Every year, I seem to crave a travel adventure or two, and recently, my wanderlust took me to Colombia. I didn’t know much about the country before I left (only that it’s infamous for its coffee and has become safer and more appealing to travelers in recent years), but South America was the only continent other than Antarctica that I had yet to explore, and I was ready for my first taste.
My travel companions and I created a rough itinerary of places worth visiting, drawing inspiration from the Polish travel company Relak Misja, who also helped us book our lodging. With our backpacks and senses of adventure, we set off to create a journey to remember, and together, we discovered some amazing places: beautiful beaches and national parks; colorful, historic architecture; and sweeping city views. If your wanderlust is taking you to the coffee country as well, I recommend checking out the places below:
Cartagena is a beautiful, historic town on the coast that is divided into two areas: the beaches and Old Town.
The beaches were a little crowded but had great views of the waves and the coastline; you could lay back and relax, listening to the sounds of the ocean while cooling off under the shade of an umbrella. Beach dogs lounged in whatever shade they could find while children ran and played and curiously stared at the tourists. Vendors made their approach about every ten minutes selling anything from necklaces to alcoholic beverages to oiled-up foot massages. The first thing I bought was ceviche, a raw fish/seafood combination that I now can’t stop singing praises about. I enjoyed it consistently throughout the trip.
In Old Town, the bright pastel buildings, museums, and photogenic town square will capture your attention during the day, but it’s at night when the action starts and the true Cartagenans come out to play. When the sun sets and the weather cools, the best things to do are walk along the city walls and take in the beautiful views. You can have a drink while listening to authentic salsa music and get your dance on at any local club where they seem to welcome newcomers with a smile on their face and a sway in their hip.
El Matuy is a natural reserve and eco-resort near the city of Palomino, and it’s a little slice of Colombian heaven. There is no electricity in the cabins and the shower water is nowhere near warm, but don’t let these little tidbits throw you. El Matuy was my favorite stop in all of Colombia. The food is absolutely delicious— they have a nice assortment of local fish and vegetables, as well as other Colombian favorites, like arepas (flatbread made from ground maize). During the day you can watch the wild, rough waves while swinging peacefully from a hammock. Or, if you are feeling more adventurous, take a 20 minute walk to a small river that is surging with wildlife and unique vegetation. Once you decide to move beyond those natural wonders, turn and go the other direction to a well-populated area where the river meets the sea. Even though it’s a spot meant for relaxation and enjoyment, there’s no chance you will be bored.
Close to El Matuy is a ravine, Quebrada Valencia, which has gained popularity because of its waterfall and dozens of small swimming holes that are naturally built into the rocks.
When you first arrive to the falls, you may be overwhelmed with the amount of people who are there. If you’re not afraid of heights, then the saying the higher the risk, the greater the reward applies to you. The pool we ended at was near the top, with water levels 23 feet deep. I didn’t believe it at first until teenage boys started showing off their bravery by cliff jumping into the water, to the screams of panic or delight from the spectators below. While leaving Quebrada Valencia, I bought a patacone (fried plantain with cheese) from a local vendor, and I think it may have been my best life-decision to date.
Visiting Tayrona Park is a must in Colombia. We arrived there via Taganga, a fun little beach city that reeks of booze, sweat, and sex. The original plan was to hike throughout Tayrona during the day and then sleep in a hammock at the top of a mountain. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that during ‘high season’ we had to book this sort of adventure months in advance, so instead we opted for a day trip. Despite our disappointment at not being able to stay overnight, a day trip to Tayrona is well worth it. Within the first few hours we saw some playful howler monkeys, had a decent breakfast at a beautiful jungle lodge, and relaxed on a beach, watching epic battles between the waves and the rock formations. The rest of the day was hiking and then a rewarding, cold beer at a restaurant that overlooked the park.
Finally, a trip to Colombia wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Bogota. 8660 feet above sea-level, Bogota is dramatically cooler than the rest of Colombia; the 88°F of Cartagena were snuffed out to a mere 55°.
If you have a lot of time in Bogota, make sure to check out the Museo del Oro (a gold museum that is way more fascinating than it sounds), the Botero Museum (a museum in tribute to Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who is most famous for painting a chubby Mona Lisa), and La Candelaria district (the historic downtown that has the Plaza de Bolivar and a few great areas worth exploring).
But if you only have a short time, the number one thing you have to do in Bogota is see the Cerro de Monserrate. The Monserrate is a mountain located near the city center and at the top of this beautiful mountain there is a church and a shrine to “El Señor Caído” (The Fallen Lord). For a small fee you can take an aerial tram to the top to see these places and also get a fantastic panoramic view of the city. And since most of Bogota is visible facing west, I imagine the sunset from the Monserrate would be particularly beautiful.
All in all, Colombia is a scenic and diverse country; it is being slowly, almost-begrudgingly, renovated to cater to tourism, but still manages to maintain its rugged landscape and cultural beauty. Whether it be waterfalls, mountains, or cities by the sea, Colombia has what you need for a low-key but absolutely memorable getaway.
THE TRAVELIN’ SONG: Tranquila (J Balvin). When we stayed in Playa Blanca the sun went down at 7pm and most places didn’t have electricity… but our place did. And they played this song on repeat.
BUDGET: 18 day adventure trip with friends; approximately $2000 including the airfare, food,and lodging. We booked through a Polish travel company called Relak Misja.
TIP FOR TRAVELERS: It wouldn’t hurt to learn a little Spanish or bring along a Spanish dictionary. While residents in more concentrated areas may speak English, those in the rural areas definitely do not.
DEFINITELY CHECK OUT: If you like seafood at all, definitely buy yourself a ceviche. Don’t worry, you can thank me later.