Backpacking Colombia: The ULTIMATE budget Colombia travel guide

Planning a trip to Colombia is the chance to design the trip of a lifetime.

Backpacking Colombia: Top Experiences

 

  1. Exploring Medellin’s fascinating history and forward-looking modern culture.
  2. Trekking through the jungle to the ruins of the Lost City.
  3. Learning how your morning cup is made at a small-scale coffee farm near Salento.
  4. Wandering through the stunning Walled City in Cartagena.
  5. People-watching in Jardin — Colombia’s most photogenic town.

 

Jump to the list of posts from Colombia, or read on for my comprehensive Colombia travel guide.

 

Colombia itinerary ideas

 

The Valle de Cocora should be on your Colombia travel itinerary -- it's one of the country's best day hikes.
The Valle de Cocora is one of the best hikes in Colombia and should be on every itinerary.

 

Coming up with the perfect Colombia itinerary is no easy task. The country is huge, and the best places to visit in Colombia are quite spread out. Luckily, cheap domestic flights make covering a lot of ground in a short time much more doable.

 

One option for 2 weeks in Colombia would be to focus on the three big cities. Start with a couple nights in Bogotá to see the Gold Museum and its incredible street art. Then, fly over to Medellin and soak up the city’s progressive, forward-looking vibe. You can do a day trip to Guatapé from here to see small-town Colombia. Finally, end with a few days on the Caribbean coast. Cartagena is the focal point, but you can visit the surrounding islands and beaches on day trips.

 

Alternatively, pick one region and explore more thoroughly, especially if you only have one week in Colombia. With a week in the Caribbean, you could see Cartagena, do the Lost City Trek, and spend a few days lounging on a beach in or near Tayrona National Park. Or fly into Medellin and head into the Zona Cafetera from there, with stops in Jardin and Salento and a day trip to see the wax palm trees in Valle de Cocora. If archaeology is your thing, fly into Cali and go down to San Augustin via Popayán. String these together for a longer trip.

 

If you have a full month to explore Colombia, you can see most of the country. Start in Bogotá. Take the bus up to San Gil — stopping in Villa de Leyva if you like colonial architecture. Spend a few days enjoying the adventure activities around San Gil, and don’t miss a day trip to adorable Barichara. Then, take a long night bus or a quick flight to Santa Marta — but don’t stay in town. Head out for a four-day trek to the Lost City and then a couple days relaxing on the beaches of Parque Tayrona. From here, it’s an easy bus trip to Cartagena.

 

After a day of two of enjoying the colonial architecture, you’ll be ready for something a bit edgier. Luckily, Medellin is a short flight away. Spend at least three nights in the City of Eternal Spring before continuing south via Jardin and Salento. If you want to do more hiking in Colombia, stage a trip into PNN Los Nevados. From the Zona Cafetera, you can hop on a short bus south to Cali, the jumping-off point for San Augustin via Popayán. Fly home from Cali or take one last overnight bus back to Bogotá.

 

Colombia weather and when to visit Colombia

 

The best time to visit Colombia is January-March.
The best time to visit Colombia is in the winter, when the Caribbean isn’t too hot and the rest of the country is dry.

 

Colombia is a tropical country, but it also has a lot of high mountains. So on a single trip, you could end up sweating on the coast at a beach and bundling up in gloves and a hat on a snow-capped peak. The main factor in choosing when to visit Colombia is rain — although, to be honest, you’re likely to get at least a bit of rain at any time of year.

 

December-March is the driest time of year in most of the country and the best time to visit Colombia. You’ll still get tons of rain in the Amazon, and some rainy afternoons elsewhere, especially in Bogotá. This is also high season, so expect plenty of crowds and inflated prices. The weather is absolutely perfect in the mountains — Medellin is in the mid-70’s (Fahrenheit) and sunny.

 

March-September is considered shoulder season in Colombia. The Caribbean is gorgeous in spring. Bogotá and the mountains get quite a bit of rain starting in April. Summer is sunny, but unbearably hot on the coasts.

 

You’re better off avoiding Colombia travel in October and November. This is the prime rainy season, and deluges are common. Even though most places Colombia have good roads, landslides can block passes during these two months. If you do travel at this time, leave buffer days in your schedule. This is also the best time to go to Colombia if your priority is visiting the Amazon, where fall is the driest time of year.

 

Language in Colombia

 

Colombians are very polite and friendly -- be sure to greet people with "buenos dias" no matter how much of a rush you're in.
One of the most important Colombia travel tips is to learn some Spanish. It can even save you money on coffee!

 

Spanish is the main language spoken in Colombia. If you can learn at least a little bit of travel Spanish before your trip, you’ll have a much easier time getting around. You’ll also be able to connect better with locals.

 

If you didn’t start studying Spanish before backpacking Colombia, you can do it on the road. Medellin is a popular place to take a few weeks’ worth of classes. If you don’t have that much time, many cities offer a quick two-hour course focused on common travel needs. It usually costs 20,000 COP. Your hostel can help you find one.

 

Many people speak basic English and some speak it very well. But compared to elsewhere in the Americas, it’s less common in most places in Colombia, even among people who work in the tourism industry. Hostel staff will usually default to Spanish but switch to English if you ask them to.

 

Indigenous communities in Colombia usually speak their own languages in addition to Spanish. Most travelers will encounter this on the Ciudad Perdida trek or if you venture into the Amazon. You can communicate in Spanish, but expect no English in these communities (which you should only visit with a culturally competent guide).

 

Budget for backpacking Colombia

 

one of the best Colombia travel tips to save money is to take as many free walking tours as you can. They're all great!
Many of the top Colombia points of interest — like Bogota’s graffiti — are totally free to explore.

 

Backpacking Colombia is extremely affordable by South America standards. It’s radically cheaper than Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and slightly cheaper than Peru and Ecuador. If you’re coming from Central America, you may experience some sticker shock — especially when it comes to bus tickets.

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My Colombia backpacking budget ended up at $41 a day. I stayed in private rooms (with shared bathrooms) the whole time, ate entirely at restaurants (including some fancier ones), drank high-end coffee, and did a few activities every day. I took comfortable, air-conditioned buses and even took one domestic flight.

 

If you are willing to self-cater and stay in dorms, you could easily keep your budget for Colombia to $30 a day. Colombia has a huge wealth of fresh fruits and veggies that would make self-catering a breeze, and the hostels are some of the world’s best, so you wouldn’t be giving up much.

 

Sample costs

Private room in a world-class hostel: 80,000-90,000 COP

Menu del día: 8,000 COP

Cup of coffee at a high-end cafe: 3,000 COP

Museum or historical site admission: Free-20,000 COP

Bus from Bogotá to San Gil (9 hrs): 45,000 COP 

Taxi from Cartagena airport to the Old Town: 15,000 COP

Four-day trek to the Ciudad Perdida: 950,000 COP 

 

Colombia visa requirements

 

For a Colombia backpacking trip of 90 days or less, you don't need a visa.
You probably don’t need a Colombia visa to enjoy these great beaches.

 

Planning a trip to Colombia is easy — travelers from North America, Australia, and most of Europe do not need a visa. Simply show up at the airport or a land border crossing and you’ll get a 90-day entrance stamp, no hassle.

 

Canadians must pay an $85 Canadian Dollar reciprocity fee. You can pay the fee with a credit or debit card, or in Colombian pesos (you cannot pay in dollars). The plus side is if you land at a busy airport, you’ll get to stand in a seperate (and much faster) line.

 

Accommodation in Colombia

 

Hostels in Colombia are world-class: Clean, comfortable and social, with tons of atmosphere.
Real talk, Colombia has some of the best hostels on Earth. This was the view from my room in Salento.

 

No matter what your budget for backpacking Colombia, you can always find incredible accommodation. Colombia has some of the best hostels on the planet. Even if you’re normally more of a mid-range traveler, you should consider staying in them.

 

A dorm bed in a hostel rarely costs more than 35,000 pesos. Amenities often include privacy curtains, personal reading lights, and large lockers. A private room with a shared bath runs closer to 80,000 pesos, and a private room with a private bathroom could run over 100,000 pesos. Even the shared bathrooms are usually spotless, and often newly renovated.

 

Colombia hostels have great common spaces. Many have a bar or restaurant on-site, where you can hang out regardless of whether you’re eating or drinking there. Others have huge, luxurious couches, TV rooms, state-of-the-art kitchens, swimming pools, and more. Outdoor spaces like porches and terraces are common.

 

Hostel staff will be one of your best resources while traveling in Colombia. Often, they were born and raised in the city you’re visiting and know everything there is to know about it. They can book most of the best things to do in Colombia for you — usually without commission. Need night bus tickets? It takes two minutes to book them through your hostel. Planning a tricky day trip on public transportation? They probably have a whole binder laying out exactly how to do it — and a few maps you can take with you.

 

Free WiFi is now a standard amenity at Colombian hostels. The one exception is remote backpacker hangouts that intentionally don’t have it to promote a more social scene, like in Minca and Costeño Beach. Many urban hostels also have a couple computers for guests to use.

 

If you venture off the beaten path when you visit Colombia, you may have better luck staying at locally owned hotels. These can be great in places popular with Colombian tourists. For instance, Cartagena, Jardin and Guatapé have tons of cute local guesthouses. Prices are about the same or a little cheaper than a private room in a hostel. WiFi is spottier and staff rarely speak English, but the rooms are very nice.

 

When planning a trip to Colombia, try to book your accommodation at least a couple days in advance, especially if you prefer private rooms. The best hostels fill up.

 

Food in Colombia

 

Food in Colombia is very affordable, especially if you eat menus del dia.
This teeny tiny place in Bogota had phenomenal vegetarian menu del dia for only 12,000 COP.

 

Let’s be totally honest — Colombia is not a major foodie destination. But you can still eat very well while backpacking Colombia, even on a tight budget.

 

For low-budget backpackers, self-catering is your best bet. You can pick up fresh produce — including an eye-popping array of tropical fruits — at the mercado, or visit the many small fruit/veggie shops and butchers. Supermarkets abound for canned goods and carbs, but avoid buying produce at them.

 

The best-value meal to eat out each day is lunch, due to restaurants that offer a “menu del día.” This is a daily set menu consisting of soup, meat (usually chicken or beef but occasionally goat) or fish, rice and/or potatoes, fried plantain, beans, and a salad, plus a glass of fruit juice. It usually runs around 8,000 COP. It may not be the healthiest thing in the world, but it’s delicious and super-filling.

 

Most hostels in Colombia don’t include breakfast. If you want a cheap morning meal, head to the bakeries — they have more substantive meals (scrambled eggs and toast, etc.) at much lower prices (3,000 COP+) than restaurants. Medellin also has an amazing brunch scene if you’re up for something more mid-range.

 

Colombia does street food very well. Look for folks selling arepas — fried or baked corn pockets stuffed with eggs, cheese or meat for around 1,000 COP. Empenadas are similar, but made from fried dough and usually contain meat. For something healthier, look for the fresh fruit vendors. Colombians mix their guava or mango with lemon juice and salt — trust me, it’s delicious and will only cost you about 1,000 COP.

 

The area around Medellin — known as paisa country — has a couple signature dishes worth trying. The most famous is the bandejo paisa. It’s basically a heart attack on a plate. Sausage, ground beef, chicharron, fried egg, fried plantain, beans, rice, arepa, black pudding, and avocado are the usual components, but tons of regional variations exist. Alternatively, try patacones — kind of like Colombian nachos. They’re a thin layer of fried plantains topped with cheese, beans, meat, and a few different sauces.

 

If you’re craving gringo food, most places in Colombia have at least one international restaurant. Italian, Thai and Peruvian food are especially popular, and plenty of places catering to backpackers have awesome burgers (with veggie options). Prices for a meal start around 15,000 COP.

 

Vegetarians need not worry when traveling in Colombia — you can always find a good veggie dish. Medellin is a hot spot for vegetarian food — it has some of the best veg and vegan restaurants I’ve ever tried (yet another reason why it’s one of the best places to visit in Colombia). Crepes and Waffles is a reliable veg-friendly chain throughout the country. When you don’t feel like shelling out for a nicer meal, you can go to any local restaurant and ask for a “menu vegetariano.” They’ll give you the menu del día with a double-serving of beans, or sometimes a mixture of beans and lentils, for around 5,000 COP. Just be aware that the beans are often cooked in pork fat. Pescatarians will have an even easier time, with trout readily available in the mountains and fresh seafood on the coast.

See also  The ULTIMATE guide to traveling from Jardin to Salento by bus

 

Drinks in Colombia

 

Coffee is a popular beverage when backpacking Colombia.
Colombia is the third-largest exporter of coffee. You can do coffee tours throughout the Zona Cafetera.

 

When you think of Colombia, probably one of the first things that comes to mind is coffee. And with good reason — it’s the third largest coffee producer in the worldWhile backpacking Colombia, you’ll have the opportunity to taste some of the world’s best beans straight from the source. The Zona Cafetera is the best place to visit a coffee farm, and is the one place where Colombians drink copious amounts of really good coffee.

 

Most of the best Colombian coffee is actually exported, so outside of the Zona Cafetera, you’ll have to go to high-end coffee shops to find anything but sludgy instant coffee (called tinto). Medellin, Bogotá, Cartagena, Santa Marta, and other big cities have great places to get an espresso. Alternatively, look for Juan Valdez — often described as “Colombian Starbucks, except it’s actually good.”

 

Colombia is experiencing a craft beer renaissance right now. Bogotá is at the center of it, with dozens of small breweries, but most larger cities have at least one brewery. Bars sell craft beer from around the country (around 8,000 pesos) in addition to mass-produced brands like Club Colombia (3,000 pesos).

 

The local firewater is called aguardiente. It’s licorice-flavored and very potent. Most travelers prefer to stick with beer. If you do try it, be careful who you accept it from — drink spiking is common.

 

Colombian nightlife can be seriously raucous. People go out to drink, sure, but it’s really all about dancing. Cali is the center of the salsa scene, while clubs elsewhere play more reggaeton. Things really get going around 11 pm or later and folks stay out until the sun comes up.

 

Activities you can do while backpacking Colombia

 

When you visit Colombia, hiking is one of the best activities.
Hiking to the Lost City is one of the highlights of Colombia travel.

 

A playground for outdoor adventurers. Paradise for beach bums. Fascinating for history buffs. Full of attractions for culture vultures. In short, whatever you want to do on your travels, you can find it backpacking Colombia.

 

South America tends to attract adventure travelers, and Colombia is no exception. San Gil is the best base for all your adrenaline activities — paragliding over the world’s second-largest canyon, rafting down Class V whitewater, caving, bungee jumping, and more. You’ll need a healthy budget (~$30-50 USD per activity).

 

If you want to get outdoors with less risk to life and limb, consider hiking in Colombia. The Valle de Cocora and Parque Tayrona have incredible day hikes. Or go for a longer trek into PNN Los Nevados, PNN El Cocuy, or to the Ciudad Perdida. Nearly every town in the mountains has a couple of short, free hiking trails you can follow for amazing views. Day hiking is generally free or very cheap and you can go independently, while multiday treks and high-altitude walks usually require a guide (from US$50 per group). Just a head’s up: Between the altitude, heat, and steepness of trails, hiking in Colombia is harder than what you’re probably used to at home!

 

The Caribbean coast is the most popular place for a beach holiday. Cartagena and the surrounding islands have some beaches, but they’re quite touristic. Santa Marta is another popular — and crowded — spot. For something more secluded, consider a few nights at Costeño Beach, an isolated little hamlet just outside PNN Tayrona. Or go to the (challenging and expensive) Pacific Coast and add some whale-watching to your beach trip.

 

If you like history and archaeology, you’ll love Bogotá’s Gold Museum — one of the best places to visit in Colombia and one of the top museums on the continent. It displays collections from thousands of years of Indigenous history. Or go see the real thing — the statues of San Augustin, the tombs of Tierradentro, and the ruins of the Ciudad Perdida are all on the table.

 

If it’s culture you’re after, Cartagena has the country’s best Caribbean vibes, lots of street art, and a good music scene. Medellin has a recent history like nowhere else on the planet — the free walking tour by Real City Tours is one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had. Bogotá and Medellin have lively street art scenes and countless public works by favorite artist Fernando Botero. See coffee country up close in Jardin, which might have the most photogenic town square in the Americas. Take salsa lessons in Cali. The possibilities of things to do in Colombia are endless.

 

Perhaps Colombia’s most beloved pastime, one of the best things to do in Colombia is playing tejo. It’s a pre-Hispanic game whereby you throw lead weights at gunpowder while drinking beer. It’s totally legal, outrageously fun, and very loud. Most hostels organize free tejo nights (you only buy beer) with a guide to teach you the rules. You won’t find it in the Caribbean.

 

Transportation in Colombia

 

Getting around Colombia is easy and comfortable...most of the time.
I swear this is not what most buses in Colombia are like! If you travel around the Zona Cafetera, you may get to ride in a chiva.

 

First the good news: Colombia has a vast, comfortable, safe, affordable bus network. It covers everything from the tiniest towns to major cities. Chances are you’ll find an air-conditioned bus leaving within half an hour of when you want to leave, wherever you are.

 

Now the bad news. The golden rule of Colombia travel is: ask someone how long a bus will take. Multiply it by 1.5. That’s the minimum amount of time the bus will actually take. Colombia has a lot of mountains and a lot of traffic. Which means getting anywhere takes a really long time. This also drives up costs — tickets run about 5,000 pesos per hour of travel time.

 

As you plan your Colombia itinerary, expect to spend a full day traveling between destinations, or travel overnight. If you’re trying to cover a lot of ground on a short trip, consider flying at least once. If you book on their Colombian websites, flights can be as cheap as $20 USD on good airlines like LATAM and Avianca.

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Bus companies do a good job compensating for the length of trips. Seats are roomier than first-class airline seats. Many buses have separate male and female bathrooms (ladies, if you’ve ever used a unisex bathroom on a bus on windy mountain roads right after a guy does, you know why this matters). Some have free WiFi and personal entertainment units. The driver stops at least once for a bathroom/food break on long journeys.

 

Private companies operate the buses in Colombia. Companies’ offices are usually in the bus station, or along a main road in small towns. For most routes, you’ll have a choice of companies. Ask around and compare prices. The only buses you need to buy tickets for in advance are overnight ones (reserve your seat that morning).

 

You can totally survive multiple long bus trips if you’re prepared in advance. First, be sure to wear a fleece. The A/C is usually cranked up beyond comfort levels. Second, bring snacks — drivers stop for meals, but not necessarily at meal times or at appetizing places. Third, bring toilet paper. Bus bathrooms and rest stops don’t have it. Fourth, ear plugs come in handy if you don’t love Colombian music videos. Finally, if you’re prone to motion sickness, consider bringing some medication to help cope — especially for overnight trips.

 

Short (and by “short” I mean “less than six hours”) trips may involve minivans instead of big buses, but they’re usually just as comfortable. Busetas — smaller buses — are more cramped. If you’re really (un?)lucky, in the Zona Cafetera, you may even end up on a chiva — a brightly painted truck with open-air wooden benches attached to the back of it. They’re used on unpaved mountain roads.

 

Safety when backpacking Colombia

 

Safety in Colombia is far, far better than it used to be.
Most travelers wonder at some point, “Is Colombia safe?” The answer is resoundingly “yes” if you follow a few basic precautions.

 

One of the biggest questions people have when considering a trip to this country is, “Is Colombia safe to travel?

 

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: The days of Pablo Escobar are long over. If you don’t go looking for trouble, you have very little chance of being wrapped up in a terrorist attack, drug-deal-gone-bad, kidnapping, or other serious crime while backpacking Colombia. In fact, it’s one of the safest destinations in the Americas.

 

That being said, there are plenty of ways to put yourself at risk. The most obvious is engaging in narco-tourism. Most Colombians don’t use cocaine — and in fact, are highly offended by drug use. However, you’ll see coca plantations and you’ll be regularly offered cocaine on the street (Cartagena is the worst for this). Steer clear. For one thing, it’s unsafe — you don’t know what’s in the “cocaine” a hawker offers you. But more importantly, the drug trade is extremely harmful to local communities and the environment. Don’t contribute to the problem.

 

Second, the majority of the Amazon region of Colombia remains off-limits to travelers due to drug trafficking and security issues. While traveling off the beaten path is a great experience, heading into the jungle without a guide is just stupid. The only safe part of the Amazon is around Leticia. On the other hand, previously risky areas like Caño Cristales are increasingly safe. The situation changes constantly, so one of the most important Colombia travel tips I can offer is to seek local information about each of your planned destinations when you’re traveling.

 

The biggest risk most people backpacking Colombia will face on a daily basis is street crime. Cities like Bogotá and Medellin are safer than they ever have been — provided you don’t wander into the wrong neighborhood. Generally most downtown parts of cities are fine during the day, but some areas get dodgy after dark. Don’t be paranoid, but do ask at each hostel you stay in where it’s safe to walk and when. Taxi robbery is also an issue, although apps like Tappsi and Uber mean you never have to hail a risky cab on the street.

 

Drink spiking is fairly common in Colombia. Robbers often use a drug that keeps you fully aware of your surroundings, but makes you lose your willpower, so when asked to hand over your valuables, you don’t resist. Women should be especially careful, as the same tactic has been used in sexual assaults.

 

On a more mundane note, you’ll see stray and “community” dogs everywhere in Colombia, especially in rural areas and on hiking trails. Some of them are very aggressive. If you’re bitten, seek medical advice regarding a rabies shot right away. Infected mosquito bites are also a big risk on the Caribbean coast, especially during the Lost City trek.

 

Colombia travel advice for women alone

 

The best things to do in Colombia are all totally safe for women alone.
Forgetting to put on sunscreen and sunglasses is a bigger risk in Colombia than most typical concerns for solo women.

 

Backpacking Colombia as a solo woman poses few special risks. While Colombian men are gregarious and flirtatious, the worst unwanted attention you’ll likely face is a little cat-calling (and even that’s rare). You’re far more likely to make local friends who will be respectful and fun to hang out with.

 

Colombian women more or less dress how they want. You’ll see miniskirts, shorts, and low-cut tops and you can follow suit without worry. That being said, weather-appropriate clothing can help you blend in — if you wear shorts in Bogotá, where the locals wear jeans and jackets due to the cold, everyone will know you’re a tourist.

 

Muggers in Bogotá generally work in groups of several young men. They may target solo women walking around after dark, because you’ll be perceived as less likely to fight back. Even strolling a couple blocks after 10 pm in La Candelaria is risky — use Tappsi to call a licensed cab. Other cities feel much safer. On Sunday evenings, when locals are home with their families, you’re better off taking a cab no matter where you are — the streets are deserted.

 

When it comes to meeting other travelers in Colombia, you won’t have trouble. Backpackers tend to be a bit older and more adventurous than you find in, say, Southeast Asia. The party-focused 21-year-old gap-year-er (is that a word?) isn’t common (except, weirdly, in Santa Marta). Medellin also has a huge digital nomad scene you can tap into if you’re staying for more than a few days.

 

Ready to get started? Check out the posts from Colombia!

 

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Colombia is one of the most beautiful and adventurous destinations on the planet! This Colombia travel guide will give you everything you need to plan your trip -- including the best things to do in Colombia, the best time to visit Colombia, Colombia itinerary ideas, and budget tips... #colombia #travel

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Juli
3 years ago

Very useful guide! I’m going there this summer and this is exactly the kind of information I was looking for.

Smita
3 years ago

Such an useful resource! I’m not sure when I’ll get to go but taking a print of this right now.

Brianna
3 years ago

This guide is awesome. I’m really hoping to visit Colombia this year. What were your favorite cities you visited? I’m trying to narrow down what to see in 7-10 days!

April
3 years ago

What a great and helpful post! Colombia is high on my bucket list so I’m saving this post for planning when I finally get around to going. The transportation section was particularly helpful. Thanks for putting this together. Colombia looks so incredible…I can’t wait!

mikeandroztravel
mikeandroztravel
3 years ago

Amazing, we hit up a lot of the same places when we were in Colombia last October and November – but you did it on a much smaller budget, well done!!

Krista
1 year ago

I try to budget travel as much as possible, and I haven’t been to Colombia yet! So it’s great to know that you can easily travel there on a budget – thanks for the tips!

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