This following itinerary is based on my own trip but takes into account mistakes in the planning that we made.
Bogota- El Dorado Lake-Salt Cathedral
Amazon Basin: Leticia- Puerto Narino
Zona Cafetera: Pereira – Salento
Santa Marta – Tayrona Park-Palomino-Santa Marta
One interesting aspect in choosing where to stay in both Bogota and Medellin is that you should not stay in downtown in those cities. Usually, when I choose our logging I try to stay in as central location as my budget allows but not in Columbia, or at least not in Bogota or Medellin. I knew that this is the case but I still changed my reservations several times because I couldn’t believe that the center for night life and entertainment can be 10-15 kms from the center of town. At the end, living in the suburbs proved to be the right choice. The downtowns of those two cities are good for tours and museums during the day but they are dead and crime prone at night while the suburbs are full of bars and restaurants and are safe.
Bogota: 4 days
In Bogota the must see museums are Gold Museum and Botero. We also took the following free walking tours: Downtown, Graffiti, and War and Peace, and a private out of town tour of the El Dorado Lake and an amazing must see Salt Cathedral. Usually we do not take private tours but we were short on time and this was the only option to see both in one day. We also hiked up to the cable car (teleferico) station to go to the Monserrate peak. It’s possible to hike all the way up to the peak, but take into account that Bogota is at a pretty high elevation and any hiking is strenuous. By the way, we had some difficulties sleeping while in Bogota also due to the altitude.
We stayed in Zona Rosa which turned out to be the epicenter of Bogota’s nightlife, restaurants and shopping. Notable restaurants are Central Cevecheria, Salvo Patria and an amusement park like famous Andres Carne de Res. There is no point going to the one that is several miles out of town, the Zona Rosa branch is as good.
One of our mistakes was that we broke our four day stay in two and went to the Amazonas in the middle. The reason was that I figured that two days in Bogotá was enough but its not true, Bogota warrants at least four days and it’s better to do them consecutively.
Few words about local transportation: Bogota is enormous and sprawls over many square miles. However, we chose not to study the public transportation options because Uber is dirt cheap. There is an Uber app and you can get a car but for some reason the drivers kept insisting that one of us sits in the front seat. Since we don’t speak Spanish it took us several days to realize that Uber is cheap because it’s illegal. And the reason that drivers insisted that we sit upfront is because if police stops them they can claim that we are just friends riding together (might be a little difficult to explain how they have non- Spanish gringo friends…). This situation led to one of the funnies episodes on the trip. On our way to the airport leaving Bogota our Uber driver was very afraid to go all the way up to our terminal because there was a lot of police around. Somehow we managed to convince him that it’s going to be ok, paid him before we entered the airport, and when he dropped us of we acted out a little “heartbreaking farewell scene” in front of the cops. BF and I hugged the diver, kissed him on both cheeks screaming hasta luego and gracias amigo left him smiling. By the way this was all we know how to say in Spanish…
Amazonas: 3 days
We flew to Leticia, the far Southern-Eastern part of Columbia, where Columbia borders both Brazil and Peru. The weather there is very tropical, hot, humid and rainy several times a day. There we booked our trip to the Amazonas with Amazon Jungle Tours (not the same as Amazon Jungle Trips). We didn’t pre-book ahead, I believe we have a better bargaining power on the spot plus I wanted to see all the available options in town. Leticia itself is nothing to write home about, it’s a border town where you can cross to Brazil and a gateway to the Columbian Amazonas river towns and villages.
So, the next early morning we were picked up for the trip, were given knee high rubber boots, heavy ponchos and a large container of drinking water and accompanied to a commercial speed boat that took us two hours up the river to the town of Puerto Nariño. Well, I wouldn’t call it “town”; it’s just couple of streets of wooden buildings…but is considered a main town on the river.
We spent a total of two full days in Puerto Nariño accompanied by a local guide and a volunteer translator at all times. We walked thru the jungle during the day and the night; we fished (unsuccessfully) and saw pink dolphins, snakes and spiders; swam in the river terrified of piranhas and the anacondas. … We met the local communities of the indigenous Tikuna tribe on both sides of the river, the Colombian as well as the Peruvian side and learned about their life and culture. We ate lots of local food, met local people all while covered in lots of mud and wet from rain and sweat. At the end, the trip to the Amazonas was the most memorable and amazing part of our entire Colombia trip, albeit it was the most uncomfortable and the most difficult, but probably for that exact reason as well.
Zona Cafetera: 3 days
We made the most mistakes with the trip to Zona Cafetera by taking a very long car ride from Medellin and staying in the most northern town of the zona’s triangle, Manizales. I much more recommend flying to Pereira from Bogota and leaving the Zona by plane to Medellin. Any car travel is thru the mountains and is very long and tiring but for some reason every book or blog I have seen includes the Zona Cafetera together with Medellin in one chapter and this is how I assumed we should drive to the Zona from Medellin.
We took a whole day tour to the coffee plantation Hacienda Venecia, which was extremely informative and now I know everything there is to know about coffee from growing it, picking it, sorting roasting and drinking. However, my recommendation is to stay in the charming town of Solento and to do all the day trips from there. Solento is a happening tourist destination with bars and restaurants and some night life, which is lacking in both Manizales and Santa Rosa, the two places we stayed at. Besides coffee plantation the other attraction in the area are hot springs. We spend half a day in Termales Balneario next to town of Santa Rosa but there are plenty of Termales close to Salento as well. The hot spring experience was ok but not a must. On one hand it was nice to hang out in hot pools (it was a cold day), but on the other hand this was a weekend and there were numerous families with kids and lots of noise. The line to the cafeteria was very long and at the end of the day this was not a must. I would rather spend more time in Salento.
Medellin: 2.5 days
I really loved Medellin but due to tight schedule we could only stay there for 2.5 extremely hectic days.
The airport is quite far from the city and we took a bus to the center and right away went to the Botero museum with our luggage. Luckily, they allowed us to store the luggage for few hours so we could explore the museum and the statute park in front of it.
Again, as in Bogota, we stayed in the suburb and the best choice is El Poblado, with numerous bars, restaurants, hostels and live music. Calle 10 is the central street of the area and you can get there by an amazing and the cleanest Metro I have ever seen. The reason the Metro is so clean is because the residents of Medellin were so happy to get it and they are so proud of it that nobody dares to throw garbage on the floor or in any way to deface the trains.
We took two free walking tours and both are a must. The first was the La Communa 13 tour, which is a former hot bed of crime and other atrocities but now a community that is trying to get over the trauma of events past and to get rehabilitated by way of amazing urban improvement projects and the famous escalators that connect far away neighborhoods with the city.
In the afternoon we took a very informative walking tour with a company called Real City Tours. Frankly, I didn’t know much about Colombian history and politics, and I am probably the only person on the planet who didn’t watch Narcos. So taking all these tours was very beneficial and educational for me. By the way, heads up, I strongly recommend not to mention Narcos and/or Pablo Escobar to the locals unless they bring it up themselves. They don’t like it and it’s considered inappropriate to ask questions about him….
The only museum that we went to besides Botero was a Memorial Museum. This was powerful experience. Basically it is an enormous collection of video testimonials of people who either suffered from or were members themselves and committed atrocities on behalf of the various paramilitary groups and now are trying to reintegrate into the society. We stayed for few hours and frankly were completely shocked by what we heard. I don’t really want to get into the history of this and recommend studying the subject somewhat before going to Columbia.
Santa Marta-Palomino-Park Tayrona: 6 days
The airport in Santa Marta is famous for being right on the beach which is kind of cool and unusual. The typically colonial town itself is small with happening and very touristic center. The action is around Parque de los Novious and my food recommendation is Donde Chucho for seafood. However, it being close to Venezuela, it was heartbreaking to see numerous Venezuelan families with small children passing thru tourists begging for money and food. It is very fast that one realizes that you cannot give to each and every one of them no matter how much you try. I was happy to see that around midnight a large truck with free food arrived and the refugees were given food and supplies.
The next morning we took a bus going west to Palomino. The plan was to spend few days on the beach but it turned out that it’s not exactly a beach destination because the coast in Palomino is too exposed to the Caribbean and the waves are too strong for swimming. Fist we stayed at charming Finca Escondido in a tree house like room, but since we couldn’t swim in the ocean we moved to the Dreamer Hostel which was cheaper and had a nice pool.
Even though the beach part was a disappointment we stayed in the area for 4 days, laying by the pool with good books and going to some late night bars for live music. The village has a very hippie and relaxing vibe which we thoroughly enjoyed after hectic Medellin. One of the days we went tubing in the river and it was fabulous. They picked us up on individual motorbikes, then we hiked up the river for about 20 minutes and then floated for about 2 hours towards the ocean.
I was also planning to do some hikes in Tayrona Park and its beaches but further research showed that the hikes to the beaches there are quiet strenuous and the weather was extremely hot, so we decided to pass.
When back in Santa Marta we took an organized tour to Tayrona and Playa Chrystal. The beach was very nice but at the end we didn’t feel that it was worth spending several hours on the bus for it.
Cartagena: 4 days
Colonial Cartagena is extremely cute…We immediately went on an afternoon free walking tour to get the lay of the land. Basically there are two parts to it, one the old town within the walls, El Centro, and the other part outside the walls, Getsemani, both worth checking out. There are lots of restaurants, bars, shops and live music venues in both. The food in Cartagena is very good, especially seafood. My recommendations are Cevecheria Chipi Chipi, and La Cevecheria and for music Bar Cuba, 1940 and Bar Fidel. Café Del Mar is a must for sunset.
My plan was to take a shuttle boat each day to a different beach and then to spend fun evenings in the city. The plan did not work out very well. First, there are no boats to take individually, but only as a package deal. You are required to take a “tour’ which includes the boat ride, beach chairs and lunch. We didn’t want to buy a package and hoped that we can get something different going to the port in the morning. Turned out that you cannot do it and we were forced to buy the package, albeit we did do some bargaining. Then you wait in the heat until your boat is called and you are taken to the beach (about 30 minutes away) were the owner of the particular restaurant of your package waits for you, and by the way the drink prices are exuberant. After we saw the prices in our restaurant we demonstratively got a menu from next door and only then the owner of our restaurant decided to match the price.
The beach itself is nice, warm water, nice sand etc, but you are stuck there until your boat takes you back. So far it was not all bad until the ride back. The operators of our boat looked like 15 year old teenagers who drove the boat very fast and by then the waves were quiet high. The trip was extremely bumpy and dangerous, the boat was careening from side to side and we were holding on for dear life scared from both, flying out and capsizing. This was even worse for me as few years ago I broke one of my vertebrae in a boating accident and the bumpy ride was very dangerous for my back. I don’t get scared that easy and usually I love boats but at some point I saw fit to tell my bf that if we capsize he shouldn’t try to save me because I am a very good swimmer and I will manage to get out but he needs to save himself from getting stuck under water. I am totally serious, this how scary this was.
As we got back to town in one peace, we decided that there is no way we are doing this again. We checked into a very nice hotel with roof top pool and stayed there for the next four days.