Colombia was my first (and currently only) visit to South America. And when my friends visited in 2014, it still wasn’t a very popular place for Americans to visit. Most people I told about my trip were excited, though there were a few who were convinced I would get kidnapped. But Colombia had gotten much safer and we were not worried about safety during our trip (for the most part).
We had two weeks in Colombia and spent a few days in four places: Bogota, Santa Marta, Cartagena, and San Andres. I would have preferred to have spent more time in Bogota if possible, exploring the vast city. And if I could have had another week in Colombia, I would have gone to Cali and Medellin.
It seemed like every city we visited felt safer than the previous one, and we also became increasingly used to the ways that things work in Colombia (and I think most South American countries). We were vigilant and aware of our surroundings, we used our Spanish when we could, and we often fooled locals into thinking we were Argentinian or Brazilian…before they guessed American. As four women traveling on their own, however, we never really felt uncomfortable here and the Colombians were incredibly warm and welcoming.
Before we left for Colombia, we crowdsourced a lot of information from Colombians living in the US – here are some of their tips:
– You should definitely eat empanadas and bunuelos some morning. Hot chocolate (simply called “chocolate” is also a very good option for breakfast, rather than coffee. And arepas are delicious too.
– Drink “aguardiente” which is the Colombian liquor. You can order a half bottle (“media” or “media botella”) and have some shots, if you’re looking to get wild. Local Colombians typically drink Aguila as the brand of their beer.
– Dance. Just dance. If you go out and there are people dancing and you are not sure how to dance cumbia or salsa, just get on the floor and dance. Nobody judges. In fact, people will probably join and demonstrate a step or two.
The only time we ever felt a little less safe in Colombia was around our hotel in Bogota, in La Candeleria neighborhood. It’s a bit of a seedy area (think 90s New York East Village), and it’s not recommended to walk around at night (Take cabs!). Recommended to have your hotel or restaurants arrange safe taxis for you, this will ensure that a legit cab comes (ie don’t pick one up on the street). When the cab arrives, you will have a code to verify with them to ensure they are the right car. Now I have never heeded the Rick Steves’ advice about wearing a money belt on any of my travels, but in Colombia we wore money belts while in Bogota just to be safe. During the rest of our trip, we didn’t really worry about this as much.
We visited Bogota in early July and it was chilly there! Because it’s in the mountains, the temperature is rather mild all year long so plan accordingly! The rest of our destinations were much warmer.
We flew directly into Bogota from New York, there are quite a few flights from the US as my friends were also able to fly in directly from LA and Atlanta. We had arranged a transfer with our hotel to ensure that we arrived safely in the city.
Where to Stay:
We stayed at Hotel Casa Deco in La Candeleria. This was a good location for proximity to various sights and within walking distance to most places. While La Candeleria is a good area to be close to most major tourist attractions, it’s not the nicest area and tourists need to be aware of their surroundings while walking around (especially at night). Our hotel was very good: breakfast was included (this was just ok really – croissants, eggs, pancakes, juice). There is a guitarist at breakfast which seems nice in theory, but is actually loud and carries upstairs to the rooms early in the morning. We opted out of breakfast at the hotel a few mornings… The staff was very helpful, spoke good English, and they always arranged safe taxis for us and helped us get around. The hotel has a small roof terrace which is perfect for having a beer in the evening.
Things to Do:
Montserrat – Go up there for tremendous views of Bogota. The city is sprawling and you can’t really understand the vastness of it until you come up here. Take the funicular up there ($8000 COP per person). The trip up is nice, but the views at the top are incredible. There are some cafes at the top, you can take your time while you are up there just walking around the old buildings and statue gardens. It is recommended to take the tram rather than walk all the way. Apparently there are people hiding out that may rob hikers going up there (more typical on weekdays than weekends).
Museo de Oro – Gold museum in La Candeleria. We were pretty tired and didn’t spend a lot of time here. Lots of gold artifacts to check out (obviously). Not very expensive to enter ($3000 COP) so didn’t feel like we had to spend a long time here.
Botero Museum – You will see Botero sculptures/art all over Colombia’s cities (there are quite a few in Cartagena), but you can also check out more art at the official museum in Bogota
Bogota Graffiti Tour – Highly recommended! Sign up via email or on the website. This is a great way to see La Candeleria, and learn about the history of the area and the community there now. Ray, our guide, was really informative. He took us into an artist space where many of the local artists hang out, and introduced us to people walking around. We felt like we really got to know this little neighborhood where we were staying. Not only do you get to see some amazing street art, but you will also learn about the politics behind the art and why it’s able to survive in the area. Tour is free but recommended to tip at the end.
Eating & Drinking:
Dos Gatos y Simone – In La Candeleria, mexican style restaurant. Large portions, very good all around, was really crowded at lunch.
Sant Just – Cafe in La Candeleria, around the corner from Dos Gatos y Simone. Think we came here a few times. Cute spot, good espresso drinks
Ajica – this is the traditional soup in Bogota, definitely find a place to try this. It’s a potato soup with chicken, capers, corn, and avocado.
Mini Mal – in Chapinero. Came recommended, very hard to find in our cab! THe food was so so, not incredible which was surprising given the reviews. The app we ordered – plantain balls with crab – was delicious. We ordered a few of the seafood dishes, none were all that amazing but generally good food.
Andres Carne de Res is a restaurant/night club for steak and dancing. Suggested to make a reservation early in advance. Then eat and stay to party like crazy. There’s also related Andres DC, which is more like a restaurant-bar atmosphere, and another called Plaza De Andres which is like a little shop with very typical colombian food: patacones, empanada, arepa de chocolo, juices, etc. If you go in the afternoon or evening, Andres DC is better because it has a good atmosphere.
Good places to drink: Mink, Pravda (Martinis), Isola, Cabrera. If looking more on the pub-ish side: El English Pub or BBC (Bogota Beer Company)
To party: Kinky, El Marquez, Bendito o Fulanitos
Zona G: An area specialized in restaurants (“Zona Gourmet”) which is between Calle 72 y 60, around Carrera 7. Has tons of restaurants of all kinds. One good one is called El Gordo, which is small but has great food and burgers.
Parque de la 93: Similar to the “pink zone”. It is around Calle 93, surrounding the park and has many places to eat and drink. Close to the park is a hotel called Click Clack with a great terrace bar called Apache. There are very good burgers near the park at a place called Burger Market.
Usaquen: Located between Calle 116 and 120, around Carrera 7. It is like a little neighborhood next to the Centro Comercial Santa Barbara. It is very cool to walk around the park, church, etc. On Sundays there is a flea market. There are good restaurants including La Mar (peruvian/ceviche), Bistronomy (led by a famous chefs the Raush Brothers; recommended are the chorizo meatballs with dates, and risotto croquettes), and Gigi’s (more informal, but great wine).
Zona T: The “pink zone” in Bogota. It spans from Calle 85 – 82 between Carrera 11 y 15. T street is a street with many bars, restaurants, discos, etc. There are some good shopping malls/areas there: Andino, Atlantis.
On to Santa Marta
The whole reason to visit Santa Marta is to visit Parque Tayrona. This is a giant national park, you can visit for a day trip or camp in the park. We opted for the former and gave ourselves some time to just hang out in Santa Marta. BUT there isn’t that much to do…We were there during the World Cup and were able to watch what happened to be the final game in the center of town. This was an incredible experience, despite the loss, and we were excited to be able to cheer on Colombia!
Getting There: We flew from Bogota to Santa Marta and was a short flight. You can also travel via bus, but the trip takes a very long time and could also be less safe. Copa Airlines offers flights around the country.
Where to Stay:
We stayed at Casa Carolina which was a relatively new hotel in Santa Marta at the time (open since Nov 2013). Beautiful pool in the center of the building. We stayed in the loft room which was on the top floor and had a private terrace. The loft had a kitchen, one bedroom, and then a living room with a large sleeper sofa. The space was really nice, but I don’t know if we really got as much use of all of the space as we could have. The hotel was pretty empty so we didn’t really need our own terrace or our own kitchen area. Also, it was really windy at night, so so loud it constantly sounded like a hurricane was coming at us. One night we even had the power go out (this was across the city and apparently happens all the time). The staff at the hotel was amazing and super helpful. They picked us up at airport and arranged transfer to Cartagena for us when we left. There were also free 30 min massages when we arrived and happy hour everyday from 5-7!
Visiting Parque Tayrona:
It is possible to stay in the park, either in tent or cabins. There are these EcoLodge places in the park, but I think they were pretty pricey for essentially sleeping in a hammock. So we opted out of that and stayed in Santa Marta proper (also I didn’t want to die from mosquito bites). The park is a rainforest, but when we were there it had been a very long drought so the park was pretty dry (and not bad with bugs).
We had to figure out our way to the park on our own as there weren’t really organized tours or anything. We were going to take a taxi from the hotel to the bus station (5000 COP for taxi, 6000 COP for bus), but our cab driver offered to take us to the Parque for 15,000 COP each (4 people) which seemed like a good deal. The trip took about 45 minutes and the cab dropped us in front of the entrance. At the entrance, there is a bathroom (a rough one) and a little shop so you can pick up any extra stuff for the trip. We had brought snacks with us since we knew there wouldn’t be much available in the park. Entry fee is 42,000 COP for non-Colombians (as always, it is more expensive for tourists). You also have to pay 2000 COP for the van that takes you slightly further into the park (it’s a quick ride but would probably take at least 30 min to walk). We arrived at the park around 10am, but after all this it was 11am by the time we started the hike. The hike overall was pretty easy, but it was so so hot. Mostly flat walking, not much climbing. Before we set out, we decided on La Piscina as our destination as this was supposed to be good for swimming and pretty calm. Many of the other beaches were labeled rough water/not for swimming. The hike to La Piscina took about 90 min. The beach was amazing – super chill, not a lot of people, beautiful water, and very calm. There was a small restaurant, but no bathroom at this beach though we had seen one at the beach just before La Piscina. You could find shade among the trees at the beach and it felt a little.safer than the other beach we saw on our way.
The park closes at 5 pm so we had to leave by 3 to make sure we had enough time to get back for our bus back to Santa Marta. We made it back to Canaveral area by 4:30 (this is where the buses drop you in the park) and there we found a van that would take us directly to our hotel for 15,000 COP per person. Of course the driver was trying to get as many people in the van as possible which was not very pleasant (this is something we saw a lot in Colombia).
Beaches – We wanted to visit a beach one day and after doing a lot of research, we didn’t feel like there were great options. We found one that was accessible by taxi and located within Parque Tayrona called Bahia Concha. We took a taxi to get there, which cost about 50,000 COP. The road to the beach is a little rough, and when you get there don’t expect anything fancy. It’s very basic amenities: you can rent a tent area (negotiate!) for 30,000 COP. The tent is basically a tarp and some sticks. We didn’t get any food there as it didn’t seem worth the money (so bring snacks). The beach was populated with locals, mostly families. Felt generally safe, but keep an eye on your stuff just in case (ie we were pretty much the only gringos there). There were people walking around selling stuff, etc but not as annoying as expected after reading the reviews. We really enjoyed our time at this beach, but were nervous that our cab driver wouldn’t return and we wouldn’t have a way of leaving (and we didn’t have a working phone). Fortunately he did come back and we made it back to our hotel for another 50,000 COP.
Eating & Drinking:
There was not much in Santa Marta, we had dinner at our hotel one night because we were too tired to look for a place to eat.
LamArt – Peruvian fusion. Waiter spoke great English, food was delicious. We had a fish app (tiradito) which was incredible, as well as some risotto with shrimp & mushrooms, some cocktails. Located on a small, bustling side street with a few other restaurants.