Colombia is quickly becoming popular tourist destination and for good reason. Gone are the days of violence between warring drug cartels. Colombia now is a friendly country with a large variety of sites to keep visitors interested for weeks. After traveling around most of Colombia for 6 weeks we gained a lot of valuable information that we wanted to share with other travelers.
The people in Colombia are some of the friendliest we have met anywhere. Many people would say ‘buenas’ (hello, how are you) and smile to us on the street. They don’t speak a lot of English, but many try to help. On almost every bus ride, another passenger would make sure we got off at the right stop, and when we did a local person would point us in the right direction for our destination. Most people went out of their way to help. Still, you must be vigilant because not everyone is trying to help, it is South America and pickpockets are prevalent.
With Colombia’s history of drug cartels and violence, safety was one of our primary concerns. Today, however, it is no more unsafe than any other South American country. Large cities are known for having pickpockets, and we did hear of knife-point robberies, but the times of inter-cartel violent attacks are gone. Some neighbourhoods in large cities can be dangerous, but mostly these are not areas tourists would likely go anyway. Parts of Colombia’s wilderness still have cartel-run coca fields with possible illicit activities in the area. Always be informed of any area before planning a trip to ensure you don’t end up in the wrong neighbourhood. Here are a few specific tips to keep you safer:
• Leave expensive jewelry at home so you are not a target.
• Cell phones are the most popular item to be pick-pocketed. Keep cell phones in zipped day packs or secure pockets. Don’t walk around the streets with your phones on display. Many Colombians have their phones out, but they know where and when it is safe. We personally met 3 people who had their phones stolen out of their pockets in broad daylight.
• Only carry the amount of cash you will need for the day in your wallet. Keep the rest in a separate secure spot.
• As with many places, never leave anything unattended, or out of your line of sight.
• Keep valuables out of site in hotel rooms, many hotels now have vaults. We heard a report of a cellphone charger being taken from a hotel room.
Colombians speak Spanish. It is said to be the most neutral Spanish spoken out of all Spanish speaking countries making it a great place to learn Spanish. There is not much English spoken other than Cartagena, so it would help your experience greatly if you learn at least a basic level of Spanish.
Domestic flights in Colombia are very cheap but the catch is, cheap fees don’t include checked luggage. The cost to check one bag is often the same as another ticket. Airlines are strict with carry-on sizes so be careful if you try to take a large bag on board.
It’s very easy to get around Colombia by bus, but there are a lot of mountains so travel times are longer than you would expect. Buses are on-time, usually clean and mostly air-conditioned. Bus terminals are organized with companies listing their destinations and schedules. If you can’t find the correct bus for your destination, ask any counter and they’ll tell you where you can find the right bus. Note that Bogota and Medellin have more than one terminal, North, South and in Bogota, also Central.
We heard that air conditioning on buses would be kept on high making the buses very cold but we didn’t find this. Just to be sure bring an extra sweater on board.
We used Busbud.com and found them to be a reliable, safe option for on-line booking. For long trips we used Brasilia and Boliviana buses. The buses were clean, on-time, safe and played movies. For shorter trips or between smaller centers we liked Supertaxi.
Most taxis charge reasonable fares but since Uber is no longer available (Jan. 2020), rates may increase. Agree to the fee before getting in a taxi as most don’t have meters. We avoided one scam in Cali where the taxi ‘broke down’ after our agreed to rate and said he’d call a friend to take us. Luckily we could walk to an taxi stand to find another. Taxis at Medellin airport were the only ones we found to be outrageously expensive.
Medellin is the only Colombian city with a Metro system and it is impressive. Their system includes metro, trams, gondolas and buses. You need to buy a Civica card(2,650 COP) which are available at all Metro stations. Then load the cards with as much fare as you think you’ll need. Current fees are available on-line.
Colombia’s currency is the Peso (COP). ATMs are easy to find in major and smaller centres. We preferred Banco de Colombia for its lower bank fees. The maximum withdrawl is 400,000 COP.
It’s always important to choose a good SIM card when traveling. In Colombia we used Claro and found the LTE coverage very good and service reliable. SIM cards cost 25,000 COP for 2 weeks and included 2 GB of data. Recharging is 20,000 COP for 2 GB. SIM cards and recharging are purchased in Claro stores. Remember to take your passport when purchasing your SIM card.
Hotels in Colombia are inexpensive compared to North America or Europe and range from hostel to luxury. A room that would cost $100 – 125 in Canada ($75-90 USD) would be 75,000 – 100,000 COP in Colombia. We usually only booked a day or two in advance and other than touristy places like Cartagena and Medellin, rooms were always available last minute.
Because sewage pipes easily become clogged, put your toilet paper in a waste basket and don’t flush it down the toilet. Waste baskets are provided in every bathroom.
We have to admit that we don’t love Colombian food. We found most of the traditional dishes to be tasteless. The most common dish is Bandeja Paisa which includes rice, beans, avocado, arepa and a lot of meat. Arepa is a cornflour bread that looks like a thick tortilla. Colombians eat it at every meal, but we found it to be flavourless. There aren’t many choices for vegetarians. Often, the vegetarian option is a plate of overcooked vegetables with rice. Our favourite snack was from the south called quesolita. It is essentially a chunk of cheese covered in dough and fried.
The best part of Colombian food is the varied amount of fresh fruit. From the familiar mangoes and passion fruit to the exotic flavours of lulos and guava, the fruit and juices were amazing. They also have huge avocados (aguacate) which are twice the size of a regular Haas avocado. They are juicier than Haas with a hint of citrus flavour. Apparently their skins are too thin to be exported.
Our food budget in Colombia was 80,000 COP/day. On that budget we usually ate at 2 meals a day at good restaurants. Our lunch was usually fruit and bakery items. Your budget could increase with 3 full meals at tourist restaurants or decrease by eating bandeja paisa and street food.
Colombians drink a lot of coffee, but surprisingly, Colombian coffee is very weak. Colombia only grows arabica beans which are fruity with a mild taste. Most of the coffee we drink in North America is a mix of Arabica and Robusta so we are used to a bolder taste. As well, the roasting done in Colombia suits the local preference of a weaker, fruitier coffee. If you see Tinto on a menu, it means a black cup of coffee, whether its drip, press or filtered and usually has a mild, acidic taste. Colombians are starting to like bolder coffees so you can find strong coffee in trendy coffee shops (Juan Valdez or Tostao). But in small diners expect to drink Tinto. Most coffee shops have free wifi.
The other unusual thing about Colombian coffee is that most coffee shops don’t open until late morning or afternoon. Colombians don’t drink coffee at breakfast. Instead, it’s a late afternoon or evening drink.
Avoiding Montezuma’s Revenge
We didn’t get sick in Colombia, but it is still possible. Make sure you drink only filtered water including ice. Be extra careful with street food as they don’t always have proper food handling techniques. Unlike Asia, everywhere including butchers have refrigerators so most food is generally safe.
Tayrona National Park and a few areas nearby have had cases of Yellow Fever. Park staff were supposed to ask us to prove we are vaccinated, but they didn’t check. If you plan to travel to the Sierra Nevada mountains make sure you check on the latest requirements.
There are a lot of mosquitoes in northern Colombia, especially around Santa Marta and Tayrona Park. The mosquitoes are very small but their bites are very itchy and can last for a few days. Bring plenty of mosquito repellent.
What to wear
Colombia is a fairly liberal country and aren’t concerned about being overly modest. Remember that a large part of Colombia is at higher elevations so it can be chilly day and night. Check the local Colombian forecasts when packing your clothes.
Colombia uses 110 Volts with the same plugs as US and Canada.
We found most people in shops and markets to be very honest. We asked Colombian friends what they would expect to pay for mangoes or avocados and it was usually the same prices we paid. We also had a few shopkeepers call after us that we forgot to take our change.
Colombians love music and they love to sing. On many bus rides we could tell the popular songs because most passengers would quietly sing the song to themselves. Vallenato and Cumbia are very popular Colombian music. They have a quick beat, accordions and acoustic guitars which sound typically Latin American to us. In Cartagena and along the Caribbean, the music has a more calypso sound. No matter where you travel, you will hear a lot of music.
Coming Next: Panama, The City and The Canal
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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