As soon as I booked my Intrepid tour to Colombia, I begun to worry. Usually upon booking a trip I frantically start to Google swanky bars and cute coffee shops to visit (sorry not sorry). This time, however, I let the concerns of friends and family really get to me.
My grandma emailed me saying “be careful. You are very precious.” My parents – usually so laid-back, and who had no problem with me visiting Morocco solo – had a minor freak out. A colleague told me about a negative experience there, and friends texted to express their low-key distress (though the ones that had been said only good things – something that gave me a little hope).
I booked flights for the 10-day Explore Colombia trip. And in a supremely confident (and efficient) hour beforehand, I decided on a few days in Medellin post-trip. I booked a hostel for myself. And I even booked an overnight bus there from Bogota, where my tour would end.
Immediately, however, I felt a twinge of regret. I remembered the warnings of my nearest and dearest. I couldn’t recall seeing anything positive about Colombia in the media – something that sure didn’t help. So I continued to bury myself in my work and gave my upcoming trip alarmingly little thought.
To cut a long story short: the entire trip was incredible. Colombia shot up my list of favourite countries. My worries proved just that – worries, not realities. And, honestly, since returning, I’ve boasted about the country so much that if the tourism board was charging me commission on trips sold, I’d be able to retire early.
Here’s why I think every traveller should consider visiting Colombia (whether solo or solo on a small group tour), and what it’s really like:
The infrastructure for tourists is good, and only getting better
As my anecdotes have revealed thus far, I didn’t embark on my Colombia trip knowing too much about the country. After decades of civil war and political turmoil, the country’s association with drugs and violence is all too well-known (and an issue of the past, not present). So, when I arrived into coastal Cartagena, imagine my surprise when parts looked as glitzy as Miami. I arrived at our stylish hotel for the next two nights and quickly realised that the majority of my assumptions about Colombia were wrong.
South America’s oldest democracy and the continent’s third largest economy (behind Brazil and Argentina), Colombia quite honestly, isn’t a difficult or scary place to travel around. When you’re solo, trip logistics are solely up to you, so you tend to worry about them more. But, fortunately, I had my incredibly organised local leader Carolina on hand to clear up misconceptions and answer questions. She ensured the group moved efficiently and safely from point a to point b via local transport. She recommended her favourite restaurants, cool bars and cute cafes (which was lucky, as I never did get round to Googling them). And she gave us much-needed context and cultural insight into this oft-understood country.
Even after the tour, I embarked on the lengthy journey from the capital, Bogota, to Medellin and found that the journey was far easier than expected. I got an Uber from my hotel to the bus station, I used gestures to make sure I was at the right terminal (and was subsequently helped by at least 10 staff members and passengers) and I had not a single issue on the (well-priced) overnight bus. Arriving in and getting around Medellin was even easier. Thank a metro system that truly puts most cities to shame (and ensure you stay at the stunning Rango Boutique Hostel).
All in all, hotels tend to have the amenities you could want or need. The public transport is, in my opinion, pretty easy to use (even for non-Spanish speakers). And if you are surprised by the infrastructure you find in Colombia, it’ll be in a good way.
It’s far safer than many would have you believe
During my time in the country – both during day and night, on and after the tour – I explored solo. I sat in public squares in Cartagena at dusk, I strolled through Medellin’s El Poblado neighbourhood at night, and I staggered (after quite a number of Christmas drinks) through the colonial town of Barichara at an ungodly hour. Of course, I didn’t take unnecessary precautions. I ensured I never carried large amounts of money on me. I wasn’t flaunting anything fancy. And I had my wits about me. But believe me when I say – even though it’s anecdotal – that I felt safe. And that you will too.
I chatted to my Bogota-born local leader Carolina all about the safety situation, and her insights were telling. She told me that security concerns nowadays don’t relate to the conflict; they relate to the usual happenings in bigger towns and cities. She also said that she’s never had issues with people being mugged on any of the (many) trips she’d led. I think I speak for my entire Intrepid group when I say that we arrived in the country a little worried about what to expect, and left feeling as safe as we were happy.
In case you’re still worried, here’s a few tried-and-tested spots I visited that I’d recommend. In Bogota, venture to La Candelaria (the city’s historic and colonial heart) to partake in the exceptional graffiti tour. But if you’re looking for the best eats and nightlife, I’d stick to the expat-friendly Chapinero neighbourhood (inventive restaurant Mini-Mal and trendy bar El Mono Bandido are must-visits). In Cartagena, the Getsemani neighbourhood boasts some gritty parts but is authentic and safe. You’ll be completely fine visiting the iconic fortress alone, as well as dining on top-notch ceviche at nearby La Cevicheria. And in Medellin, you really can’t go wrong anywhere in the El Poblado neighbourhood, but the cable-car over the city is also cheap, safe and easy.
Of course, no solo adventure should stick solely to the big cities. One of my trip highlights was a hike through the jungle to stunning beaches in Tayrona National Park (admittedly easier logistically if you’re on a tour).
Another highlight was the small Andean town of San Gil, the country’s adventure capital. Offering an authentic glimpse into Colombian life (as well as rafting, caving, paragliding and more), it also proved a good place to meet other travellers (where to go for this? Gringo Mike’s!).
Lastly, close to San Gil lies the picture-perfect town of Barichara. I never would have ventured here had it not been for my Intrepid tour, but I found it to be not only peaceful and home to stunning hikes, but somewhere that felt incredibly safe with its small town vibes. (Our leader Carolina’s suggestions of Shanti for veggie food and El Compa for unpretentious, traditional cuisine were both fantastic.)
There’s countless opportunities to meet other travellers
Colombia is no Peru. Tourism here is still in its infancy (despite growing a whopping 250% growth in visitor numbers between 2006 and 2016). That said, it’s really not hard to meet other travellers. I was really glad that my tour started in Cartagena because it’s probably the city that’s most tourist-friendly. Far less affected by the violence of the past, it’s been drawing visitors for decades. And if it’s fellow adventurers you want, just head to the colourful Old Town and you’ll find ’em.
The popularity of the backpacker scene also surprised me in Medellin. The nightlife scene here is massive, and the digital nomad community that call the city home is ever-growing.
Another top tip for meeting travellers is going on free walking tours. Prior to visiting Colombia, I rarely went on walking tours, and certainly never gushed about them. But locals in Colombia are nothing if not passionate about showing off their country – something that really comes across on tours like these. I mentioned Bogota’s free graffiti tour earlier but it’s worth stressing just how insightful it was. Additionally, be sure to check out Beyond Colombia for a more general walking tour of Bogota and Real City Tours for an array of fascinating tours they offer in Medellin. (Don’t forget to tip generously at the end.)
But, in my experience, the easiest way of meeting like-minded travellers was by joining a tour. Any worries of not having free time (there was plenty!) and not liking the people (they were lovely!) disappeared almost instantaneously. But the best thing about my small group was not just that I had a ready-made group of friends to adventure (and eat and drink) with, but that they were people from all over, of all ages. They were travellers I had similar values to but people I wouldn’t ordinarily come into contact with in my Toronto bubble. I had the absolute best time with Litza from Ohio, Wes from Tennessee, Christina from Bermuda and all the rest of the gang.
The locals want you to be there
When Carolina sat my Intrepid group down for our introductory meeting, she told us that Colombia has two main things going for it: the diversity of landscapes and the people. Throughout my (much too short) time in the country, I discovered that she was correct. From the dense forests of the Amazon to the desert of the Guajira Peninsula to the steep hills of the Cocora Valley to the Caribbean AND the Pacific coast, this biodiverse country has it all. (And while we’re here, added bonus: it’s good value! I had a three-course meal for $5 in San Gil!)
And, ah the people. I’m going to try and avoid clichés and blanket generalisations, but I will say that everywhere I travelled, both alone and on my tour, I was greeted warmly. And, importantly, I was never hassled. Unlike in some other countries where being a tourist, being female, being alone etc. can mean unwanted attention, I experienced this not once in Colombia.
Quite simply – and refreshingly enough in this age of overtourism – the locals seemed happy to see us. They were far from jaded. Tourism is just beginning here, the benefits are only beginning to be felt. And on every single walking tour I experienced, the local guide implored us to spread the word. To tell our friends and family back home that we felt safe, that we’d had a great time, that the country is ready to welcome more visitors.
A worthwhile message to spread. One I hope I’m spreading successfully in writing this.
Ready to explore this South American gem for yourself? Consider travelling solo an an Intrepid tour to Colombia.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Rebecca Shapiro x3, Christina Herzog, Intrepid Travel, Rebecca Shapiro x2.)