Colombia Travel Guide

Bustling cities, Andean adventures, Amazon jungle, and Caribbean coasts. Colombia packs all of South America’s treasures within its boarders. The country that was once riddled with drug cartels and violence is now one of the most popular up-and-coming destinations. In the past 10 years, international tourism to the country has grown 250%. And for right reasons. There’s much to see, but the people and the culture are what make the country rich. Explore for yourself before everyone else catches on.

 

Highlights

Bogotá – The vibrant capital city is located in a plateau in the heart of the country. At 8660 feet/2640 meters, Bogotá’s is one of the highest metropolises in the world. There are 20 districts in the city, but the area around La Candelaria is where you’ll find most of the city’s attractions. Main attractions: Plaza de Mercado, Mount Monserrate, Plaza de Bolivar, free graffiti tour, and the art galleries and shops around La Candelaria.  Tip: Don’t forget your umbrella! Bogotá is sunny one minute and raining the next. Fortunately, the rain never lasts long.

Cartagena – This colorful colonial town captivates everyone who steps foot on her cobbled streets. The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. Cathedrals and castles sit alongside mansions teeming with flowers, all of which is enclosed by fortress walls that date back to 1500s. Main attractions: The city centre is the attraction. Trace the footsteps of Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who found Cartagena inspirational, visit the cathedrals, eat fruit from the street vendors, and don’t forget to take a day trip to the Rosario islands. Tip: Cartagena is hot and humid! It can be quite a shock coming from the cool mountain cities. Drink lots of fluid and bring lightweight clothing.

Medellín – It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, and that is exactly what Medellín is doing.  What was once considered the murder capital of the world was recognized in 2016 by the World Travel Awards as the best destination in South America. Cable cars and outdoor escalators have played a key role in the city’s revitalization. Comuna 13 has been transformed from the epicenter of violence during the narco years to the city’s hub of street art. Many believe that Medellín could be the next big art capital. Main attractions:  Metrocable, Museo de Antioquia, Plaza Botero, graffiti tour of Comuna 13, and a day trip to Laguna de Guatape. Tip: The metro is a safe and efficient way to get around the city.

Salento in Zona Cafetera  – Salento is the town to visit in the Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s coffee region, for its location to Valle de Cocora. Salento sits within walking distance of several coffee plantations. It’s picturesque with colorful buildings set against lush green hills. It was our favorite stop in Colombia. Main attractions: Cocora Valley, the coffee farms, aldea de los Artisanos (artisan community), the viewpoint overlooking the town, or the many trails just beyond the town’s borders. Tip: Book more days than what you think you’ll need. It’s such a lovely town that I’m sure you’ll won’t be ready to leave after a couple days. We weren’t.

Accommodations

Airbnb

Airbnb options in Colombia are plentiful. You’ll find penthouse apartments overlooking Medellín and thatched-roof bungalows near the beach. Some of my greatest travel memories have been staying with and befriending hosts through Airbnb. If you’ve never stayed at an Airbnb, use this link to get $40 off your first stay (Disclosure: This gives me a $20 credit, so we both save a little money.)

Hotels

There are hotels in Colombia to accommodate every budget. You can find simple, clean rooms for as low as $10-15 a night or luxurious rooms with every amenity for $200 and up. I use Booking.com for all my hotel reservations because I like that you can often choose to pay now or at the property.

Transportation

Busses

Waiting for the border to Ecuador to open after an overnight bus ride to Ipales, Colombia.

Public busses run regular routes throughout Colombia, making travel easy and inexpensive. Bus tickets can be purchased at the station; just find the window that has a sign with your destination. On most of the busses, seats are reserved but this is not always the case.

Store your large bags under the bus and keep smaller bags with you. Make sure you don’t leave any valuables in your larger bag, and do not place your smaller bags on the floor or above you on the rack. Keep them on your laps throughout your journey. There are numerous stories about bags being stolen from the top rack or cut open on the floor. (My daughter and I took busses from Medellín all the way to Lima, Peru, and we never had any problems, but we always kept our bags on our lap.)

On some routes, you may have to transfer at a bus station, but there are increasingly more direct routes between the popular tourist stops (Medellín to Salento).

Flights

Budget flights provide an efficient alternative for domestic travel. Easyfly and VivaColombia are two airlines that are worth checking out if you prefer to fly.

Traveling with kids

When I travel with my kids, I plan activities for the three of us. I don’t plan the entire trip around my kids, as I think there is value for each of us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. My rule has always been that no one complains while doing someone else’s activity; we have to participate and find something about it that we liked. That being said, Colombia presents so many fun options for kids. Here are a few ideas:

  • Snorkeling at the Rosario islands
  • Hiking outside Salento
  • The many Botero sculptures throughout the country, especially Plaza Botero in Medellín
  • Riding the outdoor escalators and the cable cars in Medellín
  • The graffiti tours in Bogotá and Medellín
  • Street performers in Cartagena
  • Parque Explora in Medellín has a zoo, an aquarium, and playgrounds
  • Coffee tours outside Salento

 

Traveling solo

There are so many misconceptions about traveling to Colombia. When I was planning my trip, I grew weary  from all the stuff I read about kidnappings and armed robberies, but I didn’t have any problems. I met many solo female travelers throughout my time in Colombia and no one expressed having any issues other than a few catcalls here and there. Stay in hostels or homestays so you meet others. Don’t walk around alone at night. Crimes do happen in Colombia, so don’t carry a lot of cash and don’t wear expensive, flashy jewelry.

 

Traveling on a Budget

Colombia is a great destination for budget-minded travelers. Here are some of the country’s free activities:

  • The Gold Museum is free on Sundays 
  • Botero Museum in Bogotá is free everyday
  • Graffiti tour in Bogotá
  • Walking tour in Medellín
  • Botero Plaza in Medellín
  • Explore Comuna 13
  • Botanical Garden in Medellín
  • Hiking Cocora Valley
  • Street performances in Cartagena
  • Check out street art
  • Make friends with locals and other travelers
  • Hike up Monserrate Mountain
  • Spend the day at the beach

Safety

Colombia is no longer the dangerous destination it once was, but you should exercise caution when visiting because crime still does occur. Following these precautionary steps will minimize the risk of falling victim.

Be informed and look informed. As with any destination, there are parts of cities or countries that are not as safe than others. It’s important to know where these areas are so you can practice caution if visiting those. Always listen to advice given by locals. It’s important to look like you know where you’re going when traveling. Criminals are always looking for easy prey, so walk with purpose, look at maps before you head out or at a cafe, and appear confident even if you are not.

Be vigilant with your things. Don’t carry things that look expensive and make you an easy target. Carry minimum cash and belongings when out. Keep a hand on your bag at all times–in restaurants, museums, taxis, and especially subways. I travel with a small  and only take it off my body in my hotel room. I like using a messenger bag because it doesn’t look like a camera bag, and I can pull it in front of me when walking on the streets and riding public transportation. Never leave your cell phone or expensive electronics out on the table during a meal. I’ve had too many friends loose their devices this way. Be much more cautious than you are at home.  If you are mugged, always hand over your things. Your life is more important than whatever personal belongings you are carrying.

Don’t walk around at night. Always hire a driver if out late at night. If using a taxi, make sure it’s an authorized company. Have the restaurant or your hotel call a taxi for you; this is generally safer than hailing one from the street.

Don’t drink too much. Being intoxicated makes you an easy target, so don’t get drunk.

Be careful with ATMs. ATM skimming is common in all of Latin America. (I fell victim to this in Peru.) With this scam, tracers are placed on the ATM, so when you put your card in to withdraw money, your information is copied and later used to drain your account. If this happens to you, call your bank immediately to put a hold on your card. My bank was able to rectify the situation, but it took a couple weeks to get the money back in my account. To avoid this, try to only use ATMs that are in grocery stores or banks with a security guard present. Sometimes street ATMs are the only available option, so make sure nothing wiggles around the card reader. Also use your hand to shield your pin in case there are cameras installed.

Tipping

Restaurants – In Colombia, restaurant tips are not automatic. They are used to reward good service. If you choose to tip, 10% is an acceptable amount. Some bills will include a 10% tip on the bill, but paying it is still voluntary.

Tour guides – Yes, but you determine the amount. I usually base my tip on the cost and length of the tour and the quality of the guide.

Taxis – No.

 

Cultural Norms

  • Being on time for casual meetings or events isn’t imperative for Colombians. The norm is to show up 15 to 20 minutes late.
  • Using two fingers to show the length of something is considered obscene.
  • Wrapped gifts are not opened when they are received.
  • Lillies and marigolds are used at funerals so don’t gift these flowers.
  • Avoid making comments about drug traffic or illegal cartels. Never joke about drugs.
  • Whistling to get someone’s attention is considered rude.
  • Cover your mouth when yawning, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Colombian’s stand close when talking; do not back away because that can be considered rude.
Taken from the bus to Salento.

Sustainable travel tips

  1. Do your research. Consider sustainability when determining where to go, where to stay, and how to get there.
  2. Choose where to spend your money. Hotels and transportation are not the only two places to consider sustainable practices. Tours, shops, and restaurants present great opportunities for supporting the local community.
  3. Be respectful of the culture. Learn about cultural norms before traveling so you aren’t unknowingly offending others. When guidelines are given, make sure you follow them.
  4. Critically examine opportunities to interact with animals and children. Working with kids and animals can create some of the most meaningful memories, but you don’t want to play a part in exploitation or abuse. Don’t give money or anything else to children on the streets, and make sure that animals are treated ethically before you financially support any organization working with them.
  5. Always look for opportunities to support the local community. Buy local. Always.
  6. Say no to plastic as much as possible. The LifeStraw removes bacteria from water and provides a safe alternative to bottle water.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need vaccinations? Yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that:

  • all travelers be up-to-date on routine vaccinations;
  • most travelers receive Hepatitis A and Typhoid; and
  • some travelers receive Hepatitis B, Malaria, Rabies, and Yellow Fever (these are dependent on where you are going and what you will be doing).

Can I drink the water? Tap water is safe in the major cities, but you will want to only use bottle water or water that has been filtered in smaller towns.

Do I need travel insurance? I wouldn’t travel without it. Travel insurance covers you in the event of illness, accidents, or theft. I have always used World Nomads because they were highly recommended to me from other bloggers.

Do I need a visa? Visas are not required for stays up to 90 days for citizens from the EU, the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK.

What is the currency? Colombian peso. At the time of publication, the conversion rate was 1 USD = 2,934.91 COP. Find out the current rate here. 

What is the language? Spanish. Colombians speak the cleanest Spanish. Even with my limited Spanish (read: a very pathetic version of Spanglish), I could often understand what the locals were saying.

Best time of year to go? December to March is technically the high season, but Colombia’s proximity to the equator make it a desirable destination year round. Temperatures hover around 24°C (75°F) but rainfall varies. The driest months in the Andean region are from December to March and July to August.

 

Looking for inspiration?

One of my favorite things to do after I book a trip is to read literature, listen to music, watch movies, and sample cuisines from the country I plan to visit. It gets me excited about the trip and gives me an introduction to the culture. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Books. 

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez 

Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez

Delirium – Laura Restrepo

Short Walks from Bogotá – Tom Feiling

Movies

Maria Full of Grace

Leccion Para un Beso

The Two Escobars

The Colors of the Mountain

Music

Shakira (obviously)

La Mambanegra

Fonseca

Carlos Vives

Food

Ajiaco (a chicken soup with potatoes and corn) 

Arroz con Pollo (chicken and rice)

Chuleta Valluna (breaded pork typically serviced with fries and rice)

Empanadas

Pescado Frito (the whole fish fried)

 

Resources to help you plan your trip

Colombia Lonely Planet

Official Travel Guide of Colombia

 

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