South America is one of the most famous destinations for backpackers. From glaciers to mountains and tropical rainforests, there is plenty to see and explore while traveling this vast continent. For decades, Peru has been the number one country for attracting backpackers, but this is changing. Its northern neighbor, Colombia, is now putting its violent past behind it and attracting more backpacking adventurers.
Unlike its rivals, Colombia’s appeal does not lie in big attractions. Instead, it focuses on welcoming backpackers who want to enjoy its vibrant culture, delicious food and beautiful scenery. When planning your trip, note that the climate varies depending on where and when you visit. And like most destinations, it also has a high season, which runs from December to February. So plan your trip according to your ideal weather and pricing.
Explore the colorful streets of Guatapé, Colombia
Two-Week Backpacking Routes South America: Colombia
You'll need at least two weeks to visit the five must-see destinations in Colombia. This will give you a good understanding of the diversity you can find in this amazing country while keeping things at a steady slow pace. That way you can actually enjoy the journey instead of rushing through it. Note that due to the location of the airports, you will need to loop back through a few of the locales:
Days 1 and 2: Cartagena
Day 3: Minca
Day 4 to 6: Punta Gallinas
Day 7 to 8: Minca
Day 9: Cartagena
Days 10 and 11: Medellín
Days 12 and 13: Guatapé
Day 14: Medellín
To ensure you have some flexibility, the rest of this itinerary outlines transportation and what you can do in each area. When or if you choose to partake in those activities is entirely up to you. I’m just here to give you some friendly suggestions.
What To Do
Cartagena - 3 Days
This old city is most well-known for its colonial charm. If you love beautiful architecture and photographic scenery, then you’ll enjoy your time here. Bring your camera to get photos of rainbow buildings and cobblestone streets. Spend your days enjoying beautiful beaches such as Playa De Punta Arena and Playa Blanca. Some great beaches can be accessed by boat as well.
During the evening, a new side of Cartagena emerges. This is a great time to meet street vendors and try some of the local food. The nightlife is lively and keeps up its pace right until the next morning.
While in Cartagena, be sure to watch the sunset from a high point at least once. There are two locations that offer great views: the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas fortress and the Townhouse Boutique Hotel’s rooftop bar.
Minca - 3 Days
After a lively stay in Cartagena, you will welcome the change of pace in Minca. This coffee village is quiet and peaceful. It sits at the base of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. Minca provides travelers with the opportunity to indulge in Colombia’s world-famous coffee right at the source. You might also enjoy the local craft beer.
If you love to spend time in nature, Minca also has you covered. There are beautiful waterfalls and streams for you to cool down in. You can hike to Los Pinos, swim in the Pozo Azul and take beautiful photos of the Marinka Waterfall. If you thought the Cartagena sunsets were beautiful, wait until you see them in Minca.
If you can only stand so many days of rural life, then consider visiting Santa Marta. It takes around 45 minutes to make the trip and it brings you right back to the Caribbean coastline. Enjoy the beaches and drop by the Simon Bolivar Park for a quick history lesson.
Discover waterfalls in Minca, Colombia
Punta Gallinas - 3 Days
This desert town sits at the northernmost point of Colombia and provides an unexpected contrast with the rainforests you left behind in Minca. If you’re picturing dry and barren landscape, you’ll be happy to know that there are beautiful beaches in the area.
Adventurous travelers will enjoy the private tours that go out into the desert. Some people book two-day tours that allow them to see the place in its entirety in a short period of time. You’ll get to meet other travelers along the way and have rest stops on the beach. Others rent a pickup truck and do the tour on their own.
If you prefer to stay close to the beach, then some backpackers have been able to score cheap nights sleeping in hammocks. Seafood dinners are also amazingly cheap with just $5 for lobster in some places.
Medellín - 3 Days
The first thing you need to know about Medellín is that it’s huge and your experience there will depend on where you go. Most backpackers choose to stay in hostels around El Poblado. This is also where you will run into a lot of other tourists in general. If you prefer a more quiet travel experience, consider Envigado instead.
The best way to see this city is via the Real City walking tour. Many travelers leave this experience claiming it’s the best walking tour they’ve ever done. If you plan to visit Colombia in August, try to plan your trip so that it lines up with the Festival de las Flores.
One of the things that fascinates travelers in Medellín is its commitment to urban renewal. The city has invested heavily on reinventing itself. Old locations where cartels used to battle for dominance are now thriving public spaces where people meet for business and socializing.
Guatapé - 2 Days
Guatapé provides a brief respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. Most people make this a day trip, but spending two days allows you to truly relax and enjoy the sights. In fact, if you don’t mind the brief commute back to Medellín, consider staying in this resort town.
Like most resort towns, there are a lot of things to keep you busy in Guatapé. The town’s Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir creates a busy watersports center that is as beautiful as it is fun. If water activities are not your thing, then consider a helicopter tour so you can see the absolute best of the city.
For a more low-key introduction to Guatapé, take a walk through the town. One of the features that leaves a lasting impression is the colorful homes all around. You might also enjoy visiting The Rock of Guatapé to get a good view of the town without flying in a helicopter.
Climb up the Peñol Rock or stroll through the beautiful streets of Guatapé, Colombia
Internal Travel Information
When booking your backpacking trip, one of the most important things to keep track of is how to get from one location to the next. For shorter trips within an area, you can walk or even take an Uber, but the following are some tips on travel in each location:
Arriving in Cartagena: Cartagena is home to one of Colombia’s four international airports. If you find that it’s cheaper to fly in through one of the other three airports, you can then book a bus ride or internal flight back to Cartagena.
Between Cartagena and Minca: If you’re comfortable driving yourself, make this journey by car in four hours. You can also take a bus, but there is no direct route between these two areas. Instead, you must take a bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta and then to Minca, which takes seven to eight hours.
Between Minca and Punta Gallinas: This is no short drive by car and can take more than nine hours. If you decide to go by bus, the travel time climbs up to 13 hours.
Between Cartagena and Medellín: Cartagena and Medellín are quite far apart. Driving with no rest breaks would take around 12 hours. There is a direct bus route operated by Expreso Brasilia which takes about 13 hours. To save time, many people decide to fly instead.
Between Medellín and Guatapé: You can travel between these two areas by bus. At just two hours or less, this is the shortest distance you’ll travel on this itinerary.
Departing from Medellín: You can fly directly out of Medellín back home. However, sometimes it’s more affordable to return home from your point of entry. Shop around for prices before making a decision.
Relax listening to the waves in Punta Gallinas, Colombia
Where To Stay
If you’re already accustomed to using Airbnb, then you will find plenty in Colombia. To save even more money on accommodations, consider hostels. You’ll find plenty of hip and affordable hostels around. If you prefer to stick to hotels, there are still many budget options to choose from. Note that in many rural areas, you might not be able to book hostels and hotels online. Call ahead to make reservations.
Backpacking South America Funds
Backpacking is one of the least expensive ways to see any destination. Traveling lighter and staying in hostels can make it possible to live on about $30 per day for the truly frugal. However, you still need to cover the cost of getting to Cartagena, potentially flying to Medellín and flying home.
This is where many people begin to feel overwhelmed and stop their plans, but they shouldn't. Now you can use Skyhour to crowdfund your trips, which can alleviate a huge aspect of travel planning. If travel is the number one priority on your list this year, instead of asking for material gifts, ask all your family and friends for the gift of air travel and make sure you use your skyhours to see the world.