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In this Colombia travel guide, I will tell you about an easy route that is perfect for a shorter vacation. Think of this as a “best of Colombia” trip, giving you a sun-and-fun-filled experience.
If you have 1 week in Colombia, your best bet is to focus on one area of the country. Some popular focal points are Bogota, Medellín, and Cartagena. Each of these cities is unique and lets you explore their surrounding region. This itinerary focuses on Cartagena and the north of Colombia.
1 Week Itinerary
In this 7 to 10-day trip, you can explore the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena, enjoy the tropical beaches of the Rosario Islands, and visit coffee farms and experience the Colombian jungle in Minca.
It includes a bit of everything, it’s easy to do, and it’s in a part of Colombia known for having high safety levels. It’s ideal for first-timers in Colombia, couples, and families as well.
Accommodation and activities can be easily booked through online platforms linked here. In other cases it’s easier to do through local agents (e.g. buy bus or ferry tickets directly at the terminals).
You can follow this general outline:
You can extend the trip by staying two nights in Medellin or Bogota, which will be discussed later.
Day 1 + 2: Cartagena
Arriving in Cartagena, you will be immediately struck by the beautiful colonial architecture and warm Caribbean atmosphere.
But first let’s discuss some logistics. Flying into Cartagena is your best option, as it will allow you to really make the most of your one week in Colombia. When planning your trip, take into account both the cost and travel time required to get from place to place.
The airport is only 15 minutes from the city center and there will be plenty of taxis waiting for you, but don’t let them rip you off. It is often that when Colombian taxi drivers see gringos the price magically doubles or even triples sometimes.
The price should be around 15,000 COP (≈ 3 USD) and might go up a bit more depending on where you’re staying, but no more than 20,000 COP.
To get the full experience and ambiance in Cartagena I recommend staying in one of the beautiful colonial hotels. Casa Morales is my favorite hotel in all of the old town, with its gorgeous colonial-style architecture and modern amenities. You can cool down from the tropical climate in the pool or enjoy your coffee on the private balconies.
Once settled in, head out to explore the city.
The City of Cartagena
Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Spanish settlers and became a trade hub for gold and slaves in the 17th century. The city’s afro-Caribbean influence can be traced to its colonial history.
The town still has many colonial treasures to explore, such as the famous Walled City. With its brightly colored buildings, quaint plazas, and charming cobblestone streets, Cartagena is perfect for wandering around and getting lost on purpose.
So let’s get out there and start exploring!
For Day 1, I recommend doing a tour focused on the Walled City. This will give you some essential historical background but will also help with your general orientation.
You will get to explore all the main attractions within Cartagena’s colonial center, including Plaza Bolivar and San Felipe de Barajas Castle.
A bit further outside the old town (but still within walking distance) is the San Felipe fort, the largest colonial Spanish fortification in South America.
How to book: book this private tour of the Walled City at GetYourGuide, which includes an English-speaking guide and visits to the colonial town plus the lively barrio of Getsemani.
Alternatively, book this private tour via Viator. This includes a shorter walking tour in the old town but you’ll also have a car with driver, so you can see sights further away like the hilltop Popa Convent and the San Felipe fort.
Cartagena is a popular tourist town, so be prepared to be approached by street vendors selling fruit, Panama hats, or souvenirs. Occasionally they do get annoying, but don’t let this deter you from enjoying your time in Cartagena. Simply ignoring them usually works best.
To get away from the hustle and bustle of the street sellers head to the Getsemani neighborhood, which is a colorful area filled with bars, cafes, and art shops.
Head to one of the local spots for a cheeky 15,000 COP (≈ 3 USD) menu del dia. These daily set menus are common in Colombia and usually include a soup, fresh fruit juice, and a main plate with meat or fish and patacones (fried plantain slices). The menus del dia are a fun and inexpensive way to get acquainted with the local food. Alternatively, enjoy my favorite ceviche place, La Cevecheria for some of the freshest seafood in the city.
On Day 2, head to the Totumo mud volcano. This is the perfect activity for kids as they can climb in the mud and run around. Just beware that it gets very messy!
It is about a half hour to the volcano and I recommend taking a half-day tour to make the most of your time in this unique location. There are departures at 7.30 AM and 1 PM. For an early start, consider getting the 7.30 AM tour. You can book this experience at GetYourGuide or at Viator.com.
After getting back into town and washing up — which you will really want to do after having mud in all of your nooks and crannies — you can spend the rest of your day further exploring Cartagena on your own, or hitting up one of its many beaches.
Now is the time if you want to take some snaps for social media. Cartagena has so many beautiful walls with street art, colorful buildings, and antique doorways that make for great backdrops for portraits.
Cartagena is a lot of fun to wander around as there are numerous boutique shops, cocktail bars, and specialty cafes. Colombia is, of course, famed for its fantastic arabica coffee beans — and these days they do an amazing job roasting them as well.
My favorite place for a batch brew or V60 is Café La Manchuria, which also sells its own beans and other artisanal local products.
Craving some beach time? The most popular beach is Playa Blanca, which has beautiful white sand and turquoise water. If you want a more secluded experience, head to Boca Chica or San Lázaro instead. These are much less crowded so you will be able to relax and enjoy the views in peace.
For the evening, head to the top 10 bars in the WORLD which is located in Cartagena. Alquimico is a three-story bar with the best cocktails and is a can’t-miss night out in Cartagena. The afrobeats, reggae and salsa music will get you dancing in no time.
Day 3 + 4: Rosario Islands
After a few days in Cartagena, it’s time to get away from the crowds and head to the Rosario islands. This is a small cluster of islands just off the coast of Cartagena, which gives you a true tropical getaway.
A lot of tourists go to the main island of Isla Grande only for the day, but I do not recommend it. With the beaches in Cartagena being quite crowded, I suggest staying on one of the islands for at least one night. This way you can truly relax and enjoy this beautiful tropical oasis.
The white sand and turquoise water beaches are unmatched by Cartagena, making it the prime spot to kick back and relax or try your hand at water sports like kayaking and scuba diving.
Getting to the Rosario Islands is quite easy. You will need to head to Muelle de la Bodeguita to catch one of the ferries. The ride to Isla Grande only takes around 45-60 minutes, and all ferries depart no later than 9:30 in the morning. The tickets for the ferry range from 55,000 COP to 90,000 COP (≈ 12 to 20 USD). The last ferry from Cartagena to Isla Grande leaves at 09:00 in the morning, and the last ferry from Isla Grande to Cartagena leaves at 15:00.
Considering the ferry schedule, if you did a day trip you would only have 6 hours of fun in the sun, which is why it’s nicer to spend two days there.
Hotel Isla Bella is the perfect place to stay on Isla Marina, an unspoiled smaller island next to Isla Grande, with a range of bungalows located right on the beachfront. You can enjoy waking up each morning to the sound of the waves, swinging in your private hammock on your balcony and taking in the tropical vibes.
Spend your days exploring the island, renting one of the paddle boards or kayaks and hitting the waves, or try your hand at snorkeling and diving in the crystal blue water. And don’t forget to take a sunset stroll along the beach!
And if you’re feeling adventurous, head out for an all-day trip on your own private yacht. You will be able to snorkel, enjoy your lunch and relax on a beautiful beach, all while floating along the big blue sea.
Alternatively, consider any of these Rosaria Island tours which will take you to the best bays and islands.
Day 5 – 7: Minca
After relaxing on the islands, it’s time to head inland and explore Colombia’s lush green mountains.
Minca is a small mountain village located 1 hour away from Santa Marta. It’s one of my favorite places in Colombia, known for its incredible views of the Caribbean and its surrounding jungle.
It’s an ecotourism hotspot, home to some stunning eco-lodges, great hiking trails, waterfalls, and bird-watching spots.
Getting to Minca takes a bit of time and a little effort but it is 100% worth it. You will need to take the bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta, which costs around 80,000 COP (≈ 18 USD). The bus terminal in Cartagena is located on the outskirts of the city, so expect a taxi there from the center to take about 30 minutes. The bus journey to Santa Marta can take 4 to 5 hours depending on traffic. It takes a while, but on the plus side, the journey is pretty comfortable and you’ll get to see some of Colombia’s lovely landscapes from the window.
Once you arrive in Santa Marta, the easiest and most convenient way to get to Minca is by taxi, it takes about 45 minutes and will cost around 80,000 COP. You can also take the local bus, which is much cheaper but will take about double the time.
There are a ton of amazing places to stay in Minca — from high-end eco resorts to more budget-friendly hostels and rentals — but the one place I highly recommend staying is Masaya Casas Viejas.
This beautiful jungle lodge is perfect for those looking to escape the city and enjoy nature in the heart of Colombia. And the infinity pool overlooking the jungle is the perfect place to cool off and relax.
Spend Day 1 in Minca relaxing after your long journey, and take in the beautiful views from your hotel. Consider a walk into Minca town for a meal at the Lazy Cat, some local specialty coffee at Caficosta, or some amazingly yummy artsinal icecream at WAIRA.
On Day 2, you will want to make sure to explore the surrounding area. There are tons of great hikes that lead through coffee fields or up waterfalls, along with zip lines and horseback riding tours for those looking for a little more adventure.
All these activities can either be done independently or can be booked at local agents with no need to pre-book online. If you’re not sure what to do, visit Jungle Joe on the town’s main street where you can gather all the information.
In the afternoon, make sure to visit the Pozo Azul, a beautiful set of waterfalls and two natural swimming holes to cool off in after a day of hiking.
Minca is also a great place to experience many different exotic birds in their natural habitat, making it the perfect destination for birdwatchers. Jungle Joe’s bird-watching tour is incredible, offering the chance to spot the elusive toucan and many other creatures.
And no trip to Minca would be complete without visiting a coffee farm. Colombia is one of the top coffee-producing countries in the world, so do not miss out on taking a tour of one of its many local plantations. You will learn how they make their unique coffee processing and enjoy a cup of their freshly brewed brew.
On Day 3, I suggest either doing more activities around Minca, or to take your chance to see one of the most beautiful places in all of Colombia, Tayrona National Park. This massive 1,200-hectare park stretches along the coast of Colombia and is home to stunning beaches and incredible wildlife.
The most popular way to explore Tayrona National Park is by a day trip from Santa Marta. So you will need to make your way back to the bigger city and head to one of the many tour companies. You can also contact your tour provider and ask if they offer a pick-up from Minca. This is the most popular tour option on Viator, while you can get a similar Tayrona tour through GetYourGuide.
They will arrange for a roundtrip transport and entrance fee into the park, as well as offering multiple different hiking tours throughout the jungle areas inside Tayrona National Park.
Start your day with a quick 1-hour hike through some dense jungle-lined paths until you reach Cabo San Juan beach. This stunning tropical white sand beach is a must-see, and one of the most beautiful in all of Colombia.
Spend the rest of your day soaking up the sun, swimming in the sparkling blue waters, or hiking to some hidden spots around Cabo San Juan beach.
I recommend getting to the park as early as possible, as the beaches and trails will start to get more crowded as the day goes on. So make sure to wake up early, pack a picnic lunch with some fresh fruit, and enjoy your last day surrounded by untouched nature.
Extending to 10 days in Colombia
If you can extend your time to 10 days in Colombia I highly recommend visiting the city of Medellin. As so many international flights leave from Medellin to places around in the world, it is a perfect place to stop and take 2 extra days before heading home.
Medellin was once the most dangerous city in the world but is now a bustling metropolis full of interesting architecture, incredible museums, friendly locals, and so much more. Due to its tumultuous past, it’s the best place to learn about Colombia’s recent history. The Real City Tour Medellin is extremely informative and eye-opening.
You can also wander through the street-art-covered neighborhood of Comuna 13 on your visit, as it is a truly unique experience. This will give you a taste of what Medellin went through and how they have come back better than ever.
Alternatively, if your flight is via the capital Bogota, you can use your two extra days in Bogota to visit the impressive Gold Museum, the Botero Museum, and take a walking tour around the old city. Neither Bogota nor Medellin are beautiful like Cartagena, but they can show you a lot more about Colombian history and culture.
10 days is a perfect trip length for Colombia if you want to experience the coast, the jungles, and explore one of the major cities.
But whether you have 1 week or 10 days, Colombia is the perfect destination for a jam-packed trip, as this Colombia travel guide has hopefully demonstrated. It is an unforgettable country, so don’t miss out on this amazing opportunity to explore one of the most beautiful countries in South America.
Travel Tips for First-time Colombia
Do you need a visa for Colombia?
No visa is necessary as most countries are granted 90 days in Colombia without a visa.
Is Colombia safe?
Colombia is generally a safe country. While there may be some risks in certain areas, with common sense and a bit of research you should be able to enjoy your trip without any issues. It’s become a huge tourist destination in recent years and has become very safe for visitors to enjoy their time here particularly in the known tourist spots.
You can read more Colombia safety information here. The old city of Cartagena, Minca, and the nearby beaches and islands covered here are known to be secure and headache-free.
Do you need to know Spanish?
While knowing some Spanish can be helpful, it is not absolutely necessary to enjoy your time in Colombia. There are plenty of English-speaking locals and many tours specifically designed for tourists in the country.
However, learning a little bit ahead of time or using a translation app can help you navigate the city and communicate with locals.
What plug type is used in Colombia?
The plug type in Colombia is the standard North American style with two flat prongs.
How to pay for things in Colombia?
The most common options for paying for things in Colombia are by cash or credit card. Many businesses are now accepting major credit cards, but I recommend always having cash as many local places and taxi drivers only accept cash.
There are plenty of ATMs all over the country and you can find ones with low fees making it easy to withdraw cash.
The local currency in Colombia is the Colombian peso. The Colombian Peso is a very high denomination currency, but 25,000 COP is the equivalent of only about $5.
At first, it can seem insane when a taxi driver tells you your ride is 10,000 COP, but you will quickly get the hang of the currency and it won’t seem as daunting.
When’s the best time to go?
The best time to visit Colombia is from December to February when the weather is generally mild and pleasant with hardly any rainfall.
However, this is also the peak tourist season in Colombia, so if you want to avoid crowds and higher prices, it may be best to travel during the spring or fall instead.
Regardless of when you go, with its natural beauty and vibrant culture, Colombia is sure to be an unforgettable experience.
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Posted FEB 15, 2023