There is one big reason that we spent 516 days (that’s 17 months) in Colombia, drove 9,923 miles (15,969 km) around the country, and published 150 posts about travel in Colombia: it’s the people. Despite decades of violence from political conflict, drug wars, and, until the peace treaty which was signed in 2017, a civil war with FARC guerrillas, Colombians are consistently ranked as the happiest people on the planet by orgs like Gallup and the Happy Planet Index. We’re here to tell you that Colombians aren’t just happy. They’re proud, smart, and generous and their love for their country is contagious. Here are our Colombia travel tips for this South American country.
Colombia travel tips
A three-day holiday weekend is called a puente (bridge) and there are a lot of them in Colombia.
We were very surprised by how little English is spoken in Colombia. In many areas, even cities that attract tourists, hotel staff, waiters, etc. often speak only Spanish. That is, of course, their prerogative. Colombia is a Spanish-speaking country. However, if you don’t have at least a basic grasp on the language be warned that you could have some communication issues.
Colombia has the largest population of wild hippos outside of Africa. They escaped from a small herd brought to Colombia by Pablo Escobar. A few hippos remain in half-hearted captivity on Escobar’s hacienda which the Colombian government turned into a weird amusement park called Hacienda Napoles. It’s all part of controversial “Escobar Tourism” in Colombia, something we wrote about in our award-winning story for Roads and Kingdoms and more in our Hacienda Napoles travel blog post.
In Colombia, people can choose to pay off a credit card charge in multiple installments. This will not work with foreign credit cards, so be sure to say una cuota (one total) every time you use your credit card.
Yes, there are lots of soldiers and military checkpoints on the roads in Colombia. These days the soldiers are mainly there to maintain the order, security, and confidence which has slowly returned to the country in recent years. The many soldiers we encountered were always smiling and quick with a handshake and hopeful questions about how we liked their country.
Davivienda Bank ATMs was the only ATMs that did not charge us a fee to use the ATM card issued by our US bank. Davivienda ATMs also had the highest withdrawal limit (720,000 COP) which you could withdraw twice back to back.
Check your mattress before you check in. They love rock hard mattresses in Colombia.
Viva Colombia airlines offers incredibly cheap internal flights. For example, it’s possible to fly from Medellin (our favorite unsung Colombian city) to Cartagena (our favorite famous-for-a-reason Colombian city) for less than US$50 round trip. Yes, service sucks and you pay a bit more for every little thing including checked bags and failure to print out your own boarding pass. However, flying is often a better choice than taking the bus because road infrastructure is not great in Colombia and road journeys take a very long time.
A whole host of internationally famous celebrities were born in Colombia including artist Fernando Botero, singers Juanes, Carlos Vives, and Shakira, actors John Leguzamo and Sofia Vergara, and Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marques who inspired our story about traveling in Colombia in the footsteps of Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the website for the Biography Channel. Find more about the town where Gabo was born in our travel blog post about Aracataca.
Colombia is also producing major sport stars like soccer star James Rodríguez, bike racer Nairo Quintana who won the Giro d’Italia in 2014 and placed second in the Tour de France in 2013 and 2015, and race car driver Juan Pablo Montoya who won the 2015 Indianapolis 500. Justin Bieber is also said to have purchased a “mansion” near Cartagena and rumor has it that Lady Gaga and George Clooney have houses in Colombia too.
Colombia for adventure travelers and nature lovers
There are currently 59 National Parks in Colombia but only about half of them are open to visitors and more than 80% of travelers to Colombia flock to just two of the parks, including Tayrona National Park which, honestly, we were not blown away by. Branch out and try some of the country’s other parks while you’re there. Go to Los Nevados National for condors and volcanoes. Go paragliding over the enormous Chicamocha Canyon. Or check out the petite Tatacoa Desert which (spoiler alert) isn’t a true desert at all.
The wax palm is the tallest palm in the world. It can grow up to 200 feet (60 meters) tall. It’s also the national tree of Colombia and most travelers head to Salento to see wax palms in the Cocora Valley. However, found an even better place to see Colombia’s national tree.
Colombia is home to a natural phenomenon that happens nowhere else on earth. For part of the year, a short stretch of a remote river appears to run in a rainbow of colors thanks to a fragile bloom of an aquatic plant. The river is called Caño Cristales (or the Rainbow River, the River of Five Colors, the Liquid Rainbow, or the Most Beautiful River in the World) and it’s worth every bit of expense and effort to see this stunning natural wonder. You’ll find more temptation in our complete travel guide to Caño Cristales and our photo essay about the river for BBC Travel.
And where else can you travel on a road called The Trampoline of Death?
Colombia for culture lovers
There are currently eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in Colombia. We can vouch for the mysterious carved stone figures in the archaeological sites of San Agustín, the slow, easy, classically Colombian pace you get in the historic river town of Mompox, and the Colombian cowboy charm of the country’s coffee country with its deep traditions, quality caffeine, and range of terrific hotels.
Colombia’s national pass time is a game is called tejo. It involves heavy metal balls and explosives. It’s fun.
Yes, street art is becoming a staple of many cities around the world, but the amount, diversity, and quality of the street art in Bogotá stands out.
The Las Lajas Sanctuary, near the Ecuador border, looks like something straight out of Europe. Or Disneyland. The stone church, which is built across a deep ravine, is lavish and steeped in stories of miracles which attract thousands of pilgrims each year.
A totally different kind of church is the Salt Cathedral not far from Bogotá where the stations of the cross and a church have been carved into the walls of a defunct salt mine up to 600 feet (180 meters) underground.
Every August the city of Medellin hosts the Flower Festival, a week-long, no-holds-barred celebration of the history and culture of the Antioquia province of the country (which is basically the Texas of Colombia). We somehow managed to attend back-to-back Flower Festivals and here’s what it’s all about.
The Colombian government has established a network of colonial towns called Red Turistica de Pueblos Patrimonios de Colombia. The list currently includes 17 towns and we visited 14 of them including Jardin, Aguadas, Cienega, Giron, Guaduas, Honda, La Playa de Belen, Lorico, Mompox, Mongui, Salamina, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Villa de Leyva, and what we consider to be the prettiest town in Colombia: Barichara.
Colombia for food lovers
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Bogotá is shaping up to be South America’s next food capital. Chefs in all price ranges and food styles are creating exciting, daring dining experienced. There are not two chefs with Michelin stars in town. Cocktail bars are killing it. Craft beer is thriving. Local ingredients are front and center. Food festivals like the Bogotá Wine & Food Festival are thriving. No wonder the awards ceremony for Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants will be held in Bogotá in 2017 and in 2018.
The most emblematic dish in Antioquia province, and perhaps all of Colombia, is a gut-buster called bandeja paisa. Trust us. It’s big enough to share.
Colombia is having a craft beer boom. Here’s our guide to microbreweries and brewery tours in Medellin.
There’s a brand of crackers called Crackeña, which seems like a bad idea in a country that’s trying to shed it’s “cocaine capital” image.
Here’s a short list of stuff to eat and drink in Colombia wherever and whenever you find them:
The national drink of Colombia is aguardiente which is made by fermenting and distilling sugar cane juice. It often has a slight licorice taste, but brands and styles vary from province to province. Read about our first sip of aguardiente in our story for The Latin Kitchen.
Corozo juice which is made from palm berries and it reminds us of jamaica which is increasingly hard/impossible to find south of Mexico.
Pan de bono are little discs of chewy, cheesy bread and everyone’s mother makes the very best ones. Another beloved carb bomb is the buñuelo which are light, fluffy, fried orbs best eaten hot and fresh. Some sprinkle sugar on them, which is delightful.
Empanadas come in many forms – deep fried, griddle cooked, baked, etc. They’re so popular that McDonald’s in Colombia sell empanadas.
Technically speaking, sancocho is a soup. In reality, it’s Colombia in a bowl.
Driving in Colombia road trip tips
Colombia is the size of Texas and California combined, but much of the country is road less.
In 2016 the World Bank ranked Colombia 96th out of 160 countries in terms of infrastructure–below Burkino Faso and Rwanda. That means you can expect some pretty bad roads and some pretty slow going.
Diesel is called ACPM at the pump.
Road tolls can add up in Colombia. Over the 9,923 miles (15,969 km) we drove around Colombia we spent more than 1,300,000 COP, which was more than US$600 at the exchange rate at the time. And that total represents just the hundreds of toll receipts we had on hand. Many were lost along the way. For example, the tolls from Medellin to Cali, a route we have driven several times, cost us around US$40 for a mere 265 miles (425 km). One stretch of this route is called the Autopista del Cafe and is probably the most expensive highway in the country. In just 35 miles (56 km) on this Autopista we went through three toll booths where we handed over about US$16. At least the pricey Autopista del Cafe is a modern, multi-lane, divided highway. Often in Colombia drivers pay nearly as much in tolls for the pleasure of driving on narrow, unsafe, single-lane highways in mediocre to horrible condition.
Here’s a good resource that helps you anticipate and calculate Colombia’s tolls, which are called peajes.
If you get a two-part receipt from a toll booth, keep the longer half handy. You will be asked to show it at the following toll booth to be exempted from that toll.
Expect to encounter random roadblocks. Putting tree trunks or burning tires across main roads is a common form of public protest in Colombia. We once spent six hours in stopped traffic on our way from Cartagena to Medellin (a route that came with US$30 in tolls).
More Colombia information resources
Read the book Unseen Colombia by Andres Hurtado Garcia, an intrepid hiker and photographer who documented most of the amazing natural areas in Colombia, including the most inaccessible areas down in the Amazon.
Longtime expat Richard McColl interviews interesting guests about all things Colombian (including yours truly) on his Colombia Calling radio podcast program.
The Colombia Facil website and micro guidebook is not comprehensive, but it does provide good info, options, and tips.
Colombia Reports is an English language news site that covers all things Colombian with smarts and wit from within Colombia.
And remember: It’s Colombia, not Columbia.
Here’s more about travel in Colombia