I only spent a small amount of time in Colombia, but I am always trying to pass along anything that I learned. So here are some things you should know before you go!
General Tips for Colombia
It's becoming very, very popular
Just 10 years ago, there were only 900,000 visitors a year. Now, over 3 million people visit a year! Colombia is also topping tons of "top destination" lists. This also means that you shouldn't go there in peak season. Prices are jacked up and the streets are SO crowded.
It's Colombia not Columbia
Don't look like a fool. Spell it right while you're there.
It's super diverse
This is great, but it also means you need to research before you go. Rainforests, concrete jungles, small cities, wildlife, islands. I hate sounding like a travel brochure, but it really has something for everyone.
Diversity also means that the climate is completely different as well. If you're visiting a ton of places make sure you pack for all of them!
Yeah, I know. It used to not be safe. But, even before there was a well-defined gringo trail for years. Now that the country is even more popular those tourist cities (Cartagena, Bogota, Medellin, Salento, Santa Marta, Minca, and Tayrona) are even safer. Police presence is everywhere and I can confidently say solo female travelers will feel fine here.
Pro Tip: I promiseeee the locals are safe - I even suggest services like ViaHero - a company that assists your trip planning by pairing you with a local. Talking to someone who knows the area and grew up there means you will really get the most out of your experience. Check out this cool service here.
Speak some spanish
While the trail is defined and tourism is growing rapidly many people don't speak English. I would make sure you have google translate available offline or a passable understanding of Spanish.
Street Vendors sell everything and will approach you 1000xs a day.
Get used to it.
The street vendors can be very annoying, at some points they can be relentless. Remember that everyone is just trying to make a living and try to not be rude. A simple and firm "No gracias" in Spanish will usually send them away.
Be Careful Buying Tours from Street Vendors
Be extremely wary of tours that include snorkeling or the aquarium in Cartagena, specifically when visiting the Rosario Islands. Often times you will pay for a full tour from one person, get on a boat with someone else and then when you arrive at the Rosario Islands you have to pay for snorkeling again.
Tips for Colombia Food and Drink
- You should buy water bottles (or bags of water which are cheaper!)
- The good coffee is generally shipped out of the country. To avoid this head to coffee shops known for good coffee and skip coffee at local restaurants.
- Street food is great and completely safe.
- Arepas aren't for everyone (I personally love them though). Share one with a friend before buying your own.
- Fruit is reasonably priced, and you will taste unique and incredible flavors only grown in Colombia.
- Colombia is not easy for vegetarians. Fried pork and fried chicken are mainstays often served with every meal.
- Near the coastal cities you will find lots and lots of fish dishes. Especially ceviche.
Budget Tips for Colombia
Money in Colombia
- Be prepared to use Colombian Pesos (COP$) virtually everywhere.
- The denominations are in thousands or “mil” in Spanish.
- Notes come in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000, with coins in 50, 100, 200, 500, or 1,000.
- Often, the ‘000’s are dropped, and you may hear a price as “5 mil” or 5000 COP$.
- There are ATMS with multiple banks everywhere, some small towns, however, may be limited.
- Credit Cards are accepted sparingly. Mostly in a lot of nicer places so, be sure to have cash on you as well.
- Tipping is not customary in lower end places. High end places will add 10% automatically.
- But, tipping is always appreciated everywhere!
YOU CAN BARGAIN ON BUSES
The cheapest way to travel is by bus and that price you see - well you can negotiate it down! Of course, this doesn't always work. Don't even try during busy peak holiday periods. But, should you arrive to a half empty collectivo and an inpatient driver, or if you're travelling in a large group, it's totally possible to get the price dropped.
Other Bus Tips
- The bus experience varies widely, from city to city, and even bus to bus.
- You should never leave your valuables and/or daypack under the seat or in the rack above your head. Always keep it on you.
- Make sure you have a hoodie and a pair of socks with you, especially if travelling overnight.
Budget Airlines are great in Colombia
Minibuses for Tourists are great!
If you're traveling between cities, like Cartagena to Santa Marta, head to a hostel to buy tickets for a minibus. These a tourist buses, have great AC, are super safe, and still really cheap. They only seat about 14 people. Hostels are official sellers and the cheapest price around. They sell the same tickets the tour companies in old town sell, just for less!
Taxi Tips for Traveling Colombia
Avoid flagging down a taxi on the street
If you can get your hostel, restaurant or tour company to call a taxi for you. If you absolutely must find one once you're already out, I suggest heading to a designated taxi pick up point or simply to a hotel or restaurant.
Meter or no meter
All taxis in the big cities (like Bogota and Medellin) run on a meter. They should turn this on as soon as you enter the cab, so point it out if your driver fails to do this. In Cartagena and Santa Marta you must decide on a price before you get in the cab. Try and ask your hotel or server what a fair price is.
Don't slam the car door
Seriously, the taxi drivers have signs about it in the car. Be careful.
One last thing... even though researching ahead of time is great, I definitely recommend bringing a guidebook along with you. Here are some books I recommend...
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