Colombia is one of my favourite countries, so far. It’s going to be a tough one to beat, it’s so diverse in its landscapes and city life. The country has such a dark history behind it which you should take the time to understand a little. We had an amazing 4 weeks in Colombia and here are our Colombian highlights – feel free to take any suggestions for your own trip or add anything in yourself.
Cartagena de Indias
One of my favourite places in Colombia, (possibly in first position on my Colombia highlights list). It’s touristy don’t get me wrong but you cannot deny the old city it’s beauty.
Wander through the colourful old city streets that have seen 500 years of history. Securely keeping those historic secrets inside the walls. The cobbled streets are adorned with flowering balconies, that reflect the merging of culture and history with the modernity of Cartagena’s diverse cuisine, shops and galleries.
Experience a sunset session on top of the old city walls or find a rooftop bar and gaze out at the skyline. Admire how Cartagena blends and contrasts the old colonial buildings with modern architecture. Visit the Getsemani neighbourhood for its graffiti art and history (plus eat food here, there are some great street food places and fancier cafes) and later for its partying – salsa style. Very importantly, embrace the heat and humidity of this city, you cannot escape it, you simple have to let it engulf your body.
Oh and look out for door knockers.
From city life to jungle life, experience a completely alternative side of Colombia, just a few hours up the coast from Cartagena. Minca, a town located in the mountains above the larger and slightly unattractive town of Santa Marta.
Stay in a hostel off the beaten track, about a 15 minute drive from Minca town itself, there are a few remote hotels dotted around. In this part of Colombia the standard form of transport is moto-taxi. Watch these drivers balance your backpack on the handlebars and you on the back… Listen to the sounds of nature at sunset and those howler monkeys. Visit mystical waterfalls and admire jungle views from your hostel’s infinity pool and say hello to jungle creatures – wanted and unwanted. (Staying at Casa Viejas was another one of my top Colombia highlights). Go see a coffee plantation and have wild motorbike rides around the mountains, oh take some photos on those big nets that Minca is most known for on instagram.
An unexpectedly large town with a beautiful square filled with locals, which unfortunately became a little intimidating when walking around. San Gil is known as the adventure capital of Colombia. This is because the Chicamocha Canyon is relatively (Colombian terms) close by. Here you come to paraglide over this stunning canyon, an absolute must do if you visit San Gil. I was terrified, but I am so happy I did it and would do it again. As well as paragliding there are various other adventure sports to do, such as rafting, tubing, mountain biking, ziplining and buggy jumping.
Christened as THE most prettiest village in Colombia. Only 20km northeast of San Gil and easily reachable by bus, a lot of travellers visit Barichara for the day. The streets are cobbled, the architecture is immaculately preserved and houses are decorated outside with blooming flowers and huge cacti.
The village displays over 300 years of history and customs. It has the ability to conserve the late 18th century architecture and atmosphere from that period which is why is was declared a national monument in 1978.
Sip a cold drink as you gaze out over the canyon, watching birds of prey or take a walk. The famous Camino Real hike starts from Baricahra and takes you to the even tinier town of Guane. The Camino Real is an ancient stone-paved road built by the indigenous Guane people passing through stunning Santander countryside. An attractive 9km walk one way and you can catch a bus back to Barichara.
Barichara is also famous for its delicate cuisine of “fat-ass ants“, also known as hormigas culonas.
Villa de Leyva
Travel further south and reach the town of Villa de Leyva, another colonial whitewashed town at the foot of some mountains. Home to the largest plaza in Colombia. Unfortunately this town needs the sunshine to make you truly love it. I’ve visited it twice now and the latter we had awful weather and it looked completely different. The town is a popular weekend escape for the city dwellers of Bogota.
The attractive thing about Villa de Leyva is that it has barely undergone any development. It has kept its cobblestones and colonial architecture, it was declared a national monument in 1954 to preserve its architecture. The town is also located near important palaeontology sites, the landscape here is semi arid and fossils have been found in this area.
Ah Medellin, the city that made me think twice. I am in no way a city lover, but Colombia has a way of making you see cities in a different light. First Cartagena now Medellin. I never expected any city to make it onto my Colombia highlights list – but they have.
Drive away from the airport and exit the extremely long tunnel just before the city, catch glimpses of sky scrapers peeping up from where they are grounded. Further across into the distance notice the mountains are covered in a wash of oranges – houses from the comuna’s crawling up the surrounding hills. This city is f***ing huge!
Medellin has the only metro system in Colombia which runs parallel with the city. This mode of transport allows people to travel to and from the different comunas. It’s Medellin’s history that brings people to this city, it’s history of drugs and cartels, of despair and horrors that are unimaginable to those of us from the UK, let alone to realise these horrors happened just 29 years ago. Medellin is bound to leave you questioning your own privileges.
- Discover how different the neighbourhoods are in Medellin.
- Indulge in the nightlife.
- Take a day trip to La Piedra and Guatape.
- Do all the walking tours – explore the city with a guide.
Not far from Medellin is the tiny and quaint town of Jardin. A sleepy town with a uniquely decorated church in the plaza, a very retro cable car, a short viewpoint trek through some mild jungle, plus this town is home to the cock of the rock birds. Hike to the nearby unique waterfalls inside a cave, a must for any waterfall chaser. Plus ride on a Chiva bus from Jardin to Riosucio. A unique ride through the mountains in a traditional Colombia bus – I loved it!
Hightlights of Jardin:
- Hike to the waterfall – La Cueva del Esplendor.
- Ride the retro cable car.
- Go and spot Cock of the Rock birds in someones garden – Gallito de Roca Preserve.
- Walk up to the town’s viewpoint.
Another town, another bus journey and another favourite of mine – now can you see why I love travelling in Colombia! Salento, the town of horses and home to the Cocoa Valley. Stay here for a while – there is a lot to see and do. Most travellers come here to hike the Cocora Valley nearby – a worthy hike which takes you through ever changing terrain and weather. From cloud forests to tip toeing over wooden bridges in the jungle. However, the town itself is gorgeous, made up of colourful houses, a plaza, the heart of the town (of course) and the streets are buzzing with atmosphere even when it does get a little chilly. We had daily thunderstorms at 3pm on the dot – surprisingly scheduled for Colombia.
Highlights of Salento:
- Hike the Cocora Valley – get inside those clouds.
- Go horse riding – highly recommend ‘Cabalgatas San Pablo’ family run stables that looks well looked after.
- Visit a coffee plantation. El Ocaso or one of the many others.
- Play Tejo – explosive Colombian game, always played with a beer.
- Eat at Veggie restaurant, even if you’re not veggie!
By now you will have chilled out in the Caribbean, explored the jungle but now complete your Colombian trio and visit a desert. Yes a desert in Colombia, you heard me correctly. Technically speaking it’s an arid zone but a very unique one at that. Getting there is a lengthy journey, of course it is it’s Colombia (you should have figured this out by now), one long bus ride followed by a colectivo ride. If you are up for the journey then this stop off is one you will not regret.
There is barely any accommodation in the nearest town Villavieja, which could put you off making the effort to come here. Ride a tuk tuk from town up into the hills, notice the landscape changing, becoming drier and dustier. Then enter the desert, often, I imagine mistaken for Mars. Stand on the edge of the desert, looking down below in a shallow valley into a sea of reds. The desert looks like veins of red rocks spidering themselves across the land. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
Visit the observatory in the desert whilst you are here.
The white city which I cannot comment on really. We only stayed the night which was less than 12 hours. The town is well known and visited for it’s colonial architecture and contributions to Colombian cultural.
Eat at Pita – humous and falafels hmm….
I have even less to say about this town, Ipiales is a border town and a rough one at that. Upon arriving we made sure we had booked a hotel, yes an actual hotel, less than a 2 minute walk from the bus station. We entered the room and didn’t leave until the next morning. It felt sketchy here, it wasn’t comfortable.
Saying this, there was something special to see. Most people do stop off here before crossing the border into Ecuador to the visit the stunning El Santuario De Las Lajas. Even if you are not religious you cannot deny the outstanding beauty of this church and its location perched in-between a deep river canyon. Get a taxi there and back.
Read more about Colombia, specifically how to get around and the transport in my other post: https://www.travelwithpip.com/transport-in-colombia/