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We’ve honestly never met anyone who didn’t rave about Colombia. We came for 4 weeks armed with Colombia travel tips from all the enamoured backpackers we’d met on our trip so far, and ended up spending 9 months there. We used Bogotá as a homebase to have a more settled-feeling life in between stints of active travel.
After 2 years on the road, we really can’t put into words how good it felt to have a home away from home; somewhere we could have a routine, unpack our backpacks into wardrobes and have non-transient friends with no pressure to go out and see new tourist attractions every day. Bogotá, we love you!!
Over the last few years, Colombia’s TERRIBLE global reputation has shifted incredibly. Far from its bloody past, Colombia is doing fantastically to heal its deep wounds and move forward as a country. We were shown nothing but kindness from the locals, with many of them telling us to go home and show our friends how great it is to travel to Colombia now that it’s overcoming its recent history. People there are so incredibly keen to turn their nation’s reputation around.
And whilst you may worry that Netflix hits such as Narcos may have scared tourists off travel to Colombia, if anything they seem to have fuelled a desire to explore the country instead. However, you still need to be respectful when you visit, we’ll touch on that a little later.
If you’re looking for local guides to make your time in Colombia more immersive, check out what’s available here. Viahero specialises in matching travellers with locals to give people an authentic look into daily life, and also make sure their money is going directly to the community.
Once you’ve gotten stuck into the 10 things to know before you travel to Colombia, here are our most popular Colombia posts for you to have a gander of:
1. Ecuador-Colombia border queues can get ridiculous
Although we got incredibly lucky, turning up to the border to find ourselves the only people in the queue (no, seriously) as we’d opted to travel to Colombia on the very important Easter weekend, most people’s experiences of the Ecuador-Colombia border are horror stories. We’ve known people who queued in either direction for 14 hours and were still turned away, having to try again the next morning. Thursday to Sunday is apparently extra busy, so try to aim to cross early in the week.
There are flights from Quito to Bogotá and then onto Cali, but then you may have to sacrifice going to places such as Ipiales in the south (and we really recommend you go there if you have the time).
2019/2020 Ecuador-Colombian border update: Be aware that due to the worsening Venezuelan crisis, at times the Ecuador-Colombian border has become difficult or even dangerous to cross by foot. The Colombian government is generally sympathetic to the people who had to flee Venezuela over the last couple of years, but bureaucratic and political issues across South America mean that thousands of people end up being stuck on either side of land borders.
They have created separate queues for those with visa privileges and those escaping Venezuela, but you need to be on guard whilst in the area as people are in a fairly desperate situation.
2. Consider learning the lingo in Colombia
Colombia is one of the best places in Latin America to learn Spanish. The type of Spanish spoken across Colombia is generally slow, clear and free from too much slang. Schools are much cheaper than the southern region of South America, but Guatemala, Mexico and Bolivia will of course beat it on overall cost of living and studying. Medellín is a big hub for Spanish-learners, and there’s always something going on to help you enjoy a longer stay while you study.
3. Pleeeease don’t take a gimmicky Escobar tour
Pretty please. Nothing hurts the majority of Colombian people more than people idolising the guy who helped tear their country to pieces for years and even after death continued to ruin their reputation almost beyond repair. Westerners like to claim that locals see him as a Robin Hood figure, but that’s only a tiny fraction of the population for whom he built houses – essentially in return for a hideout territory and the loyalty of the residents who then got sucked into dying/killing for him in the narco wars.
There are so many ways you can learn about this painful time in Colombia’s history and how they’ve somehow pulled through without rolling around Medellín with a guide dressed in a floral shirt and fake moustache, pretending to shoot passersby. Escobar is like Voldemort in most of Colombia; many locals won’t even take kindly to you mentioning his name.
The Comuna 13 Graffiti tour in Medellín is an example of a tasteful way to get a run-down on the history and legacy of the narco wars in Colombia, and to see how a community can pull together to build a more hopeful future. Once inaccessible even to police, it’s now a staple on the tourism trail (but don’t go there without a guide!).
4. Don’t worry that you don’t have a Colombian Cédula
Pretty much anything you pay for on card, you will be asked for your Cédula, which is an identification number given to residents. Don’t panic that you haven’t got one; just tell them your passport number (have a photo of your passport to hand if you don’t speak Spanish). You’ll usually be asked for a copy of an ID anyway so they can check it matches the card – they’re pretty hot on guarding against fraud!
While the country has surely pulled itself back towards the right track in the last couple of decades and is making huge headway economically, socially and politically, please still exercise caution. Crime against gringos seems to disproportionately happen to young men looking for drugs or sex – go looking for trouble and it won’t be long until trouble finds you.
Please note that if you are going to travel to Colombia as a sex tourist (grim as that sounds/is), Colombia does have a problem with underage prostitution, so at least have the decency to use common sense in whether to believe the age they tell you they are.
And one of those Colombia travel tips that sounds silly but could just save your dignity/life: if an attractive woman is coming onto you strongly at a bar and it seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.
Almost all of the reports on expat groups of usage of Devil’s Breath (scopolamine) – a truth serum-like drug that turns you into a zombie and results in you gladly helping the spiker take all of your money and things from your apartment – come from men who think they’re about to have the night of their lives with the woman (or women) of their dreams. Remember to think with your actual brain, fellas. The one in your head.
6. Uber can be sketchy
Although fully functional, Uber is not currently legal in Colombia. You will still be able to pick up an Uber driver in any major city, but they will likely ask you to sit in the front so as to look like a friend, and they may freak out if you can’t speak enough Spanish to tell the authorities how much you know them if stopped.
We have to admit, we’ve been caught twice by transport police when using an Uber to and from the airports in Medellín and Bogotá. They took copies of our passport but we’re not sure what they did with the info. One Uber driver got a big old fine, whilst it seems the other got arrested as he was a repeat offender.
Penalties for being caught working for Uber are pretty steep in Colombia, going up to a lifetime driving ban for multiple arrests. Therefore, don’t be offended if a driver gets spooked and cancels your Uber. It’s up to them whether they want to take the risk or not. For that reason, one of the Colombia travel tips to always keep in mind is to not take Uber if you have anywhere to be quickly. If you do choose to use Uber in Colombia, help them out and do your best not to stick out.
We now use Cabify to get to the airport at odd hours of the day, or take a yellow taxi when possible (in Bogotá, a taxi from the centre to the airport should cost 25-35,000 COP). Check out our complete guide to Bogotá to learn how to use the Transmilenio bus system and find out more about using taxis in the city.
7. It’s Colombia, not Columbia
If you’re going to visit a new country, have the respect to learn how to spell it! We see on our keywording tool that sooooo many people search for ‘Columbia South America’ on Google, and they probably then wonder why their results are rubbish. Some locals get quite annoyed if you mix up their country with the various North American cities called Columbia.
8. Internal flights are super cheap in Colombia
Colombia is home to many budget airlines that specialise in internal and short-haul flights. Troubles a couple of decades ago that left many of the roads in rural Colombia unsafe triggered the then-president to put rules in place to cap the cost of internal flights so that people had a safe option if they needed to travel. This means that flying from city to city within Colombia is often the same price as that 10 hour bus you were resigned to taking.
Cheap no-frills airlines include Viva Colombia and EasyFly (make sure you check the baggage allowances!), with a level up in service and price expected from Latam Airlines. Avianca is also fantastic for the prices they offer.
For less popular routes that aren’t showing up on price comparison sites such as Skyscanner or Kayak, make sure you check out the (absolutely terrible) websites of smaller airlines, such as Satena and San German. These guys run propeller planes to lesser visited parts of the country, such as Bahia Solano and Isla de Providencia. Their prices tend to be higher and the supply of seats is lower, so get in with booking quick!
9. NOW is the best time to visit Colombia
We first arrived in Colombia in April 2017, and last left in October 2019. During that 18 months, we can vouch for the fact that the level of tourism in the country has changed rapidly, and it’s no longer an off-the-beaten-track destination in Latin America.
While we’re crazy-proud of all that Colombia has achieved to move on from their brutal past and build a new reputation for themselves, we feel the huge influx of tourists has the potential to become unsustainable as the country becomes more and more mainstream during the next 3-5 years (even iPad-wielding OAPs in coaches have started feeling brave enough to switch their Caribbean cruise for a tour of Colombia).
Quaint little mountain towns such as Salento have already seen a tourism increase of over 300% in a year, and the vibe of the place now has those more experienced with Colombia looking elsewhere to towns like Filandia, or further out still as even that grows in popularity.
Luckily, there’s a huge amount to see here, and beauty in every corner – for its size, it’s probably one of the most multi-faceted countries we’ve ever been to – so we won’t run out of alternative off-beat towns in Colombia. However, in order to see all the key highlights before things become too saturated, we couldn’t end our list of Colombia travel tips without saying get to Colombia ASAP. In a few years, we’d expect it to turn into somewhere that closer resembles Peru (not awful, but certainly not the same).