I’ve never been to Colombia. Such a failure, I know. But for months now, Colombia has been on my mind.
Last fall I read this New York Times article about Morat, a band from Bogotá. It was one of those stories that made my antennae go up. Suddenly everything was Colombia. I had this feeling, in my gut, that I need to make a plan and go – and soon. My DoorDash app was offering Colombian takeout. I did a deep dive on Instagram #colombiatravel.
Then, right after the new year, my friend Melinda texted saying she was going to Santa Marta and Alupo with her family and would I join them? Hmmm. Let me just check my schedule. Maybe I can make it work. No, wait. I can’t. Too busy with work. Too much to do. That, my friends, is the ballad of the moron who said no.
Here’s a lesson: ALWAYS SAY YES.
To get an even clearer picture of what I missed, I spoke with Laura Jana, who is a local expert with Elsewhere by Lonely Planet, our travel-planning outfit that crafts trips all over the world, including Colombia, where Laura is based, as well as other far-flung destinations like Nepal, Costa Rica and South Africa.
I caught up with Laura while she was on an adventure of her own, learning about community tourism. Her appetite for adventure, her intelligence and experience (she’s a botanist, by the way), her passion for her home country and her expertise in crafting one-of-a-kind itineraries make her an ideal ambassador for Colombia.
Check out some excerpts from our conversation, and get a taste of what you can expect when you book a trip with Laura.
Itinerary: The Amazon, Medellín and Cartagena
If you’re dreaming about Colombia – located in the north of South America – this customized itinerary from Elsewhere will inspire you to pull the trigger and go.
Explore the cities of Medellin and Cartagena, experiencing them like a local. Meet the indigenous Ticuna people of the Colombian Amazon. Marvel at tiny pygmy marmosets and freshwater pink river dolphins, and snorkel on the Caribbean coral reefs of Islas del Rosario. The best bit? Laura has done all the planning for you. Salsa and sunshine for everyone!
Days 1–4: Off to the Amazon
This is the real start of your Colombian adventure, as you catch a flight from Bogotá to Colombia’s southeastern corner and the town of Leticia – the gateway to some of South America’s most incredible wilderness areas along the Amazon River.
Days 5–7: Deep dive into magical Medellín
Delightful year-round climate and surrounded by coffee-producing towns, Medellín is considered one of the most beautiful and modern cities in Colombia. You’ll travel around with your trip leader like a local, using the Metro and Metrocable (a gondola lift).
Pro tip: Have a drink at the vibey El Social in the neighborhood of Provenza.
Located on one of Colombia’s largest lakes, Guatapé village is a a delight to explore © jeremykingnz / Shutterstock
Days 8–11: Day-tripping to Guatapé and onward to Cartagena
Enjoy a scenic day trip to Guatapé then fly to Cartagena in the late afternoon. Stroll around Cartagena’s charming streets and soak up the sea breezes. While in Cartagena, venture by boat to Islas del Rosario, a spectacularly beautiful archipelago southeast of Cartagena.
Want to book a trip with Laura? Make a request here.
Q&A with Elsewhere’s Laura Jana
Where are you currently?
I’m sort of in the middle of nowhere. It just stopped pouring rain. I’m in an area around the Sinù River basin, near Montería. This is a region that has known a lot of conflict, but is now emerging as a community tourism destination.
What is your background?
I am a biologist and used to work in scientific research, with NGOs on bird conservation and research institutions like the Smithsonian in Panama. My focus is biodiversity conservation, and so I was offered a job in tourism, to highlight wildlife tours and the fauna and flora endemic Colombia. I’m a city girl, but I love to be outside in nature. And I love to travel.
What’s the biggest challenge for you?
You know we have a terrible reputation: civil wars, violence, narco traffic. These are the few things visitors have heard about Colombia. But the country has turned the page.
Responsible tourism is an amazing tool for the conservation of our natural resources and protection of our Indigenous peoples. We are focused on involving local communities in the tourism experiences in their regions.
What is visiting Colombia really like?
It’s like 100 different, tiny countries within a small country. We are such a diverse place: you could travel 100km, and you’d encounter different accents, traditions. Even though Cartagena and Santa Marta are both coastal, the locals prepare the food differently, even with the same ingredients.
And our people are so resilient. They are ready to show the country to visitors, to change the image outsiders might have of Colombia. We are an amazingly happy country.
In Medellín, visit Parque de Los Deseos, the botanical gardens and the neighborhoods of Santo Domingo and Comuna 13 © mehdi33300 / Shutterstock
In Medellín, are there specific sites or locales travelers should prioritize?
Casa de la Memoria is a small museum that talks about Medellín’s history through the eyes of the victims and the families that died during those terrible times that once defined parts of Colombia. This is what I recommend when people ask me if I do a Pablo Escobar tour. It is part of our history and we cannot deny it, but it shouldn’t be about glorifying it or having a morbid view on that part of our history. I’d rather talk about resilience and how the city has developed.
Pro tip: If you are outside the city, you must visit El Peñon de Guatapé, which is a huge monolith next to a hydroelectric reservoir. When you climb to the top, you’ll see the most remarkable view. It feels like… well, I can’t describe it.
See incredible wildlife that only exists in this part of the world © Edwin Butter / 500px
What kinds of animals will visitors see?
We visit Fundación Maikuchiga, which is an animal sanctuary that aims to reduce the illegal trafficking of animals. They rehabilitate animals so they can safely return to the wild, and they also look after animals that are unable to return, because they’re too tame or injured.
And this is where you get to see monkeys in the wild, without damaging their delicate natural habitat.
Can you tell us a few favorite spots in Cartagena?
The Club de Pesca marina has a restaurant that is pretty incredible. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset. I also love wandering around Getsemaní, a fun neighborhood right outside the walled city. It’s very lush, with narrow streets and a lively vibe.
Also, if you’re wanting to get into the water, grab a boat to Islas del Rosario. Cartagena is set on rocks and coral reefs, so you need to get out to the islands if you’re looking to dive or snorkel and get some ocean time.