The view from here
If you’re thinking about visiting the fascinating destination of Colombia, bookmark these handy tips on safety, getting around, and saving money.
So you want to go to Colombia! Of course you do - it’s a beautiful country with plenty to offer the intrepid Travelher. Given its history, however, you may have some trepidation. To help ease your fears and prepare you for a fabulous trip to this South American gem, I have listed some tips below. If you still have questions after reading through them, feel free to leave a comment or email me, and I will answer you as best I can.
First things first
Many people ask if Colombia is safe to travel, or if I felt afraid while I was there. These are fair questions. And truthfully, while the country has made extraordinary efforts and gains in cleaning up its reputation as a dangerous, drug and violence fueled lawless land, not everywhere is safe. There are tourist-friendly areas and areas you should steer clear of (which I will try to touch on below). The key is arming yourself with knowledge, avoiding iffy situations, and being as prepared as you possibly can. I did feel afraid sometimes - not because there was anything particularly dangerous going on, but because being on your own as a woman can be scary sometimes - virtually anywhere.
I stuck to the safe places, exercised caution, and always had a backup plan just in case. My personal experience was excellent - the Colombians I interacted with were extremely warm and friendly, eager to share their culture, and super patient with me and my terrible Spanish. I absolutely loved it for the six weeks I was there, and it was worth every effort that travel entails - including the higher alert mentality.
I got told off once and it was by a woman - possibly for taking too long at a service desk because of my terrible Spanish. But I’ll never know… because of my terrible Spanish.
Since safety is likely the number one issue on your mind, let’s address this first.
Stick to the safe areas
I visited Bogota and Cartagena and a couple of other places on the coast, but spent most of my time in Medellin. Within those cities are safe and dangerous areas - and this is far from an exhaustive list - and things change, so once you decide where you want to go, dig in deep and get the latest information on where is safe to go and where isn’t. At the moment (2019), you should stay far away from the cities of Buenaventura and Tumaco, and the borders of Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador. Here are the current government recommended areas to avoid or exercise caution if you’re citizens of:
I have a makeshift map here of Medellin (pronounced Med-i-jeen) that my Colombian friend gave me which marks the areas that are safe and the areas to avoid. El Poblado is packed with tourists and expats and has a heavy police presence so is relatively safe. Again, learn all the up-to-date information you can and when in doubt, ask your accommodation provider or a trustworthy local to give you some guidance.
Making your way around is generally pretty easy, as the people are warm, lovely and ever helpful. Here are a few tips to help you on your way.
Get yourself some phone minutes and data
I like the idea of unplugging from the world, leaving Instagram and Facebook behind to wander around and explore with a paper map, only connecting to WiFi like once a day or every few days just to check in. However, in the interest of playing it safe, you should opt for phone data to have the ability to figure out where you are, find information immediately, and communicate. A local SIM card doesn’t cost much, and it will save you many headaches. Whether you need to translate some crucial information, exit fast with Uber, or find out if the place you are walking to is still going to be open by the time you get there, it simply doesn’t make sense not to use a modern tool at your disposal.
There are a couple of companies that you can choose from, and they are often at kiosks on the street. I was told that Claro has the most coverage, so I decided on that one. Buying a SIM and a month’s worth of data was easy, and the attendant set it all up for me despite my broken Spanish.
There are a couple of differences to note with phone data in Colombia. One, you can pay to activate certain social apps like Whatsapp and Facebook only and not just the general web. Another slightly strange thing is that if you need to charge up your phone with data after your initial purchase, you'll need to find a vendor that can charge it up with data and not just phone minutes (I accidentally added a bunch of talking minutes that I didn’t need - see Spanish language skills). And third, ideally, you would be able to use the Claro app (for example) to charge it up with data, but if that is too complicated, you can avoid that and stick to charging up at the kiosks. If you’re there for less than a month, you may not need to worry about charging up at all.
Make sure your phone works, or you have an alternative
My home phone company had no coverage in Colombia at all - which shouldn’t have been a big deal once I got a local SIM card. However, these days, your bank and many other outfits link your phone number to security protocols - like approving payments and whatnot. I was unable to approve bank payments or send money because my home phone provider did not have coverage in Colombia. Make sure that yours does - or that you have a plan in place to avoid the security rigamarole. Remember your social media accounts are linked to your phone number as well.
If you don’t have WhatsApp yet, make sure you download it and set up an account. This is how most people - including hotels and tour operators - prefer to communicate. This is true of other countries in South America as well.
Transportation in Colombia is pretty straightforward with these tips in mind.
Depending on where you’re from, you may have to pay an entry fee. They accept credit cards for this, but it’s worth having some cash on you (see Money Matters below). Have your departure information downloaded on your phone and handy! You will need to show the customs agent proof of your departure plans. I can’t say for certain about all the relevant international entry points, but the WiFi at Bogota Airport in unreliable, so you likely won’t be able to download it there on the spot.
Memorise a few basic phrases of Spanish
While you may meet heaps of English-speaking tourists in Colombia, the majority of locals do not speak English. This includes airport staff, hotel proprietors, waiters and waitresses, and many of the people you will be interacting with on a daily basis. Ideally, you will have some knowledge of the language before you arrive. If not, I highly recommend downloading a translator app on your phone or keeping a translator book with you, and memorising vocabulary having to do with directions, money, food - and anything else to do with keeping safe, sheltered and fed.
Know the Uber quirks
Yes, Uber is available in Colombia, and it is super cheap. However, it is technically illegal. So, yes, you can use your app to order a car, BUT, it is a little tricky, as the drivers are trying to avoid any run-ins with the police. In busy places, your driver might ask you (in Spanish!) to meet them away from the main pick-up points (for example, they don’t like to meet you right outside the airport, but would ask you to meet at a nearby location instead). And then, it is understood that you will sit in the front of the car with them so that if you get pulled over, you will pretend to be “amigos” instead of just paying for a ride.
The other thing is that if there are police around where your designated pick-up location is, they may drive past or cancel your ride. If you find that no one is taking the ride, this is often the reason. So you might have to walk somewhere else and try again. While this all sounds a bit convoluted, I personally still preferred this option to using taxis because the app keeps records, and you don’t have to deal with negotiating in Spanish or carrying cash. I can’t speak for everyone, but all of my Uber drivers delivered to the same standard as they have in other countries. Only you can decide what you’re most comfortable with.
Be prepared when taking taxis
I only used taxis a couple of times because I generally don’t like taxis - too many experiences with the driver trying to rip me off and/or feeling intimidated or uncomfortable when travelling by myself. (Hence why I think ridesharing is the greatest innovation ever!) However, the times that I did use them in Colombia, it was fairly pleasant. Before you get in, check there is a meter and that it works and ask for an estimated cost. If there isn’t a meter (sometimes there isn’t), you’re going to need to barter and agree on a price before getting in. Try to figure out either from a local or from internet research how much you should be paying.
Accommodation is generally affordable in Colombia, and paying a little more goes a long way.
Be smart about using third party booking apps
If you are going to book accommodation online ahead of your arrival, do so only for the first night or two. Then, book directly with the accommodation provider if you plan to stay longer. The booking apps charge a booking fee that the accommodation providers don’t like to pay - so if it’s a direct booking, you will likely get a cheaper rate.
Have your passport handy
You may as well memorise your passport number as you will be asked to write it down at all the places you stay at, and for transport bookings. Forms are often in Spanish too, so be prepared to translate.
Colombian currency is the Colombian peso. Get familiar with the words cash (effectivo), credit (credito) and bill (la quinta). You are going to use these words a lot. Many places take credit cards in Colombia, but there are always instances where cash is king, so it’s good to keep some on you.
Have some cash upon arrival
It’s always a good idea to have some local currency on hand to get you from the airport or bus station to the hotel.
Consider how you will manage your money before you go
Check in with your bank before departure to both let them know you will be in Colombia, and ask about the fees associated with taking out money overseas. Rather than carrying a money order on me, or heaps of cash to begin with, I used the ATM occasionally (located in malls and department stores) to get cash for smaller transactions, and credit cards for most things. Whichever way you choose to manage it, exercise the same caution you would anywhere else. Don’t take out a heap of cash to carry around for too long and make sure you’re discreet about it. Have a backup plan if your card gets eaten.
When you ask for the bill (“la quinta por favor”) at a restaurant or hotel, etc., you might be confused by the number of questions when you pay by credit card. The proprietor will ask you - or the debit machine will ask you - (in Spanish!) 1) How many transactions do you want? The answer to this is always one (apparently in Colombia, you can break up the payments so that it’s not one big one). And 2) Which currency do you want to make the transaction? The answer to this is always local, Colombian currency. If they convert it to your home currency using a third party right away, the rate is going to be terrible. Don’t do it.
Tips are really appreciated by restaurant service staff - and it doesn’t have to be much. If you frequent a certain place, tipping will get you better service. On the whole though, service is excellent, and staff take pride in the presentation of everything - from the uniforms to the decor to the food itself.
Making your way around is generally pretty easy, as the people are warm, lovely and helpful. Be prepared for a lot of stimulation, as Colombia has a very vibrant, expressive culture with lots of colour, loud music and passionate discussion.
Opening hours aren’t always clear
On a Sunday, a neighbourhood can look entirely different than during the week as businesses disappear into their buildings and are so shuttered away it looks like nothing was there. But it’s not just Sundays; sometimes businesses aren’t open for what seems like no rhyme or reason. Or they don’t open until noon but only serve breakfast food... It can be confusing but is nevertheless charming. Just try to make a note of the hours if you can work them out, and don’t give up on an area right away if it doesn’t seem as appealing as promised - as it could just be the wrong time of day.
Dinner is later but doesn’t linger
I’m not 100 per cent that it’s like this all over Colombia, but in the places I visited, prime dinner hour was around 8-8.30pm. Restaurants were fairly empty at around 6 pm… and usually cleared out by 10 pm.
Get the coffee from the source
You can’t go all the way to Colombia and not go coffee crazy, right? Oh so very true, but one thing to keep in mind is that as coffee is a major valuable export for the country, it sends its best stuff elsewhere. What this means is that you can’t buy any old cup of coffee anywhere and expect it to be Grade A quality. You’re going to want to get it from the cafes that get their supply from the local plantations. Don’t worry - they aren’t too hard to find and it’s worth the added effort to get to flavour town.
Colombia managed to turn my friend from a tea-only drinker, and me from a 2-sugars, 2-cream gal to black coffee connoisseurs. I highly recommend you try it out for yourself. And definitely do a coffee plantation tour!
Tread lightly on the topic of Pablo Escobar
The locals really don’t like talking about Pablo Escobar, and essentially hate the portrayal of him on TV. While we may view it as a wild story and a point of fascination, they experienced an awful period of bloodshed and terror that remains pervasive in every facet of their lives. There are many tours that feed this curiosity and plenty of tourists to keep it going, but this is a sticking point with many who live there. If you wish to talk about this, be careful with your approach, and if you partake in the tours, do so as respectfully as possible.
I hope these tips are helpful to you in planning your trip to Colombia! If you have anything to add to this or have a question, please leave a comment below.
Author - Meghan Advent
Meghan is a Canadian travel writer with residency in New Zealand. She's on a mission to see as much of the world as possible, but loves coming home.