Today’s Colombia is unlike the one of which your parents once imagined. Gone for the most part are the violence from drug cartels and rebel factions. Because of this, tourism has skyrocketed over the past years and has shown visitors the country’s immense diversity of landscapes and cultures. There are tropical beaches, coffee farms in the mountains, as well as jungles in the Amazon. There is the Caribbean culture in the island of San Andres, the cool vibe of Medellin, and the hustle and bustle of Bogota. I was only in Colombia for three weeks and felt that I barely scratched the surface. Below, I will give you an insight of my budget breakdown and the cost of backpacking Colombia.
Below is a map of my route in Colombia. My journey started in the island of San Andres and ended in the capital, Bogota. I started in San Andres as I wanted to avoid the 171,000 COP ($72 CAD) reciprocity fee that Canadian citizens would have to pay to enter Colombia. However, one of the exemptions of entering the country without paying the fee is to visit San Andres. As luck would have it, as of May 1st, 2019, they have waived the fee for all Canadians.
Currency Info: In May 2019, the exchange of the Colombian Pesos to the Canadian Dollar was around 2400 COP to $1 CAD.
It might not look like it on the map, but Colombia is pretty big. It was a surprise learning that it is twice the size of France!
I decided to skip out on Peru during my time in South America all together as Shelly wanted to visit there too. However, the cheapest flight from Bolivia (La Paz area) to Colombia was actually to take a flight from Cusco, Peru. Cusco is only a 12 hour bus ride from La Paz and gave me the chance to visit Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol. From Cusco, I flew to Bogota with budget airline Viva Air for $143.96 USD ($194.35 CAD). I only had an overnight layover before I headed to the island of San Andres with Viva Air again for 217,000 COP ($90.31 CAD).
If you’re planning to fly around Colombia, the best prices are on Viva Air. All my flights were with them, which included:
- San Andres to Cartagena 83,660 COP ($34.86 CAD)
- Santa Marta to Medellin 53,900 COP ($22.46 CAD)
Carry on/Hand Luggage
When flying with Viva Air, note that they have a stricter luggage/carry on policy than other airlines. Passengers can take one piece at no charge with a maximum weight of 10 kg and dimensions of 40 x 35 x 25 cm. While I haven’t flown with European budget airlines yet, my backpack was able to meet the dimensions of a carry on/hand luggage in most other airlines which have a more forgiving limit of 55 x 36 x 23 cm.
I did not know about the different policy until boarding in Cusco. They checked my bag and found that it exceeded the dimensions as well as the weight requirement. Not wanting to pay the extra fee, I took out as much stuff as I can, wore my sweater and jacket, and carried my toiletries bag and laptop charger. After stuffing my bag into those metal size guides, I guess the attendant felt sorry for me and let me board with a carry on tag. From then on, I left that tag on my bag for as long as I could and was able to get away with it as a carry on for future flights.
However, on my last flight from Santa Marta to Medellin, the staff noticed my torn up tag and decided to test my bag. Again, it didn’t meet the dimensions as my bag is 55 cm tall. This time I wasn’t so lucky and had to pay the boarding gate fee of a carry on fee of 85,000 COP ($35.42 CAD).
I never pay for any baggage fees even though my bag is usually over the weight requirement, as most of the time they don’t actually check. With the number of flights I have taken during my travels, the only time I got caught with an overweight bag was in Vietnam, and had to pay 330,000 VND ($18.89 CAD). It just makes more financial sense to not check in your bag and risk paying the higher boarding gate fee than paying for additional baggage fees every time. Checking a bag with Viva Air in advance had a fee of at least 67,000 COP ($27.92 CAD).
Food & Drinks
For such a diverse country, the food scene follows with influences from Spanish and indigenous cultures. More recently with the wave of other immigrants and globalization, Arabic and Asian influences has also impacted the food scene. Different regions will also have its own unique traits. In Bogotá, due to its high altitude and cool climate, the local staples tend to be hearty and starchy. Along the coasts, such as Cartagena, you will find more vibrant and lighter foods such as fresh fruits and seafood.
However, for a country with such richness in natural ingredients, I haven’t been completely wowed by the cuisine. I found myself eating more international foods, which I found was pretty abundant in cities such as Medellin and Bogota. There were some local dishes that I enjoyed found below:
- Bandeja Paisa. This is your the national dish of Colombia. The dish has a generous amount of red beans cooked with pork, white rice, carne molida (ground meat), chicharrón, fried egg, plantain (plátano maduro), chorizo, arepa, hogao sauce, black pudding (morcilla), and avocado. I got this with a soup and juice for 17,000 COP ($7.08 CAD)
- Fritanga. This dish is a huge platter of grilled meat such as chicharrones, intenstines, black pudding (morcilla), sausages, with some fried plantain and potatoes. This dish was 12,900 COP ($5.38 CAD)
- Empanadas. What makes the Colombian variety different is that they’re almost always deep-fried compared to the baked ones down in Chile or Argentina. Most of the time the shell is corn based. This street food makes for a great, cheap snack. I got one for 1,200 COP ($0.50 CAD)
- Patacones. Popular all over Colombia, it is green plantain that is squashed into thick pancakes, then deep fried in vegetable oil until golden brown. See below for a photo.
- Lemonada Coco. A must get! Especially on the coasts or San Andres where this drink will refresh you from the hot weather. 10,000 COP ($4.17 CAD)
Considering how big the country is, intercity buses are still a great way to get around most of Colombia. They are cheap, safe, and reliable. Here are the intercity buses that I took:
- A mini van transport from Cartagena to Santa Marta. 44,000 COP ($18.33 CAD). We accidentally went to a private transport station rather than the public one. The bus rides would normally be cheaper at 30,000 COP ($12.50 CAD)
- A 10 hour bus ride from Medellin to Bogota. 60,000 COP ($25 CAD)
Here were some ways I got around in each place:
- One day scooter rental in San Andres set up through my hostel. 80,000 COP ($33.33 CAD)
- A ride in Colombia’s only metro system in Medellin. 2,550 COP ($1.06 CAD)
- A ride in Bogota’s TransMilenio (Bus Rapid Transit). 2,400 COP ($1 CAD)
You can find a wide range of accommodation styles in the country, from budget backpacker dorm beds to luxury five star hotels. Each city/region also offers accommodation at different prices. Prices will be more expensive on the island of San Andres due to the lack of accommodation. You can find more value in hostels in bigger cities such as Medellin and Bogota, for as cheap as 25,000 COP ($10.42 CAD). If you can “splurge” (talking an extra $10 CAD a night), you can get really awesome hostels. The hostels I stayed at in Cartagena, Medellin, and Bogota were some of my favourites of all time!
Blue Almond Hostel for 3 nights at 51,680 COP ($21.53 CAD) per night
The hostel has a great relaxing atmosphere with good facilities. Alejandro was a great host and was knowledgeable of things to do and see on the island. The location could be better as it was a 20 minute walk to the town and main beach. All in all, this hostel is a solid choice for your stay in San Andres.
Life is Good Cartagena Hostel for 3 nights at 49,000 COP ($20.42 CAD) per night
This may be the best hostel I have ever stayed at. This boutique hostel is a 15 minute walk away from the old town and steps away from restaurants and bars. The staff are the friendliest I have encountered; they are extra attentive and professional. The facilities were clean and modern. They have a rooftop with a nice seating area and a hot tub. The beds have privacy curtains and they even let you use the A/C during the day. They provide complimentary water, coffee, tea, and even ice! Their WiFi is probably the strongest I have ever used in a hostel, clocking at 88.3 Mbps on Speedtest.net! The breakfast that is included is one of the best that I’ve had.
The only downside is that because it is not a true backpacker hostel, it doesn’t really have a common area space and there is not much of a social atmosphere, making it harder to meet other people.
Calle 11 Hostel Rodadero for 3 nights at 27,000 COP ($11.25 CAD) per night
This resort-like hostel makes you feel so comfortable that you won’t want to do any sight seeing. It has a pool, common area with a TV, hammocks, and a bar. It is a very social hostel making it easy to meet lots of new people. Don’t expect the facilities to be as clean and new as in the pictures on the website (they have a really great photographer), but they are still in good condition. The beds also have privacy curtains. Overall, this place is a really great value for what you are getting.
Los Patios Hostal Boutique for 4 nights at 45,470 COP ($18.95 CAD) per night
This stylish, upscale hostel is one of the more expensive ones in Medellin but is worth it for what you get. Located in the Manila neighbourhood, there are coffee shops and restaurants close by and is only three blocks away from Poblado Metro Station. They offer a lot of complimentary activities such as Spanish lessons, salsa lessons, etc. For people who need to do work, they also have a board room free to use. It felt like a mini co-working space. They also have other facilities such as a rooftop bar, kitchen and gym.
Chapinero Hills Hostel for 2 nights at 37,800 COP ($15.75 CAD) per night
If you want to stay in a nice and quieter hostel in Bogota, then check out Chapinero Hills Hostel. Located in the financial district of the city, it is surrounded by many great cafes and restaurants. The rooms have a great look and are very clean. I found the WiFi to be particularly quick and the dorm beds have privacy curtains creating a pod-like environment. The downsides are the lack of atmosphere and no communal kitchen available for guests.
There’s a wide range of things to do in Colombia, and most activities from museums to adventure sports are very reasonably priced. Here are the activities I did in each place:
- Snorkel rental provided from the hostel. 15,000 COP ($6.25 CAD). Snorkelled around San Andres, one of the best spots I’ve been to. San Andres and Providencia is renowned for beautiful coral reefs, with many coming to the island just to scuba. Too bad I don’t own a GoPro.
- Checked out the many different viewpoints while driving around the island on my scooter. FREE
- Went to the highest viewpoint in the island at the First Baptist Church. This gives you a great overview over the island and the Caribbean Sea. 10 COP ($4.17 CAD)
Cartagena is the most touristy city in the country and I didn’t spend a dime on any activities while I was there. In my opinion, the best thing to do in Cartagena is to explore its historic old town. Walk around neighbourhoods such as Centro, San Diego, Getsemaní and take in the historic plazas and bright coloured houses.
While there are other things to do such as checking out the fortress of Castillo de San Felipe or go to Playa Blanca (beach), I was not interested as they were a bit pricey. To go to the fortress, there is an entrance fee of 25,000 COP ($10.42 CAD) and the beach requires a day trip. Plus I was “beached” out from my time in San Andres.
I really didn’t find much to do in Santa Marta itself. Many people go here as a base to do the Lost City Trek, Tayrona National Park, Minca or Taganga. After many beach days in San Andres, I decided to go to the sleepy village of Minca in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains.
The main activity in this area is hiking. Along with friends I have met, we hiked up to Los Pinos, which is a viewpoint about three hours from the centre of Minca. The humidity and the constant uphill makes this trek up into the mountains one of the most gruelling hikes I’ve done.
An hour into the hike, we stopped at Marinka Falls. This waterfall is a blessing for those hiking around the area. For 5000 COP ($2.40 CAD), you can soak into the waterfall and the surrounding pools. After being drenched in sweat and baked from the sun, it was so refreshing going under the waterfall.
Once you get to the peak, there are superb panoramas over the distant Caribbean Sea and the green mountains of the Sierra. There is also a popular hostel called Casa Elemento which is famous for its remarkable giant hammock overlooking the mountains. Visitors can lounge in the hammocks and the pool area without staying overnight for 10,000 COP ($4.17 CAD)
- Pablo Escobar Tour for 80,000 COP ($33.33 CAD). I felt this tour was overpriced for what it is. The guide drove us around to some well known Pablo Escobar related sites such as La Catedral (Pablo’s prison), Pablo’s grave, and the site of the Monaco building (Pablo’s former home) and explained some stories. Pablo Escobar has been a very controversial issue for Colombia, and especially Medellin. For many visitors, Pablo has been somewhat romanticized due to many portrayals on TV shows and movies such as Netflix’s Narcos. But for Colombians, he is known as a terrorist that has tarnished the reputation of the country for decades. Thousands of lives have been claimed by him from bombings and assassinations. I would suggest skipping this tour and spending this money on other great things that Colombia has to offer.
- Free Walking Tour with Zippy Tour Comuna 13. This tour gives an insight on how Comuna 13, once the most dangerous neighborhood in Medellín, miraculously transformed into the thriving area it is today. Other sights include the many street art and the outdoor escalators that take people up the mountains to their homes.
- Walked around and exploring the landmarks around La Candelaria such as La Catedral and Plaza de Bolivar. FREE
- Learned more about Colombia in the city’s many museums such as the Emerald Museum, Gold Museum, and Museo Botero. I went to the National Museum (Museo Nacional), which housed a collection of over 20,000 pieces representing the country’s different national history periods for 3000 COP ($1.25 CAD)
Here are the other expenses that was included in my cost of backpacking Colombia:
- No ATM fee. There is a bunch of banks don’t charge any ATM fees, I used BBVA! Make sure you use a debit card that doesn’t charge you for any foreign transaction fees. If you are from Canada, I recommend using STACK!
- San Andres Tourist Card. All visitors require this card to get into San Andres. When I visited in April 2019, the price of the card was 112,500 COP ($46.88 CAD)
- A fake Colombia football team jersey for 35,000 COP ($14.58 CAD). You can find so many of these all over Cartagena.
- Laundry in Medellin for 9,900 COP ($4.13 CAD)
The Sum of Backpacking Colombia
For the 20 days I was in Colombia, I spent a total of 3,291,000 COP or $1,371.27 CAD. That amounts to 164,550 COP or $68.56 CAD per day.
Colombia, along with Peru and Bolivia, is among the cheaper countries in South America. As I visited San Andres, my flight expense was a significant chunk of my total spend. On the other hand, because I didn’t do any big ticket activities such as paragliding in Medellin, scuba diving in San Andres or trekking the Lost City, my activities spend was relativity quite small.
Below is my spend per day in Colombia. My Food & Drinks spend could have been lower as a lot of times I ate western and international foods rather than the local dishes. After many months travelling, I was increasingly missing food from back home. I even found myself eating Subway three times in San Andres! If you have cravings of wings, lasagna, or spaghetti, you can get pretty good quality for prices a little cheaper compared to Canada or the US for around 25,000 COP ($10.42 CAD).
My accommodation spend could also be lower as I chose really nice hostels during my stay.
What you can do to save money!
Backpacking around Colombia can even cheaper than my trip if you:
- Eat more local dishes or cook your own food
- Skip out on San Andres as it is not a cheap destination (accommodation, food, flights, travel card)… unless it’s a must-see for you
- Stay in more budget friendly hostels