Colombia might not seem like an obvious travel destination, but its beautiful old towns, national parks, and beaches make it a perfect long-weekend or extended adventure.
I spent a week in Colombia and had a perfect amount of time for 3 places, and their surrounding areas: Cartagena, Tayrona National Park and Bogota.
Cartagena & Rosario Islands
Colombia’s Caribbean port city of Cartagena is a lovely getaway, with direct flights offered from many US cities– just 5 hours nonstop from NYC.
The colonial architecture is extremely picturesque. Brightly-painted homes and hostels stand boldly alongside Spanish manors and massive churches. The streets are full of vendors, selling everything from fresh fruit and coconut water to handmade goods. The stores range from inexpensive traditional woven goods to pricier boutique art and specialty-crafted baskets. Cartagena is vibrant and buzzing with life!
Venture out of the old town for local bars and clubs in the Getsemani neighborhood. Liquor is very inexpensive to buy in stores and on the street, there are vendors everywhere handing out cold cervezas.
And if you’re feeling really adventurous, take a boat to the Rosario islands, where locals and tourists go to relax or party on one of the 16 islands in this archipelago. There are private boats, but also public ferries which leave regularly from the Cartagena Marina in the Manga district.
Here, you can go scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, jetskiing, or just lay out on the ivory sand. There are really impressive coral reefs, teeming with fish, just below the surface.
Tayrona National Park
Colombia is known for its natural parks and biodiversity. While most of the animal species are far away in the Amazon rainforest, keep your eyes peeled! You never know what you’ll see.
A few hours away from Cartagena by car, or a short flight from Bogota, are the towns of Santa Marta and Tagana. Both towns are very close to Tayrona, and sleeping here will allow you to explore the park with ease. It is also possible to camp in the park, for a multiple-day experience! Tayrona park is massive, with many hiking trails and beaches.
You’ll be amazed by Tayrona’s jagged cliffs, which jut out into the ocean. Taking a boat ride around the coast is a great way to appreciate the landscape.
The best beach is Cabo San Juan, famous for it’s ‘double-beach’ and nature walks. If you’re lucky you’ll see some rare rainforest creatures. Or, just sit back and enjoy the clear water.
I, unfortunately, got caught in a little bit of a storm after the hike so I didn’t have much beach time in Tayrona– but most days in Colombia are sunny and bright!
There are also several indigenous communities, one of which is open to tourism. A two-hour hike through the forest takes you to Pueblito, where there are several traditional thatched-roof settlements.
If you have more time, you can apparently go on a 3-4 day trek to find “The Lost City” — I just wish I’d known about it before I went!
Colombia’s often-overlooked capital city is lively and boasts a wide array of activities and atmospheres. The old town neighborhood of Candelaria is brightly painted and filled with sweet shops, while the downtown areas host many of Colombia’s national museums and shopping.
Located at the foot along the Andes’ mountains, Bogota’s air is fresh and less humid than other Colombian cities. A hike or cable up Montserrat offers incredible views of this sprawling metropolis.
The local food scene ranges from strange to stranger; traditional favorites include hot chocolate with cheese, and aphrodisiac ants (not for me!). For more on Colombian food, check out The Best VEG Food in Colombia
Bogota has a unique mix of old and new, and is worth at least a day of your time if not two or three.
Colombia might not be on every traveler’s radar, but it should be! Its proximity to the US makes it an easy trip or beginning to a great South American tour. There’s so much to explore, you just have to find somewhere to start!