Traveling to Colombia is an adventure of a lifetime! We have always wanted to visit Cartagena for its colorful colonial architecture, historic stone-walled old city, and tropical Caribbean vibes. Cartagena was everything we had expected it to be and much more! What really blew us away was the history and beauty of Medellín, and the progress this city has made in the last few years to reinvent itself. Colombia has it all and is one of the most diverse countries on the planet — from lush Amazonian jungle, to beautiful tropical islands, snow-capped Andes Mountains, trendy cities and colorful Latin American culture. Colombians are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet and their warmhearted culture is so welcoming.
Lonely Planet has called Colombia the “2nd Best Country to Visit” and Travel & Leisure has dubbed this country as “South America’s Best Kept Secret”. Colombia is in that perfect tourism sweet spot between being off-the-beaten-track and right on the cusp of becoming one of the hottest destinations. Colombia is a country that’s just begging to be discovered, but the fact that it is still relatively unfamiliar to the international tourism market makes it all the more adventurous.
“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” — Colombian Author, Gabriel García Márquez
Colombia has a so much to offer in terms of destinations! During our trip we visited Medellín, Cartagena and Bogotá. We are excited to share the details of our trip and our recommendations with you. Here are suggestions on what to see, where to stay, what to eat and explore in Colombia!
Before we get into the details, here are a few pictures that were taken in Cartagena!
What to see in Medellín?
- Visit the colorful pueblo of Guatapé — Pueblo’s are small villages, and Colombians in the big cities will typically own homes in these little towns to spend their weekends there. We drove ~2 hours from Medellín to the picturesque and colorful village of Guatapé. This charming little town is a great place to walk around and admire the fresco-like adornments on its traditional houses, brightly painted depictions of people, animals, places and shapes cover the skirting boards of many dwellings called Zócalos. The weekends in Guatapé are a remarkable festival atmosphere, when the town is packed with locals and tourists. Road trips and little towns like this is what we enjoy the most in our travels!
- Climb to the top of El Peñon de Guatapé — It takes about 30 minutes to climb to the top of this 200m-high granite monolith near the edge of Guatapé. A brick staircase of 659 steps rises up through a broad fissure in the side of the rock. From the top, you get a magnificent view of the region, and the lake sprawling amid a vast expanse of green mountains.
- Walking Tour of Comuna 13 in Medellín — Comuna 13 neighborhood was once the most violent part of Medellín and considered the most dangerous in the world. Comuna 13 is one of the 16 “communes” or comunas in Medellín. Thanks to several infrastructure projects and amazing street art, this area has gone through an impressive transformation. What used to be Colombia’s most notorious neighborhood, is now a very popular attraction, which has made part of the area safer and led to a rise in local businesses. Beautiful intricate graffiti adorn many walls and buildings in Comuna 13. Colombia is a country of resilience and no place embodies that attribute quite like Comuna 13!
- Ride the Metrocable to Parque Arví in Medellín — Take the Metro-cable car to Parque Arví, which is an ecological nature reserve in Medellín. As the cable car makes it way to the top of the mountain, you get a spectacular bird’s eye view of Colombia’s second largest city, and as you go higher, you’re flying above a gorgeous forest with no city in sight!
- Feast your eyes with the street art of Getsemaní — Stroll through the alleys of Getsemaní neighborhood to spot street art. Getsemaní is located right outside the Old Walled City of Cartagena and shares the same bright Caribbean colors, narrow streets, and blocks that are lined with beautiful graffiti by local artists!
What to see in Cartagena?
- Explore the Old City of Cartagena — Cartagena has some of the most picturesque buildings and beautiful doors we’ve seen! There’s something magical about getting lost among the colorful doors and historic plazas. Stone fortresses and gigantic walls surround the city, which protected Cartagena. This was one of colonial Spain’s most important ports and the walls protected it from many attacks in the 16th century. Strolling through the historic stone-walled old city is like stepping back in time, and admiring the colonial architecture, vibrant plazas, cobblestone streets and the uniquely Colombian culture is our favorite kind of vacation!
- Check out the cool Door Knockers of Cartagena — You’ll find unique door knockers, known as Aldabas in Spanish, on every street in Cartagena’s Walled City. Like the doors themselves, the door knockers held great importance in Colonial Cartagena society. The size of the door knocker denoted the status of the family… the bigger the knockers, the more important the individual or family. The motif of the door knocker signified the profession of the homeowner. Each design denotes a specific trade or skill. For example, marine motifs such as fish, mermaids, etc. adorn the doors of families who made their living from the sea. Lions represented strength and leadership and families related to the army. Lizards represented royalty and high society and so on. Think of them as a sort of symbolic sign to let everyone know who lived inside.
- Go on a day trip to Colombian Islands — Take a Day trip to Islas del Rosario, a beautiful group of 28 islands about an hour off the coast of Cartagena. There are so many breathtaking islands accessible by boat from Cartagena. We spent the day at the Gente de Mar resort on Isla Grande, and it was gorgeous with white sand beaches and stunning turquoise water! Our suggestion is to skip the popular Playa Blanca that’s usually filled with tourists, and visit Isla Grande. You can head to the boat docks in Cartagena at Muelle de la Bodeguita before 9:00 am and buy tickets to get to the island. It takes ~1-2 hours before you arrive on one of the beaches of Isla Grande. Word of caution: the ride can be very choppy especially in the late afternoon when you are heading back – the visit is so gorgeous that it’s worth it!
- Watch the sunset, feed the pigeons, and take a horse carriage ride around the walled city of Cartagena — We recommend doing this on your last day in Cartagena. Just relax and enjoy everything this city has to offer. Spend a quiet evening watching the sunset from the stone walls of old city Cartagena, feed the pigeons in one of the many plazas and after sunset take a ride around the walled city in a horse carriage!
What to see in Bogotá?
- Take a cable car to Teleférico De Cerro Monserrate in Bogotá — Ride the car up to the Monserrate Mountain for a panoramic view of the city of Bogotá. Standing tall at over 3,000 meters, you can see Monserrate from pretty much from anywhere in town!
- Visit the Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá near Bogotá — Take a road trip to the little town of Zipaquirá located ~2 hours from Bogotá to check out the first wonder of Colombia — The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, which is an underground Roman Catholic church built within the tunnels of a salt mine 200 meters underground. In 1932, miners carved out a sanctuary in the salt mine where they could pray for protection while extracting the salt, and that has now evolved into the salt cathedral that was completely hand carved in the halite rock!
- Visit Plaza de Bolivar in Bogotá — Plaza de Bolivar is the main square in the historic heart of Bogotá. In the middle of the square is a bronze statue of the Venezuelan-born military leader, Simón Bolívar. Plaza de Bolívar is always busy with tourists, street vendors, llamas, lots of pigeons and surrounded by monumental buildings in disparate architectural styles spanning more than four centuries.
Where to stay?
- Hotel Du Parc Royal in Medellín — We wanted to stay in El Poblado as it is one of the more popular and upscale neighborhoods. This area is the heart of fine dining and nightlife. The breakfast buffet at the hotel was really good, and the service was exceptional. The hotel is centrally located, so we were able to get around and visit all the attractions in and around Medellín.
- Casa Cordoba Román in Cartagena — We recommend staying at a hotel inside the walled city of Cartagena, so you can walk to all the attractions and restaurants. We stayed at the Casa Cordoba Román which is a colonial-style house located in Cartagena’s beautiful historic center. The house has 3 separate fully equipped 2-story apartments with a living area, kitchen, loft and a bedroom. We really enjoyed staying in a home with colonial architecture!
- La Colina Cottage in Bogotá — La Colina Hotel Cottage is a small boutique hotel located in the north of Bogotá. This unique hotel is managed by a family of artists, and you are embraced by color, art, sculptures around every corner of the property. We spent our evening chatting with the owners and they treat you with kindness and amazing hospitality. We highly recommend staying at this hotel!
What to eat?
Restaurante Hatoviejo in Medellín, Colombia — When in Medellín, you eat like a Paisano, and the typical dish is called Bandeja Paisa which includes beans, white rice, chicharrón, grilled beef, chorizo, fried egg, ripe plantain, avocado and an arepa.
- OCI.Mde in El Poblado neighborhood in Medellín, Colombia — This is an upscale restaurant in El Poblado and it was one of the best meals we had in Colombia. We had the shrimp cooked in tomato and chili jam with crispy quinoa and basil, Sierra Blanca trout with roasted palm hearts, nuts and cheese crumble, Cashew-nut ice cream sandwich with salted caramel for dessert. This truly is one of the best restaurants in Medellín!
- Eat delicious Colombian Arepas on the street in Medellín, Colombia — We always try street food on our trips and the Arepas de Chocolo (Sweet Corn Cakes with Cheese) we had at the Las Panochas food stand right outside the San Javier metro station in Medellín were amazing! Each arepa was ~1500 Colombian Pesos or 25 cents! My husband is from Venezuela and this reminded us of the Cachapas served in Venezuelan restaurants.
- Criminal Taquería in Medellín, Colombia — Some of the best elote and tacos we’ve had so far! This trendy restaurant is located in the heart of El Poblado in Medellín, and they serve simple, tasty and casual Mexican food!
- La Cevichería in Cartagena, Colombia — Every travel blog or food travel guide to Cartagena lists La Cevichería as a top restaurant. This always busy seafood haven rose to fame thanks to Anthony Bourdain after it was featured in one of his episodes, and it has quickly become the #1 spot on every tourist’s bucket list. We had the Peruvian Ceviche and Mulata Tropical Paella with seafood and Caribbean rice simmered in coconut milk. Without a doubt this is the best food we had in Colombia!
How to save money?
- Take free walking tours — Most cities in Colombia have free walking tours. They are a good way to meet people and check out the city on a budget!
- Take Uber — Uber is the cheapest way to get around. Uber is considered illegal, so we had to walk a few steps from the police at the airport terminal or other places to meet the driver. We couldn’t always find an Uber nearby, so we used the app to get a fare estimate and then haggled with the taxi drivers. There are no meters in Colombia, so you can put your bargaining skills to good use.
- Eat like locals — The food in Colombia was very inexpensive, so if you are on a budget stick to local Colombian food.
- Fly local budget airlines — If you’re planning to fly around Colombia, use the local airlines such as Viva Air that offer cheap fares. However, you do get charged for every piece of baggage, so be careful.
May we recommend?
Our recommendations for anyone hoping to travel to this spectacular destination:
- Skip the Escobar Tour — Medellín is known for the country’s most famous villain and the entire world is fascinated by the Colombian cartel and the TV show Narcos. However, Medellín has so much more to tell than just one man’s sins. This is an extraordinary destination with a brutal past, but what is impressive is the effort that was put into transforming Medellín. Our recommendation is go on the Comuna 13 walking tour to learn more about this city!
- Be safe and exercise caution at all time — Take the usual precautions and avoid going to dangerous areas after dark. You’ll find bad people in all cities, whether you are in New York or LA or a Colombian city like Medellín or Bogotá. We have been treated with kindness and generosity everywhere we visited. Paisanos, who are the people from Medellín, are proud of their city – let them show you the beauty and uniqueness of this amazing place.
- Ride The Metro and Metrocable in Medellín — The public transportation system in Medellín is source of pride for Paisas. It connects much of the city to the surrounding barrios and also helps the commerce spread outward from the wealthier city center. For travelers, riding the metrocable up the surrounding mountains and over the comunas will likely be a highlight of anyone’s trip to the city. It’s cheap, easy and fun so don’t miss it.
“De todos los libros en el mundo, las mejores historias se encuentran entre las paginas de un pasaporte, i.e., Out of all of the books in the world, the best stories are in the pages of a passport” — Unknown
So let your next adventure take you to this amazing country… Colombia is one of those destinations that you truly need to experience for yourself. It’s time to reconsider what you think about this beautiful place with a violent past, be adventurous and explore all the wonderful things this country has to offer!
And remember… Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer!