Here are 23 essential things to know so you can have the best trip possible in South America’s new favourite backpacker country.
And it seems, the world is catching on. Just 10 years ago, Colombia received around 900,000 foreign visitors – last year that number stood at nearly 3 million! It was the place that everyone on the South America backpacker circuit couldn’t stop raving about last year and it’s now been listed on various major ‘Best Destination’ lists for 2017.
This is a country with a traumatic past that for years hid some of the most picturesque towns, stunning landscapes, beautiful beaches and breath-taking nature in all of South America.
And now, the secret is well and truly out.
We crossed the border into Ecuador after three months here, with only one question – when can we go back?
YOU NEED TO START SPELLING IT RIGHT
If we had a pound for every person who spells it Columbia, we’d probably be able to buy that GoPro we want.
DIVERSITY IN EXPERIENCES
At the risk of sounding like a tired tourist brochure, Colombia really does have something for everyone. Want to go lie on an isolated Caribbean beach? How about getting all Indiana Jones seeking out ruins in the middle of the rainforest? Fan of outdoor adventure sports or an avid twitcher? Are small traditional towns more your thing, or do you prefer huge cosmopolitan cities oozing with history and hectic nightlife?
Yep, Colombia has all of those.
IT’S SO MUCH MORE THAN JUST ESCOBAR
Unfortunately for Colombians, the country’s most abhorrent villain is also its most famous person – as evidenced by the sheer number of backpackers we’ve encountered whose sole purpose for visiting the city of Medellin is to take an ‘Escobar tour’.
Of course, it would be wrong to say we don’t understand the fascination with the Colombian cartel – we ourselves have read countless books on the topic, and are just as enthralled by the TV show Narcos as the rest of the world.
And yet, Medellin (and the rest of the country for that matter) has so much more to tell than just one man’s sins. Spend some time exploring the history, visit ‘La Casa de la Memoria’ and speak with locals. This is a vibrant destination, with a brutal past and a story that we, as travellers, should listen to, rather than just sticking to stereotypes.
THE GRINGO TRAIL IS VERY WELL-DEFINED…
Whilst Colombia has nowhere near the tourism levels of Bolivia or Peru, there has been a well-defined gringo trail for years. For those travelling by themselves, or still a little nervous about the country, this means that you can travel safely and confidently to a number of top destinations without fear or a great deal of Spanish.
So what’s on the trail? For us, it would be Cartagena, Bogota, Medellin, Salento and Santa Marta/Tayrona (check out our Colombia page for our own route and recommendations).
…BUT ADVENTURE CAN STILL BE HAD
For many however (and most certainly for us!), getting off the gringo-trail every now and again is important, not just for your sanity, but for a chance to connect with locals, practice your Spanish and experience, if not the ‘real Colombia’, then perhaps something a at least a little more authentic.
This is still very much still possible, especially if you head to the north-east or south of the country. Places such as La Guajira, Popayan, Jardin and San Agustin, whilst still attracting tourists (especially local), remove you from the super hostels of Medellin and the beautiful but busy streets of Cartagena.
SAFETY IS VASTLY IMPROVED
We’ve probably all experienced it. You announce to friends and family that you’re off to Colombia, and instead of sharing in your excitement, you are treated to rumblings and mumblings, questioning your sanity for going somewhere so unsafe.
Unfortunately, it appears that not everyone knows that Colombia is well and truly back on the map, and that for the most part it is a safe destination for visitors to South America.
The drug cartels, whilst still very much present, tend to keep their violence off the streets and with FARC on the precipice of a monumentous peace deal, there hasn’t been a safer time to visit our favourite country in South America.
Of course, there will always be stories and instances of robbery and muggings – crime still happens at a worrying rate and a country where it has been much more present in everyday life than most will understandably still have issues – especially if you’re not street smart. But more often than not for travellers, it’s simply bad luck or bad timing, something that could have happened anywhere in the world.
Stupidity also plays a part in incidents affecting travellers in the country.. Take the usual precautions and just don’t be that dick that goes down a dark alley to buy coke, don’t walk around dodgy neighbourhoods flaunting a £1000 camera and don’t put yourself in unnecessarily risky situations.
Anthony Bourdain summed it up pretty perfectly:
“If you want to find bad people in Colombia, you can surely find them, as you could in New York or Los Angeles. But nowhere have my crew and I been treated better or with more kindness and generosity. I’d bring my family on vacation there in a heartbeat. And hope to soon. As I said before: Colombians are proud. Let them show you what they are proud of.”
YOU’LL HAVE A MUCH BETTER TIME IF YOU KNOW SOME SPANISH
Yeah, we’ve said it before – and we’ll say it again! There is no way that we would have enjoyed Colombia to the same extent (or learnt so much about its history) without a decent level of Spanish under our belt. Sure, you can negotiate the big cities with the basics, but should you venture to the south for example, where many people simply haven’t learnt English, you may well find yourself struggling – especially if you’re travelling on a budget.
FIND OUT HOW WE LEARNED SPANISH IN LATIN AMERICA FOR FREE
YOU CAN BARGAIN ON BUSES
We were shocked the first time somebody mentioned this to us – elsewhere in Latin America we’ve occasionally had to negotiate to get the correct price, but never to get it reduced! Of course, this doesn’t always work, especially during busy peak holiday periods, but should you arrive to a half empty collectivo and an inpatient driver, or be travelling in a large group, it’s definitely worth seeing if you can get the price dropped a little.
Some routes have fixed fares and it will be a pointless exercise but, particularly on long-distance rides, it’s worth asking. Most bus stations in Colombia also have guys who will come direct to you to try and make sure you go on their bus, even if it isn’t the cheapest or the next departure. So, we always recommend that you go straight to the ticket booth for companies running the route
Whilst we’re talking about transport in Colombia, it’s worth noting that the quality is generally quite good for Latin America, however there are also huge variations. Sometimes, your best option might be a collectivo which can range from a shared taxi to a pretty fancy, but crowded, people-carrier. Other journeys might be on an ageing and rickety bus, or the awesome chiva, whilst some may involve a very modern bus with movies and fully reclining seats. Take note that you should NEVER leave your valuables daypack under the seat or in the rack above your head (always keep it on your person) and that they always put the air-con on max, so you should make sure you have a hoodie and a pair of socks with you, especially if travelling overnight.
PEAK HOLIDAY SEASON IS A NIGHTMARE!
We arrived to Cartagena in the first week of January. Due to our roundabout route into Colombia, we’d hadn’t passed through anywhere with internet in the previous few days. No problem we figured, we rarely booked accommodation in advance anyway.
Well, that was a bloody mistake!
Queue us wandering through the busy streets of Cartagena at 1 a.m on a Saturday night. desperately trying to find a bed for the night – in a town that was packed to the rafters! We learnt pretty soon that Colombians take there holidays seriously and our only option was with a temporary hostel set-up by an enterprising local lady.
Our top tip: if you plan on being, well, anywhere in Colombia during the last week of December, first two weeks of January or over the Semana Santa celebrations, book ahead – and expect to pay up to double the usual rate.
INTERNAL FLIGHTS ARE GOOD VALUE
Whilst not the largest in South America, Colombia is still a huge country. So, if you are short on time but intend to see as much as possible, spending hours on buses is probably something you’d like to avoid, or at least minimise.
Thankfully, Colombia is totally au fait with the budget airline industry, with two popular companies offering flight throughout the country and internationally. Check out EasyFly and VivaColombia for the latest deals.
A FEW TIPS ON TAXIS
On the whole, taxis are pretty safe in Colombia, but there are of course stories of people flagging a cab on the street only to be driven around to various ATMs, and being made to withdraw large sums of money.
To avoid this, if you need a taxi, get your hostel, restaurant or tour company to call a reputable firm or if you absolutely must find one once you’re already out, then head to a shopping mall, supermarket or other designated taxi pick-up point.
All taxis (as far as we’re aware) run on a meter. They should turn this on as soon as you enter the cab, so feel free to point it out if your driver fails to do this.
THERE IS MUSIC EVERYWHERE
Gloria from Modern Family is a walking bag of cultural stereotypes, but they did get one thing right – Colombians are loud! Quiet time, it appears is not something that is enjoyed here.
Whilst it is something we now very much miss, you will soon discover that there is music EVERYWHERE! Some great, some very much not great (and pumped out of the tiniest phone speaker). Love it or hate it, Colombia definitely has a soundtrack – and it’s played constantly.
BAGS OF WATER ARE CHEAPER THAN BOTTLES – BUT DON’T BUY THOSE EITHER
Whilst there are a handful of towns and cities where it’s safe to drink the tap water, it’s an excellent idea to bring a filter water bottle to Colombia to avoid using plastic water bottles (and bags of water!) entirely.
We used the water-to-go filter bottles on our most recent trip to South America. Use ‘ADR 15’ to receive a 15% discount.
PLASTIC SURGERY REALLY IS A THING
Unsurprisingly perhaps, there was one particular stereotype which Andrew was very excited to explore – plastic surgery!
Having grown up in a society where butt implants were a thing the Kadarshians constantly denied, it was fascinating to arrive at a beach near Capurgana where, there, proudly announcing themselves for all the world to see, were not one but three suspiciously bountiful bottoms! And don’t get us started on the boob jobs.
After a few chats with locals we met on our travels, it appears that it may be yet another thing the drug cartels are responsible for (we were told that they like their women a certain way…), but one thing’s clear – plastic surgery is big business in Colombia with some tour companies actually changing their business model to do ‘surgery tourism’ from the US!
CARNIVAL IS HUGE
When people think of Carnival, most likely it is Brazil and not Colombia that comes to mind. Yet whilst Rio may have the most famous celebrations, Carnival is huge over here too! In fact, the celebrations in Barranquilla are the second largest in the world.
Unfortunately, we were not able to attend, but have it on excellent authority that it’s an amazing experience – but like Rio, you need to be organised. Accommodations and transport get booked up super early, and the prices sky-rocket! We even heard of one backpacker renting a sofa off a local (for a ridiculous sum) just so they could attend.
Fancy checking it out? Find hostel options here.
THERE IS STRONG POLICE AND MILITARY PRESENCE
Unsurprisingly for a country that has been embroiled in a bitter drugs war, and bloodier civil war for most of the last 50 years, police presence is a very real thing here.
Expect to see them everywhere – and yes, they really are that young (as part of their public service, every 18 year old boy has to do at least 12 months in the armed forces or police).
TRAVEL CAN STILL BE CHEAP – BUT NOT AS CHEAP AS IT USED TO BE
We arrived in the country from pricey Panama, so to begin with Colombia seemed downright thrifty! However, as we continued to travel along the gringo trail, it became apparent that it’s still pretty easy to spend a decent portion of your budget if you’re not paying attention to your pennies.
The biggest culprit by far are the hostels in popular backpacker towns, where double rooms in the more boutique accommodations were well beyond our budget. Of course, if you check out our ‘what we spent in Colombia’ post, you’ll see that we still came in under budget – but we certainly had to think about it and travel smart!
OUR EIGHT FAVOURITE PLACES IN COLOMBIA
DON’T LIKE HARD BOOZE? AGUARDIENTE MIGHT CHANGE YOUR MIND!
It was our second week in Colombia, and we were wondering around the liquor aisle of the local supermarket, looking for something to put a little spring in our step before a night out, when we happened upon an innocuous bottle of local spirit – aguardiente. We’d never heard of it, and despite having a relatively good grasp of Spanish, reading the back of a bottle gave no clue. After a couple of conversations with passing shoppers who were well-versed in the joys of this popular drink, we still didn’t understand exactly what it would taste like.
Well, as it turns, it doesn’t taste great. Kind of like a mouthwash you know you’re supposed to spit out, but are instead actively encouraged to swallow – in huge amounts.
And yet, it kind of grows on you! We saw cowboys ride up to bars to neck a shot and teenagers sitting in a park for an impromptu Friday night party – Colombians love it. And chances are, if you stick around long enough, you’ll grow to love it too!
YOU’LL EITHER LOVE OR HATE AREPAS – BUT EITHER WAY, YOU’LL STILL EAT THEM!
Emily developed a slight obsession with them; Andrew felt like he was chomping on cardboard. The truth is, these ground maize flat breads are absolutely everywhere in Colombia and, love ’em or hate ’em, you’ll find yourself chowing down on them at least a few times a week (or, like one half of Along Dusty Roads, several times a day…).
Whilst neither of us were huge fans of the plump ‘arepas con queso’ that you get on every street corner, you simply have to try one. They may be small, but if you can make it through a whole one without fearing the onset of a heart attack, you’ve done well!
COLOMBIAN COFFEE IS A LITTLE DIFFERENT IN COLOMBIA
A common theme amongst coffee producing regions in Latin America, is that the good stuff doesn’t stay in the country for long. In fact, Colombians are more likely to serve you Nescafé than the local roast. That doesn’t mean that you can’t taste proper cup of joe – you’ll just need to visit a proper farm to do so before it gets sent elsewhere (or our favourite cafe in Medellin).
Coffee in Colombia is, actually, all about tinto. The tiny cups of super strong, super sweet coffee can be found being decanted from flasks by smiling old men, cute little girls and everything in between in every town square and on every street corner all over the country. If you’re not used to so much sugar, the good news is that it won’t take long to adjust your palate, and soon need one to start your day!
THE CLIMATE IS UNPREDICTABLE
Colombia may straddle the equator, but that doesn’t mean you should leave your gloves and sweater at home. In fact, travelling north to south, you may well experience all four seasons!
Along the northern coast expect sweltering days and humid nights, Medellin is the city of the eternal spring, whilst Bogota was downright miserable when we visited and the south, t-shirt weather in the day but chilly at night!
This climatic disparity is reflected in Colombia’s cultural composition. Locals come in as many varieties as the weather; there’s no one look for a Colombian.
YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO WANT TO LEAVE
Whatever trip you take in this magical country, however long you spend exploring its coast, its jungle and its cities, one this is certain – you will fall in love. Colombia will surprise, excite and enamour you, and its affect will last long after you leave.
In fact, it’s a place you’ll never want to leave.
So, now you’re all prepped, or at least curious, why not head over to our Colombia page for inspiration and planning guides. Or, scroll a little further down and you’ll find some articles about our favourite adventures there.