Quick Colombia Tips

From Medellin to Cartagena, here are just a few quick tips based on my experience in Colombia.

A few years ago I spent a month exploring Colombia, and a colleague recently asked for tips. I wrote up a quick doc for her professing my recommended highlights, and thought others might appreciate it, as well. Without further ado…

Read before you go:

Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but specifically Love in the Time of Cholera; here’s a blog entry I wrote about Cartagena.

Eat while in Colombia:

Arepas (I personally find sweet corn arepas and the plain ones to be meh)–go for the ones like Arepa con Huevo or Chicharron.

Papas rellenas.


Fried fish with coconut rice and plantains — a must have when on the coast.

Bandeja Paisa–a big plate of meat and meat and carbs and starch. This is a popular meal in the more rural and mountainous regions.

Trout (La Trucha) especially if in the Coffee Triangle.

Casuela de Frijoles— sort of a bean stew. You can get a great bowl of it at Ajiaco y Mondongo’s in Medellin

Mondongo, of course, is a garlicky, creamy soup most popular in Bogota.

Patacón con Todo— Heaped onto a styrofoam plate with the routine precision of a Michelin star chef, I saved this baby for last. Patacón is the same as Tostones, or twice fried plantains. On top of this is seemingly everything you’d want on a mountain of plantains. You’ve got your sausage, your shredded chicken, your onions and cheese and beans. Top it with potato sticks and three kinds of sauce (my guess is pineapple, ketchup and mayo), and there you have a perfectly edible munchie meal, one that’s good enough to write home about. Where can you find this delicacy? I popped my Patacon cherry at a stand along the borders of the Plaza in front of the Iglesia de la Trinidad in Cartagena.


Medellin Breakdown:

Where to stay: The neighborhood El Poblado is where a lot of backpackers stay. A bit nicer and trendier.  What to do: Visit Parque Botero, eat a nasty hot dog. Take a salsa class and go dancing at El Eslabon Prendido! Go paragliding because you’ll never be able to afford it here and the views are increíble. Take a Pablo Escobar tour and find out why Medellin used to be the murder capital of the world.

Bogota Breakdown:

Bogota is the kind of city where you want to spend some time. Similar to New York, it’s hard to feel as if you’ve gotten an understanding of the place if you’re just passing through. However, if you must, some highlights are: Go on a graffiti tour Watch the sunset at the top of Montserrat Learn about gold at the Museo de Oro Shop. You’ll find your market somewhere. ……… You can read a bit further about my Bogota experience here.

Salento Breakdown:

Salento is the type of small Andean town in the middle of Colombia’s coffee triangle where you can expect to find men walking between colorful craft shops in small ponchos and cowboy hats, where you can perch yourself on a hillside hacienda drinking freshly roasted coffee and looking out at the snow-capped peaks of Los Nevados National Park. The town itself is lovely, so make sure not to just pass through it, as it’s not to be overlooked. Coffee farms surround the small town, so make sure to take a coffee plantation tour. But the main allure of Salento is its role as a gateway to Cocora Valley, the home of the stately wax palm trees, a national symbol.

Cartagena Breakdown:

Where to stay: I stayed at El Viajero Hostel, close to Monumenta India Catalina and the best damn arepa stand in the city. Many tourists like to stay on the lively Calle Media Luna. If you’re looking to stay on the beach, there are a ton of high rises in Marbella, but the beach isn’t incredibly impressive. The city is far more fascinating. The neighborhood of Getsemani is the new hot spot in Cartagena, so might be worth checking out hotels there.

**if you do decide that you love the reviews of el viajero and want a hostel vibe, it is worth noting that the private rooms, while air conditioned, are directly next to the courtyard where you will never get a peaceful night’s sleep. Not that you want one in Cartagena…

What to do: Beach is nice, but as you see if you read my post, I just loved walking around and eating, drinking, smoking, napping, getting caught in torrential downpours. It’s fucking hot in Cartagena.

A lot of people go to the mud volcano which I heard was over touristy, or take a day trip to Playa Blanca which is meant to be gorgeous, but I didn’t go…

Santa Marta Breakdown:

Santa Marta is a great gateway to other cool parts of the coast like Tayrona National Park, Minca, Palomino, Taganga, etc. The city itself is really not that cool (although some may disagree), but The Dreamer Hostel was actually a dream. You can see some of the pics from there in a blog post here.

Taganga Breakdown:

Alternately, you can even stay in Taganga, although I don’t have recommendations for where. Known in Colombia as “the backpacker’s ghetto”, it’s a sleepy fishing village, a little gritty, but absolutely lovely. We partied there one night at arguably my favorite club in all South America called El Mirador. As its name suggests, it looks out over the port. There’s a ton of different indoor and outdoor dance floors, a good mix of tourists and locals, and you can party till the sun rises and you can see little fishing boats bobbing calmly in the water. You can also walk along the beach during the party to look for drugs or arepas. And there’s always an after party.

Minca Breakdown:

Minca is a little village that is known among backpackers for two things– 1) A waterfall; 2) Casa Elemento–Pro tip: book in advance (if they have no beds, you can also pay to sleep in a hammock, which I did). The town is quite small, so if there are other things to do there, I didn’t hear about them.

Whatever hostel you stay at can arrange for you to take a taxi to the waterfall, which is a short trip and not a big hike to the falls.

A taxi can also take you the center of town, where you can take a zigzaggy, adventurous ride up to Casa Elemento, a hostel in the sky boasting the world’s largest hammock!!!. Make sure to find out how much the moto-taxi up will be before you meet with a driver and pay him before you sit down on the back of his bike so that he doesn’t try to get more out of you at the top.

The ride to Casa Elemento is super fun, but about an hour long into the mountains. Can read about my experience with this hostel here. **make sure to bring tons of deet/bug spray and something warm and covered up at night.

Palomino Breakdown: 

Again, stayed here at the Dreamer Hostel sister. It’s the prettier of the two with an excellent bar, restaurant, pool and rooms. It’s right on the beach, as well, and the water has the craziest current I’ve ever seen, so not swimmable but def something to see. You can also go river tubing in Palomino, but I didn’t get around to it.  


I didn’t make it here because I heard mixed reviews. I think the deal is a massive sweaty hike to a gorgeous beach where you can camp out for the night, sleeping on hammocks or in tents rented from the vendors there. I hear these hammocks and tents are pretty vile and a lot of people said that while gorgeous, the whole ordeal was more of a headache than it was worth.

by Rebecca Bellan

Salento: Not to be Overlooked

Salento, Colombia is a peaceful town in the Coffee Triangle of Colombia.

Enjoy the town’s serenity, cuisine, and artisan culture.


Most people come to Salento, a small town nestled in the Quindio region of the coffee triangle, to engage in the activities beyond its tranquil streets, such as visiting coffee farms or trekking the Cocora Valley. However, the historic cowboy town itself is an alluring stopping ground due to its 360 views of Los Nevados mountain range, its relaxed atmosphere, colorful colonial architecture, and talented artisans. The poncho and cowboy hat wearing locals move about with a practiced calm and always have a genuine, slow smile for the many foreigners who visit. The main square, complete with church, supermarket and police station, is flanked on all four sides by restaurants and filled in the middle with food trucks serving up traditional paisa style cuisine and the regional specialty, trout or trucha. The constant slightly overcast skies and high altitude near the mountains make for mild and cool temperatures in the damp air. The two spots that made me wish I had more time to spend in Salento were my hostel, La Serrana, and a little café called Brunch.

the plaza when we first arrived
the jeep stand


Laura and me crouched in the back of our first jeep
food stands in the plaza
bandeja paisa- traditional gigantic plate of meats and starches


side street off the plaza- notice the cowboy on the right

La Serrana

I met German man in Bogota who had been backpacking for nearly two years, and he referred me to this hostel, where, he said, you can cook using ingredients from La Serrana’s very own garden. The 20 hectares of lush farmland where the hostel makes its home is about a half an hour walk outside of the city, or a ten minute, 600 peso-per-person old army jeep ride, down a dirt road past damp farms and healthy looking cattle. La Serrana is a home away from home. Its property perches prettily among the emerald plains and hills of Los Nevados mountain range. With a family style breakfast and dinner, dim mood lighting and comfortable leather chairs and sofas, visitors to La Serrana really get to experience a taste of the Colombian hacienda lifestyle.

main building


the dining room
an outdoor hang out near the fire pit


the hostel’s garden


delicious breakfast
so homey



While the breakfast was delicious and the grounds were incredible, my favorite part about staying there was a stray dog that roamed around the farm. I named him Randall after he accompanied me on a few walks into town, only stopping to terrorize the cows. I don’t know where this dog came from, but my new friend Randall escorted me many times for my entire walk from the hostel to wherever I had to go in town, occasionally linking up with me when I popped in and out of stores or restaurants.

Me and Randall, a stray who hung around the hostel


following us into town



If you’ve been reading, you know that I am an adventurous eater who likes to sample the local flavor when I travel. But that doesn’t mean I’ll turn down a burger and a peanut butter filled brownie. Brunch is also a traveler’s home away from home, offering guests (usually outsiders) an American diner-style menu, complete with pancakes and omelets, tuna melts and turkey burgers. The small restaurant is owned and run by an American (I think…could be Canadian, I suppose) gentleman who, legend has it, still does not speak Spanish. His manager claims to be from Bogota, yet speaks English like a Californian, and is the most gracious host, quickly scrambling to bring cucumber water to the table, answer any questions about the menu, or let us sample some of the restaurant’s homemade peanut butter. After Laura ordered the most delicious black bean burger ever and I ordered the teriyaki pineapple burger—complete with lettuce, tomato, cheese, onions and fries— I set about reading the writing on the walls and picking up a deck of cards from the game pile to play a little Spit with Laura. We were barely into the first round when our food came.

wall notes



nice manager feeding us homemade peanut butter- i’m almost done with the jar I brought home


Needless to say, everything was delicious. We came back as many times as our stomachs would allow, and to help us digest so we could order a brownie a la mode, we vegged on the couches and bean bag chairs in the movie room in the back, taking our pick of 1000 movies on a USB.


watching ‘a knight’s tale’

by Rebecca Bellan

Where The Caffeine Grows…

Touring El Ocaso Finca in Salento, Colombia to see how coffee is made.

See how Salento’s mountain climate is perfect to make the smoothest coffee in the world.


After two months of accepting instant coffee and canned milk as my morning fate, I was thrilled to finally make it to Colombia to get a proper caffeine fix in. To see how my favorite addiction is made, I decided to take the scenic 40-minute walk through mountain jungle from my hostel La Serrana in Salento to check out El Ocaso Finca. While there are other fincas and plantations close by, this one was highly recommended. The coffee produced here is only organic and is UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, and 4C Association certified, focusing on their productivity, environmental practices, and ethical codes, respectively.

view on the walk over
view on the walk over
El Ocaso Finca
El Ocaso Finca

When I arrived, I was delighted to see a bustling house amid the gorgeous 23 hectares of plantation, 12 of which are used for coffee. Our small group led by a Spanish-speaking guide began the tour by showing us the crops and explaining the seriously committed process that goes into your morning cup of joe. We picked ripe red berries from the bush and broke them open with our fingers to reveal two coffee beans that were sweet to suck on.

not yet ripe




Normally, the pickers do the first part of this job, emptying their 80-120 kilogram sacks at noon and the end of the day into the “hopper”, which searches the haul for leaves, sticks or green cherries and sends the good bits down to the “de-pulper.” This 100-year-old machine finishes the job by squeezing the coffee beans from the cherries and separating the pulp from the beans, a process called “wet-milling”. But I digress.



To even get the coffee cherries requires a lot of time and work. The seed must be planted in sand for 30 days until a bulb has formed. Once it has, the crop will continue to grow for an additional six months before being moved to soil and planted in rows, one meter apart from each plant and two meters from its neighboring rows. From here, it takes 18 months for the plant to grow beautiful white flowers with five petals, which fall off after three days to make room for the coffee fruit to grow over the span of nine months or more. While the fruit starts green, it changes to red or yellow as it ripens. Once the fruit has grown, it will produce for five years, twice a year, from March to May and September to November, the cherries being picked whenever they are ready.

the plants in sand
the plants in sand


So what happens when you have those beans? The good beans are cleaned and stripped of nearly all outer organic matter and put into big machines to dry, or sometimes, during low harvest seasons, the coffee is taken to the canopy to sun dry. Once it is dry, the handlers check it once more for defective beans, which they use for domestic brews or instant coffees (the good stuff gets exported). Then the dried beans are mashed up with a muddler to remove their skin and then toasted for 70 minutes, constantly being stirred so that they don’t burn. You can tell a lower quality coffee from a higher quality because the bad stuff is darker from being burnt.

dried beans on the table- they called them "almonds"
dried beans on the table- they called them “almonds”


big bad muddler


stirring the beans over heat
stirring the beans over heat
from bean to grind- notice the one closest to the right is darker, and therefore, of lower quality
from bean to grind- notice the one closest to the right is darker, and therefore, of lower quality

Now this is the part of the tour I had been waiting for- a chance to sample the coffee. We ground up the beans in a hand grinder, the thick aroma of fresh coffee beans filling my nostrils. Our tour guide put the ground up coffee into a sieve that rested over a silver coffee pot that looked more like a pitcher to me, and I volunteered to pour the hot water, slowly, around the top circle of the strainer, until the water seeped sultrily through the grounds. The coffee was so mild and tasty that I didn’t even feel the need to bite back at the bitterness with sugar or milk. The cup of coffee that I drank at El Ocaso Finca was the perfect example of how Colombia, while only third after Brazil and Vietnam in coffee production, is the leading producer of the smoothest coffees.




by Rebecca Bellan

Mystical Cocora Valley

Feel suspended in time and space in the magical Cocora Valley in Colombia.

Walk amongst a garden of the tallest palm trees in the world outside of Salento, Colombia.

The old war jeeps that serve as taxis in Salento, Colombia can comfortably seat eight passengers, with two up front next to the driver and six facing each other in the bumpy back. The day I decided to see the Valle de Cocora, a valley that is located in the highest of the three branches of the Andean mountains and is home to Colombia’s national tree, the Quindio wax palm, we somehow managed to fit thirteen passengers into the jeep- four squeezed together in the back, three hanging off the back, and two in the front with the driver.

The 45-minute drive under a threateningly overcast sky was scenic to say the least. I smiled the whole car ride to myself as the chilly, moist air rushed at my face through the plastic windows of the jeep. I couldn’t believe my eyes as they scanned rolling jade plantations, feasting black and white cows, trees that I had never seen before, and a clear river running over mossy rocks.

The stopping ground before the Cocora Valley is a small town in and of itself, with shops, restaurants, hotels and horses for hire.


Originally, my intention was to simply see the valley for the tall palm trees and then take a jeep back, a short excursion. Most people do the Cocora Valley trek, which I ended up doing, which lasts about four hours and is fairly physically demanding, but we’ll get to that. As I walked up a road away from the town, the sounds of music and people trying to cater to the tourists and of horses’ hooves all began to fade slowly until there was nothing. I was alone walking down the dirt road towards the fog in the distance, and my only company was the sound of my boots on gravel.


It’s hard to express the bliss of being alone. No friends from the hostel chattering about where they’ve been and where they’re going, no chipper tour guide exploiting his country’s heritage and beauty, no cars whizzing by. The only other living things around me as the skinny palms came into clearer vision through the fog were the quietly grazing horses and cows. I paid a ponchoed man standing under a green tarp something like 3,000 pesos to enter the Valley, and walked slowly over the thick, memory foam-like grass. My mouth hung open and my head tilted back as I marveled at these skyscrapers, swaying slightly at the top and looking like something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. The cloud in the distance soon became the cloud I was standing in. The mist around me gave me a mystical feeling, and I sat down to meditate in my much-needed solitude.






I don’t know how everyone meditates, or if I was even doing it right. I sat cross-legged on the damp grass, closed my eyes, and pictured myself as I was, a woman alone in the forest of palm trees. I felt the absence of other people around me, their energies no longer clouding my own. I envisioned the palms towering above me, and imagined that I was the wind that I heard rustling in my ears. I pictured the birds I heard chirping sitting in their nests, and I followed the river that I could hear running in my mind. When I finally opened my eyes, I could no longer see the palms that I had looked at before I began to meditate. The mist was shielding them, but then just as suddenly, those palms appeared before me again, and the cloud moved on.


I took my time in the forest, making sure to stay near the dirt path while I looped through the trees. I followed grass stairs up which led to more path, going uphill and out of sight, so I continued. It wasn’t until about an hour into my walk, when the landscape started changing to thick woods and clusters of tall skinny, pine-like trees instead of mist and palms, that I realized I was probably doing the trek despite my original intentions. I looked at the map from my hostel. Not only was I doing the hike, but I was doing it backwards. Oh well. There’s supposed to be some waterfalls in here somewhere, I reasoned. It’s probably worth it.

when I started to realize that I was out of the valley and on the hiking trail
when I started to realize that I was out of the valley and on the hiking trail
map from the hostel and my route
map from the hostel and my route

The ascension was difficult, but doable. Thankfully, I brought enough snacks and water. Soon, the fog was so thick and I was so high up that I couldn’t even see the valley anymore. It took me two hours to make it to the Finca, or farm, on the map. If you’re doing the same trail and come across a locked gate, just climb over it. I don’t know why it’s there.

the gate you must vault
the beautiful finca

By the time I got there, I was cursing my genetics. See, I’m a healthy girl. I’m fit enough, but along with gifts of big boobs and curly hair, my mother bestowed upon me the curse of bad hip joints. Every step was agony, so I begged the people at the finca for some form of painkillers and continued onward, or should I say downwards. The path back down the mountain (by this time I realized that I had climbed some small mountain) is steep, rocky and slippery. As I zigzagged down with cautious steps, I immediately picked up a giant walking stick and partnered up with some locals, an incredibly loving couple and their friend, who were very kind and informative about the nature and culture in this part of Colombia.


Another hour and a half to the bottom, past the same river I had seen on the jeep ride here, over rickety bridges, around pools of mud.

my new friends, carefully making their way down the slippery rocks
my new friends, carefully making their way down the slippery rocks
me and my walking stick
me and my walking stick
cool, rickety bridge
cool, rickety bridge




Near the bottom, the rain began to pour. I was lucky I brought my rain jacket that protected my electronics, but I did not fair so well. We came out of the forest part and slipped about on strategically placed rocks and wood, dodging puddles poorly through the Cocora Valley, past a fresh water trout farm, and up another hill to the small town. I never truly knew the meaning of “soaked through to the bone” until that day. My hood was filled with enough water to quench the thirst of three dehydrated men. My shoes were squelching with each step. They didn’t dry for four days. We finally all made it to their car, panting and dripping and laughing. The nice Colombians offered to drive me back to Salento, which I gratefully accepted, and I shivered in the car with yet another smile on my face and another amazing experience under my belt.

last pic I could take coming out of the woods before the rain came down too hard
last pic I could take coming out of the woods before the rain came down too hard


by Rebecca Bellan