Backpacking Colombia: What You Need To Know

Colombia is my favourite country in South America.  After spending nearly three months here I fell in love with the people, food, dramatic scenery and cute colonial towns.  Even twenty years ago, Colombia was a no-go area for most travellers, but since the dark shadow of Pablo Escobar has lifted, Colombia has been recovering and is now one of the hottest destinations for backpackers and holidaymakers from all over the world.  Backpacking Colombia is a treat for any discerning traveller, and if you’re willing to overlook the country’s murky past and embrace the vibrancy and warmth of Colombia, backpackers can have the time of their lives.  By the way, it is ColOmbia, not Columbia, please don’t make that mistake!

Skip ahead to to read articles about specific destinations in Colombia

Vital Information for Colombia:

Currency: Colombian Pesos (COP). Check the exchange rate here.

Capital City: Bogota

Population: Estimated at over 49 million

Language: Spanish.  There are also 68 recognised ethnic languages and dialects, and English is also an official language in the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina.

Entry Requirements: Americans, Australians, Canadians, British nationals, and several other nationalities don’t need a visa to enter Colombia as a tourist.  Be sure to check with the Colombian consulate in your area for the exact requirements and processes to apply for a visa if your country requires one.

The length of stay permitted on entering Colombia is up to 90 days, and you may be asked for proof of onward travel, which is more likely if you fly in.  You may be able to extend your visa once you are in Colombia by applying at the Migración Colombia immigration office.  There is a maximum stay of 180 days in a 12-month period.  See also the vaccination requirements below.

READ MORE: Crossing Borders in South America

British travellers should use this website for up to date travel advice and entry restrictions when planning to backpack in Bolivia.

Americans can use the Department of State website, Canadians click here, and Australians can use has Smart Traveller to help.

Apologies if your country isn’t listed here – a quick google search for “(country name) gov travel advice” should bring up the relevant information for your country.

If you need to arrange any visas, Embassy Pages has a list of all the embassies and consulates for countries around the world.

Las Gachas Colombia - La Quebrada las Gachas, like the Caño Cristales of Santander
Las Gachas in Guadalupe – Backpacking Colombia

Vaccinations: A Yellow Fever certificate may be required for some travellers to Colombia, especially those who have travelled to a country with a risk of Yellow Fever transmission such as Brazil.  Please see this website for further information, and consult with your doctor or health professional to check current recommendations.  

All travellers should ensure their routine vaccinations and boosters are up to date, including measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and the diphtheria-tetanus-polio vaccine.  Hepatitis A and tetanus are also recommended for most travellers, and other vaccinations such as rabies, and typhoid are also recommended in some cases. 

There is also a risk of Zika in some parts of Colombia, so speak to your doctor before travelling if you are pregnant or trying for a baby.

Where is Colombia?

Map of Colombia - Backpacking in Colombia
Map from Wikipedia

Colombia is in the north-west corner of South America, bordering Panama (Central America) to the North, Venezuela to the east, Ecuador and Peru to the south, and Brazil to the south-east.  Colombia also has two different coastlines, the Caribbean to the north, and Pacific to the west, both offering completely different experiences.  When planning where to go in Colombia, check the travel warnings on your country’s government website, there are many areas in Colombia which are not recommended to visit (see entry requirements section above).

Safety in Colombia

Is Colombia safe?  In most cases, yes!  I am still surprised when many people choose not to visit Colombia because they have been told it isn’t safe.  Certainly, in the past, Colombia was a no-go country, but that is changing, and you can now visit Colombia and enjoy this incredible country for yourself.

Unfortunately, there are still areas where it isn’t recommended to travel, but generally, these are places that tourists don’t usually visit anyway.  Check the recommendations from your government regarding official opinions, so you are well-informed but there is no need to be paranoid. 

Colombians are very welcoming and happy to have more people visit their country and are quick to help if you need it.  I spent nearly 3 months in Colombia and loved it.  Don’t walk around alone at night (especially in big cities), and try learning a few words of Spanish so you can chat with the local people. 

I found Colombia to be very safe, and most visits are trouble-free.  Do your research before you travel to a new destination, ask for recommendations from locals and fellow travellers, and you should be fine.

Is Colombia Safe for Solo Travellers?

I travelled all around Colombia alone and didn’t have any problems apart from being constantly asked where my husband was and how many children I had.  Most people were just curious, although if you are tall and blonde you are likely to attract more attention as you will stand out amongst the majority of Colombians.  

While no place can be said to be 100% safe, I met lots of other solo female travellers in Colombia who all said the same – that they loved Colombia and hadn’t had any bad experience travelling Colombia alone.  I wrote a separate article about Colombia solo travel so take a look at that if you’d like to know more from a perspective of a solo female traveller in Colombia.

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Why go Backpacking in Colombia:

There are few countries in the world which offer such an intoxicating blend of Colombian heat, colourful buildings, Caribbean beaches, ancient ruins, Amazon rainforest, salsa and coffee culture.  You can easily spend several weeks backpacking Colombia and not get bored, from the Southern border with Ecuador to the most northerly point on mainland South America, to jungle adventures in the Amazon.

Nature and Scenery in Colombia

Prepare to be wowed.  Colombia really does have it all, from desert to rainforest, the Caribbean coastline, and incredible valleys with the highest palm trees in the world.  The famous Caños Cristales coloured river isn’t easy to get to alone, but if you visit when the algae is in bloom, I’ve been told the colours are incredible. 

Leticia is the launchpad for Amazon adventures, where you can take boats down the river to Brazil, or just spend a few days in the jungle.

Wax Palm Trees in Cocora Valley Colombia - Backpacking Colombia
Wax Palm Trees in the Cocora Valley – Backpacking Colombia

Altitude in Colombia

The Andes stretch into Colombia and Bogota sits at an average elevation of 2,640 metres above sea level, so don’t be surprised if you feel out of breath landing at Bogota’s El Dorado Airport.  Take it easy for a couple of days until you acclimatize to the altitude in Bogota, and the eternal spring weather!

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Coping with High Altitude and Altitude Sickness

Food in Colombia

Arepas are the staple food in all regions of Colombia, from thick, soft white arepas to thinner, crispier yellow arepas in Santander.  Northern Colombians often deep-fry their arepas, stuffed with an egg, cheese, or chicken mixture.  The artery-clogging bandeja paisa is a speciality in Medellin, and rice and avocado often accompany many meals, as do patacones – fried plantains. 

You can get excellent value menus of the day including soup, main course and a drink or dessert for relatively little.  Street food isn’t as common here is it is in Mexico, but you can find arepa stands, juices and sugar cane juice ‘agua de panela’ dotted around towns.  Hot Dogs are also popular in Bogota.

Fresh juices are refreshing, and often very sweet so ask for yours ‘sin azucar’ without sugar if you don’t want to rot your teeth!

More adventurous types may want to try the salty ‘Fat-Bottomed Ants’ known as hormigas culonas, which are a speciality of the Santander region north of Bogota.  Every rainy season the ants are harvested, and roasted with salt for a protein-rich snack.  Yum!

patacones with guacamole, ahogao and cheese - part of the cooking class with 5 Bogota - what to in Bogota
Patacones with guacamole, ahogao and cheese – Backpacking Colombia

Transport in Colombia

Due to its sheer size, internal flights within Colombia can be useful to save time, for example between Medellin or Bogota and Cartagena.  Avianca is the major international airline based out of Bogota, and you can find good value flights with Copa Colombia too.

Bus travel in Colombia is easy, although some of the roads, especially in the south are sickeningly windy, and can be dangerous at night, both due to curves in the road, and the (low) risk of hijacking.  It is generally best to travel by day, although I took a night bus from Cartagena to Bucaramanga in the north with no problems.

In rural areas, buses are often mini-vans without bathroom facilities, so if you need to go then you have to ask the driver to pull over.  Larger, inter-city buses will have bathrooms, aircon and all the usual things you expect from buses in South America.

READ MORE: Everything You Need to Know about Bus Travel in South America

Currently, there are no public trains in Colombia, although there is talk of building one for the surroundings of Bogota.  The only metro in the country is in Medellin, a long-standing source of disappointment and frustration in Bogota is the lack of good public transport. 

Bogota does have the TransMilenio bus service which runs across the city in its own personal traffic lanes, but these are often very crowded and have issues with pickpockets.  You can use Uber in the larger cities, and usually, official taxis from the airport in Bogota are safe and cost about the same as an Uber ride.

Cycling in Bogota is becoming more popular, and the city has the most extensive network of cycle lanes in Latin America.  On Sundays and public holidays, some of the main streets are closed to traffic until 2pm so people can ride their bikes for pleasure to enjoy the city.

Stunning Street Art in Bogota Awesome budget things to do in Bogota Colombia - what to do in Bogota for Backpackers
Stunning Street Art in Bogota – Backpacking in Colombia

Accommodation in Colombia

For backpackers in Colombia, hostels are plentiful, and generally of a good level.  Check reviews for recommendations from other travellers, and choose carefully as you would in any destination.  Budget hotels, homestays and Airbnbs are also found here, although in more rural areas you can’t always book online, with locals preferring to leave phone numbers for reservations instead of websites. 

That said, Hostelworld has a good choice, perhaps check online first to see what is available.  In busy times and public holidays it is advisable to book ahead, but at other times you should be ok booking the day before or just turning up.


What to do in Colombia

Everything!  From Caribbean beaches to mountains, deserts and lush forests, Colombia really does have it all.  One day you could be diving in the Caribbean at Taganga or hiking through the jungle to the Lost City.  Drinking freshly brewed organic coffee, eating arepas and dancing salsa all night long, one thing is for sure – you will never be bored in Colombia!

Volunteering in Colombia

If you are backpacking Colombia slowly, you might want to take advantage of the volunteering opportunities available to allow you to work and travel in Colombia without spending much money.  You can find volunteering placements in Colombia on work exchange websites like WorkawayHelpX and WorldPackers, where you pay a small fee to register on the site which allows you to browse available opportunities and contact the hosts. 

Volunteering work varies from working at a hostel to teaching in schools, helping to build eco-projects or helping a family to care for their kids.  Volunteering in Colombia like this is a great way to meet local people and become part of the community, and to save money.  In exchange for part-time work, volunteers usually get lodging and some food included.  Spanish is useful but not always essential for work exchanges in Colombia.

Where to Go in Colombia

Many Colombia backpackers pass through Bogota, but the capital is worth exploring for a couple of days at least before you head out to the rest of the country.  In the south, the beautiful Sanctuario de las Lajas sits close to the border with Ecuador, and although it may not be worth a visit out of your way, if you are crossing the land border with Ecuador it seems foolish to skip it. 

The mysterious statues left behind an unknown culture in San Agustin continue to flummox archaeologists today.  From there, head north to sexy Cali, the home of Colombian salsa to party the night away.  The coffee region of Salento and the stunning Cocora Valley is where you can see the highest palm trees in the world, and sample some delicious Colombian coffee.

Teyuna, La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), Colombia
Teyuna, La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City), Colombia

You can easily spend a couple of weeks on the Caribbean coast, wandering the streets of beautiful Cartagena, hiking to the Lost City and visiting Tayrona National Park and La Guajira where the desert meets the sea.  San Gil is a mecca for adventurous backpackers, who flock here for bungee jumping, caving, paragliding in the Chicamocha valley and white-water rafting.  Off the beaten track you will find stunning nature in Guadalupe, tiny colonial towns like Barichara and Guane, and the famous red rivers of Cano Cristales.

Do you have any questions about backpacking in Colombia?  Feel free to ask, and I will do my best to help!

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3 thoughts on “Backpacking Colombia: What You Need To Know

  1. Eric says:

    Like you, I spent nearly 3 months in Colombia and wish I had more time to see more. I had planned for 1.5 months but realized there is so much to choose from combined with so much to in each destination. Extremely useful guide here for anyone heading to CO for the first time.

  2. Eric says:

    You need to explore it like we did before everyone else does. Truly a special place. Sitting in 20 degree weather wishing to get back


  3. Renuka says:

    You have sold Colombia to me! This is such an informative guide. I’m glad to know that Colombia is now safe for traveling. I’d love to explore it alone. Thanks so much!

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