Colombia is one of the most incredible countries in the world. With chilled surfing beaches, crazed parties, bustling cities, lost cities and incredible scenery, Colombia is a country which should be on every backpackers’ wish list and backpacking Colombia is a truly amazing experience.
When I first arrived in Colombia, I was amazed at how safe everything felt. There is a strong, yet friendly, police presence and locals in general are extremely friendly. Travelling in Colombia is a bit more expensive than I had at first anticipated but if you’re smart it’s still possible to get around on the cheap. I strongly recommend booking accommodation in advance during the high season. It’s fairly straightforward to sort out your Japanese visa before you arrive, I recommend VisaHQ if you want minimum hassle.
- Accommodation: Room costs vary across the country with Medellin and Cali being some of the most expensive places to stay. In general, the good places fill up fast so you want to try and book in advance. It’s possible to get a dorm bed for around $12 but a double room will often cost just $25 so if there’s two of you, you can have a private room most of the time for no additional cost.
- Food: The food is cheap, tasty and plentiful. There is plenty of street food around with arepas, empanadas and meat on a stick being some of the staples. If you’re eating out, expect to pay between five to ten dollars for a decent meal.
- Transport: When it comes to getting around Colombia, the distances can be a problem. There are lots of long distance buses which vary in price depending on the company, I recommend booking buses in advance during the high season. Flights can sometimes be very cheap so it is worth considering internal flights on occasion. Hitching isn’t common but is totally doable. If you’re coming to Colombia from Central America, consider travelling by boat via the San Blas, it’s a once in a lifetime trip and one of the best things I have ever done.
- Activities: From surfing and trekking to paragliding and caving, Colombia is an adventure playground. You can do some activities really cheap but it’s worth haggling; you can often get 10% off what appears to be a fixed price. Colombia is also home to some of the best diving in the world… well, OK, some of the cheapest places to learn to dive in the world.
Top Things to See and Do
- Cartagena: This quaint colonial city is a great place to start your trip. The Old Town is well worth visiting and there are some beaches nearby. You can travel to Santa Marta by bus from Cartagena in around 5 hours.
- Santa Marta: There is almost nothing in Santa Marta to get particularly excited about however there is lots of truly amazing places nearby, Santa Marta is the hub for Northern Colombia but I recommend basing yourself in nearby Taganga.
- Taganga: Love it or hate it, Taganga has something for everyone. This is a beachside party town famous for it’s drug scene but there is a huge amount more to Taganga than at first meets the eye. Consider staying in Casa Moringa for a truly unique experience; living it up in a mansion overlooking the sea. Taganga is one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to scuba dive so if that’s your bag, you’ve come to the right place. Be sure to grab a bite to eat in the incredible Baba Ganoush restaurant.
- Tayrona National Park: An easy hop from Taganga, Tayrona National Park is a truly stunning oasis of pristine beaches backing onto untamed jungle. Accommodation here books up fast so take a tent or book in advance.
- Ciudad Perdida: The trek to the Lost City takes 5 days and is an amazing experience. You will cross raging rivers, slide down muddy banks and bathe in crystal clear pools on your way to the city above the clouds. The city itself is amazing and receives very few visitors; go now before the word gets out.
- Minca: Just a couple of hours away from Taganga, the cool hills of Minca are perfect for backpackers wanting a bit of respite or to go hiking in the jungle. I highly recommend staying at Casa Elemento, book in advance.
- San Gil: From Santa Marta, the next logical step is to take a bus to San Gil. The bus takes around twelve hours so I recommend travelling at night. Spend a couple of days in San Gil and be sure to go paragliding over the incredible Chicamocha Canyon. San Gil is the adventure capital of Colombia; if you’re after rafting, caving or trekking this is the place to go. Be sure to grab a brownie from Gringo Mikes – they are amazing.
- Barichara: One hour outside of San Gil lies the picture perfect town of Barichara with it’s cobbled streets, fancy restaurants and great day hikes. It’s well worth spending a night.
- Bogota: An uncomfortable 9 hour journey from San Gil, Bogota is the next logical stop on your adventure. There is a huge amount to do here; I highly recommend going on the Graffiti tour and doing a day-trip to explore the truly spectacular Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira. Zona Rosa is a great place to go for drinks in the evening.
- Salento and the Coffee Region: A firm favourite with backpackers, Salento is a great place to spend a few days unwinding, trekking and sipping coffee. I highly recommend exploring the Cocora Valley on a day-hike. La Serrana is a great place to base yourself; check out their awesome safari tents!
- Medellin: My favourite place in all of Colombia, Medellin packs a lot of punch and is one of the best places to live if you’re a digital nomad in need of a break. The very touristy El Poblado area is where most backpackers base themselves but I far preferred the quieter Envigado. Be sure to go on the Real City walking tour, officially the best walking tour I have ever been on. Guatape is a popular day-trip from the city but the real highlights of Medellin are best discovered by simply wandering around, enjoying a cerveza in a pool hall, attending a free salsa lesson or chilling out in one of the many parks. Medellin has a tarnished reputation on account of Pablo Escobar, think carefully about whether you want to go on a tour to find out more about Pablo’s empire. From Medellin, continue onwards to Cali or head further afield down to Ecuador and onwards to Peru. For travel inspiration, check out this Peru travel guide from my backpacking buddies over at Two Scots Abroad.
Backpack Colombia for free
Perhaps one of the best options for backpackers wanting to explore Colombia long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country is to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching english abroad.
Even if you are only going on a short trip, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun on your Colombia backpacking adventure but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on a backpacking adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
Many explorers backpacking Colombia are unsure of what to expect but this is a country with a welcoming people, stunning landscapes and great parties!