Colombia Backpacking Guide [Must-See Places, Costs, Hostels] • Indie Traveller

Everyone still thinks Colombia is dangerous. They think of Pablo Escobar, they’ve heard about drug cartels, they’ve seen Narcos on Netflix and think they know what Colombia is like today.

I get it. The cliche images from the past can take a long time to wash away. But trust me on this: traveling in Colombia is so much fun and it’s so much safer today. In fact, having done almost the entire Latin American “Gringo Trail”, I consider Colombia one of my top favorite backpacking countries.

Plan your Colombia backpacking trip

Why go backpacking Colombia?

Incredibly varied

Colombia just has it all: there are both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts (which are very different), the start of the Andes mountain range, and 40% of the country is covered by the Amazon Rainforest. Colombia’s cities have various climates and characters that make them highly worth exploring.

Variety is really Colombia’s strong point. Within its borders you’ll find anything from lush jungles to dusty deserts. Coastal areas often have an Afro-Caribbean vibe, while higher elevation areas may remind you of indigenous mountainous regions in Peru or Bolivia. Thanks to its geography and diversity you can almost think of Colombia as a South America taster menu.

One thing Colombia arguably does not have: some kind of singular iconic bucket list sight, like Machu Picchu in Peru or Iguazu Falls in Brazil. Some travelers may find this disappointing but I think it’s an advantage: not having all the attention on one overtouristed hotspot makes the Colombia backpacking trail more spread out and more relaxed.

Amazing biodiversity

Did you know Colombia has the world’s second highest biodiversity? (Second only to Brazil, a country 7 times larger!)

The wildlife and nature experience are really on another level. Consider treks like the Lost City Trek, whale watching on the Pacific Coast, or birdwatching in Minca. A lot of people associate Costa Rica with nature activities but Colombia is secretly amazing for ecotourism as well.

It’s not unusual to see a bunch of monkeys in the jungle or a toucan flying past. One time I was taking a long nap on the bus and just as I woke up, a hummingbird hovered beside my window and looked at me as though to say, “hey buddy, remember you’re still in beautiful Colombia?”. It really can feel a bit like paradise at times.

Bursting with culture

The cities of Medellín and Bogota are among the most booming and cosmopolitan on the continent, filled with street art, salsa dance, and colorful culture.

Of course, it’s not surprising that many backpackers want to learn about Colombia’s often dark history — and Pablo Escobar tours are definitely a thing. But you’ll be equally intrigued by life in Colombia today.

Culture and coffee are two ‘c’s that I associate closely with Colombia. The other ‘c’, cocaine, much less so. Many Colombians despise the drug because of what it has done to their country. So, it’s not really a thing unless you were to specifically seek it out. There is enough wholesome cultural interest to satisfy anyone, so coming for drugs (and quite a crappy drug, let’s be honest) is definitely not what traveling Colombia is about.

Easy to travel on a budget

Colombia is not the cheapest in South America but also not the most expensive. It’s actually a better deal than it used to be: the exchange rate with the US Dollar or Euro in recent years has made it about 30% cheaper than it was 7 or 8 years ago.

You can get some great value for money in Colombia. Hostels and guesthouses are quite affordable and food is cheap, especially if you find the truly local places.

A set meal for lunch including soup, a main dish with meat and many sides, and fresh fruit juice will typically cost about 10,000 COP, which is about $2.50. Not bad! Hostel dorm beds typically cost about 50,000 COP, and it’s 100,000 COP and up for a basic private room.

Certain experiences like the Lost City Trek (should you wish to do it) can be fairly expensive, but day-to-day you can manage on a backpacker budget quite easily.

Backpacking routes

Unlike some other countries, there is less of a set backpacker route in Colombia, with different travelers going to different places (or in a different order). Choosing your route can also often be hair-pullingly difficult.

There are just too many great places to go to. If you’re feeling overwhelmed… I’ve been there!

Some countries just make it easier to see the highlights in a couple of weeks. If you’re backpacking Belize you really need just a week; backpacking Nicaragua takes 3 weeks at the most. But Colombia is very big and has such a wealth of destinations that it either takes more time or just more deliberate choices for where to go.

I backpacked through Colombia for 3 months and still felt like I wasn’t done. I can easily see at least another 3 months of experiences that I’d love to come back for.

But that’s also what makes this such a great destination. You get to choose from a lot of different possibilities. It means that different backpackers can end up having somewhat different trips in Colombia.

Because there are so many routes you could take, I wrote this waaaay-too-comprehensive guide to creating your own Colombia itinerary, which also has several sample itineraries you can follow.

It’s a good idea to have a rough idea of the trip you’d like to do, but leave some room to improvise during your trip. You may want to stay longer or shorter in places depending on how much you like them.

Where to travel in Colombia

When looking at a map of Colombia, you’ll quickly notice that most travel destinations are in the west and north.

Why? Well, it’s simple: the eastern half of Colombia is mostly covered by the Amazon rainforest. These parts are not as easily accessible. Most of the travel destinations are in the more populated areas.

In the north of Colombia, you’ll find the old colonial city of Cartagena. It has long been the country’s main tourist draw (even during the bad years, as cruise ships could still dock there). It’s a beautiful place with an old center, albeit touristy and more expensive than elsewhere in Colombia.

The city of Santa Marta is not so notable in itself, but it makes for an excellent launching point for exploring the beautiful Tayrona National Park or for doing the Lost City trek. The nearby town of Taganga is Colombia’s leading destination for scuba diving and a bit of a backpacker hub. The small town of Minca, also near Santa Marta, is a laidback backpacker destination among the jungles and waterfalls.

In the center is San Gil, Colombia’s adventure sports capital. Go here for paragliding, wild water rafting, caving, and more. The center of Colombia is also home to its second-largest city of Medellín, a fascinating place that you definitely shouldn’t skip.

In the south are the capital Bogota, Colombia’s coffee region, the city of Cali (famous for its obsession with salsa), and Tatacoa, a desert where years of erosion have created some unusual landscapes.

The Amazon at the heart of Colombia is super remote and even home to some uncontacted indigenous tribes. If you want to go into the Amazon, flying to Leticia is the most reliable option. This town also has border connections with Peru and Brazil.

How much time do you need?

Honestly as much time as you have. But if you have at least 2 or 3 weeks, you can do a fun route that includes a lot of places.

If you are traveling long-term, then know that the standard visa-on-arrival will give you 90 days in Colombia, so you really can go slow if you want to.

I first got to know Colombia while I was in the midst of a 2-year round-the-world backpacking trip. I loved Medellin so much that I stayed for 4 weeks just in this city, living a mini-life there for a while. I met some backpackers who did the same but in Cali, taking salsa classes every single day for weeks on end while diving into the local dancing scene. This is just to warn you that you can easily get stuck!

In general Colombia is a destination you can take your time in as it has loads of variety and a great atmosphere.

Accommodation in Colombia

What’s the hostel scene like?

The hostel scene in Colombia is extremely good. The quality of the hostels is very high across the board and it feels like they are trying to outdo each other with unique concepts or just having a great vibe.

If you are into younger/party hostels you can find many of them in the cities, particularly Medellin. Some party hostels also exist in Palomino on the coast and in other areas.

Casa Loma Minca

Most hostels are chill/social traveler hostels though with guests’ ages spanning a fairly wide range. Some hostels (for example in Minca) are more like ecolodges, offering individual jungle huts instead of dorms. You can find some specific advice on the best hostels in Medellin and the best hostels in Bogota.