I traveled through Colombia for 6 weeks and there are many things I learned during this trip so I would like to share my experiences and tips with you so you can plan your trip better!
Here are 25 things you need to know before traveling to Colombia!
1. Get a ticket out of Colombia
Make sure you have a return ticket or if you are planning to go to Colombia for an uncertain period of time, make sure you have booked the cheapest bus or flight out of the country because if you do not have a ticket back or out of Colombia, the company you are flying with won’t let you on the flight. I have heard very few stories where people got on the plane without a ticket back, but I heard a lot more about people that had issues.
We flew with Avianca from Barcelona and we didn’t know about this so we were refused entry on the plane. We thankfully quickly booked the cheapest flights we could find and then canceled them a week later.
2. You can only stay in Colombia for 90 days
If you are from any EU country, the United Kingdom, or the United States of America you do not need a visa to enter Colombia, but you can only stay there for 90 days. If you wish to stay longer you will need to obtain a visa.
Before entering everyone needs to fill in an online form: Migracion Colombia. It is a basic registration form that will be required at the airport upon entering Colombia. Make sure to fill it in 24 hours before your trip. We had it in a digital format and this works just as well. You will also need to fill it in once leaving Colombia.
There are no vaccines required upon entering Colombia. You do not need the yellow fever vaccine to enter Colombia, but you will need it if you are planning to do a trip to Amazon. There will be parks, reserves, and areas where upon entering you will be required to show your yellow fever certificate. I have put together a guide on how you can get a yellow fever vaccine in Colombia for free!
Vaccines that are recommended for foreigners are:
A & B hepatitis
4. Weather depends on the altitude rather than the time of the year
It can be 35 degrees by the Caribbean coast and at the same time 10 degrees in the capital city Bogota. It all depends on the altitude, the higher the altitude the lower the temperature. The temperature more or less stays the same all year round.
The only thing you can influence is choosing between dry and wet seasons. Obviously, during the wet season, it tends to rain a lot more so you want to pick the dry season, which is December to January and July to August.
Learn from my mistake, and put sunscreen on even if it seems cool and cloudy. We were exploring Bogota, it was chilly and cloudy, I was in my jumper and my face still got burnt!
5. Altitude sickness is a real thing
It was my first time in South America so I wasn’t ready for the massive altitude change, especially coming from sea level. I actually fainted during sightseeing in Bogota which is the highest city in Colombia (2644 meters/8675 feet above sea level). The best recommendation is to drink a lot of water. You feel sick and will not have the urge to eat but please do eat something and drink coffee with sugar. Ideally do not plan much hiking and walking on the first day. Take it easy. Give it a day to get used to the altitude.
6. Do not read into the crazy stories about safety in Colombia
Just use your common sense, do not flex with expensive jewelry and watches, look after your bag, do not walk alone at night and you will be completely fine. Stop reading all the crazy kidnapping and drug crime stories, they are far away from the places you are going to visit. All you have to watch out for are the pickpockets.
The locals have a saying ‘do not give a papaya’ which means, don’t do silly things, use your common sense, watch your stuff and you will be ok.
7. Each city has a good and a bad neighborhood
Do not rely on general opinions about the city. Each city has its good and bad neighborhoods. So whenever you are choosing accommodation or planning things to do and see, definitely research where in the city is safe and not so safe areas. ‘La Candelaria’ areas which are the old towns tend to be more dangerous and the new zones tend to be safer.
Saying that we stayed in some Candelaria areas and during the day they were fine.
Most important is the time of the day. Most places in the night and late evenings are dangerous, as a tourist be more cautious during late hours. If you want to go out and party try to go with a group. Also, take a taxi straight to the bar/club and then straight back to the hotel. During the day all areas are more or less ok.
8. Police are everywhere
Do not worry about seeing police everywhere, nothing has happened it is just a normal practice. Also, don’t worry about wired fencing, it is normal to have it.
9. ColOmbia and not ColUmbia
Locals can get very offensive if you write it wrong.
10. Learn some basic Spanish
I highly, highly recommend this! There will be a lot of places where people do not speak English at all. Learn basic things about traveling, numbers for buying stuff, and polite phrases to get out of the situation. Or make sure you have data, so you can use translating apps, which takes me to the next point.
The most popular provider is ‘Claro’. You will find it in almost every shop and kiosk. Also, there are representatives in all tourist spots, do not worry, they are legit, and you can buy from them too. They are wearing red Claro t-shirts.
Do not buy it at the airport! We got scammed! We paid like 5x more because we just landed and thought it is the normal price. The prices average are 40.000 COP (~ EUR 9.50 / 8 GBP / 30.50 USD) for 11GB. Just be careful when buying, pay attention if you are buying data for 7 days or 30 days.
12. Prepare cash
Although there are many places that accept the card, you will end up in a situation where cash is the only way. So make sure you always have some with you.
Also, some places charge an extra 5% if you decide to pay with a card.
I personally recommend changing money in the airport, as they offer a better exchange rate than the offices in the cities.
13. Internal travel
Colombia is bigger than you think! Before picking 11-hour bus drive check the domestic flights! To our surprise, domestic flights are very cheap. We got tickets as low as 80.000 COP (~ 20 EUR / 17 GBP / 22 USD).
The original plan was to take a bus from city to city, but once we realized how cheap and convenient domestic flights are we flew everywhere. We only took the bus once, which made sense as the bus drive was only 4h (officially, in reality, was 6 hours). This takes me to my next point.
14. Buses in Colombia
Apart from flying, the bus system is the only other option, as the train system is not great in Colombia. You will find bus routes to most of the places. It is said that traveling by bus is safe in Colombia which probably is, taking into account how many buses go every day, but once in a while, things do happen. Just 2 weeks before our planned bus trip from Santa Marta to Cartagena a very similar bus on the same route was robbed. It was a night bus, so probably better to travel during the day. That is another reason why we chose flying and not buses, it is safer.
Even if big robberies do not happen, drivers allow sellers and beggars on the bus, which can be very disturbing as they stay on a bus for a good 20 minutes and you are not sure what to do. Very awkward.
The only bus company we tried for a long distance was ‘Expreso Brasilia' and I can recommend it as the seats were comfortable, the bus had air-con, tv, and toilet. The drive was smooth.
15. Taxis or Uber
Let's get the facts straight - yes, Uber and other apps are not legal in Colombia. Also, in fact, everyone still uses them! We used them for 6 weeks in different cities and we had no issues. I prefer and personally recommend using Uber and similar apps because then you know exactly how much you are paying and you have the driver's data. Trust me it is safer than taxis because there are stories about illegitimate taxi drivers. That said, there are cities, like Santa Marta and Pereira where Uber and similar apps do not work.
We also used ‘Cabify’ and had a good experience.
16. Traffic in the city is mad
No one follows the rules. Everyone drives like crazy. So you need to be careful not only as a driver but double check when crossing the road walking too. I do not recommend renting a car and driving into the city unless you have very good insurance coverage. Renting probably is only a good idea when going away from the city to the least accessible places.
17. Do not mention HIS name
Avoid mentioning Pablo Escobar's name or even joking about it. You don’t want to put yourself in the situation. Only discuss it if the other person brings it up. The reality in Colombia during his ruling time was nothing like a Netflix show. There are people who suffered greatly and there are people who still these days praise him so you do not want to get in the middle of that.
18. Colombia Travel Groups
I highly recommend joining Colombia travel groups on FB and Reddit. Firstly if I ever had a question I got the best answers as people in the group are currently traveling Colombia and had faced the same issues or they have been there, done it, and can advise from their personal experience. Secondly, people discuss other places, things to do there, and buses to take so it can give you great ideas for your route.
Also, if anything important happens in Colombia you will find out with 50+ comments from travelers like you. For example, there were massive protests happening on the roads, and loads of them were closed, so people in real-time were commenting on who is stuck where and where is fine to go, which helped us greatly.
These are 2 groups I joined and found very useful:
They are everywhere and they are so little you can’t see them so they will keep eating you alive and you literally can’t do anything about it. So all I can advise is to have a lot of mosquito spray with you. Some areas have more of them than others, like Minca. I returned from the jungle/mountain trip with 1000s of bites everywhere! They do sell a lot of organic and natural sprays and other products against mosquitos.
20. Cold showers
The more North you will go the less chance you will get a warm shower. The booking sites won’t say if there is a hot shower or not, because of course we assume there is a hot shower everywhere, but in Colombia, there are not. I think 80% of the places we stayed had no hot water. Even if it says hot shower it doesn’t mean you will get an actual hot shower, it might be just slightly warm.
If you see on booking.com a question in the Q&A section about ‘Do you have a hot shower?’, it is probably me haha, because before booking I was always asking, because you never know!
90% of the time, the tip will be already included in the bill. It will be calculated from the total bill from 5% - 10%. If it's not automatically included in the bill then the person serving you will ask if they can include the service charge.
22. Watch your step
Very common to have random big holes on the roads and pedestrian walkways. They can be as big as 1m x 1m so be careful!
23. Have Patience
Everything takes ages. In cafes, in the airport, in the supermarket, basically at any place where you need to pay or receive services. Just have patience, it is what it is.
24. Straws for coffee
They use straws to stir coffee and tea. There are no spoons for that. That's all I have to say.
25. Enjoy this amazing country!
There is so much to see and do! Colombia is beautiful. I really enjoyed my 6 weeks there and already can’t wait for when I will go back.
There is a famous saying ‘The only threat in Colombia is not wanting to leave’ and I can agree with that! Put away any concerns you have about Colombia and embrace this amazing country!