I arrived in Colombia in January 2017, and ended up staying until I was forced to leave. (Not because I was banged up for doing anything dodgy – I just max’d out my tourist visa.)
I had no plans to stay this long, but it’s such an incredible country that I never wanted to leave. And already, I can’t wait to go back.
This is why.
(Note – some of these links are affiliate – so if you do like the look of any of these places, please book through here; you won’t pay a penny more and I may get a bit of commission for the recommendation)
So here’s the ultimate guide to Colombia – 14 reasons to go to this incredible country.
- Medellin is magical
- Soak in the colours of Cartagena
- Beaut beaches
- Nature – jungles, waterfalls, & walks
- See pink dolphins & flamingos
- Home to the beautiful people
- Health & Safety
- Food & Drink
- Coffee to the Colombians is like cheese to the French
- It’s a cultural hub
- It’s the best place to learn Spanish
- Night-life is banging
- Low cost of living
1. Medellin is magical
Medellin’s transformation is totally baffling. It has gone from being one of the most dangerous cities in the world, to being the world’s most innovative city – all within the last 20 years.
The power of Medellin hit me when I stumbled across the walk up Cerro de la Volador. I was speechless – not just because the walk here is up a short-but-very-steep hill – but because the panoramic view of the city is mesmerising.
Where to stay in Medellin:
I hostel-hopped a lot around Medellin, but the two hostels below are my favourites.
- El Poblado: 35th Station hostel – free brekkie included, super cheap rooms, a great bar, lovely owners, and a location that couldn’t really be any more central. Right next to Buddha bar too, it’s party but not too party.
- Laureles/Floresta: Hostal Ondas – has an amazing cafe on the ground floor with the best empanadas in Medellin, very chilled communal area with hanging hammock chair, lots of social events including a language exchange or digital nomad meet-up.
Or, if you’re looking for somewhere a bit nicer than a hostel but which isn’t ludicrously expensive, check out the deals on Booking.com:
Where to eat in Medellin:
Alambique: Not just a restaurant, a ‘laboratorio, cocina y bar’. Focusing on experimental food & cocktails, with edgy decor and big wooden tables that look like they belong in Sherlock Holmes.
Inconspicuously hidden away, with no sign on the street, it’s almost secret – but make sure you book as it’s already so popular, just from word out mouth.
Cafe Zorba: my favourite pizzas in Medellin – with wood-fired ovens where you can mix-and-match any flavours of pizzas.
These are my two favourite restaurants, but if you want a more extensive list of places to eat, check these posts:
What to do in Medellin:
- Real City Walking Tour: My favourite thing to do in the city, giving a super interesting, insightful view of Medellin today and it’s history. Totally free as they rely on tips – you pay for what you think it’s worth – which means they make it as good as possible. Book 2 days in advance as it books up fast here.
- Real City Exotic Fruit Tour: A great way to try all the weird & wonderful fruits
- Take the famous metro cable to Parque Arvi: Kill two birds with one stone – these are 2 of my favourite things to do in the city. The metro cable is a iconic with high views over the city, and Parque Arvi is a beautiful area to walk around with waterfalls and nature.
- Museo Casa de la Memoria: free to the public & a super interesting, but at times sad, insight into the history of Medellin.
- Visit Comuna 13: Home to the hipster rappers and some of the best street art in Medellin. There are lots of tours that go here, but you can also go on your own.
- Day trip to El Penol & Guatape – where you climb up 740 steps to get to this view:
2. Soak in the colours of Cartagena
I’ve spent hours aimlessly walking around the colonial old town in Cartagena. It’s generally pretty safe to walk around, and from one side to the other, it’s about a 30 min walk.
Cartagena is a great place to soak in the colourful streets and go out for dinner & drinks.
Tip: The beaches are a bit dirty and very busy, so if you want a nice beach, I’d recommend staying a few days in the city, and then moving on to the Rosario Islands and Playa Blanca.
Where to stay in town:
If you’re on a budget – Friends to be:
- I loved the rustic feel with the brick walls, roof terrace & communal pool – it’s super sociable but without trying too hard.
If you fancy a little swankier – Les Lezards guesthouse (available on Airbnb, and you can save $30 with my discount here too):
- With only 7 rooms all with bespoke decoration, it’s very personal and intimate. The beds are all insanely comfy, and the chef Ladee makes the best breakfast of eggs, fruit, juice, croissants. My two favourite rooms are Afrika (decorated with wooden beams with a 4 post bed or Up in the Sky (with it’s own private balcony with a hot tub in).
Both are located in the authentic area of Getsemni, just a 10 min walk from El Centro.
Or, if you’re looking for somewhere a bit nicer than a hostel but which is on offer, Booking.com often has some great bargains:
Where to eat in Cartagena:
My two favourite restaurants are:
Caffe Lunatico: super tasty for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a casual atmosphere. If you go for dinner, the “homenaje a la arepa!” – literally “Homage to the arepa!” – is the best arepa I had in the whole of Colombia. Crammed full of octopus, pancetta & avocado. Wash it down with their special Lunatico – their pina colada style cocktail – coconut, rum & mango.
La Cocina de Pepina: nothing swanky – just a small, authentic Cartagenan restaurant with the best food. Have the ‘Sopa Caribe’ (caribbean soup) – the tastiest creamy, coconut broth crammed full of prawns & fish.
Where (and what) to drink in Cartagena:
Cafe Del Mar: The perfect spot to watch the sun go down with cocktails while, listening to Ibiza-style chill out playlist. It gets busy so book if you want to guarantee a top table.
KGB – perfect for people watching, located on the corner of a busy street. Their White Russian cocktails are especially good.
Note: don’t drink the tap water here! I ended up in hospital with a parasite (see the section on Health & Safety below).
What to do in Cartagena:
- People-watch on Plaza Trinidad at night. Every night seems to be different here. There’s always street performers – the regulars seem to be a Michael Jackson dancer & Shakira drag queen, and free Sunday night Zumba which is crazy.
- Stay overnight on Playa Blanca – don’t just go for the day, as the best time is when everyone hops on the boats around 3pm. Then, the beautiful beach with white sand & crystal water is empty.
- Spend the day (and/or night) at Blue Apple Beach Club – chilled Ibiza-style house/lounge music, with cocktails and a private beach
- Movich Hotel: one of the only places with a rooftop bar & pool in central Cartagena where you can sunbathe and relax. Most places charge a day rate but you only need to buy a drink to stay here. It’s super lush, and you can get a room if you want to stay in luxury too.
- Spend the night at Casa En El Agua – a 2 hour boat ride from Cartagena, this hostel literally is a house in the sea. Despite it being tiny and pretty rustic, the bar is fully stocked with the best cocktails (2 for 1 all day every day).
Tip: Beware of the street artists – if you’re not careful it’s easy to accidentally spectate a show and then be expected to pay a tip. There are lots of hip hop rappers who walk round the city with a speaker and make bespoke raps for tourists – their songs are actually are quite good but once you’re in, it’s hard to get out.
3. Beaut beaches
Colombia is home to some really beautiful beaches, with the bluest seas. Here are my favourites:
- Providencia: This little island is located just off San Andres – which is an island itself, actually located closer to Nicaragua than Colombia. These islands are incredible, people are super chilled and the sea is insanely clear.
- Rosario Islands: A group of 30 islands, part of a national park just off Cartagena. Pick the island you want to visit & either go with a tour, or a standard boat from the Cartagenan port.
- Isla Grande is my favourite – home to Isla de Secreto (Secret Island) where you can canoe through the mangroves at night. I stayed at Fulano Secret Paradise, which has a cute communal area with hammocks, and super comfy beds.
- Playa Blanca: If you look for research online, you’ll probably be confused whether to go Playa Blanca or not. Lots of reviews say ‘it’s so touristy it’s not worth going’. Yes it is very touristy – but most people get the 9am boat from Cartagena, and leave around 3pm. Stay overnight in one of the cute rustic huts – and from 3pm, you’ll have the white beach to (pretty much) yourself.
- Costeno Beach: Super chilled beach atmosphere, with heaps of yoga and surfing – although be careful because the sea can be very rough. Located close to Tayrona Park, so it’s nice to stop off either before or after Tayrona Park to energise pre or post the hike.
- San Blas Islands: Technically these islands are Panamanian but the boat leaves from Cartagena, so it still felt part of my Colombian trip. If you’re considering going to Panama after Colombia, rather than fly – get this boat from Cartagena.
4. The nature is pretty magical – with heaps of walks & hikes
Colombia is also home to some of the most beautiful natural sights in the world. Here are a few of my favourites:
- Lost City / Ciudad Perdida – a 4-6 day trek in the North of Colombia to see life with the local tribes that apparently set up way before even Machu Picchu.
- Tayrona Park – a half-jungle, half-beach National Park near Santa Marta. One of the more touristy things to do but there’s a reason why – it’s so beaut.
- Caño Cristales river – otherwise called the ‘liquid rainbow’, an incredible multi-colour river that shines red, blue, yellow, orange and green.
- Rosario Islands – a National Park of 30 islands, just off Cartagena.
- Minca – the small mountainous town of Minca is surrounded by amazing walks with waterfalls.
- Salento – home to Cocora Valley, which hosts the tallest palm trees in the world.
- Parque Arvi in Medellin – escape the city life of Medellin, and hop on the cable car over to this beaut green zone with waterfalls & hikes.
5. Home to pink dolphins & flamingos
If you like your pink animals, then you could be in luck & see both pink dolphins & flamingos. I’m gutted I didn’t make it to either of these spots, as I heard about them too late, but they are on my list for when I return.
- For the pink dolphins, head to the Amazon (Leticia). There’s a great blog post from Chris here on this.
- For the flamingos, head to Cabo De La Vela, in La Guajira.
6. Home to the kindest, most beautiful people
Not only are the Colombians so beautiful, but they are also SO nice!
All the locals that I met were so keen to make me feel at home. They invited me to their family homes, showed me round their cities, and genuinely were the most welcoming people I’ve ever met.
7. Health & Safety
Be careful drinking tap water. It’s fine to drink in Medellin but not good on the coast (i.e. Cartagena, Santa Marta etc). Some locals say it’s ok, other locals say whatever you do, don’t drink it! (I was a fool, was cocky with thinking my stomach was ‘strong’ and was lazy – and then ended up in hospital)
The positives are that there are lots of hospitals around, where many doctors speak English. I went to the one in Bocagrande where they had a nice VIP room for tourists. #littleperks.
This is purely coming from a personal perspective of how I felt in the country, and from the areas I visited. I know some people have had bad experiences there, as with anywhere in the world. But from my experience having been in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina, I felt the most safe in Colombia. 3 terrorist attacks happened in the UK during my time here, so I genuinely felt safer in Colombia than in the UK.
All the locals I met are so keen to improve the perception of Colombia and want more tourists to visit. As with anywhere, always be sensible – don’t have your phone out and ‘dar papaya’ (give people opportunity).
(Also this is based on my experience of the places I visited. Obviously I didn’t manage to go everywhere in the country and I’m sure some places are more dangerous than others!)
8. Food & drink
Colombia is home to so many different, exotic foods that I’d never even heard of before.
My personal favourite is the hot chocolate with cheese in – so unbelievably creamy, maybe a little lavish. But here’s a list of the local delicacies…
Arepas: are everywhere but the specific flavours change dependent on where you are. The Cartagenan “arepa de huevos” were my favourite type which is basically an egg in a deep fried corn style patty.
Bandeja paisa: Not the faint hearted or vegetarians – chicharron (pork rind), chorizo, ground meet, black pudding, rice, beans, black pud, egg & avocado.
Lechona: whole roast pig stuffed with veg and slow cooked for 10 hours.
Exotic fruits: curuba, lulo, guyaba, guanaba, mamoncillio etc – a interesting way to get in those 5 a day.
Limonada de coco: coconut milk with lime, sugar and ice. Possibly my favourite drink in the world – this needs to exist in the UK.
Chocolate con queso: (heart attack alert) their version of hot choc with marshmallows = hot choc with cheese.
Jugo (juice): they love their juices! My favourites are maracuya (passionfruit), and two super Colombian style drinks which we don’t have an equivalent for – lulo or guanábana.
Aguardiente: the national spirit. It tastes a little like sambuca, and is super cheap. Apparently the more you have of this, the better it gets – although I’m yet to believe it.
9. Coffee to Colombia is like cheese to the French
For all those coffee addicts out there (aka me) Colombia is where it’s at. All the best coffee from around the world is grown here, so make sure you head to the coffee region to learn about how its made and have one the world’s finest cuppa – straight from the finca.
Salento is popular, home to lots of coffee farms. I liked Don Elias’s farm as it was super small and personal; Don himself showed us round his farm and gave us.
10. It’s a cultural hub
There’s incredible street art everywhere. You can soak it all in just by strolling around, or there are often tours explaining the art too. They have them in Medellin, Bogota and Cartagena.
Colombian artist ‘Botero’ also has made bespoke sculptures for many of the big cities – e.g. Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena. He has a very unique style, as he focuses on super fat people. They certainly catch people’s eyes in the big cities.
11. They say Colombian Spanish is the best
I’m not sure who ‘they’ are but I agree with ‘them’.
It’s supposedly one of the easier countries to learn as the accent is more neutral, compared to other Latin American countries. There are also heaps of teachers and schools around – especially in the main cities.
They speak a bit slower in both Medellin and Bogota, especially compared to on the coast, so it may be easier to pick learn here.
12. The night-life is banging
While reggaeton & salsa seem to rule the country, there’s a good underground scene too. Bogota and Medellin are where most of the DJs seem to head, although check sites like residentadvisor or even Facebook to see what’s going on.
My favourite clubs in Medellin (both in Poblado) are:
- Calle 9 – so cheap, amazing techno, & full of locals so it’s not pretentious at all
- Salón Amador – amazing sound system but a bit more spenny
I was lucky enough to see Nicolas Jaar, live in the Botanical Gardens in Medellin:
13. Low cost of living
Colombia was, by far, the cheapest country I’ve ever lived in. To give some context, here are a few general costs:
- Hostels – dorm beds start from just $5 per night
- If you’re staying longer & want to to rent a house – my monthly rent for a private double room in Medellin was $238 (one quarter of London prices).
- Food & drinks
- Lunch – usually under $4 for a menu of the day – which includes a juice, starter, main course, and dessert.
- Beers in the supermarkets are around $0.85, in bars they are around $1.60.
- Restaurants – I usually spent less than $10 for a main & drink.
- Street food – if you want to go super cheap, you can get arepas, empanadas or corn on the cob for less than $1
- The metro in Medellin = under $1 for pretty much any journey.
- Internal flights are great value – e.g. it’s around $20 to get from Cartagena to Medellin.
Obviously the weather will vary around the country, and it’s dependent on when you go too – but it was warm (or hot) pretty much everywhere I went. The coast tends to be hotter, and it tends to get a bit cooler the further in-land you go.
Medellin is also known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ – because the temperature is warm all year round, with some showers – but most people love the climate here as it’s never too extreme.
Cartagena is very hot – some people say too hot – but personally, I loved it.
So, in summary…
It’s impossible to summarise!
It’s massive but so full of diversity, that I don’t think it’s possible to sum up. Big buzzing & cosmopolitan cities, as well as chilled-out remote island life. Beautiful beaches, jungles and National Parks, with the kindest, most beautiful people…. I’ve never been touched by a country in this way.
I’ll definitely be going back, so if anyone has any other suggestions to make the ultimate guide to Colombia even more ultimate, please let me know.
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