“We’re going to Colombia.” Pause. Insert unsollicited advice and warnings about how dangerous it is from people that have never been. That’s about how 2/3 of the conversations went before our trip – luckily the other 1/3 was more of the positive kind. Colombia certainly has a bad reputation to shed, but after experiencing it ourselves I can only confirm that it’s an amazing destination – and while yes, you can’t deny that there are still some safety issues & room for improvement – you’ll most likely not notice anything of that when you’re traveling around as a tourist. The people are really friendly & one of the things I loved seeing is how happy they are, mostly singing & dancing their way through the day. The last couple of years the country is being put more and more on the tourist map, so it’s definitely worth it to go and experience it for yourself. We traveled around for about 2,5 weeks – here’s an overview of the first part of our itinerary and some tips along the way.
First stop: Bogotá
Wherever you’re coming from, you’ll most likely be flying into the capital. Bogotá is a city where not a lot of people stay for too long because it also tends to have a mixed reputation, but we actually quite liked our time here. We stayed for two nights in the historic center called La Candelaria – where a lot of the well-known “things to do” are. I read afterwards that this neighborhood actually has a bad reputation at night, but because we arrived late the first night & didn’t go out late the second we never really noticed anything of that. In any case – during the day it’s perfectly fine, and it’s a nice area to walk around with lots of restaurants, shops & colorful buildings. You’ll also find Plaza Bolivar, Botero museum & the Gold museum around here. A little tip: not that they’re very expensive, but the museums are free to enter on Sundays, go at opening time to avoid longer queues. If you’re looking for extra activities, you can join one of the free walking tours, like the graffiti one. It’s nice, but just know that this is a popular activity so the groups can feel a little crowded. You can also go to the top of the Monserrate mountain by foot, funicular or cable car and enjoy a nice view of Bogotá (we didn’t have enough time to do this).
STAY – 2 nights at Selina Candelaria – We loved this place, and got lucky to book with extra discount thanks to Black Friday. The food here is really good, not expensive & they offer fun activities like yoga or movies. The interior is really nice too. Before we went back to Belgium, we stayed one more night at Zana Hotel Boutique in Bogotá in a different area called Usaquén. It’s not so big, but it’s quite trendy so it also has a lot of nice restaurants & shops – and is supposedly better to walk around at night (again, I can’t speak from experience because we arrived really late the night we stayed here due to a flight delay).
TIPS – Don’t forget to apply sunscreen in Bogotá. Even though it’s not the hottest location in Colombia, the sun is very strong here. We both got sunburned on our first day. We were lucky to have clear blue skies & mild weather, but bring a rain jacket and some warmer clothes if you’re traveling around the country. It gets colder at night and the temperatures can really vary, depending on your location.
NEXT, WE TRAVELED TO… Cartagena by plane with Viva Air. The airline is good, just make sure to always print your boarding pass and check in online to avoid extra costs.
Second stop: Cartagena
Cartagena is surely one of the most known – and therefore, touristic spots in Colombia but don’t let that put you off. The old center is full of beautiful, colorful buildings (it kinda reminds me of Casco Viejo in Panama) and you’ll find plenty of (upscale) shops and restaurants here. Next to that, there are a lot of street vendors trying to sell you something – just politely say no when you’re not interested and they will leave you alone. Or buy one too many headbands and earrings, like me. Considering it’s one of the most touristic spots, you can expect to pay a bit more than average for everything compared to other places in Colombia – but it still remains very affordable compared to Western standards. Now, what are the things to do when you’re in Cartagena? You should know that the old center isn’t very big, so you only really need a day to see everything around here. If you’re not staying there, you should add walking through the nearby neighbourhood Getsemani to your list. It’s a bit more relaxed & you can also find some street art and nice restaurants here. If you’re interested in the history of Cartagena, you can go for a visit to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (warning: it gets really hot & there’s not a lot of shade here). A lot of tourists will also add a visit to the nearby Isla Baru / Playa Blanca to their list, but since we were heading to San Andres (an island) afterwards – we decided to skip that. All in all, Cartagena is mostly about enjoying relaxed vacation vibes, nice weather, good food & some shopping.
STAY – 3 nights at Casa Marquez del Pedegral in Getsemani – we had the cheapest room here, which is rather basic but okay. The place has a small pool you can use, which is a plus. Breakfast isn’t included here, and we found it nicer to go to one of the spots outside for this.
TIPS – Definitely stay in Getsemani instead of Cartagena center. You’ll pay way less for accomodation & food, it’s more quiet (but still lively) and it’s only a 10 minute walk to the old town. For breakfast (or lunch), make sure to head to Cafe Stepping Stone. It’s run by Australians (hello avocado toast!), but they also give internships to disadvantaged youth to help give them a better chance of employment. Good food and a good cause, win-win. Beiyu is also a nice place for breakfast or lunch, and La Paletteria is great to treat yourself to a refreshing fruit popsicle. For a fancy night out with cocktails and yummy side dishes, head to Alquimico Bar.
NEXT, WE TRAVELED TO… San Andres by plane (again, with Viva Air) – considering where it’s located, there’s really no other way.
Third stop: San Andrès
Considering the location of San Andrès, one can argue if it’s really part of Colombia (it’s actually closer to Nicaragua). The vibes of this island are much more Caribbean, which you will hear in the language, the music & the physical appearance of people there. Nothing wrong with that, but the vibe is just very different than the mainland of Colombia. Most people will visit San Andrès (or Providencia) for diving, which is exactly the reason why my boyfriend wanted to go there. The island is quite small and does have beautiful underwater life, but other than that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. It’s not that it’s horrible or anything, it’s just that we’ve been to far better beaches and islands for a much better price / quality in Southeast Asia. So in retrospect, if you’re not really keen on diving – I’d skip it and focus on spending more time in other locations in Colombia. If you want to go diving, my boyfriend recommends Karibik Diver – the service was good and professional & the price is very reasonable.
STAY – 4 nights at the Royal Palm Inn. The rooms are fine and the people are friendly, but don’t expect grand luxury. Again – in general you’ll get a lot less quality than what you pay for compared to Southeast Asia. I would recommend to stay closer to the center, though – considering the restaurants at this side of the island all close at 5.30PM so you’re obliged to take a bus or taxi for dinner. The bus is cheap and easy, but it takes a while to get there and they stop driving around 8PM so your options are limited.
TIPS – We stayed on the west side of the island, where the coast is very rocky and you can find some good snorkel spots that are usually linked to a bar or restaurant (& where you pay a small entrance fee to get in). You can try Aquanautas, Reggae Roots or La Piscinita. For food around here, your best (and maybe only) option is restaurant West View. Don’t eat at one of the snorkel spot restaurant, it’s really bad (and often super slow). The east side has the best beach spots, but you should know that the sand strip is often rather small & the road is located right behind it. I’d recommend chilling at playa San Luis and going for lunch or a coconut cocktail at Talento Nativo – it’s the cheapest option for lunch around the beach and they all serve pretty much the same thing anyway (think: rice, salad, fish). When it comes to the center, don’t expect too much, it’s quite busy traffic-wise (even though it’s not that big). You can do a lot of shopping here, and there are a lot of touristic restaurants to be found that lack charm. One that is worth a stop is Capitàn Mandy – you can find great seafood here at good prices (it’s the cheaper option of the island’s most famous restaurant, La Regatta).
NEXT, WE TRAVELED TO… Medellin airport by plane (via Viva Air). From here, we first headed to Guatapé because it’s closer to get there from the airport than from Medellin – we booked a private driver from the airport via our stay.
One more general tip: when it comes to transportation around the cities, I really recommend using Uber. You’ll get a fair price, and probably some safer driving. Hope you enjoyed this travel guide so far – stay tuned for part two in which I will talk more about Guatapé, Medellin & Salento!