Whether you’re an adventure enthusiast looking for a mountain to climb, a nature enthusiast wanting to explore the vast biodiversity of the Amazon and it’s surrounding regions, or just a beach lover looking to work on your tan, Colombia has a place for you.
Considered the most biodiverse country in the world (per kilometre), you can find yourself in the Andes mountains, Carribean Sea, and Amazon all within a few days. With 142,682.24 km2 of protected National Parks, which makes up a whopping 12.8% of the country. Colombia also leads the world in bird diversity, having more species than any other country.
With its increased popularity and attention due to shows like Narcos (about Pablo Escobar), the country has worked hard to stray from its violent and drug-filled past and create a new reputation for itself. The city of Medellin is a prime example of this, as what used to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world is now ranked as one of the top cities in the world to live (and definitely worth a visit).
Originally founded by the Spanish in the early 1500s, you can still find historical and colonial towns in many parts of the country. The popular Cartagena actually holds 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Being surrounded by both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea gave Colombia access to many parts of the world back in the day, and now gives it unique and different beaches; some great for kitesurfing and others amazing for lounging and enjoying crystal clear waters. Colombia truly has something for everyone.
Nearly all of our trips in Colombia were booked with Know the City. They run tours through Medellin, Cartagena & Santa Marta and are a great resource for finding out what to do in Colombia.
So follow along with our travel guide as we show you how to save money and travel Colombia for Cheap(ish…)
Currency: 3273 COP = 1USD
Region: South America
Our Top 5 Must-Do's
SCUBA DIVE IN TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK
Tayrona National Park in itself is an absolute beauty. Located near Santa Marta, the surrounding beaches aren’t too impressive, but once you enter the park you’ll never want to leave. It’s also one of the cheapest places to scuba dive in the world with the average PADI Open Water course costing about $150 (amazing value!)
ENTER THE WALLED CITY OF CARTAGENA
Officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site, enter the historical zone of Cartagena and take yourself back a few hundred years while you enjoy the old architecture and history of the city blended with the modern twist of restaurants and bars. Walk along cobblestoned roads in the tourist center of the city, and be sure to catch sunset from onthe top of the wall!
VISIT GUATAPE & EL PENOL
If you’re looking for one of the best views in the world head over to the colorful colonial town of Guatape. The surrounding areas were flooded, leaving impressive lakes and views of the entire area. Be sure to hike up El Peñol for the world-famous views. Located just an hour from Medellin, this can be done as a day-trip or for some extra peace and quiet you can stay a few nights!
If you happen to be near Cartagena during the new moon, make your way to Isla Baru to see these glowing creatures come to life. The light is activated when agitated, so don’t be afraid to jump in the water! You’ll create beautiful blue trails of every movement you make. A surreal experience for sure!
RIDE THE MEDELLIN METROCABLE
What better way to see the most romantic city in Colombia than by boat? Most sunset cruises offer unlimited drinks and some food options, so sit back, grab a cocktail, and prepare yourself for some amazing views.
There are few spots in Colombia where you can find pristine white-sand and Caribbean-blue waters, but Isla Baru is one of them! You can take a boat from Cartagena or (recommended) drive there either using public or private transportation. (40 min vs 1 hour). This is also the best spot to see bioluminescence during the New Moon!
Considered to be the answer to Peru’s Machu Picchu, Colombia has the Lost City. You can do 4-7 day treks to reach it, and it’s located just outside of Santa Marta. Tours can run from $250-$1000 depending on the number of days and company, but be sure to do your research as it can either make or break the experience!
The history of Colombia is one of the most interesting I’ve ever learned about. The free tour of Medellin is a great way to be introduced to the city and also learn about the history of both the country and the city from people who actually lived through parts of the most controversial parts (*cough Pablo Escobar cough*). The tour is free but a donation is asked for at the end, but no matter what I promise it will be worth it.
While Medellin was definitely our favorite, Free Walking Tours are also available in Bogota and Cartagena.
I’m not quite sure why exactly the people of Colombia seem to be some of the most artistically talented people I’ve ever seen, but the graffiti here is UNREAL. You can do a graffiti tour in Medellin that highlights more of the cultural struggles and history of the city (located in what USED to be the most dangerous neighbourhood in Medellin called Comuna 13). You can also see artists show off their skills in Bogota with the Graffiti Tour that they offer there.
Although Colombia is known to have some of the best coffee in the world, most of it actually ends up being exported. Because of this, it can be surprisingly difficult to find the genuinely good Colombian Coffee on the streets. One way to track it down, however, is to visit a Coffee Farm (or if you have the time stay a few days in the Coffee Region!). There, not only do you get to try the best coffee of your life, you get to see how exactly it is made and learn about the interesting part Coffee played in Colombia’s complex history.
For the best views of Bogota, head to the top of Cerro Monserrate. You can either hike (1.5 hours UPHILL), take the cable car, or take the teleferico ($7 each way) up to the top. The view is spectacular, especially for sunset, and has markets, restaurants, and a church at the top.
Almost 1/3 of Colombia is made up of jungle regions, and a trip to the Amazon is something out of this world. You’ll see hundreds, if not thousands of different plants and animals not found anywhere else in the world.
The most well-known destination is Leticia, located near the borders of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. But there are many other options. Be sure to bring your bug spray and be aware of the wet/dry season before you go!
A rather new tourist destination on the rise, make your way over in the next few years and enjoy the peace and authenticity of a colonial town located in the beautiful hilly coffee region. Here you can go on hikes to take in the scenery, visit a coffee plantation, go horseback riding, stargaze, bird watch, river raft, or even just people watch.
Budget & Costs
Hostels are easy to find in any of the ‘Touristy’ towns but are very rare outside of them. Expect to pay $6 – $15 a night for a bed in a shared dorm.
You can find budget hotel rooms or private hostel rooms for about $20-25 a night.** There’s also no lack of resorts and upscale hotels in the ‘touristy’ areas.
**Hot Water is NOT a given (especially up north) so do your research if it’s a necessity for you!
While the cuisine in Colombia changes vastly every few hundred kilometers, there are a few food items that you simply have to try during your time in Colombia.
Expect a lot of rice, and a lot of arepas (corn-based flour patties). You’ll find lots of street vendors selling pinchos for less than a dollar (meat and/or veggies on a kebab-type stick). You can find a street burger or hot dog with a side for around $3-5.
Most sit-down meals will cost around $5-6. If you go to a fancy restaurant or somewhere in a good location, expect to pay around $10 per meal. There is also usually an optional 10% service charge at more touristy/upscale places.
For long distance transporation, make sure to check your options becuase unlike most countries, flying might be cheaper than taking a bus between major cities. Be sure to double check luggage allowance, but we’ve found $20 plane tickets from Cartagena to Medellin (vs. a $35-40 12-hour bus ticket)
For long-haul bus tickets you can actually negotiate ticket prices (if your Spanish allows you), but for those who need to sharpen their skills a bit flying might be the best option for you.
Once you’re at your destination, local taxis are pretty cheap, and sometimes cheaper than Uber ($2-3 for under 20 minutes). The local bus will be cheapest ($0.50-1) but try to know at least some basic Spanish and be prepared for it to take at least 3-4x as long because they make A LOT of stops.
You can save a lot of money in Medellin by using Uber. Use this link for $15 off your first ride.
Money Saving Tips
1. Drink Local! (Beer or Aguardiente)
While the food might be cheap in Colombia, the price of alcohol fluctuates immensely. Like in most places, the cheapest way to do so will be going to the supermarket or liquor store and buying the local beer ($0.50-0.75 per can) or Aguardiente ($8 for a 1/2 bottle.. which is enough for the night I promise.) If you’re in Bogota you can also find a fermented drink called Chicha for cheaper than beer, but it is hard to find in other parts of the country.
2. Use the Bus System (sometimes)
Most advertised guided trips are able to be done for a fraction of the cost if you take public transportation instead. In Cartagena, transportation to the beautiful Isla Baru can cost you $25-50 each way (depending on if you choose boat or car). You can actually take the public bus and a moto taxi for a total of $2 each way. It will take a lot longer as the public buses make A LOT of stops, but if money is a priority this can help a lot!
For longer haul trips be sure to check both buses and planes, as we found that SOMETIMES flights are cheaper **be aware of luggage costs** Avianca seemed to be the only airline that allows a bag free on national flights when booked through SkyScanner.com
3. Save Money on Water.
To my surprise, you can actually drink water from the tap in Medellin and Bogota. Save a ton of money by just sticking to water and filling up at any fountain, tap or bathroom that you find. Just make sure you’ve got a good water bottle!
In the other parts of the country, however, drinking tap water is not recommended. Instead of buying water (about $1 for a liter on the street, half of that in Super Markets), we either fill up our 2-stage filtered water bottle or simply use a LifeStraw.
4. Save Money with Technology.
ESPECIALLY in the bigger cities of Medellin, Cartagena, Bogota, and even Santa Marta, Colombians are on their game when it comes to making money through third party apps. AirBnB is huge here, and rather cheap if you are travelling with others. You can rent an entire 2-3 bedroom apartment for the price (or sometimes less than) a cheap hotel room.
You can find a $39 Coupon for AirBnB here.
Do yourself a favor and download a translator as well as most of the best deals will be available in Spanish only. Download WhatsApp as well if you don’t have it already as a way to communicate easily with both people from home and from there!
5. Learn the Language
We’re a big advocate of cultural immersion, which includes learning the language! You’d be surprised just how much money you can save by talking to locals, haggling/bargaining, or even just being given a lower price because they’re happy you’re trying! We found that especially in Colombia, there aren’t that many people who speak English fluently, and while they may want to help you they’re simply unable to due to the language barriers.
By knowing the language you can also find out about local hotspots, directions, and other tips and tricks (usually money-saving) that most tourists wouldn’t know about.
6. Cook For Yourself
If you are staying at hostels (which you should be if you’re trying to save money!!) then always try to find one with a kitchen available. When you’re travelling it can be tiring but this single habit will save you the most money if you can adopt it. Shop at a supermarket (Exito was our favorite) and cook your favorite meals for a fraction of the cost of eating out!