When we prepared our South American trip, we were very excited to learn that backpacking Colombia was now possible. One of the former most violent countries in the world is now safe to roam. And what a treasure box it is! Warm Caribbean beaches for the sun-worshippers; deep Amazon rain forest for the adventure-seekers; hidden ancient sites, colonial UNESCO sites and wonderful nature sights. Everyone has a reason to visit Colombia. But remember to keep your wits about you and follow the rules of common sense; some cities might steal more than your heart. We’re giving you here all our tips, plus a few of our favourite destinations, to plan a great backpacking trip in Colombia.
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A few things to know before backpacking in Colombia
It’s Colombia, NOT Columbia
First and foremost, it’s important that you get the country right. ‘Columbia‘ is the capital of South Carolina, an Oasis song or a starship in Star Trek: Enterprise. It’s not a country in South America.
I know, I know: the name of the country comes from Christopher Columbus. With a U. Except that the Italian Columbus would have spelled his name Cristoforo Colombo. With an O. Confusing? Well just remember this: it’s an O not a U. Or in other words:
Colombia is cheap
Of course, cheap is relative. Note that different regions have different levels of life, eg. the region of Medellín is pricier than the rest of the country. Make sure you negotiate prices in Cartagena, as sellers tend to inflate them substantially.
The currency in Colombia is the Colombian peso. Here are a few average prices in Colombia as of November 2019 to give you a more precise idea.
|Water bottle (33 cl)||$1900 COP||0.52€ – $0.57 USD|
|Cappuccino||$3900 COP||1.06€ – $1.17 USD|
|National beer||$3000 COP||0.81€ – $0.90 USD|
|Menu in cheap restaurant||$11600 COP||3.15€ – $3.47 USD|
|1 way in public transport||$2300 COP||0.62€ – $0.69 USD|
|Bus Bogotá-Medellín||$63000 COP||16.65€ – $18.33 USD|
|1 night in a hostel dorm||$15000 COP||3.96€ – $4.36 USD|
Colombia is a diverse country
It might not be a huge country, but it’s already quite big. And because of its position on both sides of the Andes mountain range, on the Caribbean sea and right above the equator line, it boasts a big variety of landscapes and climates.
Just like Ecuador, Colombia has different regions:
- the south belongs to the Andes: peaks, high plateaus and Indigenous culture. Expect there a colder climate, colder people and similar traditions to that of Peru, like roasted guinea pigs for example.
- the southeastern part is rain forest: the mighty Amazon. Expect remote locations, indigenous communities but also the remnants of guerrilla groups.
- the northeastern part is grasslands: a flat and vast tropical grassland plain called “Llanos“.
- the north is the Caribbean: expect there very hot climate, lush vegetation, greasy food and people practically living outside.
We mentioned a few cultural aspects that are proper to each region. Traditions, folklore, food, festivals… We would need a whole book (and a much better knowledge) to write about the cultural diversity of Colombia!
Colombia is not safe
Colombia is well known for its civil war involving guerrillas, violent drug lords and corrupt politicians. While none of these have completely disappeared, the civil war has ended with a peace treaty in 2016. Now people can live a normal life – and travellers can enjoy all the good things the country has to offer.
Nowadays, you won’t see physical remnants of the violent times; like the Wall in Berlin is a remnant of the times of the division, for instance. But the after-effects are deeply rooted in the minds of the people you’ll meet on your Colombia backpacking trip. You will meet many people who are sceptical about the future of the country; and also an amazing number of them will welcome you to show what a great (and safe) country they have.
In all honesty though, Colombia is one of the least safe countries in South America. It’s not that you can be kidnapped, ransomed, executed or bombed like in the good ol’ times. But –and despite what many travel blogs claim–, there’s a high number of petty crimes and muggings; more often than not at knife- or gunpoint.
So the usual recommendations for common sense apply here like everywhere else. Don’t show off your valuables and keep an eye on your belongings. Or “Don’t give papaya”, as the Colombians say. We insist that you respect these rules in Colombia even more than anywhere else. Also, simply do not wander off the crowded parts of towns. And always ask right when you arrive in a new town what areas are safe and which ones should be avoided.
In case you’re unlucky and end up being mugged: just keep it low-key and give them what they want. These guys aren’t playing.
Colombian coffee producers are at risk
Who hasn’t heard of Colombian coffee? Reputed to be one of the best, its success boils down to the attention they give to the quality of their coffee cherries; and also to a very efficient marketing.
But who has heard that there are every year fewer coffee producers in Colombia? Problem: it’s getting harder to live off coffee production.
Although the price of the latte macchiato at your local coffee shop isn’t going down (it’s more likely going up, right?), the price of the fresh unprocessed beans has dropped. So much so, that many coffee producers are using an always greater share of their land to grow other things; avocados for instance, which are easier to grow and sell much better.
Global warming is also altering the climate in those regions. It’s getting trickier to grow good coffee cherries in regions where coffee trees used to thrive. Get ready to buy coffee produced in Lapland!
You can learn Colombian salsa
It seemed like everyone we met in Colombia knew how to dance salsa. (That’s excepting our friend Diosimar in Cali, who hated salsa with a passion.) We never found out why – maybe they have compulsory salsa class at primary school.
Cali is the capital of salsa, but it’s different from the one people dance on the Northern coast. It’s a tad slower and not so effusive. You can find both kinds in salsa clubs across the country, some clubs being specialised in one type more than the other.
We guess there are salsa schools in Cali, Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena; probably in other towns too. If it’s like tango in Buenos Aires, you can probably get the first lesson for free. The alternative, the one we went for, is to meet Colombians who bring you out to dance and show you the steps. Add in some rum or aguardiente plus a few Poker beers and you get a real cultural immersion there!
What to expect when backpacking Colombia
It’s not that Colombia lacks hygiene like the southern Andean countries. On the contrary, they are very keen on their personal hygiene, to ridiculous levels. Every eating place looks remarkably clean; even street carts seem completely trustworthy (and yet, who doesn’t like their street food with a handful of germs?).
Keep in mind the climate, though. In the sometimes unbearably warm weather of the north, our friends the germs thrive. We never had any food poisoning; and that’s probably not more likely to happen in northern Colombia than in any other country. But we certainly stopped drinking water from the tap once we passed Bogotá to the North.
Buses are very cheap in Colombia, like in most parts of South America. It’s the transportation of choice for many nationals. Of course, there are internal flights too, but we never recommend taking the plane during your holiday. If we cannot survive a long night on a bus, we try to change our route to shorten the distances.
Two things have to be said about backpacking by bus in Colombia. 1) Many roads are in a disgraceful state, and 2) drivers think they’re on a race. The two combined make for exotic journeys, where the bus races on either side of the road to avoid potholes. Vomit bags are sometimes provided (true fact).
Here are some recommendations about bus-riding in South America
Couchsurfing is relatively easy in Colombia, as long as you send your requests long enough in advance.
We usually advise writing 7 to 10 days before the date of your visit. Less than that, and you run the risk that everyone is booked up or has other plans; earlier than that, and people might refuse as they don’t want to make plans so long ahead. Keep in mind that South Americans are spontaneous people!
During our backpacking trip in Colombia, we stayed in a wooden cabaña overlooking the town of Pereira; shared a flat in Bogotá with an exceedingly cute little dog; and slept on hammocks in a living-room in Cartagena.
Backpacking destinations in Colombia
Colombia boasts some of the most beautiful beaches on the continent. That gorgeous Caribbean sun, the white sand, and those azure warm waters… Ha! I feel like going back right now.
There’s a whole lot of beaches to choose from in Colombia; from small secluded beaches to larger crowded ones, from city beaches to islands. We wrote a post about it to help you decide which one would be best for you.
Read our guide to the best Colombian beaches
Minca, Tayrona Park and the Lost City trek
The big nondescript town of Santa Marta has not much for itself but its location. Besides a few beaches of the crowded type, it’s the gateway to the jungle village of Minca and its river pools; to the jungle beach adventure inside the Tayrona National Park; and to the “Ciudad Perdida“, the Lost City of past civilisations deep in the rain forest.
Minca is only 30 minutes away, readily accessible by bus or moto-taxi. Tayrona Park requires paying an entrance fee and a camping site and beforehand planning. The Lost City trek can only be done with a guided tour, booked at a professional agency. For any or all of these attractions, Santa Marta can make convenient headquarters.
The oh-so-colourful colonial city of Cartagena is like a jewel on the Caribbean coast. With its fortress walls, its vivid facades and the exuberance of its inhabitants, no wonder that it inspired the stories of its most famous citizen, Nobel-prize winner Gabriel García Márquez.
So of course, if you’ve delighted in reading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude‘ or ‘Love in the Time of Cholera‘, a visit to Cartagena is a must. But even without that, we highly recommend a few days in the old-time cobblestone streets of the city centre. The barrios outside can get a bit rough; but you’ll surely find a cool hostel and lots of good vibes in the trendy district of Getsemani.
Cartagena is by far the most touristic place we saw in the country, with everything that comes with tourism. But it’s still a highlight on any backpacking trip to Colombia!
Medellín the metropolis, the 2nd biggest city in the country, has a lot for itself. The ex-most violent city in the world in the 90’s can be proud of becoming a progressive and cultural hub. It’s also growing as a top destination for travellers and digital nomads.
We spent one week and could have gladly stayed longer. We found this city very inspiring! The atmosphere is unlike any other city in the country; calmer, because there’s more space, more greenery and more social initiatives (we’re sure they affect a city’s general atmosphere too).
Many travellers choose to stay in El Poblado district, which is filled with hostels, bars and clubs. We recommend staying rather in Boston, Naranjal or Conquistadores, which are more central and have a more local vibe.
Read more tips on backpacking Medellin here
There are many very pretty villages in the region around Medellín that are worth a day trip each. Visiting villages is so common in the province that it’s got a name: pueblear.
Santa Fe de Antioquia, Santa Elena, Jardín, Jericó are among the most famous and some of them are even listed as Colombia’s most beautiful. But we’re sure there are many more that aren’t known at all and therefore keep a charming authenticity.
Guatapé is a 2-hour bus ride from Medellín, leaving from the North Bus station. It’s a very colourful village that caters for many tourists but is perfectly enjoyable in low season. The nearby “peñon” is a gigantic rock that offers a view on the surrounding lakes and islands. All this area was artificially flooded and in clear days you can see the cross of the drowned village.
You wouldn’t dream of backpacking through Colombia without stopping at the Coffee Region, would you? Especially now that you know that life isn’t easy when you’re a coffee producer.
Coffee lovers will get their kick with a visit to one of the many farms around Armenia, Pereira and Manizales. But good news for teetotallers: there’s much to visit here that has nothing to do with coffee.
If you want more pretty villages, you’ll find some here: Salento, Filandia and Circasia. There’s also a beautiful valley of palm trees (and coffee trees, but just ignore them): the Cocora Valley near Salento.
Read our post about visiting an eco coffee farm in the Eje Cafetero
The green village of San Agustín hasn’t much for itself (despite being vaguely green) but is near one of the biggest archaeological sites in Colombia. So near in fact, that you can simply walk there from the village centre.
We were a bit disappointed by the San Agustín Archaeological Park because very little is known about the civilisation that lived there, what their beliefs were and why they carved the funny-looking stone statues they’re famous for. We thought it wasn’t worth the entrance ticket and the 2 nights in San Agustín. But still, it’s an important site if you’re into ancient civilisation at all.
There are also a few very pretty hikes, viewpoints and waterfalls around the village; some of them can be reached by foot. Note that there aren’t hostels there but a couple of cheap hotels that South Americans call ‘hostal‘ (confusing, huh?).
Backpacking Colombia off the beaten path
Because Colombia opened its borders to tourism less than a decade ago, there are still many places that aren’t attracting foreigners yet. On the other hand, Colombians have discovered the pleasure of travelling inside their own country. You will probably find many enthusiastic national tourists anywhere you go.
Blazing sun, western-movie-style cacti and the blurry line of the horizon. This is some high-class desert for sure. Add to this some crazy rock formations in red and white and grey.
This desert, in fact, looks like one that has been put together for a film screening; it’s relatively small and really stands out from the surrounding area. Walking inside the rock formations and reading how they formed is pretty neat. Some parts of the trail might be crowded with visitors, while others will be empty; in any case, it’s important to stay on the trail so as not to damage the landscape.
There are 2 distinct parts in the desert and they’re at some distance from each other: one with the red rock formations, and the grey part with a natural pool! There are tuk-tuks that can bring you to the furthest point and back for a flat rate.
The closest town is Neiva and you can definitely make your base there and visit the Tatacoa in a day; alternatively, find accommodation in Villavieja, the closest village; or directly in the desert, where there are several hotels and plenty wild camping possibilities. We didn’t stay in the desert, but thought it would be an amazing experience!
The “White town of Colombia” is a cute colonial jewel box. It’s got many adorned churches, a large lively market and a couple of pretty viewpoints on the town and its surroundings. We particularly enjoyed walking up the El Morro hill in the evening, when many people come and watch the sunset.
We have mixed feelings about Popayán. It’s where we were invited to join a dance one evening on the main square; made friends with a drunken black man who swore that his country was safe; and also got robbed at gunpoint up the ‘Three Crosses Hill’. That’s actually a pretty good summary of Colombia: a journey of extreme emotions where everything can happen.
We don’t usually go on walking tours but did the one in Popayán and can only recommend it. We had the guide only to ourselves and he told us many interesting things about his town during a good 3 hours.
Pasto is a dormant town with wide flat squares in the South of Colombia. Coming from Ecuador, we chose it as our first stop in the country; we wanted to rest from a stressful border-crossing, and get to know some of Colombia’s traditions, foods and prices.
The town didn’t impress us particularly but we found a lot of interesting natural landmarks in the direct surroundings. Therefore we promised ourselves to go back and get to see them all. All of them!
Pasto wakes up every year on the 1st week of January for the Blacks and Whites’ Carnival (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos) so consider visiting Pasto at that time.
Read our tips about backpacking Pasto here
This is a very special, an amazing place, at the border of three different ecosystems; the mountains, the rain forest and vast grassland plains. Caño Cristales is a river that flows lazily down a quartz basin filled with plants and algae that give it striking colours, especially at the end of the rainy season (July through November).
We said “striking” colours and we mean it! Not the faint tint of other places, that are often the figments of our imagination. You can see here yellows, greens, blues, blacks and reds that seem to come straight from a painter’s palette. Unsurprisingly, people call it “rio de los 7 colores” (7-colour river) or also “the liquid rainbow”.
It’s close to a town called La Macarena. However, we couldn’t see that wonder ourselves; the roads were blocked because of very heavy rains in July.
Eco backpacking travels in Colombia
We don’t want to bore you again with the same usual recommendations. We know you are a responsible traveller – otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading Green Mochila.
Of course, you are respectful of the people you meet, although their culture is different from yours; even when they make the best coffee but drink the worst. In Colombia, that implies, for example, minding what you say about the past conflict and the guerrillas. Many people have suffered one way or another through this and the wounds are still fresh.
Of course, you don’t spoil the natural areas you visit, whether it’s the forest, the mountain, the sea or wherever; we’re sure that you pick up your rubbish when you hike and leave the spot as nice and tidy as when you found it.
We also ask you to not haggle forcefully. That is to say that each object has its fair price, and that takes into account what you can afford, and what the seller might need to make a living.
The only thing we really want to focus on is the plague that is plastic. As budget traveller backpacking in Colombia, you’ll probably end up eating most of your meals at street carts. Don’t deny it – we know you well! Colombia is hell on earth when it comes to plastic.
So be ready with your own reusable cup for takeaway drinks, your own cutlery for the food and your own foldaway bags. And shake all that under their nose right when you order to make sure they don’t outsmart you.
If you don’t have a travel bottle yet, you should really get one. They’re certainly very handy and you can keep them forever. Some of them even self-purify, to make sure the water inside is drinkable. On the other hand, avoid those single-use plastic bottles, they’re really not good for you.
Please check again our list of eco travels tips for responsible tourism
Are you planning a backpacking trip to Colombia? Do you have any question we’re not answering here? Feel free to ask us in the comments!
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