Colombia is most famous for Pablo Escobar and the violence that terrorized the nation for decades. Now, the country is undergoing a transformation and it has become a lot safer since the government signed a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas in 2016. Tourism is rapidly growing in Colombia, and many see it as a cheap place to party, but it’s so much more than that. The country is full of history, some of the most beautiful small towns in South America, Caribbean coastline, and the Amazon. Here are the most important things to know before visiting the amazing country of Colombia.
15 Things to Know Before Visiting Colombia
1. Cash is king
Nicer restaurants, supermarkets, and some hostels and tourist attractions will accept cards, but not much else. Make sure to carry enough cash and the best ATM to withdraw from is Colpatria. Colpatria doesn’t charge a commission, gives you the exact exchange rate, and has a high withdrawal limit of 900,000 Colombian pesos (COP).
2. 10% is an acceptable amount to tip
Tipping is the norm at restaurants and often the waiter will ask “incluye servicio?” when you ask for the check. If you say yes, they will add a 10% tip to the bill.
3. The Lost City Trek and Tayrona National Park are periodically closed
The Lost City Trek closes during September and Tayrona closes in February, the first half of June, and the second half of October. This is to preserve the land and allow the indigenous communities to have the area to themselves for ceremonies. Plan accordingly because these are two of Colombia’s gems.
4. Tap water is drinkable in most of Colombia
I was surprised to learn this after buying a 6L jug of water in Bogotá, but drinking tap water is 100% safe in most places. However, this is not the case on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Bring a Steripen to save money on water and avoid using plastic bottles.
5. Foreigners can’t buy SIM cards
You need a Colombian ID to buy and register a SIM card. Your hostel may sell SIM cards that have already been registered, meaning that it will work until you need to top up the data. A SIM costs 6,000 COP and a 3-week data package is 20,000 COP. The Cranky Croc is a fantastic hostel in Bogotá that sells registered SIM cards.
6. Book your flight to the Amazon in advance
The difference in the price of round-trip flights from Bogotá to Leticia can be $150 US or more if you book only a few days in advance compared to a few weeks in advance. If you like to travel spontaneously, I recommend making Leticia your first stop in Colombia.
7. Uber and DiDi are active ride-hailing apps
Although both are technically illegal, there’s always a driver available for cheaper than a taxi. A 40-minute ride across Bogotá only cost me $12,000 COP (≈ $3 USD). Make sure to sit in the front seat because the police might pull over a car that’s not a taxi with passengers only in the backseat.
8. You need to show proof of onward travel
To board a flight to Colombia, you need to show that you have a ticket to leave the country. If you don’t have a definite return date, you can book any direct flight from Colombia to the U.S. a few hours before your flight and cancel it within 24 hours to get a full refund.
9. Safety is improving, but still be cautious in the cities
If you spend a few days in Bogotá or Cali, you may have some nervy moments. To minimize your chances of being a victim of robbery or assault, please listen to the safety advice of hostel staff and tour guides. On the flip side, I felt very safe in smaller towns and in Medellín.
10. Buses Rarely arrive on time
You can add an hour to the quoted arrival time on any bus ride. Some bus trips (ex. Guatapé to Salento) will require you to take two different buses. I recommend giving yourself some breathing room between the scheduled arrival of your first bus and the departure of the second bus.
11. The climate varies a lot throughout the country
Bogotá will be in the 60s (°F) and cloudy all year, Medellín will be in the 70s and sunny most days, and cities like Cali, Cartagena, and Santa Marta will be in the upper 80s and humid.
12. You can live comfortably on $50 a day
You can eat out, have a few drinks, and see the sites fairly cheap in Colombia. However, the coastal cities of Cartagena and Santa Marta are pricier than the rest of the country.
13. Rappi is Colombia’s food delivery service app
If your flight to Colombia arrives late at night, you’ll be in the mood for food delivery. UberEats doesn’t operate in Colombia, but Rappi is reliable and affordable.
14. Overnight buses are very cold
The air conditioning is always on high for overnight buses and many Colombians bring a blanket. Wear a sweatshirt and pants or you’ll be absolutely freezing.
15. Don’t mention Pablo Escobar’s name in Medellín
As you can imagine, there are very strong feelings on both sides about Escobar. Don’t risk upsetting locals by talking about him in English because they won’t know whether you are speaking positively or negatively about him and may rush to judgment.