Three weeks Colombia: the ultimate travel route
Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Traveling through Colombia for three weeks? Don't stress out! With this travel route I will show you how you can create the perfect mix of culture, nature and adventure. Add in some practical tips, restaurant ideas and hotel suggestions and you are ready to hit that Colombian road (warning: might be a bit bumpy!).
We start our journey in bustling Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. Then I will take you to the lesser-known South of Colombia where you will first be amazed by the Tatacoa desert before continuing on to the mysterious San Agustín where equally mysterious pre-Colombian figures will be waiting for you. Via the mountains we head west to Popayan, known for its white houses, with an expedition to the Puracé National Park and the sometimes difficult to reach Tierradentro where mysterious tombs lure you into the abyss. We travel by bus to the famous coffee region where the immense palm trees of the Cocora Valley welcome you. Via the colorful graffiti and the modern vibe of Medellín and a pit stop along Tayrona National Park - the tourist attraction par excellence - we arrive at the Caribbean coast. We end in beauty with the colonial splendor of Cartagena, for many the highlight of a road trip through Colombia ....
Day 1 // Your place - Bogota
Your journey starts with booking a plane ticket...
Practical tip: some airlines offer the possibility to fly to Bogota and return via Cartagena. That fits perfectly with this route. KLM offers direct flights to Bogota from Amsterdam. There are no direct flights from Brussels. Bogota is also the most important hub from other international destinations.
Day 2 // Bogota
Bogota is often skipped in its entirety because Cartagena and Medellín grab the most attention, but if this city is you starting point I would recommend staying here for a night or two to catch your breath after such a long flight. If you are looking for some pretty sweet street art and some great food, this is the place to be. You will also be able to see a large collection of Botero's artworks - Colombian most famous artist -, enjoy the best free graffiti tours and discover a number of restaurants that are among the best in the world!
Hotel tip: Casa de la Vega: colonial grandeur at an interesting price setting.
Practical: there is Uber in Bogota! Yay!
Fun to do: Montserrate cable car for a breathtaking view of the city!
Restaurant tip: Prudencia: fancy lunch with local produce.
Day 3 // Bogota - Neiva - Tatacoa Desert
Officially this is not a desert but the temperature there makes you believe otherwise. A hat to protect your head is not an unnecessary luxury!
It is technically a semi-dry tropical forest, with an average of 1070 mm rainfall per year. The peaks of Nevado de Huila (5750m) that surround the desert catch most of the incoming rainfall, keeping the 330 square kilometer Tatacoa dry. The result is an ecosystem that cannot be found anywhere else in Colombia; you might bump into a scorpion or weasel and you can spot around 70 bird species.
Hotel tip: Septima Avenida. This is not a memorable hotel but it is located very close to the bus station which is very useful for on-going travel plans. You could sleep in the desert but because of a tight travel schedule I did not do that.
Practical: If you don't have time to spend the night in the desert like me, it is best to fly from Bogota to Neiva (eg; Easyfly) to spend one night there and take a day trip to the Tatacoa desert. The hotel mentioned here above is within walking distance of the bus station. Once inside, ask for the vans that go to Villavieja. There you can take a kind of tuktuk to the desert or hire a guide with a moped.
Restaurant tip: El Patio: fine dining on the patio of an art gallery (Neiva city).
Day 4 // Neiva - San Agustín
San Agustín is the gateway to one of the most important pre-Colombian archaeological sites in the region. Five thousand years ago, two indigenous cultures lived in the adjacent river valleys. They came together to trade, worship, and bury their dead. About 500 magical statues are scattered in this green environment. There is still uncertainty about their origin. All the more reason to check it out yourself.
Hotel tip: Finca el Maco: eco lodging with only the best local produce.
Practical: from Neiva you can take the night bus (Coomotor) to San Agustín.
Fun to do: One part of the statues is located in a dedicated park. Another part is only accessible by jeep or on horseback. Horse driver Pacho regularly walks around in Finca el Maco. Book a trip through the mountains with him to reveal the most hidden statues!
Day 5 // San Agustín - Popayan
White facades and colonial influences, that is Popayan. Also called the White City in the area. A picturesque town, ideal as a stopover to Cali or the Zona Cafetera. From here you can also do a number of (organized) trips that are definitely worth it!
Hostel tip: Les Balcons hostel
Practical: the road from San Agustín to Popayan (bus Sotracauca or Expreso la Gaitana) is unpaved. Keep that in mind!
Restaurant tip: Restaurante Italiano y Pizzeria. If you are in the mood for a pizza. Might happen...
Day 6 // Popayan - Puracé National Park
I visited Puracé National Park and Tierradentro from Popayan with Popayan Tours. There are probably other options to do this on your way to Popayan, but for a tight three-week schedule this seemed like the best option. Moreover, taking public transportation to these places can be difficult. In Puracé National Park, for example, it is crucial to be one of the firsts to arrive before the big buses.
Practical: bring enough rain clothing and sturdy shoes. It gets soggy quickly. Book with Popayan tours.
Fun to do: the Puracé National Park is home to the Andean Condor, which has been re-introduced to the region through a special breeding program. Three condors now live in the wild. In the morning they are fed and you can admire them up close.
Day 7 // Popayan - Tierradentro
Tierradentro is situated about 100 kilometers from Popayan. You can only get here with a jeep via muddy roads with threatening landslides. Hence our choice to do this with a guide. I strongly advise you not to do this by public transportation. If you get stuck after a landslide it is nice to be able to count on a jeep including a Spanish speaking driver / guide.
A 17-kilometer hike takes you to a world where around 40 tombs await you. It is such a place where you wonder why they built it and how.
Practical: Ask Popayan tours to leave as early as possible. This way, you can do the full trek in one day and visit all the tombs. Not all tombs are decorated. So ask the guards for the 'best' ones.
Day 8 // Popayan - Zona Cafetera
I already wrote an extensive post about the Zona Cafetera, the Valle de Cocora and the coffee plantations. You'll find it here.
Hotel tip: Reserva El Cairo. An old coffee house transformed into an eco-resort. Amazing!
Practical: they get around here with so-called "Jeep Willy's", jeeps. At the little square in the centre of Salento you can get information about the departure times to different locations such as the valley and the coffee plantations.
Nice coffee: Le K'Fee: great coffee and even greater breakfast!
Fun to do: the Valle de Cocora Hike, souvenir shopping in Salento and visiting the coffee plantations!
Day 9 - 10 // Zona Cafetera - Ocasa Coffee Tour - Valle De Cocora
Day 11 // Zona Cafetera - Medellín
Practical: if you don't want to miss your flight, I'd recommend taking a cab to Pereira Airport. We flew with Easyfly to Medellín. We opted for a domestic flight to save time but with the bus it's also doable.
Day 12 // Medellín
Medellín: u must-do on your ultimate travel route. A city in transition, where the inhabitants are proud of their high-end metro network, where one graffiti wall is even more colorful than the other and where the formerly most dangerous neighborhood in Colombia - the Comuna 13 - now encourages young people to be creative.
Practical: most neighborhoods in Medellín are safe to visit but I would advice you to not hang around in the the city centre on your own. I'd recommend a Free Walking Tour.
Restaurant tip: Fidelina: hipster burgers and cocktails in an unusual and above all casual setting.
Fun to do: go out in the Poblado neighborhood. Cocktails and dancing until the early hours! Also nice: take the cable car for a beautiful view of the city. Take the metro to Acevedo and change to the cable car to Santo Domingo on line K (included in the metro ticket). If you want to go even higher: buy a separate ticket to Parque Arví there.
Day 13 // Guatapé
If you get tired of the hustle and bustle of the city, you can relax in the picturesque Guatapé and the nearby 'El Peñol' rock. In the morning you can conquer the steps of the latter for a fantastic view, after that you will move on to the town of Guatapé for a nice lunch and great souvenirs.
Practical: great as a day trip from Medellín by bus. From 'Terminal Norte' you can contact several bus companies for a ticket (bus Sotrasanvicente eg). Buy a ticket back immediately upon arrival! The rock and the town are a few kilometers away from each other, it's up to you to decide in which order you want to visit them...
Best ice cream: Momoto Café: try the chunky coffee ice cream and you will thank me later!
Day 14 // Medellín - Santa Marta - Tayrona Park
Practical: with Viva Air you can easily fly from Medellín to Santa Marta. Upon arrival, take a taxi to the Central Market. There you can take a bus to Tayrona Park. Let the driver or the man who arranges the tickets know where you have to be and they will drop you off at your doorstep!
Hotel tip: Tayrona's Angel Lodge. Within walking distance from the park!
Day 15 // Tayrona Park
I think Tayrona Park is on everyone's Colombia itinerary and it totally makes sense. The perfect combination of lush rainforest and beautiful sandy beaches surrounded by photogenic boulders and palm trees. You can spend the night in the park, but if you are on a tight schedule, stay near the entrance and visit the park in 1 day.
Practical: alternative routes with alternative entrances circulate on the Internet but are not always accurate or up to date. Keep in mind that certain paths can be closed. You can just stick to the basic route, but go to the last point first and finish your hike in the opposite direction. The distances and level of the hike are not that bad! Another tip: the restaurants near the park close relatively early, so keep that in mind!
Day 16 // Tayrona Park - Cartagena
You can't travel from Tayrona to a tropical island on the same day because of boat schedules. Catch a glimpse of Cartagena first before continuing on.
Practical: I got picked up by Juan Bellena/Marsol, at the front door of our hotel in Tayrona. This shared transfer bus stops at several places in Cartagena. Reserve in advance!
Hotel tip: Casa Macia: you can't beat the price/quality and location of this little gem. Bonus: a very sweet photogenic outdoor pool!
Restaurant tip: Interno: In this restaurant you literally disappear behind bars. A reintegration project for women who spend their days in prison and want to improve their lives.
Day 17 // Cartagena - Isla Grande
Practical: Download the folder of Isla Grande with maps.me. You're gonna need this to find your way around here. Before you book a boat trip to Isla Grande, check if this service is included in your hotel booking.
Day 18 - 19 // Isla Grande
A number of Caribbean islands are only a boat ride away from Cartagena. The perfect way to end your three weeks in Colombia. I chose Isla Grande which belongs to the Rosario islands, a beautiful group of islands less than an hour away from Cartagena off the coast of Colombia.
If you want more than sunbathing and sticking to your beach chair, you can explore the island. At first it looks like you can't get out of your resort (there no big roads on this island), but it is definitely possible. The island is small enough to visit in one day. It is so cool see how the locals live here. With just the basics they are very happy here. Love that!
Fun to do: be sure to ask around about the possibility to visit the mangroves and spot fluorescent plankton in the evening. Note: you must go under a jetty with a snorkel mask at night, but it is a special experience!
A hotel tip is missing here because I was not 100% satisfied with mine. Luckily there are several options. So take your own pick ;)
Lunch tip: Sol y Papaya Cocktail Bar: In the afternoon you can have a nice fresh fish for lunch and then drink a cocktail in a brightly colored beach chair.
Day 20 - 21 // Cartagena
I already talked about my love for this fantastic city in a previous post. One golden advice: get lost in the many colorful streets that the city has to offer! My Cartagena city guide can be found here.
Hotel tip: Hotel Mamma. Price/quality/location, just do it! Oh and the breakfast menu contains a lot of choice!
Fun to do: Looking for that famous umbrella street? It's right here.
Restaurant tip: Mardeleva: a very Instagrammable restaurant with the best of what the Colombian coast has to offer on the menu. And with a bit of luck: live music!
Still not sure about Colombia as a travel destination? Then be sure to read my inspirational article.
Colombia - Practical
A valid passport is of course required. Check whether the document is valid long enough, for unforeseen circumstances.
A visa is not required. On arrival, a certificate of consent will be issued valid for a stay of up to 90 days.
Best travel time
The best travel time is from December to March and from July to September. In Medellín a local told me that Colombia is the land of eternal Spring, and that you can travel all year round if you are well informed.
They use the Colombian Peso (COP). At the moment 1 euro equals about 3600 COP, and 1000 COP is about € 0.28 (rate summer 2019 when I was there). Dollar to Colombian Peso 1 USD to COP = 3400. You can easily withdraw money in Colombia but keep in mind that in parks or smaller villages it's not always easy. Large hotels also accept international debit cards.
Tipping is becoming more and more common. In larger and expensive hotels and restaurants even 10 % is added. So pay attention!
Budget is always very difficult to determine. It already starts with a difference in price in terms of airline tickets, for example (I live in Belgium). To give you an idea of my three weeks through Colombia: I'm spent about 2500 euros, everything included.
Recommended but not mandatory. Keep in mind that Colombia still has the Zika virus. Consult a doctor or a tropical institute before you leave.
In Colombia, the main voltage is usually 110 Volt. Bring an adapter/universal plug! A power bank can also be useful in case of power cuts!
In addition to a number of dialects, the official language is Spanish. In big cities they speak a few words of English here and there but I can really advise you to learn some basic words for certain emergency situations! And yes, locals really appreciate it too!
Eating and Drinking
The food in Colombia is tasty but simple. Think potatoes, soup, rice, beans and chicken. You can have the famous arepas (corn pancakes) or the rich bandeja paisa (a dish with rice, brown beans, sausage, fried banana, avocado etc). The coffee is of course of good quality but keep in mind that they don't always serve it. On the coast there is delicious fresh fish and also the fruit lover will find something to his liking in every region. Yummy!