Over the years I have become somewhat of a master at travel logistics, but even I found it incredibly difficult to plan this trip. Colombia was off limits to American travelers for quite some time and I could not find a lot of literature to help me on the way, and I made a lot of mistakes that you can learn from. So if you are ready to book your trip to the beautiful, cultural and historic country that is Colombia, let me give you some information I wish I had. But first, a disclaimer and a digression.
The Disclaimer: A little bit on “Colombian Confusion”
This is what my husband and I affectionately (in some moments not so affectionately) called our misadventures. Colombia has only just become a big tourist destination for Americans (and we are probably the hardest travelers to please)- they aren’t Mexico yet, a country that has really gotten international travel down pat in their most traveled locations. This brings us to one of the great paradoxes of the want to be adventurer- we want things to be “off the beaten road”, a “true experience”, and lament when things have gotten “too touristy”- yet also are frustrated when many things don’t run smoothly
I returned to Tulum in early 2017 and was shocked to see it had become LA en Mexico. Everyone was drinking green juice and doing yoga wearing tie dye shirts that in the swanky boutique stores were selling HUNDREDS of AMERICAN dollars. I remember indignantly thinking, “this place didn’t even have electricity when I was here the first time!”, without remembering how annoyed I was back then without electricity and how I would have loved a yoga class. Nostalgia truly does make the heart grow fonder, especially in travel memories. Well, Colombia is like Mexico in it’s beginning (it has electricity to be clear, although hot water can be considered a luxury) and I am sure when we (hopefully) return I will say with a sigh, “Oh it has just been built up way too much! Remember how it used be, babe?!”
Back to the Disclaimer
This is not a country where things come easily. Here is one example. We had to take a boat to get to an island off Cartagena. Our hotel messed up and oversold and told us the day before we had no way to the island. So we had to buy boat tickets from a guy on the street we had to give a 50% down payment to (it was the only way and we were hoping that his official looking t-shirt made him legit), and arrived at the dock an hour and 45 minutes before the boat was to disembark. When we got there, no one had any idea what to do with us. We kept showing our receipt (literally wandering around with the paper in front of us) and got shuffled all around until we were sat with a group, with no confirmation we were actually in the right place. It was a small comfort to see many others doing the same. No one there had their shit together. BUT eventually, we got to where we needed to be and the guy in the tee-shirt proved to be an outstanding citizen.
My point is, if you or your companions are a super stressed out travelers and freak out at bumps in the travel road, then pick one spot to go to, whether it’s Cartagena or Medellion or Bogota, get a nice hotel and sit put. But if you’re ok with a little misadventures in your adventures, then I strongly recommend getting out there and discovering this beautiful country.
We traveled quite a bit and were often out late at night. Never once did either of us feel uncomfortable. Sure there are places you just don’t go to, just like there are places you just don’t walk through at night in NYC, or any other major city. The Colombian people are so unbelievable nice, there is a reason they are ranked amongst the happiest people in the world (America doesn’t even crack the top 100).
In terms of bang for your buck, the prices are very reasonable (you can have an amazing dinner and a few drinks for about $15-30 a person and hotels are beyond reasonable) and as I write the American dollar to Colombian Peso was almost 3-1 so it was a bit like hitting the lottery every time we took money out. Speaking of money, I have never been so confused with bills before (Colombian Confusion!). It was so bad that when something was rung up I just held a bunch of bills out and let them take what they needed. You can read more on that here: Colombian Cash
What I Wish I Did
If I could do it all over again I would fly into Medellion, which I heard over and over from travelers was an amazing and fun city, and spend a day going to the coffee plantations. The pictures looked absolutely stunning and I have a bit of FOMO about it. From there I would fly up to Cartagena spend a few days, drive to Santa Marta have three nights there, go to the National Park, camp for a night, and leave from the Santa Marta airport. That would have been my ideal trip.
What We Actually Did
One place on my list was Tayrona National Park, which beckoned with white sanded beaches, turquoise water and lush jungle right in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. So after our flight to Cartagena we made our way to the rental desk of Avis to get our car to drive to Santa Marta, the closest home base to the Park. It was a straight highway run of 130 miles, should be a breeze, right? Lol. It took over 4 hours of driving so crazy it made NYC during rush hour look like child’s play. If you’re not an extremely confident and aggressive driver, driving in Colombia is not for you. Their “highway” was a single lane on either side with enormous tractor trailers slowing up traffic. In order to pass them you would have to play chicken with the other lane of traffic, peeking slightly out ahead of the truck, waiting for your moment, then saying a quick Hail Mary as you gunned it around the truck. There was also the occasional donkey to slow down for. If you’re not cool with this, there are express buses and I suggest you take that instead. They also tell you not to drive at night, and this also is really good advise that we didn’t take and wish we had.
Santa Marta & Tayrona
We loved our time in Santa Marta, we both wished we had stayed more than our two nights. There is not that much to do during the day (so it helps to have a hotel with a pool, not many have them) but there are so many amazing restaurants and bars. It has a lively yet laid back night time vibe and is such a manageable place to get around that you come to feel like it’s “your place”.
From Santa Marta the entrance to Tayrona is about an hour. You can drive and park (make sure you are there no later than 10 am to guarantee a space) or take a cab. They also only allow a certain amount of people in the Park so if it’s a big holiday weekend make sure you are there by 9am, if you are looking to get a good camping space I would suggest even earlier. From the entrance to the main beach it’s a 2 hour hike, or an hour horse ride through the jungle (being short on time we opted for the latter back and forth). The horse ride was an adventure in and of itself, but definitely not for the faint of heart! There were some steep hill and muddy terrain, and some very large monkeys growling from within the trees.
The beach was just as beautiful as a post card, although crowded as we were there right before New Years. There are many camping grounds to take advantage of and you also have the option to stay close by in Tangana, which I had originally booked. After reading many accounts about the high crime at night there I wound up canceling the hotel. You can do a day trip there (it’s supposed to be fun for day drinking) and that’s where the best scuba and snorkeling is supposed to be.
Cartagena & the Rosario Islands
The colorful Colonials and architecture of the Old City is spectacular. The only place where Cartagena can disappoint is the beaches. If you want those beautiful Caribbean beaches you will have to take a boat to the Rosario Islands (about an hour by ferry, just be prepared for that confusion!). What this city does have in spades is night life, restaurants, culture and history. When choosing a hotel, like in Santa Marta, choose one with a pool if you can. It gets devastatingly hot during mid day and it was really nice escaping to the pool for the hottest hours.
Ringing in the New Year
Apparently Cartagena is like the South Beach of Latin America and during this holiday in particular people from all over descend on the city and neighboring beaches. We had no idea about this until we arrived. It was crazy crowded and the hotels were extremely expensive over the New Year. But the Christmas lights are still up and everyone is still in the holiday mood. We opted out of the crazy expensive venues and instead walked around, drinking and eating from street vendors, and enjoyed the incredible firework show over the Old City and harbor. But if you want to skip the crowds and inflated hotel prices, my advice is to go at literally any other time. If you don’t mind some extra people and book extra early, it really is a celebration worth having at least once in your life. Maybe twice, if you’re lucky.