Best Things To do in Colombia (Backpacking Colombia Travel Guide)
If you’ve always wanted to travel to South America but didn’t know where to start, Colombia is the perfect jumping point for your journey. Boasting many breathtaking beaches, mystical deserts, exciting jungles and world-famous spots such as the Andes and the Amazon, Colombia has all the wonders that South America has to offer.
In this blog you will find the best Backpacking Colombia travel guide and things to do in Colombia to help you navigate this amazing country.
Many previously inaccessible areas in Colombia have now opened up for tourists. Colombia has been transformed beautifully and is now attracting more than 3 million visitors each year. Not only does Colombia offer tranquil natural sights and scenery, it also has urban locations that are both easy to explore and lots of fun.
Bogota, the nation’s capital, receives almost 50% of the country’s tourists, with most of Colombia’s visitors coming from the United States, Europe and its neighboring country Venezuela.
From Colombia, you can also travel your way to other South American countries like Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia Panama and Brazil. This is what I did myself when I started my journey in Colombia and went down to Argentina during the 9 months I spent traveling around South America.
One of the many reasons why people from all over the world flock towards Colombia is the heartwarming welcome its citizens give to all its visitors. Let’s not forget about the warmth of Colombia’s amazing coffee, as well. There are many things to do in Colombia as one takes in its diverse culture and inviting nightlife. You might just want to put your dancing shoes on as the rhythm of salsa music takes all your troubles away.
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How To Get To Colombia
A flight from New York to the capital city of Bogota vary in cost, starting from 400 USD for a ticket to go to Colombia while travel time can be 6 to 10 hours. You can book cheap flights from New York’s best airports to Colombia through Skyscanner.
If you are up for a South American adventure and choose to travel to Colombia by land, there are many different ways to reach this country. Traveling from countries like Brazil taking the fast boat from Brazil to Colombia or Peru, you will need to travel through the border in Leticia which can be reached through a riverboat.
However, from Leticia, one must take a plane to explore the other parts of Colombia. Backpackers will enjoy going through the Ecuadorean Amazon to reach San Miguel in Putayamo, a route from Ecuador with scenic daytime views. Another convenient jumping point from Ecuador would be through the Panamerican Highway. You can also travel to Colombia via bus from San Antonio del Táchira if you’re coming from Venezuela.
Like most wonderful things, Colombia is definitely worth the wait! Be sure to have a reliable Colombia travel itinerary before backpacking Colombia to make the most out of your trip.
How much budget do you need per day: Travel Guide Colombia
While Colombia might not be the cheapest location to visit in South America, it is also not the priciest. It is ideal for budget travelers; but your travel costs can still go up to $30 USD per day. Accommodation can take you around $10-12 USD if you sleep in dorms or you are sharing the room cost with a fellow traveler.
Transportation for long distance destinations will be quite expensive and can cost $25-30 USD. However, if you travel from one place to another at night, the bus can already serve as your accommodation! Cool, right? Traveling at night and sleeping on the bus is a great way to cut costs.
Local buses that go around the cities will cost you around $1 USD each trip. Local food will start from $3-5 USD in local restaurants, while you can get snacks like street food for $1 USD. This can be a combination of patacones and papas rellenas and a juice drink. Beers costs $1-2 USD depending where you are buying. For example, it’ll be more expensive when you buy in bars and discos at night.
As always, you can trim down your expenses by pitching a tent by yourself. They even allow you to pitch your tent in the hostel for as low as $3-5 USD. The fee comes with the use of facilities like the kitchen and the bathroom. You an even get accommodations for free when you stay with locals. Another option is to go couchsurfing. Hitchhiking is also a great way to save money for transportation. You can check out our guide to hitchhiking to know what to do.
Colombia Travel Itinerary
In this section, I will share with you my own Colombia travel itinerary. I started from Cartagena de Indias coming from San Blas Island, riding a sail boat. From Cartagena de Indias, I then traveled to to La Guajira where we met the indigenous tribe called the Wayuus.
To get there, I had to go hitchhiking from Barranquilla, Taganga, Santa Marta, Costeño Beach and finally La Guajira, just by the border or Venezuela. From La Guajira I headed back to Santa Marta to relax on its tranquil beaches. From there, I continued on to Bogota.
Bogota opened up many destinations to visit, like Villa de Leyva and the Boyaca area. Then I went down to Tolima and went to the Nevado National Park and the Eje Cafetero in Pereira. I also went to Salento, and it was truly one of the most beautiful places in the country. There are many things to do in Salento my favorite the hike around Valle de Cocora was incredible.
From here I went down to Medellin and Cali. These big cities are great to spend a few days in, where you can get to know the locals and just enjoy the amazing nightlife. Then I went down to Ecuador through Popayan. In my travels, I was even lucky enough to stop by Pasto and attend the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (or The Carnival of Blacks and Whites). It was so much fun!
Finally, when exploring the Pacific and Caribbean coast, one way to go around it is through riding a boat. However, boat travel is recommended for short distances and between famous tourist spots only.
If you don’t want your accommodation to derail your budget, you can always sleep for free on your travels!
Places to visit in Colombia
Cartagena de Indias
Cartagena is home to Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its century old stone walls, palaces, monasteries and other important marvels of colonial architecture. There are many things to do in Cartagena like Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, 40 meter high fortress on top of a hill that has stood the test of time since its construction in 1657.
For a less historic and more modern tour, Getsemani is the perfect place in Cartagena to explore. There are numerous restaurants and bars as well as street art and street food in this area. To see the works of Colombia’s most important artists, visit Museo de Arte Moderno. Read here A family vacation in Cartagena.
Beautiful place with great nightlife as everywhere in Colombia. It´s little bit expensive because is one of the most toruistic places in Colombia.
For those looking for a real party, every February, Barranquilla hosts the famous Carnaval, a four-day celebration filled with Colombian tradition and spectacular color. Locals and tourists really get into this wild costume party of sorts! Barranquilla is also famous for its fruteria or cafes that offer native delicacies such as empanadas, papas rellenas and arepas de huevo.
The Magdalena River and Atlantic Ocean offers an abundance of delicious fishes and seafood of all shapes and sizes for everyone in Barranquilla.
It´s a big city Barranquilla and it would be amazing if you can visit in Carnaval, you will make thousand of friends.
For panoramic desert landscapes, you can visit Colombia’s La Guajira department. It is home to a beautiful Flamingo Sanctuary, as well as the iconic 19th century Catedral Nuestra Senora de los Remedios. However, La Guajira is most famous for its coastal areas. Cabo de la Vela is a spectacular place for kite surfing.
Pilon de Azucar also offers beautiful landscapes and is a certified must-see in the district. Next, you can take a trip to Punta Gallinas, a site with a balance of stunning, tranquil views and adventure-filled rides on dunes that lead to the sea. Costeño Beach is also on the way. Whatever you do, don’t forget to bring your sunscreen!
I did this trip hitchhiking from Santa Marta and it was my favorite place to visit in Colombia. Sleeping in a hammock, hitchhiking during the day and meeting new friends everyday.
You might want to start your Caribbean tour from the lovely city of Santa Marta, Colombia. Why? Located on the foothills of Sierra Nevada, it is a big city with a wonderful local market, unforgettable sunrises and sunsets, and is beloved by icons such as Gabriel García Márquez and Simon Bolivar.
Here, you can immerse yourself in South American culture with visits to the Lost City, myths about the Alligator Man, and dancing at the Festival of Cumbia. Santa Marta is the perfect spot for bird watching and diving as well. Don’t forget to visit Taganga, another excellent diving area. It is a fisherman village only 3 kilometers away. From there, you can also easily access Tayrona National Park.
Tourists are usually stopping in Santa Marta on the way to other place or organizing tours for Tayrona and Lost City. Santa Marta is big and I love so much the affordable prices in the local market.
Feeling adventurous? Head on out to San Gil, the nation’s adventure capital. From paragliding to kayaking to white water rafting, San Gil has everything all thrill-seekers need and more. There are also plenty of canyons and caves to explore.
Surely, you won’t run out of activities to do here and you’d probably wish you had more time to check all the boxes in the list. There are also plenty of ways to relax in San Gil like chilling in natural pools and visiting Parroquia Catedral de Santa Cruz. Pozo Azul and the Pescaderito area are also quite stunning.
Dubbed as “eternal spring” because of its inviting weather, Medellin is a city like no other. What was once known notoriously for its crime rates has now blossomed and caught the world’s attention as it catches up and rises as one of the best locations in South America.
Medellin boasts of a mix of urban living and nature loving with its eco-árbol, Orquideorama, and Barefoot Park. The city does not hide away its history and presents it beautifully in the Casa de la Memoria. Don’t miss out on visiting Parque de los Desos (or Park of Wishes) that has its own open-air cinema, and Plazoleta de las Esculturas that showcases bronze sculptures by Colombia’s very own Fernando Botero.
Another innovation to marvel at are Medellin’s cable cars, with the Linea L being one of the most famous routes. From these you can see mountain and valley views, and the city’s rooftops down below. Not only is it now safe at night, the city comes alive during the dark with its salsa nights, pub crawls, playhouses, hip-hop and reggae bars, and more.
Many free things to do in Medellin, probably the most beautiful city in Colombia, especially in Christmas with the lights, locals are called paisas in Medellin!
A tourist hot spot and the nation’s capital, no other place in the country better presents the diverse culture and transformation that has happened to Colombia over the past decades. From fabulous museums like the Museo del Oro (or Gold Museum) and Museo Botero del Banco de la Republica to tours of the Salt Cathedral and salt mines, coffee tours and graffiti tours, Bogota has a lot to show its tourists.
For those who want to explore Bogota like a local, make sure to eat authentic Colombian food at the many restaurants in the city. Other ways to get to know Bogota is by walking around the historical district of La Candelaria and visiting the city’s largest park, Parque Central Simon Bolivar. With so many sights to see, be sure to pack your comfy shoes when planning a trip to Bogota! Read here to know where to stay in Bogota.
Located north of Bogota, Barichara has been reconstructed and transformed to bring out its splendor and unique charm. There are plenty of cathedrals and parks that are perfect for an idyllic getaway. Its cobblestone streets transport you to a different time and make you dream of living a simpler life.
Many Instagram-worthy spots are perfect for updating your profile picture! Adventure isn’t hard to find as well. There’s paragliding and rafting at San Gil just a few minutes away from Barichara.
Art enthusiasts, coffee lovers and nature explorers will surely enjoy the quiet charm that the small town of Salento has to offer. Aside from its laid back culture, breathtaking valley views can be seen all over Salento. Stretches of grass and verdure occupy huge parts of this town, letting tourists breathe in the fresh and natural scents that are unique to Colombia.
Cocora Valley is home to Los Nevados National Natural Park where you can see Colombia’s natural tree, the Quindío wax palm. Tucked away from the city, be sure to make the most of your trip to Salento. Try the local games, stop by the Artisan Community and buy Colombian coffee when you visit.
The best place for relaxing in Colombia for sure, it has a perfect weather, warm during the day and refreshing at night. Great palces for hiking or even going with a mountain bike. Read here a full guide to visit Cocora Valley in Salento.
Villa de Leyva
Looking for a place near the city to unwind? You can take a day trip to beautiful Villa de Leyva, a town with a wonderful plaza and splendid views of Colombia’s mountains. There are numerous spots that hippies and hipsters alike will enjoy. Located in the province of Boyaca, Villa de Leyva is less than 3 hours away from the capital.
The town has an ostrich farm, a dinosaur park, a winery and a unique celebration where people throw tomatoes at each other. History is painted in every beautifully preserved building while the city’s white walls also perfectly symbolize the bright future of Villa de Leyva.
You can even visit Villa de Leyva in a day trip from Bogota, it will take you a couple of hours by local bus. It´s ver yquiet place and it´s little bit cold at night!
The Tolima Department in Central Colombia is an area much like the different cities all over the country. It has plenty of natural parks, cathedrals, monasteries and historical landmarks. However, what separates Tolima from the rest is the majestic Nevado del Tolima. Many say that climbing this famous volcano in the Andes is the adventure of a lifetime.
I was hiking a few days around the area, and at the end of the day accommodation was so cheap and they usually have hot springs were you can relax after the hike.
One of Colombia’s lesser known cities, Popayan is also called La Ciudad Blanca or The White City because of how its colonial architecture stands out. Popayan is located in South Colombia and is rich in both history and culture.
As you go around the city, you will frequently see students from the many different universities in the area. For travelers who want to view a unique collection, be sure to visit Museo Arquidiocesano de Arte Religioso for their impressive collection of paintings, altar pieces and liturgical vessels.
You can´t miss this quiet city if you on the way to Ecuador. Prices are so affordable for food and accommodation.
Home to the biggest collection of megalithic sculptures and religious monuments in South America is San Agustin, a town by the mountains in Western Colombia. Visitors from all over the world have been captivated by the mysterious structures in San Agustin Archeological Park and the Forest of Statues. Another beautiful site to visit near San Agustin is Colombia’s most important river, the Magdalena River, which is only an hour away.
San Andres Island
Located 50 kilometers from South Providencia and 700 kilometers North of the Colombian mainland, this Coral Island is a unique paradise in the Caribbean. Its excellent location makes San Andres perfect for relaxing and exploring. You can snorkel and marvel at the San Andres’ beautiful reefs.
Divers will have fun visiting the famous Neptune statue in San Andres’ waters. You can also enjoy reggae music on the beach or visit Old Point Regional Mangrove Park. This laid back community eagerly welcomes tourists from all over the world. For more information, read this travel guide to San Andres!
San Blas Islands
A boat ride away from Cartagena, you can visit Panama’s San Blas Islands. I had the opportunity to visit San Blas Islands in 2012 coming from Colombia’s mainland. I spent 3-4 days sailing around its waters, and the experience was truly amazing. Back then, there were no hotels in the island and it was mainly inhabited by the Kuna Yala.
We were basically sleeping in our boat. Could you imagine? Some activities you can enjoy when you visit are snorkeling, kayaking, open water sailing and just swimming on the islands’ lovely waters. It was fascinating to see the Kuna Yala catching their fish and to observe how they live in this breathtaking paradise.
Things to do in Colombia
Hiking Valle de Cocora
Cocora Valley in Quindio is the perfect nature spot for adventurers. Containing a river of the same name, Cocora Valley offers fresh air and 360-degree views of nature unlike any other you’ve seen before. For this particular hike, there are many ways to go about it.
One convenient albeit more expensive option for those who don’t want to tire themselves out is to travel on a horse. Whichever way you choose to visit, this protected area is a Colombian treasure that you shouldn’t miss!
Climbing El Peñon de Guatape
Just a few hours outside Medellin lies El Peñon de Guatepe, an iconic rock hill standing 650 feet high and weighing 10 million tons. A unique feature of this rock that has attracted tourists for decades is the long crack in which a 649-step staircase has been inserted.
Upon reaching El Peñol’s peak, visitors can see a gorgeous view of tranquil lakes and islands. El Peñon de Guatape is less than an hour away from Medellin and the bus ride costs around 5.30 USD.
Read here for more things to do in Guatape!
Not to be overshadowed by the famous rock in this city, Guatape is a beautiful place in itself and is a Colombian town many travelers would enjoy. This colorful municipality in Anitoquia, Colombia is great for outdoor activities both in land and on water. You can go kayaking on the lake, visit Parroquia Nuestra Señora Del Carmen Guatape or check out the beautifully painted houses in Guatape’s streets.
Trekking the trails to Lost City
Dubbed as “the best hike in South America,” taking a 5-day trip along the mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Martato is the experience of a lifetime! Trekking to and from Lost City can be covered in 4 to 5 days , totaling 22 kilometers of beautiful landscape. Just be sure to bring proper clothes (the humidity is quite high), insect repellents and a flashlight when taking this journey.
It understandably costs more than your usual tour but it is definitely worth it! Following this ancient path to a town built long before the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors, sleeping in its villages and meeting the members of the Kogi (meaning “jaguar”) tribe are truly unforgettable moments that can never be replicated anywhere else.
If you’re in for a unique and thrilling sport that Colombians enjoy, you should definitely try tejo. Like any good sport, tejo is enjoyed with some good beer. However, unlike any other sport, it involves holes filled with gunpowder.
The goal is to successfully throw the pucks (or the tejo) to the metal rings (or bocin) usually 22 meters away with an underhand toss. This sport has been played in Colombia since pre-Hispanic times and is popular among Colombia’s working class today.
Staying with Local Family
The top 2 things I love about staying with locals are 1) I always learn new things and 2) I have access to the most authentic local food around. I had the extreme pleasure of staying with a local family at a Pereiran horse and pig farm. It was a truly memorable experience and it made me feel like I always have my own family to come home to in Colombia.
Riding the Chiva Party Bus
A popular attraction for both tourists and locals who enjoy partying is the Chiva Party Bus. As the name implies, it’s basically a bus that has been turned into your very own party carriage. These buses are lavishly decorated and come alive with lights and sounds at night. The trip comes complete with booze and makes stops on the best bars and discos in the metro.
Taking Salsa Lessons
It’s a well-known fact that Colombians love salsa. What is not that common is seeing them go crazy over it firsthand. So what better way to understand the people than to get into salsa as well? In all the salsa-loving cities in Colombia, Cali is said to be the best place to learn the dance.
Going to Feria de Cali is the perfect opportunity to try it. An added bonus to the whole experience is being able to dance with the beautiful ladies of Colombia. They’re all very accommodating and love teaching foreigners how to dance!
Visiting the Wayuus in La Guajira
When I hitchhiked my way into La Guajira, I was fortunate enough to meet the Wayuus of North Colombia. Though many members of this indigenous tribe didn’t speak a word of Spanish, the children luckily did and they became our translators. Fun fact: The Wayuus in La Guajira do not sleep in beds; they sleep in hammocks that they’ve tied up inside their homes instead.
Riding Medellin’s Cable Cars
Gone are the days of Pablo Escobar’s reign in the city. All the terror has been replaced by a blossoming of entrepreneurs and people who care about their city. One installment that shows just how beautifully Medellin has transformed are the city’s cable cars.
Of all the cities I have visited in Colombia, Medellin is definitely my favorite and I just love seeing the city from a bird’s eye view. You can get the views for free just with your metro ticket in Medellin.
Enjoying the Nightlife
One of the best nightlife experiences I’ve had in South America (aside from Argentina) was in Colombia. Parties start late in the evening and everyone just loves to drink and dance the night away. Plenty of locals go out to bars and foreigners always ask for impromptu salsa lessons.
While salsa music is most popular in Cali, reggaeton takes over the streets of Medellin. Whatever your kind of music is, you’ll definitely find an exciting bar where you can just dance and enjoy the rumba (meaning “party”) in Colombia!
What to eat in Colombia
If you are visiting Colombia’s Antioquia region, you’ll definitely encounter this famous dish. Bandeja paisa is a plate rich in protein, carbohydrates and flavor. It’s filling and is sure to get you going throughout the day.
Known in most countries as Dulce de Leche, arequipe is simply a caramel-like dessert made by heating sweetened milk. Common as it may seem, a trip to Colombia would not be complete without it!
Arepas de queso
A great way to start a day is with a dish of arepas de queso, Colombia’s take on one of Latin America’s most famous delicacies. These snacks can be found all over the country and are great breakfast dishes. But since everyone in Colombia can’t seem to get enough of them, you’re free to eat arepas de queso all day!
One of the specialty dishes found in the heart of Colombia is ajiaco, a chicken and potato soup that locals and tourists just love. This soup is created with 3 different kinds of potatoes and the native herb guascas. This comfort food is a good meal to end the day with.
One dish you can find in almost every restaurant in Colombia is Mondongo Colombiano. This pork, tripe and chorize soup is a staple in the entire Andes region and is often eaten with rice, avocado and banana. Squeeze some lime into it and you’re all set for a hearty meal!
Patacones are twice-fried plantains famous in Colombia for its versatility as a side dish. It is also often paired with guacamole and other sauces.
These Colombian stuffed potatoes are as perfect as one would imagine. The texture and flavor of the meat nestled in rich potato goodness make this dish taste delicious weather eaten hot or cold, especially with ají sauce. You can find everywhere and almost anytime, prices are around $1 USD.
A visit to any Latin American country will not be complete without having some tamales. A simple yet very iconic dish, with excellent flavors wrapped in banana leaf, the tamales is another Colombian classic.
Festivals in Colombia
Like many Catholic nations all over the world, Semana Santa (or Holy Week) is an important period in the Colombian calendar. In fact, many consider it as the most important religious event of the year. Unlike other countries, however, Colombia doesn’t have the concept of the Easter Bunny. Semana Santa in Colombia mainly consists of pilgrimages. Due to the number of churches in Popayan, the usually quiet city attracts many visitors and holds plenty of events during this time.
Carnaval de Negros y Blancos de Pasto
Greatly influenced by colonial times, this festival in the Narino region is now seen as a celebration of the diversity of Colombia. In fact, it now holds the title of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity as declared by UNESCO in 2009. Carnaval de Negros y Blancos is celebrated on the 2nd until the 7th of January. A great way to begin the year indeed!
The party doesn´t stop during 3-4 days and it´s so crowdy! It was my last destiantion in Colombia before leaving for backapcking Ecuador.
La Feria de Cali
Another event celebrated excellently in Colombia is the Cali Fair, or La Feria de Cali. During the 25th to the 30th of Deember, the streets of Cali come to life as parades and dance parties erupt in every corner. Salsa music is big in Cali and you can hear it blaring everywhere during this fair that is also called Feria de la Salsa.
I spent 3 weeks in Cali and it was so much fun! I did my bes to learn how to dance salsa but 3 weeks weren´t enough for me ha!
Carnaval de Barranquilla
Another UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in Colombia is Carnaval de Barranquilla. It is said to be the second biggest carnival in the world next to the one held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The date for this festival changes depending on when Ash Wednesday falls.
So if you’re looking for an incredible street party, make sure to book your tickets to Colombia on the right date. The carnival slogan, “Those who live it are those who enjoy it” speaks of Colombian culture perfectly.
Feria de las Flores
Celebrated in Medellin, Feria de las Flores is a festival celebrating the beauty of Colombia’s flowers and the richness of the country’s heritage. There are music events, fireworks, car parades and orchid competitions.
Silleteros or the flower vendors are the festival’s highlight as they carry beautiful floral arrangements on their backs – an homage to the abundance and splendor of the Antioquia region.
This is our full backpacking Colombia guide. Hope it´s useful guys and share it with your friends and family going to Colombia!