North to South in 2 Weeks
This list of incredible places worth visiting in Colombia is endless... But these are our favorites based on our central route.
In the early days, the port city of Cartagena was prosperous and comfortable for settlers because of its climate, accessibility and abundant wildlife. This increasing wealth and prosperity made it a target for pirates, thieves and conquerors. Throughout history, a number of different forts, batteries and walls were built to protect the various neighborhoods but the most impressive and expensive is probably the 11km wall surrounding the old city. This giant construction made the city almost impossible to conquer and it’s currently what makes Old Town Cartagena such an impressive and historic place to see. Today, abundance and vibrancy are two of the best ways to describe this incredible part of the city. With its modern, international cuisine and luxurious boutique hotels, old town is a wonderful vacation spot for even the most affluent travelers.
Just outside old town, is the neighborhood of Getsemani. Not long ago this area was known for its crime and drug culture but has recently evolved into one of the most hip and artsy neighborhoods of Cartagena. While some of the original families of this neighborhood are struggling to adjust to its current gentrification process, for many it is now a place of small business opportunity. Another positive cultural effect of this current change is the local expression of street art. These beautiful and creative installations make Getsemani a cool place to explore, and a popular place for backpackers and budget travelers to stay.
Medellin is a culturally abundant, economically bustling, artistically inclined, wonderful city that seems to be constantly looking for ways to improve itself and the lives of its inhabitants. Cable cars and the electric escalators in Comuna 13 link the different neighborhoods in an attempt to provide academic and economic opportunity no matter one’s socioeconomic status. The metro and bike systems reduces an incredible amount of CO2 admissions each year and on top of all that, the city boasts museums, art installations, public libraries, universities, malls, parks, and almost unchanging perfect tropical weather.
We were lucky enough not to have to live under the reign of Pablo Escobar in the 80s and 90s, a tragic and brutal history for the majority of the inhabitants of Medellin. And while we’re sure there are a myriad of opinions on the subject, our very brief and subjective impression of Medellin as a city (and more generally of Colombia as a country) is that we’ve never met a more unified and caring group of people in all our travels. Our encounters with the locals in Medellin reminded us that the cartel history and Escobar’s reign is not something they want to discuss and it’s definitely not the way they want to be remembered (please try to respect this when you visit).
3. El PeNoN de guatape
You’ll have to leave the city for this one but we think it’s worth it. Just look at that view! The Rock of El Peñon is over 700 steps to the highest lookout, and it definitely offers some of the best views of the surrounding lakes. It takes about 30 minutes to climb, give or take 15 minutes. And after the climb, you have to check out the nearby town of Guatapé. We got started early, finished our climb and made it to this colorful little town for lunch. The town square has lots of restaurants with outdoor seating and inexpensive typical food. After we ate, we just explored and admired all of the detail with which they decorate their buildings and homes making it the most colorful town we've seen.
Salento is an area south of Medellin and west of Bogota in the “coffee area” of the country. East of Salento is the Valle de Cocora, which hosts the iconic wax palms and absolutely unbelievable views of the countryside. The famous hike of Cocora Valley costs less than $1 USD per person and is often why most people visit this part of the country. However, don’t forget to give yourself time to explore the quaint little town, take a tour of a local coffee farm, or ride a horse to waterfalls in the area. With remote accommodation offered in the hills and pretty great little restaurants in the nearby town of Salento, you can easily spend a few days in this area exploring or curling up by a fire and reading a good book.
Cali is the salsa capital of the world… need we say more? Although it may be a little behind the innovative Medellin and is lacking in the colonial charm of Cartagena, it makes up for it in GROOVE. The hostel we stayed in was one of our favorites and the staff recommended an local salsa-dancing club where we went to simply observe the joyful and contagious rhythm that filled the room. Take classes during the day and practice at night to get the most authentic salsa experience possible.
For one of our favorite budget accommodations, check out: Casa Mira Flores (neighborhood of San Antonio). The area is safe, they offer laundry services, have a cool, hip vibe, and best of all? They have a sweet little bunny rabbit running around (just be careful, she'll nibble on your belongings and hop all over your bed if you don't watch her).
6. Las Lajas Sanctuary
The story begins with a myth from 1754 about a mother and daughter who took shelter in the cliffs during a bad storm. The daughter was deaf and mute but suddenly spoke to her mother for the first time... saying the Virgin Mary was calling her. After the story was shared to others, a shrine was built and to this day, pilgrimages are made by worshipers visiting the statue of the Virgin Mary, and of course the magnificent structure wedged between the canyon (built almost 2 centuries after the miraculous event).
Located just west of the town, Ipiales, in the most southern region of Colombia near the Ecuadorian border, this breathtaking site can be accessed at no cost. It’s a little hike downhill, just off the main road but its well worth it. For a different experience, you can now also access the church via gondola. It leaves from the city and glides over the canyon.
After strolling the grounds, we recommend paying the small fee to enter the museum.
Ipiales is still a little undeveloped. We enjoyed the town (which is situated in the remote and beautiful countryside) but found there wasn’t much to do. However, the city of Pasto is just 1.5 hours north and is an incredible modern surprise. Las Lajas would make a great day trip from this lively new city.
AND IF THAT’S NOT ENOUGH…
*There are SO many other incredible places to visit in Colombia but we ran out of time!
We can’t WAIT to revisit and know we’ll have plenty to do.
Here’s the list of places we'll visit when we go back:
Tayrona National Park
Minca Waterfalls (or longer 6-day hike in this area)
Cabo de Lavela
Boat to island of Baiu (rent a house with a private beach)
If you get to these first, send us your recommendations :)
See you down the road!
Meg (+ Tyler)