If you are looking for a vacation with a good mix of culture and beach, Colombia is a perfect place to visit. Contrary to what most people may believe, Colombia has changed a lot since the 90’s and is as safe as any other country in South America. Its unique location, bordering both the Atlantic Ocean (Caribbean Sea) and the Pacific Ocean, makes it easy for the country to export its coffee, flowers and petroleum.
When to Go
Colombia stays around the same temperatures in each city all year. Bogota is around 14˚C (57˚F), Medellin is around 22˚C (72˚F) and Cartagena is around 28˚C (82˚F). December to February is the dry season and the high tourist season. May and October are the rainiest months. If you like flowers, head over early August for la Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival), or in December for elaborate holiday light displays. Try to spend at least a week to ten days in the country.
Before You Go
- Canadians do not need a visa to enter the country but they have to pay a reciprocity fee of $190,000 COP (or $82 USD) upon arrival in cash. There is no way to pay this online so make sure to have enough cash. It is cheaper to pay in COP. Americans do not need to pay a fee or get a visa.
- The electrical outlets are exactly the same as North America so there is no need to bring a converter.
- Bogota is 2,640m above sea level so it gets pretty cold there, even in the summer. Make sure to pack warm clothes if visiting the city. Medellin can also get cold at night during the summer but will be hot during the day. It is best to layer. Medellin is generally more stylish than the other cities. Only tourists wear flip-flips and local men rarely wear shorts. Cartagena is definitely more casual as it is a beach city, and it gets pretty hot and humid there.
- There aren’t really any mosquitos if you stay in put in the cities of Medellin and Bogota. Cartagena you may find a few. If you want to be on the safe side, use mosquito repellent but you really don’t need it unless you are planning to travel to the valleys or national parks. Santa Marta & Palomino area will definitely have mosquitos.
- It is good to tip around 10% at regular restaurants, but make sure you check the bill because some (especially in Cartagena) automatically include a 10% tip which would be shown as “propina” on the bill.
- There is no need to tip taxis, although sometimes the cab fare is so cheap you can just round up.
- Service at restaurants is usually pretty slow so make sure you don’t need to be anywhere shortly after sitting down.
- If you make reservations ahead of time for day trips or restaurants, make sure to confirm them again a few days before because a lot of companies seem to be disorganized.
- Depending on how long you will be staying in Colombia, it might be worth looking into getting a local SIM card for your unlocked phone as they are quite reasonable and have good promos every once in a while. Claro and TIGO are the best companies to go with.
From Canada, there are now direct flights from Toronto, to Bogota on Air Canada (5 days a week) and to Cartagena on Air Canada (every Monday) and Air Transat (every Friday). Flight can be found for a very reasonable price, around $450 CND if booked in advance and not high season and it is only about a 5½ hour trip. From Vancouver it is a long day of travel as Colombia is on EST, but you can connect through Mexico City on Aeromexico, to any of the big cities for a more direct travel path. If laying over in Mexico City, and have a few hours to kill, there is a Premier Lounge on the second floor that you can pay about $20 USD to use it for the day. It is worth it if you have a few hours because it includes snacks, drinks and Wi-Fi (which the Mexico City airport only gives you about 5 minutes free). You can also get massages there (for an additional cost). Even though you are connecting on the same airline, you will still have to pick up your bags and drop them off again at the connecting area but it is very easy and even if your flight isn’t for many hours, they take your bags.
From the US, you can fly direct from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Atlanta and New York City. The airlines that fly to Colombia from the US are, United, JetBlue, Delta, Spirit, American, Avianca and LATAM. From Miami, you can fly direct to Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin, Cali and Barranquilla. From Ft. Lauderdale and New York, you can fly to Bogota, Cartagena or Medellin. From Orlando and Atlanta, you can fly to Bogota.
Currently, the Colombian Peso is around $2,900 COP to $1USD and is around $2,300 COP to $1CAD. Credit cards normally have a better rate than what you will see at money exchanges. At the time of writing this, the best rate for $1 USD was $2,750 and the best rate for $1 CND was $2,100 COP. It is always good to have local cash on you though, especially if you are purchasing things at markets, and taking taxis. If you order some ahead of time with your bank, the rate should be close to what you get on your credit card.
ATM’s are readily available but if you are looking for one that takes Interact, then it is a bit more difficult. Citi Bank and Banco Popular are the two that take Interact, and they both have ATM’s at the Medellin airport, and should at the other large ones as well.
What to Eat and Drink
- Arepas – either corn or yucca based cheezy pastries usually eaten for breakfast or for a snack. You can find some amazing fluffly corn ones on the street for $2,500. They are usually eaten with jam or marmalade. If purchasing them in a store to make at home, the best brand is La Cajonera (get the one with cheese that is in a yellow package).
- Ajiaco – a soup made from three kinds of potatoes, chicken, corn, cream, capers and avocado (this is best in Bogota)
- Bandeja Paisa – beans, rice, ground beef, avocado, plantains, chicharron and a fried egg
- Casuela Paisa – the same as Bandeja Paisa but in a stew
- Mondongo – slow-simmered tripe and vegetable stew
- Red Snapper (Pargo Rojo) with Coconut Rice and Plantains – the fish is usually pan-fried whole and comes with tostones (squished fried plantain)
- Almojabanas – cheezy puffy bread pastry
- Local Fruits: Tomate de arbol, Guanabana, Curuba, Maracuya, Feijoa, Lulo
- Aguardiente – a Colombian alcohol with a slightly liquorish taste. You shoot it or sip it and eat small pieces of fruit after. The Antioqueño brand is the best. They have two types, one with sugar (red cap) and one without (blue cap). The one without sugar has less alcohol content as well.
- La Nevera: what Colombians call Bogota
- La Heroica: what Colombians call Cartagena
- La Eterna Primavera: what Colombians call Medellin
- Paisa: a person from the Antioquia province (this includes Medellin)
Many people might have a bit of a skewed perspective of Medellin from watching Netflix’s Narcos, but this former cocaine capital has much more to offer. The second largest city in Colombia is also home to artist, Fernando Botero and to one of the best flower festivals in the world. Spend 3-4 days here to get a chance to explore the many areas of this city that sits in the Aburrá valley.
The Airport is about an hour outside the city (depending on where you are staying). It costs $65,000 COP (about $25 USD) to take a taxi into town. This is the price listed at the airport for the white taxis so make sure they don’t rip you off. A taxi is the best way to get into town. If you are just one or two people and on a budget, you can ask around for a shared taxi that will cost about $35,000-40,000 COP. If on a really tight budget, you can also take a minibus which brings you to the San Diego mall for $5,000. Alternatively, if you want to hire a driver to wait for you at the airport, this costs around $35-45 USD depending on the car.
Medellin isn’t a walkable city so you will have to take transportation to see most of the city. There is a modern metro system (Colombia’s only subway system) that is very convenient and easy to use to travel around the city. It costs $2,200 COP (less than $1) for one ride. Taxis are also very cheap here and if traveling in a group it can be more efficient to take one. There is also Uber in Medellin but it is uncertain if this will last long as there have been a few safety issues using it in the city. It is great because it just charges your credit card and most drivers are reliable but just be aware when using it.
If you want to hire a reliable driver that speaks English, Andres was great around the city and for day trips. I do want to caveat though that he may make a few comments that are a bit odd, but I think that this is because of the different cultural backgrounds and the way he translates certain words.
- Driver Name: Andres Correa
- Phone Number: +57 300 602 5996
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Where to Stay
El Poblado is definitely the best neighborhood to stay in. It is a safe area and has many trendy restaurants, bars and shops that are all walking distance. It is best to stay somewhere near Carrera 35 & 36 around Parque Lleras. There are many boutique hotels around there but I highly recommend looking into Casa Del Reloj. It is a huge house separated into apartments of all sizes. Some even have a hot tub. There is always someone in the front office of the house in case you need any assistance and they get back to you very quickly if you have any questions.
If looking for a hotel, the Charlee Hotel is a great one. The Art Hotel is also great but lacks in atmosphere. You can also find many reasonable apartments to rent on Airbnb in the neighborhood. If on a budget, La Playa Hostel on Carrera 35 is a good choice. If you have an early flight or late arrival, the Movich Las Lomas hotel is the best at the airport.
What to Do
- Visit Comuna 13 and take a graffiti tour. This once guerrilla-run neighborhood has turned itself around and is now home to one of the city’s most forward-thinking infrastructure investments, the outdoor escalators. The impoverished area has been revitalized by the 1,259 feet of escalators. Take the escalators to the top of the hill, to see some amazing views of the city. Andres Zapata, a 25 year old who grew up in the neighborhood, is a great person to connect with to take you around the Comuna as he has been a large proponent on why this neighborhood has turned itself around. The only thing is that he doesn’t speak English so you may need to bring someone to translate. Here is his e-mail in case you are interested: Andresitoemail@example.com.
- Take a day trip to Guatapé and the Piedra del Peñol. It is definitely worth the 1 hour and 45 minute trip out there and I highly recommend it. Guatapé is an Andean town that is known for its colorfully painted buildings and houses its reservoir, a dam built in the late 70s in which 6,365 hectares were flooded. The Piedra del Peñol is a giant granite rock that and is only 15 minutes away from Guatapé and a hike up the 659 switchback steps is well worth it for the view. You can also walk up a few more steps further to the top of the observation tower for an amazing panoramic view of the islands and lakes. The cost to go up la Piedra del Peñol is $18,000 COP. If in a group, it is best to rent a car with a driver so you have a bit more freedom to explore the area. A van that fits up to 7 passengers will cost you $450,000 COP (approximately $155 USD). If traveling solo or on a budget, there are also buses that go out there from the North Bus Terminal but takes about 2½ hours. The bus costs $12,000-$13,000 COP.
- Ride the metro cable cars for some great aerial views of the city. Hop on the closest metro station to you and go to Acevedo station (you can transfer to the cable cars from the aboveground metro). Hop on the first metro cable car (Line K) at Acevedo station and glide up the mountain over brick houses with metal roofs. Transfer at Santo Domingo and get on the second cable car line (Line L) which costs $5,000 COP each way and is open 9am to 6pm every day and 8:30am to 6pm on Sundays. On the 15- minute ride to Park Arvi, you will notice the city disappearing as you cross over the mountains. When you arrive, Park Arvi will feel surprisingly rural. Here you can hike and visit the little market for a snack and souvenirs before heading back. These metro cable cars carry over 30,000 people daily, fitting 8-9 people at a time in one gondola during peak times. What was originally created to help locals commute from these neighborhoods has turned into one of Medellin’s largest tourist attractions.
- Walk through Plaza Botero and visit the Antioquia Museum (Botero’s private collection). The museum costs $18,000 COP for tourists, but if you are over 60 or are have a student card you get a 50% off discount. Also if you are in a group of over 5 people you get 30% off. Open Monday to Sat 10am to 5:30pm and Sundays and holidays from 10am to 4:30pm. If on a budget, skip the museum and check out the many large Botero statues in the plaza that are great photo ops.
- Take the Pablo Escobar Tour. Pablo Escobar is not a name you want to mention in Medellin to locals but if you were into Narcos, it is definitely worth doing this. On the tour you will visit La Catedral (Pablo Escobar’s self-made prison), the Monaco Building (where Escobar lived), the Montesacro Cemetary (where Escobar and his family are buried) and Barrio Pablo Escobar (the neighborhood named after him) where you will find a large mural of his face (if you stop and take pictures there is a local that will charge you $3,000 COP each person so might not be worth it). There are many companies that can take you on this tour but if in a large group it is worth looking into hiring a driver for the day to do this and some of the other sites. For a full day, a driver and car will cost around $400,000 COP (approximately $140 USD).
- For good shopping, go to El Tesoro and Centro Commercial Santa Fe. If you want to buy good fakes, or any other cheap clothing or accessories, go to El Hueco next to the Plaza Botero (it is a bit overwhelming here though).
- If visiting in late July or early August, go see the annual Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival). People fly from all over Colombia and even other countries to see this. A week-long of festivities includes a fireworks show, concerts by famous Latin artists (Marc Anthony performed in 2017) and a parade.
- If visiting in December, go to Parque Norte and see the annual Christmas Light Festival – it is so beautiful and a must. It is usually open 6pm to midnight.
Where to Eat and Drink
- El Rancherito – for a delicious typical Colombian meal
- OCIO – one of the top restaurants in the city based on the concept of meal sharing
- Gato – a Peruvian restaurant with great ceviche, tacos and drinks
- Cuzco Cocina Peruana – another great Peruvian restaurant next to El Tesoro with good ceviche and chaufa (wouldn’t order causas and lomo saltado here though)
- 37 Park – great outdoor area for drinks with wooden stools
- Belisario – a 3-storey Mexican restaurant, great for drinks
- Bonhomia – great for wood oven pizzas
- Ganso & Castor – for great breakfast
- Bon Marche – for great pan de yucca
- Cassola – for typical Colombian soups
- En Social – an open air bar that serves aguardiente and beer, and few snacks
- Contenedores Food Market – a great area in Envigado where restaurants are built out of shipping containers. Calle de la Buena Mesa is a great street to find a place to eat.
- If heading to Guatapé, stop by Palma Villa Restaurante (which is on the way) for the best Almojabanas (cheezy puff pastry) in town. If you are looking for a good meal on the way in or out, they also have an El Rancherito en route. In Guatapé, a great restaurant is La Fogata. Their grilled trout with garlic was one of the best meals I had! Another good restaurant on the way to Guatapé (in between the airport and the city) that is great for local food is Restaurante Sancho Paisa.
- Centro Comercial La Strada – has good bars and restaurants
- If in town for Christmas, the San Fernando Plaza Hotel is a pretty fun place to have dinner. They have live music, raffles and buffet dinner.
If headed to Colombia, you must stop by the most popular beach and tourist destination in the country, Cartagena. This UNESCO World Heritage city is a great city to visit for 3-4 days and is home to many ancient churches and multi-colored colonial mansions. The temperature in Cartagena is pretty consistent year-round making it a great place to visit at any time.
The best way to get to your accommodation from the airport is to take a taxi. It will cost you around $10,000-15,000 COP to get to Old Town or Getsemani which is about a 15 minute ride. Depending on your accommodation, your airport transfers could be included. Bocagrande is a bit further and will cost a bit more.
Cartagena is a walkable city so you will rarely need to take a taxi anywhere if you are staying in Old Town or Getsemani area. The number of cars within the Old Town is heavily restricted making the streets perfect to stroll around day and night. Bocagrande is about a 10-minute taxi ride and Morros is about 15 minutes. Taxis are easy to catch on the street. Just make sure to negotiate the price before getting in as they don’t have meters. From Getsemani to San Diego area of Old Town should cost around $7,000 COP.
Where to Stay
The center of Old Town or Getsemani are the two best areas to stay in as they are most central to the better restaurants, bars and shops. You will find most of the boutique and well known hotels in Old Town. There are also many beautiful homes you can rent on Airbnb or VRBO. If budget isn’t an issue, Oasis also has some nice properties for large groups. You will see lots of more reasonable options in Bocagrande, which is where all new high-rises are and is right on the beach, but it is a bit far from the Old Town (10 minute taxi). Some recommended hotels are:
- Sofitel Santa Marta Hotel
- Tcherassi Hotel
- Santa Teresa Hotel
- Casa Don Sancho
- La Passion Hotel
- Casa Mantilla
What to Do
- Take a day trip or two to the Rosario Islands. The 27 Rosario Islands are the biggest group of islands in Cartagena. It is about a 45min-1 hour boat ride to get there. I suggest renting a boat and island hop one day, and staying put at a beach or resort for a second day. Renting a boat (that fits about 9 people) with a driver will cost around $550 US for 8 hours. A few recommendations for the Rosario Islands are:
- Cholon – a must. Located on Isla Baru, it is essentially a huge yacht party with a restaurant/bar in the ocean. They serve you fresh fish and lobster at tables and huts in the ocean.
- La Piscina – one of the best snorkeling locations in Colombia located next to Isla Grande
- Isla Arena – small sandy island with a volleyball court and bar/restaurant
- Agua Azul – a beach on Isla Baru that is only a 5 minute boat ride from Cholon but much quieter and relaxing
- Coralina Island – a small private island resort that you can stay at overnight or just go for a day trip. It is a great place to relax and swim a bit and the food is delicious and fresh! If you go for the day, it costs $220,000 COP and includes transportation there are back as well as lunch and a glass of wine. They also provide you with towels. They also offer activities such as kayaking, paddleboarding and snorkeling for an additional fee. Book ahead as there are limited spots available daily.
- Gente del Mar – a nice beach to relax at on Isla Grande. You can book a day trip here through a hotel or agency and for around $170,000 COP, which includes lunch and transportation there and back.
- Playa Blanca – walk away from all the people towards hostels, lots of places to stay here for one night if you want
- Take a horse-drawn carriage around the Old Town or walk around and visit the plazas: Plaza Santo Domingo, Plaza San Diego, Plaza Bolivar & Plaza de las Coches. A half hour horse-carriage ride will cost around $60,000 COP. There are a lot of cute restaurants, bars and shops in this area.
- Watch sunset from the Old Town wall. Grab a few beers, climb up, and enjoy the view.
- If you want to spend a day at the beach and don’t want to go all the way out to the Rosario Islands, head to Morros (which is about a 15 minute drive north of Old Town). It won’t have the white sand and the teal water that you will find on the Rosario Islands but the water is still warm and the beach is huge. Here you can rent a tent and chairs all day (from $50,000 COP depending on size) and hang out. There are many activities available there including jet skiing, parasailing, hover boarding and kitesurfing. You can also get an hour full body massage for $50,000 COP and order food and drinks to your tent.
- Have a mud bath in the Volcan del Totumo. Located about one hour away from the city towards Barranquilla, this volcano may seem more like a man-made pile of mud – but it is an active volcano! It is very touristy here and there will likely be a line of people waiting to enter when you arrive, but it is a once in a lifetime experience. Half-day tours come out here quite frequently from the city for about $22US per person. This usually doesn’t include the $10,000 COP entrance cost and don’t forget to bring small bills to tip the photo guy, the masseuse and the lady who rinses you off (you should tip each out about $4,000 COP).
- Explore las Bóvedas in the Old Town. This series of 23 structures built into the city walls were used as dungeons during the civil wars of the 19th century. Now you can find many local shops here, perfect for souvenir shopping.
- Party on a Chiva bus. This is a typical Colombian thing with live music and an open bar with local liquor. You can purchase a ticket for $45,000 COP and this also includes entry to a club after. You will spend 3-4 hours touring the city on the Chiva bus and if you go with the right group of people, this can be a lot of fun. They also do Chiva tours during the day but at night is a lot more fun.
Where to Eat and Drink
Most good restaurants in Cartagena are expensive compared to other cities in Colombia, because of the tourism. For most restaurants it is best to make a reservation, especially in high season. Below are some good restaurants in town.
- Moshi – Japanese restaurant in the San Diego area of Old Town
- Restaurante Interno – a restaurant run in a women’s prison in the San Diego part of Old Town
- La Cevicheria – made famous from Anthony Bourdain’s visit, this cevicheria is located right around the corner from Plaza San Diego and has a great atmosphere. Many people said that El Boliche Cebicheria was better than La Cevicheria but at El Boliche there was no atmosphere and they ran out of fish.
- La Perla – a great Mediterranean restaurant with great grilled octopus
- Maria Cartagena, Alma or La Vitrola are other good choices for seafood but are more expensive
- Pasteleria Mila – for a reasonable meal or just for dessert
- Cafe Del Mar – for a drink at sunset, located right on the wall
- Café Havana – a great place for son and salsa music in Getsemani, there is $25,000 COP cover though
- Pizza Carbon or Café Trinidad – for a decent pizza for a really cheap price in Getsemani’s Plaza de la Trinidad ($20,000 COP for a large margarita pizza)
- Plaza de la Trinidad also has some great street food stands – burgers for $8,000 COP, grilled meat skewers for $4,000 and arepas for $2,500
Bogota is the 3rd largest city in South America and the fourth highest capital city in the world sitting at 2,640m above sea level. Because of this, you might find yourself having a hard time breathing but drink some cocoa tea and you will be back to normal. Three days here is a good amount of time to spend.
Where to Stay
The Click Clack Hotel is a small boutique hotel that is very central to everything. Everything you need is walking distance. Breakfast is included and there is a great rooftop bar. Airbnb is also a good option for accommodation, especially if you are on a budget as there are some really nice places for reasonable prices.
What to Do
- Go to the top of Monserrate – ride the cable car up to the top of the Monserrate mountain to take in some breathtaking views of the city. At the top you can also enjoy a meal or a drink at one of the restaurants or cafes.
- Take the “Free” Graffiti Tour – if you like art, you must take this tour. It covers a small area of Bogota’s vibrant street art scene — a colorful and original culture sustained by passion, creativity and co-operation. Although the tour is “free” the guides (who are graffiti artists themselves) survive off the tips they make running this tour.
- Visit the Botero museum – located in La Cadelaria, this museum is home to some of Botero’s most famous pieces of artwork, as well as works by many other Colombian comtemporary artists.
- Walk around La Candelaria and visit Plaza de Bolivar – this is the heart of Bogota where you can take in the old architectural styles dating back to the 1500s.
- Visit el Museo del Oro – at Bogota’s Gold Museum you will find many elaborate displays of gold artifacts made by indigenous tribes and recovered from tombs.
- Go shopping – there are many good places to shop around Bogota, but a few good malls are Centro Andino, Atlantis, El Retiro and Centro Comercial Santa Barbara in Usaquen.
- Visit the Paloquemao Market – here you will find lots of local fruits and vegetables, other produce and local handicrafts. A great place for a snack and taste some of the local foods.
- Take a day trip to the Catedral de Sal and the Laguna de Guatavita – located about 42km north of Bogota, this salt cathedral is one of South America’s wonders. Hire a driver for the day or book a tour to explore the 246-foot long salt mine and learn how the cathedral first opened in 1954. The salt mine was initially closed due to safety concerns, but was then rebuilt in 1991 after 250,000 tons of salt were removed to revamp the salt cathedral. At Lake Guatavita, you will find yourself surrounded by mountains. Here is where the famous ‘el dorado’ legend comes from, which suggests that golden treasures are hidden at the bottom of the lake.
Where to Eat or Drink
There are many areas with great restaurants in Bogota. Some good areas to explore are Usaquen, Parque 93, Zona T and Zona G. As you can imagine, dinner and dancing is a very popular combination in Colombia. Below are three great restaurants to experience this.
- Andre Carne de Res in Chia – This is a must! It is a massive restaurant with many different rooms and dance floors decorated with everything from a tiger jumping through a hoop to flying heart lamps (that you can personalize and buy if you like). Plan to stay the whole night when you visit as you will dance the night away after eating dinner. Making a reservation for around 9/10pm is a good idea. Because Chia is about a 40-minute drive from the city center, it is also best to hire a car and driver for the night as it can be very difficult finding your way home (your hotel should be able to help you with this). They opened the same restaurant in the city center as well but I highly recommend trying to make it out to the one in Chia as it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
- Bandido – This is a bistro with French influence in both decor and food. When you enter the restaurant, it is like you are transported to a neighborhood restaurant in Paris. The crème brulée and the music are elements that stand out in this space made with antique furniture. It is in the basement of an apartment building, across from Calle de los Anticuarios, and offers the full experience: not only good food but atmosphere and music as well. Try to go from Wednesday to Saturday as they have amazing live music!
- Gaira Café – The combination of food, music and tropical decor creates a welcoming atmosphere and a party atmosphere that will remind you of the coast. The Gairera salad is very good and the tomato soup is one of the best in town. Here you can find good food and can also enjoy the best live music from Colombia and the world.
Below are a few other restaurants that are great choices in the city.
- Cacio & Pepe – an Italian restaurant a short walk from Zona T, and a good place for a typically long and leisurely Bogota lunch
- Fulanitos – a family-run restaurant in a colonial house that specializes in typical food from Valle del Cauca, a region located on the western side of Colombia
© 2014 Christie Lee