12 Excellent Things You Can Only Do In Colombia
It's a dream destination for the budget-conscious adventure traveller.
When thinking about Colombia, the most inspiring part is this: Colombians want you to visit. It’s common for locals to stop you in the street to say, “Welcome to Colombia”, “Please tell your friends to visit”, or “I hope you are enjoying our country”. It’s a refreshing change from its Central and South American neighbours who are growing a little tired of the “gringo” stampede.
Colombia is friendly, fun and truly beautiful. Matched with reliable road transport, budget domestic flights and an abundance of hip new hostels, right now it’s a dream destination for the budget-conscious adventure traveller.
After 70 years of devastating war and violence, South America’s north-west tip was left torn and tattered, with a reputation that will take decades to shake. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. After all that it has painfully endured, Colombia has awoken, and on offer is a kaleidoscope of natural diversity, cultural essence and, most of all, a damn good time.
So to help you on your way, here are just 12 of the country’s most unique traveller experiences.
#1 Swing High On This Extremely Large Hammock
Sitting atop the Sierra Nevada Mountains near the village of Minca, Casa Elemento is where you want to be for some serious chill time. Accessible only by motorbike or jeep, Casa Elemento is a remote farmhouse hostel with views to die for.
By day, lie by the pool or take a jungle hike to your choice of waterfalls. By night, chill by the campfire or sip rum at the bar. But the highlight is two gigantic (and we mean gigantic!) hammocks – one of which is a also swing. They jut out over the mountain’s edge leaving you suspended in the heavens.
#2 Paintball At Pablo Escobar’s Mansion
Dubbed “the famous criminal” by locals (making money from his legacy is still considered somewhat controversial), Pablo Escobar’s lakeside mansion on the outskirts of Guatapé lies in ruins after CIA raids and bombings (AKA Episode 10 of Narcos). The maze of overgrown gardens and crumbling walls provide the perfect duck-and-weave setting for a bad-ass game of paintball.
#3 Sleep In A Floating Hostel
This solar-powered hostel sits among the San Bernardo Islands, a few hours from the beautiful walled city of Cartagena. Surrounded by nothing but calm tropical waters, Casa en el Agua (or “House on the Water”) is a secluded slice of island life that will have you hook, line and sinker. Not to mention the photos. Oh my, the photos.
#4 Climb A Big Pet Rock
Also in Guatapé, two hours from Medellín, is a mammoth rock with stairs to the summit that are nothing short of an engineering marvel. Walking up 740 steps will take you to the top of La Piedra (or “The Rock”), a totally strange formation extruding from an otherwise flat lakeside landscape. It’s well worth the climb for a postcard view over a maze of islands below.
#5 Serene Tubing
This is not Laos, this is Colombia. There are no floating beer-sellers. No rope swings. No crowds. For a few Aussie dollars, you’ll ride into the jungle on the back of a motorbike, where you’ll be handed a tube for the day.
Jump into the steady rapids of Rio Palomino wearing only your swimmers and carrying nothing but a plastic bag of beers. Peacefully float at your own pace for two, three, maybe four hours through the dense jungle, stopping at sandbars and bridges along the way. You may not see another soul all day.
#6 See These Perfectly Mirrored Beaches
Tayrona National Park is one of South America’s true beauties. The protected coastline area is buzzing with monkeys, butterflies and brightly coloured lizards. It’s jewel is El Cabo, two picture-perfect white sand beaches which mirror each another almost perfectly.
If you arrive early, you can score yourself a hammock for the night in a famous cabana overlooking this mirror-image view.
#7 Ride Slide The best Public Transport System
Medellín has the most fun and most scenic public transport of any city, hands down. Slides, outdoor escalators and cable cars included, it’s like a giant game of snakes and ladders.
What was once the world’s most dangerous city is now a safe and mountainous metropolis; the change due, in part, to an innovative and entertaining transport system that improved accessibility for isolated communities.
Two separate cable car lines connect to the metro train system – they stretch high and deep along each side of the valley, offering a bird’s eye view over mountains and sprawling suburbs below. Grab a metro ticket and get on it.
#8 Walk Among The World’s Tallest Palm Trees
Growing as high as 60m, these wax palms seem out of place in the rolling farmland of Colombia’s coffee region. The towering trees are scattered throughout Valle de Cocora, and walking among them you’ll feel the size of an ant.
When the sun is out, the entire valley glows green. On a darker day, the tops of the palms disappear eerily into the clouds. You can get there from Salento via a short jeep ride and a (very) poorly-signed hike. But the reward is rich. You won’t be able to put your camera down.
#9 Absorb The Best Latin American Street Art
Dare we say it? Colombia’s capital gives Melbourne a run for its money. Everywhere you turn, Bogotá’s streets and alleys are decorated with world-class street art. Some depicting political and social issues and indigenous culture, and some gigantic government-commissioned murals.
After police devastatingly shot a 16-year-old artist in 2011, community protest saw Bogotá City Hall dramatically change its attitude. The city’s walls are now it’s pride and joy, and the Bogotá Street Art Tour is the #1 thing to do on your visit here.
#10 Try Your Hand At Colombian Coffee Farming
The high altitude of the mid-west has made Colombia the world’s third-largest coffee producer, so no trip to Colombia would be complete without a visit to a coffee farm – and there are plenty to choose from.
While you’re in the coffee region south from Medellín, be sure to explore the cute country village of Salento or it’s lesser known but more picturesque sister town, Filandia.
#11 Get Muddy In A Volcano Crater
A slippery ladder takes you 15m down into a volcano crater with a mud bath fit for a king. Packed full of minerals that are great for your skin, a float inside Volcan de Lodo El Totumo – a 45-minute drive from Cartagena – will leave you vibrant, glowing and downright dirty. Just don’t wear white.
#12 See The “Fat Mona Lisa”
Fernando Botero is Colombia’s most-idolised art figure. A sculpture and painter, he become talk of the art world in the ’60s for his eccentric still-life and portraits.
The best place to see his disproportionate masterpieces in the flesh is Botero Plaza in his home city of Medellin, or the Museo de Botero in Bogotá (which is free to enter) where amongst a larger collection, his voluptuous interpretation of the Mona Lisa is on display.
(All images author’s own, except where specified. Lead image taken at Casa Loma)