Drug cartels, kidnappings, Pablo Escobar, corruption…. I am sure these are all the things that come to mind when you think of Colombia. After decades of struggle Colombia has tightened its security and taken back control of its country making its infamous reputation a thing of the distant past.
Although the older generation may still raise an eyebrow at the thought of traveling to Colombia, I am here to tell you that present day Colombia is well worth a spot on your South American travel list – so let’s get into it!!!
A Quick Guide to Colombia:
Population: 49 million
Known for: Coffee, Pablo Escobar and drug cartel, incredible biodiversity, beautiful women.
Currency: Colombian peso
Prior to arrival:
Although Colombian people’s lifestyles vary significantly between cities, regardless of location I found the people extremely friendly and always willing to help us if we needed it. As an Australian national (and most other countries) you are able to stay in Colombia for up to 90 days without a visa.
It is important that before you travel to any South American country you get a yellow fever injection. This is a serious and potentially fatal disease that is preventable by vaccination. When we arrived back in Australia customs were anal about checking our medical certificates to make sure we had had this vaccination, it made the arrival home much smoother.
What should you pack to wear? Overall I would describe Colombians dress style as conservative but formal i.e. long pants, closed-in shoes and a t-shirt. In Cartagena this can feel like torture with temperatures reaching 29°C (84°F) with what feels like 100% humidity, but if you don’t want to be stared at I suggest just doing it. Other parts of Colombia (Medellin, Bogota) can get quite cold in the afternoon so scarfs and boots are also a good choice if you can fit them in your bag.
While I was in Colombia I wore black tights, a lose singlet or top, and closed-in shoes and occasionally sandals. A word of advice, thongs (a.k.a flip-flops) were not acceptable, it’s like Colombians have never seen feet before and will stare at you ‘til no end until you change. For guys I suggest a similar thing – long pants, t-shirt and closed-in shoes.
Jewellery should be kept to a minimum. If you wear flashy jewellery you will almost certainly be a target for pickpocketing or robbery – not just in Colombia but throughout South America. I also suggest having a backpack that can be locked (we just used a carabiner) to deter pickpockets or carrying a clutch that can be zipped up and held in your hand. Like with most countries its also best to learn a small amount of their language to get you by. I have put together a list of phrases you should learn before travelling to South America to assist you.
We arrived in Colombia by air so there were plenty of taxi drivers outside waiting for your business. If you arrive by bus there will also be plenty of taxi drivers waiting for your business. Local transport is cheap so if there isn’t a meter make sure you negotiate a price BEFORE getting in.
Given you will most likely be staying in the ‘tourist’ area of the cities a lot of the sightseeing locations can be accessed by foot using a virtual guide or a map. There are many free sightseeing tours that you can take (especially in Medellin) where locals want to improve their English, I suggest just giving them a tip at the end of their efforts – our guide was great and his English was spot on!!
If you don’t want to walk or your destination is a bit further away taxis are a cheap and convenient way of getting around in Colombia. I am sure many of you have heard the horror stories about getting into a dodgy cab in South America and being robbed?? Well I am here to tell you that in the three months we travelled we were never robbed or felt unsafe in a taxi – in fact a lot of the time they were super friendly acting as tour guides as we drove between destinations. In saying that we always had our accommodation call us one and rarely got into one off the street unless we were sure it was from a reputable company. Most taxis are metered but you may also try your way at haggling – make sure you ask the hotel what the cost should be to get to your destination or Google the rough price beforehand to make sure you are not over charged.
Getting between larger cities (e.g. Cartagena and Medellin) I suggest taking a plane. Local budget airlines are often much cheaper, safer and are also a lot quicker than taking a bus – a bus journey may say it will only take 8 hours but you will find it will end up taking closer to 15 hours because they make a ridiculous number of stops along the way. It is generally recommended you book flights 1-2 weeks in advance to make sure you get a seat and are not paying huge prices as domestic flights are popular amongst locals. VivaColombia is the site we used to book flights – we also found that if we went into the actual travel agent it was cheaper than booking online. Avianca is another commonly used online booking site.
If you are only travelling a small distance, were unable to get a flight or just want to sit back and enjoy the scenery than you may want to take a bus. We took a bus between Cartagena and Medellin (which took FOREVER, literally double the time stated by Bus Company). This was a nice way to see the countryside and the way the other half of Colombian people live and commute. When we travelled this route there were no ‘tourist’ buses available so we took an ‘upper class’ locals bus (for safety and time reasons) which was not a comfortable ride. During our long distance bus commute the bus stopped a million times letting people on to sell food, drinks and trinkets, lots of people jumped on and off throughout the journey and police checks occur relatively frequently – Many people would urge you not to take long bus trips around Colombia as it is unsafe. Although I didn’t feel unsafe, I have mixed feelings about the bus trip we took in Colombia – on one hand I loved seeing all that is Colombia and I feel I saw a lot more than I would have if we had just flown between cities, on the other hand the journey was SOOOO LONG, uncomfortable and we barely got any sleep. With that I will leave you to make your own decision on transport.
Although accommodation varies between cities, overall accommodation is quite cheap in Colombia. For a single shared dorm you can expect to pay between $8-12 (AUD) a night, for a double bed room with an ensuite $15-25 (AUD) a night and for a fancier hotel room you can expect to pay anywhere between $30-45 a night. Most of the places we stayed in (double bed room with ensuite) included breakfast, wifi, fans, hot water and had access to a kitchen where we often would cook dinner given the produce is so fresh and we were craving some home cooked meals.
I always found the accommodation in Colombia to be clean and tidy but I did make sure I did my research beforehand to make sure we had a good place in terms of cleanliness, location and facilities. One thing I would suggest is in Cartagena try and get a place with a/c. It might be super rare but we only had ceiling fans and it was steaming (and that’s coming from two Australians that live in Queensland!!).
Food and Drink:
Colombia’s cuisine is very diverse ranging from the Andean influenced meat, potatoes, rice, black beans and yucca-based stews to Caribbean influence seafood dishes and colourful Amazonian fruit displays. Food is very cheap in Colombia with meals ranging from $1-10. Deep fried food make popular snacks with the local with empanadas (pastry filled with beef, chicken or cheese) at the top of the list costing as low as $1. For some of the more westernised meals at restaurants you can expect to pay a little more but still get a good meal around the $10 mark. Like its northern counterpart, South American restaurant expect a 10% tip, provided the service was good (a little hard to get used to if you are Australian).
When deciding where to eat my advice is just to check out TripAdvisor for good places or look for a clean and tidy place the locals are eating. If you are missing a good home-cooked meal the produce is extremely fresh and cheap in Colombia so why not grab some groceries and cook yourself.
Colombia is also blessed with a huge climatic range making an assortment of fresh fruit and juices readily available at a great price. Something I really enjoyed during my time in South America was eating the set lunches and receiving the fresh juice of the day – super tasty and exciting because you never know what flavour you will get!!! Colombia is also renowned for its coffee (tinto) having large coffee plantation in the highlands – definitely give it a go while you are visiting but you may need to ask for some milk (Le Leche) as the coffee is served black.
In terms of water, always buy bottled water and never drink from the tap or jugs at a restaurant unless you are certain it can from a bottle.
What to do:
There is plenty to do in Colombia. From exploring beautiful Colombian cities to visiting the mud volcanoes – you can be as adventurous as you like. Below is a list of places we visited and the activities you can do in each, enjoy!!!
Cartagena (coming soon)
Medellin (coming soon)
Bogota (coming soon)
I hope this has given you a quick idea of what to expect when visiting Colombia. Let me know how you go, enjoy :)!!!