colombia, amazon, tours

Colombia Amazon Tours: Secrets of the Amazon Rainforest

 
colombia, amazon, tours
colombia, amazon, tours

Discovering the incredible Amazon rainforest as an independent budget backpacker can prove a challenge, but the Amazon rainforest in Colombia is accessible and affordable, if you know where to go! Most travellers will look to their hotels and hostels in Leticia to organise their Amazon jungle tours. However, I would recommend skipping Leticia altogether, and hopping on an Amazon boat that will take you to the local river communities and experience authentic Amazon life! There are several Colombia Amazon tours that offer this, but the best thing is – you can do this with or without a tour!

The beauty of the unknown is rare in a world where modern civilisation has dominated and destroyed much of our planet, but the incredible Amazon rainforest remains an impenetrable mystery. We read about the existence of uncontacted tribes who live in the depths of the Amazon, the plethora of plants with medicinal qualities and potential cure for cancer and the constant discovery of new species. To the local communities that live on the river, the Amazon is their back garden. And it is to these local communities where you should go to discover the secrets of the Amazon.

There is very little information about the Amazon online, since internet barely reaches the dense, isolated jungle region. I spent ages searching online and finally came across somebody who could help me organise my trip to Amazon rainforest in Colombia!

colombia, amazon river

WHERE TO STAY & WHAT TO DO

Mocagua – An Amazon River Community

From Leticia, there are boats to Puerto Nariño every day, which stop at the communities of Santa Sofía (KM35), Zaragoza, Macedonia and Mocagua. The community of Mocagua, 60km from Leticia along the river, is a wonderful community of around 400 people which is only just starting to attract tourists, or rather, it is opening itself up to the possibility of tourism. There are three lodgings in Mocagua, along with a few “restaurants” (family homes where they serve you food) and several señoras who make and sell artisanal crafts from their homes.

Tomacache is a beautiful lodge with raised wooden huts with thatched roofs right on the riverfront. It is run by Henry, who is a lovely, shy but friendly father-like figure, through whom you can organise activities which are led by local members of the community. There are a host of activities you can do, such as dolphin watching, pirana fishing, night canoe trip, camping in the deep jungle, jungle walks, buying artesanal crafts and visiting the monkey rehabilitation centre.

Jungle Activities

The night canoe trip will take you to the depths of the jungle, with nothing but torches to guide the way. When you can barel see anything you are forced to really listen to the sounds of the jungle, the wild calls of animals in the night. If you’re lucky you might even spot frogs, tarantulas, monkeys, caimans, and snakes!

You can go fishing the old-fashioned way (with a glorified stick). Our guide caught about ten fish, our outdoorsy New Zealand companions also managed to catch a few, but obviously, us city kids from London caught nothing, instead we got our bait caught in the plants several times. It’s a good test of your survival skills. I know I would definitely die in the jungle.

For the more adventurous, overnight camping is a must – you will be taken along the tributaries of the Amazon and taken deep into the jungle, where you must set up camp with hammocks under a plastic sheet and cook your own dinner on a fire. Enjoy a night jungle walk to see caimans and sleep to the sounds of roaring jaguars (rare, but I heard them!). In the morning, enjoy a walk getting to know the plants and trees that could be vital to your survival in the jungle.

Visit the unmissable Maikuchiga monkey foundation* and rehabilitation centre. This centre aims to protect monkeys from being poached and sold on the black market. Those who are endangered or, often, babies who are orphaned are taken to the foundation to be looked after until they are ready to be re-released into the wild. The monkeys are absolutely adorable – they are playful and curious and really nosy. They will run around, climb all over you, open your zips and look inside your bags. There were about seven baby monkeys, and one older one who was ready to be re-released into the wild. You know they are old enough when they stop becoming playful, but instead become lazy, violent and territorial.

*Not to be mistaken for monkey island! Please do not go to monkey island!! It is not the natural habitat of the monkeys, but a “reserve” created by Decameron as a business venture. They were brought especially to the island for tourists. Like a zoo – it is a tourist trap which does not prioritise the wellbeing of the monkeys, they are stuck on the island, semi-domesticated and will not be released into the wild.

colombia, amazon lodge mocagua
colombia, amazon lodge mocagua

The Indigenous Tikuna Tribe & The Close of National Park Amacayacu

Traditionally the Tikuna indigenous tribe has always lived off the jungle; fishing and hunting for food and felling wood to build houses. However, in the 70s, the government created the National Park Amacayacu and conversation project to protect the land. They approached the tribe as they wanted them to stop felling trees and hunting animals, and the tribe agreed to the project on the condition that they would be given jobs. They came to an agreement, hiring workers from the surrounding indigenous communities to work at Amacayacu. They were given training in gastronomy, hospitality and tourism and the National Park flourished for many years. After ten years studies showed that the jungle was recovering well and so they decided to continue the project. However in 1985, Uribe came to presidency and privatised the PNN, selling it to Decameron, a large, corporate tourism firm. Decameron brought in their own workers, wanting to keep 80% of the profits for themselves and gave only 20% to the local community. Consequently, there was high unemployment in the surrounding communities and people started to leave, seeking opportunities elsewhere. However, Decameron did not last as their infrastructure could not withstand the natural floods of the Amazon, which destroyed everything. It was left destitute. Now surrounding communities such as Mocagua are trying to recover tourism business, using their initiative, and to open their own lodgings and restaurants. Because internet has not reached these communities, they rely on word of mouth to bring in tourists. Most work with local guides in Leticia, not large tour companies, and this way business/profit goes directly to the local community.

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

Amazon Jungle Tours

There is very little information about the Amazon online, since internet barely reaches the dense, isolated jungle region. As previously mentioned, people tend to organise tours from their lodgings in Leticia – these are usually pretty cheap but I have heard very mixed reviews about the quality of these tours and how much you get to know the jungle. I spent ages searching online and only found fantastic-sounding tours catered for rich foreigners and way out of my price range. After much research, I found Tomamazon tours, based in Leticia, who work with Henry the owner of Tomacache and the small community of Mocagua.

Costs

$900,000 per person for 2 people, 4 days and 3 nights, including airport transportation, boats to lodgings, all activities, meals, an English speaking guide and rubber boots. Prices can be negotiated, especially if you are a group, you have more leverage to haggle.

TOUR VS DO-IT-YOURSELF

As a budget backpacker, I am never keen on organised tours and insist on doing everything independently. However, the lack of information online can make this difficult, especially if you have limited time. It is definitely feasible to take the public boat from Leticia and stop at any local community, however weighing up the costs of accommodation, transport, meals and activities, it was definitely more economical to organise this particular trip with Tomamazon Tours rather than independently. As an individual, you will be charged per activity (ranging from $100,000-$250,000COP), in addition to each meal and night of accommodation. If you prefer to maybe only do one activity and laze around by the river, going with a tour probably is not worth it. However, if you want to experience the deep jungle, go canoeing, fishing, see rescued monkeys and dolphins at sunset, such tours are definitely value for money. They also support local communites! The tours are tailored to your needs – for example, because our flight landed after the last boat to Leticia left, we had a private boat that took us Mocagua (which noramlly costs $400,000COP!). If you have any questions about our experience, feel free e-mail or comment below and we will do our best to help you!

colombia amazon maikuchiga monkey
colombia amazon maikuchiga monkey

How to get to the Amazon in Colombia

1) Fly from Bogota to Leticia

There is no way to get to Leticia by land, the only option is to flight from Bogota to Leticia. There are flights every day from Bogotá to Leticia with LATAM or Avianca

colombia amazon leticia puerto nariño map

 

2) Get a boat from Leticia to Puerto Nariño

From Leticia, there are boats to Puerto Nariño every day, which stop at the communities of Santa Sofía (KM35), Zaragoza, Macedonia and Mocagua.

Transportation to and from Leticia are usually included in Amazon jungle tours, otherwise it costs $30,000COP per journey and it is recommended to reserve in advance.

     Leticia to Puerto Nariño
    8:00, 10:00, 14:00
Puerto Nariño to Leticia
7:30, 11:00, 16:00

The trip takes around 2 hours. Mocagua is 60km away

Your tour will organise the return for you. If travelling individually, buy your tickets in advance in Leticia as they can get fully booked. For the return journey, speak to your host about reserving a place as they only stop at the local communities on request.

Things to note

$30,000 tourist tax at the airport

There are a three banks in Leticia – BBVA, Bancolombia and Banco Agrario, but it is better to get cash in Bogotá before, especially if you are not planning on spending time in Leticia.

PNN Amacayacu is closed to the public indefinitely (officially because of floods). Local communities such as San Martín and Mocagua offer eco-touristic services.

WHAT TO PACK

The key is to pack light!

Loose clothes – it very muggy and hot!

Long-sleeved tops for the deep jungles (you will be bitten alive)

Insect repellent

Sunblock

Sunhat

Torch

Flip-flops or sandals

Trainers if you wish, although you will be given rubber boots for going into the deep  jungle

Malaria tablets if you feel they are necessary. I didn’t take them but most foreigner travellers are more cautious (locals will just laugh at you)

Battery packs and portable chargers (there is only electricity for a few hours a day)

colombia amazon sunset
colombia amazon sunset
Photo credits: Yoanne’s sister Jon Tong
colombia, valle de cocora hike, salento

Valle de Cocora Hike Salento

Valle de Cocora is home to the tallest wax palms in the world, and one of the most breathtaking landscapes you will find in Colombia. The palms grow up to 60m high, their spindly trunks soar into the sky like the stroke of a paintbrush against a beautiful backdrop of trim green fields. Valle de Cocora is a cloud forest nestled in the Coffee Region, between the Andean and Central cordillera and about half an hour away from Salento, the closest town and where most people stay and do a day-trip in Cocora. The Valle de Cocora hike takes you through the stunning valley of wax palms to the Finca la Montaña viewpoint, then through the muddy trails and rickety wooden suspension bridges. In the hummingbird sanctuary of Acaime, you can experience the magic of hummingbirds in their natural habitat up-close.

THE VALLE DE COCORA HIKE

The short hike is to go directly to the Cocora Valley and loop back the same way you came, which you can do in a leisurely 1-2 hours, either by foot or by horse. For the active adventurer and nature lover, the long hike takes around 5-6 hours, a long, satisfying, tiring full-day hike. But the secret to making the most of Valle de Cocora hike is to do it clockwise rather than anti-clockwise!

Most guides will tell you to take the path through the blue gate on the right, as marked by the signpost (above). DO NOT DO THIS. Instead, do it the opposite way around and start at Cocora Valley (this way, you will finish at the blue gate). This way is a much more gradual climb up to Finca la Montaña, and a pleasant mostly downhill stroll. Otherwise, it is an uphill struggle up the steep side of the mountain and you’ll be beyond exhausted by the time you finally reach the main palms. Also, it tends to be clear and sunny in the mornings – the best time for photos in the main valley – and the afternoon clouds over (and can rain pretty heavily if you’re unlucky).

colombia valle de cocora hike map

Valle de Cocora to Finca la Montaña

(2,860m) approx. 1 hour

Go directly to the Valle de Cocora on the muddy path. After about ten minutes you will see a gate on your right with a sign saying “sendero turisticó $3.000”, enter through the gate (it looks like a farm, there might be some cows grazing on the field) and take the path that crosses the valley. Do not follow the sign towards Parque Nacional los Nevados, which takes you by the river and is a much longer, several-day hike. A leisurely 1-hour hike will take you up to Finca la Montaña (2,860m). Don’t forget to poke your head through the shrubbery on the way up – there are some breathtaking but hidden viewpoints!

colombia valle de cocora wax palms
colombia valle de cocora wax palms

Finca la Montaña to Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary

approx. 40 mins

From Finca la Montaña, you can hike to Acaime Casa de Colibris in about 40 minutes (1.8km), which involves climbing down and then up again. Casa de Colibri is well worth the extra hike, and for a measly $5,000COP (includes a drink) you can get up, close and personal with the hummingbirds!

The owners of Acaime put out sugar water for the hummingbirds, of which there are around fourteen species inhabiting the cloud forest. The hummingbirds come and go, flying around your head – they are accustomed to human presence. It is a great photo opportunity – if you can catch one as they are very speedy!

The most common one you’ll see is the buff-tailed coronet, which is green with bronze tailfeathers. We also spotted the long-tailed sylph, with its long blue-Jasmin tail; the gorgeous collared inca, with its snow-white chest or the small, round and fluffy Cuban emerald zunzun. The guides there are very knowledgeable and can tell you all about the species and their habits.

colombia valle de cocora hummingbird acaime
colombia valle de cocora hummingbird acaime

Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary to the Green Gate

Approx. 2 hours

After enjoying the hummingbird sanctuary, you can back head down the same path you climbed up. You will pass the desvío where you came down from Finca la Montaña, keep heading down – there is only one path. It will take you by the river, which you’ll cross several times over some rickety wooden suspension bridges. You can smugly greet people you meet on their way up, huffing and puffing away up the mountain.

This will eventually take you out of the dense cloud forest into the valley clearing, and once again you’ll see the wax palms silhouetted on the mountain. You might notice there will appear a parallel path beside the one you’re on – don’t worry, both go the same way. The left (the one you come out on) is for the horses, and the right is the path you want to walk on. You’ll pass fincas and a trout farm onto the other side of the valley and eventually come out by through the green gate which you passed at the start of the hike. From Acaime to the green gate takes about 2 hours at a leisurely pace.

After your hike, you can head to one of the cafes or restaurants for a cup of coffee or some lunch before heading back to Salento.

colombia valle de cocora palms silhouette
colombia valle de cocora palms silhouette

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

How to get from Salento to Valle de Cocora

Aim to leave as early as possible from Salento, ideally for the first jeep but otherwise before 9am – especially if you go during the weekend or a holiday. The cloud forest climate means that mist and even rain often takes over during the afternoon, so you want to start hiking early to see the wax palms while the sun is still shining.

Willy jeeps run from Salento’s main plaza to Valle de Cocora every day starting from 6.30am. They run every hour (or as soon as they are full). During public holidays and weekends they may run more frequently due to high demand. For the more adventurous, you can choose to stand at the back of the jeep and clutch onto the rooftop – you will be windswept, but you will enjoy the best views! For the return journey from Valle de Cocora to Salento, they run every hour until 6.30pm.

Salento to Cocora
06:30-17:30
every hour
Cocora to Salento
07:30-18.30
every hour

During public holidays they will run more regularly.

The cost for each trip is $3,800COP ($1.3USD / €1.06 / £0.94)

colombia valle de cocora willy jeep
colombia valle de cocora willy jeep

 
What to pack

  • Water – Bring enough water for the day’s hike!
  • Food – some sandwiches or bread and fruit. Don’t make the same mistake that we did! There isn’t anywhere that serves food during the hike so be prepared. If, like us, you brought nothing but a banana, you might be able to plead the family that lives at Finca la Montaña to sell you some breakfast!
  • A waterproof rain jacket – the weather in the cloud forest is very changeable, and is often misty or rainy in the afternoon.
  • Sturdy walking shoes- hiking boots are ideal, but decent trainers are fine too, the paths can get muddy if rains.

Post-Hike Lunch

If you are looking for a nice, filling meal post-hike, Restaurante Los Orillos (next to the blue gate) sells a delicious corrientazo style menu for around $15,000. Everything is served on a big and crispy patacón – you can choose between trout, chicken or beef with or without a creamy mushroom sauce, served with rice and a delicious coleslaw.

Costs

There might a local, fairly official looking guy with a clipboard asking you to pay a kind of “insurance” for around $5,000. This is not compulsory, and personally I think it is a kind of scam for tourists. They will act like it is compulsory, but explain that you do not want to pay it and they will ask you to write your name and sign that they won’t be responsible for any accidents.

Day budget $15,600COP$5.50/€4.50/£4

Willy from Salento to Cocora
$3,800COP
$1USD/€1/£1
Willy from Cocora to Salento
$3,800COP
$1USD/€1/£1
Entrance to Acaime
$5,000COP
$2/€1.5/£1.5
Hike on the path
$3,000COP
$1USD/€1/£1

With lunch +$15,000

= $30,600 $10.50/ €8.50/£7.50

 

SALENTO

It is possible to stay in Valle de Cocora itself, with rooms or camping options in local fincas. However, this option is more expensive than staying in the nearby town of Salento. Not only is it a convenient and easy day-trip, but the town itself is worth visiting – full of colours, quirky shops and cute little cafes – not to mention breathtaking mountain views.

Read our post about top things to do in Salento.

colombia valle de cocora salento
colombia valle de cocora salento
colombia, things to do in salento

Salento

colombia, things to do in salento
colombia, things to do in salento

Salento, Quindio is a quaint little town in the heart of the coffee region where most travellers heading to Valle de Cocora will stay. But Valle de Cocora is not the only reason why people come flocking to Salento. Tucked between the rolling hills of the Western and Central Andean cordilleras, it is renowned for its breathtaking 360° views and colourful, painted traditional houses.

It’s very small, you probably only really need a day to wander about the town. I’d recommend 2 days for a Salento-Cocora trip, with 3 days being perfect for a more relaxed trip and giving you a day to recover from the hike, wander the surrounding hills or have a day in Filandia.

THINGS TO DO IN SALENTO

Main Plaza

Like all traditional plazas in Latin America. Small, church, restaurants. Park in the centre, at the weekends surrounded by stalls selling fruit, coffee, and traditional Colombian food. V lively at the weekend, people drinking beer, playing music and dancing. Always lots of 4×4 Willys parked. Looks like a step back in time!

Calle Real

Although all the houses in Salento are traditionally painted, Calle Real is perhaps the most striking. The colourfully painted doors match perfectly with equally vibrant balconies which overhang onto the bustling street below, which is dotted with wooden park benches and old-fashioned street lamps. It is a street of artisanal shops selling local handicrafts and cafés. Calle Real connects the the main plaza with the steep steps that lead to the mirador Alto de la Cruz.

colombia salento calle real

Alto de la Cruz

There are two main viewpoints, one that looks out onto the valley and another over the town. Most people take the horribly steep 250 steps at the end of Camino Real. Save yourself the pain and take the scenic route with a more gentle incline. Take a short walk up Carrera 4, which takes you to the viewpoint “Ecoparque el Mirador”. Enjoy the views from there, and then take a concrete path by the fence on the right of the viewpoint, which will take you up to the other mirador which looks out of the town. It’s a bit gritty to be honest. Then you can take the steps down to Camino Real.

Coffee Tour

In the coffee region you can find coffee tours left, right and centre, walking around town you’ll see posters and most accommodation will also have recommendations. Here are the most popular Salento coffee tours:

  • Finca Don Eduardo Coffee Farm 3 hours $30,000COP ($10.50/£7.50/€8.50)
    Family run, Don Eduardo does the tours himself. A Brit who has lived there for over 13 years.
  • Finca las Brisas (Cafe Don Elias) 1 hour $8,000COP ($3/£2/€2)
    Small and organic coffee farm
  • Finca Ocaso 1.5 hours. $15,000 ($5/£4/€4)
    Big production with regular tours in English
  •  

Filandia Day Trip from Salento

Filandia is a smaller, less touristy version of Salento. Similar to Salento, it has many colourfully painted houses, but it is a more authentic town that is less commercial and little geared towards tourists, especially foreigners. Just 10 minutes walk from the Plaza you will find the Mirador Colina Iluminada del Quindio, a 27-metre-high wooden structure with 360 views of the Coffee Region. There is also the natural reserve Barbas-Bremen 680 hectares of forest with hundreds of species of flora and fauna. Filandia has many lovely restaurant, we would particularly recommend the beautiful Helena Adentro which serves delicious Colombian-inspired tapas in a stunning glass patio. The maranitas pork, choriopan de chorizo santarrosano (restaurant version of a typical regional hotdog-like street food) and berenjena de finca (aubergine with goats cheese).

colombia filandia

WHERE TO STAY IN SALENTO

Salento has a range of accommodation both in the town itself and in nearby coffee farms (fincas). In the fincas, you can enjoy the tranquility of the surrounding mountains and truly be in the nature and many offer pick-up and drop-off service from the centre of Salento. However, staying in the town is more convenient if you want to be able to wander the streets and go out for meals. Both are great options, and Salento is so small that nothing it too much effort or too inconvenient.

For solo, social backpackers, Tralala and El Viajero are popular options. Many people choose to stay as close as possible to the main Plaza or Calle Real (Calle 6), but I would recommend staying on the outer edges to get the best of both worlds – convenient location and mountain views.

  • Dorms from $20,000COP ($7 / £5 / €6)
  • Privates from $65,000COP ($23 / £16 / €18)

We stayed at Luciernagas Hostel, just 5-10 minutes’ walk from the main plaza with breathtaking mountain views with spacious rooms. The dorms have real beds, and all the private rooms have a balcony. The private rooms are small but perfectly sized.

  • Dorm from $25,000COP ($9 / £6 / €7)
  • Double $95,000COP ($33 / £24 / €27)
  •  

WHERE TO EAT 

Patacón (Main Plaza)
Salento is locally renown for its delicious patacón, that is giant smashed plantain that has toppings of your choice, much like a pizza. The Main Plaza has many street stalls offering patacon from about $10,000COP.

Luciérnaga
Luciérnaga is also a restaurant bar with glass walls, outdoor seating and a fantastic view. We went for breakfast but the lunch menu also looked delicious.

Meals from around $15,000

Meraki
Meraki offers a range of international-style meals which are locally sourced. You can sit outside – nicely lit and lovely atmosphere. We a vegetarian hotdog with teriyaki fried vegetables and crispy plantain, and parcels of chicken in soft pastry. I wasn’t a huge fan of the vegetarian protein used for the hotdog, but the rest was delicious – especially the chicken parcels. But my favourite was definitely dessert – their homemade chocolate cake with crushed peanuts and strawberries is absolutely divine.

 
 
HOW TO GET TO SALENTO

colombia salento eje cafetero map

You cannot get directly to Salento. To get to Salento, you must first get to Armenia or Pereira. Then you can get a bus to Salento.

1) Go to Armenia or Pereira

A: Fly to Armenia or Pereira

You can fly to Armenia or Pereira from any main city, then get a bus to Salento. Avianca has 4 flights a day Bogota to Armenia. Vivacolombia has flights to Pereira from Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin, (as well as Santa Marta and Barranquilla)

OR

B: Bus to Armenia or Pereira

The easiest way to get to Salento is to go to Armenia or Pereira, as there are few direct buses to Salento from the big cities. You could also go to Pereira, but there are more buses that go from Armenia.

Bus from Bogota to Armenia (9 hours)

Buses go from Terminal Salitre and run every hour or so from midnight until 5pm, for around $50,000COP ($17USD/£13/€14)

Bus times from Bogota to Armenia:

Bolivariano
$53,0000COP
01:30, 04:00, 05:30, 07:00, 11:00, 13:00, 16:00, 18:00
Magdalena
$50,000COP
00:30, 01:30, 02:30, 05:00, 06:00, 08:45, 12:00
Velotax
$47,000COP
04:00, 06:00, 08:00, 10:00, 12:00, 14:00, 17:00 


Bus from Medellin to Armenia (7 hours)
From Terminal Sur

Aracua
$40,0000COP
04:30, 06:30, 08:45, 09:45, 11:15, 13:00, 15:00, 18:00
Flota Accidental
$47,000COP
Every hour from 00:30 to 23:30

There are also direct buses from Medellin to Salento four times a day with Flota Occidental leaving at 9am, 11am, 1pm, 4pm. The journey
lasts 6.5 hours and costs $45,000COP

 
Bus from Cali to Armenia (3 hours)

Buses run every 20 minutes between 4am-9pm. Cost $22,00COP

Companies Expreso Treso, Palmira, Tax Belalcazar, Velotax, Transa

 

2) BUS TO SALENTO

colombia salento eje cafetero map

Bus from Armenia to Salento

Once you are in Armenia, buses run frequently to Salento and takes around 45 minutes.

Cootracir
$3,600
every 20 minutes 05:20-20:00
Alcala
$3,400
every 20 minutes 05:40-20:00

Bus from Pereira to Salento

Expreso Alcala
$7,000
Weekdays
06:30, 08:40,10:00, 11:40, 13:40,15:00,16:40 and 18:40
Weekends
06:30-18:40 every hour

From Pereira after 7pm (but before 9pm)

If you are coming from Pereira, be sure to go early as possible as it will be difficult to get to Salento after 9pm. If you miss the last bus from Pereira, you can get a bus to Armenia but ask the driver to drop you off on the vía a Salento. Here, the bus that comes from Armenia to Salento will pick you up on its way. You will see a turn off the main road on the left which goes to Salento. When you get off the bus, you just need to cross the road and you will see a bus stop. You shouldn’t have to wait long for the next bus!

From Pereira – vía Salento – Salento $6,500COP + $2,800COP


Direct bus from Medellin to Salento

There are a few options that will take you directly between Medelllin and Salento. You need to go from Terminal Sur in Medellin.

LEAVING SALENTO

Buses leave from Carrera 2 between 4&5, next to a school.

Buses from Salento to Armenia
Every 20 minutes from 6.00am to 9.00pm

Buses from Salento to Pereira
07:50, 10:00, 12:50, 14:50,17:50, 20:00
(more frequent at the weekend)

Direct bus from Salento to Medellin
8:00, 10:00, 12:00, 16:00
$45,000COP

There are regular bus from Armenia and Perieira to Bogota, Cali and Medellin.

colombia salento colours
colombia backpacking routes

Colombia Backpacking Routes

colombia backpacking routes

 

Much of the Latin America continent remains unexplored, but if there’s any country with undiscovered magic, it’s Colombia. Until recent years, Colombia was an unthinkable destination for many travellers, deemed too dangerous; ruled by crime and drug-traffickers. Of course, Netflix’s Narcos has very much put Colombia on the map (for better or for worse) and last year’s Peace Agreement has catapulted Colombia to new-found fame, landing top spots on Conde Nast Traveler, NY Times, and The Telegraph. Of course, having lived in Colombia for a year with my Colombian boyfriend – I don’t need any convincing! We have travelled all over to come up with the ultimate guide and complete Colombia backpacking route – with itinerary ideas, bespoke maps and recommendations to suit your backpacker needs.

For those who have ventured to Colombia, they are likely to have discovered beautiful beaches, colourful colonials towns and some of the friendliest people in the world! However, the main mistake foreigners make is believing that the the tropical climes of the Caribbean coast is the best that Colombia has to offer when in reality, Colombia’s true charm lies in its incredibly varied topography and ecosystems. Colombia is 60% rainforest with jungles that open onto large stretches of coastline and snow-capped mountains Xkm from the sea. Altiplanos, cloud forests and paramos spread across the extensive Andean mountains, which traverse the country in three parts. It is the second most biodiverse country in the world whose ecological diversity makes Colombia a heaven for hikers, wildlife-lovers and adventurers.

Colombia is our home, and even though we have travelled around most of it – there is always more to see! We would recommend spending one or two months in Colombia, but even then it’s always difficult to squeeze everywhere in. Check out our Colombia hotspots for the best places to visit in Colombia.

TWO MONTHS IN COLOMBIA

Colombia Backpacking Routes 2 months map

THE ‘INTERIOR’ (4-5 weeks)

Bogota – Tatacoa – San Agustin – Pasto – Cali – Salento – Medellin

Let’s start in the sprawling mountains of the Colombian capital, Bogotá, which geographically, is also the heart of the country. Head south towards Neiva and enjoy the starry sky of Tatacoa Desert. Keep heading south and wonder at ancient statues of San Agustin. Next, the southwestern corner of Colombia will take you to Pasto, whose traditional country folk are more Andean than Colombian. Visit the fairytale church of Las Lajas and Laguna Verde near Ipiales, by the Ecuadorian border.

Heading back up the West side of the interior, you will reach the colonial White City of Popayán. Next, dance all night in Calí, salsa capital. Heading up towards the centre again, and you will reach the rolling hills of the Coffee region where you will find the colourful town of Salento and the wax palms of Cocora Valley. Then, keep heading north to the once notorious city of Medellín. Here, you have the option to detour to the wild beaches of Chocó (Nuqui or Bahía Solano) and back. Alternatively you can head to the northwestern border with Panamá to the Darien jungle-beach paradise that is Sapzurro, perhaps stopping in Capurganá (where San Blas boats to Panama).

The interior region is often overlooked, but no less magical – particularly forkeen hikers!

THE CARIBBEAN COAST (2 WEEKS)

Cartagena – Santa Marta – Tayrona – Palomino – Cabo de la Vela – Punta Gallinas

Now you can make your way along the Caribbean coast, starting in the walled city of Cartagena, and the bustling beaches nearby. Moving northeast you will find the mountains of Santa Marta and its surrounding beaches (Taganga, Costeno Beach). A 4-day detour south from Santa Marta take you to the incredible Lost City, or head straight to the famous National Park Tayrona, navigating the leafy, dense jungle to reach the sea. Another hour and you will reach Palomino, where you can experience real-life Lazy River tubing down the gentle Magdalena river, immersed in the sounds of the jungle. If you are feeling adventurous, venture to the arid, desert region of the Guajira; witness the beautiful sunsets of Cabo de la Vela and brave the rough seas to Punta Gallinas, the northern tip of South America where desert meets the sea.

SANTANDER AND BOYACÁ(1-2 WEEKS)

Mompox – Barichara – San Gil – Villa de Leyva – Bogotá

Heading back down south, you can cross the departamento of Cesar, stopping in Valledupar, where Vallenato originates from, or Mompós (Bolivar), allegedly the most beautiful city of Colombia. Further south is the department of Santander where you will find Canon de Chicamocha (apparently deeper than the Grand Canyon!); Barichara, one of the most beautiful, colonial towns of Colombia; and San Gil, for the adrenaline-junkies, where you can do extreme sports. On route back to Bogotá lie the little explored towns of Boyacá, apart from the colonial Villa de Leyva. Boyacá also boasts the incredibly ecologically important páramos of Cocuy and Oceta. Finally pop to underground salt cathedral of Zipaquira on the way back to Bogotá.

COLOMBIA ITINERARY: ONE MONTH

Colombia Backpacking Routes 1 month map

Bogota – Salento – Medellin – Cartagena – Santa Marta – The Guajira – Mompox – Barichara – San Gil – Villa de Leyva – Bogota

Bogota – Tatacoa – San Agustin – Pasto – Popayan – Cali – Salento – Medellin – Cartagena – Santa Marta

COLOMBIA ITINERARY: TWO OR THREE WEEKS 

Colombia Backpacking Routes 2 weeks map

Bogota – Salento – Medellin – Cartagena – Santa Marta – The Guajira – Mompox – Barichara – San Gil – Villa de Leyva – Bogota

Bogota – Tatacoa – San Agustin – Pasto – Popayan – Cali – Salento – Medellin – Cartagena – Santa Marta

COLOMBIA ITINERARY: FROM PANAMA TO ECUADOR

Colombia Backpacking Routes from Panama to Ecuador

EXTRA TIME OR MONEY?

If you have plenty of time and no financial constraints, consider heading to some places which are off-route and may be difficult to get to – but totlly worth the effort!

THE AMAZON

No matter how long you are willing to sit on a bus for, The Amazon rainforest is not a destination that can be reached by road. You must fly from Bogota to Leticia (there are no flights from any other city!) which is served by LATAM or Avianca. Although it is a costly detour, discovering in the local communities of the Amazon river is an unforgettable experience!

THE LOST CITY

The Lost City, or La Ciudad Perdida are pre-Inca ruins 600 years older than Machu Picchu! However, unlike Machu Picchu, the only way to get the Lost City is a sweaty but rewarding 4-day trek through the humid Santa Marta Jungle.

SAN ANDRES

San Andrés is the Caribbean island paradise of your dreams – incredible turquoise blue seas and fine soft sands – with prices to match! San Andres may belong to Colombia but its prices are sky high and is dominated by luxury resorts, not unlike Cancun in Mexico. If you’re looking for a break from backpacker life, this may be the answer!

ISLA GORGONA

While San Andres is a Caribbean paradise streaming with tourists, Gorgona is a Pacific Island with untouched beaches on the edge of dense jungle which has only recently opened up to tourism. It’s biological diversity makes it heaven for wildlife lovers and keen divers!

colombia, punta gallinas, guajira

Punta Gallinas, The Guajira

colombia, punta gallinas, guajira

As if Cabo de la Vela is not remote enough, the virgin sands of Punta Gallinas is pure, arid desert with surrounded by more pure, arid desert. Arriving by boat through the blue shallows, the marsh plants part like a curtain to paradise. Bar a few settlements made of wooden sticks, there is nothing but yellow sand, there is barely even any vegetation. It’s like discovering a new, uninhabited world. As one of the most remote places I have ever been, Punta Gallinas offers nature at its finest – the immensity of the desert, the intensity of an unforgiving sunset on the backdrop of the vast sea. There is little to do but contemplate our inconsequential human existence versus the immortality of nature.

THINGS TO DO

It is impossible to visit Punta Gallinas without a “tour”, which includes transportation and a tour around the viewpoints. I say “tour” because it is not an organised tour as such, rather, locals in Cabo de la Vela who organise the transport and drivers, and there is no guide.Upon arrival to Punta Gallinas, you will have a short break for breakfast before the tour where you will visit Faro de Punta Gallinas in, the Northernmost point of the South America, enjoy the turquoise mirror bay that is Bahía Honda; and gape in awe at the most incredible, monumental Dunas de Taroa, where the desert sand dunes embrace the sea with a sheer 45-degree descent. Running, sausage-rolling or roly-polying down is highly recommended! You will have some time to take photos at each point and then some free time to enjoy the beach and have a wander by the Dunas de Taroa. The tour takes around 2.5 hours and will drop you back to your hostel for lunch, and then you have free time in the afternoon.

 

WHERE TO STAY

The tour does not include accommodation or food, and you have to stay overnight because the boats and jeeps only leave in the early morning. The boats will land by Hospedaje Alexandra on the Bahía Hondita, where most people tend to stay. The other option is Hospedaje Luzmila, a short drive away which has great views. Don’t expect anything fancy, just basic wooden shacks with a dining area.

Hammocks
$15,000COP
$5USD/£4/€4
Chinchorros*
$20,000COP
$7USD/£5/€6
Cabanas (Private room)
$30,000COP
$10USD/£8/€9

*Chinchorros are just basically big hammocks, that are about twice the size and more comfortable

If you are on a tight budget, you can share one chinchorro between two – it’s not very comfortable but it is doable!

 

WHAT TO EAT

There are no restaurants in Punta Gallinas, the only option is to eat at either hostel or bring your own food. The hostel offers typical Colombian dishes served with plantain and rice at prices you would expect for being in the middle of nowhere.

Breakfast
Eggs & arepas
$6,000COP
$2USD/£1.50/€2
Lunch/dinner
Chicken or fish
$15,000COP
$5USD/£4/€4
 
Vegetarian
$10,000COP
$3.50USD/£2.50/€3
 
Fresh lobster
(They given you a whole lobster each)
$25,000COP
$9USD / £6 / €7
colombia punta gallinas wave
colombia punta gallinas wave

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

How to get from Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas

To get to Punta Gallinas, you can speak to any hostel owner (or just ask a local and they will point you in the right direction) and they will organise everything.


There are two ways to get to Punta Gallinas: by 4×4 (4-5 hours) or by 4×4 (1 hour) + boat (2-3 hours). Either way, you will leave around 5am and arrive at Punta Gallinas around 9am.

Unfortunately, we went post-hurricane and 4×4 was not an option because the roads were closed. From what we have read and heard, you are choosing between the lesser of two evils. By road is a long, bumpy and uncomfortable ride on dirt roads. By boat is a long, bumpy, uncomfortable ride – and if you are unlucky – with waves constantly crashing into your face and soaking the entire boat. Oh and your life is in the hands of some local teenagers. If we had the choice, we would definitely choose road as your chance of survival is significantly higher should there be an accident. Of course, no one in their right mind would choose to go by boat! But, having survived, we can say it was a thrilling adventure even though at the time we were absolutely bricking it. Having said that, another group which arrived the next day were barely wet at all, so it just depends on the weather and how late the boat ends up leaving.

A word of advice – if you’re heading back to Cabo de la Vela, obviously, leave your big backpack with your hostel there and take a small rucksack. Also, make sure anything valuable is safely sealed in waterproof bags!

Returning from Punta Gallinas

For your return trip from Punta Gallinas, your boat or 4×4 will leave at 5am. You have the option of returning to Cabo de la Vela or heading to Uribia – this is included in your tour cost. You can also ask your driver to drop you at Riohacha Bus Terminal for a little extra (we paid $10,000COP each). Either way, you need to let your guy know when you are organising the tour in Cabo de la Vela.

colombia punta gallinas 4x4 faro
colombia punta gallinas 4x4 faro

Costs

$150,000COP ($53USD / £38 / €43)

$150,000 is the standard cost for a return trip, which includes a tour and transport to and from Punta Gallinas, with the option of returning to Cabo de la Vela or Uribia (even Riohacha for an extra $10,000). Depending on your negotiating skills and how many people there are, it is possible to haggle down to $100,000-$120,000.

Let the guy know if you want to stay one night or two, and the return boat will be ready to leave at 5am. You can arrange if you want to go back to Cabo de la Vela or directly to Uribia (and for a bit extra they will take you to Riohacha)

Total budget
Budget includes transportation, tour, food and accommodation:
For 1 night:

Tour & transportation
$150,000COP
$52USD/£37/€42
Food (3 meals & water)
$50,000COP
$17USD/£12/€14
Accommodation
$15,000
$5USD/£4/€4
Total
$215,000COP
$74USD/£53/€60

$205,000 per person for 1 night

For 2 nights

Tour & transportation
$150,000COP
$52USD/£37/€42
Food (3 meals & water)
$100,000COP
$34USD/£25/€28
Accommodation
$30,000
$10USD/£8/€8
Total
$280,000COP
$97USD/£70/€79

Total per person for 2 nights: $280,000COP.

There is no doubt that the trip to Punta Gallinas is significantly more expensive than your average backpacker budget, even without a single beer! To save some pesos, eat vegetarian, or bring your own food and water along. If you are travelling in a couple, pay for a shared chinchorro instead of a hammock each (it’s not so comfortable though!)

How many nights should you stay?

Most people only stay one night, but you don’t get a chance to appreciate the remoteness and peace this way. The first day is an early start, tour, you’ll be knackered and even though you get the afternoon to relax, one night means you have to be up at 4am again… Two nights means you can get some sleep, get up the next day and explore and truly appreciate what Punta Gallinas has to offer!

So is it really worth it?

We had read about Punta Gallinas and there was never any hesitation for us – if anything we almost didn’t make it – the hurricane meant that all the roads to the Guajira were closed, and we had to rearrange our whole itinerary and pray that they would re-open in time, as we had taken the time off work especially for this trip! Lucky for us, they did and it was definitely worth it – even the horrific boat trip we had to endure! If in doubt, think about how few places there are left in the world where there are no sign of people having lived, built roads and houses on, destroying the local environment and natural habitat around us! It is a rare sight and who knows how long it will remain this way! For now, large commercial businesses have no interest in Punta Gallinas but with tourism opening up in Colombia, it is only a matter of time before companies like Decameron want to come a build a luxury resort there!

colombia punta gallinas desert
colombia punta gallinas desert

 

colombia, cabo de la vela, guajira

Cabo de la Vela, The Guajira

colombia, cabo de la vela, guajira
colombia, cabo de la vela, guajira

The Guajira is the Northernmost region of Colombia, between the Caribbean Sea and Venezuela, where lies the the little discovered gems of Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas. It is an extremely impoverished region, geographically and culturally isolated from the rest of Colombia. But, to travellers, it is a desert paradise; virgin, untouched by commercialisation and construction.There is no running electricity, water and don’t even think about phone signal – if you want to get away from modern civilisation, this is the place to be. Here live the indigenous Wayúu tribe famous nationally for their handcrafted mochilas, but, otherwise, like many indigenous tribes, they are largely forgotten by the rest of the country. The landscapes are truly breathtaking – that’s what people come for, and you will be not disappointed.

WHAT TO DO 

Cabo is a remote desert village around 60km across rough, roadless dirt from Uribia, the nearest town. It is considered a sacred place to the Wayuú tribe, as they believe it is the gate to the afterlife. Here, your backyard is literally the sea. Modest, wooden houses of Cabo line the shore where the desert meets the sea. Cabo is renown for its beautiful sunsets, which you can enjoy from your hammock, or many gather at the elevated viewpoint of El Faro lighthouse. Hike 10 minutes up to Pilon de Azucar (Sugar Loaf Mountain), which has spectacular views of the northern coastline (I didn’t make it due to an unfortunate motorbike-related accident). Ojo del Agua is a beautiful half-moon shaped beach surrounded by 5-metre high cliffs. Rumour has it that Cabo is also incredible for windsurfing, attracting windsurfers from all over the world – people even bring their own sails to practise here. If you are feeling adventurous, head to Punta Gallinas, the Northern Tip of South America.

colombia cabo de la vela hammocks sunset

 

WHERE TO STAY

There is no need to book accommodation in Cabo de la Vela. There are hostels up and down the street, many offering hammocks on the shore. Hostel Caracol has second-storey hammocks overlooking the sea for $8,000COP ($3USD / £2/ €2).

WHERE TO EAT

Most places offer delicious, fresh fish for around $15,000COP ($5USD / £4/ €4) and you can get a whole lobster for $20,000COP ($7USD / £5/ €6)! Dishes tend to come with rice, patacones or chips and salad (if you have spent any time in Colombia you will come to expect this). For vegetarians, there is a restaurant that offers lentils and veg – with delicious coffee rice! It looks more like a bar, and is the only place that proudly offers wi-fi. You can’t miss it because that’s where all the foreigners go.

A NOTE ABOUT WATER

Bring your own water! Drinking water is not readily available, so don’t expect there to be fresh juice like most places in Colombia. You can buy small bags for 100 pesos in Uribia, which is the most practical – but be warned the heat will make the water taste like plastic. Also, I’d advise buying extra to offer in case you want to offer it to locals – the children roaming the streets don’t beg for money, instead, they ask for water. It’s pretty heartbreaking. If you don’t want to offer, be tactful and don’t walk around with a water bottle in your hand!

HANDMADE WAYUU BAGS

There are señoras and children selling beautiful handwoven bags which you will see all over Colombia. These bags are made in the Guajira by local women, you can watch them weave them on the streets. Be prepared to pay around $40,000-$70,000COP per bag ($14USD / £10/ €11). This is a bargain compared to everywhere else in the country – they are sold for well over $100,000COP ($35USD / £25/ €28) in Bogotá and Cartagena, and over $100USD online! Sadly, little of this goes to the community who make them, so appreciate the craftsmanship and be mindful about bartering. These women take days to make each bag, it is a lot of work and extremely damaging for the eyes – many go blind from it. Not only is it cheaper to buy directly from the women, but you know your money is going directly to those who made it.

 

 

HOW TO GET TO CABO DE LA VELA

colombia la guajira cabo de la vela map

You can get to Cabo de la Vela from Santa Marta, the bus/route is the same from Cartagena, Tayrona and Palomino. If you’re leaving from Tayrona or Palomino, just stand on the main road and wait for the bus.

Don’t forget to start as early as possible. The last pick-up trucks pass Cuatro Vía/Uribia around 3pm so it’s important to leave Santa Marta by 8am!

 

OPTION 1:

BUS AND 4×4

OVERVIEW
Santa Marta – Cuatro Vías – Cabo de la Vela
Total Cost: ($16USD / £10 / €11)

This is the cheapest option that needs fewest changes of transport.

A) Bus from Santa Marta to Cuatro Vias
B) 4×4 from Cuatro Vias to Cabo de la Vela

ROUTE
A) At Santa Marta terminal, get a bus that terminates at Maicao and ask the driver to get off at “Cuatro Vías”. If you are going from Tayrona or Palomino, just stand on the main road and wait for a red and white bus with “Flamingo” on it.

B) Cuatro Vías is a crossroads that leads to Uribia. When you get off the bus, you will see guys with motorbikes offering rides to Uribia. Tell them you want to get to Cabo de la Vela. They will call the pick-up trucks which are on their return journey from Maicao, who can pick you up from Cuatro Vías on their way to Cabo. Remember they will make a stop at Uribia to pick up supplies and people! These 4×4 pick-up trucks drive go to Maicao early in the morning to get supplies for Cabo, stopping at Ugribia on the way and serving as a colectivo bus for locals

COST AND TIMINGS
A)

Santa Marta to Cuatro Vias$25,000COP$8USD/£6/€7
 Every 1/2 hour 

(From Palomino $20,000COP)
Companies that go to Maicao: Flamingo, Superstar (Cootragua), Expreso Brasilia, Unitransco

B)

Cuatro Vias to Cabo de la Vela$15,000COP$5USD/£4/€4
 Until 3 pm 
colombia cabo de la vela caribbean sea

 

OPTION 2:

BUS AND PRIVATE TAXI

OVERVIEW

Santa Marta – Riohacha – Cabo de la Vela
Total Cost: ($25USD / £18 / €20) (assuming taxi between 2)

This option is better if you don’t mind spending more money or you are in a group of 4 in order to share the cost of a taxi.
A) Bus from Santa Marta to Riohacha
B) Taxi from Riohacha to Cabo de la Vela

ROUTE

A) Get a bus from Santa Marta to Riohacha
B) At Riohacha, tell the taxi that you want to go to Cabo de la Vela. This should cost around $100,000COP – but this will depend on how many people you are and your negotiating skills. Ideally you want to group up with others spread the cost and have more bargaining leverage.

COSTS AND TIMINGS

A) Bus

Santa Marta to Riohacha$20,000-30,000COP$7-11USD/£5-8/€6-9
3-4 hoursEvery ½ hour from 05:00 – 19:30 

Bus companies: Copetrán, Cootraceagua, Expreso Brasilia, Expreso Almirant Padilla, Expreso Wayuu, Rápido Ochoa, Torcoroma, Unitransco.

B) Taxi

Riohacha to Cabo de la Vela$100,000COP$35USD/£25/€28
3-4 hoursIdeally shared! 
colombia cabo de la vela sunset

 

OPTION 3:

BUS, BUS + 4×4

OVERVIEW:

Santa Marta – Riohacha – Uribia – Cabo de la Vela

This is the longest route, but another option should the first two not work out!

A) Bus from Santa Marta to Riohacha
B) Bus from Riohacha to Uribia
C) 4×4 from Uribia to Cabo de la Vela

ROUTE:

A) Get a bus from Santa Marta to Riohacha. Upon arrival to Riohacha, ask to be dropped off where buses go to Uribia (by roundabout Francisco El Hombre), which is a few blocks away from the bus terminal.
B) Get a bus to Uribia.
C) In Uribia, go to “Las Pulgas” market square where the 4x4s that go to Cabo will leave from (as in Option1C)

COSTS AND TIMINGS:

A)

Santa Marta to Riohacha
$20,000-30,000COP
$7-11USD/£5-8/€6-9
3-4 hours
Every ½ hour from 05:00 – 19:30
 

B)

Riohacha to Uribia
$15,000COP
$5USD/£4/€4
1 hour
 
 

Companies: Tierra del Sol or Cootraur

C) 4×4 (as in Option 1B)

Uribia to Cabo de la Vela$15,000COP$5USD/£4/€4
3-4 hours  

 

 

Total Budget for Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas

There are no ATMs in Cabo de le Vela, so make sure you take out enough cash for your trip in Santa Marta / Riohacha / Uribia. Here is our suggested budget for your trip to the Guajira, taking into account cost of transport, accommodation and food but no extras such as Wayuu bags or beer.

Cabo de la Vela costs:

1 Night in Cabo de la Vela : $100,000
2 Nights in Cabo de la Vela : $150,000

Punta Gallinas costs:

1 Night in Punta Gallinas: $250,000
2 Nights in Punta Gallians: $260,000

We stayed two nights in Cabo de la Vela and two nights in Punta Gallinas, so we had took $500,000 each to cover costs of the whole trip to the Guajira. Although no one enjoys walking around with lots of cash, it is better to have too much than too little! We would advise getting cash in Santa Marta just in case (our trip was a near-disaster!).

 

A FINAL WORD…

Many people go to Cabo de la Vela but are put off by the cost and effort of going to Punta Gallinas – however, it is definitely worth every peso! After 6 hours in the back of a pick-up truck to get to Cabo de la Vela in the first place, we wanted to take our time and make the most of the days we had in the beautiful Guajira region. We would definitely recommend staying at least two nights in both Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas. One night in each place makes for an exhausting whistle-stop tour where you will only be knackered from waking up at 4am and spending hours on end bumping around the desert.

We had an incredible time in the Guajira, despite a few minor glitches (with our bus getting a flat tyre, then almost leaving Alberto behind in Riohacha and me suffering a horrendous motorcycle burn…) Our trip was definitely an adventure and The Guajira is, without a doubt, one of our favourite regions in Colombia and the highlight of our two weeks on the Caribbean coast.

 

colombia cabo de la vela moon faro sunset
colombia, top 10 things to do in bogota

The Best of Bogotá: Top 10 Things To Do In Bogota

Bogotá can be a difficult city and many visitors see it as little more than a necessary stopover to get to other, more interesting destinations. And they’re not wrong, especially if time is limited. Colombia is about nature and exploring the incredibly diverse landscapes it has to offer, and whilst Bogotá is in the mountains, it’s very much a capital city. It is busy, polluted and can be stressful. Having said that, we love Bogota – it is where we call home – and it is definitely worth a visit, even if you only have one day in Bogota! Here is how you can make the most of your time.

Ideally, visit Bogota on a weekend. Not only can you enjoy ciclovia and Usaquén market, but families are out and about, traffic is calmer and it is just more enjoyable. If you can, come during a puente long-weekend, Holy Week, or December-January when most capitalinos escape the city for the holidays. It shouldn’t be too difficult to catch one, since Colombia has so many national holidays. 2-3 days is plenty to explore the city, but we would recommend a couple more if you want to do any day trips from Bogota!

colombia bogota map

1. CICLOVIA IN BOGOTÁ

Sundays and Public Holidays 7am-2pm

Every Sunday and public holiday Mondays, a network of roads are closed to create a cycle route around the city. It’s pretty extensive, connecting different areas of the city with 120 km of car-free roads for people go out cycling, walk their dogs, go running without fearing for their lives. Ciclovia is growing increasingly popular, with over 2000 people using it every weekend!

You can rent a bike from your hostel for around $30.000COP ($11USD/ £8/ €9). You can combine ciclovia with a trip to Usaquén or, if it’s a particularly sunny day, head to Parque Simon Bolivar. I wouldn’t recommend cycling around the Candelaria, it’s too busy! Stop for a snack on the way at any of the little stalls that sell lemonade, fruit cups, salpicón (cut up fruit in orange or watermelon juice).

 

colombia bogota ciclovia 

2. MERCADO DE LAS PULGAS, USAQUÉN

SUNDAYS AND PUBLIC HOLIDAYS

Usaquen is a traditional, middle class area which used to be a village that was engulfed by the ever-growing capital. It is centred around a cute plaza with a church, and is popular for its Sunday “flea market”. It’s not at all a flea market, it’s a posh, artisanal market, selling everything from traditional handicrafts, bags and jewelry to plants, notebooks, spices and household decor… It is perfect for souvenirs, if a little overpriced compared to the Candelaria. There is a great atmosphere; kids running around, people lounging on the grass and street performers entertaining.

There are plenty of nice restaurants and cafés in the area, or if you can fill yourself with delicious street food such as mazorca (the most delicious corn on the cob you will ever taste – the corn is gigantic!), luladas, obleas… also look out for the rastafaris, they sell the most delicious vegetarian burgers I’ve ever had in my life (for $5.000COP). There are also lovely cafes – El Altillo is a cosy cafe that sells delicious cakes, or el ArtTé, an oriental tea house.

3. EL CHORRO DE QUEVEDO AND THE CANDELARIA

The narrow, cobbled street of el Chorro de Quevedo is the heart of the Candelaria, the first official neighbourhood of Bogotá. The Candelaria is the historical centre and tourist hub of Bogotá where the old, traditional houses have been maintained. Plaza Bolivar is the main square where lies the Primatial Cathedral of Bogota, the statue of Simon Bolivar and important official buildings such as the Lievano Palace, Congress, and the Palace of Justice. It is also full of pigeons, which, bizarrely, locals enjoy feeding maize and posing with them on their heads. Strolling around, you will also find plenty of graffiti art, artisanal craft shops, bookshops and museums. 

colombia bogota el chorro de quevedo

4. VISIT THE MUSEUMS

If you are a fan of museums, head to Museo de Oro, Museo Nacional, and Museo Botero. You probably don’t want to  visit all three – but a short visit will give you a feel of Colombian history and its national treasures.

  • Museo de Oro (The Gold Museum) $4,000 or free on Sundays,
    The Museo de Oro or Gold Museum is full of artefacts of every kind, from broken pots and tools to jewelry and death masks. It goes into great detail about metallurgy, so if you get bored easily and just want the highlights, focus on the third floor, where you will find the most glorious and interesting gold pieces in the rooms of “Cosmologia y Simbolismo” and “El Vuelo Chamánico”.
  • Museo Nacional free
    The Museo Nacional used to be a prison, and is now the largest and oldest museum in Bogota. It holds a range of historical and anthropological artefacts from all over Colombia. If you don’t get the chance to visit Santa Marta or San Agustin, you can appreciate some of the archeological finds right here! The newest room “Memoria y nación” is a well-curated and interesting room about Colombian national identity, culture and history. The permanent exhibition is free.
  • Museo Botero free, closed Tuesdays
    The Botero Museum is housed in Banco de la Republica, where you will find many painting by the Colombian artist Botero, famous for his depictions of oversized people, animals and objects. It also holds work of Dali, Miro, Picasso Monet and Matisse.

5. CANDELARIA TOURS

As unappealing as walking around as a conspicuous group of foreign tourists is, it cannot be denied that tours are always a great way to get a good overview of a culture, especially if you don’t have time to read up before visiting a place.
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The classic free walking tour will take you to the important spots in the Candelaría, and you will learn about the history, politics and current social issues of Bogotá. The tour is runs everyday at 10am and 2pm from Santander park in front of the Museo del Oro. It is run off tips, suggested amount $20,000-30,000COP.

A more interesting option is the Bogota Graffiti Tour – discover how and why street art flourished in Bogota as the graffiti tour will tell you story of various works, from the prettiest to the most political. The tour runs 10am and 2pm every day from Parque de los Periodistas (near Las Aguas/ Universidades, where stands the domed statue of Bolivar). More info at 

Bike tours are also a popular alternative to seeing the city. Expect to pay around $40.000COP. Personally I think the Candelaria is too crowded most of the time for cycling – I’d rather catch the ciclovia where you can cycle at leisure! However, if you want to cover more ground in less time, this is a good option!

colombia bogota la candelaria

6. WALK UP MONSERRATE FOR A BREATH OF FRESH AIR

Get up early and walk up to Monserrate and take in the lovely view of the city. The walk takes about an hour and is not difficult, but you may suffer due to the altitude. Alternatively, get the cable car or funicular up for $10,000COP and walk down! At the top, you can enjoy the spectacular views of the city, visit the church and peruse the souvenir market and try out some typical Colombian food. For some peace from all the other tourists, keep heading all the way past the souvenirs and food to reach the back of the mountain, which is a lot quieter. 

7. SIMON BOLIVAR PARK AND BOTANICAL GARDENS

If you are lucky enough to get some sunshine, head to Parque Simon Bolivar (free) or the Botanical Gardens ($3.500) for a picnic and a wander!

Simon Bolivar Park or “El Simón” is a huge park where local families spend sunny weekends having picnics, flying kites, riding bike, running. Just behind Bolivar Park lies the Botanical Gardens, Colombia’s biggest Botanical Gardens. It features plants from every Colombian altitude, climate and region and the only one in the nation that specialises in preserving and collecting Andean species of flowers. They also have regular special events and exhibitions, such as Jardín Botánico Nocturno with food markets and live music. 

8. ESCAPE THE CITY AND HEAD TO LA CALERA

Escape the city and head to the hills – go to Alto de Patio towards La Calera which is around 20 mins on bus away. There are various restaurants and cafés, where you can go and enjoy the spectacular mountain view over the city. Many keen cyclists even brave the the 6.4km climb at the weekend!

You can get the bus from Calle 72 with Carrera 11, opposite the Universidad Pedadgógica with colectivos with a sign saying “Calera”. It should cost $2.300COP. You can get off at Alto de Patios (you wil see signs – if you reach the toll you’ve gone too far).

colombia bogota paramo las moyas

9. NIGHTLIFE… HAVE A CRAZY COLOMBIAN NIGHT OUT!

Like any capital city, Bogotá has a buzzing nightlife. For the most traditional Colombian night out, head to Andres Chia. The only way to describe it is quirky – it is full of random, strange objects hanging from the ceiling – Colombian flags, retro signs and glowing hearts. At the weekend, the bar staff are dressed in costumes. It is huge and you can go for dinner, casual drinks or a fun, full-on night out. It is 45 minutes North of Bogotá, but worth the effort! Otherwise, there is a less crazy version in Zona T/ La 85.

The main areas to go out in Bogotá are Chapinero and Zona T (La 85). Chapinero, or “Chapi-gay” is full of fun casual bars and clubs. The gay bars are around Plaza de Los Hippies – Teatron, the biggest gay club in Latin America makes for an unforgettable night out. Heading South, around Calle 51 is where the students go out – Café Cinema, Casa Babylon, Disco Jaguar, La Negra. For a more middle-class night out, head to Zona T (La 85) – but you’ll have to dress to impress! Most places are crossover – that is mix of everything – reggaeton, salsa and international chart music. For electronic music and alternative DJ nights, head to Octava, BAUM or Videoclub. For salsa fans, El Goce Pagano, Quiebra Canto and Cuban Jazz Café are traditional salsa bars in the Candelaria with live bands where you dance all night! If you prefer a quiet drink, BBC have lovely bars all over the city or head to any local cigarerría if you just want cheap beer.

10. EAT TO YOUR HEART’S CONTENT!

It may be difficult to believe, but Bogota is food heaven! Whether you are looking for traditional Colombian dishes, street food or fine-dining – Bogota has it all!

While bandeja paisa is known as the national dish, it is actually a regional dish from Medellin (Paisa is a term for people from the region of Antioquia). The regional dish of Bogotá is ajiaco – a deliciously creamy, potato-y chicken soup with avocado. “El mejor ajiaco del mundo” is a restaurant just off Plaza Bolivar that genuinely does the best ajiaco I’ve ever had!

When it comes to street food, arepas and mazorca are typical snacks that you can not miss. Arepa are grilled corn pancakes – you can’t beat a breakfast arepas with scrambled egg and cheese! I used to have every single day, no exaggeration Mazorca is the most delicious, giant corn on the cob you have ever tasted – with lots of salt and butter!

You can find cheap corrientazos (“electric lunch”) from $10,000 which is typical Colombian dishes that usually involve some kind of unspecified meat, plantain and rice. You will find corrientazos all over the country, and you will likely be eating corrientazos for most of your time in Colombia.

Luckily, Bogotá, being the grand capital has plenty of international cuisine! There may be no metro, but Bogota has its priorities in order! There are some incredible restaurants run by top chefs where you can eat for a fraction of the price you would pay anywhere else in the world! Some of the top names include Harry Sasson, Salvo Patria, El Cielo and Criterion. Chapinero’s Zona G, The 85, Usaquen and Parque de la 93 are full of restaurants – the most difficult part is making the choice!

 

colombia, bogota honest guide

Bogotá: An Honest Guide

colombia, bogota honest guide
colombia, bogota honest guide

Many tourists come to Bogotá and are disappointed by how little the capital corresponds with their stereotypical image of what Colombia is – Bogotá isn’t hot and it doesn’t have any beaches. Moreover, recent articles claiming that Bogotá has a “European atmosphere and brilliant museums” (The Telegraph), the Transmilenio is “unrivaled for size and efficiency” (World Travel Guide) and that it is “about as bike friendly as Copenhagen” (Forbes) is laughable and disingenuous. Bogotá is many things… but none of the above. These kind of gushing, sycophantic descriptions paints Bogotá to be something it’s not, and gives unsuspecting tourists a completely false idea of it.

Bogotá is not love at first sight, that’s for sure. It is gritty and crowded and polluted. It is a smokescreen of black car fumes, terrible traffic jams and drivers who don’t give a shit about red lights or one-way roads. Bogotá is potholes, uneven pavements and the horror of transmilenio at rush hour. Now throw in some serious bipolar weather with miserable, torrential downpours one minute and sunny blue skies the next… Bogotá is changeable, to say the least.

However, when you look beyond the hazy grey smog, shrouded in the mist of low-hanging clouds, lies the majestic lush-green cerros orientales, red-brick apartments buildings dotted along its foothills. In the unpredictable chaos of the city, the mountains are the one constant you can rely on. And for all its faults, Bogotá does have its charms: street vendors selling delicious street food such as arepas, mazorca, and obleas and freshly squeezed juice on every corner, office workers eating their packed-lunches in the park, evening walks around the tree lined streets of Chapinero Alto, everybody out and about cycling, running, and dog-walking on Sunday morning ciclovia, the buzz of Usaquén at the weekend, the eclectic mix of arcade-like activities and street performers in the Candelaría, people casually walking down Carrera 13 with an armful of mirrors or mops or chairs for sale, the fact you can buy a cigarette for 500 pesos, or have a beer at the cigarerría (like going to the local newsagent for a beer – shop price, but you can drink there)… How the sun sets at the same time every day, flooding the sky with a radiant orange glow.

colombia bogota la candelaria

It’s definitely not for everyone, and as a tourist, you have to watch what you read and manage your expectations. The best way to describe my feelings for Bogotá is like your relationship with your family – you complain and bitch about them all the time, but nobody else is allowed to – and you give hell to anybody who tries to insult them.

Bogotá is chaotic, unapologetic and no for the faint-hearted – but we wouldn’t change it for the world. We absolutely love Bogotá – for us, it is home. And we would love for you to love it like it we do!

Help make most of your time by reading our guide on the Top 10 Things to Do in Bogota – and please, venture beyond the Candelaria!

colombia, best places to visit

Hotspots

With the soaring number of tourists, Colombia is one of the hottest destinations to visit. Tourism to Colombia has grown more than 250% since 2006 when 1 million foreigners visited the country. Both Forbes and The Guardian have featured Colombia in their Top Destination 2017 lists. Unfortunately, few visitors have the luxury of having weeks and months to cover the vast and varied regions of Colombia, so here are the hotspots that are not to be missed! If you are looking for something more adventurous, check out our posts on the Guajira and watch this space… 

 

CARTAGENA DE INDIAS

THE CARIBBEAN COAST

colombia cartagena

Cartagena is a colonial gem. Nestled on the Caribbean coast, its old walls guard its colonial past, its vibrantly painted houses and flower-draped balconies hold a nostalgic charm that gives you the illusion of being stuck in time as you wander through its narrow streets. A walk along the wall offers a coastal breeze to ease the unforgiving humidity and the the hustle-and-bustle the city’s street vendors. Getsmani, one of the most traditional neighbourhoods, is shedding its seedy, drug-dealing past. The developing cultural scene of this barrio popular is evident in its graffiti art, bars and hip hostels. Its restaurants are more reasonly priced than within the walled city. You can enjoy a beer in the main square, day or night, and soak-up the lively atmosphere. But most people go to Cartagena for its beautiful, if overcrowded, beaches; the islands of Barú and Rosario is true Caribbean bliss.

 

PARQUE TAYRONA

SANTA  MARTA

colombia tayrona beach cabo san juan

Tayrona National Park is where the dense rainforest of the Sierra Nevada mountains magically unfurls into rows of coconut palms dotted along sandy bays and the crashing waves of the Caribbean coast. The transformation of the landscape as you weave in and out of the leafy jungle canopies and climb over giant boulders is no less than breathtaking! It is a leisurely but humid 45-minute hike to the first beach, Cañaveral, where the luxury eco-habs are located, followed by Arrecifes, the first campsite. Further along you will reach La Piscina and Arenilla, both great for swimming and popular with Colombian families. The furthest, most picturesque beach is Cabo San Juan (around 40 minutes’ walk from the first beach). Unfortunately it’s also the most crowded, so avoid during high-season! All offer simple hammocks and tents, with basic amenities and hearty, local food at reasonable prices. Along from Cabo San Juan, there are several virgin beaches – great for a romantic stroll! If you want to do more than laze on the beach, you can hike to the ruins of Pueblito. Tayrona is also home to lots of wildlife, so look out for the crabs, lizards and caimans!  

 

VALLE DE COCORA Y SALENTO

EJE CAFETERO (THE COFFEE REGION)

colombia valle de cocora wax palms

Valle de Cocora is home to the tallest palms in the world. The wax palms are scattered across the rolling hills of the valley, their spindly trunks soaring up to 60m and splaying leaves cast a shadow in the sky. A 5-6 hour hike will take you through the stunning valley of wax palms and into the cloud forest of muddy trails and rickety wooden suspension bridges. In Acaima, you can experience the magic of hummingbirds in their natural habitat up-close. Jeeps “willy” run regularly from the quaint, traditional town of Salento, 10km away, where most travellers tend to stay during their visit. Salento is one of the oldest town of the coffee region, full of traditional colourful houses and artisanal shops. You can enjoy a the stunning mountain views of the mirador, take a local coffee tour and enjoy a game of tejo.

 

VILLA DE LEYVA

BOYACÁ

colombia villa de leyva

Nestled in the Andean mountain-valley a few hours north of Bogotá sits the quiet, colonial town of Villa de Leyva. Unlike Cartagena’s sea of colours, Villa de Leyva is known for its forest green doors set against single-storey whitewashed walls and terracotta-tiled roofs. The large and uneven cobblestone streets congregate in the immense expanse of the main square, harmonious with the majesty of the surrounding mountains. You can enjoy a variety of antique and handicraft stores, as well as some fine restaurants at a fraction of Bogotá prices. You can take a scenic hike to the Pozos Azules or around the Parque Ecológico de Periquera. For adrenaline junkies, GroupOn offers great deals on days of extreme sport such as quad-biking and rappelling down a waterfall. Most people tend to stay in the town itself, however, if you really love the mountains, hotels a few kilometres out boast breathtaking views!

 

MEDELLIN

ANTIOQUIA

colombia medellin comuna 13

The vibrant nightlife of Poblado and beautiful women have been the main attraction for many visitors for the last 20 years. However, Netflix’s Narcos has put Medellín on the world map and its popularity has skyrocketed in the last few years, with everyone flocking to Medellín to visit the famed home of the most notorious drug-trafficker in history. However, Medellín is more than the controversial glorification of Pablo Escobar. The local government has invested a lot of money in redeveloping public spaces and ultimately its image. It not only boasts the only metro system in the country, but you can even take a cable car up the mountains and out of Medellin to Park Arvi. The Museo de Memoria is an incredible testament to the city and indeed, the country’s history and it’s definitely worth visitng to get a deeper insight into the conflict. Go to Comuna 13, and learn about the social transformation this notorious neighbourhood, now a canvas for graffiti art and communal space for social development. I’d also recommend a free walking tour with Real City Tours – the tour is not only informative and thorough but our guide gave an impartial yet very poignant explanation of the city’s history and the current situation. Lastly, a visit to Guatapé is a must! Climb up the peñol for the best view of this picturesque reservoir, wander around the narrow streets of the tiny, colourful town