South America has been on our minds for a while. I have wanted to go ever since I stumbled across a little shop in Spain run by a Colombian man, who sold me the most delicious fried ball of food that I have ever eaten. My partner likewise had it on his list of intriguing continents– a place of upbeat music, pulsing jungle life, and rich history.
When we had a week free in May, we went ahead and booked tickets to Colombia. This is our 7-day itinerary and cost summary to guide anyone else who is interested in adventuring like us: frugal and forever game to try something new.
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Booking The Trip
We could have gone anywhere in South America, so why did we choose Colombia?
We were looking for a trip that would include some beach time but also the opportunity to get some big hikes in, but even then there were lots of options. Ultimately, we read a few blogs and checked flight costs and Colombia won out as the cheapest while also sounding like an amazing place to visit. Also, I read Nomadic Matt’s account of being stabbed in Bogotá, and he told the story so masterfully that I ended up wanting to go there despite his misfortune. (Although it did make me extra cautious, and I never pulled my phone out in a crowded area.)
Since our rewards points from our Chase Sapphire Preferred card are worth more when spent on travel, we used them to cover the flights. For each person, it took 38,490 points to cover the cost of the $481 tickets.
The next step was to plan our trip.
I recently learned that a 2014 survey revealed that Americans spend more time planning vacations than retirement. For me, the complete opposite is true. While I spend hours poring over 401k options and thinking about how to find fulfillment in retirement, we booked the flight just two weeks in advance. Mr. Mechanic took the reins to plan our route.
Day 1 – A Walking Tour of Bogotá
We flew in and arrived at midnight. The next morning, we woke up in Bogotá ready to get up and going. Our Airbnb included breakfast, so we ate at the family table. We had delicious fresh eggs while saying hi to the baby of the house, munched arepas when the dogs came to beg, and chatted with our host while drinking freshly squeezed orange juice.
Energized for the free walking tour at 10am, we walked to the famous Museo Del Oro.
By now I have been on at least twenty walking tours while traveling in major cities around the world, and I am still blown away by the value you get out of the tour. We tried the famous Chicha drink in the shade, visited Museo Botero, and listened to the legend of Eldorado. Later, we learned about how graffiti became legal in the city (Justin Beiber sparked a national incident after being escorted by police to graffiti a wall, shortly after a policeman shot and killed a 16-year-old for doing the same).
Our tour ended at 1pm, and after tipping our guide, we struck out for street food on our way to the famous Monserrate funicular.
After waiting in a long line, we boarded the tram and watched the city shrink away. At the top, you are met with amazing views over the sprawl of the city. After spending a couple hours at the top wandering through the market, we headed down to buy more arepas and chicken skewers for dinner, grab our bags, and get an Uber to the airport for our flight to Cartagena.
Day 1 – The cost for two people. $1USD = ~$3400 Colombian Pesos
|Airbnb (1 night)||$85,877||$21|
|Restroom / sour gummy worms||$1,500||$0.45|
|Chicken on a stick and arepa snack||$4,500||$1.30|
|Uber to Airport||$35,000||$10|
|Flight to Cartegena||$22520||$67|
Day 2 – Explore the Walled City of Cartagena
Our room in Cartagena was blessedly equipped with an air-conditioner, which I didn’t realize would be a necessity until I sweated through my clothes from the walk from our room to the kitchen that morning.
We walked from our neighborhood of Manga to the old city for another walking tour at 10am. We kept to the shade in the 100-degree heat, and when it was time for lunch every air-conditioned restaurant beckoned to us. Yet I kept seeing locals eating their lunches out of styrofoam boxes, and as we turned a corner trying to find a spot to eat, we spotted a line of people buying boxes.
We walked up and asked for two, one fish and one meat (what kind of meat? We don’t know, but it was delicious), each served on its own bed of rice, with plantain and avocado wedge, all for $5 total! Reinvigorated after eating, we ducked around the city without a particular route, taking in the colorful streets and popping in for a couple of dulce de leche paletas (popsicles).
On the way home, we stopped for groceries to cover breakfast and lunch for the next day (a beach day!). I was beginning to feel a bit queasy, which, given my lack of caution with drinking water and street food, did not surprise me at all.
Day 2 – The cost for two people:
|Airbnb (1 night)||$96,624||$28.77|
Day 3 – Relax And Unwind at Tierra Bomba
If you have a couple days in Cartagena, check out the nearby island of Tierra Bomba. We hopped in a collectivo cab to the dock where lanchas (motorboats) were lined up ready to take tourists across the sea. Our boat was a bit janky, so I clutched tight to the metal rod securing the roof to the boat, which promptly broke free from the boat, further securing my confidence in our safety.
We knew that the trip to Colombia would mostly be a bustling trip, exploring lots of different cities, so we intentionally built in this one beach day to relax, read, and unwind.
We found a spot away from the booming music, grabbed a couple of chairs under a canopy, and pulled out our books. I read Becoming by Michelle Obama and then napped to the soothing sounds of the ocean. Our groceries of pineapple yogurt, bread, meat, cheese, and a mango, kept us sated for breakfast and lunch.
We stayed until 4:30pm and then made our way back to our hostel, pulling up Yelp to find a place for dinner. We decided to share an entrée, splitting DELICIOUS fresh ceviche and then going home to read on the porch before bed.
Day 3 – The cost for two people:
|Airbnb (1 night)||$96,624||$28.77|
|Cab to Beach||$10,000||$3|
|Boat (Lancha) to Beach||$20,000||$6|
|Cab to Airbnb||$10,000||$3|
Day 4 – Travel Day! Get Over to Santa Marta
Santa Marta is the launching point for people who want to visit the national park of Tayrona. Since travel can take much longer than Google Map’s optimistic projections, we allowed ourselves the entire day to get to Santa Marta before heading into the park.
After grabbing some water, yogurt, and fruit from the grocery store, we caught the (air-conditioned!) bus to Santa Marta. I listened to the How I Built This podcast while Mr. Mechanic watched the movie that the bus played, laughing next to me. After the warning from our research that the 4-hour ride can stretch into 6 hours, we were thankful to be dropped off at our hostel after 4.5 hours. Score!
This meant we had a little bit of time to explore the city before it got dark, so we got more ceviche for dinner. Our standards were high after the previous night and because of a glowing recommendation from the hostel clerk. However, when it arrived at our table it was smothered in a questionable sauce, and suddenly neither of us felt that hungry.
After skirting out of that restaurant, we procured some gelato for dessert, then headed to the grocery store to pack up snacks for our upcoming hike.
Santa Marta Essentials:
Day 4 – The cost for two people:
|Airbnb (1 night)||$60,000||$18|
|Groceries (breakfast and lunch)||$31,000||$9.23|
|Taxi to Bus Station||$10,000||$3|
|Bus to Santa Marta||$88,000||$26|
|Groceries for hike||$24,300||$7.24|
Day 5 – Experience Paradise in Parque Tayrona
We woke up early in the morning to start our journey to the National Park. The main attraction is the popular two-hour hike to El Cabo San Juan beach. Some people opt to make this a day trip, but many will spend the night on the beach, sleeping in a tent or a hammock.
We wanted to head out early to be able to snag a hammock nearest to the ocean, so we booked transportation to the park with our hostel the night before. The hostel had free breakfast (one of Mr. Mechanic’s deciding factors when booking Airbnbs), so we headed to the top of the roof to eat our eggs and arepas, then hopped in a taxi to the park.
Tayrona ‘officially’ requires that visitors are vaccinated for yellow fever. I was vaccinated almost 10 years ago when I traveled to Uganda. I had photos of the yellow card, but no physical copy, and Mr. Mechanic didn’t have the shot at all. We worried about Mr. Mechanic needing a yellow fever vaccine– we had planned to get vaccinations at the Bogotá or Cartagena airport but the clinic was closed at both airports. Luckily, we didn’t have to show ours to get into the park, and (crossing our fingers) we haven’t shown any symptoms yet. They do check your passport though, so be sure to bring that!
There were quite a few people hiking the route in the morning, so we stepped it up to try to get to the beach before all of the hammocks were taken. Along the way, we spotted monkeys playing in the trees.
Once we made it to the beach, we were assigned hammocks 12 and 13, which was lucky because there are only 16 hammocks available in the cabana. The rest are sheltered away from the ocean in a dark area with more mosquitos and no ocean breeze. We tucked our valuables away into the small lockers and went to the beach to read.
We reveled in being disconnected from everything, but it started to get dark by 8:30 and we weren’t ready to sleep.
“I loaded the next few episodes of Game of Thrones on my Kindle,” Mr. Mechanic whispered conspiratorially. I laughed, and somewhat guiltily, we watched a few episodes before falling asleep to the sound of the ocean breaking over the rocks.
Tayrona Park Essentials:
Day 5 – The cost for two people:
|Hammocks (for two)||$100,000||$30|
|Transport to park||$50,000||$15|
|Taxi to Bus Station||$10,000||$3|
|Entrance to Park||$112,000||$33|
Note: It cost more for us to sleep in our hammocks than in an air-conditioned private room!
Day 6 – Love Coffee or Chocolate? Minca Is For You.
I woke up as the sun came up and went for a walk along the beach. It took another hour for Mr. Mechanic to stir, as he hadn’t slept as well as I did in the hammock. We collected everything and started our hike out. This time we had the trail to ourselves. It seemed much shorter on the way back, and we saw even more monkeys frolicking in the trees.
We took the bus back to Santa Marta and stopped by the market to stock up on water, sunscreen, and soda. We had only taken what we needed for the night, and left the heavier bag at the hostel, so we were making our way back there when we walked past a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Despite both being proficient in Spanish, we could not make out what the waitress was saying, so we bumbled along, ordering arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and asked that the second dish be whatever she recommended.
We had one of our best meals, including our best serving of Ajiaco, the traditional Colombian soup of potatoes, corn, meat, and cilantro. It was important fuel for the next segment of travel, which included hunting down an ATM before the one hour trip to Minca (where there are no ATMs).
Our van jostled as we wove our way through mountains and gained elevation on the road to Minca. We drove up, down, and around lush green rolling hills and past lively street fronts. When we made it into town, we struck out for our hostel.
We took a few turns with helpful locals pointing the way, then found a sign pointing us up some steps. And more steps. And more steps. Then there was an encouraging signpost that said, “Almost there!” and it was a complete lie because we still had many steps left to climb.
When I finally made it to the top, panting, the guy at the front desk met me with a glass of fresh water. There was a well-constructed lobby with cats napping in the sun. We showered, grabbed some beers, and watched the gorgeous sunset with cicadas pulsing in the trees around us. Despite my trepidation about going back into town and then up the stairs again, we decided to go into town for dinner. We slept well that night in our little cabana.
Day 6 – The cost for two people:
|Hostel (1 night)||$70,000||$21|
|Bus to Santa Marta||$14,000||$4|
|Groceries (water, sunscreen, coke)||$40,000||$12|
|Shuttle to Minca||$16,000||$5|
Day 7 – A Jam-Packed Adventure in Minca
For breakfast, the hostel served a veritable feast — arepas, eggs, and a sandwich with pesto, mozzerella, and tomato.
We mapped out our route for the day. First, we would go to Pozo Azul, then we would hike cross-country up (and up and up) to the coffee plantation for a tour, finally, we would dead down back into the center of town.
The hostel crew showed us a rough map and let us know that the hike is not well marked, so we would have to ask for directions along the way. The guy behind the front desk also warned, “It might rain today. If you are at Pozo Azul when it rains, please get out of the water, because there is a high risk of flash floods.”
We started walking to the pools, and a man in a truck pulled over to give us a free ride to the trailhead. As we hiked in, we noticed that we were the only ones headed towards the pools; there were hundreds of locals walking in the opposite direction. We exchanged looks, realizing that we may have missed a memo somewhere. When we got to the pools, they were completely empty but for a few other tourists.
We swam and played in the water, hiking up to the other pool, waterfalls cascading down the rocks. Then it started to trickle. As we gathered up our stuff, it began to pour. The warning echoed in our heads so we raced out of there, now fully drenched.
We stopped for a quick coffee, hoping to wait out the rain, but realized that we would have to hurry to make the tour, so we continued in the downpour for the next hour. True to its description, the trail was essentially unmarked, and each junction we had to find a helpful local to point us in the right direction. Breathless after our uphill trek, we made it just as the tour was about to start. Our tour guide enthusiastically led us through the journey from bean to brew, and cacoa tree to delicious chocolate, and we bought lots to take home with us.
After the tour, we hiked down (it was still raining!), stopped in town for dinner, then hiked up to our hostel to meet some other travelers and read on the swings overlooking the view.
Day 7 – The cost for two people:
|Hostel (1 night)||$70,000||$21|
|Coffee (rain break)||$1,000||$0.30|
|2 Tours (Chocolate and Coffee)||$100,000||$30|
|Cacoa and coffee to bring home||$35000||$11|
Never Want To Go Home
Reflect on the breathtaking views of Bogotá:
Remember the beautiful buildings of Cartagena:
And make it a plan to go back to South America another day.
Total Cost For One Person
$302.50 = ~$43/day
How We Kept Costs Low
Chase points can also be redeemed for cash. Our points had a cash value of $380 but paid for our $480 tickets. If we consider the opportunity cost of spending the $380, the total for a week in Colombia comes out to $688 each.
If you want to earn 60,000 bonus points with Chase Sapphire Preferred, you can use this link to apply. Just spend $4,000 in the first three months to get your reward!