So you’ve finished watching Narcos on Netflix and settled on Colombia for your next vacation. Now what? Where do you go? What do you do? And, uh, is it safe?! We just spent three weeks in this beautiful country and are here to tell you all about it.
First off, we decided on visiting the more popular cities: Cartagena, Medellín, Guatapé, and Bogotá. We didn’t have a ton of time, so we opted to fly between the bigger cities vs. taking a bus. Flying was relatively cheap on the local airline, Viva Air, so it wasn’t too much of a price difference and we got to save ourselves from some day-long bus journeys.
To start off this South American leg of this trip, we flew from NYC to Cartagena with no real plans. We booked a beachfront Airbnb on the north side of the Boca Grande neighborhood. It was an easy 15-minute walk to the old walled city, where much of the restaurants and nightlife are. There are a few things not to be missed in Cartagena:
Go to the Totumo mud volcano
Side note: It was honestly so weird and not really a volcano at all…but we tend to like weird so we had a good time. We booked a tour through one of the operators in town and they brought us to this ‘volcano’ where you climb a set of steep and slippery stairs in your swimsuit, wait in line, climb into a mud pit with 30 other people where you just kind of float in the mud. You can’t sink even if you tried. It was an interesting experience. It’s also one of those places where everything there costs extra: the boy taking your photo with your phone/camera while you’re in the mud, the boy moving your shoes from the entrance to the exit, the women who come with buckets to help you wash off, etc. It was cheap, but just be aware. After that, we went to a spot for lunch and then the tour gave us an hour of free time at the beach.
We have never been to a city with so many epic rooftops. We especially enjoyed our day at the Hyatt swimming in their infinity pool and having the perfect view of the sunset.
Take a boat to an island
We unfortunately ran out of sunny days to take advantage of this, but we heard many people rave about both Baru and the Rosario Islands. The photos we saw looked like a tropical paradise. We still managed some swimming time right on the shores in town, but it’s probably not nearly as picturesque.
Ride on a Chiva Party bus
You can’t miss these bright and colorful beauties. Every night of the week, these buses get decked out with neon lights, live music, booze and a communal party bus vibe. They will take you around the city bar hopping — it’s a great way to see the nightlife.
Eat out, obviously
Cartagena is known for its seafood and ceviche, but as vegetarians, we found some hidden gems. There is a pretty big Mediterranean influence here, which we didn’t expect, but we had some of the best falafel we’ve had since Tel Aviv in Cartagena. Who would have thought?!
Honorable mention to Cafe Stepping Stone for the best brunch and Zaitún for the falafel.
Medellín was one of those cities where we had no idea what to expect, so we were pleasantly surprised by the upscale jungle vibe of the Poblado neighborhood where we were staying. Our hostel, Los Patios, was in the perfect location for us — there were ample restaurants, cafes, bars, parks, and everything you could possibly desire. They even organized tours for us, along with wine & art night, a free Power Spanish class, pub crawls, and more. (If you are heading there in the next month, use our code TRISDAN to get 20% off your stay!) Here’s what we got up to:
This is a must-do in Medellín, and you should absolutely go with a guide who can explain what you’re looking at. Comuna 13 is the name of the once most dangerous street in the entire world. It has a deep history in Colombia, and has now been transformed by local artists and their murals representing the stories of this area. It’s beautiful and educational and definitely something you need to see if you come here.
This cable car was built for the poor people who lived high up in the hills to have easier access to the city below where many of them worked. It has made the entire city more accessible to everyone and has reduced a lot of crime. The views alone are pretty wonderful, and the ride itself is less than $2 per person.
Learn about Pablo Escobar
This guy’s name isn’t mentioned much in Colombia. The locals usually avoid even bringing him up due to the difficult and sensitive past. Some people think of him as a celebrity who helped their poor families in tremendous ways, and others think of him as an evil person who doesn’t deserve even an ounce of fame. Either way, for us, we wanted to respectfully learn more about the impact he had on the country, and we went to a fascinating tour at one of his houses (did you know that he had 400!? ) that is now owned by his nephew.
As always, here are some of the restaurants we enjoyed:
Hija y Mia – They do toasts right. There are like seven different types of peanut butter (coconut, honey, cocoa, spicy chili, etc.) and they put frozen blueberries on top. YUM.
Justo Restaurant – The kind of fancy vegan food you’d see in LA, but without the fancy price tag.
Betty’s Bowls – Smoothie bowls, avocado toasts and fresh salads. Nuff said.
Pergamino – You’ve gotta go for the best coffee when you’re in Colombia, and this is it! (We went back here 4 times.)
We did a day trip to the city of Guatapé from Medellín, but we absolutely could have spent a few days here. Now if you haven’t heard of Guatapé, put it on your list of places to visit. It consists of two main parts: the rock, and the city itself. The rock is this place where you can climb up 630 stairs to get a view of the flooded valley below. Probably one of the best views we’ve ever had, to be honest.
But the part that people don’t talk about as much is the colorful city, filled with beautiful bright houses (practically a requirement) and the most friendly street dogs we’ve ever encountered! The city puts out donation buckets to collect money to make sure the dogs have food, water, vaccinations, and get spayed/neutered. It’s a lovely city and definitely worth spending some time there.
Bogotá was the last stop of our cities in Colombia, and we had heard mixed reviews. Some people told us it was dirty and unsafe, others raved about it, but we actually really enjoyed our time there and never once felt sketchy. We landed on a Sunday afternoon and the city itself seemed completely empty — we even had a hard time finding a good restaurant that was open at 7PM. Come Monday, however, the city woke up and we understood what the hype was about. Here’s what you should get into:
The Cable Car
Yep, another city with a lookout point that you’ve got to pay for. But this one is the hilltop separating the city from the jungle, and you basically get 360 views from up there.
The Gold Museum
The largest collection of gold in one place. You’ve gotta see it to believe it.
Explore the Candelaria neighborhood
We weren’t staying here, but we enjoyed walking around and seeing all the murals, street vendors, and cool shops in this area.
Aaaaand as for food, here’s what we loved:
Masa 70 – Not only a bakery with the best cookies ever, but also a place you can go if you’re craving a gourmet salad for like $5. They bring you a piece of paper and you just check off the ingredients you’d like mixed in. Amazing.
Cantina Y Punto – Fancy hipster Mexican (think guac and tacos). Super yummy yet still not too expensive.
Uba Paraíso – do a tropical fruit tasting!
As always, there’s so much more we want to see here — a lot of people recommended visiting Santa Marta in the north — but we got a really good feel for what this country has to offer. We WILL be back!
About the Author
Danyelle Pollock is currently on an international tour, visiting tech hubs around the world and providing consultations to startups of all sizes. Her and her husband, Tristan, blog about their adventures along the way via @wedidthat.
Before becoming a digital nomad, Danyelle helped scale Lyft — a transportation technology company valued at $15B — and shaped their employee experience through 50x employee growth.