Ultimate Colombia Adventure Guide: 14-day Itinerary
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
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I would be hard pressed to talk about my trip to Colombia without using the word “adventure.” It truly was one of the craziest, most memorable adventures of my life. If you want to visit this beautiful country (which I highly recommend), I think you’d actually have to work to NOT have an adventure, but in this post, I’m going to break down my 14-day itinerary, what I recommend and what I don’t, and why this country needs to be on the top of your list.
I would like to start by mentioning that 14 days barely scratches the surface of any place, especially Colombia. It is a huge country with so much to see and do. I don’t think I could have picked a better itinerary with the time that I had, but I will make suggestions based on what I would do differently and what I would add if I had more time.
What About Drugs?
Before I left for Colombia, I got a lot of reactions from people concerned for my safety, frankly based on the association that people make with Colombia and cocaine; based very loosely on factual information. While it is true that Colombia was once a place, not very long ago, overiden with drug cartels (I’m sure you’ve heard of Pablo Escobar), and there still are places deemed unsafe for travel, Colombia is light years away from that time. It blows my mind how far they have come in such a short time (I’ll let you do your own research on Colombia’s history).
Did I see cocaine when I was there? Yes. More on that in Scandals in Colombia. Does Colombia continue to be a major supplier of cocaine to the U.S. due to our insatiable demand for it? Yes. That is an unfortunate reality and a reputation Colombia upholds. However, throughout my time there, I never felt any more unsafe than I have visiting any other Latin American country, including Costa Rica (a country I’ve lived in and visited on multiple occasions). Don’t let the knee-jerk reactions of others stop you from visiting this magical land!
Before visiting any country, I always recommend researching ahead of time through guidebooks and travel websites, and definitely take the time to visit the U.S. Department of State to learn about travel advisories, visa information, immunizations you might need, etc. When I travel to unfamiliar countries, I always exercise increased caution. I always travel with someone else (although I would consider traveling by myself). I research specific areas I plan to visit ahead of time and ask locals upon arrival (usually at my hostel or hotel), about what they think is safe (can I walk from point A to point B, do I need to take a taxi, is it safe for us to go out around here at night, etc.). When I can, I hide some of my money in a money belt, carry some in a purse, and leave most of my valuables locked up where I’m staying so I’m not walking around with it. I try to be aware of my surroundings, don’t let my judgment get impaired, and generally travel with minimal possessions and valuables (no expensive jewelry). I’m polite and keep a low profile so that I don’t have an “ugly American” target on my back. Aside from being extorted by a couple of corrupt police officers in Costa Rica, I have never been the victim of a crime in all of my extensive travels abroad, but I stay well aware that I have been lucky and that could always be a possibility.
A Funny Thing About the Yellow Fever Vaccine:
Before going to Colombia, I learned that the one vaccine I needed (I was up to date on all others), was yellow fever. Now, you only need this if you are traveling to certain areas of Colombia. We were planning to go to Tayrona National Park, so I needed to get one. In my home state of Vermont, they were experiencing a shortage of this vaccine (actually, my travel partner got the very last one Vermont had)! I was looking at possibly having to travel to a neighboring state and paying somewhere around $400 to get it. Absurd. Then I found out that Colombia gives these shots for free (at least they did in 2017), at the airport! Now, ideally you have to get vaccinated 2 weeks before your travels for full effectiveness. I was arriving in Bogota a week ahead of going into the risk zone so I wasn’t fully protected, but I weighed the risk and cost, and decided that was my best bet. The first thing I did upon waking up in Bógota was hop in a cab to the airport, wait in line for about two hours, sign a quick little form, and get my shot that a nurse pulled out of a cooler. Walla. Easy as pie! Turns out they didn’t even ask to see proof of my vaccine at Tayrona National Park, but at least I was covered just in case.
My Travel Companions:
A year before Colombia, I had the good fortune of meeting a wonderfully amazing human from the Netherlands while traveling in Nicaragua. We had such fun, we decided to meet again in Colombia! While she was with me the entire trip, we joined with another individual for our stint on the Caribbean coast for the 2nd half of the journey. Keetie was going in completely blind and I had only just met Greg...at my high school reunion of all places. He added some extra unexpected flavor to our trip. My relationship with him is a story for another post. Needless to say, I was beyond psyched to reunite with my buddy Keetie, and curious and excited about the possibility of adding the wild card of Greg to the 2nd half of our adventure.
Day 1 and 2: Bógota:
I arrived to Fernweh Photography Hostel at 11pm, and was taken right to my bunk in a dark room, texted family and Greg to let them know I arrived, and went to sleep. This hostel was the only pre-booked place I had to stay. The rest of the time I planned to find places as we went. For more on my decision to travel that way, check out 13 Ways to Turn Your Vacation into a True Adventure.
I woke up the next morning to find Keetie sleeping in the bunk just below me! As we awoke, we immediately started catching up in one of the lounge areas of our hostel. The room was cozy little space filled with boho bean bags and beautiful photography mounted on the wall. We met a woman from Canada and piled into and Uber to head back to the airport to get our shots. We had to get business out of the way first!
We really only had one day to explore this amazing city so we had to maximize our time. Our hostel was located in the historic area of La Candelaria. I highly recommend staying in this neighborhood because it’s a great jump off point for exploring. We meandered through the cobblestone streets and took in the wonder of the neighborhood, and then we decided that taking a bike tour would be a really fun way to see the city on a time crunch.
We could not have been happier with this decision! We hopped on bikes with travelers from all over the world, and our guides weaved us through traffic, bike lanes, parks, and neighborhoods ranging from the red light district to wealthier zones. We stopped for exotic fruit tasting, visited a coffee roaster, learned about some of the many murals plastered all over the city, and even stopped at a local hole-in-the wall dive bar to experience Colombia’s national game, Tejo. This is something we never would have known to do without this tour. I’m not usually big on guided tours but sometimes they are just the perfect thing at the perfect time.
If you don’t know what Tejo is, you MUST experience this at some point on your trip to Colombia (it doesn’t have to be in Bógota). Tejo is played in a giant warehouse-type bar location. You are served a case of beer and given a big heavy stone to throw. Your job is to throw it a pretty good distance (think cornhole but further away with a much more dangerous object), onto a clay target on a wooden slanted platform. Tiny little explosives (yes, that’s right) are placed into a circle formation to make a target, and your job is to get the stone in the middle of the target. I’m not sure how all the points work, but if you hit one of the tiny explosives (which is inevitable), you hear a very loud bang and a little smoke cloud goes up. Our guide decided not to tell us about the explosive aspect of this game, so when we first heard the very jarring sound, we were taken aback, to say the least. It sounded like someone fired off a gun, amplified by the fact that we were in a very large and echoey warehouse. The locals had a nice hoot at our little scare.
Later that evening we attempted to go out in La Candelaria. I’m sure there were some fun places to go, but we did not find them, and unfortunately I cannot give you recommendations on those. We actually felt a little uncomfortable. We seemed to be the only women out in a very local scene. We walked around and hung out in the main square for a bit, but decided to make it an early night and get back to our hostel. Fernweh has a great little patio courtyard that’s a lush little oasis in the concrete jungle. We decided to relax by the firepit they had going on that chilly night.
Bike tour. Explore the Candelaria. Fernweh Photography Hostel had a great vibe and was really nice. Try Tejo!
With More Time in Bógota:
I would visit museums in the Candelaria and try the cable car that takes you up the mountain for some views of the city. I would explore more of the nightlife.
Day 3 and 4: Salento and Cócora Valley:
Early on our 3rd day, we embarked on an 8 hour bus ride for Salento. Eight hours sounds like a long time, but in mountainous Colombia, the distances are vast, so this really is not too bad. If you’re looking for a country with ton to see where the distances aren’t so great, check out Nicaragua. We purchased tickets on the spot at a local bus company and the buses were actually very nice and comfortable. Ours even had Wifi. I don’t recall the cost, but tickets were very reasonable (less than $20). To get to Salento, you first have to take a direct bus to Armenia. At Armenia you can transfer to another local bus to take you to Salento. The bus ride winded us through some insanely mountainous terrain and was an adventure onto itself.
When we arrived in Armenia, we opted to take a 45 minute taxi ride instead of another two hour bus ride in the interest of time. This was worth the little extra splurge and we split the fair for a portion of the way with a couple of really young, clueless dudes we met at the bus station. I can’t remember where they were from but they literally had no clue what the heck they were doing. Ha! Pro tip. At least bring a guidebook, people! I enjoy a good adventure, but I need to have at least some bearing on where I am and where I’m hoping to go. Jeez.
Anyway, our first order of business upon arriving in Salento was to find our hostel that we had just booked the day before. We stayed at Tralala and bunked with a delightful young Belgian fellow named Elliott. He had separated from his more partying counterparts for some peaceful, solo travel. He was towards the end of his trip and had some great tips on where we should stay on some of our other stops. This is why I sometimes LOVE not booking places ahead of time because he ended up giving us a recommendation of a hostel that was hands down the best hostel I have ever stayed at (Masaya).
It is hard to find the words to describe Salento. Magical is the first that comes to mind. It is a quaint town with boutique stores, beautiful coffee shops and eateries with balconies that overlook the street below, yet it has a charming rusticness about it as well. Nestled in the mountains, it is a gem that can’t be missed and it has a park atop a few hundred stairs where you can get a birds-eye view of the area. Colombians vacation here for the landscape and fresh air, and travelers come from far and wide to see the town and hike in the Cócora Valley.
Cócora Valley was a must on our itinerary and even if you are lackluster about hiking, it should be on yours as well. The verdant green landscape liberally sprinkled with some of the world’s tallest palm trees makes this an iconic spot for enjoying nature. It did not disappoint. We put on our mud boots (supplied by our hostel), went to the town square to hop in a Willy Jeep which took us to the entrance of the trail (there was a small fee at the entrance after you hike in a ways). The hike was strenuous at a few points, but mostly easy to moderate. It was not as muddy as I’ve heard it can be. We winded through jungle, streams, rickety suspension bridges, and a farm with dog that almost knocked me down the trail. Sprinkled throughout were amazing vantage points for seeing the mountains and the ridiculously tall palm trees swaying in the breeze. There is also a detour to a hummingbird farm you can take where they have drinks and bathrooms. It was worth the visit. I did get a tick while hiking, but that could have been because I was doing headstands against the palm trees. To top off our trek, we met a really fun Italian woman traveling by herself for this leg of her journey who we ended up hanging out with later that night, and bumping into our bunkmate Elliott randomly on the trail.
On the way home, it started to rain and people were piling into Willy Jeeps to get back to Salento. We ended up hanging off the back of the jeep trying to shield ourselves from the rain pelting us in the face. Keetie’s cell phone ended up falling out of her pocket, something we didn’t realize until later, but upon reflection back, we thought we had heard a clunk in the chaos of the ride home! We ended up cell phone shopping in Medellín later on (an interesting tangent and Spanish-speaking challenge).
Later that evening, there was a festive spirit in the air and locals were celebrating some holiday, with singing and dancing in the streets. Keetie, our Italian friend, and I were sitting for drinks at a restaurant on the main square, when a young Colombian couple asked where we were from and if they could join us. They were on a little couple’s vacation away from their young daughter and were just out to have a good time. They were a lively duo, both speaking Spanish really fast an over one another. My Spanish abilities were being pushed to the max (I was the main communicator with them because my language abilities were the strongest out of the three of us). The couple didn’t seem to mind my incessant asking them to repeat themselves and my horrible, broken Spanish. They were very patient and seemed to genuinely enjoy our company. They introduced us to Aguardiente, a well-known spirit of the region, and taught us how to “cheers” properly in Spanish: “Arriba, Abajo, Al Centro, Adentro!” Translated, this means up, down, to the center, inside (down the hatch). They were great fun and we are facebook friends to this day!
Hike the Cócora Valley by way of Willy Jeep. Have drinks on a balcony overlooking the boutique shops. Climb the many stairs at the end of the shopping street for amazing views. I recommend Tralala Hostel. I also recommend taking a cab from Armenia to Salento. Well worth the extra money.
With More Time in Salento:
I would have explored some coffee farms.
Day 5 and 6: Medellín.
Sad to leave Salento, it was time to move along to Medellín, land of eternal Spring. Day 5 was a travel day. Distances are long and the mountains are tall in Colombia, so it takes time to get from place to place. I wouldn’t change how we got around. While we did choose to fly on one leg of our journey, the bus rides saved us a lot of money and also allowed us to see the breathtaking countryside. I have NEVER seen mountains like I saw going from Salento to Medellín. Just when you think the bus can’t climb anymore, it just keeps climbing and climbing. How they build towns right on top and into the faces of mountains is incredible to me. Their highway system is quite impressive as well. The roads we traveled were very good and there were other highway roads above our heads, spanning mountain top to mountain top, like something out of the Jetsons. It was insane.
Finally we made our descent down into the valley of Medellín. The city is built all up and down the sides of the mountains. It was quite a sight to behold. Their public transit system was also really impressive. They had a metro train and cable cars that ascended the vast neighborhoods that stretched up the mountainsides. We couldn’t go to Medellín without riding these cable cars. What was a terrifying amusement park ride to me was everyday transportation to the local people.
For our first night in Medellín, we stayed at Café Ondas, a place Elliott had recommended. It was a great spot with a rooftop hang out and nice coffee shop restaurant down below. Because we weren’t thrilled with the location, we opted to stay in the Black Sheep Hostel in the more touristy neighborhood of El Poblado for our second night. The vibe there was a little bland and it felt more like a hotel, but it was nice and served its purpose.
We really didn’t do much in Medellín and I wish we could have spent more time. We walked around in the downtown area and bought Keetie a new cell phone. We went out for dinner in El Poblado, definitely a fancier, upscale area of the city. While it was clear there was some fun nightlife to be had, we kept it low-key, had a few margaritas and kept it simple.
Ride the cable cars. Go out in El Poblado. Take a day trip to Guatapé and El Peñol, ideally with guide you can sign up with at a local hostel.
With More Time in Medellín:
I definitely would have gone on a Pablo Escobar tour. The timing just didn’t work out for us but I really wanted to do that. There were museums and cultural sites to visit. I’m sure there is much, much more. I know this is a popular destination for digital nomads and expats so I’m sure there is a ton to do!
Day 7: Guatapé and El Peñol:
The best part about staying at Black Sheep Hostel was the connection they had to our all-day tour guide to Guatapé and El Peñol. I don’t recall his name but I’m sure you have to be in Colombia to find him and book a tour with him. This was the BEST tour I have ever taken, anywhere. We decided on a tour because it seemed too complicated to get to these locations on the time crunch that we had, and we knew we wanted to go to both places. We had no idea how amazing our guide would be.
He picked us up from our hostel in his van where we were greeted by a fun group of travelers, mainly from Germany and other parts of Europe. He drove us into the countryside on the outskirts of Medellín. The only way out of the city is through a winding, mountainous ascent, so he stopped to let us take in the views. He brought us to his house where his wife served us a delicious breakfast at tables overlooking the green hills of the region, colored by the light of the morning. From there, because we were on backroads, he let us ride on the roof of his van to a local swimming spot. We winded through hills and valleys of dirt roads overlooking lakes and stopped for swim. Keetie and some others jumped off a suspension bridge into the water (I don’t do that--terrified of heights so not my thing).
After another roof ride with “Johnny Germany” and “Christ,” (can’t remember how they got those nicknames), we promptly got off the roof at the main road and headed for El Peñol. El Peñol is a ridiculously massive rock that juts singularly out of the earth. They call it a mini Sugar Loaf mountain, and it indeed looks like that. There are 675 steps built into the side of the rock and when you ascend to the top, there are incredible views of the lakes and hills that surround. Worth every step! After our trek, our guide laid out picnic blankets and fed us an amazing spread for lunch (best food on the trip), and then we headed for the nearby town of Guatapé.
I don’t think a trip to Colombia is complete without a trip to Guatapé, known for its cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, and iconic zocolos (works of art carved and painted into the stucco walls of the facades of the buildings). Although it rained for our short jaunt through this town, I’m so glad we got to visit. It’s just too unique and beautiful to miss.
Day 8 and 9: Cartagena and Isla Rosario:
We decided to forgo another lengthy bus ride (this one would take about 15 hours), and flew to Cartagena. We had booked this ticket in advance on Latam, and it was very affordable and well worth the splurge. As soon as we landed, we taxied over to meet up with Greg at his hotel. Because he doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish, he booked a hotel at a very “Americanized” hotel overlooking the ocean, assuming they would have people there who spoke English. Nope! He found himself miming through the experience until we arrived. He actually is very good at this! This is one of the things I love about Colombia. People don’t tend to speak English. I’m sure if I was looking for it more, I would have found more English-speakers, but I love when I’m forced to practice my Spanish.
The Caribbean was a major adjustment from the more mountainous areas we had been prior. The heat was sweltering. The people had a different accent and spoke more quickly. There was more hustle bustle and people trying to swindle you and sell you something at every turn. It had a much more chaotic feel to it, which was also part of its charm. We got Greg out of his “American oasis hotel” and brought him into the historic center of Cartagena. Here there were beautifully restored colonial buildings with cobblestone narrow streets and colorful facades everywhere you looked. There was street after street of boutique shops, and modern restaurants, bars and coffee shops. There was a fortress wall surrounding this area and beautiful squares that people congregated in.
That night, we took a taxi to Guetsamaní and decided to spend our second night in this area of the city. This area was a popular spot for backpackers and had an edgy, more rustic feel to it. Not as refined as what we had seen earlier that day, but not destitute like much of the city that we witnessed from some of our longer cab rides. It was just our style, and when the sun went down this area came alive with busy restaurants, street performers, and people congregating in the main square drinking out of paper bags. Drinking in public is not legal in Colombia so people would just buy beer for cheap at the corner stores and drink out of bags. We happily took part in that custom!
There was so much going on with locals and travelers alike crowding the streets. There were countless street pedlars trying to sell the most random stuff, like mickey mouse ears, hats, and blinking pins. I quickly found out these operations were a cover for their cocaine dealings. More on that in Scandal in Colombia.
We ate, drank, and danced the night away. One of the really fun dance spots with some amazing salsa dancing, was littered with young prostitutes courting older, drunk, and overweight white dudes. It was sad how young some of them seemed to be.
The next day, we booked a tour to Islas Rosario. We were having so much luck booking tours, we decided to try our luck on this one. We went to a random hole-in-the wall with a sign outside referencing their affordable tours to the islands. Unfortunately, you can’t nail it every time and our luck ran out a bit. This tour was so terrible it was comical. It was really just a pitiful arrangement of transportation that we could have done on our own, with a meal included that we could have easily bought on our own.
There was nothing organized about it. We went to the dock where the boats leave for the islands. They provided us with transportation to the dock, but we were on our own when we got back. We waited two hours to get on a boat. We could have just walked down and got on a boat ourselves. They had to wait for our boat to fill up with random people before it could leave. It was chaotic. There was no one checking in with us. The only indicator that we were on a tour was a little gold sticker we affixed to our clothes. Finally, we board the Mr. Pipe boat with our Mr. Pipe life vests. Yes, it was Mister Pipe, not Señor. Our tour guide refused to speak English even though the tour was advertised as an English speaking tour. He may have had valuable information to share, but most of it was lost on me. My Spanish abilities only go so far, and the accent was difficult to understand.
After a really long boat ride, we arrived. We were given the choice to snorkel in choppy waters on the gloomy day, or go to the island with the aquarium where we could pay extra to enter. We opted to go to the island with the aquarium and just hand out on the miniscule stretch of beach until the boat picked us up again. If we weren’t vigilant in finding the boat, I’m pretty sure it would have left us there.
Then they brought us to Playa Blanca where we had our lunch as we watched the storm clouds roll in. This place was a clusterfuck. The beach was nice and it looked like it would be really nice to stay overnight there for a couple of nights, in a spot away from the herd of tourists we found ourselves surrounded by. Boat after boat just kept dumping them off. There were boats coming and going, women walking up to you as you tried to eat lunch, touching you, offering massages. We couldn’t really enjoy swimming in the water because there were so many jet skis going every which direction with no order or reason. Jet ski drivers were making a quick buck taking tourists for little juants around the beach. Just before the storm rolled in, we even ended up having a run-in with the police, that I’m convinced was part of a corrupt operation to extort money from tourists. More on that in my Scandals of Colombia post.
We ended up needing to wait quite awhile for the ominous storm to pass before we could finally be brought to the mainland and have the tour be put out of its misery. I ended up complaining to the woman who booked our tour. The whole experience added to the adventure and gave us a good laugh, that’s for sure!
I would say Cartagena does not need more than a couple of days. It was all too much. Nightlife was great. Definitely explore that. Have a beer in a bag in Guetsamaní. Visit a coffee shop there, and I suggest staying in this area. Explore the historic district (which is right next to Guetsamaní). Even though we did not pay the money to visit the fort, this probably would have been a worthwhile thing to do. Islas Rosario day tour is a skip!
With More Time in Cartagena: I would stay for a couple of nights on the island where Playa Blanca is located. There looked to be some cool spots and even a hostel or two. The white sand beaches and Caribbean waters would be really nice when not visited in a thunderstorm, in a ridiculous tour.
Day 10: Santa Marta: We got our free breakfast at Mystic House, our little hostel in Guetsamaní. This was an affordable, decent place to stay, and the free breakfast was a nice bonus. The cab ride to the bus station was really long and brought us through some seedy areas of Cartagena. Craziest driving I’ve seen yet. We got stuck in a cluster of about 8 taxis all trying to get through the same intersection and blocking each other in, yelling at one another. Motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic. Just stepping outside is an adventure in this part of Colombia!
The bus ride to Santa Marta was another take from the playbook of ridiculous events. At the bus station, we asked around about bus fares to Santa Marta. Flamingo was a bus company offering a slightly cheaper rate than its competitors and now I know why (I’m assuming the other buses weren’t like this, but maybe they were)! I asked specifically if the bus would bring us direct to Santa Marta with no stops. They confirmed, yes, yes, no stops! I’m like, great. Let’s do it.
The bus took forever to leave (not on schedule). Not only did it make stops. It made constant stops about 90% of the six hour bus ride. There was the driver. There was another random guy who seemed to be working on the bus (can’t figure out what he was doing), and then there was the guy hanging out the doorway hustling for more passengers. He would hang out the door and recruit more people to come on, yelling “Santa Marta, Santa Marta!” People were getting on and getting off left and right. We made an extended stop in Barranquilla, waiting for even more people to get on. At one point the guy hanging out the door got in a heated argument with a passenger trying to board and ended up having to push him off the bus as the bus started moving again. The driver made a random stop at a food cart to grab a quick bite. In passing through a checkpoint, passengers who were standing had to duck so they wouldn’t be seen. I can only guess the bus was illegally over capacity. This seemed totally normal to everyone on the bus but us. It was insanity.
It became apparent very quickly that these guys had a side hustle going on and were making money outside of the company’s knowledge, with all these extra passengers. We saw an exchange of money between them as they all got their cut of the profits. As we left the more populated areas, they had to put the pedal to the metal to make up for all the time they burned making all those stops. This bus was like a bat out of hell, careening through villages, laying on the horn for children and animals to get out of the way or else they’d get plowed right over. When we finally arrived at Santa Marta, which they would have blown right past if I hadn’t kept asking about it, do you think they dropped us off at the bus station? Not a chance. They just pulled over to the side of a busy highway and let us off. Adios. Don’t let the door hit ya. We caught a cab who brought us into town and helped us find our hostel.
This hostel was the trophy at the end of the race. It was the hostel of all hostels; an oasis in the chaos of another bustling city. Masaya. The name says it all. Our Belgian friend had recommended it and we were lucky enough to snag a private room with a king bed and a loft. This place was multiple floors of white-washed glory, tropical wood furnishings, and two splendid pools, one on the lower floor, and one on the roof deck overlooking the city.
While at Masaya, we met two estranged brothers traveling together. They had come from The Lost City, and were covered in bug bites like all the other people who had recently trekked there. Santa Marta is a jump off point for Tayrona National Park, and The Lost City. With our limited time, we agreed we could skip the trek to The Lost City. I’m sure it was amazing but I don’t regret missing it. We ended up enjoying the nightlife with the two brothers and they brought us dancing at a neighboring hostel. We hit it off with them and they ended up joining us for our journey to Tayrona National Park.
With More Time in Santa Marta:
We really didn’t spend time in Santa Marta at all, besides the hostel, which I highly recommend, and a little street shopping nearby to the hostel. I would definitely explore the city more and see what the local beaches have to offer, maybe going on a boat cruise of some sort.
Day 11, Tayrona National Park:
Early next morning we hoofed it to the bus station with Matt, one of the brothers, leading the way as he had been there before. The walk was a little sketchy but I felt okay since there were five of us together, three of them men. The bus brought us to the park entrance and we took a collectivo (minivan) to the trailhead. Tayrona was a hot, tropical jungle with pristine beaches and exotic wildlife, including two species of monkeys we were able to spot.
There are flat trails throughout the vast park that weave in and out between hugging the beach and going further into the jungle. We only saw a portion of it in a short time there. We got lost trying to find our campsite, Don Pedro, but eventually made it. Our friend Elliott suggested we stay there because it was far away from the party scene of the campsites you can stay at right on the beach. Don Pedro’s was fine, but we think we would have liked staying on the beach better. The tents were stifling hot and the bugs were not conducive to hanging out outside. It did not take us long to decide that we were only going to spend one night in the park (our original plan was to stay for two).
After dropping our stuff at the tents, we went off to explore beaches. We came across beach after beach, some of which were swimmable and some we were not allowed on. It was absolutely glorious. We saw indigenous people along the way who were walking or on horseback. They lived in the park and did not look thrilled to have visitors on their land. They were making some money selling fresh squeezed orange juice along the trail. They were very stoic.
I can’t remember who had the idea of going to the nude beach, but we decided we wanted to find it. After relaxing for a time at one of the more popular beaches, we set off in search of it. After maybe 45 minutes of walking, we come across a stretch of sand that has two naked people on it and no one else (appeared to be a father and young son). We assumed we had arrived so off our clothes went, and into the waves we ran. I was feeling a little modest at first as this was my first time at a nude beach, but I quickly became comfortable. I believe Greg was the first one to hit the water. He is always eager to jump right in! We spent the day basking in the freedom and glory of being one with the beach, swimming in the waves and laying in the sand, letting the sea foam engulf our bodies. It was one of those moments I wanted to freeze in time.
Piscina and Cabo San Juan beaches, the nude beach, camping on the beach.
With More Time in Tayrona: Camping was fine but I wouldn’t want to spend more than one night there unless I had more comfortable accommodations. If I were in a beach hut of some sort, I would love to spend a couple more nights there, exploring more trails and beaches, and looking for animals. It was paradise on earth.
Day 12, Palomino: We said goodbye to the brothers and left the park early in the morning before the colectivo buses were even running. We ended up all hitching rides on the back of motorbikes to get to the main road. We had an extra day to spare, so on a whim we decided to hop a bus to Palomino. One of the brothers recommended river tubing there, and that sounded perfect. When we got to Palomino by public bus, about 45 minutes north of Tayrona (further away from Santa Marta), we were dropped off on the main drag on the side of the road, and immediately saw signs for tubing. We had a quick bite at a local spot and asked if we could leave our bags there while tubing.
It was so easy. We paid a guy who then recruited two of his buddies on motorbikes. We each hopped on the back of a motorbike, inner tube in hand, and were taken up some bumpy dirt roads where we were let off at the trailhead. Our guide walked us through the jungle (a short hike downhill). We heard howlers in the distance. We then relaxed for the afternoon slowly drifting down the river as our guide pointed out wildlife. We saw families picnicking on the banks, and as we drew close to the end, pelicans were swimming right beside us. The river opened up into the ocean for a glorious finale to the tubing. We ended up playing on the beach and walking back into town to catch a bus back to Santa Marta. This was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip.
River tubing. Just go there and look for people looking to bring you. It’s super easy. I would suggest bringing a dry back WITH sunscreen (we got wicked sunburns), and a water camera. A GoPro would be even better but we didn't have one at the time.
With More Time in Palomino:
Palomino had a gorgeous beach and what looked to be a cool backpacker’s scene. I think it would be fun to stay in a hostel there for a night to see what it had to offer. Palomino is also a jump off point for going further north to the desert area of Colombia, La Guajira, and visiting the flamingos.
Day 13: Saying Goodbye to Greg: After our tubing adventure, we spent one last night at Masaya before embarking the next day back to Cartagena to say goodbye to Greg. It was a long ride. We opted to take a colectivo instead of the public bus this time. I have to say, the colectivo was so cramped and stifling hot that I would have preferred the Flamingo bus again!
Day 14, Tolú: Greg’s flight left that morning and Keetie and I had one last night to spend. We didn’t want to spend it in Cartagena so we looked for one last adventure. And boy, did we find it. We decided on Tolú, a Caribbean town only a few hours away. How could we go wrong with a little village on the Caribbean coast? Well, when we finally arrived after a 45 minute cab ride, a 2.5 hour colectivo, a 20 minute local bus ride with people eyeing us up and down, and a rickshaw ride to find a hotel, we were finally there.
There was nothing happening. This place was dead. It turns out, this is a local vacation spot that is a jump off point to some islands we didn’t have time to visit. We walked a bit in the blazing sun. We couldn’t cool off in the water because it was so hot and so dirty. We mainly just chilled in hammocks at the hotel until we started to hear the commotion of a parade go by. This parade was massive! It turns out we had arrived on the celebration day of the city’s founding, and the whole place turned into a giant party.
We watched the parade for awhile and then went into town to witness the event. I’ve never seen so many horses, strange vehicles, cowboys and gangsters, garbage everywhere, street meat, babies on motorcycles, and mass mayhem everywhere. At one point, I saw a chase between a pick up truck and an armed militia, and we were the only gringas in the whole town. It was insane. We did not dare go out after dark.
The next morning we promptly headed out and there were guys still up from the night before walking the streets with beers in hand. We felt on edge and a little unsafe the entire time we were there. Do I regret going to Tolú? Absolutely not. It was one of the craziest parts of our adventure to Colombia. Would I go there again? No way!
With More Time in Tolú:
I would see what those islands nearby are all about, but truthfully, I would not go back.
Day 15, Travel Day. That's a wrap!:
We get another rickshaw ride/bike taxi to the bus terminal, a bus back to Cartagena, and a plane back home. Whew. What an adventure. I am dying to go back to Colombia. I absolutely loved it. Our itinerary, aside from a couple snafus that helped to add some color to our experience, was perfect.
There are some places I would like to see my next time around:
1. Calí and some other small villages (I would research more).
2. More time in Medellín, definitely seeing more cultural attractions including a Pablo Escobar tour.
3. I would love to get to the Caribbean islands of Providencia or Isla de San Andrés. This would add significant cost but looks amazing.
4. More time in Santa Marta.
5. A visit to Minca. Missing Minca was one of my biggest regrets and it is right near Santa Marta. If we had been a little smarter, we probably could have figured out a way to spend a night there.
6. Only because it sounds sooo ridiculous, I would entertain the idea of going to Totumo Volcano Mud Bath where you literally go inside a volcano and bathe in hot mud. If you’re looking for a humorous post that will make you laugh out loud, visit Practical Wanderlust’s description of their visit:
Weather in Colombia:
Depending on where you are going, you have to be prepared to dress for different conditions in Colombia. The weather really changes based on your elevation. I went there in July and this is what I experienced:
Bógota was the coldest. It was pleasant during the day (could wear pants and long sleeves or t-shirts), but got chilly at night (down to 40s), so a jacket is a good idea, maybe even gloves and a hat.
Medellín: Land of eternal spring. It waivers between being shorts and t-shirt weather to pants and long sleeve weather. Layers are good but it’s mainly a very comfortable temperature.
The Caribbean: Hot and humid. You are going to sweat. Shorts and T-shirts all the time.
It rained a little in Medellín and a little in Cartagena but we mainly had sunshine.
Language and Communication in Colombia:
I’m sure Colombia is changing rapidly as tourism grows there, but when I visited in 2017, very little English was spoken. I have enough Spanish ability to get around when I travel so I relied entirely on that. Speaking Spanish affords me the freedom to go more places and wing-it a lot more than a person who does not speak the language. While I didn’t book most of my accommodations ahead of time, I might suggest doing more of that if you don’t speak the language. Going on tours and staying in English-speaking hostels will be helpful for you. I would also suggest learning some basic Spanish in case you find yourself stuck in a situation, or be-friend people as you go who do speak the language.