Colombia is far from the war-torn country that media and Narcos portrays. Tourism to the South American country has surged 300% in the last decade which means that locals, hotels, and businesses are beginning to enjoy more and more visits from travellers eager to learn about the culture.
And, while most visitors arrive to the capital city of Bogota, the country is so diverse that you could spend weeks or months travelling all over Colombia and never get bored. Cartagena is home to colourful Caribbean vibes, Medellin is one of the world’s most innovative cities, and the lush green Coffee Region is where you’ll find some of the nicest people on Earth.
Is this your first time visiting Colombia? As the locals say, “the only risk of visiting Colombia is that you’ll want to stay.” This is your ultimate Colombia travel guide. Follow along as we walk you through all the essentials.
Arriving to Colombia
Most nationalities are able to enter Colombia without a visa. They’ll stamp your passport and you’re good to go for 90 days. You can check your country’s visa requirements online at the Cancillería.
If you end up wanting to stay longer than 90 days, you’re able to extend your tourist visa online here, which currently costs 99,000 Colombian pesos, or about $28 USD. Visitors who don’t need to apply for a formal visa are allowed to stay in Colombia for a total of 180 days per calendar year.
It’s important to note that even though you might not need a visa to enter the country, when passing through immigration in Colombia, they might ask you to show proof of a return ticket or proof of a booked hotel. It’s more common to show proof of a return ticket, so have that on hand before you reach the immigration window.
Arriving at the Airport:
International travellers must arrive to the Medellin or Bogota airports to go through immigration before reaching their final destination.
Unlike some countries in Asia, cabs at Colombian airports are the safest and cheapest. Uber’s pretty outlawed here, so you’ll find that queuing up in the airport taxi lane is the best way to go anyway.
While most taxi drivers will understand a bit of English, it’s best to have your address saved on your phone or printed out to show them. Take advantage of the opportunity to purchase a SIM card at the airport just in case you need data to get to your hotel. Claro and Tigo are the two best companies.
Best Cities to Visit in Colombia
It’s common for most travellers to start their Colombian adventure in Bogota or Medellin. But, definitely don’t feel confined to visiting just those two major cities. Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on the planet after Brazil, which means it offers a variety of unique landscapes to explore.
While we wish we could include every single city on this Colombia travel guide, the best cities to visit in Colombia include:
- Santa Marta
- Coffee Region (Manizales, Pereira, Armenia)
The best thing about visiting Colombia is that it’s a tropical country. So, the temperature remains pretty moderate year-round, unless you’re in Bogota, which gets pretty cold. Visit from December to about February or July to September to take advantage of dry seasons.
What To Do/See in Colombia
With plenty to see, do, and eat in Colombia, your biggest worry is going to be figuring out how to fit everything in during just one visit. Here are our ultimate Colombia travel guide picks for the top five things to do…
Tour Comuna 13 in Medellin:
What was once the city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods is now a vibrant stomping ground for some of the world’s most talented graffiti artists and entrepreneurs. Reserve a spot in one of the walking tours to learn first-hand just how Medellin worked to transform the neighbourhood into what it is today. Make sure you have your camera on hand as you’re going to want to snap lots of photos of the street art and the stunning views.
Visit the Northernmost Point of South America:
Puntas Gallinas is a tiny point on the tip of Colombia’s northern coast. A lighthouse there marks the spot as the northernmost point of South America. To get there, you’ll have to spend two days driving through the desert before it spills out into the Caribbean sea. You’ll sleep in hammocks under the stars and experience the local Wayuu culture.
Tour a Coffee Farm:
It’s near impossible to visit Colombia and not tour a coffee farm. The Coffee Region is full of small coffee farms where you can learn about the process of coffee cultivation. We suggest heading to Salento to visit any one of the coffee farms there. Ocaso is a particularly great farm to tour as they explain everything in-depth. Then, make a day out of hiking through the breathtaking Valle de Cocora. There, you’ll be able to see the tallest palm trees in the world.
Swim in the Sea of Seven Colours:
San Andres is a Colombian island in the Caribbean, just about a two-hour plane ride from Bogota. Tickets during the low season are super cheap, and once you’re there you’ll encounter an enchanting island paradise surrounded by the awe-inspiring Sea of Seven Colours. Snorkel, swim with manta rays, and enjoy a few Coco Locos, the island’s signature strong drinks.
Get Lost in Old Town Cartagena:
Founded in 1533, Colombia’s colourful coastal city of Cartagena has plenty to offer eager travellers. The walled fortress used to repel pirates, but today it acts as a way to preserve the historical buildings and landmarks that call Cartagena home. While you’re exploring Old Town, make sure to purchase fruit from a palenquera to give back to the local culture and get a great photo for your Insta feed.
What To Eat
You’ll want to start by checking out our guide to the 7 Best Colombian Dishes To Try. After you’ve wiped the drool from your mouth, prepare to indulge in some of the finest food in all of South America.
Stop off at any local restaurant and order Bandeja Paisa or Sancocho. They’re two of the country’s most famous dishes. And, they’re hearty enough to fill you up for a full date of adventure. For a lighter snack, indulge in arepas, buñuelos, pandebonos, almojabanas, empanadas or any kind of torta you see.
You’ll find great pizza in the bigger cities such as Medellin, Bogota, and Cartagena. In Medellin, El Graspo de Uva is a great place for tasty pizza. In Bogota, you should definitely check out Julia’s Pizzeria.
Burgers are also pretty popular here and extremely well-made. Check out our guides to the 7 Best Burgers in Medellin, 7 Best Burgers in Bogota, and 7 Best Burgers in Cartagena for a long list of great places to eat.
If you’re looking for quality date night restaurants in Colombia, it’s hard to go wrong with any romantic restaurant in Cartagena. The city’s seaside position and historical charm creates a super romantic feel. Club de Pesca is one of the most romantic restaurants in all of Colombia and allows diners to enjoy a meal along the waterfront where elegant tables dot the shore and the sound of lapping water set the mood.
Bogota’s dramatic skyline, however, provides visitors with an ultra-romantic backdrop for date night. If you’re looking to enjoy a passionate evening in Colombia’s capital city, head to Restaurante Casa San Isidro. Located at the top of the famed Monserrate, this restaurant specialises in serving picturesque portrait views as you gaze out onto the beautiful city of Bogota below.
What To Drink
Home to some of the world’s tastiest coffee beans, sampling the coffee during a visit to Colombia is a no-brainer. However, you’ll find that the country offers trendy bars and other great spots for grabbing a refreshing drink.
Where should you try the best coffee in Colombia? Most of the country’s best coffee is made for exportation, meaning that locals are usually left with coffee that’s sup-bar at best. However, that’s beginning to change, as more and more specialty coffee shops pop up all over the country.
It’s best to start your coffee-drinking journey in the actual Coffee Region. Head to Salento and visit Jesus Martin. Or, if you’re sticking with the major cities, try Pergamino Cafe in Medellin. Pergamino perfectly mixes locally-sourced, high-quality coffee and outstanding baristas who truly have a passion for their craft.
Typical Colombian Drinks:
Aside from coffee, Colombia’s home to a few other traditional drinks you’ll want to try. Hot chocolate and cheese is a delicacy that sounds truly disgusting…until you try it. Or, if you’re in the mood for something less heavy, opt for trying warm panela with lime. In the mood to party? Aguardiente or Refajo is the way to go. The latter is a beer cocktail made using local beer and local soda.
Best Bars in Colombia:
Numerous bars in Colombia made our list of the 50 Best Bars in South America.
The Red Room in Bogota came in at No. 4. For it’s old-time speakeasy decor and vibes. They’re famous for serving up some of the city’s tastiest cocktails, but guests seem to stay for the inspiring decor.
Dulce Jesús Mío is one of the best bars in Medellin if you’re looking for a pretty wild and authentic cultural experience. This vibrantly-coloured, outrageous bar is modelled after the traditional tiny towns all throughout the Antioquia region.
When visiting Cartagena, head to Cafe Havana. While the decor is Cuban-themed, the bar pumps salsa music through the speakers until the wee hours of the night. You’ll find this local bar in the ever-popular and trendy Getsemani, meaning that you’re close to other hot spots if you choose to venture out and explore.
How to Get Around Colombia
While transportation in Colombia is pretty reliable, it’s important to remember that you’re still in South America. Expect delays on any long bus trips as nearly every bus route passes through winding mountain roads.
It’s not recommended that you try to rent a car and drive in Colombia, despite what any other Colombia travel guide might say. Instead, enjoy the wonderfully delightful scenery you can view from the window of a bus on a long journey from city to city.
Medellin’s metro system is pretty great, but it gets extremely crowded. And, Manizales is home to a fun cable car to take from the bus station to the main city centre. Aside from that, taxis are often the best way to get around once you’re in your destination city. Always make sure the taxi driver runs the meter. If he says he won’t, get out of the car and find someone who will.
Where to Stay in Colombia
Colombia is a backpacker’s dream in terms of hostels. The country is filled with budget-friendly hostels that are fun and social.
If you’re looking to party, head to one of Santa Marta’s most-visited hostels, La Brisa Loca. Backpackers, travellers, and locals all head out to the hostel’s rooftop bar for hip-shaking and dirty dancing in the evenings. The parties here are truly crazy, which is typical of Santa Marta culture.
Casa Elemento is just outside of Santa Marta in Minca. This backpacker’s paradise provides travellers with stunning mountain views and the chance to enjoy the largest hammock in the entire world. Opt to stay inside or, if it’s warm enough, rent a hammock and bask in the star-soaked sky at night. You’ll enjoy amazing vibes and quality company regardless of what you choose.
While you can find a number of luxury hotels in Colombia, we for the purpose of this Colombia travel guide we honestly suggest sticking with hostels or Airbnbs. You’ll get the chance to immerse yourself in the local culture and truly experience traditional Colombia amongst other travellers.
Colombia Travel Guide: Final Tips
After visiting Colombia for the first time, you’ll likely be delighted to find that it’s nothing like you imagined it to be. Modern media and an unfortunate past work together to paint an image of Colombia that simply isn’t true. It’s an incredibly diverse and enchanting country full of friendly people and marvellous sights to see, and we hope this Colombia travel guide has helped you see that.
Learning a few Spanish phrases before your trip will help you immensely. As tourism is still a fairly recent phenomenon, not all taxi drivers, hotel employees, or locals will speak English. Do them and yourself a favour and brush up on some Spanish before you come.
We’ll leave you with this inspiring video that’ll have you booking your tickets tonight. Colombia truly is magical realism…