Visiting Colombia? Here Are Some Options to Consider
It sounds like a cliché, but Colombia really does have something for everyone—beaches, jungles, mountains, cities, biking, rafting, great museums, and a killer culinary scene.
When you think of Colombia, what comes to mind?
According to an informal, thoroughly unscientific survey I conducted, most people think of coffee, arepas (griddled corn cakes), and Pablo Escobar. I’m a salsa dancer, so I think of all the great salsa music the country has produced—shout out to Grupo Niche!
When I decided to return to Colombia this spring (my last visit was in 2014), I was curious to see who else was traveling in Colombia and why they decided to visit. While Colombia is certainly receiving international visitors, and I met a handful of travelers from Switzerland, France, Mexico, the United States, and the UK, tourism is returning very slowly and the vast majority of travelers are Colombians who haven’t been able to or aren’t interested in traveling abroad. Shortly after my visit, Bogotá and Medellín experienced some political violence and COVID-19 infections spiked across the country, but things have since calmed down on both fronts.
Any time I met an American, which was rare, I was quick to ask why they chose Colombia. The most common answer: because it’s not Mexico. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mexico. It’s my favorite country in the world and I even lead Day of the Dead tours in Mexico City, but as Mexico is one of the easiest countries to travel to right now, it has attracted huge numbers of American tourists during the pandemic. The Americans I met in Colombia went there specifically because they wanted to explore a country that wasn’t overrun with Americans; they wanted to travel with locals. I was surprised to learn that most American visitors knew very little about Colombia and had done very little research before their trip; they basically booked a flight to Bogotá and asked around when they arrived. As Bogotá receives the most direct flights from the US (from Newark, Miami, Atlanta, etc.), it makes sense to start your trip there and that’s just what I did.
Colombia no longer requires that travelers provide a negative PCR test within 96 hours of visiting but if you’re not vaccinated, getting tested would be the courteous (and potentially life-saving!) thing to do. Travelers must fill out a CheckMig form between 1-48 hours of arrival, confirming some details about their upcoming trip and that they haven’t been exposed to anyone with COVID-19. Rules and regulations could change so be sure to check for updates prior to your trip.
Before leaving Colombia, you’ll have to fill out the same CheckMig form and show the confirmation email to airport staff before you’re allowed to check in. Oddly, though I checked “departing Colombia”, my departure survey contained some of the arrival-specific questions that had also been in the “arriving in Colombia” survey. I answered them the same way I did when I first arrived and received the confirmation email, which I showed to airport staff.
It sounds like a cliché, but Colombia really does have something for everyone—beaches, jungles, mountains, metropolitan areas, hiking, biking, rafting, world class museums, and a killer culinary scene. Each city and region has its own flavor so if possible, try to spend a few days in at least a few cities. My most recent trip was nearly a month-long and I debated changing my flight (again!) to spend even more time there. This piece is a sort of primer for travelers who are thinking about visiting Colombia for the first time or who maybe only visited the tourist hotspot of Cartagena (which is exactly what I did on my first trip to Colombia), and who now want to dig a bit deeper into this incredible and diverse country.
Colombia’s capital city is the country’s cultural and political hub but its designation as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world is what really drew my attention. The city is blanketed with 248 miles of bike lanes and is home to Latin America’s oldest and largest Ciclovía, where 75 miles of car-free lanes attract tens of thousands of cyclists each Sunday.
City bike tours are available but if you prefer to walk, Bogotá’s most famous walking tours, the War and Peace Tour and Graffiti Tour, are both excellent. Local anthropologists, historians, and artists guide you through some of the city’s most historic neighborhoods, taking you through Colombia’s painful past and explaining how the country has completely transformed itself over the past two decades. Though Colombia shouldn’t be defined by its combative past any more than should Vietnam, Germany, Mexico, or even the United States, contextualizing its long history of violence is crucial to understanding how the country got to where it is today.
Most guidebooks will send you to the Museo del Oro (which contains 34,000 gold pieces from across Colombia) and to the Botero Museum (where an extensive collection of works from Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, sit alongside paintings by Picasso, Monet, and Matisse). Both these museums are fantastic but the much lesser-known and newly-opened Fragmentos: Art and Memory Space proved to be one of the most powerful museums I’ve ever experienced.
Fragmentos showcases international exhibits about conflict and peace around the world and its very foundation is a testament to the intense conflict Colombia has suffered for generations. After the peace agreement was signed between the Colombian government and the FARC (Colombia’s largest guerilla group) in 2016, FARC rebels surrendered nearly 70 tons of arms, of which 37 tons were melted down and transformed into the museum’s floor tiles. Women who survived sexual assault at the hands of guerillas, military, and paramilitary members were invited to help mold and shape these metal tiles, and many describe “banging out their frustration” as an important part of their healing journey. Be sure to visit the second floor of the museum to watch a video about this process!
Bogotá is a great destination for solo travelers, who can easily book walking tours and safely wander artsy neighborhoods without needing a tour guide (note that most museums require advanced registration). I spent several days doing just this but when it came time to venture out of the city to explore the hiking, white water rafting, and mountain biking options in the surrounding small villages, I worked with a local tour operator, who arranged all the lodging and transportation details. My guides told me so much about other regions in the country that I decided to extend my trip another two weeks. They also connected me with guides and tour operators in other cities, which allowed my trip to flow much smoother.
Thanks to Medellín’s most famous native son, Pablo Escobar, and a network of drug cartels, guerrilla groups, paramilitary groups, and corrupt military members, Medellín once held the title of most dangerous city in the world. In 1991, more than 7,600 people were murdered in Medellín alone but the city is now considered to be one of the safest in Latin America.
As Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín attracts huge numbers of tourists (in a non-pandemic year, that is), drawn by the warm weather, vibrant nightlife culture, and expansive public transportation network. Within Medellín, graffiti and “transformation” tours tend to be the most popular—and are very much worth it—but, like Bogotá, a huge amount of hiking and outdoorsy options are easily accessible just outside of town.
Visitors can safely and easily explore Medellín on their own but to get the most out of a visit (especially if it’s short), guided tours can be helpful. I worked with Go Explore Colombia, who arranged a whirlwind of a visit for me that focused on the city’s historic transformation and current social justice programs and included tours by foot, train, cable car, bicycle, and motorcycle.
Colombia grows coffee in several regions throughout the country but only the departments (states) of Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío enjoy the official designation as the country’s Coffee Cultural Landscape. Colloquially known as the zona cafetera, the region is the best place for travelers who want to visit farms, indulge in coffee tasting tours, and overnight at coffee haciendas. As it happens, I don’t actually drink coffee, but the region’s beauty—and a handful of unique hotels—lured me to its rolling hills.
Perched atop a sort of mountain island that’s surrounded by two rivers is El Nido del Condor (“The Condor’s Nest), a sustainable eco-lodge that’s only accessible by cable car (the hotel is a 90-minute drive from the Manizales airport). It is believed that only about 130 condors live in the Colombian Andes and two of them make their home in a nest just below the lodge, making it one of the best places in the country to spot the endangered national bird. Although you can see these massive scavengers and their 10-foot wingspans flying directly above the lodge (I even saw them from the hammock in my room), the morning birdwatching hike can get you even closer.
Bogotá may have received the title of most bike-friendly city in the world but the entire country of Colombia is cyclist-friendly. Most large and mid-size cities are lined with well-maintained bike lanes, and cars respect the huge number of cyclists that pack the streets and highways every day. Smack dab in the middle of coffee country is a cyclist’s dream, a bicycle-themed hotel, complete with rental bikes (road, mountain, electric, and pedal-powered), a bike shop, and a steamy sauna and massage room to wind down post-ride.
I structured most of my trip around the two nights I’d stay at Casa du Velo, only to arrive with a bad case of food poisoning; actually, I think it was tap water that hadn’t been boiled sufficiently to kill the bacteria. I spent the entire first day in the bathroom (which was quite nice) but was determined to get in a ride during my stay. The hotel helped me hire a taxi to drive me and my rented electric bike to the stunning Valle del Cocora, making my return ride a quick 22 miles, mostly downhill. The region is extremely mountainous so if you’re a more casual cyclist, or if you wake up feeling like the Pepto Bismol poster child, I highly recommend getting an electric bike. That afternoon, I hired a taxi to drive me to Pereira airport (about an hour away) to fly to Santa Marta to hike the legendary Ciudad Perdida ruins (look out for that story in the future!).
Getting Around the Country
Colombia, the only South American country with both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, is covered by expansive mountain ranges where winding roads are packed with container trucks shipping goods across the country. Traveling by rental car is doable but between the trucks (which can be impossible to pass for dozens of miles at a time), rain- and mudslide-related delays, and weak-to-nonexistent phone signal strength in the mountains, it’s far easier to fly.
Depending on delays, a drive from Bogotá to Medellín or Pereira might take 7-8 hours, whereas the flight will be under an hour. As an avid environmentalist, it pained me to book four domestic flights during a three-week period so I initially planned to take a bus from Medellín to Pereira. Fortunately, my guide convinced me to fly, as three massive mudslides completely shut down the route between the two cities the morning of my flight. Remember that mountaintop condor hotel I visited? Well, I was supposed to spend two nights there but troublesome mudslides shut down the only road to the hotel for a day and a half. Fortunately, they arranged for me to spend a night at Hacienda Venecia, a beautiful, fully functioning coffee plantation about two hours away.
Uber is a safe and easy option to travel within large cities, just know that, technically, it’s not legal so you’ll be asked to sit up front since it draws less attention from police. However, unless you both speak Spanish and have an international data plan, you may want to skip Uber at airports, as the pick-up process can be complicated and confusing. Spanish-speaking drivers will typically call and ask you to meet them at a more discreet location (like the airport parking lot in Bogotá) or to ask you to pay cash for the toll (in Medellín). I speak fluent Spanish and have an international data plan but the process was annoying enough that I switched to hailing regular cabs at airports.
In general, I’ve found that Latin America takes the pandemic far more seriously than most of the United States. Mask wearing compliance is very high, social distancing is enforced, and hand sanitizer is available at the entrances of virtually every restaurant, museum, hotel, and business. That said, like the United States, some cities take safety measures more seriously than others. Infection rates have plummeted across the country in recent months and 14 million people (28 percent of the population) have been fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, COVID rates are spiking in many parts of the world and it’s possible that will happen again in Colombia. There are currently no infection spikes, lockdowns, or curfews in Colombia but, since compliance with mask wearing and social distancing has varied dramatically from city to city, I think it’s worth sharing some of my experience to give an idea of what could happen if outbreaks return.
In my experience, Bogotá, by far, felt like the safest of the large cities to visit, as compliance was very high. Bogotá, like many cities around the world, experienced a spike in cases after the Easter holiday, when families were more likely to gather (and again during spring political protests), but the city has since returned to very low levels. In Medellín, however, I encountered large groups gathering indoors without masks and I even saw tour guides, and restaurant cooks and staff operating indoors without masks. I was invited to (and declined the invitation to) underground salsa parties where dancers crowded shoulder to shoulder, care-free and mask-free. This happened in April, when virtually nobody in the country had been vaccinated yet. At one point, COVID infection spikes caused the city to expand its curfew to 5pm-to-5am, in an effort to curb the spread.
I do think it’s safe to travel to Colombia right now, especially if you’re fully vaccinated, but, as you should with any country, check recent infection rates before your trip. Also keep in mind that lockdown measures in a city proper can affect transportation in the broader region. After my Ciudad Perdida hike near Santa Marta, I had planned to spend a couple days at a bird sanctuary in the mountains, arriving on a Wednesday and departing on a Friday. Since Santa Marta’s lockdown included both of those days, I was told that it may be impossible to find transportation along the final stretch to/from the sanctuary. Not wanting to get stuck on the side of the road or have to go back to Santa Marta and spend my last few days on lockdown, I quickly switched my plans and booked a small private bungalow in Palomino, a beach town about two hours east of Santa Marta.
Planning Your Trip
Colombia is known for its tropical weather, which is abundant in coastal cities like Cartagena and Santa Marta, where you’ll find the most intense heat and humidity, and inland cities like Medellín and Cali. Bogotá, however, is at a much higher elevation so it tends to be cooler which, as a New Yorker, I tend to prefer. The rainy season varies region by region so if you want to avoid the biggest storms, do a bit of research of the various cities you’ll visit. My most recent trip took place the last three weeks of March and the first week of April and, minus two days in Santa Marta, it rained every single day. Fortunately, rain is often predictable so you can aim to schedule your activities in the morning before the afternoon rain arrives.
Returning to the US
To return to the United States, travelers must produce negative COVID-19 test results taken within three calendar days of departure, and both PCR and antigen tests are accepted. I typically go for PCR tests, which tend to be more reliable, but since I needed to get the test in Santa Marta, where lockdown measures were delaying the results beyond the acceptable window, I went with the antigen test, which was reviewed and accepted by airline officials. Testing requirements can change in any country, at any moment, so be sure to closely review State Department requirements before your trip.