffee tasting at ReCuCa coffee farm in Quindio.

Although much of the first quality coffee beans are exported, we found the quality of coffee in general served in Colombia much higher than in other Latin American coffee-producing countries we’d visited (e.g., Guatemala, Honduras). While Juan Valdez cafés usually serve up consistently good brew, we found our tidiest cup of Joe at Jesús Martín Café in the tourist favorite Salento.

Back streets of Salento, Colombia
Back streets of Salento.

There is one notable exception to the Colombian high quality coffee rule: tinto. Think watered down Nescafe with several spoonfuls of sugar turned in. It’s an acquired taste for outsiders, but it’s the Colombian national drink. And since Colombians grew up with it, they love it. You’ll find tinto vendors on every major street corner or market, so it won’t be hard for you to find – and judge — for yourself.

11. Cocaine and the Coca Leaf

Cocaine does not appear as relevant to mainstream Colombia these days, but it remains a force under the surface, if not still above it. Such is the world of the illegal drug trade. Don't make it the first mention to Colombians, however, if you choose to mention it all at. Most Colombians are understandably tired of this stereotype, have more important things going on in their lives, and wish to move on.

Before going further, we'd like to make a distinction between cocaine and coca. The coca leaf has been grown and chewed by indigenous populations throughout South America for millennia – it’s crucial to their rituals, it's part of their culture and their identity. For example, during our trek to the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, our indigenous guide always carried a sack of coca leaves, and would exchange leaves with other indigenous men as he greeted them. This was critical to his identity as a Wiwa man.

Cocaine, on the other hand, is a substance altogether different. Yes, the green coca leaf forms the foundation, but after that the process of cocaine production becomes flush with chemicals and explosive danger.

The cook on our Lost City trek, Enrique, sat down with us one evening to describe to us the entire process of cocaine production, from start to finish, including a frightening list of ingredients and refinement steps involving gasoline, acid and a host of chemicals that transform the green coca leaf into white powder. The knowledge he shared, and the way he shared it, formed a bit of a history lesson for us. It came from a time in his life when narcotics traffickers controlled the Sierra Nevada hills, and most people living in the area had little choice but to work with them. Today, he's very thankful to be able to cook food instead for the trekkers on the way to the Lost City.

So while Pablo Escobar and many in his infamous Medellin Cartel are dead, cocaine – and the byproduct “industry” that gets built up around it – still exists in Colombia. Fighting the illicit cocaine trade and all the social and economic by-products of the criminal networks built up around it, however, remains an uphill battle.

Note: We also encountered this during our travels in Bolivia and wrote: Cocaine: A Story that Begins in the Bolivian Jungle

12. Tourism in Colombia: Still Early Days

Only in the last decade has stability and restored public safety enabled people to travel easily without fear of violence and kidnapping. As a result, outside of the Caribbean, foreign tourism in Colombia is still in its relative infancy.

Old Town Cartagena - Colombia
Cartagena, no stranger to tourism.

What this means is that there are many destinations in Colombia that remain “off-the-beaten path.” Even those on it still don’t receive a great deal of foreign travelers. For example, when we visited Barichara and Villa de Leyva, two colonial towns high on traditional “must see” lists for first-time visitors to Colombia, we came across only a handful of foreign travelers in each.

Night Falls in Colonial Town of Barichara, Colombia
Barichara, all to ourselves.

The upshot? With the exception of Cartagena and some other well-traveled areas along the north coast, Colombia retains a bit of pre-tourism innocence.

Sure, perhaps the infrastructure can be a bit spotty in places and information can sometimes be hard to find, but if you make a little effort you’ll always find what you are looking for, often with the help of some random stranger. It seems that Colombian people really want to help, and to share their country with others. And to us, this is really what matters.

Colombia’s tourism industry will only continue to grow. So if you’re considering a visit, factor in timing. Think about visiting soon, so as to catch a little bit of the early air and take part in Colombia’s development — and maybe even your own.

A note of thanks to: Gregg Bleakney who enticed with videos of Colombia long before we arrived and piled us with great travel advice, Tansy Evans who opened our eyes up to the culinary potential of Colombian fruits and vegetables, and our G Adventures CEOs (leaders) Henry Sisa and Carmen Trujillo who were always there to answer all of our questions and help us understand the nature, culture and history of this complicated place called Colombia.

Disclosure: We spent a week traveling independently in Colombia followed by the G Adventures Colombia Journey and Lost City Tours. Our flights and these tours were provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. You can check out all the different G Adventures tours we've taken around the world and recommend.


Our San Francisco Barrio and Gabriel Garcia Marquez walking tours in Cartagena were provided by Context Travel.

As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.

G Adventures Colombia Tour

Most of experiences above were from the G Adventures Colombia Journey 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!

About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

43 thoughts on “Travel to Colombia: First Impressions”

  1. What a great introduction to Columbia. I must admit you have increased my interest levels about visiting. South America looms large on my travel goals for 2016, and when I start putting my itinerary together I will certainly consider adding Columbia. Thank you.

    • Great to hear that we’ve piqued your interest in visiting Colombia even more! It is a complicated and fascinating place, especially now as it is in a sort of “renaissance” after so many decades of instability. And, there is certainly no shortage of things to do there — we still have lots left on our wish list.

      If we can help at all with your planning for Colombia or other places in South America, let us know!

  2. For readers, it seems like your three weeks in Colombia went by awfully fast. We’ve got six weeks planned there this fall…and that probably won’t be enough either! Love the photo of the smiling girl at the market.

    • And it went by quickly for us as well!! We were fortunate to see and do so much in that time, as well as have some downtime along the way and in the end to try and process. With six weeks you can hopefully also visit San Agustin, Tierradentro and Popoyan as well – we’re bummed we didn’t make it there, but didn’t want to rush things.

      Enjoy your upcoming trip and let us know if we can help at all with ideas or planning!

  3. As always, a very good article from you guys. I’ve only been to Colombia for 9 hours during one long stop over on my way to Peru back in 2008, and I can see that there are plenty of other things to see and do, such that it is worth coming back even though I’ve already checked Colombia off my Country List (I think we’ve talked about this before).

    I also appreciate the selection of destinations you guys have (I remember your previous articles about your trip to Haiti, for example). Sometimes I get the feeling that travel bloggers just go through the usual destinations, writing about the usual stuff, to the point that I don’t get travel inspiration from reading them anymore. While there’s nothing wrong with going to places like London, Paris, and Southeast Asia, there’s more to the world worth seeing than those places, as your destinations show. Keep it up!

    • Thanks, Jeruen, for your kind words about our writing and all that we do here on the blog. I do remember our discussion on what “counts” for the country list 🙂

      While we also enjoy traveling in more “known” destinations, we do really like the level of learning and surprise that comes from traveling to areas less known or less traveled. And also, in trying to shed light on places that may be misunderstood or people haven’t “discovered” how great they are. Colombia certainly had many such experiences for us, whether in the mountains or a small village, where we would sit back and say, “Wow, I didn’t imagine Colombia like this.”

      We have another “unusual” journey coming up soon (as in later this week) so stay tuned for more! And thanks for your support for these places!

  4. This is a beautiful description of Colombia. We lived in Medellin for 4 months and it’s very, very special to us – for many of the reasons you mention above but especially because of the people.

    Many of our friends and family were negative and apprehensive about us visiting Colombia. During our travels to other South American countries – we met several people who were visibly shocked we’d stepped foot into “dangerous” Colombia, let alone live there. I hope articles like this help people see there’s more to this beautiful country than Pablo Escobar, drugs and violence.

    I’ve been trying to write an article on Colombia to explain my love for this country – but I’m really struggling for some reason. Sometimes that happens when you’re too attached to a place. Maybe next time people ask me why I love it so much, I’ll point them here.

    • Radhika, thanks so much for your comment and kind words about your piece, especially as you spent so much time in Colombia and know it well. It was difficult to write this and limit the number of things on this list (it’s already long enough as it is!). Definitely understand the challenge of a place that you are attached to, as you want to honor and do justice to the place, but this sometimes feels like an impossibility. If you do end up writing an article about Colombia, please let us know!

  5. I’m planning to head to Colombia this fall, so thanks for this excellent resource! I hadn’t actually heard of Villa de Leyva, so I’ll put that on my list. I’ve heard the same about the friendliness of Colombian people – glad to hear you vouch for that! I’m estimating about 6 weeks in the country but have a feeling I’ll need longer. You guys covered so much!

    • Rachel, great to hear that this piece is perfect timing for your upcoming trip. It seems with Colombia that no matter how much time you have you still feel like you need more 🙂 There really is so much to experience and do there, and it differs tremendously as you move from region to region. There are direct buses to/from Villa de Leyva from Bogota, so it’s an easy trip from there. Good for a day or two, and there is supposedly some great hiking and mountainbiking in the national parks nearby. So, check that out if you have the time.

  6. This is such a fascinating article! I have never known much about Columbia, so it was such a joy to read about your experiences here. I also love all the photos you’ve posted– the one of Cocora Valley especially caught my eye. Great post!

    • Thank you, Jessica! Even though we had done some reading about Colombia (and read Gabriel Garcia Marquez) we realized once we got there how superficial our knowledge was about Colombia, its conflicts the last few decades, diverse culture, environment and more. So, we’re glad that you enjoyed reading about all of this. And yes, the Cocora Valley is a very special place. One of our favorites.

  7. What a wonderful set of first impressions, guys! After returning to Colombia again and again I must have spent upwards of eight months there – living in Medellin, studying Spanish in Bogota, travelling along the coast and in the coffee region – and it still remains one of my most favourite countries.

    I’m so glad you saw so much in such a short amount of time, and I can’t wait to hear about this trip in more depth! The only downside is now I’m desperate for a queso arepa and a little plastic cup of tinto…

    • Flora, can understand how Colombia is one of your favorite places and how you kept returning during your Latin America journeys. Must have been great to have been able to experience Colombia in all those differnet ways – as an intern, student and traveler. I was on your site several times during our trip to read up on places you had been, and literally laughed out loud at your Medellin post about getting locked out of your apartment at night 🙂

      And yes, we were fortunate to see and experience so much within a short time. Still have a long list of things we’d like to do in Colombia (e..g, Pacific Coast/Nuqui, San Agustin, Cano Cristales), so imagine there will be a return trip…

  8. I enjoyed my time in Columbia even though it was only a few weeks. Had planned to see more but got mugged in Bogota by several men with knifes on a busy street (no-one did anything). Had to spend a week in Bogota organising emergency passport and then rush to Ecuador for a flight.

    In 18 years of travel it’s the only time I have been robbed.

    However apart from that I still look on Columbia with fondness. It’s one of my favourite countries in South America.

    • Jonny, really sorry to hear of your experience in Bogota, but I am impressed that even with this incident you still hold Colombia in such high regard. Unfortunately, what you experienced with the mugging is always possible — even our friends who live in Bogota have gone through something similar.

  9. A very detailed description about columbia, Colombia is a country which understands the true meaning of Customer Service. I have been every where in the world now, and only in Colombia, I can feel that extra special, even in a 1 star restaurant, bar or hotel, they always make you feel V.I.P.

  10. Hi there! Thank you so much for all of the great information you have provided!!
    I wanted to ask where you think the safest place to stay is in Colombia?
    We are doing the Lost city trek in about 2 months and have two nights before and after the trek, that we need to find accommodation for!
    We are doing it with G-adventures as well!
    Also, I am recovering from an ankle injury but the trek is 16 weeks post injury- I was wondering what your thoughts are on the terrain??
    Thank you

    • Hi Chantelle,
      Great that you’ll be doing the Lost City trek soon! It’s a great experience, especially with G Adventures and the indigenous guides they work with. You may find this article useful in preparing for and packing for the trek:

      The route has some challenging steep hills (that go down on the return), but I didn’t find myself slipping or falling a lot with loose rocks or tricky terrain. My suggestion is to either bring a walking pole with you, or to pick up a stick on the trail as this will help with balance. And since you are recovering from an ankle injury I would wear hiking boots that have ankle support, just to give you that extra boost. But, if you rest up between now and the trek you should be OK.

      As for your question about the safest place in Colombia, it’s hard for me to say definitively as there are many parts of the country that we didn’t visit. We found Barichara very relaxed and chill, so if you’re looking for a cute, colonial town that might be a good option.

      Enjoy your trip!

  11. Dear Audrey, this is my first comment on your website so I want to thank you and Daniel for all that very useful and informative articles you are writing for us, those who want to travel more. And of course special thanks for this post. I was thinking about travelling to South America for a long period of time but still some fears inside me (yeah I have read your article about fears too 🙂 fetter me from doing this. But such kind of posts you are writing,, They are full of inspiration and they make me change my mind about such countries as Columbia.

    • July, thank you so much for your kind comment here. It really means so much to us to see how our articles and stories help change perceptions and encourage people to travel to places and in ways they may not have traveled before. And congrats on your upcoming trip to South America. If you do have any questions about Colombia or anywhere else that can help with your planning, please do let us know.

  12. Dear Audrey, this is an impressive post. I really enjoyed reading it. Yes, Colombia is HUGE. I certainly regret not having considered flights at times, because the bus rides were long and at times quite painful as I kept getting motion sickness in those mountain roads. I was also amazed with the lack of vegetables on the menu despite the huge variety that can be found in the markets. All in all, I was a bit disappointed with the food I suppose. But the people… oh, the people! I remember sitting in Getsemani, one night. This older man sat next to me and I said a few words. We then got into a long conversation, in which he told me he used to be the mayor of Getsemani and he explained so many facts about the neighbourhood and Cartagena. Just like having my own private guide. It was lovely. And whenever I stopped someone to ask a question, so many people would join in the efforts to help me.

    I surely would love to visit again 🙂

  13. Nice to read this ‘primer’ about Columbia. One is apprehensive about visiting certain countries and this article pretty much removes any anxieties.

  14. Reflects everything I thought about Colombia on my month long visit: the country is safe, people! Just be smart, and you’ll have a ball!

  15. Hi! Came across this post while reminiscing about the trip my wife and I took to Colombia in 2013. We visited many of the same places and came to similar conclusions. Colombia is definitely a beautiful place and on the way up as a tourist destination, which we were pleased to find since my wife was born in Colombia in a different time. Viva Colombia!

    • Hi Trevor,
      Great to hear that you had a similarly good — and enlightening — experience traveling to Colombia with your wife several years ago! We hope to have a chance to return as there are so many places we didn’t get to visit on our first time there.

  16. I’ve heard nothing but good things from those that have visited Colombia. One of the main things I keep hearing are how nice and kind the people are. They seem to have an island attitude to life yet so helpful to those outside to make them feel welcomed.

    • Before our visit to Colombia we heard the same about the people — warm, friendly, welcoming, fun. And, our visit there certainly confirmed all of this! And even with our high expectations we were impressed.

  17. Hi Audrey,
    Loved this post. There are so many take aways from it especially considering what most of the world think about Colombia. We we’re there earlier this year for about a month and a half and loved it. A lot of your ideas resonated with our own impressions during our short time there and we’ll be back for sure.

    Like you said it’s a huge country and between the amazing cities and beautiful scenery it’s easy to see why people get “stuck” there. We could have easily been those people but had a different mission which we still didn’t succeed in.

    The people are incredibly generous in their smiles, their helpfulness, and their openness. The change in the urban scene and the move away from it’s known image is changing the face of Colombia. There are tons of free walking in each city and the stories being told during these tours shows a yearning for compassion. These people simply inherited a situation with the war on drugs, the crime, and terrible western policies towards it. They want to show their hearts and their humanity and are opening up the doors. There’s already huge spikes in the tourism there.

    Once we cross from Central to South America we immediately saw the difference in quailty of food. Not to say Central America’s food was terrible but it ain’t the best. The fruit was so good in Colombia and was so abundant. The menu del dia’s provided a solid lunch at a low price.

    The urban art made walks and getting lost a pleasant adventure (though in Bogota be careful). We highly recommend taking the Graffiti tour if you get a chance to go back. There are so many stories behind the walls and the social commentary is incredible with the guides.

    Of course in all your interaction with the people and with sharing your stories it’s nice to know a solid cup of coffee is being brewed. Loved the coffee here!

    Excited to go back one day and discover more. Hopefully the image will continue to change but I think with people like yall getting the world out it will.

    Thanks again for this post 🙂

    Mark and Camille

    • Hi Mark and Camille,
      Thank you for your long and thoughtful comment, and for sharing your experiences from the time you spent in Colombia. So much of what you wrote resonates, especially regarding the people and beauty of the landscape. And yes, the diversity of fruit in Colombia is so impressive!!

      We do hope that that more stories like yours and ours get out there, the more the stereotypes and fears will fall away. Although we spent almost a month in Colombia, I know that there is still so much more to explore and experience.


  18. Great post. During our month in Colombia, my sisters were texting me: “Are you still in Colombia? When are you moving on?” “Are you still in Colombia? When are you moving on?” “ARE YOU STILL IN COLOMBIA? WHEN ARE YOU MOVING ON?” (And I have five sisters, so there was a whole lot of texts.)

    For sure, parts of Colombia are dangerous but in the main we found a charming, vibrant country which offered a real taste of the Latin spirit.

    • Ha! I’m imagining you trying to manage the same conversation with your five sisters! We definitely understand how easy it is to get pleasantly “stuck” in Colombia 🙂

  19. beautiful post
    i visited colombia expansivly in 2013 and i really fall in love with it. i didn’t expect such beauty and friendliness of the colombian people.

  20. Hi!
    I will be headed to Colombia for a quick trip (Spring Break) in March. I will be traveling with one other female friend. We will only be in Bogota and Villa de Leyva. Do you think that bringing a DSLR camera would be safe for these areas? I am worried about attracting thieves (no dar papaya!).


    • Hi Melisa,
      Good question. We traveled with our DSLR (I carried it), but usually I would keep it in my bag as we were walking around. When I wanted to take a photo of something I’d bring it out and use it, but I tried to keep it out of view most of the time. If you have a camera bag that doesn’t scream “expensive camera” that’s the best option. Villa de Leyva is very laid back and chill, so you shouldn’t have any issues there. Bogota is a bit edgier, but it also depends on when you’re walking around and in which neighborhoods. I never felt threatened or “watched” during our time there (which I did feel more so in Medellin), but it’s still better to be cautious and aware. Have a great trip!

  21. I am so glad you got to experience Colombia and my people. I am Colombian, from Pereira, but was raised in the USA. Therefore when I go back I am still sometimes surprised by people greeting me in elevators.

    Putting aside the few Colombians who we have to keep an eye on, the majority of the rest of Colombians are people with huge hearts, hospitable, and with a very special energy. I understand it might sound bias coming from a Colombian, but as much as I love the whole world I have never experienced this anywhere else to that extent that I have in Colombia.

    P.S I will be putting Guane on my bucket list now. Thanks. 🙂

    • Hi Liliana,
      Great to hear that we were able to capture the spirit of the Colombian people and their hospitality and fun nature here. I agree with you that when it comes to friendliness and helpfulness, the Colombians are up there…and I’m not just saying that 🙂

  22. What did you all think of Bogota? We had such a bad experience (stayed in La Candelaria which is horribly unsafe at night.) Outside of the food tours, we also had to HUNT for quality food and vegetables.
    What did you think?

    • TBH, our first visit through Bogota was pretty unremarkable and we didn’t really get a great feel for the city. However, when we returned after our G Adventures tour to stay for a few extra days we were surprised by how much we did enjoy the city the second time around. The street art walking tour certainly contributed to that, as did having a local friend take us around her favorite spots for the day. As for food, we found some good local restaurants at the corner of Carrera 4 and Calle 20, as well as at La Puerta Falsa.

  23. Great article. I’ve lived in Colombia for nearly eight years. Before I came here, other travelers praised Colombians for their kindness and hospitality. That kindness continues even after put down roots.

    I highly recommend Colombia as a vacation destination and encourage people to get off the beaten path.

  24. Wow, if these are just your “first impressions about Colombia,” I can’t imagine how many other impressions you had between those first impresssions and your (temporary) departure!

    One documentary people thinking of traveling to Colombia should watch to understand just how vast and varied it is is Colombia: Wild Magic (Magia Salvaje). I believe it’s currently available on Netflix.


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