There’s a reason why Lonely Planet named Colombia the #2 destination you can’t afford to miss in 2017, and that is because, well, it’s a destination that you just can’t afford to miss! (Crazy logic, right?!) But in all seriousness, Colombia was one of the countries we were most looking forward to on our Round the World trip, and it lived up to our expectations, and then exceeded them. Lots of people told us not to go there or that they themselves would not go there, but what you tend to find out the more you travel, is that people like to make assumptions about places they’ve never been. So if they can’t speak about the place from first hand experience, it’s probably not worth listening to their opinion anyway. Colombia has everything a traveler could ever want and more! The country is amazingly cheap (one of the cheapest out of the 20+ countries we’re visiting in 2017!), it has an array of sceneries and climates, an interesting history, a lively culture, friendly people, and the food is to die for! We compiled a list of 15 things not to miss while in Colombia (along with their costs), so you can see for yourself why both the Happy Nomad Couple and Lonely Planet think its such a great travel destination!
1. Walk around the Walled City
Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in 1533 and was quickly made into a major port for trade. In order to protect themselves against attacks from pirates and the like, the Spanish constructed a massive colonial fortress wall around what is now known as the Walled City. Nowadays, the area is known for having been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as the most popular tourist destination in Cartagena. The streets within the walls are sprawling with all types of shops, restaurants, and hotels. Even if you aren’t staying in one of the luxe hotels within the walls, it’s still fun to walk around to admire the brightly colored buildings, check out the view of the Caribbean Sea from the fortress walls, and maybe grab an ice cold paleta to cool you down in the process. Don’t forget to go see the famous yellow Clock Tower on the city entrance side while you’re there!
2. Stroll through Bocagrande
Beaches, shopping, dining, what more could you want? For a break from the chaos that is present in most areas of Cartagena, opt to spend some time in Bocagrande. The buildings are modern and the vibe is super relaxed. The beaches have umbrellas and chairs you can rent, as well as people to wait on you for drinks and/or food from nearby restaurants. The area is very safe which makes it a perfect place to get lost just walking around and admiring the beauty of the cityscape next to the sea.
3. Visit an island
There are so many to choose from in Cartagena, so you’d be crazy to miss out on going to just one of them! You have choices such Isla Baru, Islas del Rosarios, and Tierra Bomba among others. Each beach has something different to offer. Some offer parties and drinking with large crowds, and others offer peace and tranquility under the sun. Do you research to find out what’s the best option for you! You can sign up for a tour with a local tour office within the Walled City or you can just buy your ticket at the dock and go it alone (although the latter option is not possible for all islands). Make sure you get to the dock early though, because the seats on the boats fill up quickly, and the islands are all 30 minutes to an hour away by boat. Well worth it though for some time on the beautiful island beaches of Cartagena!
PRICE: varies, our one day trip to Isla de Pirata (part of the Islas del Rosarios) cost about $48 USD per person (included boat ride and lunch)
4. Check out Getsemani
What was once one of Cartagena’s dodgiest neighborhood, is now becoming one of the hottest places to hang out for a night. The bright colors within the Walled City continue to this area of town as well as some super artistic street graffiti. There are lots of cool bars and restaurants here and the neighborhood absolutely comes alive at night. You can also find food carts here with long lines of people waiting for some late night grub. This is known for being one of the more authentic areas of town, staying true to its roots and not letting tourists completely take it over. So to see how the local Colombianos party, definitely spend a night checking out this up and coming neighborhood.
5. Ride the local bus
This might seem like a weird thing to recommend, but once you experience the local buses yourself, you’ll see exactly why we say you can’t miss it. It’s transportation like we’ve never experienced before, although we have to warn you, it ain’t glamorous. The buses are easy to spot. Most of them are decorated with flashing lights and dangling tapestries in the interior. Look at the top of the front window to see the neighborhood(s) the bus stops at. Depending what time of day you ride, it can be cramped and hot (yup no air conditioning except for the open windows). But the cool thing is, the bus will stop wherever you tell it to. There are NO set bus stops. When you see a bus you want to hop on, flag it down, make eye contact with the bus driver, whatever it takes. And once you’re on and near your destination, yell PARE (STOP in Spanish), and the bus driver will literally stop right there. Doesn’t matter where, they will stop. It’s kinda crazy, but makes for a very efficient system for the riders, and a shorter walk to wherever they’re heading.
PRICE: $0.73 USD per person for 1 ride
6. Take a trip to Comuna Trece
This neighborhood definitely has a rough past rooted in drugs in violence, but its now on the up and up and makes for a little piece of history in Medellín that has to be seen. Some of the best street graffiti we’ve seen in all of South America is painted on the walls and buildings of this community. And the views of the city from the top of the hill are spectacular. It’s crazy to imagine how conflicted the area once was by criminal activity originating from none other than Pablo Escobar himself. Today in Comana Trece, you’ll find security and large escalators to take you to the top since the climb uphill is incredibly steep. You can go it alone (like we did) or purchase a tour where the history and graffiti are explained in great detail. And if you find yourself captivated by the history of this neighborhood, you can delve deeper and sign up for a Pablo Escobar tour also.
PRICE: FREE, but you can also purchase a tour
7. Eat a buñuelo
If we had to pick the food we miss most from all of South America, it would have to be this wonderful round treat. You can find them everywhere in Medellín usually for a mere 500 Colombian pesos. They are nothing more than fried dough balls, but if you manage to get one when they are fresh and hot, they are fried dough balls from heaven. They’re cheap and easy to find, so you have no excuse not to give them a try.
PRICE: $0.17 USD each
8. Go to a soccer game
In case you didn’t already know, Colombianos are crazy about their soccer! There are two teams based in Medellín (Atlético Nacional and Deportivo Independiente Medellín) who share the same stadium. When you walk in, you’ll notice there is one section of the stadium that is absolutely decked out in team gear, waving team flags and chanting and cheering for their team nonstop! And if the home team scores a goal, be prepared for the crowd to erupt. It’s hard to not get into the spirit even if you aren’t a big soccer fan. And while you’re there, give the hometown favorite soda, Manzana Postobon, a try (they sponsor the Atlético Nacional soccer team)! The drink is apple flavored and quite addicting.
PRICE: varies, our tickets cost $8.00 USD per person
9. Party in El Poblado
This is 100% the neighborhood to be in if you want a night of letting loose, grabbing a few brews, and having fun! The neighborhood of El Poblado is bustling with people every night of the week, being that a lot of international visitors are staying in nearby hostels and hotels. There are tons of restaurants, cafés, and of course bars and clubs to suit anyone’s fancy. The best part is the random dance parties that take place around the local street performers or the bars pumping out the catchy Cuban music. You’ll definitely want to spend a night or two down in this lively area of the city.
PRICE: depends how hungry and sober you are
10. Take the Metro Cable to Parque Arví
Spent too much time in the city lately? The perfect change of pace is just a metro cable away. Parque Arví is a beautiful national park beaming with super tall trees and tons of history. The Metro Cable takes you on a ride over the hilly favelas of Medellín where you can see how the people on the outskirts of the city live from an aerial view. The last stop in the cable car brings you to the national park, whereas the other stops bring people to their high up the hill neighborhoods. Right after disembarking on the last stop, you can buy food, drinks, souvenirs, or join a guided tour for just a couple dollars per person. From there, you take off on a hike through the forest filled with a wide variety of flora and fauna or you can visit the river complete with a small waterfall and space for campsites. Parque Arví is the perfect breath of fresh air while visiting Medellín.
PRICE: Park entrance is FREE, for round trip on Metro Cable to Parque Arví is $3.63 USD per person
11. Check out Botero Plaza
You might think you’re not familiar with the artist Fernando Botero, but take a second to Google him and you might realize otherwise. You may have seen his work on the internet in the form of some popular memes before? (Click here to see what we’re talking about). Anyway, even if you’ve never heard of him or seen any of his work, we’re pretty sure the works he’s donated to this plaza will definitely entertain you. The plaza has 23 large sculptures arranged around the park that make for great photo ops. (We don’t want to show you and ruin the fun, you have to go see them yourself!) And if you’re interested, the plaza is also the home of the Museum of Antioquia.
PRICE: FREE to walk around the plaza, the museum entrance fee is $6.29 USD per person if you are not a Colombian citizen
12. Climb up La Piedra del Peñol
600+ steps to the top of this mountain may seem like a lot of work, but once you’ve made it to the top and see the views down below, it all suddenly seems worth it. If the views don’t motivate you, there’s also a snack shack up top. And if snacks don’t motivate you, there’s a bar up there too. One of the three should be motivating enough to get you to the top. Make sure you spend enough time up there taking pictures, eating, and drinking to justify the journey up the massive staircase.
PRICE: $6.29 USD per person
13. Walk the colorful streets
Want to visit likely one of the most colorful places you’ve ever seen? Then just walk the streets of the tiny town of Guatape. The city and its residents work together to keep the buildings bright and beautiful, as they have been for many years. As you walk around, you’ll notice lots of buildings have painted scenes on the bottom of them. These pictures represent what it is that building is used for or what the people who live inside do as an occupation. It’s super fun to walk around guessing what people’s jobs are. You’ll spot shoe cobblers, bar tenders, farmers, and lots of other things in between. And don’t miss the famous square with the ultra colorful stairs and silver fish atop them. That spot is definitely the most Instagram-able in the whole town!
14. Go on a coffee tour
Guaranteed, your appreciation for coffee will increase at least 1000% after you learn what it takes to get your morning cup of joe brewed. Salento is smack dab in the middle of the famous Coffee Axis region of the country. Colombia’s average annual coffee production is the 3rd highest in the world overall, and number 1 in Arabica bean production. That means there’s a lot of coffee growing in them there hills. When you go on a coffee plantation tour, you’ll learn all about the trees the coffee beans grow on, the different types of beans, how to know when they are ripe to pick, how to get the bean out of the shell, how to dry them, and how they are roasted. You might even get to pick some beans and try some coffee while you’re there!
PRICE: varies, our tour with Finca Momota was $4.19 USD per person
15. Hike Cocora Valley
One of the most beautiful hikes in Colombia, is located in the coffee axis region through the Andean Mountains! Down the road from a bunch of coffee plantations, you can make your way to Cocora Valley for a full day of hiking and adventure. This hike takes about 5-6 hours to complete and is fairly strenuous during some portions, but takes you full circle back to the beginning so you don’t have to double back and see the same things again. You’ll definitely want to wear some sturdy athletic shoes for this hike because it will take you up and down hill sides, over suspension bridges, and through thick vegetation. Most notably, you’ll pass by Colombia’s national tree and also the tallest palm tree in the world, the wax palm tree. It’s easy to spot because its really thin and really tall!
PRICE: $1.05 USD per person
Any questions about what to do in Colombia? Let us know in the comments!
To find out more about our time and budget in Colombia, click here!
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