The South American country of Colombia is as spirited, colorful, and exhilarating as it is enriching and rejuvenating. The brightly painted historic streets are filled with kind and welcoming locals alongside the sights, sounds, and smells of all that make the country so great. This ultimate Colombia Itinerary will take you from lively Medellín, a journey through majestic Guatapé, to beachy Cartagena with a stop in Bogotá. In as little as a week, you’ll be able to experience all the best of what Colombia has to offer.
The Ultimate Colombia Itinerary – From Medellin to Cartagena in One Week
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Day 1 – 3: Medellín Itinerary
The City of Medellin (pronounced locally as meh-deh-jin) is known as the land of “eternal spring” for its year-round temperate climate and flower festivals. On the other end of the spectrum, Medellin is notorious for Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin Cartel (more on that later) and the popular show, Narcos. Lush with Monstera plants growing abundantly and ultra-hip restaurants and bars abound, Medellin is one of the most modern and innovative cities in Colombia, making it an attractive place for digital nomads to call home. What once was one of the most dangerous cities in South America is now one of the safest in the country and most enticing. For these reasons and more, Medellin should be the first stop on your itinerary for Colombia.
Top things to do in Medellin
Explore El Poblado
El Poblado is Medellin’s trendiest neighborhood and where you should book your hotel. Here is where you’ll find the best shopping, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and clubs. El Poblado is also where you will find one of the most popular museums, Museo de Antiquia, which exhibits a large collection of pre-Columbian artifacts from all over Colombia.
For nightlife in the area, Parque Lleras is where you’ll find the best nightclubs and bars as it’s one of the most popular places to go out in Medellin. You’ll find both tourists and locals enjoying their evenings with food, drinks, and music throughout the many venues. You may even want to take up salsa dancing at one of the clubs that offer it!
Comuna 13 Tour
The neighborhood of Comuna 13 is one of Medellin’s most popular attractions where you can wander on your own, but the Comuna 13 guided tours are what make it most note-worthy. What once was the most dangerous neighborhood in the entire world due to the formation of illegal guerrilla militant groups that tore through the neighborhood with violence and crime, Comuna 13 is now a destination that has been peacefully revolutionized through graffiti street art as a symbol of hope and change.
During the tour, you’ll learn about the history of the Comuna 13 through the symbolism and significance of these beautifully painted murals. Be sure to stop at Cafe Chota for a coffee in one of the most unique coffee shops in Medellin, employed by single mothers of the Comuna 13; as well as stop for a refreshing treat of a homemade mango and passionfruit popsicle from Cremas Doña Consuelo.
Note: The Pablo Escobar tour is also a common tour in Medellin and throughout the country, however the locals are really, really not a fan of anything involving Escobar or the glorifcation of his name because of the destruction he has brought upon the communities. Out of respect for the locals, taking a tour or any other tourist activity centered around Pablo Escobar is definitely not recommended.
Plaza Botera & The Old Quarter
Wander the streets of the Old Quarter, stopping in Plaza Botero, named after the artist Fernando Botero. Here you will find 23 sculptures created by Botero along with museums, street performers, artists, and plenty of people taking selfies with the sculptures.
Parque Arvi & the Metrocables
The mountainous city of Medellín is uniquely connected through a cable car system known as the Metrocables. There are four lines, of the most picturesque being Line K, which connects the Medellín River to the hills of barrio Santo Domingo on the edge of the city. From Santo Domingo, you’ll be able to take another metrocable up to Parque Arvi, a large nature reserve where you can have an escape from the busy city to go hiking (guided tours only), or bird watching.
Escape the busy city life and view the flowers, birds, and butterflies of Jardín Botánico, which is known as one of, if not the best, botanical gardens in Latin America. After strolling the gardens, stop at the beautiful restaurant In Situ for a leisurely lunch.
Exotic Fruit-Tasting Tour
Get a taste of Colombia through its exotic fruit! This tour will take you through the local produce markets to sample so many types of local fruits you probably have never even heard of. Your guide will share the history and origin of these fruits in the most delicious way.
See the colorful buildings and take in the views at the top of Pueblito Paisa, a replica of a traditional Antioquian village located in the neighborhood of Cerro Nutibara.
Where to Stay in Medellin
ElCielo Hotel is the top luxury option in Medellin. This incredible, boutique property is unmatched when it comes to Medellin hotels and offers a contemporary design that mixes both modern and locally-curated motifs, a stylish rooftop pool and bar, and a Michelin-chef restaurant, Restaurante El Cielo. Even if not staying at Cielo, you will want to book a table at the restaurant as it is the top dining experience in Medellin.
The rooms at ElCielo are spacious and comfortable, with standalone tubs to the backdrop of city views. I was fortunate enough to experience the presidential suite, which featured a separate living room and bedroom, two bathrooms, a full wet bar, and my favorite amenity, a massive jacuzzi tub.
I highly recommend considering ElCielo as your top choice of hotels in Medellin. I promise you won’t regret it!
More great hotels in Medellin:
The Charlee Hotel – A modern lifestyle hotel with a rooftop pool and excellent views.
The Click Clack Hotel – A beautifully designed hotel in a great restaurant. (No pool)
Art Hotel Boutique – an industrial chic property with a charming rooftop. (No pool)
Where to Eat in Medellin – Top 3 Must-Try Medellin Restaurants
The El Poblado area is filled with tasty and super trendy restaurants and bars for you to indulge. Here are the top 3 places to eat dinner:
Remember to make reservations in advance as these are the top places in the city.
Elceilo Restaurant – The top, upscale restaurant in Medellin, with locations also in Miami and Washington D.C. which earned a Michelin Star. During the tasting experience at El Cielo, you’ll enjoy 17 dishes and sensory experiences called “moments” beginning with washing your hands with warm chocolate, and finishing by drinking Colombian coffee in a “cloud.” It’s surely one of the most unique dining experiences you’ll ever have.
Carmen – A gastronomic tasting menu (that also offers ala carte options) in a hip environment with excellent, innovative cocktails.
Oci – A super hip restaurant with a great outdoor patio and an awesome modern Colombian menu. My favorite restaurant in Medellin!
Tip: Don't forget to also try some of the amazing local delicacies and street food! Look out for some buñuelos, insanely delicious fried cheese balls, and crema de guayaba, homemade ice cream made of guava -- one of the most popular desserts found in Medellin.
Day 4 – Overnight or Day Trip to Guatapé from Medellin
Finally, a visit to Medellin is NOT complete without a day or overnight trip to Guatape. Located about 2 hours out of the city, Guatape is a beautiful, nature-filled pueblo (traditional neighborhood) located at the base of the Andres Mountains and surrounded by a large, man-made lake or lagoon.
While there are many tours that will take you on a day trip to Guatape, I recommend renting a car and spending at least 1 night to get the most out of this beautifully lush waterfront town.
If you don’t want to drive or go on your own to Guatapé, and/or you’d like to take a guided day trip, I recommend this highly rated tour.
Top things to do in Guatapé
El Peñon de Guatapé
The most popular thing to do in Guatapé is to climb the stairs up to the top of El Peñon de Guatapé (Guatape Rock), a massive black rock with a steep staircase that rewards with impressive 360 views of the lake and countryside. There are over 700 steps to reach the top of the rock, and while it is definitely a challenge, it is doable for most people in good health. You can plan to spend about an hour in total climbing to the top, enjoying the views and taking photos, and climbing back down.
If you don’t want to make the climb, you can opt for a short helicopter ride around El Peñon. These rides cost around $50 per person for about 15 minutes in the air and begin after 1:00 PM daily.
Calle de Recuerdo
Next, after spending the morning at El Peñon, walk through the colorful street of Calle del Recuerdo, or Memory Lane. It is one of the most popular and picturesque streets in Guatapé, and is known for its zócalos, traditional street paintings.
Water Activities in Guatapé
The third most popular thing to do in Guatapé is getting on the water (but you probably don’t want to get in it.) Cruise the lake by boat tour, rent jet skis, or go kayaking through the scenic reservoir taking in the beauty of the surrounding nature.
Staying in Guatapé – Bubble Dome Glamping Colombia
I recommend doing an overnight in Guatapé simply because there are so many unique accommodations to enjoy. From modern waterfront cabins to tiny houses perched high above the reservoir. Of the most unique however, is Dome glamping with Domus.
At Domus, each personal dome bubble tent comes with its own private bathroom found just outside your dome, A/C, wifi, a mini bar, and decks with a private hot tub and plenty of places to lounge and experience the tranquil surrounding nature.
The property is nestled right up on the reservoir where non-motorized sports such as kayak and paddle boards are offered for free, as well as jet skis and boat tours for a fee.
There are nightly bonfires, activities, and a restaurant and bar on-site, too. It will surely be your most memorable stay in Colombia and an experience that must be had. (It’s also much more affordable than dome glamping in the US!)
After you're done exploring Medellin and Guatape, you'll head to the airport to fly to Cartagena. But before we continue...
Tips for Visiting Medellin & Guatapé:
Medellin has the best metro system in all of Latin America — don’t be afraid to use it!
Ubers are illegal in Colombia but are still widely used and recommended over taxis. Just make sure to hop in the front seat when being picked up to not make it seem like it is an Uber.
If you want to rent a car to get around Medellin or to drive to Guatapé, keep in mind that for each day of the week cars ending in certain license plate numbers are not allowed to drive in an effort to reduce traffic (though beware that the traffic is still pretty bad.) So make sure to rent a car with the appropriate license plate number that allows you to drive during your whole stay.
Another thing that took me by surprise when renting a car in Medellin is that the vehicles have extremely tinted windows — even the front windshield. This is to prevent theft.
Stoplights also seem to be merely a suggestion for locals in Medellin, as we witnessed many cars and motorcycles go through them — but I would recommend obeying all traffic laws.
If you’re wondering how many days in Medellin to plan for, you should know that the city is often the most favorite for many travelers (mine included!) If you’re torn between spending an extra day in one city over the other, consider Medellin the top choice. The minimum suggested amount of days to spend in Medellin is 3, accounting for a day trip to Guatapé.
Note that there is a bit of a strong language barrier in Colombia. Many people speak some basic English, but many others do not. Google Translate will be your best friend. Use it!
Lastly, is Medellin safe? Although it was once an extremely dangerous city, it is now completely safe, especially in the tourist areas like El Poblado. That said, there are some areas around Medellin to be more wary of. Exercise normal caution as you would in any major city, making sure to not flash any valuables and avoid getting pick-pocketed.
Day 5 – 7: Cartagena, Rosario Islands, & Baru
Cartagena de Indias (known more commonly as just, ‘Cartagena’ – pronounced car-tuh-hen-uh) is a city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and the country’s most popular tourist destination. This beachy, lively city is pulsing with energy from day to night as both locals and tourists are all about good times and good vibes in Cartagena. You’ll want to spend your time split between Cartagena proper, and exploring the nearby islands, explained below.
Cartagena Itinerary – Areas in Cartagena you should know & Top Things to Do in Cartagena
Bocagrande – The main, touristy beach area also known as “new Cartagena” with newer, high-rise buildings and a busy beach. Note that the Cartagena Colombia beaches are not all that spectacular, so I wouldn’t waste my time with them. Cartagena’s best beaches are actually found on the islands, and there are plenty of them to enjoy once you get out there. Aside from the beach, in this area, you’ll find many restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shopping malls.
The Walled City – Also known as the Old City, Old Town, or Historic Center. The Walled City Cartagena is the hip and historic core of Cartagena and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is where you’ll find the quintessential, colorful, and picturesque streets and is where all the best restaurants and bars are.
You’ll want to spend most of your time in the Walled City, and book your hotel here too. (Recommendations provided below.)
The Walled City is all about exploring by foot. Wander the colorful streets, have a drink, and people watch around Plazuela de San Diego or Plaza de la Trinidad. You can visit these squares during the day, or at night when it becomes especially lively, especially on weekends, with street performers and food carts.
While in the Walled City, you may also wish to stop at Casa Del Mar restaurant for a drink during sunset, the most famous sunset viewing spot in Cartagena.
Tip: You'll find the most photo-friendly streets around the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Hotel.
Getsemani – Adjacent to the walled city, a hip neighborhood kind of like the Williamsburg of Cartagena. Full of street art, boutique hotels, hostels, bars, and cafes. It takes on much of the overflow of the Walled City and integrates its personality well within it.
Where to Eat in Cartagena – Top 3 Best Restaurants in Cartagena
La Cevicheria – Made popular by the late and great Anthony Bordain, this is a hole-in-the-wall ceviche spot that is one of the most popular establishments in Cartagena. They also have the best coco-lemonade here, a popular drink in Cartagena that is so delicious and refreshing.
Celele – Part of Latin America 50 best restaurants and the top restaurant in Cartagena (besides Carmen, but you may have already dined there in Medellin if you took my suggestion!) They offer an innovative menu of Caribbean dishes and great cocktails. Reservations are a must here.
Misia por Leo Espinosa – This unsuspecting eatery was hands-down my favorite meal in Cartagena, and possibly all of Colombia. It’s found in a super local setting stationed in a food hall on top of the mall in the Walled City, and features a menu of elevated classic Colombian dishes. Misia is the more casual eatery by the same chef as Leo in Bogota, which is on the Latin America 50 best restaurants list and one of the best in the country. When we visited on a weekend night it was packed with locals and a live band with which everyone was singing along while eating and drinking. We must have been the only tourists there, but it was a great, local experience and a meal I wanted to return to again and again.
Tip: If you come across fresh lulo juice, be sure to try it! Lulo is an acidic fruit that is native to Colombia and best enjoyed juiced.
Best Bars in Cartagena
Movich Hotel Rooftop – Located at the Movich Hotel, this is arguably the best rooftop bar in Cartagena thanks to the great 360 views, vibes, and drinks.
Botika Bar – A stylish rooftop at the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara, a nice way to see one of the top hotels in all of Cartagena.
Townhouse Hotel Rooftop – A fun, yet laidback rooftop bar in a great location with an ultra-trendy vibe.
After exploring a day or so in the Walled City and rest of Cartagena, you’ll want to get out to the islands ASAP to enjoy the real magic, as island hopping is one of the best things to do in Cartagena. You can do this by either taking day trips from the Cartagena port, or spending the night in one of the island hotels.
There are more than 30 islands off the Caribbean coast of Cartagena, some of which are privately owned, and others, tourist destinations. The further out you go, the more you will be able to experience the quintessential Caribbean island feel with beautiful beaches of white sand and crystal clear turquoise waters.
Top Islands off Cartagena to Know
Barú – Not exactly an island in the traditional sense, as it is connected by land and can be accessed by car, Barú is definitely a must-see and offers luxury accommodations and stunning beaches. It can be reached by boat in 30 – 45 minutes, or by car in an hour.
Rosario Islands – Isla de Rosario is the most famous archipelago off Cartagena. You can reach the islands in about an hour by boat. You’ll definitely want to take a day trip exploring the Rosario Islands, snorkeling, hitting the beach clubs, or simply relaxing on its beaches.
Cholón – Experiencing Cholon is one of the most unique and exciting things to do while island hopping. Cholon is an island where everyone parks their boat and has a massive party! Groups of friends gather on their boats (and in the water where tables are set up so you can eat and drink) and blast music, dance, drink, and party. You can bring your own drinks and food, or order from the island vendors.
Tip: Bring your own booze, water, and snacks when island hopping, especially at Cholon where prices are very high.
Renting a boat in Cartagena & Cartagena Boat Tours
On one or more of the days you’ll want to schedule a full-day tour island hopping from the Cartagena port. You can take a group tour for around $30 USD a person (give or take depending on the season), or rent a private boat for up to 8 people (or more on larger boats) with prices around $400+ USD.
I booked a private boat through this company, but if you’re looking for a more affordable option, this perfect group tour will take you to Rosario Islands, Baru, and Cholon! That’s all 3 of the must-see islands.
Beach clubs in Cartagena
If you’re looking to take a day trip to a specific Beach Club, many of them sell packages that provide transportation to and from Cartagena, or you can visit with your private boat or boat tour. Here is a list of the top beach clubs in Cartagena:
Bora Bora Beach Club – Located in the Rosario Islands, Bora Bora is a luxury beach club and is known as the top one to visit. They offer cabana beds in both a VIP and general section, a bar, restaurant, and fun dance parties.
Makani Beach Club – A new luxury beach club with the largest pool on Tierra Bomba Island, about a 30-minute boat ride from Cartagena.
Namaste Beach Club – Another nice club located on Tierra Bomba Island. You’ll find a more relaxed setting here with a Tulum vibe here as it’s a wellness-focused beach club offering yoga and healthy food options.
Blue Apple Beach House – The last beach club to know on Tierra Bomba, which is known for its great food featuring classic and inventive Caribbean fusion dishes, and is popular with the locals, especially on the weekends.
Where to stay in Cartagena
Split your time between staying in Cartagena and on the islands with a choice of these top Cartagena hotels.
Walled City Cartagena Hotels
As I mentioned earlier, the best area to stay in Cartagena is within the Walled City. The top two luxury options here without a doubt are Sofitel Legend Santa Clara and Casa San Augustin. You really can’t go wrong with either.
If you would like to stay in Gestemani for a more affordable option, the hotel I recommend is Ermita. It is the only Marriott-Bonvoy hotel (something I like to prioritize because of my hotel status). It is in a great location a few minutes walking distance to the historic core.
Cartagena Beach Resorts
If you plan to spend some nights in the islands (and you should!) the top luxury hotel in the islands is Sofitel Barú Calablanca, located on Isla Barú. This is the newest beach resort to grace Cartagena and is a stunning property surrounded by clear turquoise waters, multiple swimming pools, and several dining options.
If you’re looking for the high-rise experience of new Cartagena where you’ll find the absolute best views, my recommendation is to stay at the Hyatt Regency. It has the most amazing infinity pool in Cartagena (rivaling the JW in Panama City) and a great rooftop, too.
Looking for more ideas for your Cartagena itinerary? See this post.
Tips for Visiting Cartagena & the Islands
If you’re wondering, “is Cartagena safe?” the answer is similar to Medellin and all other parts of Colombia. It is completely safe in the tourist areas. The biggest threat is petty crime. Do not wear jewelry, especially gold as that is the most sought after, and exercise common sense with other personal items such as cameras, phones, and bags.
Traffic can be bad in Cartagena, and if you rent a car and wish to drive to the Walled City you may face some delays as all it takes is one stalled vehicle to create a backup in the narrow streets. If you’re driving, it’s recommended to park at Parque de Marina outside of the Walled City and walk from there.
The street vendors in Cartagena are especially pushy. A simple “no gracias” and keeping it moving is the best thing to do.
When visiting the islands, always bring cash and don’t use a credit card. Many places will charge up to a 25% “convenience fee” making your bill much higher than it should be.
In the islands confirm pricing before ordering anything if you’re not given a menu. if you are given a menu, take a photo of it. There are often two menus, one for ordering, and another with higher prices when you are given the bill. This is especially more common around Isla Cholon. Even at the more established beach clubs, be sure to check your bill. You may be surprised by an upcharge you didn’t agree to.
At the beaches, expect to pay around 50,000 – 150,000 Colombian pesos to use a beach chair, umbrella, or table. Confirm prices in advance of use.
There is no such thing as a free sample. That includes massages, oysters, seafood, etc. If you take a “sample” and don’t purchase more, they will make you pay for it, and uncharge, too.
What is the best time to visit Colombia? Cartagena luckily has warm-weather year round. For the country, December through February is considered high season with sunny skies, and March through September are good, too, though you may experience some rain showers here and there due to the tropical climate. That said, it is the best time to visit Cartagena and the rest of Colombia if you’re looking to save on hotels and activities. The rainiest months are October and November, so visiting during those months should probably be avoided if possible.
By now, you have experienced the best of Colombia from Medellin to Cartagena, but there may be one last stop to catch the flight home. The capital city Bogota is a city much like any other major city in Latin America; it is metropolitan in some aspects and industrial in others. It is also much colder than Cartagena and Medellin due to its high altitude. Foodies will appreciate that there are some of the top restaurants in the country found in Bogota, so treat yourself to one last dinner at Leo, Criteríon, or Harry Sasson, before catching your flight home. Need a place to stay overnight? The W Bogota is a perfect choice.