As we round out our 4th month of traveling and living in Colombia, it's no surprise that we love this country. We share our Top 15 things that you need to know before visiting Colombia. More importantly, we want to dispel many misconceptions, so that when Colombia hits your travel list, you are better prepared for it.
We can easily claim this point from our 20 years of travel. Colombians are happy and warm people, and you will often receive warm smiles and greetings anywhere you go. Colombians are light-hearted, easy-going about almost everything, and you will often hear from them ‘tranquilo’ – meaning, “don’t worry,” “relax” – and that is their overall approach to life. Colombians are proud of their country, and they will show and tell you their appreciation for your visit. During our first week visiting Colombia, I was hugged twice by complete strangers and thanked three times by others for coming to see their country. Even a friendly greeting on the streets will be standard and warmly welcomed in return.
No doubt real-life gangster stories are thrilling and captivating, but Colombia has moved on from the days of Pablo Escobar and the powerful drug cartels. Escobar is responsible for thousands of deaths in the country, and to tourists, his story is often seen as a novelty. Colombia has been at war with itself for 50 years with guerillas and paramilitaries, impacting millions of Colombians by the loss of family, friends, and displacement from their homes. However, since 2006, there is a massive transformation and optimism for a more peaceful future here. Colombians would prefer your view of Colombia is more current and more diverse, such as experiencing its incredible landscapes and cities,and cities, biodiversity, national parks, colonial towns, coastlines, music, art, festivals, dance (salsa!) and it's transformation into a very livable, friendly country.
First, wipe away your perceptions of Colombia. It’s possible that your view of Colombia (as was mine), was based on what news reports from the 80’s and the 90’s. Also, Hollywood has done an excellent job of reinforcing Colombia as a country of drugs and violence. Plenty has changed in this country, and millions of travelers are visiting here now. What is important is to know, where you should and should not go. This question is common for any country. Information on the internet, travel guides, and from locals are good places to start. There are ongoing peace talks with guerrilla groups, and they still operate in some areas, where people don’t go. Also, like in any country, you should take regular precautions, like safe keeping of your valuables and avoid walking out alone at night. We have traveled all over Colombia for four months with no safety concerns. The only real risk is you will probably want to stay longer. (Update: As of November 2016, Colombia signed the with the FARC to end the 52-year war - even more reasons to visit!)
There are police everywhere in Colombia, especially at major attractions, parks, and stations. Please don’t jump to conclusions that it isn't safe. They are present to avoid issues not because there are issues. There is over 1 million military in Colombia and many police officers in the country; it's no wonder given what Colombia has been through.
You will quickly discover the warmth of Colombian people when you make an effort to speak even just a few words in Spanish. Not only will people appreciate your gesture, but you will find that they will make an effort to help. And at times, they downright go out of their way to assist you with the language barrier. Often, someone nearby you, who sees or hears your language challenge, will drop into your conversation and speak English or will help you by communicating easier, or slow down their speech to accommodate you. A great phrase to learn is “Habla más despacio por favor” or talk slower, please. These serendipitous encounters have happened more times to us than we can count. The people here definitely take out the intimidation out of speaking Spanish. Give it a try!
You can experience virtually every kind of weather from the desert in Guajira in the Northeast, to the hot temperatures in the north in Cartagena and Santa Marta, to cooler climates in the mountains in Bogotá, warm days and cool evenings in Medellín, and heat in the south in Cali. Take a look at your favorite weather app to plan your wardrobe accordingly when visiting Colombia. Here is a helpful post to plan the best time to visit Colombia.
Be prepared to use Colombian Pesos (COP$) virtually everywhere, since locals do not accept US dollars (USD). The denominations are in thousands or “mil” in Spanish. Notes come in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000, with coins in 50, 100, 200, 500, or 1,000. Often, the ‘000’s are dropped, and you may hear a price as "5 mil" or 5000 COP$. It takes getting used to this, and it gets easier. I found their currency system has improved my skill in Spanish numbers! There are ATMS with multiple banks everywhere, some small towns, however, may be limited.
Credit cards are not widely used here, although sometimes you can use these in hotels, large grocery chains, and more upscale restaurants (they may charge you the 5% credit card fee). Often you hear staff ask: “Cuantos cuotas?” This inquiry is asking if you want to pay in installments. For one standard payment, as you always do back home, and you would indicate one cuota.
Tipping in Colombian restaurants is not customary, although it is voluntary. It is 10%, and they will ask you at the end of your meal if you want it included or excluded in the bill (which is called propina voluntaria or servicio). Tip your tour guides at least 10%, as well as services like hairdressers. Taxis do not require tips.
This is an unfamiliar phenomenon. There is something known as the ñapa or a bonus or reverse tipping. Sometimes you get a little extra of something at no charge. If you are a regular customer, it happens more frequently. For example, if you are at a juice bar, and there is still juice left in the blender, often you will get a little extra juice. If you have patronized the business for quite some time, it will likely happen often. How awesome is this? What a pleasant surprise to get that bonus!
Our description of the food here is comfort food: hearty, filling and rich. We recommend going on a food tour, like this one, as it will change your perception not only of the food but also of the history and stories behind it. Then you will know what to order next time. Notable foods we love are Ajiaco, Sancocho, Empanadas, Patacones and Arepas con Huevo. There is no shortage of fried food options here!
Fruit is an essential part of the diet here. Fruit is reasonably priced, and you will taste unique and incredible flavors only grown in Colombia. Our particular favorites were Guanábana, Lulo, La uchuva, Granadillas, Maracuyá (Passion Fruit), Tomate de árbol (Tree tomato), and Pitahayas (Dragon fruit). We have tasted the most delicious common fruits here, like Pineapple, as well as Papaya that is so sweet and melts in your mouth (nothing like our fruits that are flown into North America).
Colombia is not easy for vegetarians. Fried pork and fried chicken are mainstays often served with every meal. There isn’t a big culture yet for vegetarian options (even in some cities), but you can get by with rice, beans (of all kinds, including lentils and chickpeas), limited vegetables and, of course, fruits. Often, if you mention that you are a vegetarian, they will assume that chicken or fish is acceptable for you. Just be prepared as you will need to make some modifications to your meal. In bigger cities like Bogotá, there are more options.
13. Don’t slam your taxi or guest car doors!
Westerners have a reputation of slamming car doors when visiting this country; perhaps that is because we are used to large, sturdy and heavy doors on our own vehicles. When you get into a cab, you will notice how light and thin the doors are, so taxi drivers will often warn you not to slam the door, and if you do, they get highly annoyed!
In the main cities, there is an ample number of buses to take you to your destination. We recommend it as it is one of the best ways to see local life in action. Often, there are no posted schedules, so you do have to ask. Be prepared to keep bills smaller than 10,000 pesos so you can get the correct change. The Metro system (trains and cable cars) in Medellín is also one of the best options; it's easy, clean and convenient and they do have a great app with stops and details. Bogotá has an extensive bus system, with their service called TransMilenio. Cabs are very reasonably priced, and they are metered to manage a consistent cost for the ride. There are other great taxi apps here, like Tappsi and Easy Taxi, to organize your trip. Even Uber is running in all major cities and some smaller towns. (And you can use your same app from other countries.) visiting Colombia
Flights across the country are relatively low-cost (especially discount airlines like VivaColombia), and often the incremental cost will supersede the long, winding bus trips around the mountains. Bus transit is still a great option. They are comfortable western style buses with bathrooms for longer destinations. Be prepared for loud Colombian music playing during your ride, and bring a warm shirt or sweater as the A/C will be blasting! We’ve used bus services such as Rapidochoa and ExpresoBrasilia. They are excellent services with detailed schedules on their websites. Note that some bus and airlines will not take foreign credit cards, so you have to book in-person and pay with cash.
If visiting Colombia wasn’t in your travel plans, we hope it is now. What are you waiting for?
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Dorene is a marketing consultant and freelance writer. She quit her 20-year career in marketing to redesign her career and lifestyle on her own terms by living location independent. Now with her husband Troy, she helps people who want to redefine their midlife and make conscious changes at TravelLifeX. She also trains & coaches travel and hospitality clients to improve their marketing at TravelLifeMedia.com