We have to start this post off with a bit of a whoops.. As mentioned in our prior post, we jumped the gun and booked our flight from San Jose to Panama and we did the same thing from Panama City to Colombia – when really, we should have sailed!
If you’re wondering why we keep having these seemingly inconvenient flights, in a few words, all of our South American flights are on a single ticket & by doing it this way, it saved us a lot of money & travel time on long-distance buses but it did lock us into the certain dates. Something that definitely has pros and cons.
The reason we mention this is because if your travel plans go from Panama to Colombia do what everyone else does and SAIL, right into the north of Colombia, Cartagena from Panama.
We’ve heard nothing but amazing things about the sailing trip and wished we had been able to experience it ourselves but hey it can’t all be smooth sailing… 😉 Unfortunately, we didn’t receive an upgrade on this flight either.
Colombia at a Glance
Colombia was simply awesome! There isn’t any other way to put it. Although not Colombia’s fault, we were both quite sick during our time there, I had a bad dose of the bed bugs (the WORST) and we both lost (misplaced) more items than we have the entire time we’ve been traveling but there were SO many amazing things about the country to distract us and make up for the “bad”.
Colombians are super friendly, the food is delicious & cheap, the culture is fascinating and the beaches we visited were perfect. The perfect combo!
So many people worry about visiting Colombia (kidnappings, drugs, guns, violence) but these horror days have been left behind and in the past 5-10 years the country has gone through a transformation. It’s really like any other big city, just use your brain and you’ll be fine! One thing we did notice was barely anyone spoke English so it was a good place for us to practice our Span(glish).
Although wishing we had more time, (don’t we all!) we broke our time up in Colombia into the following: 4 days in Bogota, 3 days in Cartagena and 5 days in Santa Marta and its surrounding areas, such as Tayrona National Park.
One city we REALLY wished we had made it too would have been Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city. Although this city in the 1990’s was named one of the most dangerous cities in the world due to the drugs, kidnappings and murder rate, it has slowly become a much safer city and one that is a very popular tourist destination, especially with students. Next time Medellin, next time :). Oh if you speak of this city, it’s pronounced ‘Med-a-gheen’ not med-el-lin.
Getting around Colombia
Colombia is a huge country with the main cities quite spread out. Although everything is reachable by the reliable bus transit system, the distances are long so if you are short for time (like we were) the buses aren’t always the most practical, although they are definitely cheaper. Expreso Bolivariano runs a great bus service and for flying, VivaColombia is Colombia’s budget airline. Just watch out for some hidden costs when booking the ticket, kind of like RyanAir or Spirit airlines.
The town of Santa Marta is mainly used as a base to visit its surrounding areas such as Tayrona National Park. If you come to Santa Marta for a destination in itself you may be disappointed, however, it is a growing touristic town with a huge range of restaurants, bars, nightlife and countless beautiful beaches just a day trip away.
Tayrona National Park – Tayrona is a nature reserve where many tourists & locals go trekking, visit ruins and relax on the beach. We will be posting a guide to camping in the park next as it is by far the most visited attraction closest to Santa Marta. Aside from the National Park, there are 2 towns a short 10/15 minute taxi ride away. El Rodadero which is to the south, and Taganga, to the north. El Rodadero has a lively nightlife with high-end hotels and fancier clubs whereas Taganga, originally a fishing village and is popular with backpackers.
Accommodation + Bloody Bed Bugs!
You won’t be short of accommodation choices in Santa Marta, especially hostels. We would have loved to have recommended the beautiful Masaya Hostel Santa Marta but this is where I was bombed with a bad case of bed bugs. Womp Womp! What an uncomfortable week that was. We hope we never have these buggers again. If you’ve never had bed bugs before, you’re very lucky.
My entire suitcase had to be washed, all the clothes washed and dried on high heat more than once and little bites covered her body like nothing else. Needless to say, we changed hostels immediately and checked in to The Dreamer Hostel. Without this incident, however, the hotel has an amazing rooftop, 2 small pools and a large terrace.
I now have to check every bed, every sheet, every headboard before getting into bed. It’s enough to make someone mad.
If you want a party hostel, stay at La Brisa Loca. All of these hostels listed above are within 2-4 minutes walking distance of each other.
Cartagena is the picture perfect postcard city. The old town was as romantic as it could get, especially at night time and during the holiday period with all of its festive lights & decorations. The colonial style streets, the charming balcony buildings with colourful exteriors really make the city so beautiful. The city itself doesn’t really require much more than a casual stroll, a duck into the many boutique stores, a sunset cocktail at Café del Mar and of course a meal or two at one of the many restaurants or street food stalls.
Accommodation in Cartagena
Similar to Santa Marta, you are spoilt for choice with accommodation, however, it is a little pricier than Santa Marta. We stayed at El Viajero Cartagena Hostel and can highly recommend it. It was cheap, perfectly located, had helpful staff, breakfast included, spacious rooms, A/C and most importantly a fun atmosphere. Options for private and dorm rooms too.
Playa Blanca is the nicest beach closest to Cartagena. We headed down to the Cartagena marina to complete madness one morning and attempted to buy a boat ticket to the island. There are many people selling the tickets so we bargained our way down until we were happy with a price, hopped on the boat and took the 1hr boat ride to the island of Playa Blanca. We really weren’t expecting such Carribean beautiful waters but of course, we were pleasantly surprised and had one of the best days on the beach. Included in the ticket price is a mediocre lunch and round-trip transportation. Remember which boat you came in on, as you go back on the same one.
Chiva Party Bus
Our tour guide from our Central America tour told us to venture out on a Chiva Bus (aka party bus) at least once in South America, so when the opportunity arose in Cartagena we joined in with some fellow travellers and gave it a go. Ha! What a bizarre & unique experience. A colourful open-air bus, driving around the city, filled with locals & tourists, listening to local musicians play whilst we drank. The bus had no end, it just simply drove around the town. It’s something you must experience but make sure you bring an open mind and your party pants, yes it is cheesy but its different!
Food in Colombia
Ah food, glorious food. Colombian cuisine is a blend of European and native ingredients and many dishes include pork, potatoes, chicken, beans, corn and rice. Street food was definitely our friend in Colombia, although we are sure it made us sick at least once. It’s what tastes good at the time right?!
Colombia has a few local traditions, most commonly eaten is the Arepas. It is a flat, round patty made of soaked, ground kernels of cornmeal and is then grilled, baked, fried, boiled or steamed. They eat these mainly with cheese but also come with many different fillings/stacked with toppings. On every corner, we stumbled upon a stall selling “Arepas con Queso”- aka Arepas with cheese. Check out that Spanish translation.
Our favourite place to eat these was at Lulo’s Cafe in Santa Marta, all super fresh ingredients, mouth-watering presentation and cheap prices to boot. If you’re staying at Masaya Hostel, you also get 10% off.
Colombia also has so much delicious fresh fruit! Almost every time we ate fruit it was so unbelievably fresh and also made for the most delicious smoothies, that often went for just $1. Sometimes you had the option to put condensed milk on the fruit salad to add some sweetness. Something I didn’t quite understand but Jacob absolutely loved, and Colombians too. They often served fruit with shredded cheese as well – we couldn’t agree on that one.
If you’re game then you could try a banana stuffed with cheese and meat sometimes too? No thanks!
Stay tuned for our ultimate guide to camping in Tayrona National Park.
I think it’s safe to say that Colombia.. we’ll be back! To sail the islands, visit Medellin, and to eat some more delicious arepas!
Married days survived: 289