Colombia Backpacking Guide!

Updated December 4th, 2018.

In this Backpacking Colombia Guide, we look at the best time to travel to Colombia, what to pack, what to wear, must-do adventures, must-visit places, accommodation, transport, food, budget and that common question – is Colombia safe? But first, a short taster…

EAT! Arepas and empanadas! Peckish? Grab these popular Colombian street foods on the street for less than a dollar as you explore the cities, towns and villages of Colombia.

DRINK! Coffee. Colombia is famous for producing some of the best coffee in the world. The Zona Cafetera is Colombia’s main coffee growing region. A trip to Colombia is not complete without a visit to a coffee farm to discover more about Earth’s most addictive bean!

DANCE! Head to the salsa capital of Cali to learn the country’s favourite dance – salsa! Many hostels offer free trial lessons to travellers wanting to shake their booty!

BEWARE! Colombia is desperately trying to shake off a reputation as being an unsafe place to travel. The main thing that’ll put you off travelling to Colombia are friends and family saying “Why on earth are you going there? You’ll be killed!” Ignore them. Colombia needs YOU to help the world realise that the country has changed and spread the word that it’s a safe, friendly and wonderful place for backpackers!

Backpacking Colombia Travel Guide

Read on to find out EVERYTHING you’ve ever wanted to know about backpacking Colombia!

What to expect when Backpacking in Colombia…

When travelling the length of South America, from north to south, backpacking in Colombia was my favourite. There, I’ve said it! I don’t know whether it was because Colombia was the very first country I experienced in Latin America, and was therefore giddy with the initial delights of travel on a new continent. Or, if there was something particularly special about the country. I suspect it was the latter. Emerging from a past that had the country and its people tainted with drugs, guns, violence and horror, there’s a new energy in Colombia that’s unlike anywhere else in South America, and perhaps the world.

It’s not just foreigners who are exploring the country for the first time. Excited Colombians, previously afraid of exploring their own backyard are strapping on the backpack and discovering so much about their country to be proud of. From the tropical Caribbean coast to the misty rainforests of the Amazon, to the high snowy peaks of the Andes, Colombia has enough diversity to keep a backpacker occupied for months. But while the scenery is spectacular, it’s the addictive Colombian energy that’s so captivating to the traveller!

When is the best time to travel to Colombia?

With Medellín, Colombia’s second biggest city, nicknamed ‘the city of eternal spring’, it’s clear that Colombia can be visited by travellers all year round. There is no month to ‘avoid’ travel to Colombia completely as each season breathes a different kind of life to each region…

Being so close to the equator, Colombia enjoys a tropical climate. However, this is interrupted by the spiky peaks of the enormous Andes which split the country in two and actually create five different climates in one country. The five climates are – tropical rainforest, savanna, steppes (or unforested grassland), desert and mountain.

Each of the five regions maintains its own stable temperature all year round, and as you travel Colombia, you’ll quickly realise that the weather varies much more according to the region (and of course, altitude), rather than the time of year. (For example, in January, the lowest temperature in Bogotá, at 2,650 metres, is 7 Degrees Celsius, while in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, the lowest it gets is 24 degrees Celsius.)

Therefore, if you’re planning a trip to Colombia, the key is knowing when to visit each place to enjoy the best weather. It’s impossible to pick a time of year that works for the entire country, so the best thing to do is base your itinerary around the weather conditions at the time of travel.

December to March in Colombia

This is known as the ‘dry season’ in Colombia, which essentially refers to the Andes and the Caribbean coast. (It’s actually the wettest time in the Amazon!) In terms of tourism, this is also the ‘high season’ as travellers enjoy dry, sunny days and the Colombians explore their own country during their biggest holidays. It’s the best time for snorkelling, diving and general beachiness.

In the plains of the east, the dry season can be harsh and extremely hot. This is the best time for spotting animals as they tend to gather around a reduced number of water holes.

If you’re planning to visit Colombia during December and January, especially over Christmas and New Year, it’s wise to book accommodation ahead as this is the busiest time of year in Colombia. It’s also the time when prices for flights, hotels and tours are at their highest, so if you’re travelling on a budget, it may be better to travel outside of these months.

May to June in Colombia

From May to June (and again from October to the end of November) a short rainy season comes to the Andes affecting the coastal regions. Heavy spurts of rains fall every day, normally followed by bright sunshine. There is increased rain on the Caribbean coast, but not so much that would deter a visit.

Easter is a busy time to visit Colombia as many locals have holidays and choose to travel during this time. Prices for travel and accommodation can skyrocket (which is the same for all of the Colombian public holidays).

July to November in Colombia

This is the best time to visit the Pacific Coast of Colombia, as it’s the time when the humpback whales migrate to the area. From July to October, the Amazon is at its driest (the region around Leticia) and it’s the best time to spot the wildlife that comes to riverbanks to take a drink.

From September to October, the Caribbean coast experiences gets its own rainy season, but again, this shouldn’t be enough to deter travellers as it doesn’t rain all day. Plus, you can enjoy the cheaper prices and fewer crowds that so-called ‘low seasons’ have to offer!

Read more here about the best time to visit South America.

10 Amazing Adventures in Colombia!

1. La Ciudad Perdida Trek

The Lost City Trek is one of the best multi-day hikes in South America! Undiscovered by the West until the 1970s, this pre-Hispanic city deep in the heart of the Colombian jungle predates Machu Picchu. The hike takes four days and you’ll trek through dense jungle, wade through rivers, wash in streams and sleep in basic huts. Read more here about the awesome Lost City Trek.

Lost City Colombia

2. Visit the Northernmost Point of South America

A magical and remote destination where you can slide down a sand dune in the desert straight into the Caribbean Sea, Punta Gallinas on the Guajira peninsula is little-visited by independent travellers. Those who do make the trek will be rewarded by deserted beaches and untouched landscapes that the Wayuu ethnic group call home. Read more about visiting Punta Gallinas here.

3. See the Tallest Palm Trees in the World

Take a hike into the incredible Valle de Cocora to see wax palm trees that reach an incredible 60 metres into the air. To get there, you’ll spend the night in Salento, a colourful town nestled in the foothills of the Los Nevados mountain range. The area is also famous for producing most of Colombia’s coffee, from Robusta to Arabica and you can take a coffee tour to find out more.

The tallest wax palm trees in the world, Salento Colombia

4. Get High on Adrenaline in San Gil

San Gil is Colombia’s adventure capital and adrenaline junkies can do almost any outdoor sport you can imagine at very good prices. From mountain biking to canyoning and white water rafting, there are tons of activities on offer, as well as hiking, horse riding or just chilling by rock pools and waterfalls. San Gil’s hostels (which cost from $6 US per night) can arrange many of the activities for you.

5. Stay in a Hostel Surrounded by Water

Casa en el Agua has to be one of the most unusual hostels in the world. Located in the San Bernado Islands off the Caribbean coast this is a place of white sandy beaches, tropical turquoise waters and total relaxation. Guests staying at the hostel can enjoy snorkelling, kayaking, fishing and island hopping on the ten tiny islands of the archipelago. Read more about Casa en el Agua here.

Casa en el Agua, Colombia.

6. Go to Carnivale in Barranquilla

If you happen to be in Colombia during the month of February, it would be rude not to attend Carnivale in the city that’s famous for doing it, and doing it large! Birthplace of Colombian superstar, Shakira, Barranquilla is a rather nondescript city at other times of the year, but during Carnivale, you’ll find colourful parades, elaborate costumes, dancing, street food and wild after-parties!

7. Take a Free City Walking Tour

Medellín’s Real City Walking Tour with passionate guide, Pablo, taught us more about the history of Colombia than reading a guidebook (or blog!) ever could! With tears in his eyes, Pablo told us about his childhood in the most notoriously dangerous city in the world. In Bogotá, there’s also a free city walking tour and free graffiti tour which shouldn’t be missed! Tips are expected.

A view across Medellin from high up

8. Visit the Amazon

Leticia is a sleepy Amazon basin town which is part of Las Tres Fronteras, the point where the three countries of Peru, Brazil and Colombia meet. Experience a completely different side to Colombia here as you go fishing with locals to catch the Arapaima, the largest freshwater fish in the Amazon River. Read more about one traveller’s experience in Leticia here.

A Small Raft in Leticia Colombia

9. Dive in a Mud Volcano in Cartagena

A bizarre experience awaits travellers near the coastal city of Cartagena, and it’s known locally as ‘El Volcan de Lodo Totumo’. Lose all sense of gravity as you bob around in this naturally heated mud volcano that feels like you’re swimming in chocolate (just don’t try to eat it!). Locals claim numerous health benefits and although we’re not convinced, it’s definitely an interesting experience! Read about our experience at Colombia’s Mud Volcano here.

Mud-volcano, Colombia

10. See an Amazing Multi-Coloured River

Caño Cristales, ‘El Río de Los 5 Colores’ or the ‘Liquid Rainbow’ is a stunning natural phenomenon located in a remote area of Colombia, well worth the trek to get there! Until recently, the river was off limits due to the presence of FARC in the area, yet today more and more travellers (mostly locals) are starting to visit. The bright colours are thanks to a variety of aquatic plants that grow just below the surface of the water.

Red water in Caño Cristales

Best Places to Visit in Colombia

Colombian’s are quick to commend you on your choice to travel in their country, and it’s easy to see why.

Cities: The colossal cities of Bogota, Medellin, and the salsa capital of Cali are ready to overwhelm you with grand museums, intoxicating nightlife, and sumptuous local flavours. Did you know that Bogotá is the third highest capital city in the world?

Mountain towns: Charming Andean towns, such as Barichara, dot the countryside providing the opportunity to experience a traditional way of life as you sip cafe con leche in the plaza central.

National Parks and Wildlife: Beautiful national parks filled with a variety of flora and fauna abound from coast to coast, taking you from tropical jungle one minute to rugged mountain scenery the next. In Salento wander through the tallest wax palm trees in the world. In Tayrona National Park near Taganga, spend the night cuddled up in a hammock for the night in the coastal jungle. And don’t miss the multi-coloured river, Caño Cristales.

Tayrona National Park, Santa Marta, Colombia
Tayrona National Park, Santa Marta, Colombia.

Outdoor Adventure: From diving to rafting to trekking and rock climbing, Colombia is an adventure lover’s paradise! For adrenaline junkies, San Gil is your go-to adventure capital. If it’s diving you’re into, head to the islands of San Andrés and Providencia.

Coast: The sultry Caribbean coast from Cartagena de Indias to Santa Marta tantalizes visitors with splendid beaches, UNESCO world heritage cities, and enough local energy to make sleep a mere option.

Check out our in-depth travel guides on the best places to visit in Colombia below…

What to pack for Colombia?

A discussion about the climate of Colombia naturally leads on to the tricky question of what to pack!

Again, this depends on which part of the country you are going. However, if you’re planning on exploring the different regions from the high Andean villages to the humid Amazon, to the tropical Caribbean coast, then you’re going to need a variety of clothes for all weather conditions! (This is pretty much the same for most of the countries in South America.)

  • Packing for the Caribbean coast – Think Thailand. You’re going to need light clothes, a bathing suit, flip-flops and sandals.
  • Packing for Medellín – Light jacket and/or cardigan and trousers/jeans for the evening. Think crisp, sunny days and chilly nights.
  • Packing for Bogotá and Andean travel – Bogotá is cold! You’ll need a jumper, a fleece, trousers and layers.
  • Packing for the Amazon – You’re going to need light clothing and a rain jacket.
  • Packing for the Lost City Trek and Cocora Valley Hike – You’ll need light clothing, a rain jacket, a fleece for the evening, and sturdy hiking boots or trekking shoes.
  • Packing for Colombian Nightlife! ?– Unlike Southeast Asia, people like to dress up on a night out in South America and you can be disallowed entry into clubs for being too casual. So, if you’re thinking of checking out the best of Colombian nightlife, you need to pack at least one smart outfit. A pair of trousers (not jeans) for men, one pair of smart shoes for both men and women (heels not necessary) – oh, and your best dancing outfit for those of you wanting to shake that ass in a salsa club!

Colombian Fashion Tips for Blending in:

One way to blend in whilst travelling in Colombia, particularly while out and about in cities, is to dress like the locals do. It’s best not to stick out like a sore thumb and wear clothes that will obviously give away that you are a tourist. As trends change, why not take a shopping trip when you arrive, so you can get the perfect Colombian get-up!

Ladies – especially when out at night – adopt a similar fashion to the Colombian women. Skinny jeans, sparkly tops, hoop earrings. There’s no need to cover up when you go out at night. Colombia is not a conservative country and you’ll see many local women bearing midriffs, cleavage and a bit of thigh here and there! Bright colours, glitter and glamour are the name of the game.

Men – go for chinos and tank tops, a blazer if you’re really wanting to copy the Colombian look. Basically, the more you come across as a local, the less likely you are to be a target of crime. (Oh, and learning Spanish will of course help too!)

Dressed for Carnivale in Colombia!
Bright colours are the way to go! My friend and I dressed for Carnaval in Barranquilla, Colombia!

10 Packing Essentials for Colombia 

1. Mosquito Repellant – Essential for the tropical and Amazonian regions. An effective mosquito repellant with DEET is Repel 100 Insect Repellent. If you want to avoid chemicals, then go for the All Terrain Herbal Armor DEET-Free Natural Repellent which is often voted as the best natural mosquito repellant.

2. High Factor Sun Screen & Lip Protection – I’ve travelled to many parts of Europe, Asia and the Americas, but there’s something about the Caribbean sun that seems stronger to me than anywhere in the world. On Playa Blanca near Cartagena, I burnt my face so badly that I still have a scar on my lip to this day! (Stupid, I know). Don’t underestimate the sun! I recommend a sunscreen over factor 50 (at least!).

These days I use Neutrogena Sport Face Oil-Free Lotion Sunscreen SPF 70+ (for face) and Nivea Sun Immediate Protection Moisturising Sun Spray SPF50+ (for the body). For lip protection get Nivea Lip Sun SPF 30.

3. Filtered Water Bottle – In the Andean regions of Colombia, it’s actually fine to drink the tap water. However, this is not the case for the coastal regions. Therefore, it’s a great idea in Colombia to invest in a filtered water bottle so you can drink from the tap wherever you travel in the country. We love the LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle which has an amazing filter and costs only $34.99 USD. More on filtered water bottles here.

4. Secure Day Pack – When travelling in cities anywhere in the world, not just in South America, it’s a good idea to invest in a good, anti-theft day pack, so that you can relax and not feel preoccupied about your belongings as you explore. Pacsafe makes excellent theft deterrent products and their Venturesafe 15L Anti-Theft Daypack is a great option for backpacking Colombia. Having a bag that’s also lightweight and waterproof is a bonus.

5. Rain Jacket – No matter what time of year it is, the weather can change in an instant in Colombia. Whether you’re hiking or city sightseeing, be prepared for rain showers by packing a light rain jacket. For a budget rain jacket, check out the range by Frogg Toggs, whose Ultra-Lite Rain Jacket starts at $13.95 USD. For a more serious hiker’s rain jacket with a lifetime guarantee, check out the Patagonia Torrentshell starting at $120 USD.

6. Trekking Shoes – Hiking is one of the top things to do in Colombia so you need to make sure you’re prepared for all terrain from the jungle to the Andes. If you don’t want to use up to much space in your backpack, then trekking shoes are preferable to full-on hiking boots which can completely dominate your packing!

For women, we love the Columbia Women’s Dakota Drifter trekking shoes starting at $49.99. For men, the khaki CAMEL Outdoor Leather Hiking Shoes are comfortable for trekking and they look pretty stylish too.

7. Micro-Fibre Travel Towel – A quick-dry, lightweight travel towel is always a great item to take backpacking. Read our reviews of the best travel towels here. Top pick – The Youphoria Quick-Dry Travel Towel with Carry Bag

8. Portable Charger – Bus journeys are long in Colombia. If you want to make sure that you’ve got enough juice in your phone/kindle/iPad then a portable charger or power bank is a must. Also great for long treks, such as the Lost City Hike, where you may go a few days without electricity. For a small and light option, try the Anker PowerCore 10000 at just $29.99 USD.

9. Mini Padlock – Essential for securing your bigger rucksack during flights, overnight buses and in hostels. Take a few in case you lose one). These travel padlocks are ideal and cost $10 USD for two.

10. Packing Tip: Ever tried packing cubes? They will revolutionise your backpacking experience! Check out this set by TravelWise.

Colombia Tourist Visa

Citizens of most nationalities can enter Colombia visa-free for a period of up to 90 days. These include all European citizens, travellers from the US, Australia, Canada and most other South American countries. You can see the full list of nationalities here. Your passport must be valid for at least six months when you enter the country and you may be asked by the airline staff before you board the aeroplane to provide proof of onward travel. (This happened to me and as I had completely forgotten about it, was forced to buy an expensive flight at the airport before boarding!) You can read more here about proof of onward travel.

Vaccinations for travel to Colombia

Diphtheria, Tetanus, Polio

Most people received a routine injection against these three diseases as a child at school. If you had the injections over 10 years ago, it’s likely that you will need a booster. We recommend that you visit a travel clinic to check that you are up to date on your routine injections before you travel.

Typhoid

Caused by the bacteria, Salmonella typhi, typhoid is a serious illness that causes fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. It is passed on through contaminated food and water and is common in areas with low hygiene and levels of sanitation. It is recommended for travellers to the Americas, Asia and Africa. If untreated it can lead to death.

The vaccine can either be given as a single injection or as oral capsules. The single injection is to be administered at least one month before travel. Booster injections are given every three years. So if you’ve already been vaccinated for typhoid – check that it was less than three years ago. The capsules are given as 4 tablets to be taken every other day, the last just one week before travel.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is spread through contaminated water and food is more common in countries with low levels of hygiene. Most travellers are encouraged to get the Hepatitis A vaccine which is given as a single injection with an optional booster 6-12 months later. If both vaccines are given, you should be protected for at least 20 years. You should have the vaccine at least 2 weeks before you travel.

Hepatitis B

Transmitted via bodily fluids, Hepatitis B is a viral infection of the liver. You are at risk of Hepatitis B if you partake in unprotected sex, get a tattoo or have a medical procedure. It is often recommended that travellers to Asia and the Americas are vaccinated against Hepatitis B. The vaccine is administered over six months, with three injections every two months. Once complete, you are protected forever. If it’s less than six months before you travel, don’t worry, the process can be shortened to three weeks.

Yellow Fever

Recommended for travellers to South and Central America, as well as Africa and parts of the Caribbean. Some countries require that you carry your certificate with you as proof of vaccination and depending on which country you are travelling from, you may be asked to show it at the airport when you arrive. It is wise to carry your little yellow certificate with you at all times.

You should have the Yellow Fever vaccine at least 10 days before travel. One injection provides inoculation for life, so boosters are not required. In the UK, the cost of a vaccine is around 60-80 GBP. In the US, the cost is around $150 USD depending on where you get it and your health insurance. For more advice on Yellow Fever see here.

Rabies

A recommended, but not essential vaccine for travellers to South America, some travellers decide not to get the rabies jab. Why? Because unlike the other vaccinations, the Rabies jab does not fully protect you from the disease. It simply extends the period within which you must get treated.

If you HAVE NOT been vaccinated (and you get bitten by a rabid animal) you have 24 hours to get to a hospital to receive two things; the Rabies Vaccine, and Rabies Immune Globulin. If you HAVE been vaccinated, you have 72 hours to find a hospital to receive Rabies Immune Globulin.

I always recommend that travellers have the Rabies vaccine (I had it myself). When you are travelling, particularly if you are considering going trekking, which could take you days away from proper medical care, it just isn’t worth taking the risk. You want to be spontaneous when you travel, and part of that is knowing that you are protected and prepared for travel off the beaten track. Although the vaccine can be expensive (another thing that puts travellers off having it), in my opinion, it’s worth it.

Malaria in Colombia – Do you need malaria tablets?

Malaria is present in some parts of Colombia, particularly in the Amazon. You can see a map of malaria presence in Colombia on the Fit For Travel website here. 

In the Andean regions, including Bogotá and Bucaramanga, there is no risk of malaria as mosquitos cannot survive above 1,600 metres. In Cartagena, Medellín, Santa Marta, Cali, Pasto and the vast central regions of the country, there is a very low risk of malaria and anti-malarial tablets are not usually advised.

In the Amazonian and Pacific coastal regions, however, the risk increases. Anti-malarial tablets such as doxycycline or mefloquine are sometimes advised, depending on exactly where you are travelling and how long you will be spending in a high-risk area. We advise that you speak to a travel clinic about your specific travel plans before you set off.

Wherever you are, it’s wise to take precautions against being bitten by mosquitos. Dengue Fever is another mosquito-borne disease present in Colombia, for which there is no vaccination.  Always use a strong insect repellant, sleep under a mosquito net, and cover up your legs and arms, especially during the hour of dawn and dusk.

Is Colombia safe to travel?

Before I went backpacking to Colombia, as a female traveller, I’ll admit that I was nervous. This was mainly due to the responses I received from friends and family. “Oh my God, why are you going there? Don’t get shot!” ... Reading government warnings online did not make me feel any better:

“Street crime is a problem in major cities, including Bogotá, Medellin, Cali and the Caribbean coast. Mugging and pickpocketing can be accompanied by violence. British nationals have been robbed at gunpoint in the Candelaria area of Bogotá (pictured below).” – Foreign Travel Advice on the GOV.UK website.

La Candaleria, Bogota, Colombia.
The question that many travellers ask – is Colombia safe?

Having travelled extensively in Southeast Asia (an extremely safe region to travel), making the jump to South America, I was aware that I would need to readjust my approach to safety in Colombia.

Arriving off the plane in Cartagena in the early hours of the morning, a well-dressed Colombian woman started chatting with me. I was immediately on my guard. She’s probably been planted by some drug gang to make me feel comfortable… then she’ll lure me into a situation where I will be robbed at gunpoint! My jet-lagged brain was in paranoid mode and I was almost rude to the woman as we waited for our bags at the luggage carousel.

When we got to the taxi rank, I stupidly had no spare change for the taxi and the ATMs were not working. The woman did not hesitate in giving me around $5 USD to pay the taxi to get to my hostel in the Old Quarter. She wanted nothing in return and simply wished me a pleasant journey. The next day, I realised how my pre-conceptions had caused me to be suspicious of the woman and I was already in awe of the friendliness of the Colombian people.

Throughout my time in Colombia, travelling just myself and a female friend, there was only one time when I felt in danger. This was during the evening in the city of Santa Marta and I say ‘felt’ because I’m not actually sure that I was in any danger. For some reason, I just found this city more dodgy than other parts of Colombia with a few suspicious characters lurking in doorways…

I think I was more on guard here, as it was in Santa Marta where I watched, from the rooftop of our hostel, a fellow traveller have her camera grabbed from her by a kid on a bicycle. (She ran after him and actually got it back – a reaction that’s not always advisable but in this case turned out okay!)

We were also warned by fellow backpackers about nearby Taganga. Apparently, gangs of young kids were frequently robbing foreigners, which didn’t sound like much fun, and so we decided not to go there at all.

As safety is such a difficult topic to summarise (it depends on just being in the wrong place at the wrong time anywhere in the world!), all I can do is to tell you my personal experience and say yes, on the whole, Colombia is a safe place to travel. As long as you have your wits about you and don’t do anything stupid. Here are a few tips on staying safe in Colombia…

Graffiti that says "todo bien" in Bogota
Todo bien! All will be well when it comes to safety in Colombia if you follow our Colombian safety tips!

Safety Tips for Traveling to Colombia

  • Try to book flights that arrive at the airport in daylight hours. It may be psychological, but I much prefer getting a taxi in a new city when I can see my surroundings.
  • When you arrive in a new place, ask the staff at the hostel if there are any ‘no-go’ areas in the city that you should avoid. In Santa Marta, we didn’t even need to ask this. When we arrived, a guy on reception gave us a map and highlighted some streets that were fine and some streets that he felt we should avoid, especially after dark. Any hostel will do this for you if you simply ask. In my experience, 90% of people who experience crime when travelling ignore such sound advice. If the locals say don’t go there, just don’t go there.
  • Try to blend in. I mentioned above about dressing like a local, but this goes for your attitude too. Don’t speak loudly in English (or your native language), don’t gawp open-mouthed at your surroundings and give away the fact that you just landed.
  • Walk like you know where you’re going. This is a tip that a good friend of mine gave me and it definitely works. When you’re in a part of a city that feels a bit dodgy, put your collar up, keep your head down, act cool and stride out with purpose like you’ve done the walk a thousand times.
  • Learn as much Spanish as you can. It goes without saying that being able to understand the local language will help you to feel more confident as you travel and help you to blend in. From my experience, it would be difficult to travel Colombia with no knowledge of Spanish at all, so
  • Don’t flaunt your stuff. When you’re out and about, especially in cities, don’t flaunt expensive technology items, money or jewellery, making yourself an easy target for a thief. (See ‘dar papaya’ below.)
  • Listen to fellow travellers. Is there someplace that keeps coming up in conversation among fellow travellers as an unsafe place to go? (For us, this was Taganga.) Then just avoid it! It’s not cool to put yourself in unnecessary danger.
  • Secure your luggage. An anti-theft daypack is a good idea (see above). If you’re taking overnight buses and you must store your larger backpack underneath the bus in a luggage compartment then a mini padlock is essential.
  • Don’t buy cocaine. Locals will hate you. And here’s why.

“Dar Papaya”

The Colombians use the expression ‘dar papaya’ which literally means to give papaya (as in the fruit). To dar papaya is to give a thief an easy opportunity to steal something from you. Having a camera lolling over your shoulder, a mobile phone sticking out your bag or your wallet poking out your back pocket is to ‘dar papaya’.

Travel Insurance for Colombia

Travel Insurance is essential when backpacking to Colombia and other parts of South America. We always use World Nomads as they make travel insurance with backpackers and adventurous travellers in mind. For advice on safety in South America check out their range of articles here.

Some Colombian Slang Words!

Having some knowledge of Spanish will definitely help you to blend in during your travels in Colombia, and if you throw in some of the following Colombian slang words you might even pass for being a local!

  • Buenas – Short for ‘Buenas Dias’, simply means ‘hello/good day!’
  • Que chévere! – How cool! 
  • Que bacano / Tan bacano – How cool/awesome!
  • Parce / Parcero – Mate / Man / Pal. (Like the Spanish say ‘hombre!’)
  • Man / Manes – Man, as in ‘hey man!’ or ‘hey men!’ For example, ¿Que hay, manes? (How’s it going, guys?)
  • Rumbear – To party. E.g. Vamos a rumbear. (Let’s go party!)
  • ¿Que Más? Literally meaning ‘what else?’ this is a common way in Colombian Spanish to say ‘how’s it going?’.
  • A La Orden – You’ll hear this said a lot in Colombia, mostly by serving staff at restaurants and shops. It literally means ‘at your service’ or ‘how can I help you’.
  • Paisas – Slang term for people who come from Medellín and the surrounding valleys.
  • Rolos – Slang term for people who come from Bogotá.
  • Costeños – Slang term for people who come from the coast.

For more on Colombian slang, check out this video. There are many more like it on YouTube!

Accommodation in Colombia

When it comes to accommodation, Colombia has it all – luxury hotels, Airbnb, long-term apartments for rent, and lucky for us, cheap backpacker hostels.

In terms of options for the budget traveller, Colombia has some of the best value for money hostels ‘hostales’ in South America! Honestly, some of the places we stayed at, like Masaya Hostel, felt much more like boutique hotels than backpacker hostels! The quality of hostels is very high and backpackers have come to expect spacious rooms, dorm beds with privacy curtains, fast WIFI, free breakfast, sociable common areas with a pool table, ping pong and even a swimming pool as fairly standard!

Across the country, the price of hostels ranges from around $6 US – $15 US. The price rises depending on the facilities and if they like to call themselves a ’boutique hostel’, but in general, you can nab yourself a comfortable dorm bed in a clean room with free breakfast in a sociable hostel for around $8 US. Bargain!

Many of the hostels in Colombia are part of an association known as the Colombian Hostels Association. This is a team of hostels across the country who have joined together to support each other. So, if you stay at one hostel that’s part of the association in Medellín, the owner will encourage you to stay at another hostel that’s part of the association in Bogotá. They also get together to support social projects in the local communities where the hostels are located. There are some awesome hostels on this list! Some of our favourites are…

Top 5 Colombia Hostels

1. El Viajero Hostel – El Viajero has backpacker hostels in a few places across Colombia and Uruguay. Their hostels are consistently fun and sociable places to be and are often located in some beautiful buildings. All of the hostels have nightly events to help backpackers to meet and mingle, such as free salsa classes, live music, yoga and even coffee courses at their Salento hostel… (We spent a fun evening at their hostel in Cartagena watching a bizarre magic show!) The price of a bed at El Viajero is around $12 US per night and it’s well worth it for the social vibe alone. Be sure to check out all of their hostels in the following places: Cartagena | San Andrés | Cali | Salento.

2. Masaya Hostel – Their hostel in Santa Marta is honestly one of the best hostels that I have ever stayed in my life – and I’ve stayed in a LOT Of hostels! With three floors, THREE swimming pools, a TV room, a rooftop bar and terrace with nightly social events, a restaurant, dorm rooms and privates, a social vibe and knowledgeable staff – what more could a backpacker ask for? Since the opening of their first successful hostel in Santa Marta, they have since opened equally amazing hostels in Bogotá and San Agustín. Make sure you stay at one of them during your travels in Colombia, you won’t regret it!

Masaya Hostel, Santa Marta, Colombia
Masaya Hostel, Santa Marta, Colombia.

3. The Dreamer – The Dreamer is a luxurious flashpacker hostel which first opened in Santa Marta, and has since opened a second hostel in Palomino. The hostels have a vibrant social atmosphere and it’s easy to make friends while staying there, whilst lounging around their beautiful swimming pools, playing ping pong or chilling out at the hostel bar. There are privates and dorm rooms at both hostels and prices start at $15 US for a dorm bed. They also have an all-you-can-eat breakfast from 7.30am and happy hours every night at the bar!

4. República Hostel – Republica has three hostels across Colombia in the prime locations of Cartagena de Indias, Bogotá and Santa Marta. There’s a swimming pool at both the Cartagena and Santa Marta hostels (it’s far too cold in Bogotá!) and all three hostels are brightly and beautifully decorated with outdoor and indoor spaces to hang out. A delicious breakfast is included in the price and there are dorms and private rooms. Like the other hostels, it’s easy to arrange plenty of activities and tours at budget prices from reception. Don’t miss their fun evening events and chilled out movie nights.

5. Fatima Hostel – You’ll find Fatima Hostel at four different locations. They have two hostels in Bogotá, both in La Candelaria, the historical centre of Bogotá. At the Fatima Hostel Suites expect a chilled out experience, comfortable rooms and social weekly events like live music every Friday. Hostal Fatima Bogotá, their second hostel is a rowdier place with a large central courtyard where backpackers party and chat into the night. (Don’t stay here if sleeping is your priority!) Their Santa Marta hostel gets amazing reviews and they even have a jacuzzi! Finally, their hostel in Quimbaya, Colombia’s Coffee Zone, complete with swimming pool and a huge verandah comes highly rated. All hostels have a sociable vibe and free events like dance classes, theatre and shows. All in all, a fun place to stay!

Budget – The Price of Travel in Colombia

With great value for money hostels, cheap food and low-cost transport, it’s pretty easy to keep your spending under $30 US per day in Colombia. This of, course, depends on the activities that you do, how much you travel around and how much alcohol you drink! See below for an idea of how much accommodation, food, transport and activities cost in Colombia…

Exchange Rate: Colombian Pesos to US Dollar – 3,000 COP = $1 USD Approx.

Accommodation – As I mentioned above, hostels are very reasonably priced in Colombia, from $6-15 USD for a night in a dorm room. Private rooms start at around $25-30 USD for two people in a double or twin room.

Food – The most budget-friendly way to eat lunch in Colombia is to go for an ‘almuerzo’ (set-lunch) at a local restaurant, which can cost anywhere between $3-8 US for a basic three-course meal of soup to start, main meal (of fish/meat, yucca and beans), small dessert and drink.

If you’re on a budget, it is possible to eat breakfast for around $2 US, lunch for $3 US and dinner for around $8 US, so you’re looking at under $15 US per day. However, this depends on how much you eat and what you have cravings for! Something like a pizza will set you back more.

A typical almuerzo in Colombia.
A typical almuerzo in Colombia – the cheapest way to eat!

Street food – When it comes to street food, you can pick up an arepa or an empanada for around $1 US. A tinto (small coffee) will cost you $0.30 US and some fresh mango around $1 USD.

Beer – The average cost of a local beer in a bar is $3 US. In a store, you can get a can of beer for less than $1 US.

Taxis – Taxis in Colombia are cheap, a journey is usually less than $5 US unless your journey is more than an hour.

Buses – For bus journeys of a few hours, the cost will be under $10 US. For longer bus journeys, for example, the 12 hours from Medellín to Cartagena will be more like $45 US. There is no efficient train system in the country at the moment.

Flights – Cheap flights can be found in Colombia through the budget airlines Viva Colombia, Easyfly, Avianca and LATAM Airlines. The average price for a flight from Cartagena to Bogotá, for example, would be $30-40 USD, that’s if you book in advance. If you book last minute, it’s more likely to be more like $90 USD. Compare prices on Skyscanner.

Activities – When travelling in any country, activities and adventures will be the one thing that increases your budget. Trekking, diving, mountain biking, rafting and other activities will cost a lot more than your accommodation and food put together. However, you are in Colombia and you’re here to enjoy yourself, so you may as well try some of the activities on offer! The Lost City Trek, for example, will set you back around $275 USD, however, it is one of the best treks in South America and for five days trekking in amazing landscapes to an ancient city – let’s just say that it’s well worth it! A PADI Open Water Certificate somewhere like Taganga will cost around $200 USD.

National Park Entry – Entry to national parks in Colombia is sometimes free, however, for some, like Tayrona National Park near Taganga, charges 54,000 COP per person (around $18 USD). This fee is reduced to just 8,500 COP if you have an International Student Identity Card, so it’s a great idea to bring one with you if you’re a student who’s on their travels!

10 Money-Saving Tips for Colombia!

1. Bring your Student ID Card – As I mentioned above, that International Student Card will save you money if you’re travelling as a student in Colombia. You’ll get discounts to museums, monuments and historical sites, as well as National Parks across the country.

2. Go to Museums on Sunday – They are free!

3. Go on the Free Walking Tours – There are free walking tours in many cities across South America and we wholeheartedly recommend them. When we say ‘free’, the idea is that you give a tip at the end of the tour, and while it’s not compulsory, it is expected. And after your experience – it’s pretty certain that you will want to give to the hardworking guide! One of the best experiences we had in Colombia was on the free walking tour in Medellín with our amazing guide, Pablo. The tour was completely free to attend, although we ended up giving him a tip 35,000 COP (about $12 US) each as the tour was just so good! You can read more about the Real City Walking Tour in Medellin here.

4. Haggle – Colombia is a country where haggling is a part of life and so be sure to try your skills at the local market, before getting in a ‘collectivo’ (local bus) or when buying street food, which is usually extremely cheap anyway!

5. Take advantage of ‘almuerzos’ – These local lunch deals are the best way to get fed in Colombia. A soup, hearty meal of meat, vegetables and beans, as well as a small dessert and a drink for around $5 US. How can you complain! We had these lunches at local restaurants almost every day in Colombia.

6. Stay in hostel dorm rooms – Hostels in Colombia are excellent quality and great value for money. A dorm bed in a clean, modern hostel can cost as low as $8 US and can rose to $14 for the swankier hostels that have swimming pools and other facilities.

7. Eat street food – Try any street food that you find – from empanadas to choclo (corn) to ceviche – it’ll be less than $1 US and it’ll no doubt be delicious!

8. Travel on local transport – Local buses and collectivos are the cheapest forms of transport in Colombia.

9. Book flights in advance – Like with most budget airlines, if you book flights months in advance you can get really cheap deals, whereas you’ll pay a fortune if you leave it until the day before you want to fly to book your flight! Use Skyscanner to compare prices across the whole month (our favourite Skyscanner feature!) and book as far in advance as you can.

10. Take advantage of hostel freebies! – Take advantage of the free events taking place at your hostel from free salsa classes, to live music and stock up on the free breakfasts in the morning to get enough fuel to start your day!

We’re looking for travel writers!

If you’re a Colombian who is currently exploring their own backyard, or a backpacker turned travel writer who has recently visited a destination in Colombia that we haven’t covered yet – get in touch! Message us through our contact page here, or write any updates or tips for travelling in Colombia in the comments below… ¡Chaos, manes!

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