Every week, travel bloggers publish a new “perfect” Colombia Itinerary on the internet. They critic, the cold city of Bogota, accuse Cartagena of being a touristy golden prison and sing the praises of the nightlife in Medellin.
And, because they only have been backpacking for 1 month in the country, their Colombia itinerary looks the same.
I’m not saying they should stop writing about it. Thanks to travel bloggers, readers discover a brighter side of Colombia. They describe a land full of natural beauties and proud friendly locals instead of sticky, stinky clichés about FARC and Pablo Escobar.
However, my dear fellow travelers, I think that every “perfect Colombia itinerary” article should be taken with a grain of salt.
Yes, they are excellent to provide a first insight on your future trip. Yes, they save you hours of research.
But, don’t be lazy, you can do better. Work a bit more on your Colombia itinerary.
Go beyond the classic Gringo Trail.
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The Gringo Trail, a classic Colombia Itinerary
What’s the classic Gringo trail Colombia Itinerary?
In a word, it’s the roadmap that 80% of the travelers use when they organize a trip to Colombia.
Why do they follow each other? (+)
- Governments advise holding to touristy areas for safety reasons
- There is still not much information about Colombia on the internet
- People don’t have the time to spend hours on their itinerary – Or they don’t know how to do it
- It’s easy to organize
- It stops at the most well-known places. And people LOVE selfies with popular sites.
And I have to admit it. The gringo trail is a correct 2 -3 weeks Colombia itinerary. I will talk about the advantages and inconveniences later on.
But for now, I bet you want to know more about it. Curious fella. Let’s unravel the holy trail.
1. Bogota, Should I stay or Should I go | 2 nights
Travelers land in Bogota because there is an important international airport. Moreover, we all have an attraction to capitals in general. Otherwise, we can’t uncheck the country from our bucket list.
Usually, people don’t want to stay in Bogota. They decide to wast 2 days to explore la Candelaria, the Gold Museum and the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira. And, because they came with a bad a priori, they leave the capital with a bad memory.
It’s unfortunate because they miss many excellent tours! And the nightlife is even better than in Medellin.
2. A quick stop in Villa de Leyva | 1 night
After the cold weather of Bogota, travelers dream about one thing: The Caribbean Coast. While a few people book a national flight to Cartagena, others decide to travel through the countryside of Colombia to reach the coast.
On the way, they stop at Villa de Leyva, a peaceful colonial town surrounded by hills. At the top, a white Jesus watches out for the inhabitants. Don’t mess up. In town, uneven cobblestone streets lead the visitors to cloisters, churches, flourish squares, and cozy cafes.
Unfortunately, travelers don’t have the time to enjoy it as they leave the next day to Barichara, another colonial town.
3. Barichara, the Legendary Colonial Town | 2 nights
The marketing department did a fantastic job with Barichara. Everyone knows it in Colombia. The place is gorgeous, ultra-romantic, and it faces a deep canyon – Chicamocha. Moreover, some agencies offer extreme sports activities like Paragliding or Rafting.
Then, travelers have the option to take a flight from Bucaramanga or experience a long night bus adventure to Santa Marta.
4. Santa Marta, first steps on the “beach” | 2 nights
Santa Marta is a medium-sized city nestled on the Caribbean Coast. Some people consider it like a small Cartagena. I have no idea why. Maybe are they blind? The common point are only unpleasant beaches.
Tourists meet in the same area, near the square Los Novios. There, restaurants serve every kind of meals and waiters don’t even know how to speak Spanish anymore. Moreover, the outskirts of Santa Marta aren’t safe at night as thugs wait for wealthy on coke tourist to jump into their arms.
It doesn’t sound like a great city. So you’re probably wondering why people stop there?
Why people stop in Santa Marta? (+)
- It’s a great hub to explore the different destinations around like Tayrona, Lost city trek and Taganga
- It’s easy. There are many travel agencies. They offer all kinds of packages
- Some tourists want to hang out with English speakers only
- They don’t realize there are many awesome hostels all along the coast
- It’s too late when they land in Santa Marta
4. The conquest of Tayrona national park | 1 night
Tayrona National Park is the main reason why Santa Marta is so well-known. The size of the park makes day trips not worth it – Except if you take a speedboat from Taganga. But if you do the boat thing, you will miss the most exciting part: the expedition within the park.
Experiences are making memories. Not tasteless selfies on a beach.
Tayrona is fantastic because you can stay as long as you want. There are two entrances – depends on if you like “hiking” or not. Once inside, visitors dip into a green universe made of creepers and monkeys. The paths are clean and well enough indicated – So you don’t have to buy a machete or hire a guide.
And, after all the sweat
and tears, gorgeous beaches protected by boulders welcome the muscle sours with sands, coconuts, and cold water.
5. Cartagena, the Jewel of the Caribbean Coast | 3 nights
Like Santa Marta, Cartagena attracts hundreds of North Americans who look for a place to rest for the week. The city can be divided into 4 parts.
Main Cartagena's districts (+)
- The old city center made of colonial buildings, flourish balconies and colorful doors. It’s gorgeous, but I don’t think many Colombians live there. There are mainly luxury hotels, restaurants, and gift shops.
- Boca Grande is a little Miami with skyscrapers, resorts, and fast foods.
- Getsemani is a backpacker empire. There are many hostels and affordable bars.
- The rest of Cartagena is where locals live.
The few attractions are clustered in the same area. Hence, visitors go in circles and are bored quickly. Fortunately, they can organize a trip to the Rosario islands and finally enjoy beautiful beaches – the ones in Cartagena aren’t pleasant.
6. Nightlife in Medellin | 2 nights
Travelers love to party in Medellin. It’s the drunk fun moment of their 2 – 3 weeks in Colombia. The majority of the tourists book their accommodations in El Poblado, a trendy district located in the South of the City.
There, trendy cafes offer social co-working spaces for the digital nomad community. At night, bars and nightclubs open their door to wealthy Colombians and foreigners.
They miss the opportunity to stay in Laureles and experience a more authentic Colombia daily life.
Why people like the Medellin nightlife (+)
- The weather is great
- It’s practical. Hostels, restaurants, and clubs are located in the same district
- The inhabitants are welcoming. It’s easy to interact with them
- The women are gorgeous
Then, between two hangovers, they organize a day trip to Guatape and try to attend a football game at the stadium.
What a pity!
Antioquia is one of the most beautiful departments in Colombia. There are many lovely colonial towns – like Jerico, Jardin, Salamina – and outdoor activities near San Rafael, San Carlos, San Francisco, and Tamesis.
7. The giant wax palm trees near Salento | 2 nights
Salento is the final stop of our Gringo Colombia Itinerary. This colonial town is a pleasant place with many cozy hotels. In town, there is a viewpoint where travelers can admire the many coffee plantations and the massive Los Nevados National Park.
From the main square, jeeps leave every morning to bring the visitors to Valle de Cocora, an impressive valley where giant wax palm trees stand like thin magic mushrooms.
Finally, after one last coffee tour on a local farm, travelers get back to Bogota to catch their flight.
They miss the occasion to push their boundaries with a multi-day hike in the National Park Los Nevados.
Salento is so touristy now that locals run away from the village – and also because they can’t pay the expensive rents anymore.
The benefits of a Gringo Colombia Itinerary
The Gringo Colombia Itinerary is not all dark and bloody.
I did it when I came to Colombia for the first time. And I had lots of pleasure in doing so.
Besides, it’s a practical itinerary.
I know that some of you don’t have the time, the knowledge or the energy to plan a customized trip. Hence, there is no harm in taking a shortcut.
With the gringo trail, the itinerary is optimized to get an overview of different parts of Colombia. It leads you to the most well-known spots in Colombia, and you won’t travel in circles. And, if you smartly use the night buses and cheap national flights, you shouldn’t waste too much time in transportation.
Moreover, there are many buses connections between the different stops. It increases your flexibility, and it will be easier to deal with your logistical travel issues.
So, is the Gringo trail a wrong Colombia itinerary? I don’t think so.
But, there are such many Colombia Itinerary possibilities nowadays, that it would silly not to think about them. I want you to opt for the Gringo trail if you want it and not because it’s your default choice.
Downsides of a Gringo Colombia Itinerary
1. It's outdated (+)
It wasn’t recommended to travel to Colombia 20 years ago. But, as you know, the political situation has improved a lot, and more and more new destinations become accessible every year.
Before, the Gringo trail was almost the only safe option for the travelers. But those days are now behind us. There are such many different sceneries to explore that you should think about it twice before taking your decision.
2. It's a default choice (+)
The Gringo Trail is for every traveler. You won’t make a mistake by choosing it. But maybe you’re not like everyone else. Perhaps you’re attracted by something specific.
Colombia is a vast playground for many different kinds of travelers. Vacations are supposed to be a joyful moment that you wait with excitation every year.
Why don’t you pick one or two specific themes for your journey?
Instead of saying “Ok, this summer I visit Colombia,” try to tell “Ok, this summer I dive in Colombia” or ” I hike within the best National Parks,” etc…
3. It's too fast! (+)
Colombia is a new touristic destination. It takes time to organize an unusual activity or to get somewhere off the beaten path.
If you take one bite at every place, you will never taste the best part of that cookie.
Yeah, I love cookies 🙂
Let’s use our 2 weeks Colombia itinerary as an example.
- Near Bogota, there are many great day tours like hiking in the Paramos. But you won’t be able to do it if you only stay 2 nights in the capital.
- Near Santa Marta, Minca is a fantastic place to rest and observe birds
- From Cartagena, travelers can explore the gorgeous San Bernardo islands or Isla Grande. But it’s a long boat drive to get there. It’s not worth it to sleep 1 night only
- There are at least 6 awesome destinations between Medellin and Salento
- There are other options than Salento to discover Colombia’s coffee region
I think you will enjoy a lot more if you decide to stay a bit longer in each place. Thus, you should be able to organize unforgettable trips that tourists in a hurry can’t experience.
4. You wast money & time (+)
I love numbers.
Let me convince you with exponential functions and logarithms.
Don’t stop reading. I’m joking.
By traveling fast, all your expenses increase quite a lot:
- You multiply the numbers of long bus drives and national flights
- You take more taxis to move everywhere in one day
- You eat in restaurants only
And all these “expensive” travel moments are dedicated to transportation time. Although a flight is only 1 hour long, it will take at least 6 hours in total from door to door.
Moreover, traveling fast is exhausting. I heard many times travelers saying they are much more tired after than before their backpacking trip in Colombia. It doesn’t have to be that way. Travel at your own pace.
We wrote down 4 one week itineraries to discover Bogota, Medellin, Cali, and Cartagena.
The concept is to minimize the number of buses and flights and spend all the extra time on new experiences.
How to create a Colombia itinerary that suits you?
I wrote a free Colombia Ebook to explain how I think travelers should proceed.
Nowadays, thanks to the internet, travelers have fewer difficulties in planning a trip to a country they’ve never been to before. But it often seems like a mammoth task if you don’t know where to start. It’s why many tourists end to travel on the gringo trail only.
Step 1: First, you should focus on your travel personality and expectations.
What do you want? What do you expect?
Step 2: Do you have a crush on some places?
Don’t pick too many destinations. You should try to stay at least 1 week within the same region.
Step 3: Add secondary destinations
Once you’ve chosen your highlights in Step 2, you should “fill the blank” with places located in the same regions.
- You want to visit Tayrona Park. Why don’t you add an adventure to Punta Gallinas?
- You dream about Cartagena. Be a pirate and explore the islands around.
Step 4: Create the roadmap
Whatever you’re planning a 1, 2 or 3-week Colombia itinerary, you should try to apply these 4 steps.
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