The Solo Traveler’s Guide to Backpacking Colombia
“The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.” – Sir Richard Burton
Colombia is a country that will speak to anyone’s imagination, even to those who know very little about this South American nation. When I chose Medellín as my ideal city for an internship, I made a point of giving myself the time to explore the country beyond the towering green mountains of the Aburrá Valley. In between the final day of my international internship and the day of my flight home to Australia, I left six whole weeks to strap on my backpack and just travel. Now with that I puzzled my family and friends back home, none of whom have been to Colombia. “Just Colombia? What are you going to do for six weeks in Colombia?”
Many hours had already been spent reading travel blogs, talking to Colombian friends and fellow avid travelers, even before I landed in Medellín. And my internship with the Under Secretary of Tourism only added to my destination wish list, with at least one recommendation from every single one of my colleagues. I did, saw and experienced a lot in my six weeks. All I can say in hindsight is that the places I could not fit into my itinerary due to time restraints cannot be counted on one hand. So, without further ado, I would like to share with you four destinations that I got to know and now adore.
From My Itinerary, For Yours:
#1: Medellín & Antioquia
Am I biased after spending nearly five months in this part of the country? Perhaps I am, but with unwavering conviction. Medellín is a vibrant, entrepreneurial and people-centric city. Originality is easy to come by here, from the Barefoot Park, to the Parque Explore interactive science museum, the disproportionate sculptures of Fernando Botero and the groundbreaking Metrocable system. Being the only Colombian city in the country that has a metro system makes Medellín accessible and easy to navigate for visitors.
While Medellín is dedicated to its future and innovation, the Antioquian towns in its surroundings are all about tradition. This department counts three of Colombia’s 17 Cultural Heritage Towns: Jardín, Jericó and Santa Fe de Antioquia. These towns, nestled in the lush green mountains, are full of colorful and traditional Antioquian architecture, and surrounded by coffee farms, hiking and horseback trails.
During my time in Colombia I spent a total of nine days in the capital city, and visited the neighborhoods of La Candelaria, Chapinero, El Chicó, Corferias and Usaquén. Each and every one of those neighbourhoods could not have been more different than the other.
La Candelaria, being the birthplace of this metropolis, tells the story of Colombia’s colonial past with its old buildings, Plaza Bolivar, countless museums and the Emerald Trade Center. Parque 93, in El Chicó, is a modern district frequented by elegantly dressed Bogotanos for lunches and informal business meetings, while being surrounded by tree-lined streets with beautiful, red brick apartment buildings. El Andino shopping mall, a pricey favorite in this area is just a short walk away, as is the El Chicó museum. Usaquén, on the other hand, can be as quiet as the countryside, with spacious streets and luxurious homes with views of the mountains, as well as a Sunday market for locals and visitors alike. The distinct charm of every neighborhood I went to made Bogotá an interesting and dynamic place to visit.
The third largest city of the country is often left out of the traveler’s itinerary, but this fun-loving city really should not be missed. Being the birthplace of Cali Style Salsa, the best location to try the chontaduro fruit and full of friendly people, there is truly no dull moment in Cali.
San Antonio is the historical part of the city, with its restaurant options, historical buildings, salsa schools and a Gold Museum dedicated to the pre-Columbian Calima culture. This neighborhood is the perfect base to explore Cali from. Wandering the parks that hug the banks of the Cali River will take you to the iconic River Cat statue, or the beautiful Ortiz Bridge and the Iglesia la Ermita church. The popular hiking trail to the top of the Cerro de Tres Cruces is full of locals on the weekends who go up in the early morning to enjoy the view of their city. And day trips to the town of San Cipriano and the Pance River provide a perfect break from the city, as well as a chance to go for a swim while enjoying the natural beauty of Colombia’s Pacific region.
#4: La Guajira
Though arriving at the northernmost department of Colombia requires some effort, the spectacular scenery, tranquility and humility of Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas are worthwhile rewards. Here, generators are your only source of electricity, your shower water will come from a bucket that you pour over yourself, your choice of meals will be freshly caught fish or lobster with rice and patacones, and your bed will be a hammock.
Cabo de la Vela offers beautiful beaches, perfect kite and windsurfing conditions, and a chance to be away from civilization. You can visit Cabo de la Vela in a day or two, but with some good books and kite surfing lessons, leaving may not even cross your mind. Plus, a moto taxi could take you to more secluded beaches like Pilón de Azúcar and Ojo de Agua. Punta Gallinas is the most northern tip of South America. It offers you a unique geographical location and the immense Taroa sand dunes as well as incredible sunsets. It is so remote that you can only reach it with an organized tour. The Guajira department is also home to the indigenous Wayuu culture, the makers of Colombia’s most iconic artisanry, the Wayuu mochila.
Inspired by my solo traveler’s guide for backpacking through Colombia? Apply today to boost your career with an internship in Colombia.
Photos by Kristine de Bever