Where to Go in Colombia – The Best Areas in Colombia to Travel on Your First Trip
Traveling to Colombia for the first time and wondering what areas are the best to travel to? You came to the right place! I’ve been to Colombia 10+ times (often for months at a time – I manufacture my swimwear line Watercolors Swim in the country!) , and each time I go, I get to know Colombia a little better. Colombia is breathtakingly beautiful, adventure-filled, and full of LIFE everywhere you look – from its lush Amazonian jungle, to its beautiful tropical islands, to its snow-capped Andes mountains, to its trendy cities and colorful Latin American culture. This country has everything.
So where to start with planning a trip to Colombia?
Here’s my take on the most beautiful must-do’s for your first trip to the country. If you have 9 days in Colombia, or more, I’d recommend hitting three of these regions to make the most of your trip. If you have one week or less, stick to two of the below (I’d do Cartagena and Medellin!)
Cartagena is the jewel of the colonial Caribbean, and easily my #1 must-do in Colombia. The small, coastal historic city was once the has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, and is so breathtakingly beautiful. Lose yourself down cobblestone streets of colorful colonial architecture, bustling plazas, and stunning churches, and explore the incredible local foodie scene, or spend the day at one of the many tropical islands within a stone’s reach.
Where to stay in Cartagena:
It doesn’t get any better than this hotel if you’re looking for where to stay for luxury in Cartagena. This boutique luxe hotel is one of the Leading Hotels of the World and is stunning in every sense of the word. It’s composed of three beautiful white houses, connected with bright clay rooftops, and a gorgeous view of the clocktower, as well as a jaw-droppingly-beautiful courtyard pool.
If you’re looking for the perfect home base to explore the city, Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa is it. The location is awesome – right at the entrance to the old city and right by the boat docks (making it easy to get out to the Rosario Islands for a day trip!). The service was impeccable, and I loved the rooftop pool and the dreamy courtyard breakfast every day.
Jetset’s top 5 must-dos in Cartagena:
This is my all-time favorite bar in Cartagena! 4 stories, agorgeous rooftop, and always a great scene. We had so much fun here! HIGHLY recommend.
Dinner at Carmen Cartagena
My favorite meal in Cartagena is easily Carmen. It has the most gorgeous tropical patio and the food and cocktails are always extraordinary!
Dancing at La Movida
There’s no better spot for dancing the night away in the hippest little spot in the historic district, La Movida is easily the best night club in Cartagena.
Head outside the city walls to Cartagena’s trendy Getsemani neighborhood and check out the beautiful Calle Angosto (a colorful street full of some of the best instagram spots in Colombia), then Kokoa Sushi Wok for some AMAZING fresh sushi.
Day trip to the Islands
While the old town Cartagena is amazing, a trip to Cartagena isn’t complete without a boat ride to the islands. I like the Rosario Islands for an upscale experience, or Baru if you’re looking for a more casual beach day.
Just 35 kilometers from Cartagena (about 45 minutes on a boat), you’ll find the Islas del Rosario, a collection of 30 beautiful tropical islands. Board a boat in the morning, spend the day in the sun, enjoy cocktails and a deliciously fresh seafood lunch, and then head back to the city by sunset. I recommend booking the Islas del Rosario through your hotel, as this is the easiest way to do it! As far as which island to go to in the Rosarios – so far my favorite is Gente del Mar island – pictured here!
Once the murder capital of the world and home to Colombia’s infamous Pablo Escobar, Medellin is now Colombia’s effortless capital of cool. While older generations (or Narcos fans) might associate Medellin with its rocky drug wars past, and be scared off to visit this beautiful city, I can assure you that (today unwarranted) fear of who Medellin was 30 years ago just keeps the prices low for those of us traveling in 2020 and looking for first-world quality at close to third-world prices.
Medellin is an always buzzing metropolis tucked into the stunning Andes mountains, with a breathtaking skyline full of amazing rooftop bars, a huge restaurant scene, and countless adorable street cafes full of tourists and locals alike. Not to mention access to day trips like Colombian coffee tours, waterfalls, adorable pueblos, and more accessible right outside the city. Medellin is completely safe today (of course, like any city, there are areas to avoid – read my Ultimate Guide to Medellin for everything you need to know about traveling to Medellin), and is quickly becoming not only a top South American vacation destination, but an expat haven as well.
Medellin is very budget travel friendly, so has begun attracting a huge amount of American and European expats looking for a cheap cost of living and incredible quality of life. I can attest that Medellin is not only fun to visit, it’s SO livable. While I love Cartagena, it is Colombia’s top tourist destination, and with that you get a ‘tourist’ version of Colombia. You’re constantly accosted to buy something from everyone in Cartagena, and it’s very in-your-face. Medellin is the opposite, it’s effortlessly cool, undiscovered, and being there feels like you’re a Colombian local living your absolute best life, not a tourist on vacation. It’s a city you’ll never want to leave.
Where to stay in Medellin:
Most people will choose to airbnb an apartment in El Poblado – the best neighborhood for travelers. Here are some of my go-to favorites:
My advice is get there while you can – because the tourists WILL start flooding to this incredible city, and likely drive the prices way up – Medellin is easily one of the best cities in South America.
The best hotels in Medellin
Medellin’s newest and chicest hotel is super cool and located right in the heart of El Poblado – Medellin’s safest & most beautiful neighborhood.
Jetset’s 5 Must-dos in Medellin
Guatapé is a super colorful town just outside of Medellin. It’s where many of the locals have fincas – or weekend homes, and where they spend their time relaxing and enjoying life outside of the city!
Another pueblo, a little further away than Guatape (about 2-3 hours) that is a must-see is Jardin!
It’s here you can do a coffee tour, see waterfalls, or just explore the cute little downtown!
Cocktails at the Charlee Rooftop at Sunset
Dinner at OCI.Mde
This buzzy upscale restaurant in El Poblado is always my go-to date night in Medellin. Owned and operated by a husband-wife duo, chef Laura spent eight years at culinary school and working in Europe at several Michelin-starred restaurants, and her husband, architect Santiago, is responsible for OCI’s impeccable interior design. It’s beautiful and the food and cocktails are SO good. Can’t recommend it enough.
3. Santa Marta / Parque Tayrona
Another one of Colombia’s best regions to visit is Santa Marta, located a few hour drive away from Cartagena or a quick hopper flight. Parque Tayrona is a national park about 40 minutes from the city of Santa Marta, covering some 30,000 acres of land and 7500 acres of coral-covered ocean. Think sprawling golden sand beaches and tons of coconut palms meeting thick, jungley rainforests on the beach.
The hike to the best part of the park (San Juan Del Cabo), takes about 2 1/2 hours each way (you can take a horse for part of the way if you choose), and is well worth the hike!!!
Where to stay in Santa Marta
For simple boutique luxury hotel near Parque Tayrona, stay at Casa Tayrona Los Naranjos. It’s only around $150 a night including breakfast (luxury by Colombian prices!) and has spacious rooms, a beautiful pool, and gives you the ideal location to visit Parque Tayrona for the day. The hotel can arrange your visit for you, and will take care of everything!
What should you pack for a trip to Colombia?
Here are some of my favorite picks for Colombia outfits:
Do you need a visa to travel to Colombia?
Nope! A Colombia tourist visa is not required for citizens of United States of America for a stay up to 90 days.
Do I need to know Spanish to travel in Colombia?
Knowing a little bit of Spanish helps a lot when it comes to getting around Colombia. Tourism is relatively new here, so they don’t know a lot of English. Cartagena, of all the destinations in Colombia, is by far the most developed for tourism and much easier to get around as a gringo (even if you don’t speak Spanish) than other destinations in the country.
But it would definitely help to brush up some on your Spanish before your trip (I’m a big fan of using Rosetta Stone for this! Their app is so easy and user-friendly and one of my go-to travel essentials before a trip to a country where I don’t speak the language!)
Will I need a power converter for traveling to Colombia?
If you’re traveling from the US, nope! Cartagena and all of Colombia uses the same power outlets as the USA. If you’re coming from Europe, however, you’ll want to bring a converter ( like this one ) with you.
Can I drink the tap water in Colombia?
Yes! You don’t have to worry about ice or vegetables or anything like that in Colombia. It’s perfectly okay to drink their (very good!) tap water, and I drink it every day when I’m there!