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5 Essential Tips for Traveling to Colombia

People from around the world are packing their bags, and heading to the South American gem for a taste of the Colombian lifestyle.

By Flora MayerPublished 5 years ago 6 min read
By Joel Duncan

Boasting stunning landscapes, friendly locals, rich culture, and a sobering past, Colombia has seen a substantial increase in tourism over recent years. People from around the world are packing their bags, and heading to the South American gem for a taste of the Colombian lifestyle. While the foreign influx has resulted in clear backpacker trails across Colombia, and plenty of advice about where to go, and what to see, here are some tips to ensure you’re prepared before you book your plane tickets.

Bring cash.

Colombia is a cash country—most restaurants, shops, and bars only accept physical money, rather than take a card. Although larger cities like Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena do have more places that will allow you to pay via card, the smaller towns and countryside locations won’t. In fact, some of the really remote areas (for example along the Pacific coast) don’t have ATMs at all.

It’s also worth noting that the Colombia peso is not a stable currency, so it’s not uncommon that currency exchanges abroad don’t store it. In this instance, simply withdraw cash from ATMs when you arrive in Colombia—it’s best to take out large sums at once to avoid multiple bank fees, but always ensure you spread the money across different bags and hiding spots. ATMs in Colombia charge different fees depending on the bank, but generally speaking, Davivienda is the cheapest. Check with your bank in advance about conversion rates, and withdrawal charges.

Another small, yet important, tip is to ensure you’re familiar with Colombian notes and coins before you arrive. The peso is a high denomination currency (coins are in the hundreds, and notes in the thousands) and if you’re coming from America of Europe, it can take some getting used to. Plus, to add to the confusion, ‘mil’ in Spanish means ‘thousand’, so if something costs two mils, that equals $2,000 COP not $2,000,000 COP.

Know basic Spanish phrases.

Although Colombia is experiencing a steep climb in tourism, the country is by no means bilingual. Spanish is the official language, and the majority of Colombians do not speak English. Again, in the larger cosmopolitan cities, you’re likely to find English-speaking Colombians, however, day-to-day activities (like shopping, traveling and ordering food) will require some Spanish.

Luckily, Colombia is known for having some of the clearest Spanish in the world, and the locals are very patient with non-natives. Colombians really appreciate extranjeros (foreigners) that try to use Spanish phrases and words, so you’re likely to make some friends by putting your linguistic skills to the test! If you don’t have the time or money for Spanish classes, there are a number of free language-learning apps available to practice on the go, or alternatively, a wide selection of Spanish schools in Colombia offer classes via Skype.

Pack clothes for all weather.

A common misconception about Colombia is that it has year-round sunshine, and high temperatures. This is not true. Colombia’s terrain is extremely diverse: from the desert to the coast, the Amazon to the Andes, Colombia’s weather covers all conditions. Depending on your route, it’s worthwhile bringing layers and waterproofs, as well as swimsuits, and sun cream. The weather also happens to be a popular talking point wherever you are, so practice your Spanish, and strike up a conversation about the day’s forecast.

Here’s a weather breakdown of the most popular Colombia spots:

  • Bogotá: Unpredictable. Most of the year average the high 60s, but can go as low as the 40s. The weather changes quickly here, and heavy rainstorms come and go throughout the months. That said, Bogotá’s elevation is high, so you’ll still need protection from sun rays.
  • Medellín: The city of eternal spring! Temperatures here don’t drop below the 60s, and regularly reach 80. May and October are the rainy months when dramatic thunderstorms and rainfall occur.
  • Cartagena: Located on the Caribbean coast, the city is extremely hot and humid. Temperatures can climb to 90 degrees, and don’t fall under the mid 70s. October is the wettest month, but not as extreme as other regions in the country.
  • Santa Marta: Similar to Cartagena, Santa Marta has a tropical climate, and is hot and humid. Temperatures here creep a little higher than Cartagena, but can feel cooler due to the town’s proximity to the beach. April is the hottest month, while December is the coolest.
  • Salento: Found in the coffee region, Salento is much colder than the coast (although not freezing by any means), and rains a lot throughout the year. The days tend to stay in the lows 70s, but the nights drop to mid-50s, and definitely require a sweater.
  • Cali: The capital of salsa isn’t too dissimilar to Medellín, albeit a little colder. Temperatures average low 80s, without dipping below the 60s. Akin to Medellín, the rainy months are April and October.
  • Leticia: In the very south of the country, commonly used as a gateway to the Amazon, Leticia is hot, humid, and rainy. The weather hovers in the 80s, and most days are overcast.

Research the food.

Another assumption about Colombia is that the cuisine is comparable to other South American countries, and is packed with fresh flavors and spices. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case either. Most Colombians would be horrified to hear that their food is underwhelming, but the general consensus among foreigners is that it’s far from varied or delicious. Colombian dishes are typically very heavy and hearty, consisting of meat, rice, or potatoes, beans, and arepas. Snacks are usually fried, and include cheese, and the bread has a particularly sugary taste. Admittedly though, the size, taste and astounding cheapness of the avocadoes in Colombia might just be sufficient to excuse the rest of the cuisine.

If you have any dietary restrictions—vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free—research the food scene for the places you’re visiting beforehand. Cities like Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena, and Cali have a broad selection of restaurants, yet, as a whole, Colombia isn’t particularly accommodating for special requirements. If you’re vegetarian, it’s useful to know that Colombians use the word ‘carne’ for red meats only. If someone tells you something is ‘sin carne’ (without meat) it very well may contain chicken or turkey still. To be extra clear say, ‘Tienes opciones para vegetarianos?’ (do you have options for vegetarians?).

For travelers who are more concerned with coffee, rather than food, there’s another surprise in store. The majority of Colombia’s best coffee is exported, as locals drink tinto—the dregs of coffee mixed with sugar, and served in small cups. Tinto is far cheaper than the beans that get exported, and is a much bigger part of the culture than fancy coffee shops. The big cities have an impressive array of cafes showcasing Colombia’s primary product, whereas pueblos (towns), and remote areas will serve only tinto.

Be safe.

Colombia has undoubtedly transformed in the last decade, having ended a 52-year civil war, and most Colombians are thrilled to show off their country. Nonetheless, Colombia’s past, economic status, and different cultural attitudes mean that the country still has issues with crime, and as a foreigner, you are a natural target. Things like petty theft are common in large cities (especially on public transport, so always wear your bag on your front, and don’t carry your passport with you), and rarer, but still possible, is gun crime, and kidnapping.

Common sense is the biggest deterrent for any bad situation: look like you know where you’re going, don’t be in isolated places by yourself, stay in safe accommodation, don’t flash money, dress modestly, and always tell someone where you’re expected to be and when. A good idea is to bring a decoy phone and purse with you when traveling, so in case something does happen, you can hand those over instead of losing valuables. Another thing worth mentioning is that there’s a large military presence in Colombia—you’ll regularly see police, and army personnel carrying guns on your travels, but don’t panic, as Colombia is still emerging from a violent past, they’re there for people to feel protected, rather than due to any real threat of danger.

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About the Creator

Flora Mayer

Flora is a young and ambitious who has been researching self-development for the past two years and is now off traveling the world. She helps tourists with free walking tours in London - so get in touch with her if you want a special tour.

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