When studying abroad in a foreign country, it is easy to become overwhelmed by your new surroundings. You are all of a sudden immersed in a new culture, eating unfamiliar foods, and meeting people from all over the world; all of this while trying find time to do your homework.
The best way to find a balance and feel more connected to this new country is to explore it. I have found that traveling has brought me and Colombia closer together; each time I explore a new city, eat at a new restaurant, make a new friend, or get lost in the Colombian jungle (yes, that happened), the more connected I feel to her and all her wonders.
Of course, it can be challenging to organize your first domestic trip within Colombia, which is why I hope this blog post will take some of the weight off your shoulders while planning and deciding where to go. Below I have compiled a list of all of the places I have experienced so far that I feel are noteworthy and mandatory that you go to while studying abroad in Colombia.
If you like getting out of the city and want to explore Colombia’s many natural wonders, then Tayrona National Park is a great option for you. This park is filled with hiking trails where you can experience exotic birds, wild monkeys, flora of all colors, and sandy beaches along the pristine waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Tayrona is a great weekend trip and takes very little packing, a sturdy backpack is really all you need. Once packed, the journey to Tayrona from Barranquilla consists of about a 2 1/2 hour bus ride, which you may be tempted to sleep during the drive, but trust me you want to stay awake for this one. The drive down there is a beautiful one as you pass by lush green mountains and colorful Colombian villages. Tayrona National Park is located outside of Santa Marta near a town called Minca. You will most likely end up taking a bus to Santa Marta and then switching to another bus that will take you to Tayrona. To find bus schedules isn’t too hard, just takes a little research and asking the locals.
Once you arrive, you will be given a brief information session where they will go over the trails, places to stop while hiking, the beaches, and any other information they deem necessary. After this, you are free to explore! There are many beaches to hike to and all are worth stopping at. When I traveled there we spent the most time at the beach called Cabo San Juan, about a 2 hour hike from the park’s entrance. The beach features beautiful panoramic views of the Caribbean, as well as a delicious restaurant to stop at for lunch.
At night, you’re accommodation option is a hammock. There are many places to stay along the trails, some more secluded than others. I stayed in Arrecifes, which is about an hour hike from the entrance and is one of the resort areas you pass on your way to Cabo San Juan. Arrecifes is much more secluded in the park, surrounded by a lot of trees and shade. There is also a beautiful area to hammock right on Cabo San Juan beach, where they have hammocks strung along inside a large lookout tour on the beach that you can reserve, which offers 360 degree views of the park and the ocean.
No matter where you stay in Tayrona, it’s a win win.
If you are more of a city person or have an interest in history and culture, Cartagena is a great choice! Just two hours from Barranquilla, Cartagena is a very accessible option for a weekend getaway. I recommend using the Berlinas bus system, it’s priced well and a good, safe option for travel.
Cartagena is filled with things to do from rooftop discotecas (night clubs), bars, restaurants, museums, beaches, and shopping. Cartagena is a very artsy and colorful city with beautiful colonial architecture, so bringing your camera is a must. Also, if you enjoy art, the streets of Cartagena are filled with it. As you walk though the Ciudad Antigua (Old City) or any street in Cartagena you will likely find many amazing hand painted murals and urban graffiti that will really give you a taste of the Cartagena artsy culture.
If you’re feeling adventurous in Cartagena, then you also can take a 2 hour boat ride to the Rosario Islands. While here you can snorkel, bike the island, canoe, swim, get a massage, eat at the island restaurant, or just lay out and relax while enjoying the fresh sea breeze.
Another great destination and my personal favorite, is a town called Minca. About 30 minutes to an hour outside of Santa Marta, also accessible by bus. This small town nestled within the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range is also a great weekend trip for those who enjoy the outdoors, nature, exploration, and the opportunity to experience Colombia from a new perspective.
While here you can swim in nearby waterfalls, eat the authentic Colombian cuisine, visit a local coffee farm, and hike through the wild Colombian jungle. This is also a trip where you want to pack light, a backpack is all you need.
As far as a place to stay, I 100% recommend and require you to stay at a nearby hostel called La Casa Elemento. This hostel is located near the top of the mountain range and is accessible by jeep, foot, or motor taxi. It features panoramic views of the mountains, Minca, and also has a giant hammocks that overlooks the mountains below offering breathtaking views. The hostel also has a swinging hammock! Not only are the views to die for, the hostel itself offers a very laid back and comforting vibe, which will likely make you feel as if you are in another world entirely.
The hostel also offers breakfast (about 8.000-10.000 pesos), lunch (8.000-12.000 pesos) and dinner (15.000 pesos), all priced at a cheap cost (about $3-5 USD!) and worth every peso! Also for those who are vegetarian or vegan, this hostel is very friendly to all kinds of diets and lifestyles and will adjust any food accordingly. Dinners are always family style, which gives you a great opportunity to talk with the other guests from all over the world.
At night you can either sleep in the hammock you rent, or do what I did and sleep on the giant hammock outside under the stars. Seriously, you have to sleep on it at least one night so that you can truly enjoy the gorgeous night sky, and wake up to the beautiful sunrise the next morning. You also may hear a strange loud roaring noise in the mountains down below, but don’t worry it’s not a T-Rex coming to eat you (although it sounds like it), it’s just the wild howler monkeys!
The hostel also is surrounded by hiking trails ranging anywhere from 1 to 7 hours, depending on where you want to go. Just be aware that the map they give you is hand drawn, isn’t quite to scale, and may be missing a few important details. Those missing details are what lead to me and my friends spending some time turned around in the jungle, but hey! Because of that experience we can now take home some pretty epic stories.
A great place to stop while hiking is the local coffee farm known as “La Victoria.” Here you can learn all about how their famous Colombian coffee is made and even sip on a sample freshly ground right outside the door. The coffee farm also features a cute cafe inside, serving vegetarian and other homemade sandwiches, perfect for a lunch break.
The world awaits…discover it.