My 70-day backpacking trip in Colombia: karaoke, salsa, and the many nights I don’t remember
This is not a guide on how to go backpacking Colombia. This is about the many people I met and the amazing life events that happened to me as I grew up on the road. As you read along, you will wonder how I spent this long time in Colombia without focusing on the sights. I wanted all my trips to be different and I can only do that if I took another path in my traveling style – stay longer and focus on the culture.
You may think that I wasted 70 days in Colombia without going through the touristic circuit but for me, this was the time of my life when I was sure about the type of traveling I wanted to pursue.
It wasn’t perfect, for sure but what I can tell you is that these memories (whether I told you the whole story or not) will stay with me for the rest of my life. The culture, the dances, the food, the language – here’s to Colombia and the many nights we don’t remember with the people we will never forget.
Before you go
Day 1 – 30: The Ultimate Family Stay in Barranquilla
Family stays are the best way to immerse in a certain culture. Not that you are able to stay for free but you will also have first-hand knowledge on how a local really cooks, sleeps and eats. In my travels, I have proved to be true that this is the best education I ever received. You get to be a part of a way of life that is very different from yours.
Not all family stays are free but if you are charming, friendly and nice enough, you will be able to get a host easily. Find out how to find a host family abroad, for free!
About Colombian families
I didn’t feel different because Colombian families are pretty much the same as Filipinos – close-knit. I was given my own room and I participated in all the family activities including Christmas and the endless birthdays of extended families! I also helped with household chores and made sure to offer doing things in the house such as watering the plants or sweeping the floor. The family I stayed with has their housekeepers (where I learned most of my Spanish from) but it didn’t mean that I didn’t need to help. As a common courtesy (aka free food, free house), it is very crucial to make yourself a part of the family.
At the time, the Carnaval de Barranquilla was about to take place (the second biggest carnival in South America) so everything was so timely – all I had to do was go with the flow! My host sister Andrea wasn’t there when I arrived so I didn’t have much to do but when she came for the holidays, they definitely showed me what the youngsters do in Barranquilla!
If you want to know more about my Colombian family experience (exactly how it happened), read this article.
Food was a daily learning. Living with a local family in Colombia will make you learn about what’s on the table three times a day without even trying. My hosts never failed to introduce me the kind of food I needed to try in Barranquilla while I was there. Peto was one of them. I first learned about it when I heard someone on the bike shouting, “Peto! Peto! Quien quiere peto!”
I got curious so I asked my host sisters what it was. They immediately went out the door and asked the “peto man” to stop. They ordered one for each of us and when I took a bite, it tasted so fresh! I really loved it!
Peto is a famous drink in the coast of Colombia and is traditionally made by cooking dried corn with water, milk, cinnamon and panela or sugar, to make it taste sweeter. From then on, we’d buy peto every time we hear the man chant. It was really good!
Arepa con queso is another snack that I really really liked. During the carnival, I saw loads of arepa stalls on the street and I didn’t understand why I always had the urge to have one. There was even one time I stopped without telling them and I got lost! Imagine, I didn’t have a local number then! Good thing they knew how to find me. They just had to go to the nearest arepa store – there I will be, sitting down on the gutter, eating my arepa con queso without a care in the world.
Colombia is not really well-known for food but I can definitely say they are the next best thing in gastronomy in Latin America. These are only a few stories about my food adventures in Colombia but there are so many variety that I got to taste (and of course,
learned to make from my host mom) – I need another post for the Colombian coast’s food!
Other things you have to try include: empanadas, encocado de muchilla, the fried fish, cocount rice and patacones combo, and cazuela de mariscos
Dancing is not one of my skills but Colombians are natural dancers so there was no way for me to say no. Guys always lead the dance so all you have to do is go along with it. The only problem is if, like me, both your feet dance to the left. I really couldn’t do it but they were patient enough to teach me.
The first hardcore dancing I experienced was during Carnaval de Barranquilla – we probably danced 12 hours straight! I didn’t have proper shoes (like most backpackers, I was wearing Vans and that was my only shoes!) so at the end of the day, I literally couldn’t feel my feet!
I’m a Filipino and I can sing – that’s for sure! Like the Philippines, Colombians are also Karaoke kings and queens. I never had problems taking over the mic. The only problem is most of their songs are in Spanish. Still, I didn’t say no. I came to Colombia with 20% Spanish language skills but when I left, through the help of constant Karaoke nights, I was able to perfect my Spanish! Believe me, even if you don’t understand the lyrics of the song, sing along and eventually you’ll get it right!
If you have zero Spanish language skills and you want to learn through songs, Carlos Vives is the best artist. He sings the lyrics clearly that makes it easier to understand. Try it! Right now, while you are reading this, go to Spotify and search for him! He saved me all throughout my backpacking trip in Colombia!
[/us_iconbox][us_message]Before you go: Contact a host family for a potential long-stay. As soon as you arrive Colombia, you will need to settle down. Traveling the whole region of South America requires learning the local language. Take advantage and get your Spanish swag on! Click here to know how to find a host family abroad, without charges![/us_message][us_separator style=”dashed” type=”default”]
Day 31 – 39: Get to know the Colombian Coast
After 2 weeks of getting to know the culture, it’s time to get those feet moving and travel the coast of Colombia. Beaches, people, food — this side of Colombia have their own culture than the whole of the country, including the way they speak Spanish! There will be no itinerary or things to do given in all the locations but you can easily make friends in hostels and join groups in touring around. It really depends on what you want to do. Below are the expenses (toggle down to see all)
Bus from Barranquilla to Santa Marta: $3.50 USD (you also have the option to take a mini-van that will take you directly to your hostel. This costs $8 USD)
Hostel bed (cheapest, but a friendly hostel)
$11 USD x 2 = $22 USD
Daily meals budget (inexpensive restaurant, 3x a day)
$10 USD x 3 = $30 USD
3-day food budget (cooking in the hostel)
3D/4N in Santa Marta total cost (if you choose to eat out)
3D/4N in Santa Marta total cost (if you choose to cook in the hostel)
Bus from Santa Marta to Taganga: $0.99 USD
Hostel bed (cheapest, but friendly hostel)
$9 USD x 2 = $18 USD
Daily meals budget (inexpensive restaurant, 3x a day)
$7 USD x 3 = $21 USD
3-day food budget (cooking in hostel)
3D/4N in Taganga total cost (if you choose to eat out): $39.99 USD
3D/4N in Taganga total cost (if you choose to cook in the hostel): $30.99 USD
- Transportation: There are no direct buses from Taganga to Tayrona so you have to go back to Santa Marta. Bus from Taganga to Santa Marta costs $0.99 USD and the colectivo going to Tayrona National Park costs $1.67 USD. There is also an option to go by boat directly from Taganga which costs a little bit more expensive.
- Entrance fee to the park: $20 USD
- Accommodations: Tayrona National Park is a camping spot so it is ideal to bring a tent. If you don’t have one, you can rent a tent or a hammock for $11 USD per night.
- Food: Since the park is very remote and highly touristic, food is very expensive but there are little stores scattered around the park selling traditional Colombian food. For this, let us set a $10 USD budget per day.
Overnight camping cost in Tayrona National Park
- Bus from Tayrona to Cartagena: $11 USD
- Hostel bed (cheapest, but friendly hostel): $16 USD x 2 = $32 USD
- Daily meals budget (inexpensive restaurant, 3x a day): $12 USD x 3 = $30 USD
- 3-day food budget (cooking in hostel): $17 USD
3D/4N in Taganga total cost (if you choose to eat out): $73 USD
3D/4N in Taganga total cost (if you choose to cook in the hostel): $60 USD
Now, this might seem confusing to you and you might wonder: all these in 10 days?! These towns are really close to each other so taking a bus (or a shared van) is super easy. There isn’t much to do in these places so 3 days for each spot is more than enough. After all, I didn’t really plan on doing a lot of touristy circuits as I want to stay in the cities I chose to longer. This was just my side trip.
I have to be honest with you – I did nothing in this period but drink. It’s not that my host family forbid me to drink but I met a bunch of people who were also backpacking Colombia and we decided to be a group. We went to the same hostels, same restaurants and did the same tours (on our own, btw. We didn’t sign up for anything).
Again, it was a good time as New Year’s day was around the corner. The best thing to do is to celebrate it with people who know how to. As I am writing this, I couldn’t help but smile – I am remembering everything that New Year’s eve of 2014 including the blurred nights. It seems like they’re all coming back and I need to write about that story! Anyway, I didn’t have a timeline to travel this area but my companions did. It was a good thing to be under time pressure (for once). Otherwise, we will all just end up drinking.
Day 39 – 53: Volunteering in Medellin, Colombia
Medellin, the city of endless spring (yes, their only weather is Spring!) was one of the cities I really wanted to stay longer in. With this, I tried my best to find a volunteering gig and luckily, I found one in a hostel!
The hostel I volunteered in was a literally new (about 3 weeks open) so I was really lucky to easily find it last minute. They didn’t have the volunteering dynamics yet so everything was pretty much DIY – whatever I deem fit, I do it my way.
At the time, there were only two of us and we seemed to have different dynamics – it was killing me. Our volunteering job entailed everything – from taking care of the sheets, to cleaning the rooms, to reservations, to answering the phones – we did everything in the hostel together with the owner.
It was an unpaid job. Volunteers only got free food and accommodations. That’s it. However, I didn’t really feel like I was doing so much because I met a lot of people while I was volunteering in this hostel. At night, volunteers didn’t have to work (we had a person to do the night shift) so all of us would go out with the guests to drink and dance. The owners of the hostel made sure we create a familial environment and this is really one of the best things I love about this hostel. It seemed like we were roommates in one huge apartment. The only sad thing is I had to leave and cut my volunteering short to 2 weeks from 1 month because I had an accident – I lost my tooth. Anyway, that’s another story but I had to go back to my host family in Barranquilla because they’re the only ones who can remedy my tooth crisis (I literally didn’t have a front tooth). From then on, I promised myself to get a travel insurance no matter what. Imagine, I ended up paying $500 USD and I wasn’t ready for that expense!
Some friends I met here stretched our friendship by making sure we all saw each other at one point in Latin America (remember, all backpackers are doing the same route be it North to South or vice-versa) and we certainly did! Brasil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina – I seriously met all of these people again despite closing our chapter in Colombia.
If you are reading this blog a long time, during my backpacking days in Latin America, Couchsurfing was actually my main event. I didn’t know about other things but CS as I am an active CSer myself.
Medellin is one of the most active CS cities in Colombia. They never missed a weekly meet-up and each time I attend, I get to know a lot of people (locals and mostly foreigners) who share their journey and of course, they’re backpacking Colombia escapades. When you are volunteering, being with the same people could be a joy but meeting new people is really refreshing!
The usual meet-up places are bars and restaurants (which had curfews). After each chit-chat and light snacks, everyone would go together to a club to continue the fun. This is where I learned all the party places in Medellin!
All roads lead to Parque Lleras – most especially me because the hostel I was working in is super near this district. There is no way I won’t end up in Parque Lleras every night. It’s a routine. This area is full of bars after bars after bars so you’ll never get lost – there’s shitloads of options. There’s even a daily schedule for all the parties that you will be updated with because of the hostel boards!
Okay, let’s do it quick: Monday is a kind of a chill night so if you want to have drinks with music, Minuto Urbano at Carrera 90 is your place. Tuesday is by default, salsa night. Don’t worry, this activity is kind of available everywhere. Wednesday is Couchsurfing day – they choose where to meet. Thursday is for Ladies’ Night: open bar and free entrance for most clubs!!! Fridays and Saturdays are pretty wild so there are events everywhere – take your pick! And Sunday? We sometimes rest but when there’s an event, I’m totally down! In our hostel, Sundays are usually dinner night where all of us will cook and share a meal.[/us_iconbox]
Like Barranquilla, Medellin also offers a lot of food options and they have their own speciality, too! When I was there, I tried to cook as much as I can (to save cash) but on weekends, I really needed to go out and explore Colombian restaurants.
Of course, arepa con huevo is always on the menu. I don’t think I’ll even get tired of it! Coffee and gelato afternoons is also a good option when I want to just sit down and do my other job – online work/blogging. This is also the place where I learned about bandeja paisa, a 7-meal platter popular in the Antioquia region.
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Day 53 – 62: Couchsurfing in Bogota
Bogota wasn’t really on my radar but my discovery of Viva Colombia made me do it. I found a flight from Barranquilla (after my tooth accident) for less than $100 USD so I said, this was it. I was meant to go to Bogota.
This time, I opted for Couchsurfing. Believe me, when I was backpacking Colombia, I’d do everything to extend my trip and cut my costs. When looking for a CS host, I was never really picky even if my mother told me to Couchsurf with girls – that only happened twice. It was way easier for me to stay with guys because they will always take you in.
Of course, when searching for a host, make sure to always check their references. I don’t know what’s in me but I am really good at reading people even online. With this, I never had a bad experience with CS.
Oh, maybe this one. This one in Bogota.
I am still not comfortable to tell this story (maybe I never will) but I ended up not going along with this guy and staying. Now that I am thinking of it, man, I did that just to cut costs and I realise I will never do that again. I will never ever put myself in a very uncomfortable position. I could’ve booked a hostel bed (which, by the way, I could really afford at the time) but I didn’t. And that sucks.
I did, however, find joy in Bogota by entertaining myself.
Graffiti is one of the main highlights of Bogota. Every time I’d ask my friends who’ve been, this is the only thing they can recommend. Even though I didn’t have the mental capacity or attention span to join tour groups like this, I did learn about the growing culture of graffiti in Bogota. Many think they can just DIY this activity but being with a knowledgeable guide who knows and can actually explain what the artworks mean makes the tour worth it.[/us_iconbox]
I don’t remember if they were for free but randomly going to museums became my thing. Museo de Botero and Museo del Oro were the only two museums I visited.
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Day 62 – 70: The long way to Ecuador
I booked a flight ticket from Bogota to Cali for $60 USD. At the time, the national election was happening so there wasn’t a lot to do in Cali. For me, it was just a quick stop for my Colombia to Ecuador border crossing to be easier.
I knew I was going to have a long trip so I took all the time I had to focus on my online job and the blog. This was my first order crossing in South America – I knew it would be easy but I still wasn’t confident traveling at night. With further research and constantly asking the people who’ve done it, I managed to reach Ecuador without much hassle. Here’s the summary of the trip:
- From Cali, take a bus to Pasto. This will take 10 hours and will cost you COP40,000 ($20).
- Take a night’s rest once you arrive Pasto (or not). It really depends on your travel plan. As for me, I am travelling alone and would prefer to be safe. A hostel in Pasto will cost you around COP20,000 ($10).
- From Pasto, take another bus to Ipiales. It’s 2 hours away and you’ll only pay COP7,000 ($3.50). Don’t sleep. The view is fantastic.
- Once you arrive the station in Ipiales, there will be signs saying A La Frontera (to the border). Take that van and take note that the city where the border is, is called Rumichaca. This will only take 10-20 minutes and the fare is COP1,000 ($.50).
- Once you are at Rumichaca, exchange the rest of your Colombian Pesos to US Dollars (currency in Ecuador). You will only need $10 to make it to Quito.
- Go to the Immigration Office of Colombia and don’t forget your EXIT STAMP.
- Cross to the Immigration Office of Ecuador and get your ENTRY STAMP.
- Take a van to Tuculpa station. This costs $0.75 depending if it’s shared. You can take a private taxi too.
- From there, you can take the bus to Quito. It will take you 5-6 hours depending on the speed of the driver, the weather and the stops. DON’T SLEEP. The mountain view is spectacular. This only costs $5.
What if I went back to Colombia? Will I do the trip differently?
I thought about coming back but I didn’t want to overwrite the memories I had. For now, I am okay with what Colombia and I shared but if I was to do it again, the local family stay is a must and some activities below will be of priority. Take note that I had all the chance in the world to do these when I was backpacking Colombia but I didn’t feel that it was urgent. Can you believe I was already in these areas but chose not to do it? If you follow your gut, know that traveling is not about visiting the sites – it’s more than okay to miss them as long as you feel you’re enjoying the path you chose to take. Don’t oblige yourself to go to the tourist spots if you don’t want to!
Did you go backpacking Colombia? How as your experience?
How long did it take you to travel the whole country? What was your trip all about? If you didn’t, what are the places/activities/tours you want to do? I’d love to know about your experience! Leave your thoughts in the comment box below!