By Anna Timbrook
Colombia was considered an unsavory place for traveling a few decades ago, but that has changed in recent years. Today, it’s not unusual for the solo female traveler to visit this out-of-the-ordinary South American destination.
Colombia is perfect if you’re yearning for extraordinary diversity in physical features, climate, fascinating history and colorful culture. There is so much to do and see − from touring coffee plantations to hiking across breathtaking mountains to swinging in a hammock on a Caribbean beach.
Despite the government’s hard work to change Colombia’s image, most people are only familiar with the larger cities like Bogotá, Medellín or Cartagena. While these cities do offer plenty to see, there is a lot more to Colombia and visitors will often feel they have to return to see it all.
Salento is a beautiful little town of bright colors and is a relatively recent addition to the travel trail. The region was overrun by guerrilla groups until just a few years ago and for a long time was unsafe for travelers. That has changed now and it is one of Colombia’s fastest-growing travel spots, not only for foreigners but for the many Colombians who love to visit this region, especially on the weekend, to sample the local charm and relaxed vibe.
Salento is compact and everything is within walking distance. A large lovely plaza is the heart of the town, with small streets branching off of it. Cafés are plentiful, and the food is excellent throughout town. Typical of Salento if you’re looking for local food are patacones, or large slices of fried green plantain, but you’ll find a wide range of eateries. Try the Café Bernabé Gourmet, a bit pricier than the average eatery but worth it, so book or get there early.
A must visit while in the area is the Valle de Cocora to see the extremely tall wax palms. This has to be one of the best hikes in Colombia. It’s possible to take a short walk from the end of the main street, go horseback riding on trails or take a circuit hike to a viewpoint and back. Just be aware that walking the entire circuit takes 3-4 hours, and at altitude, so fitness is a must. However, doing the entire loop helps avoid most of the crowds, especially earlier in the day.
Getting to the valley from Salento is easy: vintage jeeps wait at the plaza for visitors and the drive is relatively short. The four-wheel drive vehicles are open and passengers enjoy standing up in the back − fun for the first five minutes but ultimately quite strenuous.
A popular half-day excursion from Salento is a coffee tour. This is, after all, the heart of Colombia’s coffee producing region. There are plenty of options but one of the oldest and most popular is Finca El Ocaso. You can actually walk there from town in 45-60 minutes, mostly downhill, or catch a jeep. You’ll be fascinated by insight into how coffee is actually made and how much work can go into a simple cup. Reaching Salento is simple by bus from most major cities, or you can fly into nearby airports at Pereira or Armenia.
Jardín was founded by two priests fleeing General Mosquera during the Colombian Civil War in Medellín, who decided to stay and create an independent village in the area. Little has changed in town since then and it remains small but lively, with well-preserved whitewashed buildings trimmed with colors. Well worth visiting is the elaborate Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, whose exceptional interior is painted turquoise. The perfect side trip from Medellín, it takes a little over three hours to get there by bus. While the roads may not always be in great condition, the views are stunning.
Jardín is very friendly and caballeros ride through town on horses and tip their hats to greet visitors. The town has excellent hiking among lush surroundings and waterfalls. However, information in town is quite hard to find, so pop in to a local outfit such as Jardín Eco Tours.
Jardín is in the middle of Colombia’s coffee region, so if you missed taking a coffee tour in Salento, take one here. Drinking coffee is of course a high art and cafés are plentiful and reasonably priced. Café Macanas Dulcería Jardín, on the road beside the church, is a great place to grab a cup of coffee while in town.
If you plan to stay in Jardín, you’ll find plenty of lovely hostels with hammocks swinging on the porch and peaceful surroundings. One such affordable option on the outskirts of town is Hotel & Hostal Jardín Antioquia Portón Campestre. A more upmarket alternative in the center of town is Casa Passiflora Hotel Boutique.
Jericó is perhaps one of the best known alternatives to Jardín. It is also around a three-hour bus ride from Medellín and has a similar “look”, with the colorful trim on whitewashed houses. Nearby, the Cauca River flows and lush, green hills offer incredible views.
When coming here by bus from Medellín, be aware the roads are quite curvy and best avoided by those who suffer from motion sickness. If you still want to attempt it, make sure you take the right kind of medication. Once in town, you can use one of the many colorful tuk-tuks on hand to escort visitors around.
A must-do in Jericó is climbing Christ Hill to the statue of Christ at the top. You’ll feel a sense of achievement and also be rewarded by stunning views of the terracotta village roofs, rolling green hills behind and the higher mountains beyond.
To reach Christ Hill, take the cobblestone path from the Botanical Gardens. The path is easy to follow from just above the bottom cable car station. However, keep in mind it is an 1100ft ascent, so it requires a reasonable level of fitness. It is also frequently used and safe for visitors, although I would always check with locals before undertaking it. An easier alternative is to take the cable car straight to the top and soak up the views with little to no effort.
Visit the birthplace of the Holy Mother Laura on one of the free guided tours (boxes for voluntary donations are available). Another point of interest is the Museum of Anthropology and Arts featuring archeological artefacts from the region.
Jericó is quiet and friendly, and it’s safe to walk around alone. Both food and lodging are budget-friendly. Try lunch at La Terraza and dine on traditional cuisine like arepas, made of a ground maize dough, and bocadillo, a paste made of guava pulp and sweetened with panela. Delicious coffee drinks are available all around town. At sundown, mingle with local people and other travelers at Club Colombia, the town’s favorite bar.
A good hotel choice is the Casa Santamaria Hotel Campestre. The rooms are comfortable and have private baths and there is a garden, free wifi and complimentary bikes. For an excellent hostel, try Las Cometas. The staff is warm, welcoming and helpful. Relax in the commons area in hammocks for drinks with the other guests.
TAYRONA NATIONAL PARK
To experience Colombia’s flora and fauna, visit Tayrona National Park, on the Caribbean coast an hour’s bus ride from the city of Santa Marta. Be aware that all travelers to the park are required to have a yellow fever vaccination certificate.
There is no internet in Tayona Park, so spending a day or two immersed in the beauty of the Caribbean Coast is like a digital detox. The park has two entrances, the Calabazo entrance, and the Zaino entrance. After arriving at the park, an optional shuttle bus will take you to a campsite or to wherever you want to begin your hike. You’ll need good walking shoes, and flip flops for the communal showers if you plan on camping.
The greatest things to fear for the solo female traveler in the park is the mosquito and the sun, so take your precautions against insects and bring your sunblock. The wildlife in Tayrona includes howler monkeys, the oncilla, (a small tiger cat), deer, and around 300 species of tropical birds.
You can eat at one of the affordable camp cafés, or buy canned food and water at the camp entrances. The water has strong riptides, so the only safe place to swim is a spot called La Piscina.
The campsites scattered throughout the park are safe, and if you want the comforts of a hotel, the villages of Guachaca and Los Naranjos are close and convenient. Both towns are charming and a part of the greater Santa Marta area which has been declared safe for travel by government officials.
Accommodations are available inside the park or in the surrounding towns of Los Naranjo, Guachacha, and Santa Marta. If you stay inside the park, you could rent a hammock, a tent and sleeping bag, or an eco-hub. The hammocks are normally located inside a large communal room that may be crowded. It’s an inexpensive and primitive way to go, so a better option is to pay a little more and for a tent and sleeping bag if necessary. Camping in the wild is not allowed, and fires are prohibited.
Cabo San Juan is the most popular camping site, and spots are on a first-come-first-serve basis. At Playa Brava, spots can be booked in advance, and cabins are also available. The eco-hubs are comfortable but more expensive. There are wooden bungalows on Canaveral Beach that fit three to four people, and you’ll find a spa, a restaurant, and shuttle cabs for going into the towns of Cartagena, Tanganga, Santa Marta, and the airport.
There is an entry price to the park so you might consider spending an entire day or two. Do check, however, because the park has been known to shut down in February.
Truly off the beaten path, Minca is gaining in popularity, but remains quiet and relaxing. It’s located high in the jungle region and is a good place to escape the heat. The easiest way to get there is from Santa Marta, and Santa Marta is accessible from Cartagena. Take a group taxi/bus from the local market area − cheap, safe and easy. Taking a taxi is an option, but for most people it’s not worth the extra cost.
Minca may not be in Colombia’s major coffee region but it still has some amazing local coffee, which can be sampled at many of the local cafés. The town favorite seems to be La Miga Bakery, with a nice balcony out front with seats that fill up fast!
Well worth a visit is the Finca la Victoria Plantation, a self-sustaining coffee farm that runs on water power from nearby mountain streams. The farm is a 90-minute hike from town through breathtaking scenery. It is quite strenuous hiking in the lush, jungle-filled hills around town, so it pays to be quite fit. And it is always recommended to take a guide unless you know your way around.
Finca La Candelaria is a great spot for coffee and chocolate lovers. This coffee and chocolate farm is at the end of a 75-minute hiking trail that leads out of town. To get there, leave from the main intersection in Minca and head toward Santa Marta. Turn right past the police station to find the trail. It’s a steep hike that is best avoided in the sun. Taking a town motorbike up is recommended as the walk is steep and you can then walk back down, which is less strenuous.
The Marinka Falls are a popular spot and can be reached on foot in about an hour − or take a motorbike to the entrance. Upon arrival, there is another short, steep walk to the falls where you’ll find a coffee shop, but the walk is suitable for everyone with decent footwear. The coffee shop comes complete with hanging nets to relax in, so it’s worth the walk!
There is plenty of bird watching to be done in Minca, one of the country’s most species-rich areas. If you’re an avid birdwatcher, contact Jungle Joe, a local tour guide and bird collector. Joe can also help with coffee and chocolate farm tours and almost anything else you need.
A delightful corner of Colombia is Barichara, one of the quietest, safest and most well-kept places in the country.
The large cobblestone streets are a pleasure to walk any time of the day or night. The town is a little hilly in parts, but its colonial charm is fun to explore.
The town square − with its ever-present church, the Catedral de La Inmaculada Concepción − is a great spot for coffee and to watch people go about their daily business. Next to the church are a number of relaxing cafés for some local ice cream and a cup of coffee.
A local paper museum, La Fundación San Lorenzo de Barichara, is well worth a quick visit. Local women run short museum tours and are extremely happy to show visitors around, including the locally grown plants from which they source the paper fibers.
Walkers and hikers will love the half day hike on the Camino Real to Guane. It was an old trail used by locals that is now predominantly used by tourists. It can get hot during the day, so it is recommended to go as early as possible. The hike takes around two hours, mostly downhill, to reach the town of Guane, which also has cobbled streets and a nice square but little else.
Two options exist to return to Barichara: back the same way on foot, or by local bus back, which runs multiple times a day.
The only major downside to Barichara is getting there, a complex and lengthy dance that involves an all-day bus from Bogotá to San Gil, and then a change to Barichara. A multi-day trip with a rental car or on local buses from Bogotá might be easiest, taking advantage of a few other stops along the way, such as Villa Leyva.
WHEN TO VISIT
The dry season runs December to March, and this is the ideal time to visit, especially for those living in cold climates looking for a warm getaway. Colombia’s Caribbean coast’s climate changes little from season-to-season, so a trip can be planned there anytime.
SAFE SOLO FEMALE TRAVEL IN COLOMBIA
In Romancing the Stone, romance novelist Joan Wilder had to get to Cartagena to rescue her kidnapped sister. She was caught up in a few harrowing misadventures with a rogue mercenary. These days, solo female travel is much safer!
Still, there are a few common-sense measures one should take. Don’t wear overly-flashy clothing; look polished, not rich. Leave the flashy jewelry at home.
Local people know what is safe and what is not, and which areas to avoid, so always check with the staff before heading out in a new area, especially at night. And be sure to get their help organising transport as they know who to trust, and which services are best to use.
Never withdraw money from an ATM on the street. Use one inside a store or bank. Although daylight robbery is not a common problem, it’s not necessary to make it easier for potential thieves. Don’t leave your cell phone lying around, and take care with your cash, perhaps keeping it in a crossbody travel bag or a money belt.
TIPS FOR ETIQUETTE IN COLOMBIA
First, it’s Colombia, not Columbia. If in a situation where it must be written down, be sure to use the correct spelling. Colombian women dress well so save your ultra casual shorts and flip flops for the beaches.
Don’t be offended by the term “gringo”. Colombian’s call all foreigners that. Think of it as another word for tourist.
Feel free to talk to strangers. Colombians are naturally friendly but don’t tend to speak any English beyond the main cities or tourist destinations.
Drugs and the drug trade are not acceptable topics of conversation and will offend Colombians; just because you are in Medellín does not mean people welcome talk about Pablo Escobar. If anything, his reign over the city was a period most would like to forget.
Anna was born to travel the world having studied languages all her life. Although she has traveled the world, she now calls Switzerland home and spends her time writing about her experiences on Expert World Travel. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.