One Month Colombia Backpacking Itinerary | 2023

After three months in Colombia, I thought I’d seen most of what the country had to offer. Then, I looked at a map of Colombia and realized that I’ve only scratched the surface. Colombia is a country that I’d recommend to any type of traveler. It offers such a wide variety of adventures and environments that cater to any travel style. Are you looking for a luxury getaway along the sparkling Caribbean coast? Are you looking to trek through the soaring Andes reaching altitudes of over 5,000 meters? How about an excursion into the Amazon Rainforest? Yeah, Colombia’s got you covered.

Few countries can claim to have it all, but Colombia has a strong case. A month won’t be enough to experience all of Colombia’s treasures, but I can set you off with a good start for taking on this vibrant Latin American country. Grab your passport, backpack, and vamonos.

valle de cocora salento colombia travel guide

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Fly Into Cartagena

Cartagena is an excellent starting point for your adventures in Colombia. It’s one of the cheapest airports to fly internationally to, with flight prices comparable to Bogota and Medellin. If you’re a backpacker on a budget, use Skiplagged to find the cheapest flights possible. It’s free to use and I’ve saved thousands of dollars on flights since I started using it religiously.

Cartagena is quite touristy, so it allows you to gradually get your feet set in Colombia instead of diving straight into the chaos of Bogota or Medellin. You’ll also get the most expensive part of Colombia out of the way.

cartagena colombia old town

Cartagena | 3 Nights

Bienvenidos a Colombia. I know, I know. You’re hyped to be in Colombia and you are going to want to party. Go big in Cartagena. Laze the hangover (guayabo) away on one of the nearby islands or beaches then run it back the following night. I love the vibe of Cartagena. Walk around, enjoy the vibrant colors of the Walled City and Barrio Getsemani, and post up on the walls for sunset before treating yourself to a nice dinner and a rooftop nightclub. There’s an electric energy to this city. The music and dancing is contagious, and it’s impossible not to have a good time in Cartagena.

Must-Do Things in Cartagena: Islas Rosario, Playa Blanca and Isla Baru, Getsemani Walking Tour, Roam Around Walled City

Hostel Recommendation for Cartagena: Casa Zahri Boutique Hostel (Getsemani) or Casa Movida (Walled City)

The Backpacker’s Guide to Cartagena

Boat to San Bernardo Islands

From the port just outside the Walled City of Cartagena, you can catch a boat to anywhere your heart desires. Well, maybe not anywhere, but in this case, you’ll want to hit up the San Bernardo Islands. A ticket will only run you 10,000 pesos ($2.50) one way for the 2-hour long journey by speedboat. You’ll likely get dropped off at Santa Cruz del Islote, and from there, you can catch another boat to where you need to go.

Oh, and before you go, make sure to have good travel insurance handy while you’re off adventuring across the world. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels for as low as $40 a month.

San Bernardo Islands | 2 Nights

A getaway from Cartagena is essential. While there are plenty of islands nearby, I’d recommend the San Bernardo Islands, part of one of Colombia’s vast system of National Parks. If you’re looking for a secluded paradise getaway, this is the place to be. Check out Isla Mucura for beautiful island vibes, or roam through Santa Cruz del Islote, the most densely populated island in the world.

Hostel Recommendations: Isla Roots, Casa en el Agua

Back to Cartagena | 1 Night

Ahh back to civilization. Enjoy a night in Cartagena as a stopping point en route to the other side of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. If you happen to be in Colombia during Carnaval, stop by Barranquilla for the best party in the country. If not, keep driving past and don’t look back until you find yourself in Santa Marta. No hate to Barranquilla, but getting robbed is still fresh in my brain. A bus to Santa Marta from Cartagena costs about 50,000 pesos and will take about 5 hours, but you truly never know with Colombian buses.

Santa Marta & Magdalena District | 6 Nights

Santa Marta itself isn’t the most exciting city, but it is a good home base for adventuring within the area. The touristic center is nice enough, and you’ll find a good amount of bars, restaurants, and cafes to keep yourself fed and entertained. Stay close to Parque de los Novios. You’ll only be a short walk from the beach and everything else a traveler needs. Masaya Hostel is the best in Santa Marta. Rest up, because you’re visiting Tayrona National Park the next day.

Day 1 – Visit Tayrona National Park (Overnight Stay)

Tayrona Colombia

Tayrona National Park is one of Colombia’s most famous destinations. It’s home to stunning beaches, jungle hikes, and gorgeous golden hours. Most travelers will just do a day trip here, but I’d recommend staying overnight and disconnecting from the outside world. There are hammocks and tents right along the beach that you can rent for the night. When I was there in 2016, a hammock was 7,000 pesos ($2 USD) for a night, but I’m not sure what it costs these days.

Day 2 – Back To Santa Marta (Visit Playa Rodadero or Taganga for sunset)

Take in the sunrise at Tayrona then hike back before the heat becomes unbearable. You’ll likely find yourself back in Santa Marta around noon or the early afternoon. Take a chill day before catching sunset from one of the nearby beaches. Taganga was nice back in 2016, although noticeably less nice when I came back in 2022. It’s still a beautiful spot for a sunset, though. Playa Rodadero is an alternative, or you can just walk along Santa Marta’s boardwalk and beaches.

Day 3 – Minca (Stay 1-2 nights)

If you don’t want to stay the night in Santa Marta, you can go straight to Minca on day two. Moving around a lot gets exhausting. You’ll want to spend a couple of nights chilling out in Minca. It’s all about choosing what hostel you want to stay at. Besides a trip to nearby Marinka waterfalls, you’ll likely be spending most of your days at your hostel. I was at Sierra Minca Hostel, but Casa Loma is another one that my fellow travelers spoke highly of.

Day 4 and 5 – Palomino

From Minca, you’ll have to head back to Santa Marta. Catch a bus to Palomino for some laid back beach town vibes. Come here to surf or just have some lazy days along the beach or the river. Life is simple in Palomino.

If you have extra time, check out El Rio Hostel in Buritaca or Costeno Beach Hostel. Both are on the way to Palomino and are among the nicest hostels in Colombia. And of course, there’s the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) Trek. This takes four days and departs from Santa Marta. It is a top bucket list item in Colombia for avid trekkers.

Day 6 – Leave Santa Marta

Santa Marta is a big travel hub, so to get to where you’re going next, you’ll have to pass back through Santa Marta. The airport is cheap to fly in and out of, and buses will take you anywhere in the country from Santa Marta. Our overland itinerary takes us south to the state of Santander and the wonders of inland Colombia.

Bus to Bucaramanga or San Gil

The bus to Bucaramanga from Santa Marta cost me 80,000 pesos ($22 USD) and took about 10 hours. I decided to take a day bus and spend the night in Bucaramanga before taking another bus ($6 USD) to San Gil the next morning. I’m usually a big fan of night buses, but I’ve heard a few horror stories about bandits in Colombia, so I decided to play it safe. Before I became a travel blogger, heck yeah I would’ve risked it to save on a night of accommodation. But these days I carry too much expensive crap to be playin’ games. A decent hotel in Bucaramanga by the bus station only cost me $13 for the night, so it wasn’t too bad.

San Gil | 3 Nights

San Gil is a quiet town often referred to as the adventure capital of Colombia. It’s a well-deserved title. I mean, where else can you go white-water rafting, paragliding, spelunking, canyoning, and bungee jumping, to name a few of San Gil’s various offerings. The town itself is pretty quiet without much to do besides a few short hikes and green areas.

Must-Do Things in San Gil

Cascadas de Juan Curi (Juan Curi Waterfalls)

You can visit these waterfalls on your own or take a tour for $20 that includes rappelling down the waterfalls. If you’re a thrill seeker, it is definitely adrenaline-inducing. I did it in Baños, Ecuador and kind of feared for my life the whole time, but it’s a thing to tick off the bucket list. If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, just take a bus towards Charala and ask the driver to drop you off at Juan Curi. He’ll drop you off right at the entrance where you pay about $3.50 to get in. It’s a 20-minute hike or so to the base of the waterfalls. The bus there and back costs about $1.75 each way. 

Chicamocha Canyon Paragliding

This costs 200,000 pesos ($55 USD) and is a top bucket list thing to do in Colombia. Chicamocha Canyon is one of Colombia’s most iconic natural attractions, and there’s no better way to see it than taking to the skies. I stayed at Sam’s VIP Hostel in San Gil and they sorted everything out for me. Great hostel and great staff for an absolute steal at about $5 a night.

Trek from Barichara to Guane

Barichara is often called the most beautiful village in Colombia. It definitely has a strong case. This village often feels like it was lost in time. This colonial town nestled in the lush, rolling green hills of Santander is stunning to walk through. It’s a sleepy little town, so I’d recommend it for a day trip. A popular thing to do is make the six kilometer trek to the neighboring town of Guane, which is even sleepier. The hike takes about an hour and a half each way, but you can catch a bus or a Tuk Tuk from Guane to go back to Barichara.

Other Things To Do In San Gil: White Water Rafting, Bungee Jumping, Chicamocha Canyon trekking, Cueva de la Vaca

Bus to Villa de Leyva/Raquira

Next up, Boyaca. This is one of the most beautiful regions of Colombia. It often felt like I was driving through Northern Italy or the rolling hills of the Alps. To get here from San Gil, I had to catch a bus to Tunja and then another bus to Villa de Leyva. I stayed the night in Tunja, and it was an okay city. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it. It cost me 30,000 pesos ($8 USD) to get to Tunja and then another $2.50 to get to Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva | 2 Nights

Villa de Leyva is a gem that I’m glad I didn’t visit sooner. If Villa de Leyva had been my first stop in Colombia, I might not have seen any other part of the country. It was love at first sight, and the exact type of vibe that I love in a city. This laid-back town nestled in the hills of Boyaca has an immaculate vibe. In all honesty, there isn’t too much to do in Villa de Leyva, but after traveling so long, I was very much enticed by the prospect of doing nothing. It’s a beautiful and budget-friendly town that is perfect for working remotely in Colombia. I stayed at Selina while I was here and loved it.

Other Things in the Area: El Cocuy National Park, Paramo La Rusia, Raquira

Bus to Bogota

There is a direct bus from Villa de Leyva to Bogota. However, calling it a bus is a bit of an exaggeration. It’s a big van and it usually takes about four hours to get to Bogota from here, depending on traffic. My van dropped me off at Portal Norte. From there, it’s about 30,000 pesos ($8) to take a taxi to the center or 2,600 pesos to take the Transmilenio. I stayed in the Chapinero neighborhood of Bogota.

Bogota | 3 Nights

bogota colombia candelaria

The best things to do in Bogota basically involve getting out of the city. Don’t get me wrong, Bogota is a lively and exciting city, but it does take a while to grow on you. Most travelers won’t have that time, and even if they did, they’d prefer to spend it in Medellin or elsewhere. Two or three nights in Bogota should suffice, although there are quite a lot of activities in and around Bogota that I’d recommend.

Must-Do Things in Bogota: La Candelaria Neighborhood, Comuna El Paraiso, Cerro Monserrate, Museum of Gold, Zipaquira Salt Cathedral, and Guatavita Lagoon

Fly or Bus to Medellin (I’d recommend flying if you can)

Flights from Bogota to Medellin with Viva Colombia are affordable and comparable to paying for a bus. The journey can be long and daunting, so if you have some extra funds, shell it out on a flight.

Medellin | 6 Nights

masaya hostel medellin colombia

Ahh, finally, the promised land. Medallo, where do I even begin? My love story with Medellin runs deep. It’s a city that many travelers find themselves falling in love with. I’m not a city person, but I’ve come to realize that I am a people person. The people of Medellin are what made me fall in love with the city. There are countless stories to be told by the friendly, talented, and fun paisas of Medallo. And of course, it is the top party city in Colombia.

Day 1 – Comuna 13

Comuna 13 is an essential stop in Medellin. This vibrant barrio has a fascinating story, going from one of Colombia’s most violent neighborhoods to being the triumph of Colombian heart and soul. Filled with street art, murals, performers, and more, Comuna 13 is one of the liveliest neighborhoods of Medellin. Roaming through it now, it’s hard to believe it was once the most dangerous neighborhood in the country. It is an inspiring story of reinvention and what the Colombian people are capable of when given opportunity.

comuna 13 medellin colombia

You can visit Comuna 13 on your own, but I’d recommend going with a local tour guide. I visited Comuna 13 on my own the first two times, and then the third time I finally went with a local guide. Having the context and learning the significance of Comuna 13 and its history made a huge difference in my experience. Go with a guide if you can.

Day 2 – Guatape

About two hours outside of Medellin is the small town of Guatape. It is home to the iconic El Peñon, a huge monolith overlooking the stunning Colombian countryside. Once you’re done climbing the 750 steps to the top, head to Guatape town. Wandering through Guatape is a treat, with it being one of Colombia’s most beautiful and colorful cities. If you have more time to kill, be sure to visit a coffee farm and go on a boat ride through the lakes. 

guatape lakes view colombia

Day 3 – Chill day, Museums, Pueblito Paisa

Everyone needs a chill day now and then. Medellin is perfect for a chill day. Go hang out at the rooftop pool of Masaya, you deserve it. Otherwise, you can check out any of the many museums that call Medellin home. For sunset, head to Pueblito Paisa on Cerro Nutibara for one of the best panoramic views you’ll find in the city. Party time? Walk down Provenza and find whatever bar fits your fancy. As a traveler, you’ll likely end up in Vintrash at some point.

Day 4- Parque Arvi hiking, paragliding, etc

Parque Arvi is one of the best natural getaways close to the city of Medellin. Hop on the cable cars to the top of the hill and go for a nice little hike. I never found them myself, but I was told there were some waterfalls that you could hike to around here. Another option for today is to take to the skies. Paragliding is a popular thing to do over Medellin. It was my first time ever paragliding, and wow, what a place to do it.

paragliding medellin colombia

You’re also long overdue for a crazy night out. Head to Provenza or Laureles for a crazy night out. You can also hop on a Chiva party bus for about 30,000 pesos. Bring your own booze. There’s no better way to pregame than cruising around Medellin on a Chiva for a few hours.

Day 5 – Be Hungover

Sometimes, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing. Nurse your hungover self. Hang out at the pool. Eat some amazing food in El Poblado. Do what you gotta do to feel alive again.

Day 6 – Catch A Bus To Jardin

Jardin is a small town that’s become quite popular among travelers. It is about four hours from Medellin and will be a pleasant change of pace after the chaos of the big city.

The Backpacker’s Guide to Medellin

Jardin | 2 Nights

Talk about a change of scenery. Colombia has no shortage of places to immerse yourself in nature, but Jardin is definitely one of the top destinations. It hasn’t quite hit the level of popularity that Colombia’s other iconic destinations have, so now’s the best time to go. You’re never too far from a good hike or a natural beauty while you’re here. Chill out, sip on some coffee, trek to Cascada La Escalera waterfalls, do whatever. Life is chill here.

Bus to Salento

Salento | 3 Nights

Salento is possibly my favorite place in Colombia. The town had immaculate, laid-back vibes with beautiful views everywhere you looked. Of course, the most surreal region of Colombia can be found just 30 minutes from Salento town. The Valle de Cocora, with its towering wax palm trees is unlike anywhere else in the world. It should be the top destination on your Colombia bucket list.

Hostel Recommendation for Salento: Coffee Tree Boutique Hostel

Day 1: Valle de Cocora Trekking

valle de cocora salento colombia travel guide

Day 2: Coffee Farm and Chill

Aside from Valle de Cocora, visiting a coffee farm is a popular thing to do in Salento. You can hike about an hour to one of the coffee farms and take a tour for about 30,000 pesos ($8 USD). The tours usually last two hours and will take you through the entire coffee making process. Of course, you’ll get to taste some coffee at the end. You can catch a Jeep back to town for 3,000 pesos if you don’t feel like making the hike back uphill.

This shouldn’t take up your entire day, so you can also explore town and check out the miradors just outside the city center.

salento colombia travel guide

Day 3: Filandia and Waterfalls

Another town close to Salento is Filandia. Just be sure to check the bus schedules from Salento as they aren’t too frequent in the afternoon. You might find yourself stranded in Filandia, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

If you have more time, be sure to check out Los Nevados National Park. The famed trek up Nevado de Tolima departs from Salento.

The Backpacker’s Guide to Salento

Bus or Fly Back to Medellin

From Salento, you can catch a bus back to Medellin but you’ll have to connect through Armenia or Pereira first. Flying back to Medellin or elsewhere in Colombia is an option. Both Pereira and Armenia have airports with affordable flights within the country.

Comuna 13 Medellín Colombia

Now, I’m dropping you off in Medellin. Fly out of Medellin or bus to Cali and continue through Ecuador. I haven’t personally visited Cali, but haven’t heard great things about it. If you plan on continuing south through Latin America, Ecuador is an incredible country. I’d recommend flying straight to Quito from Medellin. And of course, I’ve got you covered with an itinerary for Ecuador, as well. And of course, there is so much more of Colombia to explore. Fly down to Leticia and experience the Amazon. See the Caño Cristales, go hiking through the Colombian Andes, roam through the Tatacoa Desert, truly, this list barely scratches the surface. A month in Colombia is not nearly enough time, and you’ll find yourself wanting to come back to this country time and time again.

And if you don’t feel like figuring this all out yourself, check out TruTravels 12-Day Colombia Uncovered group trip. I tagged along for a portion of my time in Colombia and had an excellent time with the crew. Say hi to Jose for me.

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