I really had to pull myself away from Medellin, which surprised me because at first sight (on Google images) it looked like nothing more than another over-populated, over-polluted South American City. And it is those things. But it’s also so much more. There’s an intangible vibe in Medellin that kept me there week after week and I’m sure will pull you in too.
Take language classes
I spent two weeks in Medellin picking up more Spanish in Colombia, which was extremely useful given, out of all the Latin American countries I’ve visited, the Colombian people speak the least English.
If you’re interested in learning some (or more) Spanish while you’re in Colombia, check out my article:
Why Medellin is the Best Place to Learn Spanish In Colombia
Colombian Spanish – Essential Reading
If you’re also after a Spanish textbook that isn’t too hideous to carry, I love the Collins 3-in-1 Grammar, Verbs and Vocabulary.
Hit a basement salsa club in Laureles
While 90% of the Medellin’s tourists wander around the western bars that fill El Poblado, you’re actually much better off exploring the basement salsa clubs of Laureles. 100% local and guaranteed to have you sweating in seconds, if you want to get down and salsa, this area is a good (and safe) place to do it.
Pro travel tip: skip the accommodation in El Poblado and get a more local experience by staying in Laureles. I stayed in both areas and by far preferred the latter. I can highly recommend the Wandering Paisa complete with a weekly cultural exchange (local Colombians will come and practice their English while you get to chat some Spanish), monthly open-mic nights and free salsa classes.
Dorms and private rooms available.
Don’t miss the free City Walking Tour
Want to understand the complex history of Colombia and its warring factions? Want to understand how Medellin, which was once home to drug lord Pablo Escobar and possessed the title of murder capital of the world, has turned itself around? Take the free City Walking Tour.
Pro travel tips
- you need to book the City Walking Tour in advance online. You can book here.
- although the tour is free, the guide works on tips. $30,000 (around £10/$15) is the recommended amount and I can assure you that the tip price is worth it.
Visit Parque Arvi
Located high about the city and reached by two cable cars (one connects to the other), enjoy the peace that finds you as you sail above the city and then over the dense forest of Parque Arvi.
If you’re in the mood, hire a guide and go exploring at the top. If you’re feeling lazy or frugal, stay on as the cable car and wind back down to the bottom.
Where to stay in Medellin
On a budget: I checked out a good bunch of hostels when I was in Medellin and by far my favourite place was The Wandering Paisa. Continually attracting a good bunch of people and with a fantastic series of events from open mic nights to language exchange nights (involving the Medellin Couchsurfing crowd), you’ll be hard pushed to find a more social place. Don’t be put off by the fact that this hostel is away from the others – it’s in a more local area that, IMO, is more a more fun (plenty of bars and restaurants) and interesting place to be.
If you do want to stay in Poblado (the main tourist area), then check out Saman Hostel. Small but perfectly formed and, most importantly, just across the road from Parque Lleras where all the bars and restaurants are scattered, Saman is a great option. And if you’re looking to take language classes at Toucan Spanish (where I took lessons), you’re just a few minutes’ walk away.
For hotels: You won’t be short on choice when it comes to hotels in Medellin – here are the 10 best hotels in Medellin (according to Trip Advisor) and, if you’re enjoying a favourable exchange rate against the Colombian peso, you’d do well to upgrade to one of the more luxurious options in the city. You can find the 10 best luxury hotels in Medellin here. Although The Charlee isn’t top of the luxury list, it’s one of the most iconic buildings in the city and if nothing else, you should at least take a trip for a cocktail and views from the bar at the top.
Apartment rental – If you’re staying longer than a few days, check out Snapstays – started by a couple of guys who were frustrated at the lack of reliable rentals (and wi-fi) when they wanted to rent for longer term stays, Snapstays has only a few locations at the moment but thankfully one of them is Medellin.
If I had a vision of what Colombia might look like, it was probably Guatape. Bright, bold and beautiful, don’t miss this tiny town just a few hours outside of Medellin.
Hike up El Peñon
Before you reach Guatape (if you’re coming on the bus from Medellin), you’ll be tossed off the bus at El Peñon, a huge rock that screams “climb me”.
Even if you’re not into (or are over) climbing, take the 625+ steps to the top for some of the best views you’ll get in all of Colombia. Promise.
Pro travel tip: book your return bus ticket as soon as you get to Guatape. Although the buses leave regularly, seats, particularly towards the end of the day, fill up fast.
Try Bandeja Paisa
If you eat only one Bandeja Paisa in Colombia, make it the Bandeja Paisa at the small restaurant on your left as you exit the steps of El Peñon. I shared a plate and was still stuffed but I definitely could have consumed more of the views (over the lakes) as I ate.
Photograph the colourful streets of Guatape
Make sure you’ve got plenty of space on your memory card before you get to Guatape because you’re going to need it. There’s no real suggested itinerary for the town other than to wander around and find what you find.
Where to stay in Guatape
On a budget: Sadly, I didn’t take the time to spend a night in Guatape, which is one of my regrets from my time in Colombia. However, if I was going to return, I’d check out Lake View Hostel.
For hotels: Guatape is another tiny place so once again there are only a few hotel choices. Here are the most popular options (according to Trip Advisor).
A lot of people write-off Bogota and I admit there is a slightly sketchy feel to the place, particularly around La Canderlaria after 9pm, but it’s still worth a couple of nights stay so you can see the main attractions.
Visit the gold museum
If you’re only going to visit one museum in Colombia, make it the gold museum in Bogota. Comprising the largest collection of Pre-Hispanic gold work in the world, not only do you get to see lots of gold (what else?), it’s a great insight into the lifestyle of Colombia’s ancestors.
Day trip to the Salt Cathedral
Don’t laugh, but I didn’t really grasp the concept until I was nearly 200 metres underground that the salt cathedral was actually a cathedral (and not just a cave with light streaming into giving the vision of a cathedra)! As you pass the Stations of the Cross and round the corner into the bigger caverns, the “wow”s just keep on coming.
The light-show that’s included in the entry price is mediocre at best but the video explaining the history and facts about salt mining in the region is not to be missed.
Pro travel tip: Start out early. The cathedral is a fair trek from the centre of Bogota.
Head up Montserrat
I ran out of time in Bogota so didn’t get the chance to head up the mountain side to Montserrat, but it’s supposedly one of the highlights of the city and I can only imagine the views you might get over the basin of the city, particularly around sunset.
You can get there by cable car, or, if you’re game, take the 1,500 steps (it makes El Peñon look like child’s play).
Where to stay in Bogota
On a budget: Most of Bogota’s hostels are located in the Candelaria district of the city, which I found to be pretty safe (though anywhere in Bogota I’d want a chum with me after dark). It’s also within walking distance of places like the Gold Museum as well as plenty of bars and restaurants. I stayed at The Cranky Croc which I enjoyed so much I booked for a second stay after a brief jaunt to San Andres (see below).
For hotels: With everything from the Four Seasons to the Ramada, you’ll have the full international hotel scene at your disposal in Bogota as well as a good selection of local hotels. Here are the 10 Best 10 Hotels in Bogota (according to Trip Advisor) many of which have acquired Travelers’ Choice status including Morrison 114 Hotel, Bogota Marriott Hotel and the Orchids Hotel.
Salento was by far one of my favourite places in Colombia…and not just because it’s in the coffee region (though that certainly helped). Surrounded by rolling green hills and stretching countryside, it was nice to take a deep breath of (thin, altitude) air in Salento.
Go hiking in Cocora Valley
Regardless of the fact that the weather was miserable (I was beyond my ankles in mud at some spots) and the wax palm trees, which are one of the highlights of the trek, were obscured in mist most of the time, the Cocora Valley hike was one of the most fun days I had in Colombia. Playing Tarzan as you cross precarious wooden bridges hanging on by threads of rope and hiking up to a curious humming bird hut for a watery hot chocolate and chunk of too-salty cheese, the hike was like no other I’d done before.
The hike takes around 5 hours (if you take the route up to the humming bird hut and loop back to the start) and involves around 30 minutes of painful up-hill trekking, but it’s well worth the jaunt.
Pro travel tip: to get to the start of the trail, take one of the shared jeeps from the centre of Salento.
Stay at La Serrana
I don’t usually consider a :place to stay” a “thing to do” but I’m making an exception for La Serrana. As much a destination as it is a form of accommodation, this old farmhouse about 15 minutes’ walk outside of Salento town is the best place to stay in the area. With a family dinner in the rustic kitchen each night (weekdays) and a nightly bonfire and marshmallow roasting, La Serrana is the place to truly enjoy the mountain location. Swing in a hammock, stroll around the grounds or just sit and sip some wine at night, La Serrana is the antidote to overstuffed hostels or soul-less hotels you might frequent elsewhere in Colombia.
Prefer a tour of Colombia?
I get a lot of messages from people who want to visit Colombia but are a bit unsure about safety. My advice – hop on a guided tour. Whether you add a week or so at the beginning of your trip to get you immersed and confident or you take your whole trip this way, it can be a comforting feeling knowing a local has your back.
My favourite tour company is Intrepid travel – small groups, great prices and itineraries that will help you get closer to the local culture, often giving you those photo moments you won’t get on other tours. You can see Intrepid’s Colombia tours here.
Visit a coffee plantation
You’re in coffee country, so why not take a stroll around a coffee plantation to found out how the beans make it from the plant to your cup. If you stay at La Serrana, turn left at the entrance and with a 4-kilometre downhill walk, you’ll find yourself at Don Elias. The tour is simple but the free coffee at the end is a much more complex and tasty affair.
What’s tejo you might ask? Well, imagine Boules (you know, where you throw balls as close as possible to the target ball – the jack), but instead of throwing balls at a jack, you’re lobbing metal weights at gunpowder. That’s tejo. Hold a beer in hand and imagine you’re competing in the Colombia championships (yes, they exist) and you’ll do a lot better.
Pro travel trip: if you join the coffee tour from Don Elias, a local guy will take you to his teko restaurant. Eat the food (it’s excellent and very affordable) and you get to play Tejo for free!
Go horse riding
I personally haven’t gotten back in the saddle since a horse tried to decapitate me with a tree branch in the Pantanal in Brazil, but still, horse riding is a very popular activity in Salento. Good luck with that.
Where to stay in Salento
On a budget (or not!): I’ve already nailed my flag to the mast on the topic of where to stay in Salento – whether you’re looking a bed with bunks or after something more private I can’t recommend La Serrana enough. Don’t believe me? Check out the Trip Advisor reviews.
For hotels/more central location: If you are looking for a hotel that is located in the centre, here are the 5 best hotels in Salento (according to Trip Advisor). For location, price and cuteness, I’d choose Hotel Salento Real.
Gritty and groovy, Cali draws in foreigners for its famous salsa nightlife.
Take salsa classes
If you don’t want to turn up to Cali’s nightclubs with wooden hips, get some practice first. Salsa classes are as endemic in Cali as plantain but before you book, make sure there aren’t free classes on offer at your hostel or hotel.
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Wander the old town (San Antonio) (by day)
Some call San Antonio Cali’s hipster area. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but this enclave of winding streets is worth half a day’s exploration.
In all honestly, it wasn’t until I was researching the crime statistics for an article about Safety in Mexico that I realised that Cali is currently number 4 on the list of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world (by homicide rates). Shoot-outs between gangs still happen at the malls and even wandering the streets during the day things felt more than a little sketchy – be careful while you’re in Cali and if a local says “don’t go there”…don’t go there.
Where to stay in Cali
On a budget: I tried two locations in Cali – first in San Antonio and later in a residential area (Santa Monica) and out of the two I felt much safer in the latter, especially after dark. In San Antonio, I was turned away from El Viajero by very rude staff who refused to honour my booking because I hadn’t made it through HostelWorld. They’d sold all their beds on that site and hadn’t bothered to check bookings made elsewhere. I ended up staying in a sweet (but empty) place a few doors down the street – sorry, can’t recall the name. I wouldn’t stay at El Viajero now if they paid me…though that’s a good example of cutting my nose off to spite my face because the hostel did sound fun inside. Sigh.
In Santa Monica, I stayed at Iguana, which was recommended to me, and which I’d happily recommend to you – the hammocks and free salsa classes were highlights.
For hotels: As you might expect for a thriving city, there are a large number of business hotels including many of the big brands on offer in Cali. The 10 best Cali hotels (according to Trip Advisor) are here. The Travelers’ Choice Award Winners include small but perfectly formed OfiHotel and Jardin Azul.
The second I saw an image of San Andres island in Colombia, I knew I wanted to go. Just off the coast of Nicaragua, some 2 hours by air north of the mainland, San Andres promised a real Caribbean vibe.
The problem was flight prices. Bordering on prohibitive (close to £300/$500 round-trip for what would only be a 3 or 4 night jaunt), I almost resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to make it on this trip.
But, with one last push, and a dedicated 2 hours of searching, employing every travel trick I know (you can read about my travel tricks here), I pulled it off – a return flight for £150/$240.
As the last place I visited in Colombia, I did little more than lie on the beach by day and sip beer at night. And that was quite enough. And it was also the perfect ending to my two months in Colombia.
Where to stay in San Andres
On a budget: It didn’t take me long to get over my hatred of El Viajero, because I tried out their San Andres hostel and I didn’t regret it (helped that the staff were superbly friendly). Within a short walk of the beach, bars and restaurants, and with views of the ocean from the bar (image above), you can’t beat El Viajero for value for money.
For hotels: You won’t find any big, familiar chain brands on San Andres, which is a large part of the island’s charm. Instead, there’s a nice range of local/independent hotels and smaller guesthouses. Here are the 10 best hotels in San Andres (according to Trip Advisor). Hosteria Mar y Sol and Royal Decameron Isleno are two of the Travelers’ Awards Winners.
Other places in Colombia
Despite spending a long time in the country, my slow pace of travel (damn work getting in the way) meant I didn’t make it to all the top spots. Other popular places I would have like to have visited include:
- Popayan: a colonial town known as the white city thanks to it’s chalk white buildings. A great stop particularly if you’re en-route to Ecuador.
- San Gil: it may surprise you that I didn’t make it to the adventure capital of Colombia but with British winter awaiting me in a few weeks, I opted for San Andres’ beaches over a few days in San Gil and I don’t regret it.
- Baricahara: red-roof buildings (above) and a colonial town, Barichara is another place (close to San Gil) that’s going to fill up your camera.
- Minca: a popular place to visit from Santa Marta, this alternative coffee country is a good option if you don’t get the chance to visit Salento. My one regret in not going? I didn’t get to lie in one of the world’s largest hammocks at Casa Elemento!