Travel Tips: Colombia

General Thoughts on Colombia

I, along with everyone else I have ever met who has traveled Colombia, loved it. I spent a bit more than three months there. The people are great, the country is beautiful and there is plenty to see and do. Crime and the FARC aren’t the problems most people assume and, aside from the big cities, Colombia seemed safer than many places I have been in Latin America. There was crime to be sure in Medellín and Bogotá, but not out of keeping for cities their size and I never heard any stories of violence involving tourists. If you’ve heard that the women in Colombia are beautiful, they are – but really only in Medellín, where there truly is an unusually high percentage of beauties. I heard Cali has many as well, but I never went there. I couldn’t speak to the attractiveness of the men. My biggest general annoyance (there aren’t many) was the bus situation. Basically, you have to haggle to get good prices on the buses, and, like everywhere, you often are misled about the time a bus is actually leaving and how long the trip will take. A general rule of thumb is to pay about 5000 pesos per hour but that can vary a lot depending on your bargaining ability and how competitive is the route you are traveling. Also note that in my experience very few hostels or hotels actually employ English speakers, and the general availability of English speakers on the street is also low, so brush up at least on some basic Spanish. Finally, you will usually see a free little COLOMBIA booklet in the various hostels. It is produced by the Colombian Hostels association and has some useful information all in one convenient booklet.

Note: The places listed below are in the order I visited them, starting in Cartagena after taking a boat from Panamá and ending in the border town of Ipiales.

Cartagena

Lodging

I stayed in two places in Cartagena. The first was San Roque, though there are two and I can’t recall if it was Hotel San Roque or Hostel San Roque. It was around the corner from the second place I stayed, Casa Viena, and right next to a church. It had fans instead of A/C but each bed did have its own fan. Not much English spoken and no other foreigners that I noticed, but I liked it anyway. I was with a group and they all wanted to find a more popular spot, so that’s how I ended up at Casa Viena, which along with Media Luna, is probably the most popular hostel. I looked at both and frankly don’t think either deserve such popularity. Casa Viena was a good source for information and seemed to be the place to go to book a tour to the mud volcano, but I found the dorm with A/C to be hotter than the San Roque with private fans since the fan was turned off at night and the A/C didn’t work that well. It also was only turned on later at night and off again in the morning. As for Lonely Planet’s top pick, Casa Villa Colonial, a couple I know stayed there and were very happy with it. So, I recommended it to another couple I met on the Lost City trek and they later told me it was good as well. Finally, I did look at a hostel down the street (same street) from Casa Viena which seemed quite nice, though more popular with Colombian travelers than foreigners. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name but it I believe it is in the same block as Casa Viena and on the other side of the street.

Other

I only stayed a few days and mostly spent that time walking around the old town. I didn’t do the mud volcano (Volcán de Lodo El Totumo) but heard mixed reviews. One thing I heard about it was a warning for the ladies – apparently, you are hunted by people trying to give you a massage, and they want to take off your top to do it. You are covered in mud, but you are also surrounded by a ton of other tourists so if that doesn’t sound so great be warned. I didn’t meet anyone who went to Islas del Rosario but some folks I met did go to Playa Blanca and seemed to like it there.

Note: in Spanish, the walled part of Cartagena is known as “ciudad amurallada”).

Santa Marta

Lodging

I stayed in the Brisa Loca hostel, which has gotten some rave reviews. I found it very ordinary. Certainly nothing wrong with it, but nothing special either, despite it having a somewhat lively bar (a negative for me) and a swimming pool (out of order the two times I stayed there bookending my Ciudad Perdida tour). I also heard some negative things about some of the other hostels, one in particular that I can’t recall. On the other hand, everyone I have met who stayed at the Dreamer Hostel raved about it.

Other

Most of the Lost City tours are priced the same at 500,000 pesos, regardless of whether you do the 5-day or the 6-day version. I did hear from one couple that they were able to bargain for a lower price (either 420,000 or 450,000, I forget which) but I don’t know how likely that is. The Mexican restaurant located below Brisa Loca gets rave reviews and I did find the food to be excellent, but extremely pricey for Colombian standards.

Taganga

Lodging

I didn’t stay in Taganga so I can’t speak from personal experience. But, I met multiple travelers who said very complimentary things about La Casa de Felipe.

Other

Even if you opt to stay in Santa Marta, as I did, Taganga is a short collectivo ride away and worth a visit. Apparently, the restaurant at Casa de Felipe is excellent so that might be a worthwhile activity during a day trip. I also heard there is some place to surf near Taganga but I don’t recall the name.

Valledupar

Lodging

I don’t think there are too many options in town that are geared toward backpackers, but the main one, Provincia Hostel, is a very nice option, most notably because of the great staff working there and the free use of bicycles. It also has one of the better equipped kitchens I have seen in a hostel (possibly because the staff use it extensively as well).

Other

Vallepuar, the birthplace of Vallenato music, is not a place many tourists bother to visit (it isn’t even listed in the Lonely Planet South America on a Shoestring version), but it is a very pleasant little town with a few interesting things to do, including some good swimming holes and a somewhat remote indigenous village.

Mompós (a.k.a. Mompox)

Lodging

I stayed in La Casa Amarilla, recommended by Lonely Planet. First, I can say that it is indeed a beautifully restored old colonial house. The top floor terraces and the roof do have very nice views. And, the private rooms really seem more like hotel rooms than private hostel rooms. Strangely, the same cannot be said of the dorm rooms, which have four beds crammed in together so tight that it is hard to move between some of them. They really should be three bed dorms. Also, there are TVs in every single private room but not in the dorms. Not a big deal as there is a TV room, but it is a strange juxtaposition. Also, while I was there the staff or relatives of staff seemed to be watching the common area TV mostly. I rarely watch TV so this isn’t a personal complaint as much as a warning for others. Finally, many private rooms have air conditioner units (an extra fee must be paid to use them) but none of the dorms do.

The worst thing about Casa Amarilla is the woman who runs it. I don’t know if she is the owner or not. While she is not in any way mean, she is not in any way friendly either. But, what makes her horrible is the constant stream of misinformation or simple lack of information she provides, mostly about transportation options. This is compounded by the fact that she doesn’t speak much English. I had to help translate for a few other guests and it was just ridiculous. The thing to realize, which isn’t her fault, is that transportation options out of Mompós are limited, with I believe the last public option out of the city around 11 a.m. Some guys who seemed to be working there told a guest that she had to catch a bus out at 6 a.m. in order to get to Santa Marta. That seemed like complete BS and they were laughing while saying it so I asked about 10 times if they were joking or serious and they kept saying they were serious. Later at dinner we asked the guide of a big tour group and were told that it was possible to leave much later, maybe 1 or 2 p.m. So we then asked the woman and was told only a private (expensive) shuttle was available and it left at either 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. Trying to get an answer about which it was or how we would know whether it was 10 or 11 was fruitless. She also neglected completely to mention that there was a public bus which leaves each morning at 11 a.m. for another town where it is easy to get buses to many places. For me, I had to get to Medellín, which involves catching a taxi, then a water taxi and then the overnight bus. She told me multiple times (after repeated questioning) that I could catch the taxi right outside of the hostel and it would cost 8,000 pesos. Well, I actually had to take a mototaxi to a central area to get the taxi and, though the price was right, it turns out it costs 32,000 pesos for the taxi so they usually wait until four people are ready to leave (though you can pay the difference if you want). That misinformation really threw off my timing for leaving, as you can imagine. You see, I wanted to get to the bus station before the first of two night buses left, so I would have some bargaining power to get a better price. In the end, I got there before the supposed departure time, but it turns out that again, that time was wrong in the hostel. To be fair, the woman didn’t tell me that, but rather it was written on the wall in the common area. Still, part of the theme. Finally, I ended up having to pay to use the WiFi. It was a nominal fee of I believe 2,000 pesos per day, but still she never mentioned that until I checked out and paid my bill.

Having said all of that, I can’t recommend any specific other hostel, though there are quite a few around town. The captain of the boat I took from Panamá has a hostel there and it looked nice enough when I went by, but I can’t recall the name now.

Other

Mompós is a great little place to visit despite my poor experience in the hostel. I also had a poor experience getting there and getting away. It just isn’t a convenient place. But, if you have the time and patience, it does have charm. For some useful, but a bit dated, information, see the Poorbuthappy page.

Medellín

Lodging

Unlike Bogotá, most people I have met enjoyed wherever they stayed in Medellín. The Pit Stop has a pretty awful reputation for partying and drugs, but I suppose if that is your scene it is pretty good as I have even overhead it being recommended to others. I first tried to meet some friends at Casa Kiwi and have to say it is a pretty impressive building (and staff seem to speak English). There was no space when I arrived so I can’t say personally, but apparently the rooms are more like hotel suites with balconies than typical hostel dorms. Also, the main areas and kitchen are really nice. They are doing some expansion or other kind of work so now it is noisy because of that. It also is a bit of a party scene so I did hear complaints about it being difficult to sleep there. The folks there recommended I try Hostel Tamarindo only about 50 meters away and I found it quiet, clean and pleasant. It is run by a Colombian woman (Natale Cobo) who spent many years in New York so no problem with English there, though staff only speak Spanish. The TV room was quite small and dark, but the kitchen was nice and there were a couple of small public areas to sit. It is also in the process of an expansion but I didn’t notice any noise related to that as I think it is almost finished. After I tired of staying in the El Poblado area (which is where most of the gringos go and most of the hostels are located), I switched to the Palm Tree Hostal, which is located in a good, safe area off the metro line, but away from El Poblado and any other tourist hotspots. I heard good reports of another hostel even further out on that metro line (a stop past the stadium I believe) but I can’t recall its name. For a place in El Poblado but closer to the metro, try the Black Sheep Hostel.

Other

Even though Medellín is much smaller than Bogotá it seemed there was as much or more to do in and around the city. The public metro train is a very convenient option for getting around, though as in all bigger cities, the buses can be confusing. Medellín is called the land of eternal spring (as is La Antigua, Guatemala) and it is typically between 21 and 25 degrees each day depending on sun and/or rain. It doesn’t vary much in temperature from day to evening. Personal highlights of my stay there were the Museo de Antioquia for the Botero art (though it costs 8000 pesos to enter and there is an equally nice collection of his art in Bogotá for free), the Plazoleta around the Museo where there are a ton of Botero statues (completely free to walk around), the Jardín Botánico (also free), the Parque de los Pies Descalzos (free), Parque Explora, and the outlying towns of Santa Fe de Antioquia and El Peñol (Guatape).

Río Claro

I had this place recommended to me by some Paisas I met in Medellín (via couchsurfing) and it is located between Medellín and Bogotá. Unfortunately, I didn’t go but I have heard others mention how beautiful it is and it seems easy enough to get to (off the main Medellín to Bogotá bus route) so would make for a great place to visit and break up the trip between those two cities.

As far as I am aware, the only place worth staying is the Rio Claro Nature Reserve (or Reserva Natural Cañon del Rio Claro El Refugio as it’s known), which “offers three types of accommodation – camping, in rustic cabanas or in more modern hotel. If approaching from Medellin, you’ll come across a sign on your right saying “Rio Claro Cabanas” – this is not where you want to be, and has nothing to do with the reserve (the place clearly cheekily feeds off the nature reserve’s reputation). Just before the bridge a few kilometres further on, you’ll find Rio Claro Hotel on the roadside on the left, and the entrance leading to the nature reserve and Rio Claro Cabanas (the real ones) on your right.” (ref: http://www.paisatours.com/rio_claro.htm)

Bogotá

Lodging

I am still waiting to meet someone who really loved where they stayed in Bogotá. If you look on hostelworld or similar sites, many get rave reviews, but I never met anyone who liked any of those places! Check out Jasmine’s blog post Bad Bogota Hostels, I’m Calling You Out! including my comments about staying in Alegria’s Hostel. One place I did hear good things about from a couple of travelers is Destino Nómada. Also, I never met anyone who stayed at Posada del Sol so that might be an option to explore.

Other

Besides the fantastic Donación Botero (free) and the Museo del Oro (DON’T go on the free Sundays! It is much better to pay the 3000 pesos and avoid the crowds), most of the charms of Bogotá can be had for free just walking around. I am not really sure if I would recommend Cerro de Monseratte or not. It’s a bit pricey for the teleférico and there are regular robberies, including of a group from my hostel that went the day after I did! Plus, if the weather isn’t very clear the views aren’t that great. Still, if you go during the day and don’t mind the price, it isn’t a bad thing to do. If you’ll be in Bogotá for a few days, the salt cathedral in Zipaquirá is worth a visit, though beware the prices have gone up a great deal from what is written in most existing guidebooks (even the 2010 version of Lonely Planet). Also, if staying in La Candelaria (where most hostels are located), it will be about 2 hours transportation each way, so allow a full day to see it. Finally, for such a big city with large hostels, it was a bit difficult to find a good book exchange, but there is a Dutchman who runs Bogotá Bike Tours (Carrera 3, No 12-72 – so basically on Carrera 3 between Calle 12 and Calle 13), which has also has a nice selection of books available for sale or though a 2-for-1 exchange. You can also buy a book for less money (typically 3000 pesos I believe) with a 1-for-1 exchange.

Bucaramanga

I worked my travel such that I never passed through Bucaramanga, but for many it is a place you will have to pass on your way somewhere else. I have heard mixed reviews about it as a place to visit, but if you want to break up a long journey, apparently Kasa Guane is the place to stay.

San Gil

Lodging

I stayed at Sam’s V.I.P. Hostel and it is a very nicely renovated old house right on the main plaza. I arrived on a Friday and that night there was a very lively party around the in-house bar and all the others in my room were partying very hard. That isn’t my scene and I feared I made a poor choice. But, I ended up staying 5 more nights and those were all much more tranquil so overall I guess I can recommend the place. I met some others staying at El Dorado Hostel and it is apparently run by some good folks and offers good prices, though what I saw wasn’t that impressive physically. Having said that I hear the brothers who own it have big plans to renovate it. I also met someone who stayed at the Centro Real, which is quite inexpensive (15,000 COP for a single room) and apparently clean and quiet. Several people I met suggested I avoid the Macondo Guesthouse. I have a card for Hostal Monkora but I can’t say anything about it.

Other

San Gil isn’t a bad town at all, but that isn’t what you come to see, though the Parque El Gallineral is beautiful and there are a couple of nice miradors. Instead, you come to San Gil for outdoors adventure. The local hiking is great, including the nearby waterfall (Cascadas de San Juan Curi) and there is also white water rafting (two different river options, class III and Class IV/V), torrentismo (rappelling down a waterfall), horseback riding, parapente (paragliding), caving, and mountain biking. I personally tried parapente for the first time in San Gil and it was amazing. I also met someone on couchsurfing, Eliana, who turned out to be better than any tour guide and a super sweet person in general. Apparently there is another great couchsurfer there but he was away traveling when I was there.

Villa de Leyva

Lodging

There are a lot of places to stay in Villa de Leyva, though you will most often be recommended the Renacer Guesthouse (Colombia Highlands). I think I stayed at Hospederia la Villa which was cheap, clean, quiet and right near the main plaza but I did take a walk out to Colombia Highlands (about a 1km walk from town) and it did seem very lovely, though certainly isolated.

Other

Besides just enjoying the lovely colonial town and its architecture, the main suggestion I heard, oddly enough, was to not miss the French bakery (a couple of blocks away from the main plaza and it has a miniature Eiffel Tower statue outside). I have to agree with this! Unfortunately, I only had a night to spend in Villa de Leyva so I can’t offer up many good suggestions, though apparently one can do a lot of the outdoor things that are well known in San Gil here as well.

Manizales

I originally planned to visit Manizales but I ran into several travelers who said it wasn’t that special. It is the place to base a trip to the snow-capped Andean volcano Nevado del Ruiz. Apparently the Mountain House hostel there is quite nice.

Salento

Lodging

I stayed at a very new hostel called Hostal Tralala, run by the friendly Dutchman Hemmo Misker. It is a very nicely renovated old house a block away from the main plaza. Currently there is no WiFi which is my only negative comment, though he is considering adding it. The showers are great with plenty of hot water. There is a washer/dryer on premises for 5000 per load each (but you must use both, no hang drying allowed). A dorm bed is 18,000 pesos and a private room is 45,000 without bathroom and 60,000 with bathroom, I believe. As for Lonely Planet’s suggestion, the Plantation House, I heard lots of other travelers warn me not to stay there. I don’t remember the specific reasons, but after hearing it so many times I heeded the advice. Other options I investigated and/or heard good comments about: Las Palmas, La Casona de Lili and Hostal Ciudad de Segorbe and La Serrana (check out Ayngelina’s experience there at Ten course dinner on a Colombian dairy farm)

Other

Termales of Santa Rosa: To get to the hot springs (termales) you need to go first to Pereira and then take a bus to Santa Rosa de Cabal (2000 pesos) and from there take another form of transportation to the termales. Three are available: a regular bus (1100 pesos), a jeep (~2400 pesos I think) and a (4000 pesos). To get to and/or from Pereira, there are a few direct buses each day from/to Salento (5000 pesos). We went on the 7:50 a.m. bus to Pereira. To return I believe the direct options were 1:20 p.m. and 4:20 p.m. If you can’t catch one of the direct buses, take a bus to Armenia and get off at the Las Flores bus stop (ask the driver). Apparently all buses to Salento and Pereira stop there.

Patacones: One of the local dishes, as described in the Lonely Planet, did live up to its billing for me. I had the trucha with cheese and it was delicious. I ate on the square during the weekend and though it was pricey (12,000 pesos) it was literally big enough for myself and my friend to split so keep that in mind.

Horseback riding: this is a very popular activity in Salento and costs about 30,000 COP per person plus 30,000 COP for the guide’s horse, which is split amongst however many make the tour. Hemmo at TraLaLa recommended someone whom he knows takes good care of the horses and I enjoyed the four hour tour, but be aware that this tour is not the one that goes to Valle de Cocora (some of us believed it was). It still visits lovely areas, but if you want to do horseback riding in the Valle, that is possible also, but I think you arrange that after you arrive by jeep.

Valle de Cocora: this is the main highlight of the Salento area and is not to be missed, though be prepared for a fairly long hike.

Cali

Cali is most famous for salsa and partying. Sadly, I still don’t know how to salsa and I don’t really like to party much, so I skipped it. I have heard mixed stories about Cali in general, but those who like it often seem to love it. As for places to stay, I heard a couple of other travelers recommend Iguana Guest House.

Popayán

Lodging

I stayed at the Hosteltrail Guesthouse, which I guess is probably the only place offering dorm rooms, but if you look around you can find a number of local places that probably are as cheap for a private room. It is the most well-known place amongst travelers so it is definitely the place to stay if you want to meet others. I was there in low season and it was very quiet, but it is well maintained and clean with a nice common area and decent kitchen. It has a strange layout in that the kitchen and dorm rooms are physically separated from reception, the TV room and the private rooms by a large atrium like area. There is good information on local things to see and do and the staff are friendly.

Other

There isn’t much to really do in Popayán but it is a lovely little colonial city and merits a good walk around. I used it as a base to catch up on some work and do a loop visiting San Agustín, Desierto de Tatacoa and Tierradentro, leaving my main backpack in storage at Hosteltrail (see below).

San Agustín

Lodging

I stayed at two different places here, first La Casa de Francois and then Hostel Ullumbe (Calle 5 No. 15-30, ph. 320-8453242). Casa de Francois was very nice, located a short walk up a fairly steep hill from town. Francois and his lovely wife are great hosts (which surprised me a bit because I had read something a bit negative about him) and his wife has a restaurant with some tasty options. When I was there they were only a few weeks from opening a separate kitchen for guests to use, as the main kitchen was to become her restaurant. The dorm is an interesting elevated cabin (above what will be the new kitchen) and overall, this is a good place to meet other travelers. They can also arrange horseback, jeep and other tours and provide useful information in general. After two nights with Francois, I moved to Ullumbe, which is located in the town itself and was quite cheap (I think I paid 12,000 for a private room with bathroom after bargaining).  I did so because I met someone who wanted to go to the Desierto de Tatacoa and she was staying there. We thought we would get an early start and it would be easier if we were both staying in the same place. There is nothing special about Ullumbe but it is clean, quiet and cheap. As for other options, I heard Finca El Maco is really great, and a good friend highly recommended Casa de Nelly, which I went to visit (it’s a bit of a walk from town). It is indeed really nice, with lots of land and lovely little buildings housing the various rooms, common area, kitchen, etc. Definitely the place to go if you have more time and want to relax a bit.

Other

When I arrived in San Agustín by bus from Popayán, I had to take a jeep ride into town (this is paid for by the bus company). A local named Anabil who runs Anacaona Agencia de Viajes (Calle 3 No 10-13) was there and joined us for the ride back and offered his services and advice. This kind of thing often happens and I am usually very wary of these guys. In this case, Anabil kept popping up all over town (it’s not such a big place) and in the end he turned out to be very honest and helpful. He helped us get some good rates on the jeep and horseback tours (I think the latter was led by his brother). And, he helped introduce a guide for the desert (see below). So, if you meet Anabil, don’t hesitate to trust whatever he tells you (he is also the one who showed my friend Ullumbe).
As for things to do in San Agustín, allow yourself several days if you can. You won’t arrive until afternoon, even if you leave early from Popayán (not sure about Bogotá, there might be a night bus from there), but you should be able to go to the main archaeological park the day you arrive (they say you need four hours, I only needed less than three, but arrive before 4:00 as they don’t allow entry after then and you have to be out of the park by 6:00). The next day I did the jeep tour which was worthwhile but starts in the morning and takes almost the whole day. The next day I did the four hour horseback ride, which you can do in the morning or the afternoon.

Note: do keep in mind that San Agustín is a bit remote (though apparently in a year or so they highway will be finished and it should only take a couple of hours to Popayán), so check the transportation options before making all your plans.

Desierto de Tatacoa

Lodging

There are at least a couple of places you can stay in the town of Villavieja, which is a better option if you want to save money and/or if it is too cloudy to appreciate staying out in the desert. It can be a bit pricey just to get transportation to and from lodging in the desert, especially if you are alone (I heard 40,000 per ride), but the transportation is usually included in an organized tour. So, it might be best to arrive late afternoon or evening in Villavieja, stay in town for the night, arrange a tour for the next day with a planned night in the desert and return the following morning. As for where to stay in the desert, there are many options there as well, and your guide can explain the various options. Of the two hospedajes I saw in town, La Casona on the park is NOT the nicer, though that is where I stayed.

Other

I met a girl in San Agustín who also wanted to go to the desert and we went together. When we arrived around 7:00 p.m. we were the only foreigners in town. We had been connected with Pedro Paolo by Anabil in San Agustín and he met us in the park and showed us a couple of the local hospedajes and left us for a meeting, promising to return later and explain our options. Shortly after that four others arrived and a different guide (Chopo of Chopotaxi) showed up to pitch them on a tour. He offered a short tour for 120,000 pesos and a much longer tour for 180,000 pesos. Those prices were regardless of number of people, though 6 would seem to be the maximum. He seemed quite genuine and knowledgeable. When Pedro Paolo returned and heard about the offers, he said that they were good values and he wouldn’t be offended if we joined with the other group. He also offered my friend and I a price of 90,000 for a medium length tour, but explained that he had something to do the next day and would have to get us a different guide. He also explained that he is only a guide and thus needs to pay someone else for transportations, whereas Chopo is both a guide and also has his own taxi service. In the end, we went with the full group with Chopo and had a fantastic experience that I can easily recommend to anyone. Just the same, I was quite impressed with Pedro Paolo and he and Chopo seem to have a good relationship so I would guess you couldn’t go wrong with either one of those men.

As for the tour itself, we left at 5:30 a.m. in theory to see the sunrise, though it was cloudy and so there wasn’t much to see. After driving out to Los Hoyos we had coffee and embarked on a roughly four hour hike, led by Chopo. Around 11:00 a.m. we arrived at the piscina (swimming pool) close to Los Hoyos and swam/relaxed until about 12:30 and then returned to Los Hoyos for lunch and an extended break/siesta to wait for the hottest part of the day to end. Around 3:30 we left for the red part of the desert, close to the observatory, stopping en route to see some interesting land formations. We then embarked on a two hour hike of that area, finishing around sunset at the observatory. We were to wait for the stars and Jupiter to come out and take advantage of the observatory, but it was still very overcast and there was no way to see any stars, so we went back to town and our hostel for dinner (Chopo had called earlier to let them know we would be returning and wanting dinner, which was clever and thoughtful of him, as the kitchen help finishes around 6:00 p.m.)

Note: Keep in mind the same warning about transportation options I mentioned above, check them before making your plans.

Tierradentro

Lodging

I stayed at the Hospedaje Pisimbalá, which was clean, quiet (EVERYTHING is quiet in Tierradentro) and cheap (10,000 COP for a private room with bathroom). It is also located very close to the museum and entrance to the trail and they offer inexpensive meals (not a menu, just whatever they were preparing for the day). You can also stay in the town of San Andrés de Pisimbalá, but that is a 1-2 km walk up a steep hill from the museum, so keep that in mind. You could start the trail hike there and return there which wouldn’t make much of a difference, but if you don’t get the bus or a ride all the way to the town (only one bus a day goes to the town itself) you will have to make the trek and you will probably have to do it downhill to catch a bus out of Tierradentro as well.

Other

Unlike San Agustín, you can do the entire trail and sights of Tierradentro in a single day. In fact, I arrived late afternoon, saw the town of San Andrés de Pisimbalá and visited the two museums before they closed (a ticket is valid for two days). Then I was able to wake up early and do the entire trail, skipping the town, and make it to the afternoon bus for Popyán. By the way, if you get a chance to meet one of the guides tomb site guides named Emiro, he is super friendly and a good person to talk with.

Note: Keep in mind the same warning about transportation options I mentioned above, check them before making your plans.

Looping Through San Agustín, the Desert and Tierradentro

I got the idea to loop through all the above sites from a printout in Hosteltrail in Popayán. A natural question for someone thinking of doing this is how much time is needed, what are the transportation options and which order is best. At first I thought I chose the wrong order, starting in San Agustín, especially because of the transportation options from the desert to Tierradentro, but in the end (despite some misinformation about those options), I made it just fine and have concluded that it probably doesn’t make any difference which order you go. But, do be prepared for some less than convenient transportation and the possibility that you may even lose a day or so because of bad timing.

Pasto/Ipiales

Apparently, it is still unsafe to travel by bus at night toward the Ecuador border so many travelers choose to stop a night in either Ipiales or Pasto. I heard from others that Ipiales isn’t too terribly nice so I decided to stay in Pasto at the Koala Inn, an unremarkable but fine hostel (Pasto itself is an unremarkable but fine town). The benefit of staying in either of these destinations is that you can get an early start to Ecuador and have time to visit the famous church in Ipiales, El Santuario de las Lajas (just take a collectivo taxi from the Ipiales bus station, leaving your backpack in storage) and still arrive in Otavalo or even Quito before dark. As for crossing the border, I heard a couple of people complain about it being a hassle (they were coming from Ecuador), but for me it was probably the easiest border crossing I have experienced. I didn’t even see a place to have my luggage inspected and nobody asked me to.

Conclusion

There are a few things that I missed doing in Colombia, despite spending more than 3 months there, especially the Tayrona National Park, which EVERYONE raves about and Cabo de la Vela. I would also like to visit the area Southeast (I think) of Bogotá, which is apparently lovely but not visited by many foreigners. I would also consider a visit to Leticia to explore the Amazon. A visit to the Pacific side might be interesting as well. Having said that, I loved my experience in Colombia and wholeheartedly recommend it as a destination for any and all.

Useful Websites

Elsewhere on this site I will list my favorite travel links, but a couple that I relied on quite a bit, especially in Colombia are:

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18 Comments

  1. I don't bother to haggle for the bus rides. I will only pay $2 (4000) an hour for a bus, twice what it is in other countries, and if the bus isn't offering it that cheap I move onto another bus company. Oddly enough I only had to do this once, I think because I travel alone they take pity on me and only charge slightly above what locals pay. However, maybe I've just been lucky because I've given my $2 an hour guide to others and they shared they had been paying much more.

    Also been to Cali, beautiful women with lots of plastic surgery,

  2. I did get 4000 COP a few times on the well-traveled routes but had quite a few experiences where there was NO competition and I got a terrible price. The worst was from Mompós to Medellín for 89,000 COP! I also paid way too much from Bogotá to Armenia but that was a special holiday weekend and the bus station was a madhouse – but the good advice is always give yourself enough time to select the best option and never get rushed onto any bus.

    Most of the places I went to are popular destinations apart from Tierradentro, the desert and Valledupar. Been to or planning to go to any of those?

  3. Hi!
    I did the sailboat trip from Sapzurro (just the village next to Capurgana) to Carti (Panama) just a few days ago!
    It was one of the best experiences i have ever had!!
    I came from Medellin by bus to Turbo, stayed there for one night and took the boat (lancha rapida) to Capurgana.
    The sea was very calm but I was told in december and january it could be quite hard!
    The bus trip from Medellin to Turbo is really hard as well, we were on the so called "road" for like 10 hours…
    Most people are forced to stay one night in Turbo because the boats are leaving between 8-9 o clock in the morning and the night bus from Medellin is not recommendable for safety reasons (i am not sure about this! I was just told in some hostels)
    So if you can find a cheap flight to Capurgana (could be hard but depends on your budget!), I think it is a good choice!

    For the sailboat trip I can really recommend the sailboat TWYLA of the spanish captain Javier Martin and his wife Esperanza. You will pay between 350-400 $ and you will have a 4-5 day experience of your life!
    Best food included!! Langostinos, cangrejos, fishing your own fish!!!
    You will stop next to the best islands, doing snorkeling, cruising around with a kayak, maybe making a fire on one of the islands!
    The exit and entry stamps are organized and paid from Javier. You will arrive in Carti, which is a 2-3 hours ride from Panama City by a 4 WD.

    You can tell Javier in advance but actually the dates will be fixed just a few days before… It is really worth it to plan some days for Capurgana/Sapzurro. Its beautiful to relax and you are flexible if the schedule of the boat will change for 1 or 2 days.
    If this happens normally you are offered to spend the extra nights on the sailboat without paying extra!

    The website of Javier is kind of weird but you can find some phone numbers, the mail and an actual schedule!
    Best chance to get in contact with Javier is email or being lucky to get him on the phone when he is in a zone with
    telefon network.
    Here the informations to get in contact with Javier:

    Javier Martin
    Capitan de Yate

    To put out to sea: http://toputouttosea.googlepages.com
    Hacerse a la mar:
    [email protected]
    Tlfs.: Colombia: 311 690 83 84 (57) – Panama: 675 216 89 (57)

    If you have any further questions do not hesitate to write me!

    1. Thanks Ronal! I remember reading about TWYLA when I was researching boats but yours is the first personal experience I have heard of. Glad you had a great trip as did I.

  4. HI, there I would like to address your criticisms of La Casa Amarilla. I am the owner, when I am there, there is English spoken, but really what can you expect in rural Colombia!
    Also, all of the information about travel, up to date and revised can be found on our website and of course on the information boards in the house in English. These were put up before June 2010.

  5. There are two ways of getting to Santa Marta, we recommend the 6am bus a) It goes via Barranquilla and connections are faster and in these months of flooding makes more sense to follow the paved road b) it is cheaper and c) it is faster.
    The private van arrives anywhere between 10am and 2pm. They tell us on the phone that they will be arriving at 10am but in three years have never arrived at that time given that they are making the journey over an unpaved road that is often waist deep in mud.
    We have bad experiences with them and they also do the rounds of the houses picking up other people making the journey at least an hour longer. Their bus has broken down on several occasions and on others they have never arrived. Once their steering wheel fell off during the journey.
    The bus that leaves supposedly from another town, Santa Ana, at 11am if you are lucky, is the same that should pick you up in Mompos at 10am or 11am.

  6. Now, at times, taxi drivers do pick up travellers from the Casa Amarilla and we have been working with them on this. But, they will only come once they have three people in the car and you make up the number, so it makes sense really. If you leave at a certain hour there are always more passengers and you can go faster.
    Our dorms: Rarely do we ever put four people in a dorm and in fact only one of our dorms has four beds. You fail to mention that between 4 people or 3 you have an en suite bathroom and two powerful fans per room. And yes, air con costs more in the hotel rooms, as it sends the electric bills up in a place electricity is expensive…and Colombians ask for TVs, backpackers don't.

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment.

      I didn't specifically criticize a lack of English in the hostel. I merely was trying to point out that due to the remoteness of the place and the very limited transportation options, it can be an issue for those who don't speak Spanish. That's just a fact some should understand not a direct criticism. I'll assume your website does have good information on it and thanks for pointing that out, though I can say for sure that the bus information to Medellín that was posted on the wall in the TV room was wrong for the earlier of the two options so that should be corrected if it hasn't already.

      Thanks for the clarification of the private van. It is completely reasonable. Why couldn't the woman running the place just have said that?

      Again, what you say about taxis is completely reasonable and not a problem in any way – UNLESS you are told something completely different. Which I was.

      Regarding your dorms. It's great that you rarely put more than 3 people in. But, even so there is physically not enough space for 4 beds to fit comfortably so that doesn't solve the problem. Remove a bed and problem solved. You're right that I neglected to mention the en-suite bathroom and fans.

      My comment about air conditioning wasn't a criticism about the extra charge, of course that can be considered reasonable. What I wanted to point out is that air conditioning in a dorm is not a possibility. For those who want A/C but want to stay in a dorm this is useful information. To your point about the fans, I will say that I did indeed find them sufficient for my personal needs.

      Regarding TVs, as I mentioned, I don't consider this a particularly negative situation. My point was only to note the contrast with the private rooms.

      In summary, with better information for guests and one less bed in the dorm our experience in your hostel would have been SO much better and quite recommendable.

  7. Thank you so much for this. There hasn't been much info on Mompox out there and we've been thinking of stopping by… great info on other cities too. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Glad it helped. I should mention about Mompox that I think it is easier to get there from Cartagena. I was coming from Valledupar, which shouldn't have been too difficult in theory but did prove to be a bit of effort in the end. Still, worth any effort if you have the time.

  8. I am extremely inspired together with your writing abilities and also with the structure to your blog. Is that this a paid subject or did you customize it yourself? Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to look a great blog like this one nowadays..

  9. Wow man! You have been to more places in Colombia than most of us (Colombians)!!
    Thanks a lot for taking the time to write this down, you've given me a couple of entries for my travel wish list! Speacially that sailing from Panama… i've always wanted to do that! I loved that article as well and will keep it in favorites for the time I can do it!
    Un abrazo 😉

    1. Thanks! It's hard not to love Colombia and I definitely look forward to getting back there and seeing some of my favorites and some of the places I missed. I hope you do get to do that sailing trip – it really is incredible.

  10. Thanks for the tips, JB! I’ll keep them in mind because my friends and I are going there in June. I love going to places you’ve recommended.

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