Southern Colombia Guide – Get "Off the Beaten Track"
Heading to Southern Colombia? Good – you’re going to love it! Here is a guide and itinerary to traveling Colombia’s southern region including places to go, how to get around, and the best things to do!
It was time to say goodbye to Ecuador, so we crossed the Ecuador-Colombia border to reach Southern Colombia! Every single person we met who had been to Colombia had told us how amazing it is, so we were super excited! A new country meant many new adventures for us.
When crossing the border by land from Ecuador you will end up in Southern Colombia. This part of Colombia is less traveled than in the north.
Why? It doesn’t have the beautiful coast like the north and is known to be more dangerous. Plus. for those not coming from Ecuador by land, it can be a little too remote and hard to get to.
Because of this, there is less information out there about where to stop, what there is to do, and how to get around. Therefore, we have made this guide to help you out!
Southern Colombia Route
You can’t just go to one city in Southern Colombia, you need to travel around to really see it all! The above map is the route we did and it works really well.
We crossed the border and started our Southern Colombia journey in Ipiales.
Next, we went to the colonial city of Popayan for a couple of days before heading to Salento to check out the world’s finest coffee region. We personally skipped Cali, but if you have time, you can stop in Cali after Popayan before heading to Salento.
From Salento, you can easily get a flight or bus (around 8 hours) to either Bogota or Medellin.
This route also works in reverse if you are going from Colombia to Ecuador. Alternatively, there are tons of domestic flights into Cali which you could use as a base to explore the other places mentioned in this blog.
If you’re heading to Medellin, be sure to check out our detailed Medellin itinerary blog!
Crossing the Ecuador Colombia Border
Ipiales is only 3km from the border of Ecuador. Now, this border is known to be dodgy and somewhat dangerous. We didn’t find it dangerous but the money changers everywhere definitely are dodgy, and a rip-off at that!
I would recommend changing some USD to Colombian Pesos in Quito, Ecuador before coming to the border. This way you can avoid getting an awful rate (or worse, pickpocketed.)
The border is only open during the day so plan your crossing to give yourself plenty of time to get through. There can be long lines so you should allow 2-3 hours for the whole process.
There are buses and taxis both to the border from Ecuador as well as after the border to get to Ipiales. A taxi is the easiest and cheapest at only 10,000 COP (2,300 COP equals $1 AUD or CAD.)
Ipiales and Las Lajas
Ipiales is special for one thing – the church or Las Lajas Sanctuary. It is spectacular and is one very good reason to spend a night in Ipiales. This magnificent building is located about 10 minutes from Ipiales and you can get there with a taxi for about 12,000 COP one way or go to the bus terminal and get a collective for 2,500 COP per person each way.
If you plan on visiting, be sure to read our blog all about Las Lajas Sanctuary!
After checking out Las Lajas we decided to stay one night in Ipiales just to avoid traveling at night. We had heard that this route is not the safest at night due to entire buses being held up and robbed. We didn’t want to take the risk so we found a little hotel in Ipiales and slept there before getting up early the next morning for our journey.
Keep your wits about you while in Ipiales, especially at night. We didn’t have any problems but there were a few dodgy characters around and seeing as it is a border town it is always wise to take extra precautions.
Ipiales to Popayan
Super simple – “Supertaxis” is the cheapest for 30,000 per person for a direct route. It takes about 8.5 hours. These minivan-style taxis are very common in Southern Colombia and over a cheap and convenient way to get around.
Popayan is a gorgeous colonial-style city. There isn’t particularly much “to do” per se, but there is a bit to see and overall it has an attractive atmosphere – two nights here is the perfect amount of time.
The city features many pretty churches and white buildings as well as nice cafes and restaurants everywhere. There are many tourists, both Colombian and international, and therefore there are many police stationed everywhere making the city feel safe.
This is what we would recommend doing in Popayan:
1. Take a walk around the city center and main plaza
Enjoy the pretty building, cafes, and lots of shopping! Make sure to bring your camera as you’ll want to take lots of pictures of the gorgeous scenery.
2. Hike up to El Morro lookout for sunset
It is only a couple hundred meters from the main square. This is essentially a big grass hill where locals seem to hang out, but also offers the most gorgeous view of the city and surrounding mountains at sunset. Again, police were everywhere, sometimes searching locals and it made the place feel safe even at sunset.
3. Eat a massive pizza
We found a great local place where you can get an awesome, MASSIVE (would feed four people easily) pizza for 35,000 COP. This place is called Casa Pizza and you won’t find it online or on any map. It is located on Carrera 2, between Calle 3 and Calle 2.
Southern Colombia is WAY cheaper than Northern Colombia so treat yourself to some good restaurants while they are affordable!
4. Treat yourself to a massage
Conforta Spa is only a two-minute taxi ride from the city center and they offer a range of spa services at an affordable price. We spent a couple of hours here one afternoon to got a massage and jacuzzi (after the many bus rides my back was aching and it was really needed!)
Where to Stay in Popayan
There are many hostels in Popayan. We stayed at Hostel Caracol as it is in an ideal location and is a quiet pretty hostel while still offering budget accommodation. They have a kitchen which we really like in hostels as well as a reasonably priced café at the front entrance.
In terms of an actual hotel, check out Gran Hotel Coral. They offer comfortable facilities at really great value. It’s the perfect hotel for anyone looking for a clean and comfortable stay in a great location without breaking the bank.
If budget isn’t an issue, consider the luxurious Hotel Dann Monasterio. This is about as good as it gets for luxury in Popayan! Expect a pristine colonial building with all of the bells and whistles you’d expect for a 5-star hotel.
Popayan to Salento
Some people choose to go to Cali (salsa capital of Colombia and a massive gringo party place) after Popayan but we decided to skip it this time to allow ourselves more time in Salento, the coffee region of Colombia!
To get to Salento you will first have to get a bus straight to Armenia. This is about a 6.5-hour bus ride and we paid 39,000 COP each. At Armenia, you will take another bus to Salento for 4,000 COP. This is only a 45-minute ride and buses are very frequent. It is a beautiful drive!
Salento is said to have the best coffee in all of Colombia, so while in Southern Colombia it is a place you must visit!
Colombia is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world, and the self-proclaimed best producer of quality coffee (they know how to grow it but I don’t think they know how to roast it as it still isn’t as good as at home.)
Besides drinking a ton of coffee, Salento is a colorful and cute small town nestled in between the greenest valleys you have ever seen. Here, you will feel relaxed and in between cups of coffee, you might even venture out for a hike or two.
1. Go on a coffee farm tour
If you’re a coffee-lover, then Salento is the place for you! Here, you can enjoy a sustainable coffee tour in Colombia where you’ll learn all about how some of the world’s finest beans are produced.
Depending on how interested you are in the actual coffee-making process you can decide how in-depth of a tour to take. If you are looking for something with a lot of detail head to the Plantation House Hostel at 9 am for an English-speaking tour. They charge 30,000 COP per person but the tour lasts nearly 3 hours.
We decided to do something a bit shorter and headed to Las Acacias where the tour was about 40 minutes and only 8,000 COP. They will start the tour whenever you arrive.
We really enjoyed it, not only for the information but also for the beautiful views of the farm and valley. This farm is located about an hour’s walk outside of town but it is a nice walk and well worth an afternoon. They even made us an espresso at the end!
2. Visit the Valle de Cocora
This is the beautiful valley covered in the very famous wax palm trees that Colombia is known for. Now, you can hike the 4-6 hour loop or just go for a walk around the palm trees. Jeeps leave from the main square in Salento whenever they are full for 3,800 COP per person each way.
Once at the valley you will see the palms! We did the full loop hike and although it does offer nice views of the valleys, the palms were definitely the best part (so don’t worry if you don’t feel up to hiking, the beginning bit is the best anyways!)
3. Eat some awesome (and cheap!) food
In Salento, you need to eat a ton of food. From food trucks hanging out in the main square to empanadas to trout, there is something for everyone. Expect to pay about 10,000 COP for a huge main meal in Salento from a local place!
Where to Stay in Salento
Again, lots to choose from. A piece of advice for booking a hostel though, chose the location wisely keeping in mind that many are several kilometers from town and the ones in town but on the edges are surrounded by very loud roosters, that crow all night long!
Basically, if you are a light sleeper I would try to find something close to the main square for a quiet night’s sleep.
Be sure to find out a ton more information about Salento and all of the things to do there in our Salento, Colombia blog!
Getting Out of Salento
You will have to catch the minibus back to Armenia, the way you came and from there you can get a bus to basically anywhere your heart desires. There are also flights out of Armenia.
There are rumors of one direct bus to Medellin being offered each day but I have seen no evidence of this and would presume the price is much higher than the buses from Armenia.
Most people head to Medellin or Bogota after visiting Salento.
What to Eat in Southern Colombia
Street food is everywhere! And it is cheap! So give all of these a try while in Southern Colombia.
The first thing to try is the Arepa, which is basically a rice flour thick pancake that they usually put butter and cheese on (you can get meat on it too for more money.) These go for about 1,000 pesos and I think a little weird tasting. Colombians love their sugar and the ones I tried tasted sweet, which I thought was weird for something with cheese on it. Not my thing but many people love them so give it a shot!
Pantacons are the plantain bananas flattened and then fried to make like one really big nacho chip. Yes, I know it’s strange – a banana used as a nacho chip? These bananas are not like the normal ones we eat though, they can only be eaten cooked and aren’t sweet at all. We actually love them and ate them all the time as banana chips with salt in Peru. On top of the big banana nacho chip, they then put basically whatever you want on it such as meat and cheese, chicken, a type of salsa. A big one of these is enough to be an entire meal and we got a meat and cheese one for 8,000 COP.
Empanadas made with corn pastry. These are really tasty, especially the meat and potatoes one. They are more of an orange color than normal empanadas and more crunchy, but super good! Sometimes, if you are lucky, you will find a street vendor that also serves them with free guacamole! Score!
Before you go…
Hopefully, this Southern Colombia guide is helpful for your planning. If you have any questions be sure to reach out and ask!
Also, while you’re here, you should check out all of our Colombia travel blogs including these favorites below:
Minca, Colombia – Guide to all of the best things to do in Minca and where to stay
San Gil, Colombia – A guide to Colombia’s adventure capital including all of the best things to see and do!
21 Things to do in Santa Marta – Yup, there’s more to do in Santa Marta than you might think
The Old City of Cartagena – a Guide to exploring the walled city in Cartagena
13 Tips for Visiting Tayrona National Park – Here are some updated tips and information most people don’t tell you about Tayrona National Park
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Travel insurance has saved us thousands of dollars many times. World Nomads is a great company to use if you are an adventure traveler like us!
February 23, 2021