3 Weeks in Colombia (2016)
In June 2016 I spent three weeks in Colombia 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.
|1||Flight from US to Bogotá||Bogotá|
|4||Bus to Tunja||Tunja|
|5||Bus to Villa de Leyva||Villa de Leyva|
|6||Villa de Leyva||Villa de Leyva|
|7||Villa de Leyva||Villa de Leyva|
|8||Bus to Bogotá||Bogotá|
|10||Flight to Pereira||Salento|
|13||Bus to coffee hacienda near Manizales||Hacienda|
|15||Bus to Manizales||Manizales|
|16||Bus to Jardín||Jardín|
|18||Bus to Medellín||Medellín|
|22||Flight to Cartagena||Cartagena|
|26||Flight to Quito via Bogotá||Quito|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A good base for exploring the coffee region and doing the Valle de Cocora hike.
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.
Manizales is a pleasant town and it’s worth spending a night.
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.
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.
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.
From Cartagena I continued on with budget airline Viva Colombia to Quito via Bogotá to explore the highlands of Ecuador.