Know before you go: A basic guide to Colombia
Cartagena and the Caribbean Coast: The romantic jewel of South America, Cartagena’s perfectly maintained colonial streets are one of the main attractions for tourists coming to Colombia. But there’s so much more to the Caribbean coast, too. If you’re looking to dive, head to Taganga for some of the cheapest dive certifications in the world, or head to the islands of San Andrés and Providencia for world-class diving. Or float down a river into the Caribbean Sea in Palomino. If you need to escape the heat, make sure to visit Minca, a tiny town in the mountains just outside of Santa Marta. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, take a trip to La Guajira, where the desert meets the sea.
Medellín: Once the most dangerous city in the world, Medellín has become a model for cities across Latin America. Ride the cable cars, have a picnic in Parque Arví, dance until dawn, and admire the vibrant street art of Comuna 13. If you’re looking for a break from the city, head to the colorful town of Guatapé, just a two hour bus ride away. There, you can kayak around islands, climb the famous Piedra del Peñol, or simply stroll the charming town. Just make sure to stay a couple of days here. If you’re heading south to coffee region, make sure to stop in the laid back and charming town of Jardín. Here, you can see old men in cowboy hats sip coffee in the town square, and donkeys carry goods from the farm.
Coffee Region: Colombia produces some of the best coffee in the world, but if you order a cup in most parts of the country, you’re likely to get some of the instant stuff. That’s because the good coffee is often exported to the US and Europe. But if you want to try the high quality coffee this country is known for, head to the coffee triangle. Salento is the most well known town in the region, and offers plenty of coffee farms and cafés to explore. It also is home to Cocora Valley, where the iconic wax palms soar into the sky.
Bogotá: The high-altitude capital is the cultural epicenter of the country. Here, you can find museums, bars, and restaurants that showcase some of the best Colombia has to offer. The city’s vibrant graffiti scene is also a main attraction.
Cali and the Southwest: Colombians are known to be good dancers, but no one does it like Caleños, who move their hips and feet faster than your eyes can follow. Cali has a few attractions of its own, but most come here to learn how to dance salsa from the best in the world. It’s a place where Afro-Colombian heritage shines and is infused in the music, the food, and the way of life. It’s also one of the most geographically diverse parts of Colombia, offering desert, mountains, and cities. Though the southwest has been known to be one of the more dangerous areas of the country, safety has improved in recent years.
When to go
High season is December through February, when the country is sunny, warm, and dry (with the exception of the Amazon, which is always wet). Holidays push prices to their highest.
Low season is October through November. Rain is prevalent on the Caribbean coast and in the mountains.
Shoulder season is March through September. Rain showers can hit places like Cartagena, Medellín, and Bogotá. July through October is the best time for whale watching on the Pacific.
Currency exchange rates & affordability
(as of June 2018)
$1 USD = $2,900 pesos
€1 = $3,380 pesos
£1 = $3,870 pesos
$1 CAD = $2,240 pesos
$1 AUD = $2,170 pesos
Colombia is the middle of the road as far as expenses in South America go. While not nearly as costly as Chile, it is definitely more expensive than the Andean countries of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Cities like Cartagena can be outrageously overpriced (it’s still the most expensive place outside of the Galapagos that we’ve been in Latin America), whereas deals can be found in smaller towns. Applying basic budgeting habits like traveling slowly and cooking for yourself can save you quite a bit here.
Entry & exit requirements
US residents need a valid passport to enter Colombia. It is standard to receive a 90-day tourist stamp upon arrival. If arriving by air, you will also be given a customs form that you may be asked to present when leaving. If leaving by air, there is a $38 USD departure fee, which may be included in the cost of your airline ticket. If leaving by land, there is no departure fee.
Getting around Colombia
Buses are the primary means of intercity travel. While still a bargain compared to most buses in the US or Europe, traveling long distances in Colombia is much more expensive than in the Andean countries of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Expect to pay about $50 USD for a 14 hour bus. Unless you’re traveling during a holiday, reservations are rarely needed in advance.
Taxis are everywhere in big cities, and tuk tuks can take you around smaller towns. Although Uber is illegal in Colombia, many people use it and just sit in the front seat. Taxis and Ubers are very cheap. There are also local buses, which are a little confusing at first but once you get the hang of them, are cheap and easy to use.
Major grocery stores
For long-term travelers doing some cooking at home, Éxito and LA 14 are two big grocery chains that offer a good selection. We found LA 14 had a better selection of produce and specialty items like Asian sauces that can be hard to find in Colombia. The best place to stock up on snacks and staples is D-1.
If you’re trying to avoid outrageous withdraw fees, make sure to use Banco Davivienda, which has branches all over the country and doesn’t charge a fee.
It is safe to drink the water in big cities, but bottled water is also available everywhere if you want to take extra precaution.
Mosquitos can transmit illnesses like dengue fever, malaria, Zika, and chikungunya. Discuss your travel plans with a doctor to see if you need to take anti-malarials or need any vaccines. Typhoid fever and Hepatitis A vaccines are usually recommended in addition to routine vaccines. Applying sunscreen, insect repellent, and staying hydrated are always good ideas.