Being a great fan of South America, I visited Colombia for the first time in 2014. After all the good stories I’d heard, it was time I paid a visit. In doing so, I gained a new love and already visited the country again this year. Colombia has topped all my other travel destinations and is now number one on my list. But what makes this country so unique?
1. The positive attitude of the people
When you tell people you’re travelling to Colombia, they usually look at you suspiciously. Unfortunately, the country is still associated with drugs and violence. This is not surprising, as drugs and violence ruled this country only 12 years ago. That’s why it’s so amazing to see how this country has recovered from its dark past. It has the positive attitude of its people to thank for this. When you travel through Colombia, you’ll experience the cheery, positive and helpful nature of the Colombians. They grab every opportunity they can to rebuild their country and forget all the misery. Tourists offer such an opportunity and are therefore welcomed with open arms.
The rebuilding of the country is especially evident in Medellín, where they have the cleanest metro system in the world and symbolic monuments. Would you like to know what really took place here? Take the free walking tour by Real city tours. An honest tour full of visual stories and a good dose of history to help you gain insight into Medellín (the hub of the drugs war twelve years ago) and Colombia. Make sure you reserve a week in advance or it may be fully booked. Or send an email to see if you can join last- minute.
The Colombians lost the semi-final of the WC in 2014….their reaction was priceless!
2. The appealing climate
Like many other South American countries, Colombia has a variety of climates because of the Andes Mountains, the Amazon and the coastal area. Travelling here means you need to pack wisely and include warm clothes and hiking boots as well as airy, summer attire and flip-flops, especially if you plan to visit both the mountains and the coastal area. But Colombia does have an advantage over countries like Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia: it’s warm inland and includes the Caribbean!
3. Some unique beauties of nature
Anyone who’s been there will agree: Colombia is beautiful! Not just because of the fantastic mountain range, beautiful coffee plantations and gorgeous coastline. The country happens to possess a few unique beauties of nature.
Valle de Cocora
When you visit Colombia, you can’t miss out on visiting Valle de Cocora. While on a 4-hour hike through this valley close to Salento, you’ll feel like you’re in a world that resembles Jurassic Park, due to the towering ‘wax palm trees’ rising up from the undulating landscape.
Tayrona national park
In the Caribbean part of Colombia, a half-hour bus trip from Santa Marta, you’ll find Tayrona National Park. Leave your heavy bags at your hostel in Santa Marta and trek into this area with a daypack. There are various ‘campsites’ to be found where you can spend a night in the park. The beautiful Cabo San Juan is not to be missed. Try to get there before 1 pm to grab a spot in one of the hammocks (or bring your own hammock). Be aware of the fact that Cabo San Juan is a tourist attraction. If you prefer a bit more luxury and calm, then Arrecifes (the first campsite from the east) is a really attractive option. If you’re staying in the park for two nights, it’s nice to spend a night at each of these two campsites.
If you haven’t seen enough of the beach after a few days of Tayrona, you can take your daypack and travel on to Palamino (easily reached by bus) where you can do some fantastic tubing without the mass-tourism (a big fat must-do!) and enjoy the wonderful laidback vibe. You could also make a pit stop at Costeño beach for a (few) night(s) on the way. A definite recommend for experienced surfers!
Also called the river of five colors, this river south of Bogotá takes its name from the different colors the water adopts from June to October. The river is situated in the middle of the jungle and can only be reached on tours pre-booked from Bogotá, for example. Getting there isn’t cheap, but apparently it’s a sight to see!
4. Many extraordinary places
Mass-tourism hasn’t yet reached Colombia and there are many places where you can enjoy the most fantastic parts of Colombia without tons of tourists around you. But don’t wait too long, because tourism is rapidly increasing! But even with tourists around you, these places breathe the Colombian laid-back vibe.
Cowboy towns Salento and San Agustín
The Valle de Cocora isn’t the only reason Salento is worth a visit. This colorful village surrounded by coffee plantations is a gem in and of itself. Just like the more southern San Agustín, it feels a bit like a cowboy town. You can actually see rugged Colombians galloping through the streets with a herd of horses. You won’t find honking taxis in Salento, only a few jeeps to take you to your destination. Full? Not really, just hop on at the back and feel the breeze through you hair on a ride through the steep streets. Going horseback riding through the mountains of San Agustín is a must-do. A visit to towns like Salento and San Agustín is a good chance for a pause in your travels. To fully enjoy this moment of rest, stay at the beautiful hacienda La Serrana in Salento or Casa de Nelly in San Agustín. Both hostels have beautiful gardens, offer a shared dinner in the evening and are ideal spots for meeting other travelers.
The mountains of Minca
The coffee farming town Minca itself isn’t that special, but there’s a unique hostel nearby that makes most backpackers really happy: Casa Elemento. Again, it can be reached from Santa Marta. Leave your heavy luggage at your hostel and travel light. A collectivo will take you to Minca in about 30 minutes. From here, you can hop on the back of a motorbike and the driver will take you to Casa Elemento in the mountains. After a harrowing 45 -minute trip along a bumpy mountain path, you’ll finally reach the beautifully situated garden of Casa Elemento. It’s equipped with a cozy outdoor bar, swimming pool, campfire site and gigantic hammock overlooking Minca and Santa Marta, with the sea below you in the distance. Here, you can chill-out for a few days with the other backpackers (reservations recommended). The young Australian owners will do anything to make your stay very comfortable. The food is delicious and there are all kinds of cool activities for you to join in with if you like. It’s the kind of place where the limes and mangos for your cocktail are picked straight from the tree. Before you know it, you’ll end up staying for a few days. It’s that kind if place.
When you ask other travelers what they think of Cartagena the first thing they’ll say is ‘it’s hot!’ And at 38 degrees Celsius during the day, it is (during the European summer). But hey, you are in the middle of the Caribbean after all. You don’t need to come here for the beaches, those surrounding Tayrona Park are much nicer and Palamino is much less touristic, although islands such as Baru and Rosario are not to be missed. Even so, Cartagena is a special city worth a visit. The historical center within the city walls, with its low colorful houses and cheerful fruit vendors, certainly lives up to its Caribbean reputation. At night, the city comes to life and the uplifting salsa, reggaeton and dancehall beats seem to be coming at you from all angles. As you would expect from a coastal town, Cartagena is also the right spot for truly delicious fresh fish.
5. The great travel vibe
Colombia hasn’t been discovered by the mainstream yet. This means it has an awesome travel vibe. Travelers who visit Colombia are usually more experienced or are traveling for a longer period of time. It seems everyone is relaxed. There’s no travel stress and a nice sense of camaraderie.
Most hostels are (relatively) new. They often provide what the average traveler wants: free wifi, a cozy living room and/or garden (possibly with swimming pool) where you can meet other travelers, English speaking staff and a good location. Almost all hostels are equipped with good lockers in the dorms and even a tidy, clean bathroom isn’t uncommon. Of course you can always be unlucky, but if you do a bit of research at tripadvisor.com or ask other travelers, you’ll be able to travel comfortably without paying all that much money.
Convenient bus transportation
The bus transportation may not be ideal for someone who enjoys luxury, but for someone who wants to feel like a local, the public transportation is fairly well organized. Large distances are best covered by plane, as the Andes Mountains make for endless, uncomfortable bus rides, and domestic flights are cheap. For short distances, the bus is fine. Though there are bus stops, nobody really pays attention to them. Just position yourself anywhere along the road and raise you hand. Hopping off at your destination is as easy as hopping on. Every bus has a co-driver who takes note of your final destination and alerts you when it’s time to get off. Yes, you may have to squeeze in and sweat on the over-cramped buses, but the swinging salsa beats, friendly people and relaxed atmosphere will definitely give you the real feeling of traveling. You’ll also reach your destination very cheaply. If you travel by night bus, bear in mind that the air-conditioning will be set to freezing. Dress warmly!
Is Colombia safe?
Yes, Colombia may even be one of the safest countries in South America. “Is there no violence at all?”, you might wonder. Yes, of course there is some violence. Especially in the big cities, it can feel a bit unsafe at night. But this is no different from any other big city in South America (and maybe even the rest of the world). Just be on guard and don’t do anything stupid. The only type of crime you need to watch out for as a tourist is being robbed. Just bring some cash and don’t flaunt your expensive camera or telephone and you’ll remain unharmed in such an event. By the way, whenever I heard of people being robbed, it was non-violent.
Want to see more of Colombia? Check out our Instagram account for pictures of my latest trip through Colombia.