During our three week trip to Colombia we saw A LOT. We planned a busy itinerary so we could really get the most out of our trip, and we hopped from big cities to small towns to lush forests to sandy beaches.
And naturally we developed some pretty strong opinions on what our favorite places were, as well as our not-so favorite places.
While we may not have fallen in love with every single part of the trip, there were so many experiences that we valued for either teaching us something about Colombian history, expressing local culture, or highlighting the country’s natural beauty and biodiversity. These 11 things are the ones I’ll tell people about when they ask about the best parts of my trip.
And at the end of the post I’ll touch on a few things/places that I wasn’t terribly impressed with, and you can take for what it’s worth.
The list isn’t a countdown, it’s just in the chronological order of when we did them on our trip 🙂
1. Bogotá Graffiti Tour
So the first day in Bogotá we casually walked through La Candelaria, one of the city’s historic neighborhoods. And of course we saw graffiti and thought it was cool and just walked on by.
But the next day we took the Free Bogotá Graffiti Tour and saw everything in a whole new light.
Our guide explained where graffiti came from, why it’s important, what it means to people, and how it’s intertwined with Colombian culture. It was truly fascinating!
I didn’t know too much about Colombian politics beforehand, but this graffiti tour actually turned out to be a great lesson on current events. Life really does inspire art! Some stickers had political messages about the recent presidential election, and the graffiti world in Bogotá has truly been transformed based on police action against artists.
Even if you don’t think you’re into graffiti, you will leave this tour understanding so much more about Colombia overall.
2. Cocora Valley Hike
This isn’t your regular hike in the woods. This is a hike among the tallest palm trees in the entire world!
The wax palms of the Cocora Valley can grow up to 200 feet tall and look epic from just about every vantage point in the valley.
After spending time in Bogotá, this chance to be out in nature was just what we were looking for. This place really is one of a kind!
If you enjoy hiking you can also explore some other trails in the surrounding cloud forest, or you can come to see the palms and leave. Your choice!
3. Ocaso Coffee Tour
Despite drinking this drink almost everyday of my adult life, I wasn’t too familiar with how it’s actually grown and harvested before our Ocaso Coffee Tour. I mean, did you know that the green seed-looking thing in the left photo is a coffee cherry? Yea, they call them coffee cherries. But you don’t pick them when they’re green, you pick them when they’re red (there’s one to the left in the center of the photo).
Colombian coffee is quite famous, and the tour helped us understand how it’s made and why it’s so good.
We wore little wicker baskets and picked coffee cherries, saw where they dried the coffee and sorted it, and were taught how to perfectly roast a cup based on the grind and method of your choice.
Oh yea, and we tasted it! Delicious.
If you want to read more about the tour, check out this post from Practical Wanderlust.
4. MedellÍn Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour
Another graffiti tour?! Yes, the Medellín Comuna 13 Tour was totally different from the one in Bogotá and just as amazing!
If you want to learn how Medellín transformed from the most dangerous, murderous area of the world to a liveable, thriving community, take this tour.
It starts off with a ride on the city’s metro system, where our guide explained how this metro reduced traveling time for workers getting to the city’s textile factories. Without the metro it took people 4 HOURS to get to work, but with the metro only 45 minutes. The metro is credited with helping reduce crime in Medellín, since it actually became more cost and time effective for people to go to work rather than be involved in criminal activity. So interesting, right?
The tour eventually takes you to Comuna 13, where you learn about this neighborhood’s violent past. In the 1980s and 90s, this area was aggressively controlled by drug cartels and later armed rebels who dictated curfew to residents, murdered anyone who tried to enter, and perpetuated fear by forcing residents to watch executions of those who broke the rules. Public transportation and even police didn’t enter Comuna 13.
A controversial military operation to retake the neighborhood in 2002 and several development projects since have transformed this part of Medellín. There are beautiful murals, escalators, shops, and children playing. And tourists! Our guide explained that seeing tourists in this neighborhood where previously even police couldn’t enter is a sign to the locals that things are better. This was certainly not your average graffiti tour!
One thing that I really enjoyed about this tour was that snacks and beverages were included. We got to try local fruit juices, street snacks, and my favorite, the cold coffee with lime. The tour definitely was a more immersive experience in the city, and it’s 100% worth every penny of the tour cost.
5. Day Trip to Guatapé
If you have an extra day in Medellín then it’s a wonderful idea to visit Guatapé. This is what all the tourists do and it works pretty well: climb to the top of El Peñón de Guatapé, then head to the city to walk among the colorful and cute town streets.
El Peñón de Guatapé is a huge 650 ft tall rock overlooking all the surrounding lakes. It takes 740 steps to get to the top, but the view is gorgeous.
After climbing all the way up and all the way down, we grabbed lunch in the town and checked out the bright buildings.
So insta-worthy, right? The colors are so vibrant and there are so many interesting designs. Over the course of our day it got cloudier and cloudier, which was a pretty cool contrast against the colors.
6. Hiking to Waterfalls in Paso del Mango
After being city tourists in Medellín we made our way back to nature. Usually people visit Minca, but we stayed a little outside there for a few days at Finca Carpe Diem in Paso del Mango.
The only way to get there was by holding on for dear life on the back of a motor bike up a gravelly, windy path for 15 minutes, but it was so worth it to be in the cloud forest away from everything. To just chill.
And from Finca Carpe Diem we were able to hike to the area’s waterfalls and swimming holes, which were peaceful and beautiful. We ran into a few other people there, but for the most part had the place to ourselves. A perfect, private escape.
If you stay at Finca Carpe Diem they have a book at the desk with how to get to all the great water spots.
7. Cacao Farm Tour
Another thing we were able to walk to from Finca Carpe Diem was a cacao farm. And as a notorious chocolate lover I was so intrigued to see the process of making the sweet treat, from cacao fruit (in the left photo) to a nice mug of hot chocolate that we got at the end of our tour.
Did you know that squirrels are the biggest ‘predators’ of cacao fruit? I didn’t even know they had squirrels in this forest! But they do, and they’re kind of a pain if you’re a cacao farmer.
After we toured the farm area, we were given a chance to peel the roasted cacao, grind it into chocolate, enjoy a chocolate facial mask, and sip on some hot chocolate. This farm does everything by hand with no automation or machinery, and their family had been doing this for generations.
And if you’re wondering, my face felt amazing after the chocolate mask 😉
8. Glamping at Playa Los Ángeles
If you’re planning a trip to Colombia you have most certainly heard of Tayrona National Park. It’s the beach that everyone raves about. But if you don’t book a place to stay inside the park well in advance, it will be filled up. And you might be disappointed unless you find another great place to stay right outside the park: Playa Los Ángeles.
We chose the glamping (glamorous camping) option here, and it was so. stinking. cute. You already saw the beach swing above, and here’s where we spent the night:
A seaside yurt!
We may have had no air conditioning, no wifi, and only one so-so restaurant within walking distance, but falling asleep to the sound of the waves was lovely.
Some people come to stay at Playa Los Ángeles just for the day, and fewer actually camp out in the tent area overnight. So towards the evening it really feels like your own private beach. And after having visited Tayrona National Park, I’m convinced this was the better option for enjoying the beach.
9. The Lost City Trek
It sounds kind of crazy to say that being constantly wet, hot, and bitten by mosquitos was one of my favorite experiences in Colombia, but it’s the truth! My friend and I were waffling between doing this trek or spending more time in Cartagena, and I am incredibly happy we went for the trek.
The Lost City Trek is a 4 day hike through the Sierra Nevada forest and mountains to Ciudad Perdida, an ancient city of the Tairona people.
You probably haven’t heard of the Tairona people, but it’s not a gimmick and they actually predate the Incan and Aztec civilizations by a few hundred years! The terraced city was built around the year 800, and rediscovered in the 1970s by looters.
The only way to access Ciudad Perdida is through a guided hike. It’s 4 days of hills, sweat, and bug bites, but it’s epic! Along the way you get to learn about some of the local indigenous tribes (which are descendants of the Taironas), the history of drug cartels in the area, and, of course, about the Lost City!
What I also loved about this tour was getting to meet other travelers. I mean, 4 days of hiking and being gross and wearing no makeup means you really get to know people! And get this: I was the only person out of our group of 12 that could only speak one language! Everyone else was at least bilingual if not tri-lingual. It made me feel very American.
There are tons of posts out there geared toward preparing for the hike and talking about what it was like, so if you are looking for more information you can check out these posts:
- The Lost City Trek, Colombia: All You Need to Know
- What You Need to Know About the Lost City Trek in Colombia
- The Complete Guide to the Lost City Trek Colombia
If you’re looking to book the tour yourself, we went with Expotur and it was great!
10. Wandering Cartagena
Something I love to do when I travel to cities is just wander. Walk down random streets, admire the architecture, grab some food, browse through local shops, and just take it all in. Personally, I didn’t feel like Bogotá and Medellín were good wandering cities. But Cartagena is!
The colorful, colonial architecture of the Old Town is completely charming, and you still can find some quieter streets away from the tourists for a few great Instagram shots.
You can also walk along the old city walls that have pretty views of the ocean. For the lovely streets and seaside walks, I would say Cartagena is my favorite big city in Colombia.
A word of warning: it is extremely touristy and there are a large amount of vendors in the Old Town. It almost detracts from the experience overall.
11. Blue Apple Beach Club
Beach trips from Cartagena are very popular. Everywhere you go you will see tour companies selling day trips to nearby beaches. But if you do a little research you will find that these tours are SO hit or miss. This post about a trip to the Rosario Islands had me worried. And if you get on any forums on Trip Advisor you’ll read some of the same for the various nearby beaches around Cartagena.
We wanted a relaxing trip with no parties, no pushy vendors, and no crowds. So we went with the recommendation of the Blue Apple Beach Club from Ashley of History in High Heels. And it was so wonderful!
You have to book the trip in advance since they limit the amount of visitors that can come to the beach, and it’s a little more expensive than other beach trips, but it was just what we were looking for.
We ate phenomenal seafood, sipped on tasty drinks, and had reserved lounge chairs on the beach for when we weren’t taking a dip in the pool.
This was actually what we did on our last day in Colombia before flying home to the US, and it was the best way to finish off our three week trip.
Now I’m going to pass on a few things that I just didn’t care for too much.
Tayrona National Park
The first thing you may be thinking I missed from my best experiences list is Tayrona National Park. We stayed at Playa Los Ángeles right outside the park, and spent one day inside the park. It was one of my least favorite days of the trip (which I hate to say, because I sound so ungrateful about being able to have this experience, but it’s true). First of all, it’s incredibly expensive. After the Lost City Trek, which is worth every penny, it was the most expensive thing we did in Colombia. I’m sure that money goes back to conserving the park, which is great, but I still think it’s steep.
P.S. They only take cash and there are no ATMs nearby.
Secondly, once you enter the park you have to hike for 2 HOURS to get to the most popular beach, Cabo San Juan. There is no other way to get there, unless you take a horse. Now, I like hiking. Obviously I did it several times on this trip. But this hiking was not enjoyable. You’re hiking with a lot of other people on the same route, with some people blasting music while they walk (please don’t be these people). It wasn’t peaceful.
And once we finally got to the beach, I wasn’t terribly impressed. I mean, it was pretty. But so was Playa Los Ángeles. And I didn’t have to hike 2 hours there and then 2 hours back after. And it didn’t have as many people. I also think it cost less to stay there each night than it did to enter the park.
Posing on this rock you would think that there we had the beach to ourselves, but it’s just cropping out all the people in the water to the right.
I know this is an unpopular opinion. Some people love Tayrona National Park. And I’m sure a lot of my feelings have to do with me not wanting to hike forever to go to a beach (I mean, it’s supposed to be relaxing, right!?). But hey, those are my feelings!
If it wasn’t for the amazing free graffiti tour, I would say skip this city completely. This was the first city we visited in Colombia, and we ended up cutting the visit short by a day because we were just unimpressed by it. It’s a busy, dirty, and not so pretty capital city. There were a lot of stray dogs, trash, and not many nice streets for wandering. Even in La Candelaria it was kinda grungy. The only other nice thing about Bogotá was the view from Monserrate.
But we ran into someone on a tour in Medellín that said they were going back to Bogotá because they loved it so much, and didn’t like Cartagena! To each their own.
I feel like I’m going to get heat for saying this…but as someone who doesn’t eat much meat, Colombian food can be a little difficult. It’s a lot of meat. One time my friend and I went to restaurant for lunch and there was literally 1 vegetarian meal on the menu!
When we found vegetarian options of traditional foods we gave them a try. Some of them are arepas (corn flour patties eaten with just about everything), empanadas (filled pastries), and patacones (cooked plantain slices). Did I mention all of these were fried? Since we eat fish, we also had river trout in areas where that was local. Surprise, it was also fried! I do love fried food, but sometimes we wanted a little break from it. And all of these dishes were good, but they aren’t something I’ll try and make at home.
The highlights to me of Colombian cuisine are the coffee and chocolate mentioned already, fruit juices (try guanabana!) that are served at almost every meal, and the seafood when you’re on the coast. Those are the things I’ll tell people to try if they visit.
Have you been to Colombia and do you agree with my favorites? I’d love to hear about your experiences! Let me know in the comments if you’re planning a trip and what you’re thinking of doing.
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