In May 2022, we spent 10 days in Colombia and visited Cartagena, Isla Mucura, Medellin and Bogota. In this post, we share 10 tips to help you plan your trip.
1) How long to stay:
For a leisurely paced vacation, we would recommend one week with two spots: Cartagena and Medellin or Bogota.
For a faster-paced vacation, we would recommend 10 days with four spots similar to our itinerary: 2-3 nights in Cartagena, 2 nights at Hotel Punta Faro on Isla Mucura or another beach resort, 3-4 nights in Medellin and 1-3 nights in Bogota. We regret not going to Santa Marta and think it is worth going there for about 3 nights based on what other tourists told us. Santa Marta is best known as a jumping-off point for Tayrona National Park, the Lost City trek, and the mountain village of Minca. It’s also famous for being one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia—this colonial history is best reflected in its whitewashed cathedral.
If you have 2-3 weeks, you may want to consider adding a 3-5 day trek/hike through the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to the faster-paced itinerary. We recommend finding out more about it on Bingo Abroad’s blog.
If you want to spend more than 180 days in Colombia, you may want to consider getting their digital nomad visa if you meet the criteria to spend more time exploring the country. We would love to go live in Colombia temporarily to experience more in the country and to learn Spanish.
There is so much to do in Colombia and part of the fun is planning your itinerary.
2) Medellin or Bogota:
In the initial planning stages of our trip to Colombia, we were going to spend all our time in Bogota; Medellin was not on our radar. From doing some research though, we found Medellin to be quite alluring and decided to spend the majority of our time there instead of Bogota. We spent one day and one night in Bogota and have no regrets about that after being in Medellin but ideally, we would have spent 2 nights and 2 days as many things were closed on the Sunday we were there. Bogota is very scenic and has a lot to offer but it is at a higher altitude and so the weather is cooler, it takes longer to get places, and it has a different vibe (all the barbwire and bars on things makes it seem much less safe). During our stay, we spent most of our time near our hotel, The Artisan D.C. located in Chapinero. We went for lunch at Mini Mal, a Colombian restaurant that offers modern twists on traditional food using as many local ingredients as possible, had a beer at Statua Rota, and had a casual dinner at El Mono Bandido Brewing (burgers and choripan). When deciding how to plan your itinerary, consider the things you want to do, i.e both Medellin and Bogota have art by Botero, both have fruit market tours, both have the opportunity to take a gondola to see views, both have interesting dining scenes but Medellin is the gateway to Guatapé and Bogota to Zipaquirá’s Salt Cathedral. When choosing how much time to spend in each city, consider the attractions outside the city you want to visit.
3) Language: Start learning Spanish NOW!
We were surprised by how little English is spoken in Medellin despite how popular it is with digital nomads and tourists. We had to use our basic Spanish skills and Google Translate to get by often. We think it would be hard to get by with no knowledge of Spanish as we were challenged sometimes. This is a tip for travel to Colombia in general: learn as much Spanish as you can!
4) When to go:
Colombia is a very diverse country: from being at a high altitude in Bogota where it’s cooler to the very warm and humid Cartagena and daily downpours in Medellin. Based on our research, Colombia is a good destination to visit year-round and just requires some research to know what to expect. We had trips planned in March, May and November with no major concerns about weather at all. More information about the weather in Cartagena is available here and Medellin here. We highly recommend checking out Weather Spark for weather trends and always include their information in our posts.
5) Exotic Fruit tour at a market:
It doesn’t matter where you are in Colombia, find a tour that will take you to sample the country’s exotic fruits! They grow 8 different kinds of mango, numerous types of passion fruit, and tomato de arbol which looks like a tomato but has a zesty sweetness, unlike anything we have ever tried.
Like many others, we booked an exotic fruits tour held at one of Medellin’s markets through Real City Tours. It was super fun and we highly recommend it because it would be impossible to do this on your own, even if you speak Spanish. The guide takes you through the market to sample fruits that are unique to Colombia and at the end, you get to try a juice and chat with the guide and other tour members.
6) Safety: Take precautions and don’t do dumb tourist shit
Overall, we feel that Colombia is a safe destination to visit. We encourage everyone to practice common sense and take precautions you should take in many other destinations, i.e. don’t take cash out in crowded and busy areas, don’t wear flashy and expensive things, don’t wear lots of jewelry, don’t walk with your phone in your hand, don’t leave your possessions unattended and in easy reach for passersby, research where to walk in advance, use ATMs located inside (tip, the Bogota Airport has lots of ATMs with no fees so it’s a good place to take cash out!), don’t drink too much and wander late at night, and don’t buy drugs! Also, if walking, plan your walking routes in advance and try to limit wandering on our own at night.
7) Taxis and Uber: Uber is illegal but still operates
We used Uber often in Medellin, Cartagena and Bogota because of how cheap and easy it was. The rules around Uber and whether not it’s allowed or legal are very confusing in Colombia. The risk is for the drivers who can have their license revoked or their car taken away. Often, the driver will ask someone to sit in the front seat to make it look like we were being driven by a friend. We had no issues with Uber in Colombia but got scammed by a taxi in Cartagena despite doing our research.
8) Traveling within the country:
The best way to get to multiple spots is to fly. We flew Avianca 3 times in Colombia and had no issues. The flights ran on time and were reasonably priced. We always made sure to book refundable fares as they were more expensive but still reasonable. Airports are busy in Colombia and lounges are not worth going to other than to have a space to sit quietly as the food options are always minimal.
9) Tipping: It’s a thing but not really a thing
Tipping in Colombia is different than North America. Most places add 10% service to the bill already and so you can choose to add more if you wish. We made sure to have small bills for that as an extra dollar or two goes a long way. Service has also always been very good! Tipping is not expected in the same way it is in North America.
10) Why should you visit?
The world is a big place and there are many things to see and experience. Why visit Colombia? It is a beautiful country with stunning scenery, some of the friendliest people we’ve ever met, lots of great food to eat, and culture to experience. Colombia and its people are resilient and proud of the present and future despite their difficult past. Yes, you can still buy Pablo Escobar shirts and swag but we recommend avoiding that and buying merchandise that showcases other aspects of the country.
We also found it very affordable to travel to and within Colombia compared to other destinations we have been to. Meals and activities were reasonably priced, as were hotels and ground transportation.
We are not usually tour people but each tour we went on, led us to meet amazing people who are so proud of the progress their country has made and want to share it with others. If you need further inspiration, watch Anthony Bourdain’s shows about the country!