If you asked someone 30-odd years ago what they knew about Colombia, you’d probably get responses relating to drug cartels, danger and of course Pablo Escobar.
Since then Colombia has moved on dramatically. Just take the constant 10% increase of tourists year on year as an example of how this country has changed for the better.
Why did Colombia become such a popular travel destination?
Colombia is one of the world’s most diverse countries, boasting two oceans, the Andes mountain range, cultural and thriving cities, flourishing jungles and with that native wildlife.
Housed across Colombia’s 59 National Parks, you’ll find over 10% of the world’s animal species, making it a great country to explore if you love wildlife.
If exploring the wilderness is not what you are after, there’s no need to worry. Colombia has a number of energetic metropolitan cities that offer a great food scene, a number of historical sites and innovation spurred by the entrepreneurship that’s flourishing within the cities.
Destinations like Cartagena boast stunning colonial architecture that tells a story of years ago, transporting you back in time as you wander through its streets.
Throughout Colombia you’ll come across a number of once in a lifetime opportunities. Whether it be whitewater rafting, hiking, kitesurfing, horse riding, diving…the list literally goes on and on!
However, despite its huge steps towards change, people are still asking the same question – ‘Is Colombia safe?’
The answer is yes, but like with any other country you need to keep your wits about you and keep to the areas which are known to be safe. Our blog on safe travel in Colombia answers this question in a lot more depth.
Top places to visit in Colombia
As we mentioned above, Colombia is a diverse country offering lots of different opportunities and adventures depending on where you go.
As hard as it is to pick, here are our top 3 places to visit in Colombia:
Cartagena – situated on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Cartagena boasts some of the best preserved colonial architecture in all of the Americas. Once a crown jewel of the Spanish empire, you’ll clearly understand why it’s been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site after a few hours strolling around Cartagena. The 13km of ancient walls seemed to have preserved the city, giving you the feeling of going back in time. Being on the coast, Cartagena isn’t too far from some amazing beaches including Playa Blanca. Inevitably though, this kind of beauty has attracted tourists from all over the world, meaning some of the popular sites and beaches can get very busy! It’s only 1 1.5 hr flight from Bogota to Cartagena.
Tayrona National Park – is situated in northern Colombia at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta where they meet the Caribbean coast. The national park is a large protected area perfect for travellers looking to explore some of the best beaches in Colombia or adventure through lagoons to picturesque cloud forests. The beaches offer great places to snorkel, whilst the jungles provide opportunities to hike amongst wildlife such as birds, lizards and monkeys. From Cartagena to Tayrona National Park takes about 5, while it’s only 3 hours from Barranquilla and less than an hour from Santa Marta.
Medellin – once home to the famous drug lord, Pablo Escobar, Medellin used to be considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Fast forward to now and Medellin has completely transformed itself into a thriving and innovative cosmopolitan city. The city is considerably safer with a top-notch transport system via its metro system and cable cars, numerous stunning parks and delicious restaurants. Another great thing about Medellin, due to its location, temperatures remain warm and pleasant, meaning you can visit all year round. If you are in Medelin, we also recommend to take the 2 hour bus journey from Medellin to Guatape as a daytrip.
The list of extraordinary places in Colombia definitely doesn’t stop there, so here’s a few more destinations you should check out:
Sallento (to visit Cocora Valley)
When’s the best time to travel to Colombia?
Due to Colombia’s proximity to the equator, temperatures remain stable throughout most of the year. Temperatures do vary depending on altitude though. The higher you go, the colder it tends to be.
Here’s a rough guide of the average temperatures depending on altitude:
< 1000 m – More than 24°C (Cartagena, Santa Marta, Cali)
1000 – 2000 m – ~ 20°C (Medellín, Manizales)
2000 – 3000 m – ~ 14°C – (Bogota, Pasto)
Colombia has two seasons, a wet and a dry one. Dry season is between December and March, considered one of the best times to visit Colombia, and the wet season runs from April to June and October to November. July to September can also be a good time to visit as it’s mainly dry, plus it’s whale season!
However, you won’t be the only person wanting to travel at the best time, so if you chose to visit Colombia between December and February, expect a lot of tourists. With more tourists comes higher prices as the businesses have the leverage to increase prices.
Travelling outside of these months can save you some money and also provide the opportunity to explore tourist sites without thousands of other tourists.
How to get around in Colombia
Colombia is a huge country with plenty of amazing destinations to explore. Around a third of the country is taken up by the Amazon Jungle where moving around is extremely difficult, but luckily the rest of the country isn’t quite as tricky to navigate.
Here’s a short overview of the main transport options:
By bus – When travelling Colombia, one of your main forms of transport will be it’s extensive bus network. Long-distance buses tend to be relatively comfortable with reclining seats, air conditioning and toilets. You’ll be looking for comfort as journeys between the big cities are pretty long. For example, Medellin to Cartagena is 14 hours, and Bogota to Cali is 10 hours. The main bus companies in Colombia are Expreso Palmira, Bolivariano and Trejos, who also provide a good service and easy-to-use websites. A big tip when travelling by bus in Colombia is to wear warm clothes. We all love a bit of air conditioning, but those buses get seriously cold. 10 hours in arctic temperatures isn’t exactly going to be enjoyable!
By plane – Flying in Colombia is a popular option, especially for those short on time or who have a larger budget to play around with. There are a number of domestic airline providers including the two biggest Avianca and Copa. VivaColombia is also a big player in the airline space and tends to offer the cheapest flights, but watch out for the luggage restrictions. The majority of the time flights are more expensive than the bus, but it’s worth checking just in case, as the cost-time ratio may be worth it. Do keep in mind though that taking a short haul flight can be up to 10 times more polluting than taking a more environmentally-friendly option like the bus.
By colectivo – are small minivans or truck-style vehicles that are mainly used for short journeys within a city or between two that are nearby. This form of transportation is predominantly used by locals, meaning they’re usually cheap. Make sure to agree on the price to your destination before getting in though. They’re definitely not as comfortable as the bus and don’t have much space for your luggage. As they don’t have set pick-ups and drop-offs, they can can get you closer to where you want to be than the bus. A big downside though is that they don’t leave until they’re full, so you could be waiting around for a while!
By car – Although renting a car in Colombia isn’t a very popular choice amongst travellers, it doesn’t mean it’s not an option. You’ll need a passport, credit card and international drivers license in order to rent a car with prices starting from around $17. Sure, having your own car gives you the freedom to explore at your own leisure, but do consider that the road quality between some cities isn’t great and Colombians aren’t known to be the most careful drivers. As bus travel is also very convenient, we would recommend using the available transport.
By train – Colombia doesn’t have a train network, so unfortunately this isn’t an option!
Visa for Colombia
We all love to hear it, travelling to Colombia is relatively stress-free when it comes to immigration and Visas. A large number of countries are able to enter Colombia visa-free for a period of up to 90 days.
In addition, all visitors are required to have a passport that is valid for at least 6 months after the date of entry, so make sure to renew your passport if it’s going to run out soon.
The Perfect Packing List for Colombia
For the majority of your time in Colombia, you’ll probably be enjoying warm temperatures and lots of sunshine. Meaning you’ll need cool and light closes.
However, if you’re venturing to higher altitudes, make sure to bring some warmer clothes, especially for the night time. A rain jacket is also a good shout if you’re travelling outside of the dry seasons.
Aside from the essential travel gear, here are some that have become permanent fixtures on our packing list:
Reusable water bottle – they’re better for the environment and can save you money on water.
A portable charger – there’s probably going to be a time when your phone’s battery is on red, at a time that you desperately need it.
An adaptor – Colombia uses plugs A and B, the same as the main plugs used in North and Central America. A universal travel adaptor is a great purchase if you’re travelling between different continents.
What other tips should you know?
Here’s a selection of the best tips and pieces of information that may make your trip to Colombia that bit easier:
Colombia uses the Colombian peso. As of February 2021, $1 was equivalent to around 3554 peso.
It’s good to always have some cash on you as not all establishments take cards. You’ll also need cash for taking the bus, markets and tips too.
In all of the big cities there will be plenty of ATMs available to withdraw money and in more rural areas, you may have to rely on bank branches instead.
It’s good to be aware that most ATMs in Colombia charge between 10,000 and 14,000 COP to withdraw money. However, BBVA, Davivienda and Colpatria don’t apply charges to certain cards, so try these ones first.
The language spoken in Colombia is Spanish.
It’s always good to know a few essential words before travelling to a place, so here’s a few to get you started:
Hello – Hola
Thank you – Gracias
Please – Por favour
Sorry – Lo siento
Beer – Cerveza
Food and drink
Colombia’s food scene varies depending on which region you’re visiting, meaning if you’re backpacking through Colombia you’ll be treated to a variety of dishes and flavour.
Colombia is a country rich in natural ingredients which you’ll find in their predominantly meat-based dishes and delicious soups.
Of course we couldn’t write about Colombia and not mention the coffee. Coffee in Colombia boasts a mild, well-balanced flavour that is popular all around the world. Their average annual coffee production is 11.5 million bags, the third highest in the world.
Here’s some of our favourite dishes you have to try whilst you’re in Colombia:
Bandeja Paisa – is the national dish of Colombia. It was originally created to provide peasant workers with enough energy for a hard day’s work. Nowadays it’s a substantial, high-calorie lunchtime meal which is perfect for anyone looking for a challenge. It consists of rice, plantain, arepa (corn cakes), avocado, minced meat, chorizo, black sausage, fried pork rind and then topped with a fried egg. We wish anyone who takes this dish on the best of luck!
Mondongo Soup – you’ll find this dish served in most Colombian restaurants, but the dish may not be for everyone. It consists of diced tripe (typically the stomach of a cow, slow-cooked chicken or beef stock and lots of vegetables. When in Rome as they say!
Empanadas – are a popular snack throughout both central and south america. They are typically deep fried pastry stuffed with a variety of different fillings, from meat with potatoes to vegetarian options. If you’re looking for a healthier choice, you can also find baked versions too. Empanadas are usually super cheap and the perfect snack to tide you over till dinner.
Safety in Colombia
As we mentioned previously, a lot of people still question whether Colombia is a safe place to travel to. Like with all places around the world, there are dangerous places in every country.
Unfortunately it’s not an easy question to answer as it depends on everyone’s personal circumstances, so we’ve put together a devoted blog that delves into travelling safely in Colombia.
You can use this resource to help you decide whether Colombia is safe enough for you.
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