One Month Colombia Itinerary: From Cartagena to Calí and Everything In Between

With no prior intentions, we found ourselves in Colombia after eight months in Asia.  It was just an easy way into South America, but we ended up falling in love with the vibrant culture and stunning scenery.  When we talk about our favorite memories from our world trip, this country is always near the top.  (Don’t believe us?  Just check out our Colombia Photo Gallery to see why.)  This is our one month Colombia itinerary with 10 dream inspiring destinations to add to your upcoming trip.

If (when) your aunt Mabel inevitably warns you against a visit because it’s super dangerous, just ignore her, those times are in the past.  This country has gone from volatile to vivacious in the recent past, making now the perfect time to visit.  We personally tested and approved all of the following places from our ones month flashpacking in Colombia.  Oh, and we have several very detailed and specific posts about various parts which are linked throughout this article.

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Colombia One Month Itinerary:

Whether you are backpacking, flashpacking, knapsacking, packratting or any other ridiculous term which we just made up, this itinerary will give you a diverse look at the wonders of Colombia.  Rich varied cuisines, art filled streets, local coffee, lively culture and plenty of hiking in pristine wilderness, its all here.  This one month itinerary is the rough route from our trip in Colombia, taking in tons of the amazing places available.  Of note, we prefer not to rush and take time enjoying the culture (ok, the food) and the scenery (yep, the coffee).  Some may choose to take out (or add) a day here and there as needed.

  • Day 1:  Fly into Cartagena
  • Day 2-4:  Cartagena
  • Day 5:  Fly to Medellín
  • Day 6-7:  Medellín
  • Day 8:  Medellín with day trip to Guatapé
  • Day 9:  Bus to Jardín
  • Day 10-11:  Jardín
  • Day 12:  Bus to Medellín and flight to Bogotá
  • Day 13-14:  Bogotá
  • Day 15:  Bus to El Cocuy town
  • Day 16:  Arrange hiking trip for Parque El Cocuy
  • Day 17-18:  Hiking in Parque El Cocuy
  • Day 19:  Bus back to Bogotá
  • Day 20:  Bus to Salento
  • Day 21:  Salento
  • Day 22:  Salento with day trip to Cocora Valley
  • Day 23:  Bus to Buenaventura
  • Day 24-25:  Buenaventura
  • Day 26:  Bus to Calí
  • Day 27-29:  Calí
  • Day 30:  Leave Colombia

At this point after fully researching and planning our trip, we feel pretty Colombia savvy, so feel free to send any questions you have about your trip in the comments below or through our contact page.

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Getting Around Colombia

For in city transport, Uber is available in most metro areas of the country and taxis are also numerous and relatively cheap with occasional negotiation required.  For long distance travel, buses here are cheap and easy to understand.  Numerous bus routes operate just about everywhere in the country, and drivers are always happy to drop passengers anywhere along those routes for convenience.  That said, road travel can be slow and painful due to the mountainous terrain and in country flights are affordable and abundant so we flew whenever it made sense.  We typically used Latam Airlines, which is surprisingly a very pleasant and affordable way to travel long distances in Colombia.  It was our favorite airline (WAY better than the monsters working for Viva Colombia), and with most flights starting around 120,000 pesos ($40 USD) booked just a couple days ahead, it’s a lot easier than the bus.  Hint: if you want the local rate, you need to use the Colombia version of their website which sells tickets for 1/2 the cost of the international site.  If you end up on the wrong one, just choose Colombia from the dropdown location menu at the top of the page.

Travel Cost in Colombia

Colombia is a very affordable travel destination.  As you probably know by now, we do not skimp on experiences or food, although we do pay attention to less interesting areas like travel costs and accommodations.  As a couple, we coughed up just over $80 USD per day average during our trip, with $21 of that for food expenses and $23 from our exclusively private rooms with bath, typically in Airbnb home stays.

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Savor Fresh Ceviche on the Colorful Streets of Cartagena – 4 Days

Cartagena is a breathtakingly beautiful city.  As if the most picturesque town in Spain met world class street artists and got painted colors from the Crayola dream factory.   It’s really that pretty, BUT, it is one hellaciously hot place.  We hate to admit it, but we refused to go outside between 10:00am and 5:00pm.  Other than to eat of course, which is absolutely one of the two main reasons to come here.

As total ceviche lovers, Cartagena is the foremost expert at whipping up fresh and inexpensive fish and shrimp ceviche (we know cause we tried it everywhere).  If wandering through colorfully painted streets while eating citrusy seafood is your thing, than this place is worth a stop, especially if you think oppressively sticky heat is no sweat.  Regardless, grab a 1,000 ($0.35) peso cup of fresh squeezed limeade on the street to help you power through.

It is possible to head a few hours to the Caribbean town of Santa Marta from Cartagena and add time in Tayrona Park or even conquer the famed Lost City Trek.  We originally planned this part, but instead got forced south by the heat and into the mountains.  Trekking in that radiant coastal air didn’t sound all that fun, plus we hear that Santa Marta is a total gringo party town, which also isn’t quite our style.

Getting to Cartagena

Cartagena is one of the cheapest places to fly into Colombia with direct or one stop flights available from many major airports in Europe, Asia, North and South America.  We flew in with Delta from our previous destination of Japan.  Most tourists stay in the neighborhoods of Getsemani and San Diego, which are a short cab ride from the airport.  There is an official taxi window where you can arrange a cheap ride outside of arrivals, so there is no need to haggle.

 

Enjoy Mountain Scenery in Medellín – 3 Days

Medellín is incredible and an unexpectedly wonderful city to visit.  First, it is located in a valley surrounded by mountains, which gives the city an unmistakable scenic charm and a blessedly cool and crisp climate.

Second, there is a badass metro system.  It quickly gets you wherever you want to go,  and costs only 2,400 ($0.75) pesos no matter how far (or long) you ride.  But what’s more, there are also a series of gondola style chairlifts which extend the metro into the mountains.  While most cities would build this purely for view seeking tourists and charge accordingly, Medellín has created an innovative way to transport residents to their homes in the surrounding mountains.  You can actually buy one ticket and ride the metro all day long, including into the mountains, as long as you don’t leave the station.  But if you do, it is only another 2,400 pesos.  This makes Medellín the easiest and most fun city to explore in Colombia.  For a little extra excitement, you can head up to Parque Arvi.  Take the metro to the Acevedo stop and hop onto the cable car.  At the top of this line is the only gondola which is not included in the main metro ticket and accesses solely this mountain top park with trails.

Third, this is the infamous city that headquartered ruthless cartel kingpins, which you have probably seen in countless documentaries and Netflix shows like Narcos.  This is a fascinating place for history with several riveting museums and tours on offer.  We took a free walking tour with Real City Tours and believe us, this one is not to be missed.  Despite the four hour length (I know, painful to even think about a tour that long), it went by in minutes and kept us captivated throughout.

Getting to Medellín from Cartagena

Colombia is a deceptively large country.  We flew to Medellín from Cartagena to avoid the 12 hour bus ride.  The one hour direct flight with Latam, booked two days before our trip, cost only $41.  The main airport in Medellín is in the middle of nowhere, requiring a 40-60 minute bus or taxi ride into town.  There is a regular, comfortable and reliable bus which leaves from directly outside of arrivals for 9,500 pesos ($3).

 

Take in Amazing Views from the Rock in Guatapé – 1 Day

Guatapé, a small yet vibrant lakeside pueblo, is one of the brightest and most colorful in Colombia, rivaling even Jardín.  The area is most famous for an insanely out of place giant rock, El Peñón, sitting on the outskirts of a stunning web of interlocking lakes.  The rock has a steep flight of 740 steps leading to the top for a great view of the surrounding lake.  With a few small shops selling drinks and snacks, the climb is well rewarded with an incredible view and the possibility to add an ice cream or beer.

While Guatapé town may not be worth staying overnight, the pretty streets, numerous restaurants and picturesque church make for a nice lunch spot to relax afterwards.  The area is easily reachable on a day trip from Medellín, making a visit all the more doable.

Getting to Guatapé from Medellín

Buses to Guatapé leave several times daily from the North Bus Terminal (Terminal del Norte) in Medellín.  This terminal is connected to the Caribe Metro stop by an above ground walkway.  Tickets can be purchased at booth 14 for 14,000 pesos ($5) with an assigned seat.  The trip is two hours and will drop tourists off in front of El Peñon rock upon request.  To go back, simply find the bus window in Guatapé and buy a ticket back to town.  Everything is the same in reverse.  We spent around four hours climbing the rock and exploring this tiny town.  We recommend getting your return bus tickets early as they do sell out.

 

Discover Epic Waterfalls Around the Coffee Town of Jardín – 3 Days

Jardín is that wonderful Colombian mountain destination you have dreamed about.  The pint sized town is set amongst waterfall laden hills and surrounded by small family coffee farms.  Streets, awash with color, are filled with coffee sipping locals who seem to have been transported forward 100 years.  The town is centered around a beautiful church square which is alive with activity at any time of day.

Despite being small, Jardín offers a plethora of activities which tend to cast the Siren’s song on unsuspecting travelers.  Giant waterfall hikes, cloud forests and mountain biking just to name a few.  But most important, the nearby coffee farms offer tours and tasting hosted mostly by the owner, making for a relaxing way to unwind after a long day of trekking.  Before you know it, your two day trip will turn into three or more as you observe men on horseback wearing thick ponchos, wide sombreros, and trotting through the colorful streets.

Getting to Jardín from Medellín

Buses to Jardín leave from the South Bus Terminal (Terminal del Sur) in Medellín.  We rode with Transportes Suroeste, located at ticket window 2.  The trip is three and a half hours by bus or three hours by mini-bus and drops off a block from the main square.  Coming back, simply buy a ticket from the same place where you were dropped off, which has times posted on the window.  Tickets are 26,000 pesos ($8.50) in either direction, unless you get a mini-bus which costs 28,000.

 

Find Amazing Street Art in Bogotá – 3 Days

We aren’t going to lie, Bogotá is not the most exciting place in Colombia.  It does not have the charm of Medellín or the beauty of Cartagena, but it does have several nice aspects and its location makes a visit almost inevitable.  With one of the largest airports in the country, many people will find their trip beginning or ending here.  Plus, the remote El Cocuy National Park is best accessed from Bogotá.  We used this giant city mostly as a necessary connecting point between the areas El Cocuy and Salento, and didn’t feel the need to spend tons of time here (although we did enjoy our stay).

Like many cities in the center of the country, this one is flanked by steep green mountains, giving views to the east a beautiful backdrop.  The streets are filled with some of the most beautiful art and interesting people in Colombia, making it the ideal location for a self guided street photography and walking tour.  Coffee and food lovers will find plenty to enjoy with the plethora of specialty coffee shops, artisanal beer, and restaurants around town.

Getting to Bogotá from Medellín

We chose to take an additional flight with Latam and avoid another long bus ride.  Again, the one hour direct route cost around $41.

 

Hike to Glaciers in El Cocuy National Park – 4 Days

El Cocuy National Park (Parque El Cocuy) is a world class, off track wilderness reserve in the Colombian Andes.  This is a place perfect to get away from the city and spend time time hiking up rugged mountains, to sparkling glaciers and around deep blue lakes.  Better yet, with the influx of tourism in Colombia being so recent, this pristine reserve is still relatively unvisited.  There are currently three epic hikes available for tourists within the park boundaries, but also several other trails located around the nearby towns.  The park holds some of the most scenic valleys and unique plants around, making it a top destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

Despite this being one of our favorite places in Colombia, there are a couple of hurdles that make a visit difficult (albeit rewarding).  First, this park is in the middle of nowhere.  Not just out of the away, but really, really far off.  Like a 12 hour curvy bus ride from Bogotá kind of far.  Second, there are a series of cumbersome requirements necessary before being allowed to hike here.  If you are planning a trip, and we highly recommend that you do, you are going to want to read the only complete guide to hiking in El Cocuy National Park.  This will walk you step by step through everything you need to know in wonderfully excruciating detail.

Getting to El Cocuy from Bogotá

The most efficient way to get to El Cocuy town is via coach bus, which leaves from Terminal Salitre in western Bogotá.  There are two companies which drive this route directly.  We rode with both, but much preferred the reliability, safety and comfort of Libertadores.

Coflonorte / Libertadores:  Buses have daily departure times from Bogotá at 5:00am, 6:00am, and 2:00pm.  Tickets are 60,000 pesos ($20) and can be bought in advance or the day of, depending on availability, cash only.  The ticket booth, window 149, is located in Section 3 of Terminal Salitre in Bogotá.

Expreso Paz Del Rio:  We returned to Bogotá with the bus company Expreso Paz Del Rio.  They have daily departures direct to Bogotá at 4:00am, 6:30am, 11:00am, 6:00pm, 7:30pm, and 8:30pm.  Tickets are 60,000 pesos and can be paid with cash or card.

 

Drink Fresh Grown Coffee in Salento – 2 Days

This is the more touristed cousin of Jardín, but nonetheless beautiful.  While we personally preferred the off track charm of Jardín, Salento has several aspects that make it a must for a trip in Colombia.  First, it is set deep in the mountains, creating a beautiful setting and some of the most perfect sunsets in the country (just check out that picture below).  Second, this is true coffee country, making this another dream place for coffee lovers.  Small farms surround the town and can easily be reached on foot, bike or via collective taxi (Willy Jeep).  Third, this is the home of trucha, or river trout, which is served up in abundance at the many restaurants in town and was one of our favorite meals during our trip.  And last but far from least, this is the access point to the amazingly unique Cocora Valley, where the world’s tallest palm trees dot steep hilly terrain (more on this further down).

We may have run into more gringos in Salento than any other place in Colombia (yes Cartagena, even you), but still enjoyed our time immensely.  With one day spent mountain biking to coffee farms, one day for hiking Cocora Valley, and every day devoted to fresh trucha, our time here went by in a flash.

Getting to Salento from Bogota

There are no direct routes to Salento from Bogotá.  You first need to reach Pereira and then take a one hour bus to Salento.  We actually flew from Bogotá to Pereira and then took the bus to Salento.  After a 12 hour bus ride from El Cocuy, we just couldn’t stomach another long ride, but it was NOT worth it!  The flights in the southern part of Colombia are more expensive, so we unfortunately booked with the slightly cheaper Viva Colombia.  At the gate, they decided that our backpack shapes looked slightly out of proportion (despite weighing within the approved limits), and angrily forced us to pay our full ticket price again to board our bags!  Then our plane flew all the way to Pereira before turning back to Bogotá for a long delay, making the total trip time equal to the bus with a lot higher and more frustrating price tag.

 

Walk Amongst Giant Palms in Cocora Valley – 1 Day

Palm trees are not often associated with mountain areas, which is what makes Cocora Valley so unique.  As noted, this valley is home to the world’s tallest palm trees, and they aren’t just tall, but astoundingly high and thin often breaching the cloud layer between the ridges.  We took an early day trip here to embark on a loop hike to a high vantage between the trees.  The trail follows the river up a misty valley before climbing sharply to reach the ridge line above.  From here, it wraps around through the forest of palms with sweeping views below to connect back to the starting point.

Maybe it’s the strange mix of seemingly tropical trees with the gorgeous mountain setting or maybe it is the easily accessible and beautiful hiking options, but this area certainly attracts its share of visitors.  An early arrival ensured that we beat the crowds to the trail, although a couple wrong turns and accidental climb up the wrong (MUCH steeper, higher and muddier) mountain helped us lose our lead.  (When hiking counterclockwise, make sure you turn left at the graffitied sign with the large red right facing arrow towards Al PNN Los Nevados or you’ll end up at Estrella de Agua.)  Regardless, we earned our trucha for that night.

Getting to Cocora Valley from Salento

The only way to get to Cocora Valley is via shared jeep, which leave several times daily from the main square in Salento.  The ride lasts around thirty minutes and costs 4,000 pesos ($1.30) each way.  Times are posted on the ticket window but there is no need to book in advance.  They leave when they have at least eight passengers on board.

 

Eat Colombia’s Best Seafood in Buenaventura – 3 Days

If we had to name one place in Columbia that completely caught us off guard (in a good way!), it would be Buenaventura.  That is not because the city is the most pretty, or has the most activities and infrastructure, but because it is contains hands down the best and most unique seafood in the country.  The population is made up primarily of African descendants, giving it a much different culture and cuisine than other parts.

We added this port area on a whim after reading a couple of articles noting that, at best, it was not as dangerous as it once was.  We had planned a quick two night stay, but extended after eating our first meal, Cazuela de Marisco, at a hidden garage in the Centro on Calle 1 where everything is located.  Tiny seafood kitchens abound in Buenaventura, and serve up the freshest and most flavorful fare we encountered anywhere at very reasonable prices.  What’s more, a short trip from the city accesses one of the most inventive excursions available, the brujita moto-rail cars to San Cipriano Park.  There are also nearby and vacant beaches for island buffs, but after an attempted visit, that wasn’t in our cards.  If you are considering Buenaventura, you can find our full account to help you plan your trip.

Getting to Buenaventura from Salento

This route requires two transfers.  First, take a one hour bus from Salento to Armenia, which leaves roughly every fifteen throughout the day.  In Armenia, buy a ticket to Buga which has numerous departures daily.  These buses are heading to Calí, but will drop you off en route.  They do not actually stop at the terminal, so you will need to grab a taxi (which wait at the drop off point) and take it five or ten minutes to the terminal for a few thousand pesos.  There are rumored to be direct buses to Buenaventura, but they are infrequent, unreliable, and require a trip through Calí which is out of the way.  Once in Buga, grab a ticket to Buenaventura (anyone can point the way) from one of the multiple companies driving the route.  Buses leave every thirty minutes.  In Buenaventura, you will arrive at the transport terminal next to the airport which is walking distance from the Centro.  The total trip takes around five hours, sounds complicated, but is actually very simple.

 

Learn to Salsa Dance in Cali – 4 Days

Calí may not be on everyone’s Colombia itinerary, but there is one very key reason to visit: this is the world capital of salsa (the dance, silly, not the condiment).  The whole town is crazy for it and Latin music can be heard pouring from bars and dance clubs everywhere.  It is even one of the main topics of conversation that arise when meeting  homestay hosts, guides and restaurant owners.  Many dance schools offer private or group lessons individually or as part of a multi-class package, meaning that you will be swinging your hips like a Colombian (or flailing your arms like a gringo) in no time.

When you aren’t cha cha’ing across the dance floor, take in one of the local favorite hikes up to Las Cruces or the Cristo Rey statue viewpoints.  These steep hill climbs are nearby the popular San Antonio and Peñon neighborhoods, and offer expansive views over the city.  Better yet, there are a few stands at the top blending up fresh juices and even offering optional protein powder for those planning to dance with a low buttoned shirt.

Getting to Calí from Buenaventura

Simply head back to the transport terminal and buy a direct bus ticket to Calí.  There are only a couple of ticket windows here, so it isn’t hard to find.  There are a few different types of buses, but we opted for the cheapest which was a very comfortable small bus.  The trip lasted between three and four hours, and allowed us to hop out when we reached the Peñon neighborhood along the way, which is walking distance from nearby San Antonio.


Phew!  We just packed a whole month of backpacking in Colombia into one short(ish) post.  We hope that you enjoy this itinerary as much as we did, and we promise that it will leave you drooling for more (ceviche, trucha, cazuela, coffee).  We didn’t make it to the eastern Amazonian and Cerros de Mavecura regions on this trip, but have that pinned for next time.  If you’ve been to these areas, give us your thoughts below!


Did you like this article?  Then you’ll love these other popular posts from our voyage:

Also be sure to listen to our recent appearance with the amazing people who run the Speaking of Travel radio show here!


Are you ready to quit your jobs and go travel?  Get started planning your world trip before turning in your resignation letter.  And just say no to roller bags by packing smart!  You can thank us later.

One Comment Add yours

  1. TheFiestaPlanner says:

    I so want to go to Colombia after reading your post! Itinerary saved! Looks awesome 🙂

    Like

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