This guest blog post was written by Steve Dillon, Co-Founder of the Other Way Round, a culturally immersive travel group which brings together small groups of like-minded travelers and shares with them an off the beaten track, adventurous and insider experience of traveling through Colombia.

Colombia is a huge country and the diversity on offer is absolutely incredible. In fact, it’s the 2nd most bio-diverse country on the planet—containing 10% of the earth’s overall biodiversity. It’s blessed with extreme geographical variety including rugged mountain ranges, tropical jungles, lush rainforests, exotic beaches, snow-capped glaciers, vast deserts & even active volcanoes. Not to mention, it has many vibrant cities and an endless number of colorful and characterful little towns. It truly is a travel lover’s paradise and you could easily spend months traveling Colombia to only just scratch the surface. However, most of us don’t have that luxury.

The great news is that even on a short vacation it’s still possible to visit a number of the best places in Colombia all in a single trip. Internal domestic flights are cheap and the distances between the main cities are relatively short, making it easy to get around.

In this post we recommend 3 places to visit in Colombia especially if this is your first trip. We’ve chosen these three places because, well, we love them, and they all offer a completely different experience (so different in fact that you may feel like you’re in 3 completely different countries). They are all within a 1 hour flight of each other. Even better, they are all great places to visit in Colombia year round—no matter the season.

BOGOTA: Colombia’s Cosmopolitan Capital

Bogota is Colombia’s capital city—the economic and cultural heartbeat of the country—and has a real hip, cool, and cosmopolitan vibe going on. It’s a big, bustling, sprawling city located in the Andes region of the country and is set in the shadow of the rather imposing Monserrate mountain. The cityscape is a sharp contrast between traditional colonial architecture and modern city skyscrapers and due to its high altitude (8,661 feet) the climate is generally cooler than in most other parts of Colombia. Bogota is quickly gaining a reputation internationally for its thriving art scene, buzzing nightlife, and awesome food (although most Colombians have known about this ‘secret’ for some time now).

Bogota Panoramic View Colombia Tour Package

Where to stay in Bogota?
We recommend staying in the Chapinero area around Parque 93 which is at the epicentre of all the local nightlife and is also a good safe spot to be located. Click-Clack Hotel is a great option with its quirky ambience, stylish rooms and awesome rooftop bar serving up (amongst other things) ridiculously good views over the city, although there are plenty of other good hotels nearby.

What to do in Bogota?
Our absolute favorite thing to do in Bogota is to head up to the top of Monserrate Mountain and check out the panoramic city views. From here, you really get a sense of just how gigantic Bogota really is. You can either take the cable-cable, or, if you’re more active, then there’s also a nice hiking path which should take no more than an hour.

Also, go wander the streets of La Candelaria (the Old Town) where you’ll find a nice mix of brightly colored traditional buildings among some grander governmental buildings. This is generally the part of town where most of the action is during the day. You’ll find busy walkways filled with quirky street performers, plenty of restaurant options and the most important museums in the city (we like Museo Botero the best).

In the evenings, much of the nightlife is centered around Zona T & Parque del 93—both very lively spots and worth checking out. If you’re looking for a more relaxed setting, we also really like the Plaza Usaquen. On the restaurant front, Bogota is home to the very popular Andrés Carne de Res, a slightly over-the-top Colombian themed restaurant famed for its exuberant atmosphere. While being fairly touristy, it’s also great fun and no trip to Bogota is complete without trying it.

How long should I spend in Bogota?
Normally, 2-3 days are enough to cover the highlights of Bogota; although, it’s definitely worth staying longer if you want to use it as a base to explore some of the other cool places nearby. Within only a couple of hours, you can reach the epic Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, the sacred natural wonder of Lake Guatavita, or the otherworldly Tequendama Falls. As well, a little further out lies (about 3 hrs) lies the spectacular colonial town of Villa de Leyva.

MEDELLIN: A City on the Rise

Medellin, or the City of Eternal Spring, as it’s affectionately termed by the locals, is a city everyone should experience. While many will merely know it as the home of Pablo Escobar—and of course from what they’ve seen on the Netflix TV show Narcos—there is so much more to this pulsating city.

Palenque Colombia

To begin with, the setting is spectacular. Medellin is nestled deep within the Andes mountains, this means as you move around the city you are treated to awesome mountainous views all around. Then there’s the climate, warm and sunny, but not too hot and fairly consistent year round (hence the nickname). What seems to surprise most visitors is the city’s extremely modern and clean infrastructure, including its highly efficient metro system and super innovative metro-cable gondola system which connects the city with its poorer residents living higher up in the mountains. In fact, in 2013, Medellin was named ‘world city of innovation’ due in large part to such projects.

But in spite of Medellin’s undoubted renaissance, it remains a city of contrasts. Impressive modern architecture, leafy residential streets, and trendy restaurants all sit within eyesight of mountains brimming with overpopulated slums. The remnants of Medellin’s darker period remain highly visible all around, and for visitors it is fascinating, yet humbling, to experience first-hand how these two very different worlds collide.

Where to stay in Medellin?
The best place to stay in Medellin is in El Poblado. It’s where the majority of hotels are located, and it grants access for the best sites in the center of the city. We like Art Hotel Boutique, Diez Hotel, or for something a bit more luxurious, Hotel Charlee is not one to miss. Although, again, there’s an abundance of great hostels and hotels in this part of town.

What to see and do in Medellin?
There are WAY too many interesting things to see and do in Medellin, but we definitely have a few personal favorites which we highly recommend you go visit.

Go check out El Centro, or downtown, where you’ll find the buzzing city in full flow. It’s filled with flea markets, street vendors, crowded squares, historical churches, and the ‘must-see’ Plaza Botero—packed with the instantly recognizable voluminous sculptures of the world-renowned Colombian artist, Fernando Botero. Be aware though, El Centro can get a little hectic, so it’s always best—and also way more informative—to go with a walking tour.

Another thing to do is catch the metrocable from Avecedo station and ride it up the mountain towards Parque Arvi—a huge ecological nature reserve which sits above Medellin. The views during this journey are nothing short of outstanding, combining an aerial view directly over the top of one of Medellin’s largest comunas, an epic panoramic view towards the city, and a second aerial view over acres of lush Colombian forest. Along the way, it’s well worth stopping off to explore the barrio of Santo Domingo (although if you are doing this please make sure you follow our advice on staying safe while traveling alone in Colombia). When you finally arrive at Arvi, you can wander freely in nature in what feels like a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of Medellin.

Colombia

The final place you absolutely must go visit while in Medellin is Comuna 13. Previously one of the most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods of Medellin, this place epitomizes the type innovative social transformation taking place all around the city. The locals now welcome tourists into their neighborhood, share with them their inspirational stories, and it also happens to be home to some of the best collections of street art you’re likely to find anywhere in the world. Go check it out!

Most of the nightlife in Medellin is centered around the stylish El Poblado neighborhood and we highly recommend trying out the much loved local dish, Bandeja Paisa, at 3 Tipicos restaurant, or, for something altogether different (and considerably more upmarket), head to El Cielo to indulge in their ‘molecular gastronomy’.

How long should I spend in Medellin?
Three days is certainly enough to explore Medellin and get a good feel for what the city is all about, but don’t be surprised if—like many other visitors—you become fully enchanted by its charms and decide to extend your trip (don’t say we didn’t warn you)!

Medellin is also a great place to explore further the department of Antioquia (of which Medellin is the capital), and, in truth, to really understand the people of this region, you do need to get outside of the city and into the neighboring countryside. The ridiculously charming towns of Guatape and Santa Fe de Antioquia are within easy reach and there is also ample opportunity to get active and venture out into the neighbouring Andes mountains where you can go hiking, biking, horse-riding or for the more adventurous there’s even paragliding!

CARTAGENA: A Tropical Escape

Cartagena is a hot, sassy, and utterly seductive port city set on the golden shores of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Temperatures are high, humidity even higher, and the pace of life is slower than in the urban sprawls of Bogota and Medellin.

The jewel in Cartagena’s crown is the walled Old Town—an UNESCO world heritage site, full of cobbled streets, quaint plazas and strikingly colorful architecture. Cartagena is the perfect place to go in Colombia for sunshine, cocktails and relaxation—and, of course, to experience the infamous warm and friendly Colombian culture.

Colonial Cartagena Colombia Tour Package

Where to stay in Cartagena?
The most popular area with visitors is in the Old Town which is full of beautiful colonial style boutique hotels of which we particularly like Alfiz Hotel Boutique. There is also the up and coming, and much more edgier, Getsemani which is located just outside of the city walls and again home to a number of very chic hotels. In this area we absolutely love Hotel Casa Lola. And, finally, there is also the beachside location of Bocagrande which tends to be home to the larger hotel chains like Hilton or Intercontinental.

In truth, Cartagena is a relatively small place; therefore, wherever you stay you’re never more than a 5 minute taxi ride from the action. We do recommend, however, that in Cartagena, you take the time to find a hotel that you’re really excited about—more so than in Bogota and Medellin. A big part of the experience in Cartagena is often chilling by the pool, sipping on a cocktail, and watching the world go by.

What to do in Cartagena?
One of the best things to do in Cartagena is to simply wander its streets, roam around the Old Town, marvel at the stylish colonial buildings, engage with the energetic street vendors, taste some of the delicious fresh fruit, check out the local boutique designers, and watch street performers dance emphatically to traditional Colombian music.

Head over to do the same thing in Getsemani which you’ll find has a totally different vibe from the more touristy Old Town. Wander its backstreets, get more of a sense for real-life Cartagena and take-in the abundance of vibrant street art on show. In the evening, walk the city walls (yes, we know that’s a lot of walking) and enjoy the spectacular sunsets which are frequently on display.

If you’re a beach lover, then the best option is to skip the beaches of Bocagrande and instead catch a boat to the nearby Rosario Islands—a small archipelago of picture perfect islands filled with golden sandy shores and crystal clear seas. Spend the day there island-hopping, snorkeling and enjoying the pleasant weather.

Rosario Islands Day Trip, Cartagena

Evenings in Cartagena are always full of fun. The Old Town has a great selection of top-notch restaurants and lots of little hidden plazas which are great places for meeting new friends and partaking in some people watching. One of our favourite places to go is Restaurant Interno which is located in the local Cartagena prison and it offers an alternative to the typical Cartagena dining experience with all of its food prepared and served by current prison inmates.

Another great option is to head on over to Plaza Trinidad in Getsemani which is normally packed with a mixture of tourists and locals alike sipping on beer, listening to live music and enjoying the lively atmosphere. It’s a great place to start an evening out before moving on the some of the neighbouring Salsa bars (and yes, when in Cartagena you absolutely MUST try Salsa)!

How long should I spend in Cartagena?
Like the other places mentioned in this post, 2-3 days is ample time to cover the main sites in Cartagena, but, if you’re also hoping to spend some of your vacation simply laying by the pool or beach, then you could easily spend a full week here.

Day trips from Cartagena
If you have some extra time, there are also a few fascinating places within easy reach of Cartagena which make great options for a day trip.

Bazurto Marketo is just outside of the city and is where the real people of Cartagena go to buy their daily produce (and just about everything else you could ever imagine). Honestly, it feels like a world away from the glamour of luxurious Cartagena and it is a real eye-opener into how the majority of the locals here really live.

Then there’s San Basilico de Palenque, or “Palenque Village,” home to an UNESCO world heritage site and home to the local Afro-Colombian community known as Palenquero (most visibly represented by the flamboyantly dressed ladies who stroll around Cartagena with large bowls of fruit on their head). Here, you can experience up close and personal how the Palenquero have impressively preserved their own culture since arriving to Colombia in the 17th century as escaped African slaves.

Finally, if you want to try something completely different, then make the trip to El Totumo Mud Volcano, which, like the name implies is a volcano, is filled with mud, and famed locally for its ‘healing’ mud-baths.

Volcan Totumo, Cartagena

Rounding Up

Like we said, there are so many amazing things to see and do in Colombia that these 3 places are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other awesome places to explore in Colombia, but, if this is your first trip, then we think these are the perfect places to start. Each of these cities, individually, would be well worth making the trip to Colombia alone in their own right. In fact, that is what many people choose to do, but it is also a great option to take in all three in a single trip.

Take a Colombia Tour

A great and hassle-free way to visit these three places in Colombia is to book a tour through Keteka. The two week Colombia Tour Package includes almost everything—delectable meals, accommodations in the best hotels, and off-the-beaten path experiences. Plus, when you book this tour, a donation is made to a local Colombian kids foundation which covers food, education, and healthcare for one child for a month.