Discover the splendors of Colombia on a 4-week itinerary winding through paradise beaches to the roots of ancient civilizations and infamous kingpin Pablo Escobar, branching at the high-altitudes, mysterious mini-desert, and the jungles of Amazon! On the way, sample some of the best coffee in the world and enjoy delicious meals under unbelievably clear starry skies.
Colombia is enormous and versatile; experiencing its various faces takes weeks. I mean, where else you can experience so much on the same holiday, inside just one country? The Caribbean beaches, archeological sites, mountain treks and other adventurous activities are some of the best in South America, and the Colombian Amazon remains relatively unspoiled, unlike the Peruvian and Brasilian sides. We tried our best to squeeze the secret ingredients into the ultimate 4-week itinerary around Colombia. Inevitably, the magic of Colombia stole our hearts. Take off with us!
Cartagena (4 nights): Old Colonial City with Spanish Castles and Beach Hideaways
Start your 4-week tour around Colombia from the cobbled streets of Cartagena de Indias. Visit Spanish castles, feast on culinary delights, and just wander around the old walled city spellbound. Cartagena has probably the most picturesque old town we’ve ever visited. The pastel-colored colonial houses cast well-needed shadows into hot afternoons, and bougainvilleas hang from the pillared balconies like clouds from the paradise. The turquoise Caribbean lures you to take a boat to dreamy beaches and small islands, the nearest called Tierrabomba being just 20 minutes’ ride from the shore.
Less than four days won’t be enough to experience the surroundings at a relaxed pace. Plan to unwind and indulge. Roaming around unintentionally unwraps the secrets of this old colonial city. Local and international restaurants cater to your every craving, and a couple of small specialty coffee houses give a perfect introduction to the coffee heritage of Colombia.
How to get to Cartagena from Bogotá
There are several cheap, daily flights from Bogotá, so don’t bother with the exhausting bus trips or drives. We paid around 30$ per person for the one-way ticket, and even cheaper fares are available. Save time on transits to squeeze more destinations into your itinerary!
Tayrona National Park and Beaches Near Palomino (3 nights): Untamed Jungle Beaches, Ancient Ruins, and Mellow Vibes
Get sun-toasted at the immaculate Caribbean beaches, dip in the turquoise waters, and admire majestic boulders that have witnessed the rites of ancient civilizations. Tayrona National Park is made for an adventurous day of beach-hopping, snorkeling, and hiking or horseback riding. In the backdrop of Sierra Nevada mountains lurks the pre-Hispanic ruins of Pueblito, the town of Tairona people, which sees surprisingly few tourists. The charm of Tayrona National Park can be experienced in a one long and adventurous day, but it will entice you to linger for more leisure beach time.
Tayrona National Park is the most visited park in Colombia for a reason and shouldn’t be skipped. To craft your visit truly unforgettable and avoid the negative sides of tourism, check out our guide on visiting Tayrona National Park: Beach Hopping by Horseback in Tayrona National Park. We opted to stay outside the national park to avoid the masses and found our untamed paradise beach near the town of Palomino.
How to get from Cartagena to Tayrona National Park and Palomino
We took a door-to-door minivan from Cartagena to our hotel, La Mar de Bien near Palomino (4,5-7 hours, depending on the driver and company). It was cheaper, easier, and quicker than flying with ground transports at both ends (taxi to the airport, flight, taxi to either bus terminal and bus trip or one-hour taxi drive straight to Palomino from the airport).
Santa Marta and Minca (2 nights): Authentic Colonial Feel and Misty Mountains
Locals prefer Santa Marta over Cartagena for its authenticity. Many tourists visit Santa Marta only for the nearby attractions since it makes a great base for exploring Tayrona National Park and the nearby mountain village of Minca. We’d recommend staying a couple of nights in the colonial center of Santa Marta to stroll around the streets with locals, enjoy great dinners, and discover the hidden charm of this small colonial city.
However, “the authenticity” means that Santa Marta is not polished for tourists like Cartagena, and the experience will be more “raw”. There are just a couple of picturesque streets, a small park, and a short “beach boulevard”, where locals hang around street food stalls. Outside the colonial center, there’s not much to see. Nearby Taganga offers a backpacker-style beach getaway with bars and party vibe, but we’d recommend venturing into the beaches near Palomino for a secluded and boutique-style beach holiday.
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range can be visited on a day (or multi-day) trip from Santa Marta. We just negotiated a deal with a local taxi driver to visit Minca for a couple of hours. If you yearn to hike, bike or ride on the mountain trails, it might be a better idea to take a tour from Santa Marta or overnight in Minca to arrange it independently. There’s a trailhead in the town (ask from locals) for a short independent stroll. Also, an organic coffee plantation or some of the nearby waterfalls can be visited on an independent day trip.
How to get from Tayrona National Park/Palomino to Santa Marta
Door-to-door minivans are an affordable and relatively comfortable way to travel short distances in Colombia. From Palomino/Tayrona National Park to Santa Marta the travel time is only 1-1,5 hours.
Medellín and Guatapé (4–5 nights): Explore the Roots of the “Paisas” and Pablo Escobar, Indulge in Adrenaline Activities or Amazing Restaurants
Without visiting Medellín and the paisa district, you cannot say you’ve seen Colombia. After the Netflix hit series “Narcos”, many visit Medellín in search of the infamous Pablo Escobar sights. But Medellín is so much bigger that its narco reputation. From the former murder capital of the world has risen unbelievably success stories, which are imitated in other troubled cities all around the world. Of course, things are not that black-and-white, and you’ll need to explore Medellín to draw your own conclusions.
Medellín took me by surprise and jumped high to my list of favorite cities. We’ll write more about this emerald city shortly, so I’ll just drop quickly the main draws: fantastic restaurant and coffee house scene, a plethora of tours and activities from trampling the “Pablo Escobar trail” to paragliding and other extreme sports, the unexpected green oases around the center, outdoor escalators that have turned a former slum into a creative and safe neighborhood, the famous cable car, vibrant street art culture rivaling with the small art galleries and outdoor statues of Fernando Botero, and so complex and magnetic urban culture that I have to leave it to another article. Nicknamed as “the city of Eternal Spring” and with hilly streets, Medellín reminds a lot of San Francisco.
Just for the craziness of it, we were supposed to take part in the paintball war at the ruins of Pablo Escobar’s former hacienda in Guatapé. Unfortunately, the activity was canceled just before our tour, and the decision appears permanent. The quaint town of Guatapé makes still a lovely countryside break if your timetable allows. The town is located on the bank of an artificial lake that used to be among the favorite holiday destinations of drug lords at the time of Escobar.
How to get from Santa Marta to Medellín
Avianca has one straight daily flight from Santa Marta to Medellín (1 hour 15 minutes), so grab it! We paid around 60$ per person. Other carriers offer the leg with a layover in Bogotá. Road travel over the mountains between Bogotá and Medellín is nightmarish and even locals avoid it – you’ve been warned. The bus trip to Guatapé takes two hours, and the famous La Piedra (stone monolith) can be visited on the route.
Popayán (2 nights): White-washed Colonial Town
The white-washed Popayán inevitably collides with your itinerary, if you’re planning to visit the archaeological treasures of San Agustín or Tierradentro. Yet another colonial town, you might think. Somehow Popayán is still different. It feels even more authentic than Santa Marta, and you won’t see many tourists around.
Popayán was our least favorite place in Colombia. Still, we were glad to experience its unique atmosphere. It’s said to be the most religious city in Colombia, so if you’re into churches and monasteries, you’ll appreciate it more than we did. Nearby mountain village Silvia hosts a colorful market every Tuesday, and other villages and thermal springs can be explored on a horseback riding or mountain bike trip.
How to get from Medellín to Popayán
Once again: flying is the most comfortable choice. Bus travel or self-drive is doable but would require changing the itinerary since it would take days. We reserved our flights pretty late and ended up paying around 100$ per person. If considering road travel, stay a couple of nights both in the “the coffee triangle” (the town of Salento or bigger cities of Manizales, Armenia, and Pereira) and Cali respectively. I’d add a week’s extra loop in the case of road travel. If you have time and don’t hate long drives, I’d even recommend expanding our 4-week itinerary into 5 weeks!
San Agustín (3 nights): Horseback Riding and Hiking Among Ancient Statues
San Agustín is considered as the most important archaeological site in South America, surprisingly winning the title from the hyped Machu Picchu. While we loved them both, I’d probably pick the less visited San Agustín as my personal favorite. The cryptic stone statues, graves, and ceremonial sites are scattered around stunning river valleys, jungle, and rolling hills. Horseback riding between the archaeological sites makes an exciting day trip. Hiking inside the archaeological park of San Agustín deserves another day. The small town charm keeps you entertained for a couple of days. The waking tourism boom has also brought a few good hotels and restaurants.
How to get from Popayán to San Agustín
Road travel is the only choice, but this time, it’s worth the effort! The road winds up to the scenic high-altitude páramo almost straight after Popayán, and it’s dubbed as the most beautiful bus route inside Colombia. Local bus crawls the distance in 5–7 hours; minivans can speed it up even to 4 hours. The road is getting paved slowly, cutting travel times each year.
Desierto de la Tatacoa and Neiva (2 nights): Surreal Mini Desert
Desierto de la Tatacoa is among the Colombian destinations that scream magical realism. It’s hard to believe that such a mini desert with canyons reminding of Arizona even exists in the middle of green hills and mild tropical climate of Colombia. Near the visitors’ center and observatory lies “the red desert” with a labyrinth of narrow pathways. To keep things even more interesting, a short moto ride takes you to the “gray desert”, which has its oasis, a natural pool.
How to get from San Agustín to Neiva/Desierto de la Tatacoa
This is the second – and last – leg in our itinerary requiring road travel. Minivans can cut the distance between San Agustín and Neiva into 4 hours (reserve longer, if you go through Pitalito). Desierto de la Tatacoa can be visited on a day trip from Neiva (take a taxi to the desert or a minivan to the village of Villavieja, from where you can hire a moto taxi). With its observatory, Tatacoa Desert is a perfect spot for star gazing, so feel free to stay there, if you’re not afraid of basic accommodation. We opted to stay in Neiva for comfort and great food.
I’d strongly recommend including Tatacoa Desert into your Colombian itinerary, though it’ll mean an extra loop. We flew from Neiva to the Amazon to minimize transit time. Bus from Neiva to Bogotá takes around 6 hours; Avianca has several daily, direct flights.
Amazonas (4–6 nights): Explore the Colombian Amazon – or Visit Brazil and Peru!
Visiting Amazon is an essential part of experiencing the multiple faces of Colombia. Amazonas, as Colombians call their stretch of the river basin, covers a third of Colombia. Visiting Amazon on the Colombian side will feel more authentic than embarking on the jungle adventures from Brasilian or Peruvian side. The border town of Leticia rivals those of its neighbors, and if you pick a good hotel, it’ll even feel a pleasant small town for a couple of days. But Leticia is just a starting point: venture deeper with public or private boats and take hikes in the rainforest, visit indigenous tribes, spot pink and gray river dolphins, and go fishing if you please.
We stayed two nights in Leticia and two nights in the small eco-village of Puerto Nariño, 75 kilometers upstream from Leticia. Puerto Nariño is a great base for independent Amazon adventures: there are a couple of decent lodges and plenty of villagers are eager to take you on affordable, yet private Amazon excursions with their wooden fishing boats. Ready-made Amazon tour packages come with hefty price tags. Search online before you book to make sure that the guides and lodges will meet your expectations.
Getting to Leticia from Bogotá (or anywhere from Colombia)
If you’re visiting Colombian Amazon, the flights are obligatory. There are no roads to Leticia from the Colombian side. We paid 80–100$ one way, per person. Here’s the trick: we encourage you to fly from any destination inside Colombia into Leticia. You’ll have a layover in Bogotá, but according to our investigations, the multi-destination flight will be just a slightly more expensive than a single leg from Bogotá to Leticia. We paid around 100$ for the Neiva-Leticia leg and 80$ for the Leticia-Bogotá leg. Book early for the best deals, reserved our flights pretty late.
From Leticia, we took a public river boat to Puerto Nariño (75 kilometers, 1,5-2,5 hours). Book tickets at the port the day before.
Bogotá (2 nights or more)
Whereas many capitals in southern or central America feel forbidden and ugly, Bogotá is a cool and even beautiful colonial city. If you’re into museums, reserve more than two days: in Bogotá, you’ll be spoiled. I loved the hilly layout and tourist-filled old town La Candelaria, but it was the strike of “urban cool”, similar to that of Medellín, which charms me. Sample some of the best coffee in the world in hipster coffee houses in up-and-coming Chapinero area, follow the beats to the clubs of nearby Zona Rosa, and climb to green Cerro de Monserrate to escape it all.
Due to the international airport, your itinerary in Colombia probably starts and ends in Bogotá. We had only 2 nights to spare in the capital, which allowed us to see only a scratch. Stay longer for a more thorough urban exploration.
Exploit Cheap Domestic Flights in Colombia
During our 4-week tour in Colombia, we preferred flying instead of exhausting drives or uncomfortable bus trips. Distances are long, the Andes and other mountain ranges pierce the country, and many roads remain unpaved. We needed five flights to complete our one-month itinerary on a relatively tight schedule and were extremely happy with the Colombian domestic carrier Avianca. However, the default flight prices for foreign visitors are rather high. Check out our flight hacks and book the domestic flights in Colombia at cheap, local fares!
Our Destination Picks for a Longer Itinerary in Colombia
Unless you are blessed with unlimited time, you’d need to decide which destinations to skip, since all the enchanting sights of Colombia would keep you busy for many months. Hence, this 4-week itinerary highlights our interests and is overshadowed by the fact that we needed to prioritize. The biggest miss for us is Ciudad Perdida trek, but we would have needed four more days to complete it. But that’s a perfect reason to return to Colombia!
Personally, I would have wanted to visit the sand dune beaches of the remote La Guajira peninsula, which can be reached by a long jeep journey from Santa Marta. I was eager to include also a longer trekking trip to the mountains, preferably in the national park of El Cocuy, where the snow-capped peaks reach out to staggering 5 kilometers. Luckily, we saw drastic high-altitude paramo landscapes on our journey from Popayán to San Agustin. It was also painful to drop out the Caribbean islands of Providencia and San Andres, but high flight prices (even with the flight hacks) helped me with reasoning. The untamed beaches near Palomino and inside Tayrona National Park did the job this time.
As a fresh bouldering enthusiast, I yearned to test my skills on the massive rock wall of Suesca, so I tried my best to lure Piritta into this small town with ghost stories, but without success. Suesca can be reached on a day trip from Bogotá, but I would have combined it with the colonial gem of Villa de Leyva. On our 4-week itinerary, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Bogotá, and Popayán showcased the colonial roots of Colombia. If you feel the need to fine tune your time travel vibes, add one of the smaller colonial towns, such as Mompox, Jardin, or Barichara; they look stunning in pictures!
On the other hand, Piritta tried to squeeze in more time in the Amazon. Visiting the reserves on the Peruvian and Brasilian side remain in our dreams. We know that we will return to the Amazon; so those adventures will wait for us.
Then there’s of course ”the coffee triangle”, which was on our itinerary until the nick of time. We decided to trade the picturesque coffee town of Salento, hot springs near Pereira, and horseback riding amidst the towering wax palms of Valle Cocora into the adventurous triangle of Popayán, San Agustin, and Neiva. And we were happy about the choice since San Agustin was one of the highlights of our 4-week Colombian tour! As coffee geeks, we got the best fix ever in the specialty coffee shops of Bogotá and managed to find great brews also in Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Medellín.
We’ve visited several coffee farms during the last years and were just looking for the best quality beans from small producers, which are usually hard to find outside specialty coffee shops. Smaller farms tend to export their gold, and even bigger farms might not sell their best beans on the spot. But I still have one recommendation, if you’re a coffee enthusiast. Go off the beaten track and visit the rising star of Colombia’s specialty coffee trade, La Palma & El Tucan. Shortly, they are opening the farm for ordinary coffee tourists. The beans are to die for, and you can find them also in Bogotá. The farms inside the coffee triangle tend to be old-fashioned and extremely touristy to my likings.
As you can see, our 4-week itinerary in Colombia was full of compromises, because the country is so tremendous. If you can, spend more than one month and explore deeper than we did to avoid tough calls. Still, even a 4-week tour in Colombia will steal your heart!
Pin this story!
- Official name: Republic of Colombia, República de Colombia
- Official languages: Spanish and 68 ethnic languages and dialects; also English in the Caribbean islands
- President: Juan Manuel Santos (2017)
- Population: More than 49 000 000 (2017)
- Currency: Peso (COP)
- Geography: 6 natural regions: the Andes, the Pacific coast, the Caribbean coast, the Amazon rainforest, the plains (Llanos), and the islands (Pacific & Caribbean)
- Religion: Roman Catholic
- Colombian Visa: Not required for stays up to 90 days for citizens of the Americas, most of the Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Africa
- Time zone: COT (5 hours behind GMT)
- Mobile phone network coverage: Great 3G all over the country (excluding the remote corners of the Amazon, of course)
Bizarre Facts About Colombia
- The name Colombia comes from Christopher Columbus (you guessed!)
- Colombia ranks first in bird species and is the second most biodiverse country in the world (right after Brazil, which is seven times bigger!)
- President has declared World Cup match days as a national holiday – Colombians are crazy about the football!
- In his heyday, Pablo Escobar used to smuggle 15 tons of pure cocaine into the US each day, collecting 420 millions a week!
- Pablo Escobar offered to pay Colombia’s national debt (10 billion)
- Colombia is all about renaissance: for example, Medellín was known as “the murder capital of the world”, but now its success story is imitated around the world.
- The mythical El Dorado and Macondo have their roots in Colombia. The birth town of Gabriel García Márquez even tried to change its name into Macondo!
Is Colombia Safe For Americans in 2017?
Since we’ve been asked a lot if it’s safe to travel to Colombia, here’s our opinion. Colombia is a perfectly safe destination for Americans, solo female travelers, and families with small kids. We encountered plenty of American travelers during our 4-week tour, in all areas of Colombia. Of course, before booking a trip to any destination, you should check the current travel warnings. Here you can find the latest, updated travel information from US Department of State. According to the current travel warning, tens of thousands of US citizens visit Colombia safely each year. There have been no reports of Americans targeted based on their nationality.
It’s safe to visit the majority of the tourist destinations – and all destinations listed in our Colombian 4-week itinerary. Although the security situation in Colombia has improved radically, due to narco-trafficking and guerrilla (and paramilitary group) activity, there are still some “red zones”, which you’d probably like to avoid. Plan your itinerary carefully to avoid also ground transport through the areas with a travel warning. Luckily, internal flights are cheap in Colombia (especially if you’d use our flight hacks), so you can visit all the tourist areas safe and sound.
If you have any concerns about visiting Colombia or questions about our itinerary, please just ask in the comments below – we are happy to help!