South America; this huge continent accounts for a third of the world’s homicides. In fact, more than a quarter of murders than happen on earth take place across Colombia, Venezula and Brazil alone.
From snatch theft to gang related violence, the continent of South America does appear to be one of the worlds most dangerous places to visit; and TV shows like Narcos (which we love) just perpetuate this belief.
Regardless, South America is also probably the world’s most diverse continent. Your dream destination could be anything from Brazil’s world famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, to Peru’s iconic Machu Picchu, or perhaps Bolivia’s Instagramable Uyuni Salt flats; whichever it might be, South America has them all.
While vacations across South America are extremely popular with tourists all over the world, South America is, among Singaporeans at least, a relatively exotic and untouched destination as opposed to let us say, Europe.
Even “The Girl” and I, for all our globetrotting, had put off South America till now. The supposed danger aside, here’s 3 key reasons why most of us keep kicking the can down the road when it comes to South America.
1. It’s Far.
(at least 25 – 30 hours of travel time)
2. Lack of information available on a "compressed itinerary".
(Most people who visit South America spend months there, and for Singaporeans with our limited leave, it’s pretty tough to map out a 2 week itinerary based on a typical backpacker’s 6 months travel plans)
3. A dilemma on where to begin.
(As a first-time traveller to South America, which of the 12 countries should you visit? Is it safe? How should you get around?)
Fortunately, the desire to fulfil our travel goals, and love for Netflix TV series Narcos made kept things simple; our first destination in South America would be Colombia.
(On this particular trip, we visited Mexico and Cuba as well)
[Airfare + Budget]
South America is a long way from Singapore, that means flights will be expensive. Flights cost between $1,600 (promotional periods) to $2,200 (peak periods); so we’d suggest redeeming your miles if you have any.
Now, we haven’t included the cost of air tickets because the price you can get them at is rather subjective. Some have a preference of redeeming points, or flying minimally Business Class considering it's such a long flight. And others, insist on traveling only during off peak periods or during promotions.
For a COMFORTABLE (non budget) 10 day vacation that covers a good number of Colombia’s key highlights, you'll need to set aside around at least S$1,000.
This could actually be done for way lesser money, but we based the cost of this itinerary closely on what "The Girl" and I actually did, comprising of generally mid-range hotels instead of hostels and "couch surfing". If you’ve got deeper pockets than we do, $1,500 for 10 days in Colombia would see you live like a king.
With that, let's move on to our 10 Day Itinerary of Colombia's highlights.
Day 1. Bogota [Zipaquira + Chapinero]
It’s morning in Bogota, Colombia’s capital and also your first city in South America.
You’ve only got just 10 days in this huge country with so much to see. But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you’ll have to rush like you’re on the amazing race. 10 days is ample time to experience a good number of Colombia’s highlights.
For your first day, “The Girl” and I suggest you leave the city of Bogota and go off on a half day trip to the town of Zipaquira, home to Bogota’s No.1 attraction, the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral, 200m underground.
Let's take you through what we did.
We found the salt cathedral experience humbling, yet rather haunting in parts.
A journey through the cathedral with alters and crucifixes carved out of salt and rock depicts the Birth of Jesus, his life on earth, and finally his death. LED lights and the faint sound of hymns made the overall experience even more astonishing than a typical mine should be.
The cathedral and its many crosses were carved out by the miners, who made the mines their sanctuary, a place of calm, where they could pray for strength to continue working amidst dangerous conditions.
We paid $18 USD for the entrance fee, which included an English guide. Yes, you’ll want a guide to help you make sense of what you’re seeing.
To get to the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral from Bogota, we used the TransMileno, Bogota’s version of our SBS bus system in Singapore.
It took us 2 hours to get there by public transport (ask the hotel reception for instructions on which bus to take) and cost us $3 USD each way. If you’re traveling in a group of 4, just catch a taxi and you’ll be there in an hour.
The town of Zipaquira, a 15min walk away from the cathedral, is itself a rather pretty town with traditional cathedrals, Spanish colonial buildings, local shops, and restaurants serve traditional Colombian food for lunch.
We spent a couple of hours in Zipaquira town enjoying Colombian coffee and people watching in the square. It was pretty fun to watch locals and tourists come together to visit Colombia’s 1st Wonder; Zipaquira.
It took us another 2 hours to get back to Bogota, and we spent the rest of the day checking out the district of Chapinero, one of the more affluent districts in Bogota with shopping malls, a theatre and a football stadium.
The Zona Rosa entertainment area with a good number of local Colombian pubs was a great place to have a beer before finally retiring back to our hotel back at the Chapinero district to catch some sleep.
Day 2. Bogota [La Candelaria & Surroundings]
It’s day 2 in Bogota and we’re back using the TransMileno bus system again to get around again.
We had our first taste of the TransMileno when we visited Zipaquira the day before. Now, its time to use it like a local and get around the city proper. They use cards similar to our “ezlink card in Singapore. The difference? Two of us could share just one card instead of paying more for an extra card.
The experience today was crazy though; perhaps it was because it was peak hour. At each “bus stop”, there is a designated spot to get on and get off the bus. The trouble is, many buses take turns to use that same designated spot and the entry and exit point is the same!
Sounds confusing? Well it is.
Let's assume you’re waiting for bus 1A. Bus 1B comes, it's not the bus you want but you can’t give way to people alighting or boarding because you will lose your spot and have to queue all over again. Everyone stands rooted their spot while people getting off the bus shoves them from the front, and people trying to board the bus shoves the people still waiting.
The TransMileno stations are a paradise for “pickpockets”. In fact, a friend of ours had his wallet and passport stolen in this exact situation!
This time, we visited the “heart of Bogota”, the city’s most historic neighbourhood; namely the La Candeleria District, the impressive Neo Classical styled Plaza Bolivar and its surroundings.
Think of it as a mix of colonial buildings and street graffiti in a bowl; a mix between old and new, where historic meets modern.
La Candelaria, was founded by Spanish Conquistadors in 1538 and was the first neighbourhood of the capital city of Bogotá. Cobblestone streets, century old houses, cathedrals and colonial buildings, this is the equivalent of “old towns” one would visit in Europe.
The district of La Candeleria is also home to many museums in Bogota, street festivals, great architecture and loads of amazing places to have a coffee and people watch.
It’s well worth a whole day and night.
One of the more memorable places to have dinner at in Bogota is Andres Carnes de Res. It’s some sort like Marche where you have a variety of stalls to choose with a great Colombian vibe about it. We’d really recommend it.
Just remember to take a taxi back to your hotel once it gets dark. La Candeleria is a paradise for tourists during the day but turns into one of Bogota’s more dangerous spots after the sun sets.
Day 3. Cartagena [Walled City & Surroundings]
“No, Gracias. No, I don’t want a hat, I don’t want to buy a cigar, and I don’t want a tour”. This, is a typical day in Cartagena, Colombia’s most visited city by tourists.
Cartagena was the first Spanish colony on the South American continent. It was a key port for the Spanish in the 1540s, crucial for the export of silver, the import of African slaves, and the defence against pirate attacks in the Caribbean.
During the “Narco Wars” period in Colombia’s history, Cartagena was Colombia’s only “safe” city. Even then, the walled old city of Cartagena by the Caribbean was filled with tourists.
Today, Cartagena is still Colombia’s most visited city by tourists, and also its most expensive by a mile. Prices in Cartagena are easily 3 times more expensive than in Bogota, its capital.
Hostels here cost the same as proper hotels in the rest of the country. Here, we could only afford to stay at a hostel, but at least, we had a private room with our own bathroom for around $80 SGD.
From day trips to white sand beaches, checking out old forts, exploring the “Instagramable” old town, to walking the city walls in the evening, the 2 days we allocated for Cartagena seemed grossly inadequate; only it wasn’t.
Because part of this itinerary includes visiting Tayrona National Park, home to Colombia’s best beaches just 5 hours drive from Cartagena, we would suggest spending the 2 full days enjoying Cartagena (minus-Beaches) itself.
Spend your first full day in Cartagena in the old city with its colourful colonial houses, great music, and funky bars. You could visit Bocagrande, the upmarket part of Cartagena with a “Miami” vibe to it before finally visiting the iconic Café Del Mar up on the city walls to enjoy the setting sun with a mojito in hand.
Cartagena can be a little annoying though. We couldn’t enjoy a meal in peace without being interrupted at least 20 times by annoying touts selling, hats, cigars, accessories, or buskers pestering us for money to play a song.
Day 4. Cartagena [El Totumo Volcano + Fort]
The Totumo Mud Volcano is an hours drive from Cartagena and is arguably the city's most popular day trip.
We’ve had our share of “Mud Volcano’s” in Azerbaijan but “Totumo” was on a different level altogether. After a great breakfast and another $25 USD for the tour, I was off to Cartagena’s very own volcano; El Totumo.
El Totumo Mud Volcano is Colombia’s smallest volcano; and according to locals, it used to spew lava until a local priest decided that this volcano was the work of the devil, sprinkling holy water on it, and thereby turning El Totumo into a “Mud Volcano”.
Some say this is a “rite of passage” for all who visit Cartagena and some, say paying to jump into mud with 16 other strangers under the blazing sun is the most ridiculous tourist trap ever.
While El Totumo was nothing exhilarating as far as tourists activities go, it was in a weird way, something special.
Towering above me was this 50 foot volcano. At the top of the rickety old stairs was a queue of tourist waiting to take a dip in the mud. Finally it was my turn. Dressed in an old pair of shorts I knew I’d be throwing away after this activity, I lowered myself into the mud.
It was like nothing I ever felt before. I was weightless, like I was walking in space. I couldn’t sink, I couldn’t swim. It was unreal.
For this day trip, you’ll need to prepare a few USD 1 dollar notes as tips for the “mud masseur”, the photographer, and the lady who washes clean by the lake after the whole experience is over.
You’ll be back in Cartagena just in time for lunch. And that means, you’ll have pretty much a full day to continue enjoying the city.
Today, it’s time to check out the next other huge attraction in Cartagena, the greatest fortress Spain every built; Castilo San Felipe Barajas.
In the mid-1600s, Spain had this “Monster Fortress” built at a cost (in today’s dollars) of 2 trillion US dollars to defend the city against pirate attacks and invaders. The fort today is extremely well maintained, and from it, you can enjoy some of the best views in all of Cartagena.
Once you’re done with the fort, we suggest walking about the “real old town”, which is where the locals actually live outside the “walled city”. It’s safe enough, and has some really good local bars to enjoy a drink on a hot day without the rip off prices in the “walled city”.
Spend the rest of the evening back within the city walls, enjoy live music, people watch, and just chill. See? Colombia is huge, but there’s no need rush, even if all you have is just 10 days.
Day 5, 6 Santa Marta [Tayrona National Park]
Finally, the beach at last!
5 hours drive from Cartagena lies arguably, Colombia’s best beach in Tayrona National Park, Santa Marta.
“The Girl” and I didn’t visit Tayrona because we opted to spend more time in Cartagena and that was a mistake. On hindsight, we should have cut a couple of days Cartagena and allocated them to Tayrona and Santa Marta instead.
So for the purposes of this itinerary, I can tell you for a fact that instead of allocating 3-4 days to Cartagena, just do 2 days Cartagena, and 2 days in Santa Marta instead of wasting time at Cartagena’s beaches which aren’t very impressive, the good ones you have to get to by boat. That being the case, you might as well head here instead.
Day 7. Medellin [Comuna 13 + Surroundings]
Before our trip, Medellin was the city we were most excited to visit, largely because it was the home turf of drug lord Pablo Escobar.
When we finally arrived, Medellin didn’t disappoint; nothing to do with Escobar though; it was a genuinely interesting city. We hired an English speaking local guy to show us around and who would answer our questions.
Throughout the 1980s to the 1990s, Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The death of Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the disbanding of the Medellin Cartel opened up a new wave of fighting between smaller cartels, all eager for a slice of the rich drug trade that used to be Escobar’s.
Our first stop in Medellin was Comuna 13, among the poorest of Medellin’s neighbourhoods and also the new area of contention among drug lords due to its proximity to the pacific (good transportation route).
In 2002, the Colombian army entered and took Comuna 13, wiped out the cartels by force. That resulted in the deaths of thousands including innocents.
Today, what was widely regarded as a massacre is now accepted by the locals as a necessary evil. The community was able to reunite due to their common love for music and graffiti.
The newly introduced government initiatives by linking the community via cable cars and escalators, have now born fruit. It is easier for people to come down to the city to find work, and jobs have been created because of revenue from tourists eager to learn more about Colombia’s drug history.
Comuna 13 itself is worth a full day. I would suggest a guide not because of the safety aspect, it’s totally safe; but rather, because it helped us understand what we were seeing, the locals lives, the meanings behind the graffiti on the walls.
Imagine having ice creams while watching the locals dance, listening to the street music, the kids coming up to talk to us and sharing their stories so they could improve their English with the intention of being guides themselves one day.
It was not too long ago when this neighbourhood was a scene of violence and gang wars. Today, I’d spend my whole day among them without feeling a tinge of danger vibes. It was an amazing day spent.
Day 8. Medellin [Guatape/El Penol]
After a great day at Comuna 13, we signed up for yet another iconic “must do when in Medellin.
We got ourselves a day trip to Guatape, Colombia’s most “colourful” town and to El Penol, a rock we had to climb to get what locals claimed, was the best view in all of Colombia.
The tour is a full day event, and cost us around 40 Euros each but it included breakfast plus a traditional Colombian lunch.
We would suggest staying at one of the hotels in a neighbourhood called Poblado. We did, and it was a great neighbourhood with great nightlife and was walking distance for the pickup points designated for day tours.
Guatape is a photographers dream. It’s a wonderful little village full of colour and life.
Cuba’s Havana is “Instafamous” for its wonderful colors and old world charm. But as far as “colourful cities” go, Havana has nothing on Guatape.
It was nice to walk along the streets, listening to locals playing music, before finally settling down at a cafe for a traditional Colombian lunch of Bandejo Paisa and coffee.
We could see it long before we arrived. That was how huge it was.
When we got off the bus and stared at El Penol, “The Girl” told me, there’s no way we’ll be able to climb up that!
....738, 739, step 740! We are at the top El Penol, which means “The Rock”, and in front of us, is the best view in all of Colombia.
It was great to be finally at the top. 740 steps is tougher than it sounds. By the 300th step, I had to rest. Still, the magnificent view at the top coupled with a beer was well worth the effort.
30 mins later, it was time to go down…740, 739, 738…
We arrived back in Medellin at around 8pm with aching legs. But this is Colombia, where the night goes on and on. In front of us was a local night market. The night was still young.
Day 9. Medellin [Laureles, El Poblado, El Centro]
Today we decided to explore a little more of the city of Medellin and visited the neighbourhoods of Laureles, El Polado (where we stayed), and El Centro.
“Modern Medellin” is today a charming city, filled with beautiful parks, cool streets, hipster cafes, great restaurants and wine bars and many locals doing salsa dancing. Locals were friendly and offered to teach us Spanish (which we still suck at).
We skipped the popular Pablo Escobar tour because just a a couple of days earlier, our guide had explained to us most of what we wanted to know and we really wanted to spend the day walking around “Modern Medellin” after the events of the past couple of days.
We made it up to Pueblito Paisa just in time to watch the sun set over the Medellin basin.
Pueblito Paisa is a replica of a traditional Colombian town, set up for tourists who haven’t yet visited a proper Colombian town a chance to take a few pictures and walk into a museum of sorts that resembled a typical Colombian home.
This pretty much sums up our Medellin leg of our trip. We visited because of “Narcos”, but left learning the truth and details beyond what was shown.
Day 10. Bogota [Final Shopping/Monserrate]
“The Girl” and I did up this itinerary on the assumption that most people will fly out from Bogota, so we left the best highlight for the last day as this would be a great way to wrap up the trip.
We flew out from Medellin to Mexico instead of returning to Bogota. So if you’re doing what we did, you should visit this final attraction when you first arrive in Bogota instead
Bogotá sits at a height of 2640m, and sits in a basin, or valley in the Colombian Andes. From La Candelaria, a funicular will take you all the way up to the “Monserrate of Bogota”.
At 3152m, the "Monserrate of Bogota" offers a magnificent view of the basin/valley of Colombia’s capital. All of Bogotá is visible, making this the most popular place to watch the sunset in the city. .
Because the Monserrate is pretty much in the city itself, you’ll be able to combine this final attraction with some last minute shopping before you head to the airport for your flight out.
Colombia is huge country and in no way would a 10 day do this magnificent country justice.
For most Singaporeans though, we don’t usually have the luxury to do a gap year after university or take 6 months no pay leave just travel the world while spending a full month in just one country. While this way of travel means there are some aspects of Colombia we’ll never get to experience, it would be silly not to come at all.
So, “The Girl” and I present you with this 10-day itinerary ideal for anyone short of time but yet still wants to experience the highlights of Colombia.
This was our first taste of South America, a short 10 day one no doubt, but I’m glad we had a taste. It’s not difficult to get around and unlike what is depicted in Narcos, it’s safe (barring pickpockets that Europe has as well) nowadays, even solo female travellers (we came across many).
If you’ve always wanted to visit South America but you haven’t because you didn’t know how to get started, we hope this itinerary helps. Cheers!
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