Colombia is a beautiful country and offers a lot of biodiversity. Everything from Amazon rainforest to beaches to Andes mountain. It’s also a very hilly country so make sure you are prepared to hike uphill almost every day. There is an abundance of wildlife and so many colorful birds. This also means there are lots of mosquitoes and insects. You can’t be so close to the Amazon rainforest and not expect to find a few creepy-crawlies. It’s a country that should be high on everyone’s travel destination list, especially if you live in USA. It’s no longer the country of Escobar and the cartel. Below is a list of practical observations/tips about Colombia and why it’s a great vacation destination.
We were in Medellin, Guatape, Santa Marta, and Minca. All of these places were safe and at no point did we feel like something bad was going to happen. In fact, we visited Comuna 13, the neighborhood devastated by Escobar, and it’s a sprawling tourist destination. Like anywhere else, you have to use common sense and be aware of your surrounding but that’s true no matter where you are in the world. We met solo travelers from Europe and North America who’ve been in Colombia for months and none of them felt unsafe or threatened at any point during their stay. And neither did we.
It’s so Cheap!
Main course at a nice, sit-down, fancy restaurant is about $7-$10 and even cheaper if you go to less fancy, budget places. Alcohol is also VERY cheap. Drinks cost about $2-$4 at bars and 1 liter bottle of Aguardiente is about $15 if purchased at a store. It’ll cost about $20 if you buy a bottle at a restaurant. Aguardiente, aka guaro, is anise flavored drink made from sugarcane. It was delicious and we drank it every night. Everything from Airbnb, hostel, taxis, tours and other services were cheap when converted to USD. If you want to travel on a budget, Colombia is a great option.
People are NICE!
Everywhere we went, everyone we interacted with, asked for help, and talked to was always nice. Most of them didn’t speak English so taking Duolingo lessons a month or so before going will definitely help. Google Translate is also a great tool. Download the offline Spanish translation. Tour guides and taxi drivers were honest and didn’t try to scam us or charge us a higher price just because we were tourists.
There’s no such thing as a bad cup of coffee in Colombia. I’ve never been able to drink black coffee anywhere except Colombia. Everywhere we had coffee, it was amazing and we drank a few cups a day. In many places we saw someone pushing a hand cart selling coffee. You really don’t need milk or cream in your coffee. You also won’t need to search for a “good” coffee place because it’s good everywhere.
Don’t worry about getting food poisoning
Tap water is safe to drink in Medellin, Guatape, and most big cities. There are places where bottled water was recommended but it’s cheap. In Santa Marta, the tap water looked murky so I opted for bottled water. Gaurav drank tap water in Santa Marta and he was fine but his stomach is made of steel. In Minca, we were told to not drink tap water so that was the only place all of us exclusively drank blottled water. I ate raw fruits and vegetables without getting sick. In fact, papayas are so delicious in Colombia. I don’t particularly like papayas but I didn’t give up a chance to eat papaya in Colombia. The best papayas I’ve ever had!
Driving is… manageable
In Medellin traffic was well behaved so if you choose to drive, it shouldn’t be too bad. It gets a lot more challenging in rural areas where roads are unpaved and narrow. I personally would not feel comfortable driving in places like Minca but its still nothing compared to the traffic and chaos I’ve seen in India. You can rent a car but it’s not necessary and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it. There are plenty of taxis, buses, and other ride-share options which are safe, reliable, and cheap.
Of all the countries I’ve visited, I’ve never experienced such fast immigration. We landed slightly ahead of schedule but it took us about half an hour to get off the plane, grab our suitcases, use the bathroom, go through immigration, get cash from an ATM, and walk out of the airport! There was no line for immigration. We were only asked one question by the immigration officer. How much cash do we have in US Dollars. I’ve never gotten out of an airport so fast after landing. If you have work visa or are a permanent resident of US, you get visa on arrival and I highly recommend Colombia as a vacation destination.
SIM cards are cheap and easily available. There’s a place near Dunkin Donuts at the airport where you can purchase it but you can also get it in town. Claro has the best coverage but Tigo is also good. Tigo cost $8 for 2 GB. Claro cost the same for 1.6 GB and it didn’t include voice calls. We decided to diversify and get one of each. In cities we had 4G coverage but in national parks and rural areas, network was patchy.
Take lots of bug spray. Especially if you plan to be outdoors in the rainforest. Whatever amount of bug spray you think you’ll need, double it and take that. It’s like sunblock there. If you don’t re-apply periodically, you’ll become an endless buffet of the best and most delicious desserts for all the amazonian bugs. In some cases, the bug bites will even develop puss and ooze after a few days. Don’t leave your hotel/hostel/airbnb without it.
Bathrooms are clean!
Now, I know this isn’t a big deal for men but for women it’s a very important issue. Thankfully, all the public bathrooms were clean. Unlike Iceland, there were bathrooms at almost all tourist destinations and they were all well maintained. Access to a clean bathroom can make or break a vacation for me. The strange part was a lot of them were missing the toilet seat. But I very much appreciated the access to clean, usable bathrooms everywhere in Colombia.
Domestic flights are relatively cheap. They range from $60-$80 for most destinations but go with Latam or Avianca Airlines. There are other budget options like Viva Air but they have random requirements like you must have printed boarding pass. They won’t accept boarding pass on your phone. If you go to the counter to get your boarding pass printed, they’ll charge you $16 extra per person. There was a place at Medellin airport that printed boarding passes for less than $16 but in the end Viva air will end up costing more than Latam.
Many hotels and hostels in rural areas like Minca will charge extra for using credit card. The additional charge can be anywhere from 5% to 12% and it’s usually listed on their website. It may not be highlighted so look carefully. If you are unsure, contact the business and ask. Businesses in Minca generally preferred cash. It’s important to note that there is NO ATM in Minca. There’s a small shop called Embassy in the town center that falsely advertises an ATM but it’s not actually there. It’s some guy behind the counter who’ll charge your card and give you cash in return but it’s not an actual ATM machine. He’ll charge an extra fee and give you bad exchange rate.
When you ask for a check, some restaurants will ask if you want to add a tip before they bring you the bill. Some restaurants will automatically add a standard of 10% tip as Servico or Propina. Tips are not expected for cabs.
I almost forgot…
The clouds, mountains, sky, and the sun will put on a spectacular show every day, sometimes multiple times a day. You’ll feel like you are in some magical land, far from reality. Regardless of weather, expect the sky to put on a beautiful show. I’m not a great photographer so none of my pictures do justice to what you’ll actually see.
Other quick things to note
- Tayrona and Minca are great for hiking, nature, beaches, and coffee farm
- Cartagena is a party town
- Bogota is the capital but when we visited, there were political protests and a curfew was imposed. It had no impact on our plans
- Get Yellow Fever Vaccine. It’s strongly recommended but not required. No one will ask for proof but why risk it especially if you are going to Tayrona National Park
- Drinking in public is legal. You don’t need to hide your alcohol. You can walk around a town square with an open bottle
- It was extremely hot and humid on some days in November. Pack and dress appropriately
Food and drinks
- Aguardiente, anise flavored drink made from sugarcane, is the local drink
- Ron Medellin Rum is another local drink. Their 12 year aged rum is quite good
- There are local beers but I don’t like beer. I only tasted a few and Aguila was similar to Corona
- Bandeja Paisa is a very common and popular platter. It usually includes chicharron, sausage, pork, rice and beans, fried egg, avocado, arepa, and plantain chips. One order is usually big enough to share between 2 people
- For vegetarians, there are options that include rice and beans, lots of fruit varieties, avocados, plantain chips, arepas, and different kinds of bread