After a month of backpacking in Colombia, we fell head over heels in love …with Colombia. (Duh, you guys, we’re already married.) Colombia is our favorite country in South America and Central America – and we’ve visited 7 of them so far. To be fair, it’s a close call in some areas, but Colombia seems to come out on top every time. It’s bae. And we weren’t the only ones, either: most of the other travelers we met backpacking in South America said the same thing. Colombia is on the rise. So it comes as no surprise that we’ve gotten a lot of questions about our Colombia itinerary. If you’re one of those folks who’s been patiently waiting for us to post it, sorry it took a year. After a lot of careful thought and evaluation of the month we spent backpacking in Colombia, this post is a culmination of our best recommendations: a full Colombia itinerary for a month of backpacking on a budget!
An important note: this Colombia itinerary is written with “If we had to do it again” in mind. Not everything here is what we did, and not all we did is in here. (Lookin’ at you, terrible mud bath in Cartagena.) We’ve also got a LOT of other, more specialized posts about Colombia, so we’ve done our best to point you their way as applicable.
Here’s what you’ll find in our ridiculously detailed 1 month backpacking Colombia itinerary. Estimated reading time: 35 minutes. You’re gonna want to bookmark this post for later, trust us.
Table of Contents
- Colombia Itinerary: 4 Weeks of Backpacking Colombia
- Bogota, Colombia
- San Gil, Colombia
- Salento, Colombia
- Medellin, Colombia
- Minca, Colombia
- Parque Tayrona, Colombia
- Santa Marta, Colombia
- Cartagena de las Indias, Colombia
Psst: We’ve got a ton of other resources for Colombia that you’ll want to look at before you plan your trip!
- What to Pack for Colombia
- A Complete Guide to Transportation in Colombia
- The Best Hostels in Colombia
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in Colombia
- The Best Colombian Food: What to Eat in Colombia
Colombia Itinerary: 4 Weeks of Backpacking Colombia
Our itinerary focuses on the best places we visited during our month backpacking in Colombia: San Gil, Salento, Medellin, Minca, Parque Tayrona, and Cartagena. Plus Bogota and Santa Marta, which weren’t our faves to visit but are necessary jumping-off points.
Once flights and long bus rides are factored in, this Colombia itinerary is exactly 31 days. We don’t like to do stuff the same day as we travel from place to place, so we’ve separated out travel days and “doing stuff” days. If you’re the type who can hop off a long bus ride and immediately go on a hike (how?!) you’ll have a little extra time to explore each spot. Likewise, if you can handle double transit days in a row (we can’t) you can whittle a little bit off of this itinerary.
Looking for a shorter itinerary? You can divide our month long itinerary into two 2-week chunks. 2 weeks is enough time to see either Cartagena + Minca + Parque Tayrona, OR Salento + SanGil + Bogota, with Medellin doable for either itinerary as long as you’re willing to fly (we flew Avianca for most of our flights within South America, and they’re actually really great).
Here’s the complete 1 Month in Colombia Itinerary:
- Day 1: Fly to Bogota
- Day 2 & 3: Bogota
- Day 4: Travel to San Gil
- Day 5-9: San Gil
- Day 10: Travel back to Bogota
- Day 11: Travel to Salento
- Day 12-14: Salento
- Day 15: Travel to Medellin
- Day 16-18: Medellin
- Day 19: Travel to Minca
- Day 20-22: Minca
- Day 23: Travel to Parque Tayrona
- Day 24 & 25: Parque Tayrona
- Day 26: Travel to Santa Marta
- Day 27: Santa Marta
- Day 28: Travel to Cartagena
- Day 29-30: Cartagena
- Day 31: Leave Colombia
Now let’s get into the meat of our Colombia itinerary. We’ll break down each destination in Colombia in the order that we recommend visiting, explain how to get to each spot, and share our favorite tips for what to do & where to eat while you’re there.
Look, Bogota is a city. It’s a freaking huge city at that. But we didn’t feel that we needed to spend much time exploring Bogota to get a feel for what we liked about it. It’s our first recommended Colombian destination because it’s a good spot to get your toes wet in South America (not literally…there are only fountains around and that would be gross). While it’s not our favorite place in Colombia, it’s a comfortable start for anyone not used to the unique challenges of backpacking in Colombia or travelling in South America in general. For the purposes of this itinerary, Bogota is more of a jumping-off point. For a much more comprehensive guide from someone who actually lived in Bogota, check out Girl Astray’s Guide to Bogota.
How to Get to Bogota
You’ll need to fly into Bogota. El Dorado International Airport in Bogota is a major international airport, so you should expect to pay around $300 to fly in, with only one connection at most if you leave from a major airport. (At the time of writing this, tickets from SFO were as low as $286.) We use Google Flights to find cheap flights.
The airport is located in the northwest corner of Bogota, conveniently located near…. nothing. Bogota has an extensive bus system, but it is decidedly confusing for tourists.
We suggest taking a cab from El Dorado Airport, at least to drop your stuff off at your hostel, hotel or AirBnB. You can brave the bus system later.
Taking a taxi in Bogota, even at the airport, is not as intuitive as you’d think. When you exit the airport, to the right is an official taxi kiosk. Give them your hotel address (have this written down or pulled up on your phone beforehand so you don’t have to look it up) and they will give you the amount you’ll have to pay. This keeps drivers from running up the meter or overcharging you, which is super common.
Speaking of taxis, Bogota is one of the only places in Colombia that uses metered taxis. However, it’s still a good idea to request an approximate price before getting in, because the meters in Bogota taxis do not show you actual costs. As you drive, the meter ticks up by one unit. The unit is code for the cost. Here’s an example of the taxi price sheet so you know what I mean. That kind of threw us, so be prepared so you don’t get overcharged!
Where to Stay in Bogota
We stayed in Masaya Hostel Bogota. It’s a perfectly adequate hostel to start your journey. It has an on-site restaurant, self-catering kitchen, and basic hostel amenities. The neighborhood it is in is La Candelaria, where you’ll find a whole bunch of hostel options. It’s the touristy area for sure, but for a reason. There is tons of street art, night life, restaurants, and tourist attractions nearby. There is also a high probability of meeting other people who are backpacking Colombia. Check prices for Masaya Hostel.
What to Eat in Bogota
The different regions in Colombia are defined by their style of delicious soup (at least for us). In this region, Ajiaco is king. It’s essentially a chicken soup with three types of potatoes and the herb guasca. It is not to be missed while you are backpacking Colombia! For a complete guide on Colombian foods to try – and where to get the best Ajiaco in Bogota – check out our Colombian Food Guide.
What to Do in Bogota
Bogota has two great tours starting from La Candelaria, the Street Art Tour and the Bogota Bicycle Tour. Unfortunately, both can’t be accomplished in a single day, but they’re informative and give you a great sense of the city. The biggest negative for the bike tour, however, is they ride through the Red Light District. It’s not sketchy or anything, but it feels sort of like intrusive gawking, which made us uncomfortable.
For a day trip, take the teleferico to Monserrate for sweeping views of the city and mountains. Another popular day trip is the Catedral de Sal, a salt mine turned church – you’ll need to book a tour for that one.
Bogota is home to a gigantic and comprehensive Museo del Oro, where visitors can walk through Colombian history through the history of their gold. Hear the tale of El Dorado and why those crazy Europeans thought there was a city of gold. This was one of our favorite stops in Bogota, in no small part because Lia read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus in preparation for our trip (because she’s a history nerd fanatic like that) and was amazed to see in-person examples straight out of her book.
Another must-do activity in Bogota is to play Tejo, Colombia’s national game! What mixes better than alcohol and flying metal pucks? Alcohol, flying metal pucks, and EXPLOSIONS! It’s like cornhole, except instead of a bean bag you use a palm sized metal disc, and instead of a plain old hole there’s a bunch of gunpowder that you’re trying to hit. This game is an earsplitting, fear inducing, laugh riot.
Best Coffee in Bogota
There were actually TOO MANY Third Wave Coffee options for us in Bogota. We didn’t get to all of them. Even Juan Valdez, Colombia’s version of Starbucks was serving up craft coffee! There’s even a Bogota coffee bike tour. The coffee in Bogota is next level. These are our favorite coffee shops in Bogota:
San Gil, Colombia
Our 2nd recommended place to visit in Colombia after Bogota is San Gil, Colombia. Honestly, we wish we would have visited San Gil for a whole month. It’s THAT rad. Yes, even despite our horrible waterfall rappelling incident. San Gil is Colombia’s adventure town, but there’s plenty of things to do for people seeking something other than adventure, too.
How to Get To San Gil from Bogota
From Terminal Norte in Bogota, grab a Barichara bus and let them know you need to get to San Gil. They’ll drop you off at the “bus terminal,” AKA town entrance. From there, grab a taxi. The bus ride is about 6 hours, depending on traffic.
- IMPORTANT NOTE: Bogota has two bus terminals, Norte and Sur. San Gil buses are only from Norte. Yes, we screwed this up and learned the hard way. Our taxi across town took roughly a zillion years in traffic and we do not recommend it. **Update 1/18/2018: One of our wonderful readers provided this helpful update: “We were able to get a bus to San Gil from the main terminal in Bogota. All of the buses to San Gil left from “Corredor 3 (Norte)” – Terminal 3 where all the buses going North depart from. Berlinas, Copetran, and Brasilia all had buses departing from here to San Gil. We used Copetran and it did also stop at the North Bus station in Bogota on the way.”
Where to Stay in San Gil
Sam’s VIP Hostel. End of story. This was hands down our favorite hostel in Colombia. They’re located right on the main square, and the hostel has everything you could want – friendly staff, nice clean showers, A/C, rooftop pool, two fully equipped kitchens, balcony, and rumor has it some private rooms even have a Jacuzzi tub. The staff will organize all of your adventures and won’t charge an additional fee. They even have nightly social activities outside the hostel, so you can make new friends or avoid people without dealing with noise. We joined their Tejo and Karaoke night and it was one of the most fun nights we spent Colombia. So, so fun. Reserve a room here!
What to Do in San Gil
What can you NOT do in San Gil is a better question. This is the adventure capital, so there are plenty of activities for all sorts of adrenaline levels. No need to book anything in advance, you’ll find plenty of tour companies with open time slots in town once you arrive. Here are some highlights:
- Paragliding Chicamocha Canyon (relaxing) – Soaring 6000 feet in the air might sound a little more intense than relaxing, but it doesn’t get much more serene than this. If you are looking for some adrenaline, you can ask your paragliding guide to do some spins and tricks.
- Canyoning (medium intensity) – South Americans love canyoning. Basically, you start at the top of canyon and work your way to the bottom. You achieve this by cliff jumping, hiking, and rappelling down waterfalls and cliffs. The adventure I went on (signed up through Sam’s VIP) included four rappels, two small jumps, and ended with a 25 foot cliff dive! But don’t worry, the last jump is optional.
- White Water Rafting (relaxing to intense) – San Gil has two major rafting trips. The first, a Class 1-2 relaxing trip, takes place on Rio Fonce. It’s super mellow and you can even jump off the raft and float in the more tranquil sections. The second option is Rio Suarez, which is an intense Class 5+ white knuckled adventure not for the faint of heart. Of course, ask a local if it’s scary and they’ll laugh and say “No! Es muy tranquilo!”
- Torrentismo at Juan Curi Waterfall (intense) – The beauty of rappelling during the canyoning day is the lines are pretty short and easy. Then there’s Juan Curi: a panic attack inducing 200 foot rappel down a screaming waterfall. Yes, panic attack inducing. I speak from experience. Our waterfall rappel down Juan Curi did not end well.
- El Camino Real Hike (easy hike, but the hot sun makes it harder) – This adventure starts with a short bus ride to the neighboring small colonial town of Barichara. Find Carrera 10 and turn left to hit the trailhead. The 2 hour hike takes you through gorgeous countryside and ends in the even more remote town of Guane. You can take a bus from Guane’s main square to San Gil when you finish.
Where to Eat in San Gil
We frequented the local Mercado in San Gil for all of our produce and meat needs (Sam’s VIP has a BALLER kitchen, and we cooked almost every night). But we did get a chance to try some restaurants in San Gil. These were our favorites:
- Gringo Mike’s– If your first instinct is to turn your nose up at the name of this place, I don’t blame you. But Gringo Mike’s has been a San Gil staple for years. They serve up food of multiple nationalities. Our favorites were the Protein Burger (it has peanut butter…look, just trust us) and the Cast Iron Brownie a la Mode. Even the burrito made this discerning Californian happy.
- Balcon Sangileno– Located next to Sam’s VIP, this second floor restaurant serves up delicious regional plates. You might be a little unsure at first, but we can’t recommend the Cabrito Santandereano Yes, it means baby goat. Don’t let that stop you. Goats are dicks anyway. Another dish of theirs worth trying is the carne oreada, or sun-dried beef.
Back to Bogota Again (Briefly)
Grab a cab to the San Gil bus terminal and grab a ride back to Bogota. This is your connection point to get to Salento.
You’ll stay in Bogota for only one night. It might sound confusing, but the Santander department of Colombia is hard to reach, so you have to double back to Bogota to get there. You can do the next bus ride back to back – that’s actually what we did. It makes the whole trip from San Gil to Salento take about 17 hours, so we don’t recommend it unless super long bus trips are something you don’t mind. If you opt for the long bus ride, take so much Dramamine. Trust us.
Salento is a quiet town set near the middle of Colombia’s Coffee Triangle. The environment never ceases to amaze me. Every time you look at a hill, it seems to be the best view you’ve ever had. It’s a very relaxing spot, but don’t worry…we’ll keep you busy.
How to Get from Bogota to Salento
Head to Terminal Sur in Bogota and grab a bus to Periera. From there, you can take another bus to Salento.
Once you arrive in Salento, if your hostel is in town, you can walk from the drop off point, which was some random curb on a random street somewhere in little Salento – just ask a local or use a map to locate your hostel.
If your hostel is a ways out of town (like the one we stayed at), head to the town square (anyone can point you there) and grab a taxi.
Oh, did I say taxi? I meant a Willy. No, Salento doesn’t have cabs in the usual sense. Instead they have 15 person Jeeps people load into and onto (quite literally…some people stand on the back of them). They’re SO MUCH FUN. Hold onto your butts!
Where to Stay in Salento
We hold a special place in our hearts for La Serrana Hostel and Eco-Farm. It’s located about 2 km from the city center, but that’s actually the core of its appeal (Salento’s “city center” is basically a park, ATM, and a couple of hostels anyway). The hostel rests on a hillside overlooking a beautifully lush valley. Just walking the grounds is enough to make you feel completely relaxed and at home.
This is one of those rare hostels that’s designed to bring people together to socialize and interact – and we mean more than just in the “drinking together at the bar” sense. There are nightly bonfires – complete with singing, if you like – and delicious family style meals. That’s right: La Serrana offers dinner every night. For $6. And I’m not talking rice and meat. It’s an all you can eat feast. You’ll sit with, chat with, and bond you’re your fellow travelers backpacking Colombia.
If you’d like a little privacy after your meal, they offer a unique private deluxe tent on the property. This isn’t some bullshit tarp with a stick in it, either. We’re talking massive canvas rooms on a riser with a queen bed, electricity, and a porch! The best part of it is the view from the tent. What an unbelievable way to wake up. We had such a magical experience at La Serrana. We can’t rave about it enough! Check prices for La Serrana.
What to Do in Salento
Salento is actually home to two of Colombia’s most important plants: coffee and wax palms. When it comes down to it, those are the reasons to visit Salento.
Wax palms are the national tree of Colombia. They look they belong on the cover of a Dr. Seuss book and they can only be found here in Salento. The best way to see them is to do the Valle de Cocora hike, a six hour hike through a valley, into a cloud forest, out to a stunning panorama, then down along a winding road.
There are a bunch of coffee farms in the area that will give you a tour and a tasting, but we have to recommend the coffee tour at El Ocaso Finca. Conveniently, they’re an easy and beautiful 15 minute walk from La Serrana. I could go on and on about the quality of their coffee, the sustainable practices, the picturesque landscape, or the friendly staff. But we already did: read our write-up of the best coffee tour in Salento!
Cue the Narcos theme song. You’re heading to what used to be one of the most violent cities in South America. But don’t worry: I say used to because over the last couple of decades, Medellin has blossomed into an incredibly friendly and safe (and beautiful) city. It doesn’t shy away from its bloody history, but it has emerged as an awesome must-visit city in Colombia and was one of our favorite destinations!
How to Get from Salento to Medellin
Buses leave from Salento’s restaurant sized bus station for Medellin every morning.
As with everything in Colombia, the exact timing that the buses leave is tranquilo. We recommend getting there around 8 AM.
The bus from Salento to Medellin takes about 5.5 hours, although some companies make direct runs for a little more money.
Where to Stay in Medellin
If you want to avoid the touristy area of Medellin when looking for accommodation, you’re kind of up the creek. Pretty much every hostel is in or around the El Poblado district, lovingly nicknamed “Gringo-landia.” When it comes to staying on the main streets of El Poblado, there are two guarantees: loud music and out of control gringos. Los Patios Boutique Hostal is a really cool hostel that’s located just outside of the craziness, but still conveniently located nearby to bars, restaurants, coffee, you name it. Check prices for Los Patios here.
What to Do in Medellin
Medellin’s metro system is expansive and really intuitive. We’ve seen some pretty complicated transit systems (lookin’ at you, Bogota), but Medellin made it just like Colombia itself: TRANQUILO! Spend a day riding the metro and be sure to go all the way to Parque Arvi. It’s cheap and a fantastic way to see Medellin! For detailed instructions, check out our guide to exploring Medellin on a budget.
We often turn our noses up at walking tours, because they tend to to glide over history in broad strokes: we prefer our history to be raw, real, and fact-based, to help give us context for our visit and inform our respect and knowledge of the places we visit. With that said, the Medellin Walking Tour is amazing. The guide lays out everything objectively. In a town with such notorious history, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking about it. So instead of skirting around it, they own it.
Interesting fact about the walking tour: for safety reasons, they refuse to speak the name Pablo Escobar: he’s still revered by some of the locals in poor neighborhoods, who are benefitting to this day from the homes, schools, and other community resources he funded with his massive quantities of drug money. There’s even a neighborhood named for him: Barrio Pablo Escobar. It’s fascinating and complex … but it means that you can’t just walk down the streets of Medellin talking about Pablo Escobar without stirring up a lot of complicated feelings. Instead, the tour quietly refers to “the most famous criminal of all time” or “Colombia’s notorious criminal” instead of using his name.
Speaking of Escobar, it’s no secret the man owned a crazy amount of mansions. One of them was located in the nearby town of Guatape, the most colorful town in Colombia. The mansion is in shambles today, but you can still take a tour of the former hacienda. Oh wait, I’m missing a tiny detail. The tour includes a freaking paintball fight in one of Pablo Escobar’s mansions!!!!! This radtacular tour can be booked easily at most hostels in Medellin.
Where to Eat in Medellin
El Poblado generally has terrible food, almost as a rule. The big exception is Mondongo’s, one of Medellin’s favorite restaurants. There are a few locations, but the El Poblado one is conveniently located. While there, you have to get the classic Colombian dish wich originated here in Medellin, bandeja paisa: a platter the size of a small village piled with rice, beans, ground beef, chicharron, fried egg, avocado, sweet plantain, and an arepa. It’s a budget traveler’s dream plate and it just might last you several meals.
For more adventurous palates, try the soup the restaurant named itself after: sopa de mondongo. It’s a tripe soup. But don’t let that scare you: it’s delicious and full of flavor! Fans of Mexican menudo will love it.
Where to Drink Coffee in Medellin
Colombia has always been a source of great coffee … if you’re in the US. That’s because most of the high quality coffee grown in Colombia is exported. But recently Colombians have thought “Wait, why the eff are we shipping out our good good, and drinking bad coffee?” Today, third wave coffee is alive and well in most cities, including Medellin. The best places are hands down Cafe Velvet and Pergamino Cafe. We prefer the latter, but we’ll let you decide. To make it easy on you, they’re located across the street from each other.
We have so much love for the teeny tiny town of Minca, Colombia. We originally planned to stay here for just two days on our way to hike the Lost City Trek, but we fell in love with it so we stayed for a whole week!
How to Get to Minca from Medellin
You’ll want to fly from Medellin to Minca – the bus is long and miserable, and the flights are quick and cheap. Both Avianca and LATAM offer flights from Medellin to Santa Marta (Minca’s nearest airport) for about $40 if you book in advance. It’s a quick one hour hop.
From the Santa Marta airport you have two options. The cheaper version is you take a bus from the airport to the city center (“El Mercado”) for 50 cents. From there, walk to La Estacion de Minca, located at
Calle 11 con Carrera 12 Calle 9 & Carerra 12 (the station has moved here as of our most recent visit in Feburary 2018). The station will hook you up with an inexpensive colectivo that will drop you at the entrance to Minca. We have more detailed information about getting from Santa Marta to Minca in our Minca Guide.
The more expensive option is to have your hostel set up a private taxi from the airport. This will run you roughly $20 each.
Where to Stay in Minca
Casa Elemento is one of the most popular hostels in Minca. Part of the appeal is the gigantic Sky Hammock, which is about 20 times the size of a regular hammock. While Casa Elemento is definitely worth a visit (visitors can hang out on the hammock too), we have to recommend staying at Casa Loma Minca instead. Location alone is a big factor in our recommendation: Casa Elemento is a 2 hour hike or 30 minute cab ride out into the hills from central Minca. Casa Loma is a 15 minute walk up some stairs (big stairs, sure, but still) from town.
Casa Loma Minca was actually one of our favorite hostels in Colombia, hands down. The hostel itself is perched on top of a hill and provides an absolutely breathtaking view of Santa Marta far below, and the Caribbean beyond it. The sunsets from the “tree house” are like paintings every night. Casa Loma Minca offers all sorts of accommodation: jungle huts, covered hammocks, dorms, and privates all for crazy cheap. There’s a kitchen on site serving up amazing meals for reasonable prices (all meals are vegetarian). Like La Serrana, you eat at long tables at the same time as everyone else, which helps to foster a social environment. Casa Loma (and most of Minca, tbh) has no WiFi, so once you get over the initial “But what is the world without WiFi” shock, a sense of unity comes around the hostel. We made more travel friends here than anywhere else and I really think the disconnectedness was a huge reason. Check prices for Casa Loma Minca.
What to Do in Minca
There are tons of things to do in Minca! Check out the full list of the best things to do in Minca. Here are the highlights:
- For a half(ish) day of outdoor fun, take a scenic hike – or thrilling moto-taxi – to Pozo Azul, an awesome local swimming hole.
- Minca has tons of coffee and chocolate farmsto tour – this area is also a coffee region in Colombia! Your hostel can help you book a tour to sample some coffee and chocolate!
- You can hike or taxi to Casa Elementoto enjoy their giant hammock.
Fair warning, if you’re traveling from May to November, expect rain every day. But it’s a predictable rain. We were there in late July and it rained every day at 3 PM, like clockwork. It was a downpour, but then cleared up after an hour or so. Plan your days accordingly and pack a rain jacket (we swear by Ultra-Light Rain Jackets (His & Hers). They’re fully tested against Minca rain and we lived to tell the tale.)
Where to Eat in Minca
Being big snobs, we love anything artisanal…especially bread! Surprisingly, there’s a delicious artisanal bakery in Minca!
One of the busiest spots in town is definitely The Lazy Cat Cafe. Maybe it’s the decent WiFi, but I think it’s the juicy burgers. You be the judge.
Fans of Bob Marley (or at least his favorite plant) should ask the locals about “The Meat Man,” a restaurateur who includes greens with every meal … and I don’t mean veggies.
Parque Tayrona, Colombia
Famous Parque Tayrona is one of the most popular destinations in Colombia, for good reason! With its lush jungle and warm, bright blue Caribbean water, this national park is absolutely gorgeous.
That said, cards on the table: we didn’t personally have the best time in Tayrona. We know, however, that we’re in the minority. Read up on why we didn’t totally love Parque Tayrona (and what we did wrong) in our Parque Tayrona guide.
Here are the most important things you need to know if you plan to visit Parque Tayrona:
- The tap water in the area is supposedly safe to drink, but we still recommend using a purifier, like the Steri-Pen Water Purifier. As with most off the path places, bottled water prices are so ludicrous, they’ll be starring in the next Fast and the Furious movie.
- There are no ATMs in the area. Bring all the cash you’ll need from Santa Marta or Minca.
- The food in Parque Tayrona is crazy expensive. Bring some of your own, especially if you plan to stay overnight.
Getting from Minca to Parque Tayrona
At the main (or really…only) intersection in town, you’ll see a transport depot where you can get a ticket to Santa Marta. The ride will be familiar, and will drop you off at the same place where you picked up the ride to Minca.
One block away at Calle 11 and Carrera 13 you’ll find the terminal for Parque Tayrona/Palomino. Grab a colectivo from here (or a bus, whatever shows up), pay the assistant who is likely hanging out of a bus door, and enjoy the hour long sweaty bus ride. It costs about 14000 COP.
The great thing about this whole haphazard collection of terminals is each of the terminals have one route. In a place like Peru where tourism is ubiquitous, it’s common to hear “Where are you going?” followed by “I can get you there for [a crazy amount of money because you look lost].” In Santa Marta it’s like “The Tayrona guys are two blocks over. Have fun!” It’s all part of the Colombia experience. We’ve got a guide to transportation in Colombia that we cobbled together after a month of confusion, once we’d finally sort of figured things out.
Where to Stay in Parque Tayrona
There are 2 ways to visit Parque Tayrona: as a day trip or as an overnight. You can either camp inside Parque Tayrona itself, or stay just outside of the park. We chose to stay down the street from the entrance to the park in a gorgeous little boutique hostel called Eco Hostel Yuluka.
Eco Hostel Yuluka is amazing. Best hostel breakfast we’ve ever had, waterfall pool, waterslide, thatched roof huts, reasonably priced, and they provide free shuttles to the park. It has all the charm and isolated jungle getaway feel you’ll find in Parque Tayrona, but it’s right off of the highway. If you opt to stay at Eco Hostel Yuluka, tell the bus driver you want to get off at km 28 on the way to Tayrona. The hostel is across the street. Check prices for Eco Hostel Yuluka here.
If you’d like to sleep in the park, you can. There are a bunch of campsites, but the best one is at Cabo San Juan. You have the option between hammocks under a cover and tents out in the openAccommodation will run you 18K-23K COP a night, but that includes lockers. No mosquito nets provided, but you don’t really need them. Here’s a helpful guide to camping in Parque Tayrona.
What to Do in Parque Tayrona
Essentially, Tayrona is all about the swimming, hiking, camping, and relaxing on the beach. There are a bunch of different beaches in Parque Tayrona, so you can spend a couple of days just wandering from beach to beach and taking it all in.
If you’re visiting as part of a day trip we recommend splurging on the horseback ride to the beach. Otherwise, it’s a two hour hike through the jungle followed by swimming in the warm water of the Caribbean, and then a 2 hour hike back again. So don’t forget to pack a lightweight travel towel (this is ours)!
Santa Marta, Colombia
I hate to say this, but Santa Marta wasn’t our scene. It’s incredibly hot, really touristy, needlessly expensive, and a total party town for visiting Gringos. All things we aren’t big fans of. But because of its location, Santa Marta is a necessary stop. And hey, maybe you’ll have a better time there than we did! We just happen to be incredibly old and totally unhip to the party scene in our old married-ness; when Lia visited at the ripe young age of 23, she LOVED Santa Marta.
If you don’t want to stay in Santa Marta, feel free to hop right on a bus to Cartagena instead of staying the night.
Getting from Parque Tayrona to Santa Marta
It’s impossible to get lost on this route. From the entrance of the park, every westbound bus will stop in Santa Marta. Just flag one down and hop on. It will take you back to the neighborhood you know so well at this point, and from there you can walk or cab to your hostel.
Alternatively, you can take a colectivo for about 30K COP each if you want a little more comfort. The one we took swung by Eco Hostel Yuluka so we could grab our bags, then took us directly to our Santa Marta hostel.
Where to Stay in Santa Marta
If you’re opting to spend the night in Santa Marta, one of the most popular hostels in town is definitely Dreamer Hostel. It’s a poppin social hostel with a rad party vibe (this is where Lia stayed as a young whippersnapper). You’re guaranteed to meet other people who are backpacking Colombia. They crafted the ultimate party hostel, without that grungy, icky party vibe. Book early though, because they are always full. Keep in mind, Dreamer is located outside of the main hub of town. Check prices for Dreamer Hostel here..
If you’d like a little more quiet, check out Hotel del Parque. It’s a little more expensive (around 100,000 COP a night) but the peace is worth the price. This is a newer hostel located in a colonial style home right in the center of town.
What to Do in Santa Marta
Santa Marta is a jumping off point for the surrounding areas, so there aren’t a lot of activities within the city. That said, you can find day tours to the neighboring town of Taganga for snorkeling (just be safe – we’ve heard a few travelers give words of caution about Taganga, which has quite the reputation as a party destination).
You can also wander around Historico Centro and stock up on souvenirs, since sadly, your journey backpacking Colombia will soon be ending.
As we mentioned, Santa Marta is a party town, so that’s another activity to do in town…assuming of course, you have the energy after Parque Tayrona.
Where to Eat in Santa Marta
Our favorite pizza in Colombia was in Santa Marta. I know, I know. Getting pizza in Colombia sounds like a super gringo move. But surprisingly, pizza is everywhere in Colombia and they’re actually pretty inventive.
In Santa Marta, stop by La Casona Restaurante Pizzeria and get their Caribe Pizza. It’s basically a Hawaiian pizza with prune and jalapeno added. Yes, we’re firmly on team Pineapple On Pizza, so take that Gordon Ramsay, you beautiful man. The pizzeria is located on Calle 3, an alley with a ton of nice restaurants, street performers, and backpackers. The alley is super fine and lively and a must-visit at night! This is the only thing we actually did in Santa Marta, and hey, it was great and we had some delicious pizza.
Cartagena de las Indias, Colombia
Maybe it’s because it was the first South American city I’ve ever been in (yes, we started in Cartagena! This itinerary is what we wish we did, remember?) but Cartagena will always hold a special place in my heart. Five minutes within the walled city, and you’ll likely feel the same way. There’s a reason literary legend Gabriel Garcia Marquez chose to live here most of his life.
How to Get from Santa Marta to Cartagena
In the same area as the other buses in Santa Marta, you will find the buses to Cartagena. The bus ride is about 4-5 hours. I recommend buying a ticket from Berlinas. They’re more expensive, but they’re comfortable and have AC. For more details, we have a full guide on how to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta & back again – read it here.
The other options to get from Cartagena to Santa Marta are a lot sweatier … and not as reliable. Once we took a cheap bus from Santa Marta to Cartagena and the damn thing broke down. In the rain. The driver had to flag down every bus that passed and ask if there were extra seats. This is South America, so most didn’t. It took about an hour to get on the next bus (because they sat the gringos last) and we had to stand on the new bus for a two hour drive. Wet. From the rain. Not good. Spring for the Berlinastur bus, y’all.
From the bus terminal, take a cab to your hostel. There is a posted sign for the correct price, so you won’t get duped into paying more.
Where to Stay in Cartagena
There are two areas in Cartagena where tourists and backpackers go: Getsemani and the walled old city (which is really two neighborhood, Santo Domingo and San Diego). Whether you want to stay within the walls is all up to you. Getsemani is right outside the wall and more quiet, but there are more places to go within the old town. We did a mix of both, so we have some recommendations for either preference.
- Santo Domingo Vidal Hostel is in Getsemani and is about 10 minutes from the walls. It’s a small hostel that has a very home-y feel with a small, friendly, helpful staff. The place gets hot because electricity is crazy expensive in Cartagena, but there’s AC at night. Next door is Cafe de Mural, a popular coffee shop, and across the street are some awesome murals complete with a cozy little outdoor patio to drink your morning coffee. Check prices for Santo Domingo Vidal here..
- If you opt to stay within the walled city, Volunteer Hostelis the place to go. It’s on the border of the two walled neighborhoods, so it’s central without having a lot of foot traffic. The hostel itself is partnered with FEM, a non-profit working to empower indigenous and Afro-Caribbean women in Colombia. Plus, there’s A/C all day long. Trust us, that’s major. Check prices for Volunteer Hostel here.
What to Do in Cartagena
There is a ton of history within the walled city – and although much of it is pretty f***king dark, its fascinating and important to understand when visiting Cartagena and the rest of Colombia. Our first ever post about Colombia was about the dark history of Cartagena. It was also written on the first week of our year-long trip, so it’s a little bit moony and homesick – don’t judge us!
Here are our favorite things to do in Cartagena:
- It’s easy to spend a whole day just walking around the Walled City and looking at the colorful colonial buildings. Everywhere you turn, there’s yet another beautiful flower-covered awning or stunning old cathedral or Spanish Inquisition torture device. Surprise!
- Make sure you stop to check out Museo de Oro, the free gold museum. It shows how the indigenous Zenu culture worked with metal and the land in totally ingenious ways (before they were killed en masse by Spanish invaders, of course). The museum is all in Spanish, but it’s free, and there’s A/C.
- Most visitors to Cartagena are keen to visit Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s house. Keep in mind, you can’t actually go inside, which we found out upon arrival. So it isn’t actually all that cool – you can’t see anything other than the wall – unless you’re a huge fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which Lia is.
- For some awesome views and pictures, climb the walls that surround the city and walk the around the Caribbean border. This is also an incredible place to take in the sunset and contemplate the awesome month you’ve had in Colombia.
- If you’re up for some nightlife, check out Holy Trinity Square in Getsemani where you’ll always find street performers, dancing, and places to drink!
- Elsewhere in the city, you can have a day at the beach! A long stretch of beach that is easy to get to is in Bocagrande, the modern portion of the city where all the skyscrapers and more expensive hotels are. Here you’ll find a ton of beach space, vendors selling toys, massages, beer, coconuts, mango verde, and shrimp cocktails. For a price, you can rent lockers and cabanas. Once in the super warm Caribbean water, you’ll be approached by a lot of Jetski drivers asking if you want to pay for a ride. The water and beach are great, but the constant sales pitches and jetski exhaust are a bummer. If you can ignore it, it’s worth a stop. Wear a bucket of sunscreen though.
- A lot of people suggest going to Playa Blanca, which is located out of the city and only accessible by ferry. However, all of the problems with Bocagrande are magnified x5 at Playa Blanca. Everything is also more expensive because you’re isolated and vendors can charge hella. So … we advise not visiting Playa Blanca.
- Speaking of things we don’t necessarily recommend, there’s always the ridiculous mud bath in Volcan Totumo, a tiny active volcano just outside of Cartagena. Lia hated it, but to be fair, we also got a great story out of it. If you’re looking for a unique story and don’t mind getting a little dirty, Volcan Totumo makes an interesting day trip!
- If you don’t mind a bit of a journey, grab a colectivo to La Boquilla, a super small fishing town on the beach located just east of Cartagena. This was the best beach we experienced in the area, because it’s mostly empty with clear and warm water. You can also grab some fresh fried fishright on the beach for way cheaper than in the city. La Boquilla is an excellent day trip from Cartagena!
What to Eat in Cartagena
The food in Cartagena is SO good! We spent a couple of weeks in Cartagena just eating everything in sight. We’ve got a whole post on where to eat in Cartagena on a budget. Here’s what you absolutely have to try:
- It doesn’t get much better than the fish in Cartagena. When in doubt, order the fish, especially pescado frito.
- There is incredibly good fresh fruit in Cartagena. You’ll see vendors on the street offering fruit in plastic bags, and it’s all super good. Our favorite snack is Mango Biche: green mango with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Yum!
- While chilling on the beach in Bocagrande, don’t pass on a coctel de camaron. It’s literally just a Styrofoam cup full of shrimp from a cart on the beach, but trust me, it’s not as sketch as it sounds! They prep it right in front of you using fresh ingredients.
- We went to Restaurante La Casa de Socorro in Getsemani and had the best fish soup in the world! OMG, I’ve been dreaming about that soup since we left Colombia. Please bring us some back.
Holy s**t, your month backpacking in Colombia flew by. Before you know it, you’ll be taking a taxi to Rafael Nunez International Airport to catch your flight home, full of memories of amazing Colombia. I guarantee you that you’ll be smitten with Colombia just like we were, and eagerly planning your next trip back just like we are …
But you’re not there just yet! So while you’re still in planning mode, we’ve got a ton of other resources for Colombia that you’ll want to look at before you plan your trip:
- What to Pack for South America
- A Complete Guide to Transportation in Colombia
- The Best Hostels in Colombia
- 30 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in Colombia
- The Best Colombian Food: What to Eat in Colombia
Planning a trip to Colombia? What’s your biggest concern? Drop us a comment below!
Hey, if you found this post useful (and we hope you did), save it to reference later on Pinterest! Note: Full sized images can be found by clicking the Pin It button.
Join 70,000 monthly readers!
Like what you're reading? Subscribe! We'll send you some of our most ridiculous travel stories, plus monthly newsletters whenever there's something new & exciting happening.