3 Weeks in Colombia (2016)

In 2016 I spent 3 weeks in Colombia in June exploring Bogotá, Villa de Leyva, Salento, Manizales, Jardín, Medellín, and Cartagena. The highlight was Colombia’s lush Zona Cafetera (coffee zone) with a stay at a gorgeous hacienda featuring an outstanding coffee tour.

Colombia Itinerary: 3 Weeks

Three weeks in Colombia is a good amount of time to explore this extraordinarily diverse country.

DayDaytimeSleep
1Flight from US to BogotáBogotá
2BogotáBogotá
3BogotáBogotá
4Bus to TunjaTunja
5Bus to Villa de LeyvaVilla de Leyva
6Villa de LeyvaVilla de Leyva
7Villa de LeyvaVilla de Leyva
8Bus to BogotáBogotá
9BogotáBogotá
10Flight to PereiraSalento
11SalentoSalento
12SalentoSalento
13Bus to coffee hacienda near ManizalesHacienda
14HaciendaHacienda
15Bus to ManizalesManizales
16Bus to JardínJardín
17JardínJardín
18Bus to MedellínMedellín
19MedellínMedellín
20MedellínMedellín
21MedellínMedellín
22Flight to CartagenaCartagena
23CartagenaCartagena
24CartagenaCartagena
25CartagenaCartagena
26Flight to Quito via BogotáQuito

Timing: Colombia in June

Staying out of the hot sun, Cartagena - Colombia in June

Staying out of the hot sun, Cartagena

June is shoulder season and a good time to visit the highlands of Colombia as there’s not much rain. Cartagena seemed full of tourists to me but locals told me there are many more December through February. It was, however, unbearably hot. The rainy season was just starting so there wasn’t enough rain to cool things off, and even locals were complaining about the temperatures.

Transportation

Getting There and Away: I flew to Bogotá from the US via Miami using American miles. Leaving Colombia, I took a Viva Colombia flight from Bogotá to Quito, which saved me hundreds of dollars over other Latin American carriers. See more about Viva Colombia below.

Getting Around: I had heard questionable things about the safety of long-distance buses in Colombia, so I flew whenever possible. A local budget airline, Viva Colombia, offers fares for not much more than a bus ticket, saving long hours of bus travel.

I took four flights with Viva Colombia, three within Colombia and one from Bogotá to Quito, and was impressed by their efficiency for such a low price. I would definitely travel with them again, especially since it saved me hundreds of dollars.

The staff was friendly and competent. I did not pay for rapid check-in for three of the four flights but it was not really needed; I waited from 5 to 30 minutes in the check-in line, with the longest wait being the international flight to Quito. I paid the advance fee to have the boarding pass printed each time since I didn’t have access to a printer.

All four flights left a little late, with delays from 10 minutes to an hour, but that seems pretty common in South America. They seem to pad the arrival time so you often still arrive as scheduled. The luggage delivery is super-fast; often my suitcase was coming out on the band as I arrived at the luggage carousel.

When I bought my ticket from Bogotá to Quito on the website, a departure tax of US$38 was automatically added. Checking in at the counter in Bogotá, I asked for a refund for the tax since you are not supposed to have to pay it if you’ve been in the country less than 60 days. The gate agent paid it back to me in pesos.

Uber in Colombia: Uber is now available in Colombia’s major cities, and I used it whenever possible since taking a taxi off the street is considered risky. Note that Uber is technically considered illegal in Colombia. I would avoid taking Ubers from locations like bus stations where there are many traditional taxis to avoid any conflict. However, I generally had excellent experiences although some drivers seemed very new to their jobs.

Short hops around town with Uber are very cheap - Uber in Colombia

Short hops around town with Uber are very cheap. These fares are about US$1.50.

One thing I noted is that Uber drivers in Latin America are prone to giving you their cards and encouraging you to use their services outside of the Uber app. I never did this since I believe Uber provides an important level of security and oversight. Also, I prefer paying by credit card rather than cash.

Accommodation

View over Bogotá from my Airbnb in La Candelaria - three weeks in Colombia

View over Bogotá from my Airbnb in La Candelaria

I stayed in a mix of hostels, budget hotels, and Airbnbs. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed I’m a lot less tolerant of the noisy environment in many hostels. Usually, you can get a private room with Airbnb for the same price as a private room in a hostel, and the quality of the experience is so much better. In general, I paid US$20-30 for a private room, usually with private bath.

SIM card and apps

I bought a local SIM card for my Android phone from a Claro kiosk my first day in Bogotá. I got a data-only plan since I planned to rarely use voice or text. (You can still use your account credit for voice or text if needed.)

I brought my passport and the clerk did ask to see it. (Note: you need to know your passport number while traveling in Colombia as you get asked for it constantly. It helped me finally memorize mine after many years!)

It was a convoluted, confusing process to get the data package I wanted, made worse by the rapid-fire Colombian Spanish spoken by the sales clerks. It came out to US$15 for a 2GB monthly package.

As in most Latin American countries, I recommend installing WhatsApp since it’s commonly used for messaging.

Bogotá

Oldest street in Bogotá, La Candelaria - places to visit in Colombia

Oldest street in Bogotá, La Candelaria

I stayed in La Candelaria, the historic center that contains most tourist sites and museums. La Candelaria is charming but can be dangerous at night.

Try to plan your trip so you’re in Bogotá on a Sunday or public holiday to experience the ciclovía, when the main streets of Bogotá are blocked off to cars for runners, skaters, and bicyclists. On a sunny day it’s incredible to see what seems like the entire population of Bogotá out on the streets jogging or bicycling with their families.

The free Graffiti Tour (donations requested) of La Candelaria is fantastic. I recommend doing it your first day to get a good introduction to the area.

Graffiti tour, La Candelaria, Bogotá - things to do in Bogotá

Graffiti tour, La Candelaria, Bogotá. Highly recommended!

Street art, La Candelaria, Bogotá

Street art, La Candelaria, Bogotá

Mobile vendor, Bogotá

Mobile vendor, Bogotá

Ajiaco, typical soup of Bogotá. A lot of people really like this soup, but I was underwhelmed. In general, I found Colombian food carb-heavy, bland, and repetitive.

Ajiaco, typical soup of Bogotá. A lot of people really like this soup, but I was underwhelmed. In general, I found Colombian food carb-heavy, bland, and repetitive.

Try to plan your trip so you're in Bogotá on a Sunday. Each Sunday and public holiday the main streets of Bogotá are blocked off to cars for runners, skaters, and bicyclists. Bogotá was the first city in the world to start the tradition of Sunday ciclovías. Bogotá's weekly ciclovía is attended by two million people on over 120 km of car-free streets.

Try to plan your trip so you’re in Bogotá on a Sunday. Each Sunday and public holiday the main streets of Bogotá are blocked off to cars for runners, skaters, and bicyclists. Bogotá was the first city in the world to start the tradition of Sunday ciclovías. Bogotá’s weekly ciclovía is attended by two million people on over 120 km of car-free streets.

Sunday ciclovía, Bogotá

Sunday ciclovía, Bogotá

Sunday ciclovía, Bogotá

Sunday ciclovía, Bogotá

Urban cycling, Bogotá, Colombia

Urban cycling, Bogotá

Chess tournament on the street, Bogotá

Chess tournament on the street, Bogotá

View over Bogotá from Mount Monserrate

View over Bogotá from Mount Monserrate

Tunja

I stopped off in Tunja for a night on the way to Villa de Leyva from Bogotá. Tunja has a few stunning churches and convents, but it’s cold and rainy and the food is terrible. Possibly worth a stop if you have extra time.

Villa de Leyva

Lovely colonial town that gets very crowded on weekends. I stayed at the Renacer Highlands Hostel, a short walk outside town in some gorgeous countryside.

Main plaza, Villa de Leyva

Main plaza, Villa de Leyva

Main plaza, Villa de Leyva

Main plaza, Villa de Leyva

Renacer Hostel, Villa de Leyva

Renacer Hostel, Villa de Leyva

Countryside near Renacer Hostel, Villa de Leyva

Countryside near Renacer Hostel, Villa de Leyva

Main plaza, Villa de Leyva

Main plaza, Villa de Leyva

Salento

A good base for exploring the coffee region and doing the Valle de Cocora hike.

Salento in Colombia's coffee region. A pretty town but very touristy.

Salento in Colombia’s coffee region. A pretty town but very touristy.

Long-tailed sylph at the hummingbird sanctuary on the Valle de Cocora hike

Long-tailed sylph at the hummingbird sanctuary on the Valle de Cocora hike

Valle de Cocora hike, Colombia

Valle de Cocora hike

Valle de Cocora hike

Valle de Cocora hike

Valle de Cocora hike

Valle de Cocora hike

Hacienda Guayabal

Hacienda Guayabal is a rustic coffee finca near Manizales. It features a stunning setting as well as a fascinating half-day coffee tour. I recommend staying at least one night to soak up the tranquil atmosphere.

View onto Hacienda Guayabal

View onto Hacienda Guayabal

Arriero (itinerant farmworker) clearing the fields at Hacienda Guayabal. The arrieros live at the hacienda while there is work for them to do, then they move on to the next place.

Arriero (itinerant farmworker) clearing the fields at Hacienda Guayabal. The arrieros live at the hacienda while there is work for them to do, then they move on to the next place.

My happy place, Hacienda Guayabal

My happy place, Hacienda Guayabal

Taste test, coffee tour, Hacienda Guayabal

Taste test, coffee tour, Hacienda Guayabal

Manizales

Manizales is a pleasant town and it’s worth spending a night.

View from the cathedral, Manizales

View from the cathedral, Manizales

Jardín

Getting to Jardín from Manizales was a pain. There is very little information online about bus routes, but I finally determined I could take a bus from Manizales to Riosucio and then a chiva (traditional rural bus) to Jardín. However, the bicycle race Vuelta de Colombia threw a wrench into my plans when the main road between Medellín and Manizales was closed for about six hours. I was able to get to Riosucio but had to spend the night before continuing on to Jardín in the morning.

It was all worth it though since Jardín was lovely.

Jardín, Colombia

Jardín

Typical street, Jardín, Colombia

Typical street, Jardín

Bandeja paisa, typical dish of the Medellín area. Note that this is the half portion.

Bandeja paisa, typical dish of the Medellín area. Note that this is the half portion.

Medellín

In Medellín I stayed in El Poblado, also known as Gringolandia. It was not exactly an authentic local experience but nevertheless a good choice as El Poblado is a lovely, leafy green neighborhood safe for solo women that features great restaurants and cafés.

The free walking tour of Medellín (tip requested) as well as a day trip to Guatapé are highly recommended.

Roman soldier by Botero, Medellín centro. Notice how shiny his private parts are from being rubbed. Supposedly touching his penis will bring you a relationship with a man. The longer you hold it, the longer the relationship. Disclaimer: I did not test this out.

Roman soldier by Botero, Medellín centro. Notice how shiny his private parts are from being rubbed. Supposedly touching his penis will bring you a relationship with a man. The longer you hold it, the longer the relationship. Disclaimer: I did not test this out.

Lady of the evening with Botero statue in Medellín's red light district

Lady of the evening with Botero statue in Medellín’s red light district

During the Copa América, even Jesus supports the Colombian national team.

During the Copa América, even Jesus supports the Colombian national team.

Comuna 13 tour. Comuna 13 remains one of Medellín's poorest and most violent neighborhoods. It is not recommended to visit without a guide. Medellín recently installed a giant outdoor escalator to help integrate its residents with the rest of the city. Previously they had to climb stairs the equivalent of a 30-story building to get to and from the city center.

Comuna 13 tour. Comuna 13 remains one of Medellín’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. It is not recommended to visit without a guide. Medellín recently installed a giant outdoor escalator to help integrate its residents with the rest of the city. Previously they had to climb stairs the equivalent of a 30-story building to get to and from the city center.

Comuna 13 tour, Medellín

Comuna 13 tour

Bombed out Botero bird statue, Medellín, now a memorial. In 1995, a FARC bomb was detonated under the sculpture during a public concert, killing 23 people and injuring dozens more.

Bombed out Botero bird statue, Medellín, now a memorial. In 1995, a FARC bomb was detonated under the sculpture during a public concert, killing 23 people and injuring dozens more.

Vendor with homemade wheelchair, Medellín. Street vendors selling cell phone minutes are seen almost everywhere.

Vendor with homemade wheelchair, Medellín. Street vendors selling cell phone minutes are seen almost everywhere.

Metrocable station, Medellín

Metrocable station, Medellín

Metrocable station, Medellín

Metrocable station, Medellín

Metrocable, Medellín, Colombia

Metrocable, Medellín

Day trip to Guatapé from Medellín. Climbing la Piedra Del Peñol.

Day trip to Guatapé from Medellín. Climbing la Piedra Del Peñol.

View from la Piedra Del Peñol. All those stairs were worth it.

View from la Piedra Del Peñol. All those stairs were worth it.

Guatapé is famous for its zócalos, depictions of village life that adorn the lower half of most buildings.

Guatapé is famous for its zócalos, depictions of village life that adorn the lower half of most buildings.

Cartagena

I stayed in an Airbnb in a 300-year-old house in Getsemaní, a picturesque neighborhood rapidly gentrifying due to its charm. I preferred Getsemaní to the historic center of Cartagena which I found touristy and overpriced.

Gracias a Dios por todo, Cartagena

Gracias a Dios por todo, Cartagena

Getsemaní alleyway, Cartagena, Colombia

Getsemaní alleyway

Street art in the Getsemaní neighborhood, Cartagena

Street art in the Getsemaní neighborhood, Cartagena

Street art, Getsemaní, Cartagena

Street art, Getsemaní

Ceviche at Cevichería Chipi Chipi, Cartagena

Ceviche at Cevichería Chipi Chipi, Cartagena

Arepa con huevo, Cartagena street food specialty

Arepa con huevo, Cartagena street food specialty

From Cartagena I continued on with budget airline Viva Colombia to Quito via Bogotá to explore the highlands of Ecuador.

Note: None of the links in this post are compensated. If I recommended a business, it’s because I loved them and think you will too.

4 Comments on “3 Weeks in Colombia (2016)

  1. Thanks for the useful travel-tips and experience. Not that I will be in Latin America any time soon probably, but your tips are good food for thought generally. (Whats App, btw, also seems to be the most popular way of messaging in Germany.) As always, your photos are gorgeous and really impart the atmosphere of the fascinating cultural experiences and colorful and/or breathtaking environments you enjoyed. I do wonder about the environmental impact of so much flying over bussing, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do – certainly makes sense time- and safety-wise. Maybe there’s a way to offset?

    • Hey, Rainier, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Seems like the US is the only country I know of that hasn’t caught on to the messenger app trend!

      And I definitely have mixed feelings about flying. In the case of Colombia and Ecuador, where theft and even armed robbery can be common on long-distance buses, I didn’t feel there was another option. But with all the travel I’ve been doing there’s no doubt flying is a disproportionate part of my carbon footprint. I do try to balance things out by living a low-impact, non-consumerist lifestyle at home, but offsets would be something to consider.

  2. Thank you for all the useful information you provided in your post. Now, I’m sure I want to be in Bogota on Sunday 🙂

    • In Bogotá, also don’t miss the Museo de Oro and the cable car up to Monserrate. Wishing you wonderful and safe travels! =)

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