Written by El Camino Travel's Colombian-American Founder, Katalina Mayorga.
Being a daughter of Colombian immigrants means that I have had the good fortune of traveling to Colombia my whole life. My parents did an amazing job of always taking us to a new city or pueblito on each visit that was very different than their hometowns of Bogota and Cali. Despite essentially growing up here, there is still so much I could see, do, and experience for the first time in Colombia.
Colombia is huge and culturally and geographically diverse, making it such an incredible place to visit. You can go back several times and have a completely different experience each trip. There will even be destinations where you feel like you are visiting a whole other country. How amazing is that?!
That being said, I also know that vacation days are precious (especially to the US traveler). We often do not have the luxury of spending three weeks to deeply discover a destination. Below is a HIGHLY curated list of destinations within Colombia I would consider if I were traveling there for the first time and wanted to make the best use of my vacation days. These recommendations are based on my first-hand knowledge in the country and taking hundreds of travelers to Colombia where many of them were visiting for the first time.
Please also note that there are tons of guides out there for those traveling to Colombia on a tight or “backpacker” budget. After reading many of these, I kept reading the word “cheap” over and over again. Cheap beer, cheap food, cheap entrance fee, etc. While I love a good deal, I also know that there are many travelers like myself that are looking for a more sophisticated and elevated experience in Colombia or what is known as the high-low experience. The recommendations below are written with this type of traveler in mind.
TL;DR (To Long; Don’t Read) Version: Check out our 9 day itinerary for Colombia to get a better sense of how we would travel the country if it were our first trip there.
Cartagena has been having a moment for several years now and there is a reason this sultry coastal town, protected by high walls and lined with colonial pastel facades, has withstood the trends of times and continues to pop up all over your Instagram feed. Cartagena is a quintessential blend of old and new. A city rich with history and culture, but influenced by a burgeoning cosmopolitan scene. Or as Silvia Tcherassi, owner of the stylish Tcherassi Hotel + Spa, perfectly summed it up “It’s magical, with a feeling of old-fashioned Caribbean glamour.”
Cartagena is located on the north coast of Colombia and because it is a coastal town, it comes with a certain raw energy that only can be found in cities that have beaches as their backyards and the constant (and sometimes oppressive) heat. It is the city that nurtured the poetic prose of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the godfather of magic realism, after all. Costenos, the name for people from the Caribbean coast of Colombia, are slower moving, but faster talking. They know how to have a great time, their salsa and champeta are on point, and they are always excited to share their culture with others. It truly is a very different feeling from any of the other major cities.
Cartagena has three main neighborhoods where travelers stay: Bocagrande (some call this the “Miami” of Cartagena), the walled Old City (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and Getsemani (the bohemian rising star). If it were my first time, I would skip out on Bocagrande and stay in the Old City or Getsamani. While Getsamani is my neighborhood of choice, know that parts of it are still very gritty and not all travelers will feel comfortable there.
Surprisingly, the beaches in Cartagena itself are not very nice and not worth the visit. Instead, head out Islas de Rosario, an archipelago right off the coast that takes about an hour to get to. This is where you will find the crystal clear waters and white sand beaches.
Pro Tip: Most tourists go to Playa Blanca, but we recommend Isla Grande for a less touristy outpost. We actually take our travelers to a secret and more secluded beach that we keep under wraps for obvious reasons. However, you will have a great time going to whatever beach you decide on!
I mean it when I say there is no other city like Medellin. Urban planners everywhere from Amsterdam to Rwanda come to intensely study its urban fabric because it is a city that went from being one of the most violent to one of the most socially progressive in a short period of time. It was even named the most innovative city of the year in 2013. Why? To combat a lot of the violence and aftermath of the narco-terror years, the local government poured billions of dollars into social urbanism which are infrastructure and social programs geared towards the poorest parts of the city. That continues today where it is estimated 85% of the city’s budget is allocated towards social urbanism. This has resulted in a sophisticated public transport system that flies you high above the cities in gondolas or drops you off right in the middle of a vast ecological nature preserve. Architectural masterpieces known as “peace libraries” jut out of the hillside of the city in some of the cities poorest neighborhoods. We can learn a lot from how Medellin responded to one of the darkest periods in their nation's history. Medellin chose to respond with love and compassion that has paid off in dividends.
Now that the city has become much safer, you can witness the local's new found freedom to live life in more public spaces reflected in all the rapidly developing design hot spots. There are delicious restaurants with stunning surroundings, wonderful shops like Makeno that carry the best designers in the country and the night lift. Oh (wo)man, the night-life in Medellin is unreal. Always a party, always dancing, and always on. Medellin is at the top of my list but don’t take it from me, check out what an #elcaminotravel alum had to say about it in Vogue, “21 Reasons the Cool Kids Flock to Medellin.”
Looking for a day trip? Be sure to check out the colorful town of Guatape and the sweeping view of the lake district atop of a giant rock. Don’t worry - it's only 700+ steps to get to that view.
Pro Tip: Skip out on the cheesy Escobar tours. There is so much more to Medellin’s history than its notorious past. Instead, visit the art filled streets and escalators of Comuna 13.
I have been going to the mountainous capital, Bogota, my whole life. It is where my dad is from and we still have tons of family (50+ second cousins and counting) that live there. While most of my experience in the capital has been hopping from one family event to another, these past few years for work have allowed me to explore it more from the traveler mindset. My hip cousins always keep me up to date on new restaurants, dance clubs, and other happenings that are often missed in all the city guides.
One thing to note is that Bogota is much bigger than any of the other main cities. It is sprawling and has some of the worst traffic I have ever experienced. That being said, the traffic is worth the journey. There is so much to see, do, and experience in Bogota.
Just like Medellin, Bogota is also going through its own design boom. Secret restaurants have popped up (you need to stroll pass a few emerald shops), there is a coveted showroom by one of the world’s hottest designers (that happens to be Colombian), and the modern art museum is getting hip to this whole "large installations that are Instagram friendly” thing. Not to mention that the classics still leave such a strong impression despite how many times I have visited them. Hike to the top of Montserratte to get a blessing and see the best view of the city (sip on a cup of steamin' hot agua de panela), visit the gold museum, wander the historic center, and stroll the streets of Candelaria on a “free” graffitti tour to see some very impressive large scale artwork.
Pro Tip: Check out Andres Carne de Res for one of the best nightlife experiences in all of Colombia. However, for the true experience, do not head to the one directly in the city. Instead, take a taxi to the one 30 minutes outside of the city in a middle of a field.
Parque Tayrona + Palomino Area
Where do I even begin with this area of Colombia? Imagine Tulum 15-20 years ago, but more secluded, without all the hipsters, and the tourist gouged prices. This area of paradise is located in the Northern Caribbean coast of Colombia and is known for having vast swaths of gorgeous beaches lined with mammoth palm trees. It truly feels untouched. It is about a six-hour bus ride from Cartagena or a one hour taxi ride from the Santa Marta airport.
Parque Tayrona itself is one of Colombia’s most famous national parks. It protects over 12,000 hectares of land and 3,000 hectares of ocean. There are many hikes to various beaches and you can even stay inside the park. Tayrona’s most famous beach, Cabo de San Juan, is a must hike but I would not recommend staying there. The accommodations are geared more towards backpackers (hammocks + tents) and it has more of the hostel party vibe at night. If that's your vibe, than this is your place to stay. However if you're looking for a more elevated alternative, we recommend the Eco Habs.
One of my favorite boutique hotels that I have ever visited is located right outside in the park, Gitana del Mar. This place is absolutely stunning and the food is some of the best I have had in the country. The owners, Nina and Ryan, are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met and truly make you feel like you are at your own tropical home. If you have a few days in the area and are looking for more active experiences, float down a jungle river or hike to sacred watering holes.
Bonus Recommendation: This is where I would venture to on my second or third visit to Colombia. (I guarantee you will want to come back.)
I always struggled with the question, “where is the most beautiful place you have ever traveled to?” How could I choose? It’s like choosing your favorite child. However, I can now confidently say La Guajira, Colombia. This very remote area of Colombia is unreal and is located in the northernmost tip of the country and surrounded by the crystal clear blue waters of the Caribbean sea. It is most known for its desert landscape, the large sand dunes, and the various fishing villages and ranches of the Wayuu indigenous people.
Note that this area is very hard to get to and once you are there you are dealing with the most basic of living conditions. The road can be unforgiving at times, but it is worth all the hassle. You will have no internet and be forced into a digital detox which was much welcomed by me.