Backpackers Guide to Colombia
Note – This article was published in 2010 so some of the info is likely to be out-of-date.
Population: 45 million
Size: 1.15 million km2 it’s bigger than every country in Europe except Russia, think France + Spain= Colombia
Weather: Varies greatly depending on altitude. You can be on a hot Caribbean beach with snow capped peaks in the background. An hour or two on bus can transport you to vastly different weather conditions so pack for hot, cold and wet weather, possibly all on the same day.
Law: For those inclined, you will be offered marijuana and yes cocaine at various points on your trip, especially in the big cities. You are legally allowed to carry small quantities of almost any drug including cocaine and marijuana (under 20g is considered personal use and okay). The buying/selling of drugs is illegal however so take care and cocaine in Colombia is much stronger than the stuff that gets sold in the streets of Western countries. Travellers have died in recent years due to underestimating the strength of cocaine. Always check the current legal status as laws can and do change. The legal high Ayahuasca is used by many indigenous folk in the Amazon and is gaining in popularity with travellers looking for spiritual enlightenment.
Exchange Rate: Colombian Pesos is the currency and rates are about $1=1800COP £1=2900COP EUR1=2500COP
Time: GMT- 5 hours with no daylight saving time
Religion: Catholic country with more churches than you can shake a stick at, but many people aren’t actively religious. There’s also a few indigenous religions.
The water is okay and probably safe to drink although some more cautious folk wouldn’t recommend it but in the big cities it’s fine. The most likely illness you will suffer is altitude sickness. It’s best to take a few days to acclimatize to the height before attempting any major physical activity such as mountain biking or hiking up a mountain. Antimalarials are important if you intend to visit the Amazon region of the country (South). Most of the points of interest are at an altitude high enough where malaria presents little to no risk so you don’t need tablets in the big cities for example. If you’re staying long on the coast (except Cartagena where there is no malaria) then it is advisable to take tablets. No vaccination certificate is required. Tetanus, hep A and yellow fever are the recommended vaccinations.
The improved safety of Colombia is leading to increasing numbers of flights into the country as tourists wake up to what Colombia has to offer. Budget airline Spirit offer flights from Fort Lauderdale (Florida) to several cities in Colombia and there are also flights from the capitals in Central America with Panama City the closest and cheapest. Bogota is the main airport with flights to/from Europe as well as cities right across North and South America. There are also international airports in Cali, Medellin and Cartagena.
By land heading from Brazil or Peru you must get to the Colombian jungle outpost of Leticia where three countries meet. The crossing is by boat and is the only official way in from either Brazil/Peru and a day long bus journey still awaits before you reach a major town. From Ecuador and Venezuela there are land crossings.
While Panama and Colombia share a border there is no official land crossing. For more info on getting to/from Panama check out the article on crossing the Darien Gap.
Border Crossings (Colombian town is always second)
San Antonio del Tachira-Cucuta
Maracaibo-Maicao (Paraguachon crossing)
Puerto Paez-Puerto Carreno
Best Places to Visit
Colombia features prominently in our South America backpacking route, which contains a suggested itinerary through the country.
Chances are you will know very little about the main tourist attractions in Colombia. This is in many ways a good thing as the country will surprise you in ways you couldn’t have expected. Indeed just 5 years ago the country was considered too dangerous to visit for all but hardcore travellers. This is no longer the case, the country is almost certainly safer than Ecuador or Peru which receive huge numbers of backpackers every year who have chosen to skip Colombia due to its negative reputation. There is a great deal of interesting places to visit and you could feasibly stay for months and still discover new places. There is no reason why you shouldn’t head off the beaten track although it’s never a bad idea to check the current situation as there are still a few FARC guerilla fighters and bandits left in some more remote regions. The following places are the most popular places to visit:
Bogota, the country’s groovy capital is in the middle of the country, home to 9 million people and fast becoming one of the biggest and most happening cities in the world. There is loads to do here both in the day and at night, weekends are best and you will need several days to a week here at least to see it all. There are many museums, most of which are free, the best include the National Museum, Museum del Oro (rated the best Gold Museum in the world) and Police Museum which includes a delightful guided tour in English and provides a great insight into Colombia’s recent troubles. Don’t miss the Ciclovia every Sunday from 7am to 2pm when cars are banned from many of the main streets which quickly fill up with bicycles, rollerbladers, skateboarders and joggers. You can rent a bike in the old town for COP15,000 for half a day and enjoy the unique experience of cycling around a huge city in safety.
The second and third biggest cities, Medellin and Cali each have a slightly different vibe and have plenty to interest the visitor. Medellin once home to the infamous Cartel of Pablo Escobar and was once the most dangerous city in the world so it has an interesting history it’s fair to say. Those days are long gone and the city and it’s surrounding area is very safe to visit with great shopping, nightlife and interesting artwork. Cali doesn’t have a great deal of sights but is pleasant enough for a day or two and you can take salsa classes in the day to get ready for a night in the cities lively clubs. There are still elements of danger in the major cities, which have beggars and a few unsavory characters. Muggings happen but no more so here than other big South American cities.
Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast and has a fabulously preserved old town and a rather average beach but there are nicer ones around. It is a mix of Latin and Caribbean culture and tourism is booming, with a new district by the beach full of high rise hotels. Some of the best beaches are off the beaten track such as Capurgana. Santa Marta and Taganga are fairly overrated with beaches are average at best and often dirty and crowded. To get the best out of the Caribbean coast head to the stunning Parque Nacional Tayrona and for the adventurous head to the lost city (Ciudad Perdida) which is supposedly as good as Machhu Pichhu with almost no tourists. The Pacific Coastal region lacks basic infrastructure and doesn’t cater to the budget traveller as well.
San Gil (pictured below and featured in our Top 10 New Backpacking Hotspots) is the place to go for adventure sports. Grade 5 Rafting, Paragliding, Bungeejumping, Hydrospeeding (body boarding down rapids) are all possible and many times cheaper than other more popular touristy countries. There’s also a 200m waterfall which is a 2 hour bike ride away and well worth the trip. Most hostels in town will sort you out with these trips or there’s a few rafting companies in town. San Gil is small and in a stunning setting so if tranquil hikes are more your thing you could still have alot of fun here exploring the mountainous countryside that surrounds the town.
There is a whole host of beautiful Spanish colonial towns dotted around the highlands. Popayan is perhaps the best with 5 beautiful churches restored following a devastating earthquake in the 1980’s. Barichara near San Gil is a beautiful village while Villa de Leyva has an enormous square and attracts many visitors from the capital.
A word on the Colombia people. Most travellers report them to be among the friendliest they have ever come across. This is largely the case and your average Colombian is typically very pleasant but the country has its fair share of crooks and people who you shouldn’t trust. Common sense as always helps and carry as little as possible at night in the cities. Interact with the locals, go to local bars and you will meet some of the most genuinely nice people you have ever met. Most Colombians are happy, peaceful folk with a good sense of humour who are proud of their country and reveling in the freedom and safety which has been lacking for so long.
Colombia is a pretty big and mountainous country so journeys are long and like much of Latin America buses are the only real option. Fortunately the bus network is widespread and buses are regular. Night buses are a good option for journeys of over 10 hours such as Santa Marta to San Gil or Bogota to Cali. Buses are now safe even at night (except between Popayan and Pasto/Ipiales where unpleasant incidents are very common). Each town or city has a main bus terminal, sometimes rather inconveniently on the outskirts of the city (eg Cartagena, Bogota) and therefore the journey from the centre to the terminal can be an hour or so and it’s not always easy to work out which bus you need to catch to reach the terminal.
Once at the bus terminal there are normally many companies vying for your business. Prices are not fixed so it is a good idea to know what a typical fare for your route might be before arriving at the terminal. You can haggle for a cheaper price and certainly should do this if the quoted price seems too high. If there is more than one company running the route, you are in a pretty strong position and can haggle for the best price. If there is only one company running it they may try to rip you off been a foreigner and all so stand your ground. Copetrans (left) and Boliviriano are probably the best but can be slightly more expensive than rivals but they have nice coaches. Concorde are pretty average with shoddy packed minibuses and staff that will try to rip you off. Watch out for the freezing air conditioning so take some warm clothes out of your backpack before piling it in the luggage compartment. You might want to stock on food/drinks for the journey before arriving at the terminal where stuff is often overpriced. The better buses have a toilet and brief refreshment breaks typically happen every 4 or 5 hours.
The smaller towns are easy to see on foot and bikes are a good way to explore the surrounding areas which are often stunning. Medellin is the only city with a subway/rail network (metro). Bogota has a Transmilenio, which is basically buses than run along designated routes which are Transmilenio only so they are quite quick as there is no other traffic and it is run like a metro network, with designated stations and you must buy your ticket before boarding. Cali has a similar set-up known as the Masivo Integrado de Occidente, but the city is smaller and you can probably see the centre in a day on foot. Everywhere has collectivos or minibuses which you can use to get anywhere in the town including the bus terminal (Terminal de Transportes) if you manage to work out which bus is the one you want. Being able to speak Spanish is very helpful. Taxis are fairly reasonable, agree the price before getting in.
Each major city has a Zona Rosa (the main centre for nightlife in Latin American towns) and many also have an old town where the hostels tend to be so there are often some cheap interesting bars in the backpacker areas.
Bogota is lively at weekends. Every Friday night the central Carrera 7 shuts down to traffic and people flood the streets to watch street performers, eat from the food stalls and drink beer. The Zona Rosa is 6km away from La Candeleria (old town where most backpackers stay). Both are lively at weekends, the Zona Rosa is pricier but safer, while La Candeleria is more alternative with dingy cheap cafes and bars with a mix of students, backpackers while the odd beggar and thief roam the streets. Some of the hostels have lively little bars that stay open late and attract a friendly crowd of locals and foreigners.
Cali is city with a reputation for vibrant nightlife with passionate salsa dancing the order of the night. There are many stylish bars and clubs in the cities Zona Rosa playing many types of music as well as salsa. The Zona Rosa is more modern than Bogota’s equivalent and has more hookers. It can be quiet on weeknights however. Medellin is home to some western style superclubs and the city is famous for its attractive if not entirely natural looking women.
Even many of the smaller towns have lively bars and a few discos open late on weekends. Colombians drink Aguilla, the national beer or Aguadiente which is a surprisingly pleasant spirit. Many corner shops have tables and chairs where you can drink anything you buy and you will see people drinking at any hour on any day.
Espanol is the local lingo and you will need at least some basic Spanish to survive in Colombia and indeed much of Latin America. Very few people speak English in Colombia, although most hostels have English speaking staff.
As a starting point it’s very helpful to know the numbers to avoid being overcharged for items. Costs for basic items run into the thousands due to the exchange rates, so know that mil means a thousand (not a million as you might have thought) Some basics for ordering food, drinks and sorting out accommodation will also be helpful. You will have a much more rewarding trip if you either know or learn some Spanish before arriving as it will enable you to interact with the typically very friendly locals. Spanish lessons are fairly cheap in the country but it is cheaper to take lessons in Guatemala, Nicaragua or Ecuador ($5/hour for private lessons is a typical price) if you are travelling around in the region.
2000 dos mil
3000 tres mil
4000 cuatro mil
5000 cinco mil
6000 seis mil
7000 siete mil
8000 ocho mil
9000 nueve mil
10,000 diez mil
50,000 cincuenta mil
100,000 cien mil
Greetings (Very Common and important greetings in Latin America)
Buenos Dias- Good Morning
Buenas Tardes- Good Afternoon
Buenas Noches- Good Evening/Night
Buenas- You can respond to most greetings with a simple buenas
como estas?- How are you?
Yo estoy bien/feliz/aburrida/cansada/enojada/enferma-
I am good/happy/bored/tired/angry/sick
me gusta …..- I like…..
no me gusta- I don’t like it
De Donde es?- Where are you from?
Yo soy de ……..- I’m from …….
Donde hay un hostal?- Where’s a hostel?
Cuanto Cuesta?- How much does it cost?
Yo no entiendo- I don’t understand.
almuerzos- cheap set dinner, typically includeas a soup and a main dish of chicken/meat, rice and beans
salsateca- salsa night club
colectivo- shared taxi/minibus
terminal de transportes- main bus terminal
Typical Backpacker Budget
As a guide Colombia is slightly more expensive than travelling in most of it’s Latin American neighbours such as Ecuador, Peru and most of Central America. This is largely due to the cost of getting around and the size of the country. A 10 hour bus journey can be around $30 as opposed to $10 in the much smaller Ecuador or countries in Central America. Bus journeys cost approximately 5,000 COP per hour of travel, to see the all the main travel destinations budget around 250,000 COP for your total transport costs in Colombia ($140, EUR100, £90).
Accommodation is typically around 15,000COP for a bed in the very cheapest hotels and hostels but Colombia is not overly touristy and information about your options can be hard to find.
On the positive side food is cheap, a decent sized meal can be had for 5,000COP in cheap restaurants. Beer is cheap with Aguila the most common local brand and a bottle is under $1 in many places. Many hostels also have bars which are typically reasonably priced but you often pay for everything when you check out so the temptation to drink to excess is very real when you aren’t handing over cash.
Your budget depends on how long you intend to stay in each place. It is possible to get by in Bogota or indeed most towns on $15/day if you’re not drinking alcohol or doing any other exciting activities (things like rafting or diving). In reality you will probably want to do both and adding transport costs into this then $25 a day is more realistic, possibly more if you’re moving quickly through the country.
There is more up-to-date info here on the cost of travel in Colombia.
Pic courtesy of hilcias78 (salsa) on flickr
This article was published in November 2010.
Some of the info, particularly regarding prices, is likely to be unreliable now!