When you mention the word Colombia, you come to expect two different reactions. The first and is the stereotype of danger, drugs, guerrillas, violence and other horrors. The second, and much more positive is that it is a beautiful country with a diverse culture, beautiful landscapes and lots of salsa dancing.
I’m very much in the second group of thought. I believe Colombia is an amazing country, and every different region is so different and individual, with each one having their own traditions, food, music and much more.
Having lived in and visited a lot of Colombia, I’d like to share my knowledge for those of you thinking of visiting the country – places to visit and my top tips for tourists.
The following cities are a must see:
The capital of Colombia, Bogota is a huge city with a lot to offer. You can visit the Candelaria, a historical part of Bogota, some of Bogota’s many museums, churches and parks, and Mount Monserrate, which can be reached by cable car or funicular and which boasts exceptional panoramic views of Bogota.
If you plan to visit Colombia for salsa, then Cali, known as the Capital Salsa of the world is the place to head for.
Cartagena is one of the most beautiful cities in Colombia. If you visit Cartagena, it is highly recommended that you stay in the stunning historical part of the city, surrounded by the city walls which accommodate bars and offer views of the sea. From Cartagena you can do a day trip by boat to Playa Blanca and the Islas del Rosario, breath-taking beaches with white sand and crystal blue waters. Cartagena is also home to the Volcan de Lodo el Totumo (also known as the mud volcano), a fun day out that involves fully submerging yourself in a 15m high mud volcano and then washing it off in a nearby lake. Great for the skin, but be warned, you cannot avoid getting fully covered in the mud.
Guatape is a small village surrounded by lakes that can be visited as a day trip from Medellin, about a two hour bus ride away. Guatape offers stunning scenery and is home to the Peñon de Guatape, a huge stone measuring over 220m in height. The views from the top are well worth the 650 stairs it takes to reach it.
If you are planning on going to Colombia around Christmas time, visiting Medellin to see the Christmas lights is a must. Even if not, visiting Medellin is still a must. It is the only city in Colombia with a metro, making it very easy to get around and visit all of the many sites there are to see, from the metro cable offering incredible views of the city, to the interactive museums and parks, botanical gardens, many churches and cathedral, and Plaza Botero featuring Botero’s famous statues. These are just a few of the many attractions Medellin has to offer.
If extreme sports are your thing, then San Gil is the place to go. Paragliding, bungee jumping, rafting and much more are on offer in this small town in Santander. There are beautiful villages that can be visited nearby, such as Barichara and Guane, as well as Parque Chicamocha, a national park with fantastic views and a cable car that travels across the Chicamocha Canon.
There are many things to do in and around Santa Marta. Nearby Taganga is a great place to do scuba diving courses with its many diving schools. Beach Playa Grande which can be reached by a short walk or by boat is part of the famous and very popular Tayrona national park. The huge ecotourism park includes beautiful beaches, reached by jungle trails with monkeys swinging in the trees over your head, reefs, and Tayrona Indian ruins. Tayrona Park can be visited for the day or you can stay in hammocks, cabins or tents. From Santa Marta you can also do the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek, a 5-day trek through ancient ruins, historic sites, mountains and amazing scenery.
I have a few tips that you should bear in mind when visiting Colombia in order to stay safe and make the most of your trip:
There are always taxis available that you can hail down. Just make sure it is a licensed taxi – you can tell this by looking for a card which will be over the back of the driver or passenger seat with a photo of the driver and all of his information. If you aren’t sure, don’t get in it and call a taxi. While some cities have taxi meters in all of the taxis, others don’t. If you don’t see a taxi meter when you get in, make sure you negotiate the fee when you get in to avoid getting ripped off.
Although Colombia is generally safe, you should still be vigilant when it comes to valuables and other belongings. Try not to show cash, cameras, phones etc., especially in quiet streets with few people around or at night. You aren’t at a high risk of being mugged, but it does happen and it is better to be safe than sorry, so just be aware.
Most bus journeys in Colombia involve high windy roads, generally taken at high speed by the bus drivers, so if you suffer from travel sickness (or even if you don’t) try and carry some travel sickness tablets with you. Also, try and negotiate bus prices when you go to buy the tickets. Most companies don’t have set prices and they tend to hugely overcharge tourists – if possible, try and get a native to buy your tickets for you to get a better price.
Watch out for street vendors, or people selling items on the beach. They can get very pushy and won’t take no for an answer, so if you’re not interested, try and avoid eye contact and looking at their products. They will also try to overcharge you so never accept the first price they give you for something.