Colombia Travel Guide
Colombia is beautiful, complicated, and misunderstood. Its beauty took hold of me when I moved from the United States to live in its capital city of Bogotá without a job, without a plan, and without any contacts. The intricacies and general misunderstanding about this South American country motivate me to continue writing about Colombian destinations, culture, and life as an expat. Like most things here, plans can’t be counted on, but everything works out in the end.
Many people are afraid to come to Colombia because they still associate it with violence and drug trafficking. Although not perfect, the safety conditions have improved immensely in the past decade and Colombia is an emerging tourist destination in Latin America.
My Colombia isn’t Pablo Escobar, bombs, or cocaine. My Colombia is friendly fruit vendors urging me to taste their exotic produce. It’s long motorcycle rides through gorgeous mountains to get from one city to another. My Colombia is dancing salsa into the wee hours with handsome men, then getting up the next morning to play soccer with neighbors. It’s my home that will never be my true home and a place I could never shake, even if I tried.
Colombia Vacation Destination
Colombia has traditionally been a backpacker holiday destination, but with the security, the situation has improved dramatically in recent years, it is now entering the frame as a mainstream vacation destination. Colombia has it all in terms of vacation potential: fantastic Caribbean beaches, beautiful colonial cities, dramatic mountainous landscapes, fascinating ancient ruins, and the most friendly of all local people in Latin America.
Colombia has traditionally had a bad image – people mistakenly imagine it as a dangerous country. A huge proportion of people who have traveled extensively in South America regularly cite Colombia as their favorite country of all.
Why? Maybe it’s the beautiful friendly people, the stunning tropical beaches, the excellent scuba diving, the wildlife watching and pristine rainforests, the stunning trekking routes and natural scenery (deserts to rainforests to snow-capped peaks), the romantic colonial towns, the mysterious archaeological sites or the buzzing cosmopolitan cities. No other country in the region has the range of attractions offered by Colombia – and its time has come. Colombia is the “in”, a trendy destination to visit in 2024.
Highlights of Colombia Vacations
The cosmopolitan capital city of Colombia, Bogota, has great nightlife and an un-missable gold museum. Four hours by car from Bogota lies Villa de Leiva, a pretty old colonial town. Medellin is considered by many to be one of the prettiest modern cities in Latin America and is a good base for excursions into the countryside. Colombia’s coffee country is nearby with beautiful landscapes making it a fascinating place in which to experience Colombian culture. To the south of the country lies some virgin rainforest with excellent jungle lodges in the region of Leticia, from where it’s three days downriver into Brazil.
Cartagena is Colombia’s real highlight when on vacation. Though it’s normally very hot, this is one of Latin America’s most beautiful colonial cities. Don’t miss the nearby Rosario Islands which provide an idyllic beach holiday destination. Further along, the Caribbean coast lies the Tayrona National Park, which has some of the most beautiful, picture-perfect, and empty beaches in the world. Near Tayrona National Park in Santa Marta, a beach destination popular with Colombian tourists. Taganga is a more relaxing place in which to chill out or maybe take a scuba diving course. The legendary Ciudad Perdida Trek is a grueling though rewarding 5-day trek to magnificent ruins, though this area does have some local security concerns.
In addition to mainland Colombia’s Caribbean coast, further afield lie the islands of San Andres and Providencia, which both make for a very laid-back beach holiday.
Bogota is a cosmopolitan and slightly chaotic city that is the capital of Colombia. There are many excellent museums, such as the unmissable Gold Museum, great restaurants and nightlife, and a range of good hotels. Bogota is normally the first port of call on Colombia vacations – there are flights to all other parts of the country. Nearby Villa de Leiva is a beautiful colonial town just 3 hours’ drive from the capital city Bogota.
Bogota’s best small hotels
La Opera Hotel – La Opera is a colonial hotel located in the heart of the historical district of La Candelaria, close to Plaza Bolivar, Teatro Colon, and the splendid Gold Museum. There are 30 rooms, an interior courtyard, and a great swimming pool. La Opera is one of the best hotels in Bogota.
Casa Medina Hotel Bogota – an elegant hotel located in the new commercial and business district. The Casa Medina was built in 1945, and it was declared a national monument in the mid-’60s. The décor of the hotel is antique throughout. Casa Medina is also one of Bogota’s best hotels.
Providencia Island is one of Colombia’s most laid-back vacation destinations. As Providencia used to be owned by the British, most of the (extremely friendly) locals speak English, as well as Spanish and Creole. The island is a wonderful place to relax for a few nights on your vacation to Colombia. There are about half a dozen wonderful beaches in total on the island of Providencia – most of the beaches are beautiful and relatively empty. There’s little to do other than relax, go snorkeling or scuba diving, or drink Caribbean cocktails from one of the beach bars. At the moment there is little tourism on the island, though visitor numbers are slowly increasing.
Providencia has numerous small hotels – all the hotels are small – there are no large resorts. Almost all are simple, small hotels or posadas.
Miss Mary Hotel: Miss Mary is located right on one of the most beautiful beaches on Providencia Island. The restaurant serves good seafood. Miss Mary is affiliated with the hotel chain Decameron.
Sol Caribe: the swimming pool and spacious rooms of the Sol Caribe hotel are plus points, though the hotel does not have a beachfront location (though it is a seafront location). Sol Caribe is one of the more expensive hotels in Providencia.
Other hotels in Providencia: Posada del Mar and Cabanas Relax are the other Decameron hotels on Providencia Island. In addition, Hotel El Pirata Morgan is located close to the sea and above a small supermarket. Hotel Sirius specializes in scuba diving packages and is found close to the beach in South West Bay. South West Bay Cabanas is also found a short-ish walk from the beach in South West Bay. Other independent hotels in the Aguadulce “tourist Zone” include Hotel El Encanto and Cabanas Aguadulce.
There are plenty of cheap guesthouses (posadas) too – consider Mr. Mac, Miss Orfe, Cabanas Sonny, Posada CocoBay, Posada Sunshine Paradise, Miss Elma, Miss Lupe, Miss Enilda, and many many more. It’s easy for backpackers to turn up at any of these posadas and book on the doorstep – there’s almost always plenty of rooms available.
Things to Do
Other than relaxing on one of Providencia’s beaches, there are excellent scuba diving and snorkeling tours available for those on vacation. The island can be explored by motorcycle or golf cart, or you can charter a boat and driver to explore the islands and nearby Cayes for a day. There is also a laid-back beach party every night (in Playa Manzanillo) where tourists can meet some of the friendly locals.
Not to be missed is a visit to the McBean Lagoon National Park. The park comprises various beautiful small Cayes such as Crab Caye and the Three Brothers Cayes, as well as mangroves and hills on the island of Providencia. Beautiful views towards the National Park can be experienced from Ironwood Hill.
Flights & Boats to Providencia
Providencia is accessible by short flights from San Andres Island, which in turn is easily accessible from various cities on Colombia’s mainland in addition to Panama City. Satena has two to four flights from San Andres to Providencia every day. Decameron also charters two or more flights to Providencia every day.
There is also a catamaran that runs between San Andres and Providencia approximately 4 times a week – the journey takes about 2.5 hours.
Tayrona National Park has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and the most beautiful beaches in Colombia. Any vacation to Colombia should include a few nights relaxing in Tayrona Park for all visitors, especially if you’re a fan of beaches. These Park Tayrona photos half do the place justice – the place is as if someone has designed an idyllic beach getaway. Travel here and experience a real paradise.
Park Tayrona Hotels & Campsites
Tayrona Park has just one genuine hotel, called Eco-habs, which is managed by Aviatur (a Colombian tour operator). It is rather expensive (in a relative sense), but by far the best place to stay. Rooms vary in category and price, and Eco-Habs also offers hammocks for rent. Eco-Habs, in the Canaveral area, is easily accessible from the road leading into the Park.
Most visitors to Park Tayrona are those backpacking in Colombia. The common thing to do is to sleep in a hammock on the beach, and there are numerous places to choose from. Many of the campsites also have basic cabanas in which to stay, and all have basic restaurants. One of our Colombia travel tips would be to stay at one of the campsites at Arrecifes, which is a 45-minute walk west from the drop-off point (donkeys can help with luggage). Arrecifes is centrally located to explore many of Park Tayrona’s beaches. Travel a further 45 minutes west is another campsite at Cabo San Juan. The extra effort to hike all this way with one’s bags isn’t really worth the effort. The campsite staff was unhelpful and the food of dubious hygiene standards when we stayed in 2007.
Park Tayrona’s Beaches
The Caribbean Sea here is rough, and many tourists die every year by not heeding local warnings about where to swim. The only really safe place to swim in the park, or go snorkeling, is at “La Piscina”, located between Arrecifes and Cabo San Juan. There are numerous other beaches at Tayrona but it’s safest not to go much deeper than knee height. You’ll find many splendid beaches as you walk west along the main path between Canaveral (Park Tayrona’s entrance point) and Cabo San Juan. However, trips here are about exploring: Google Maps has very detailed satellite images of the Park that can be used to discover many empty idyllic beaches that are unlikely to have anyone on them. From Cabo San Juan keep walking westwards for almost an hour to find a further 3 idyllic, empty beaches. East of Cabo San Juan is two other empty beaches (one tiny, one large) before one arrives at “La Piscina” – to get to these beaches take a left immediately after exiting the campsite at Cabo San Juan, and follow the path to the first, and subsequently the second beach.
Travel Tips & When to Visit?
Tip one is to go exploring the beaches armed with Google Maps print-outs. Tip two is to stay either at the luxurious Eco-Habs or go camping at Arrecifes. Tip three is not to visit Tayrona Park during the peak tourist season of July to August or January, as the campsites are overcrowded, and your Colombia vacation in paradise might be spoiled by having to share it with rather noisy Colombian tourists. Our fourth travel tip is to take a yellow fever vaccination certificate, which you’re technically meant to present upon entry to the park, but in reality, is rarely requested.
Getting to Park Tayrona
Park Tayrona is about 45 minutes East of Santa Marta. Our travel tip would be to stay the night in either Santa Marta or nearby at the more laid-back Taganga, stock up on luxury camping equipment, and head to the Park the following morning. Santa Marta is well served by flights from Bogota and Medellin, or it takes 4 hours overland from Cartagena, another highlight of Colombia.