As a travel enthusiast and producer/host of Raw Travel, I’m often asked what my favorite destination is.
Inevitably, I end up with the same answer, Colombia. Yes, Colombia was probably not on anyone’s list 20 years ago, but today it’s one of the safest destinations in South America. Colombia has an emerging middle class, incredibly diverse cultures and ecology, and some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. Having lived there briefly, I’ve been all over Colombia, but I recommend first-time travelers begin in the cities of Bogotá, Medellín & Cartagena.
The capital city of Bogotá is huge. First-time travelers may consider staying in the modern Zona Rosa area to the north. There are big hotel chains, upscale restaurants and fancy malls that will take the edge off any culture shock.
For a more cultural experience, hit up historic La Candelaria, a colorful and bohemian downtown neighborhood filled with hostels, universities, cafés, museums and colorful graffiti. I’d recommend hitting up the nearby Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) and taking the cable car up to Monseratte for incredible views. Bogotá is high altitude, so bring a jacket and don’t plan on running any marathons.
Yes, Medellín was once crime ridden but now traveling to Colombia without visiting Medellín should be a crime. Medellín has a whole different vibe than Bogotá. It’s smaller, more manageable and if there is a friendlier city in the world, I haven’t seen it.
Paisas (local residents) are fiercely proud. The only thing they love more than having a good time is showing visitors one. I recommend first-time visitors head to upscale El Poblado and find accommodations near Parque Lleras where the beautiful people of Medellín hang out to eat and drink.
To get a sense of how most people live in Medellín take the metro-cable to the mountain top barrio where the progressive city government has built a modern library helping poor areas attract visitors. You can also visit Pueblita Paisa, a replica of small town Colombian life in the middle of the city. Or, time permitting; try a day trip to nearby Guatape to see the real thing. From there you can visit Peñon, a huge rock with steps for a spectacular view.
If colonial cities are your thing, then you’ll love Cartagena. Cartagena was once a slave port and it has a decidedly more Afro-Caribbean feel. Today, Cartagena is one of the most popular tourist spots in all Colombia.
The forts are well preserved and the cobblestone streets, horse carriages and hotels set in historic buildings make for a great romantic getaway. Craving a beach? Take a 45-minute boat taxi to Islas Rosario and Playa Blanca. To get out of the tourist zone and hang with locals, consider catching a taxi to the nearby local food market for lunch one day.
Even I was apprehensive about visiting Colombia my first time. But once you’ve experienced the hospitality of Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena I predict, like me, you’ll be booking your trip back to explore other parts of magical Colombia.