What can you do with three weeks in Colombia? A lot, it turns out, even after spending a week in Cartagena taking a weeklong intensive Spanish course! One of the appealing things about Colombia is that its sheer geographic diversity (beaches! mountains! rainforests) mean that you have have many mini-vacations-in-one, depending on how much you move around the country.
While road travel has only recently become easier, thanks to previously dangerous roads becoming safe for daytime and tourist travel, it can still take a long time traversing Colombia's mostly two-lane roads, many of which wind their way through steep mountain passes along with all of Colombia's truck traffic. So, thankfully for the time-strapped tourist, there are also loads of cheap airfares to choose from, making zipping through the country possible (and affordable).
Even with three glorious weeks, there was still a lot in the country I didn't get to see; I would have loved to visit Minca and Mompox, more of the colonial villages in Antioquia, check out the wild Pacific coastline, do some more mountain treks, and see some Amazon. But, there are only 24 hours in a day, you know? And even with the time I had, I managed to see a lot.
Where I Went
I flew to Cartagena from SF via Panama on Copa Airlines. I arrived on a Friday and left the following Saturday, spending the weekend exploring the sights of the city (namely Bocagrande beach, the Castillo, and some museums), then the week in an intensive Spanish language program at Nueva Lengua. Three hours of grammar and an hour of conversation in the morning, followed by an hour for lunch and then a couple hours of dance class learning salsa and bachata. The program was great, although it was definitely a fast and furious week between classes, homework and exploring the city.
Private mini bus to Palomino: 80,000 pesos
My friend and I arrived in Palomino (about a 5 hour trip from Cartagena) late afternoon and I immediately arranged for a hike into the foothills of the nearby Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. My guide met me at our eco lodge the next morning, and he and I set off for a four-hour walk along the Río Palomino, visiting a Kogi village along the way. The next day, I spent much of the day at the eco lodge before hopping a local bus to Santa Marta to spend the night before the looooong bus rides the next day to San Gil.
Local bus to Santa Marta, 9,000 pesos
I arrived here an hour before sunset and spent my remaining day light trying to get to a BBVA ATM to get cash so I'd have enough for the next day. So, sadly, I didn't have a ton of time to explore Santa Marta, which was a shame because I think it would have been fun to check out the beach and see a bit more of the town. But I had a nice dinner sitting out on the Parque de los Novios before heading back to my hotel to repack and await my 6am wake up time.
Bus to Bucaramanga, 50,000 pesos; mini van from Bucaramanga to San Gil, 16,000 pesos
Getting to San Gil from Santa Marta was not easy; in hindsight it might have made more sense to fly to Bogota from Santa Marta, then do this section of the trip in reverse (and then fly from Bucaramanga to Medellin, where my return flight to the US was slated to leave). Live and learn. Anyway, the bus to Bucaramanga was 10 hours and getting to San Gil took another 3.5. I arrived in San Gil exhausted and cranky; while there was a nearby waterfall I wanted to see, I decided before I went to bed that I'd see how I felt in the morning. When I woke up, I decided to skip and just head to Barichara. The area surrounding San Gil is meant to have a lot of outdoorsy activities to choose from (like waterfall rappelling to white water rafting) and Lonely Planet definitely seems to be hyping it as an adventure sport enthusiast's mecca. If I had had more time, I would have been down to see for myself! Instead, in the morning I had, I wandered the cute little authentic town (there were virtually no tourists and few stores aimed at tourists) and had some coffees before heading on to Barichara.
Bus to Barichara, 4,500 pesos
This is one of Colombia's most picture perfect colonial towns, all its old architecture beautifully preserved. And from Barichara, you can walk to an ever tinier colonial town, Guane, along the old El Camion Real, a cobblestone trail constructed by a German (who else?) in the 1800s. I spent two nights in Barichara before moving on to Villa de Leyva, which was more than enough (there wasn't that much to do in Barichara, and while it was nice to see the town and walk the Camino Real, I'm glad I didn't allow for more time here).
Bus to San Gil, 4,500; bus to Tunja, 10,000; bus from Tunja to Villa de Leyva, 6,500
Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia's other most picture perfect colonial towns, so picture perfect, in fact, that the 2007 telenovela of El Zorro was filmed on location here! And it's not hard to see why. At over 7,000 feet and nestled in a valley with dramatic mountains rising above it, it certainly feels like you've stepped into the land of a time gone by. Villa de Leyva is also a popular getaway town for Bogotá's affluent, and observing the crowds roll in as the weekend progressed was telling. When I arrived midday Friday the town felt sleepy and almost forgotten; by Saturday night the main plaza and restaurants and bars and cafés were spilling over with Colombians kicking off Semana Santa in style. I wanted to go hiking in the famous Santuario de Iguaque but being alone couldn't book a solo trip, so I rented a mountain bike instead and huffed and puffed all around the dirt roads surrounding the town, visiting the nearby Pozos Azules (naturally occuring lakes that are aquamarine in the sunlight) and Museo El Fosil (a museum containing numerous fossils, including one giant plesiosaurus fossil. I also had one of the best meals in Colombia here at Mercado Municipal and a darn good sandwich at the appropriately named El Sanduche.
Bus to Bogotá, 22,000 pesos
Much to my amazement, the roads to Bogotá were some of the fastest I encountered on my whole trip from Santa Marta heading south, as there were two glorious lanes in each direction. We made it to Bogotá in less than four hours, despite stopping along the highway to pick up locals with large baskets and bushels of potatoes and other vegetables they were taking to nearby markets. Bogotá itself is an interesting place; we drove in from the north, which seems quite affluent and modern, and because it was Sunday, there were literally thousands of people out riding bicycles. As I made my way in a taxi from the main bus terminal, however, the more run-down, impoverished side of Bogotá began to reveal itself; let's just say it's not a city I would go wander around in aimlessly. I visited the Museo de Oro, Museo de Botero, Iglesia de San Francisco, and Plaza Bolivar, on my first afternoon, then road the cable car to the top of Monserrate the following morning, leaving just enough time to check out the Colección de Arte and Museo de Arte del Banco de la República before heading off to the airport.
Flight to Medellin, VivaColombia, $50 USD; shuttle from airport to city center, 9,000 pesos
I joined some students from the Cartagena language school for dinner the night that I got in, and had some beers at a nearby hostel before getting some much-needed sleep. The next day, I had a leisurely breakfast and lunch and headed out to the city center from El Poblado (via the city's sleek metro) to admire the several Botero sculptures in the Plazoleta de las Esculturas and get my final fix of Colombian/South American art at the Museo de Antioquia. The next — and, sadly, last — day, I headed off to climb the 700-odd steps to the top of Piedra del Peñol and check out the adorable nearby town of Guatapé, known for the colorful, playful frescoes adorning its traditional buildings.
Where I Stayed
Cartagena: Casa Blanca Hotel Boutique Casa Blanca was a great little hotel, especially given its close proximity to the Spanish school (and when your classes start at 8 am, being able to get to class in literally one minute is something you really appreciate!). While the room was a little on the small side, everything else was great: nice hot shower, comfortable bed, nice closet area, lovely terrace for watching the sunset, nice foyer, delicious breakfast, and the loveliest staff, minus the hotel owner with the sourest expression and demeanor I've ever encountered in the hospitality industry. But. Aside from one or two small complaints, really, this was a great place to stay, very near the old city attractions and close to all of Getsemaní's funky, bohemian charms, which honestly I found much cool than the old city's tourist vibe. ($42/night for the first 3 nights booked on Booking.com; $52/night for the next 5 nights booked directly at the hotel)
Palomina: La Sirena Eco Lodge This place is like stepping into a little slice of paradise, from the gorgeous hibiscus flowers blossoming everywhere to the hypnotic lull of the waves crashing on the beach before you. Our eco cabana was simple and clean, with nice sheets and attractive furnishings, and a large, open air bathroom with a huge stone shower and a compostable toilet! Plus, the lodge's café serves up healthy, delicious vegetarian food in huge portions, often sourcing vegetables from the on-site garden. If you're into chilling at the beach, it would be hard to beat this place for ambiance, but it also makes visiting the nearby area easy as well — I arranged a great day hike up into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and tubing down the beautiful rivers can be arranged as well. ($60/night)
Santa Marta: Casa del Arbol I stayed here for just one night before waking at the break of dawn to take my bus to Bucaramanga. This place was nice, although I was disappointed to find the pool shown in the listing pictures was no more than a wading pool and not suitable for swimming. But, my room was attractive and comfortable with a great hot shower, and it was a very close walk to the nearby Parque de los Novios, where I had a bite to eat. ($54/night)
San Gil: Santander Alemán Terrace Vista It was flashbacks to Southeast Asia all over again with this place — the window of my first room didn't open thanks to soundproofing, but with no air conditioning, it meant the room was about 120 degrees and so stuff you could hardly breathe. I switched rooms to a noisier one (and popped in a pair of earplugs to sleep) and then found my next aggravation was no hot water for the shower. Sigh. There was also no one staying there, which gave the place a fairly sad feeling. (54,000 pesos/night; approx $18/night)
Barichara: Tinto Hostel Tinto Hostel is a lovely little hostel, while my habitación was basic, it was a comfortable two night's stay. (Although again I had no hot water, so it was a brisk-and-barely showered two night's stay.) This place also has a real swimming pool, which sadly I couldn't use because of a thunderstorm passing over during the afternoon when I'd planned to go! The staff was super helpful, though, and had there been more travellers here, it might have had more of a social atmosphere. (As it was, there were about four other Germans staying there, and it's a little uncomfortable to just walk up and be like, "What's up! You guys speak English?" You know?) Anyway, this place is very conveniently located and overall a great place to stay. (90,000 pesos/night; approx $30/night)
Villa de Leyva: Casa La Victoria This is a very attractive guesthouse located just at the edge of the heart of Villa de Leyva, run by — you guessed it — an extremely nice and hospitable woman named Victoria, who humored my numerous attempts to speak Spanish with patience and grace. I had a room with a shared bathroom, which was fine, although again I suffered from a not-very-hot shower (although it was better than the previous three nights). The room I was in had two twin beds and I don't know how two people would have manuevered through such a small set up together, but for one person, it was fine. All in all, a great stay. (108,000 pesos/night; approx $35/night)
Bogota: Hotel Muisca I was originally going to stay at a hostel in Bogotá, but when I was (finally) shown my room, it was teeny tiny, with the ceiling slanted so low I couldn't stay up straight in the room and the lone "window" just a little door that opened into a crawl space in the roof. I looked around and whipped out my phone and found Hotel Muisca on Booking.com and was out of there in five minutes. Hotel Muisca is up a very steep street heading away from La Candelaria but the inside is attractive and welcoming, with decorations featuring artwork and acts from various indigenous groups from Colombia. My room faced the stairs leading up from the main courtyard, but the atmosphere at the hotel was quiet so it was not a huge issue. What's more important is that I had an amazingly hot shower and slept in a soft, nice sheets that night, so I was a happy camper. I definitely liked this hotel, but the walk up the hill is very steep (even for this San Francisco denizen) and with La Candelaria's reputation, it did feel a little sketchy walking up the hill as a lone woman as there were few others around (and from everything I read about Bogotá was not to expect anyone to do anything if you're robbed since it can very easily be a life or death situation ... Yoinks). That being said, I'd still recommend this hotel. ($53/night)
Medellin: Art Boutique Hotel I decided I'd splurge for my last three nights in Colombia, and I'm glad I did, although there are some shortcomings with this particular hotel. The pros? Convenient location for hanging out in trendy El Poblado, really nice bed, great shower, extremely nice front desk staff, good breakfast. The cons were that in trying to create the ultra minimalist chic atmosphere that would befit a hotel named "Art Boutique", it was almost a little too minimal. Like, not enough towels (no bathmat, for one things), a very limited number of toiletries, no soap dish, and not enough light. The walls were either brick or painted a dark grey and the whole vibe felt a bit sad and jail-like, as opposed to clean and art gallery-like. I also was able to score a room on the back side of the hotel which is a must if you want to sleep at night, thanks to the sounds of El Poblado's wild nightlife raging on til the wee hours of dawn. ($90/night)
Have you been to Colombia? Have tips, suggestions, anecdotes, complaints? Leave them in the comments below!