backpacking Colombia

Backpacking Colombia – My overview

This page is my overview of backpacking Colombia, covering the country, some tips, general things to know, transport and accommodation options,general costs and my experience of the country. 

 

Be honest now, when you think of Colombia what pops into your mind…Netflix original Narco’s, Pablo Escobar and Drug cartels? Cocaine? Violence? Political unrest? Guerrilla groups like the FARC? A country with a history of bloody violence civil wars? …

Yes narcotics are readily available at the drop of a hat, yes there are some areas still controlled by guerrilla forces and yes there is some violence still but over the last decade Colombia is reinventing itself. Colombia is now showing the world what it truly has to offer. It is so diverse, colorful and beautiful, from the Caribbean beaches, dense jungles, coffee farms, modernized cities. Colombia is also a gateway to the Amazon Jungle and the start of the Andes.

Colombia has taken leaps and bounds to move away from its bloody, violent past and really cleaned up. This is a country that in only a matter of years is completely different to the one the world used to know. It’s growing reputation can be seen by the amount of tourists and travelers that fall in love with the countries charm…And it’s one I fell in love with!

A few tips:

  • Only get into official taxi’s with meters. Be careful At Bogotá Airport, touts will try to get you to use private taxi’s – Don’t! Only use the official ones that line up outside the airport. 
  • Street art is everywhere in Colombia, places like La Candelaria  have streets and alleys full of amazing street art.
  • It’s good to learn some basic Spanish, Colombians do speak English in the cities but still comes in handy with locals. 
  • Colombians love any excuse to party – Don’t be surprised at random street parties and carnivals to just pop up.
  • If you want to visit the Tayrona national park, check before hand as it closes every year for a certain amount of time.
  • Be prepared for the color and charm of Colombia to suck you in. 
  • Colombia is trying hard to move away from it’s past and Pablo Escobar, outside of Medellin they don’t like his name mentioned.
  • Even though Colombia is a lot safer nowadays there are still some rough areas you should stay away from.
  • If there is a sign telling you not to go out alone at night, or not to go down certain streets, listen to them. Do not think you’re an exception the signs are there for a reason.
  • In Bogotá don’t be surprised to see armed police officers with guard dogs on every street corner. No need to be concerned though, it’s just protection against any possible threats from guerrilla groups, they never engage with tourists.
  • Colombian food is very diverse, do try Tamales, Arepas, Empanades, Sanchocho  and Ajiaco’s. If you like plantain they will come served with most food.
  • If you love coffee, try to visit Salento in the coffee region. 
  • Cartagena is the most expensive part of Colombia, a hotspot for wealthy Colombians and Americans to holiday. However it’s an amazing city with an amazing history. (Ask locals why that old Spanish boat is still docked in the jetty.)
  • Drinking alcohol on the streets is legal and very common to find groups gathering and entertaining themselves. Don’t be afraid to join in.
  • Flying around Colombia is almost the same price  as long bus journeys.
  • You will find some incredible waterfalls in the jungles and forests all over Colombia.
  • Doing a trip to the Amazon from Colombia is much cheaper than doing it from Brazil.

A few things to be wary of:

  • Even though Colombia is a very safe country to travel now, there are some violent homeless people in places like Bogotá, do not engage with them.
  • Don’t go flashing your cash in public, you will get targeted.
  • Bogotá is up against the Andes and gets very cold even when the rest of Colombia is hot, so take warm clothes.
  • Water isn’t safe to drink out of taps in most areas but is fine in certain cities like Bogotá.
  • Try not to take taxi’s on your own at night, always ask your hostel or accommodation to provide a taxi for you.
  • Drugs will be pushed on you in the streets, do not buy them as they could be undercover police and you don’t know what they are selling. In places like Medellin, dealers will sell to you and then tell the police they sold to you. (Yes It’s a setup, saw it happen to plenty of people with my own eyes.)
  • Police will regularly board buses to check ID’s, you might get an over zealous officer who wants to know more than he needs to. (Happened to me on my way to Medellin, with the help of google translate it was worked out)
  • Certain police departments in Colombia are still corrupt, so be careful if they try to extort you.
  • Stay away from areas still controlled by Gorilla groups (they still control some jungle areas)

Basic things to know:

Language spoken: Spanish

Is English spoken: Yes

Currency: Colombian Peso

Backpacking in Colombia is – Fair

To check live rates click here XE.com

Visa options:

No visa needed for British tourists for stay of up to 90 days. GOV.UK for more information

Check if your nationality needs a visa for Colombia here 

Things to know when budgeting for Colombia:

backpacking Colombia - my overview

I was expecting Colombia to be a lot more expensive than it turned out to be. I was able to travel the country and live in Bogotá within my budget. Unlike other countries where prices fluctuate depending what region you’re in Colombia has similar prices nationwide. That is except for areas of Medellin like Poblado (Hipster and backpacker areas) and Cartagena where the prices shoot up.

Cartagena is a popular holiday destination for Americans and wealthy Colombians so the prices are jacked up. If you’re on a tight budget you don’t have to skip it, your purse strings will just be a little tighter. To save money it’s a good idea to find accommodation outside the walled city, eat the amazing street food for next to nothing and buy alcohol from stores and not bars. (Drinking in public is legal)

backpacking Colombia - my overview

Street drinking in Cartagena

Accommodation/transport:

The majority of your budget will be spent on accommodation and transport. Accommodation isn’t the most expensive there are some very cheap options but it’s just a constant. Colombia is another huge country so there will be a large amount of traveling. However flying in Colombia is very feasible and some routes work out  similar and in some cases cheaper than taking a bus. For Example Medellin to Bogotá is a horrible 9 hour journey by bus, so I took an hours flight for a couple of Peso’s more.

Food/drinks:

Food and drinks are very inexpensive, eating street food, eating local food, buying set menu meals and cooking for yourself are the cheapest options. Buying alcohol in shops rather than bars, will save you a lot on your budget.

If you’re a smoker like me then you’ll be glad to know cigarettes are very cheap and actually work out cheaper than buying a pouch of tobacco.

As you can see I haven’t gone into specific pricing, as prices always change and information becomes irrelevant.

I was living on $15-$25 per day when traveling. However there was a month period I just stayed in Bogotá and I was living on $10 a day (more if I went out drinking or for meals)

If you are looking to compare live prices here is a couple of good sites for live comparisons to help you: numbeo and expatisan.

Getting around:

As Colombia re-built itself into a modernized Country, the country’s infrastructure was also hugely improved with numerous private and public transport systems put in place throughout the country. However due to its landscape what looks like a small trip can actually be a long arduous trip.

Colombia is a country where flying domestically is cheap and saves time and your sanity. Getting around the coast and intercity is no problem with public transport. It’s only when you want to travel through the heart of the country you need to make the choice of long bumpy bus journeys or a short flight.

Transport options:

Locally:

Bus – Reliable public buses running.

Collectivos –  Mini-vans that wait until the are filled up and run certain routes.

Taxis – Can be expensive and no always the safest option if not a registered taxi.

Uber – Growing in popularity in Colombia.

Trains – metro/subway operating throughout most major cities.

Trams – Operate in a few cities

Cable carts – Used in Cities like Medellin to get in and out of the favelas

Nationally:

Private bus companies – 2nd class, 1st class and VIP services available depending on your budget.

Shuttle buses – Mini vans available for trips between towns and cities that are in close proximity.

Domestic flights – reasonably priced and efficient. Viva Colombia is your best option.

 

 

Popular tour Companies:

Intrepid tours.

Wild frontiers.

STA travel.

Lots of local tour guides to choose from when in Colombia and work out much cheaper.

 

Accommodation:

With Colombia rapidly growing in popularity with backpackers there are plenty of budget options for travelers. If you’re looking to stay in a hostel I highly recommend you looking around in the general area once you arrive as many hostels offer cheaper prices at the door.

  • Hostels – Hostels range from quiet home like to party hostels. Mix of dorms and private rooms available. Comfort ranges from bare basic to hotel like quality.
  • hospedajes – smaller than hostels run by families.
  • Budget hotels – Great to have some privacy and some much-needed air-con.
  • Couchsurfing – Join the site and check whats available.
  • Air BnB – Lots of Colombians renting rooms out.
  • workaways – Live with locals in exchange for work.
  • Camping – A great option for national parks like Tayrona.

My Overview of backpacking Colombia:

I really didn’t know what to expect when arriving into Colombia. I had heard good things, I’d done my research, read blogs but I didn’t know if they were fluffing it up. But after just one day, I had found a great hostel, a good group of people and felt at home as soon as I walked around La candelaria in Bogotá.

La candelaria became my home and hub between my travels through the country. I just loved the amazing street art, the bohemian lifestyle of the area, the night life and how it’s pushed right up against the Mountains.

Backpacking Colombia was amazing, a friend of  mine actually flew out from Australia to join me while I traveled around the country. I had some great experiences traveling through the country, a few downs but mainly it was all good.

The biggest downer about my time was that the Tayrona national park was closed while I was there.

Colombia has an infectious atmosphere, they are laid back and find any excuse for a ‘fiesta’ just like how I like it…I want to go back!

Some of my highlights:

Bogotá.

The people I met.

La candelaria.

Discovering jazz clubs.

The street art.

Colombian coffee.

The night life.

The amazing street food.

How it was cheaper than I expected.

Exploring the walled city in Cartegena.

Santa Marta.

The Colombian landscape and wilderness.

San gill.

Amazing Waterfalls.

Getting lost in the jungle.

Medellin.

The nightlife in Poblado.

Pablo Escobar tour.

Walking through favelas.

Salento

 

 

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Some of my dislikes:

Long bus journeys through the heart of the country.

Not being able to see Tayrona National park(it was closed)

Corrupt Colombian cops looking for pay offs.

My route backpacking Colombia:

My trip started and finished in Bogotá with the rest of Colombia sandwiched in between.

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61 Comments

  1. This is an amazing post on Colombia! Honestly didn’t know much about it beforr reading your post. My overseas travel list is getting bigger and bigger waiting for first overseas trip. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I’m hoping to go travelling in South America next year so I’m really pleased I stumbled on this. I was a bit worried about Colombia because of its violent past but several people have told me how much it has improved, and you seem to be saying the same thing as well so maybe I will go! Bookmarking this for when I start planning thanks for sharing!

  3. I will have to visit Salento for the coffee!! And did you say flights and buses cost nearly the same? Now that’s interesting. Cheers!!

  4. Hi Amit, I really enjoyed reading your overview as Colombia is high on my bucket list. Funny thing is that even before opening your link I was thinking of Narcos (it’s a great show after all!) I’m happy that it was definitely more pros than cons – the corrupted cops situation reminds me Russia couple of years ago – they were stopping everyone who didn’t have Slavic features… well there is not much we can do about it… Such a shame that the park was closed!! I heard it was an amazing place. Maybe next time you can visit it coz as you like it so much I’m sure there will be a next time!

  5. Thank you for sharing this! I love when cities or countries can get debunked for being “too dangerous”. Columbia definitely has a bad reputation, but it is such a wonderful place to visit. I love your page and your pictures. Great work!

  6. Would love to visit Colombia one day – chase waterfalls and explore the jungles and forests. Don’t know if I could survive the long bus journeys ; ) So many useful tips and what to watch out for! As always loved reading this post – so detailed and informative.

  7. I never thought of Columbia being unsafe but I think this is because I have friends who traveled there and told me how amazing it was. I would love to visit it one day and I will soon because at the moment I am focused in traveling in Central and South America as much as possible. I just came back from Chile and I’ll be going back to Guatemala and Mexico. Columbia will follow soon.

    • The pre-conception of Colombia is so far from what the country is now days, it’s one of my fave countries, I’m sure you’ll have a great time. I have just published my Peru overview haha…I didn’t get to go to Chile, I wanted to do it as a separate trip, I’d love to check any posts you have on Chile 😀

  8. Yes I think of Narcos when I think about Colombia but it doesn’t mean I am scared to visit this country! Since I watch Narcos on Netflix, I really wanna visiti colombia!

    • Haha, Colombia is an amazing country and you will love it, however it’s not like how it was in Narco’s, incidentally I have just finished season three and it did make me miss it haha
      foreverroamingtheworld recently posted…PeruMy Profile

  9. Haha, just stumbled upon this post here about the country I decided not to visit this May – went to Ecuador instead (well, more or less for the scuba diving). But it was a really close call, and Colombia is still on my bucket list top 5. Thanks for the read man, this is getting bookmarked 🙂

    • Haha I was meant to go to Ecuador after Colombia but decided to skip it and headed straight for Peru . I guess we will have to exchange tips for when you go to Colombia and I go back to South America for Ecuador. Colombia was a awesome country, was so much more than what I expected.
      foreverroamingtheworld recently posted…PeruMy Profile

    • Miranda, as you know from previous guides of mine I do like to make people aware of the things to be wary of but it’s not to scare people off the countries. Colombia is an amazing country and on the main very safe. The Colombian people are trying so hard to shed the old reputation they used to have 😀 You should give it a chance, you might fall in love with it 😀
      foreverroamingtheworld recently posted…PeruMy Profile

  10. Once gain nice thorough and to the point guidelines for travelling in a country. Colombia sounds like and adventure but it seems you’ll always have to be vigilant. I agree though I think speaking Spanish is a key help when travelling around South America. i found it helped me a lot and sometimes it can be an advantage for not being ripped off or getting into tough situations. nice post.
    Bee recently posted…Volez, Vougez, VoyagezMy Profile

    • Of course like with all countries you have to travel smart and be vigilant, it’s not to scare anybody off. It’s just I’ve come across so many other travelers that don’t use their common sense and then wonder why they got into trouble. Learning basic Spanish was one of the best things I did as it helped me out so much, and yes I completely agree, helps so much when travel agents try ripping you off.
      foreverroamingtheworld recently posted…PeruMy Profile

  11. WOW SOUNDS AMAZING! I want to do my first backpacking trip in Europe, but Id love to someday get to South America… Machu Picchu especially. It can be so eye opening to live like that.

    • It really was an amazing place, I just fell in love with it as soon as I got there – South America is great to travel around it can be very demanding on you but well worth it – You will be happy to know my next guide will be on Peru 😀 although I will be writing a separate Machu Picchu post in the future 😀
      foreverroamingtheworld recently posted…PeruMy Profile

  12. Nice insight into a country I honestly never thought of visiting! I am hearing more and more good things about Columbia though, so may need to change my mind!

  13. Great post! I watched Something about Colombia on tv and they said there are some scammer around and Dangerous areas too. but thanks to you we have all the informations needed to get going on this country. love reading your post and looking forward for you travels.

  14. This post is really informative and helpful especially on the first part where you enumerated some safety tips in roaming around the country, It was quite scary though and seems like dangerous to visit this place because of the drug cartel. Hence, we must follow your advice for safety., Thanks for sharing

  15. A wonderfully detailed post which can be really invaluable for planning a trip to Colombia. Earlier we had heard that Colombia is beautiful and now your pictures completely ensure that. Those graffiti are making the whole place so beautiful. Will bookmark your post for my future reference. Thanks for sharing.

  16. This kind of blog posts is amazing because help the people with awesome information. great work. It always looks for budget tips and loved the one about by alcohol in the shops, the picture about people drink outside is really good, I love this kind of vibe, so relaxed. Will save this blog post in my favourite to look at it again when I made it to Colombia.

  17. This is an amazing post on Colombia! Honestly didn’t know micj about it beforr reading your post. Good to know some one the things to look out for while you’re there. Im always so paranoid at getting scammed shile travelling and then ending up with nothing!

  18. Thanks for an incredibly detailed post! I actually felt as if my reservations about visiting Colombia have come to rest with your precautions that you mentioned in the middle of the blog!

  19. Loved this post! So many helpful tips and knowledge to know about traveling to Columbia. I have a friend visiting Columbia in the spring and will be sure to pass your post along to her. Great job!

  20. When I was preparing for the trip to Colombia, I was amused how many people were still seeing it as a violent dangerous place that is better to avoid. After three months there, I do not have any regrets and thinking about coming there again at some point in the future. The country came a long way to rebuilt and reinvent itself. Of course, there are still many issues and there are parts of the country that are not safe. However, using common sense and listening to local advise should keep any visitor out of trouble. I am sorry that you missed Tayrona. I loved it there (though we took an off-the-bitten-path approach and used the second entrance which is way less crowded and mostly unknown to foreign tourists). I agree that flights are incredibly cheap. Frankly, I preferred to fly everywhere just to save time. Cheers!
    Elena (@Traveling Bytes) recently posted…10 Things I Didn’t Know About StockholmMy Profile

    • The same for me, I was there for three months too and I want to go back again. I fell in love with it and the people. I was amazed however at just how far it has come and just how hard it’s trying to move away from it’s past. Especially in Medellin, it’s like a brand new city now. Yeah, one of my regrets was about Tayrona but I’ll just have to go the next time I go back 😀 😀
      foreverroamingtheworld recently posted…PeruMy Profile

  21. Your tips are really very helpful. I have always doubted if I should travel to Colombia. You have put it in a very balanced way, telling exactly what to be wary of , what to do and what not. Will help me prepare for trip in future. On a side note, what particularly interested me was the fact that flying around Colombia is almost the same price as long bus journeys 🙂

  22. Great overview about life in Columbia today. Thank you for producing such a comprehensive and honest guide! As always, safety first. I love that in-country flights as as expensive (or as cheap) as those long bus rides. I think it’s the same thing in Peru.

  23. Great article, really enjoyed reading and you have offered so much important information for others looking to go and explore. I have been to Santa Marta and Cartagena a lot on my cruise travels, but I have not stayed in the country. I am so pleased your backpacking trip was good and the accommodation was good too. Interesting what you said about the corrupt police, such a shame they are like that!

  24. Excellent post Amit…I loved the balanced overview of the country that you presented. I think this is an especially useful guide for someone like me who hasn’t been to South America, but dreams about it. Also good to hear that you had a great time backpacking there…that’s how even I want to explore the country 🙂

  25. I think what catches my interest is how colourful it is and random street parties, goes to show how fun loving the people are. I read someone’s post about Cartegena and the love they had written it with made me also want to experience Columbia. And now I’m reading your post, another person who seems to have fallen in love with the country. Honestly, it wasn’t ever in my bucket list but that’s often the case, I read other people’s experiences and look at their pictures and get inspired, I have an ever evolving bucket list 🙂 This isba very comprehensive guide Amit, pretty much like all your guides, and I know whenever I’ve to go to a country, I can always come back to your blog for some of the most useful tips I’ll ever find. Thanks for sharing !
    Medha Verma recently posted…What you must know BEFORE travelling to JapanMy Profile

    • I have to say honestly I had no idea what to expect before I went, I had only met a few people who had been before and they talked it up so much. But as you probably know sometimes you can get a general idea of what to expect but Colombia really just blew me away. And I have to say the people are amazing and they are trying so hard to show to the world that Colombia isn’t what it’s past used to be. There’s not many countries that I feel so passionately about but yeah LOVE LOVE LOVE Colombia 😀
      foreverroamingtheworld recently posted…Backpacking Colombia – My overviewMy Profile

  26. Really great and comprehensive post! We will visit Colombia probably towards the end of next year so will definitely save this for later. Good to know that it is cheaper to visit the Amazon from here than in Brazil. I also like your tips section, good to know some do’s and don’ts – quite why some backpackers feel the need to ignore local signs and warnings is beyond me. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    • Thank you very much, if you’re looking to do an amazon trip, I actually recommend doing it from Bolivia, that is by far the cheapest and you get to experience both the Amazon river and the rain-forest on a 3 or 5 night trip 😀 You wouldn’t believe but I’ve come across so many fellow travelers that just have no common sense, they think for some reason the signs are there for fun and then wonder why they got into trouble.
      foreverroamingtheworld recently posted…PeruMy Profile

  27. Columbia and especially Cartagena has been on my bucket list ever since my husband visited on a business trip. This guide would really come in helpful. You are right, one should always be careful but not let safety concerns get completely in the way of a great travel experience.

    • Bogota became my base, I fell in love with it from the first day – Colombia has tried to really clean it’s image up and now there are no major cartels anymore. The cities on large are very safe places – Put it this way, I’d say London is more dangerous than Colombia.
      foreverroamingtheworld recently posted…PeruMy Profile

  28. Colombia looks really beautiful! I’d love to go someday, but I think I’d be nervous to go by myself. I’d love to see some of the waterfalls and try some of the food. I’ll keep Colombia on my someday list!

  29. Some really great tips. Columbia is one of those places I would love to see but always feel nervous about. Your tips have really helped though.

  30. I would love to visit Columbia some day, so much to see and do and your guide is perfect for knowing some of the basics and other good tips for what to see and do in the country

  31. Such an amazing post! So great to read about your experience – it really does give a true insight into what to expect in Colombia. I would definitely want to visit for the street art, parties and food! 😛

  32. I hope it doesn’t sound condescending, but I am REALLY impressed with this guide – mainly because it’s incredibly comprehensive without feeling heavy or longwinded. Thank you so much for sharing all of this information, even down to where to check currency conversion rates. I’ve always wanted to visit places like Colombia, but the fact that police corruption, etc. still exists does worry me. Not that I’d be indulging in illegal acts or anything – but I’d have no idea how to get out of a situation where someone tried to extort me. Did you ever have an experience like that?

    • Hi Meagan, Thanks for your comment and no it didn’t sound condescending. Thank you very much for your detailed comment, I really appreciate it. I only had one bad experience with an over-zealous police officer but his colleagues were even baffled about it. However in general the police are fine.

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