Planning a trip to Colombia can be exhilarating as you dream of the adventures ahead, but it also raises lots of questions - about the costs, visas, language, packing and more. If you are headed to Colombia for the first time, this article is a good place to start your research and learn some basic facts about travel in the country.

Where does the name Colombia come from?

Colombia is named after Christopher Colombus, the Italian explorer who "discovered" the Americas. 

How big is Colombia?

Colombia’s size of 440,800 mi² is roughly three times the size of California or twice the size of France. The main cities Bogota, Medellín, and Cartagena are between 260 miles (Bogotá to Medellín) and 660 miles (Bogotá to Cartagena) from each other. Most travelers use a mix of overland transport and domestic flights to travel between these places. Remote regions like El Choco on the Pacific Coast and the Amazon in the South are typically reached by domestic flights that take anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours.

Do I need a visa for Colombia?

Colombia has a relaxed policy towards visas and there are few nationals visiting Colombia that actually need one. Entry is permitted visa-free to citizens from most of Europe and the Americas, as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, South Africa and Japan. A 90-day stay is permitted upon arrival.

How many days should I spend in Colombia?

How many days to spend in Colombia depends on how many regions you want to explore and at what pace. With a week you can visit one region at a slow pace or two regions at a fast pace. A typical loop tour from Bogotá to Medellín, the Coffee Country and up to Cartagena and the Caribbean Coast requires a couple of weeks.

How do I get to Colombia?

International flights from North America touch down in Bogotá, Cartagena, Medellín and Cali. Bogotá is the main entry point and offers relatively low cost flights, compared to other destinations in South America. Carriers that serve Colombia include: Air Canada, Air France, American Airlines, Avianca, British Airways, Copa, Delta, Latam Airlines, Iberia, Jet Blue, Lufthansa and Spirit Air.

Flying from North America to Bogotá, most flights go out of Houston (IAH), Miami (MIA), Cancún (CUN), Atlanta (ATL) or Mexico City (MEX). Jet Blue flights depart from Fort Lauderdale (FLL). For Cartagena, there are direct connections through Panama (PTY) and New York (JFK). Most flights to Medellín go through Miami.  

From Europe, you are most likely to transit through Barcelona (BCN), Madrid (MAD) or London (LHR). From Asia, you'll connect in one of the previously mentioned North America or European cities. 

I don’t speak Spanish - can I travel independently?

You’ll find English speakers in the more touristy parts of Colombia, particularly in Cartagena. And if you end up on the remote island of Providencia, the islanders here speak fluent English, as the island was once an English colony. In other parts of the country you’ll find English speakers in many hotels and guesthouses and other tourist facilities, but finding one on the street is less likely. When taking taxis or public transportation, or navigating your way through the streets and markets, you’ll have to use a phrasebook and brush up on your Español.

Is Colombia a safe place to travel?

Colombia is no longer the nation of violence of drugs portrayed in 1990s Hollywood films. Certainly, these problems occur, but it is now only found in isolated areas where tourists are unlikely to visit. You are far more likely to encounter the type of crime common in other Latin American countries, but with common sense, you should be able to avoid any problems. Just take the usual precautions you would in other cities of the region. Most of all, be street savvy: don’t be fooled by distraction tricks by people trying to get into your pockets, think twice when offered a drink at a club, don’t flash around valuables, and other common-sense practices.

What currency is used?

The Colombian currency is the peso. US dollars are rarely accepted so it's best to exchange you cash for pesos. $1 = 3028 pesos.  

How widely accepted are credit cards?

Credit cards are widely accepted at restaurants, hotels, shops and other services such as tour companies. However, it’s a good idea to get some Colombian pesos (COP) from an ATM (bring a debit card for this) after arrival to pay for budget meals, bus tickets, small souvenirs, and taxis.

How much will I spend each day?

If you are traveling as a couple, expect to spend around $150 - $200 USD per person per day on transport, lodging, and activities. Of course, this will vary based on the hotel class you choose, as well whether your itinerary includes domestic flights. Traveling solo will cost a bit more, while families and larger groups will spend a bit less per person for the same itinerary since certain costs such as transport can be shared with more people.

What you end up spending for meals will also vary depending on your choice of restaurants. A meal at a typical local lunch spot can run as low as $2-$4. While dining in top restaurants of Zona T in Bogotá - with an appetizer, entree, and drink - can cost $30 per person or more. A complimentary breakfast is served at most hotels.  

What's the tipping culture like?

Colombians generally don't tip at restaurants, but if you feel you received good service, by all means, leave one. Note that at mid-range or top-end restaurants, you’ll be asked for a voluntary 10%, which you can accept or decline. Most people pay this and the staff will share the tip. If you received great service you can leave an additional tip just for the waiter. At hotels, you can give the bellboy $1 per bag and $1-2 per day for housekeeping. 

When is the best time to visit Colombia?

Colombia is a year-round destination, so there is no single best time to visit the country. Due to its close proximity to the equator, the weather in Colombia won’t change much over the year. If you want to avoid the rain, visit between December and February. Most of the rain falls from April to October, but bursts of rain are unlikely to derail your trip. October and November see fewer amounts of tourists, a good time to visit the country. If you are planning to visit the Pacific coast, whales can be spotted here only between July and October. The best time to visit Cartagena is December to March when a sea breeze cools the otherwise hot city.

How should I pack?

Bring layers of clothing to prepare for different climate conditions. In the Caribbean, it’s most shorts, T-shirts, and sandals, but up in Bogotá, you’ll want a pair of long pants and a fleece jacket, especially for chilly evenings. A pair of light pants and shirt are is good for walking the jungle and protection from mosquitoes. Also, consider bringing a light rain jacket and an umbrella. Hikers will want to bring a pair of hiking shoes.

What’s the food like?

Colombian food is filling and varied. For breakfast (desayuno) at your hotel, you may be served an arepa (ground maize flatbread) and a scrambled egg. A budget lunch (Comida Corriente) is usually a two-course meal that includes soup, and a plate of rice, beans, and meat, plus a side salad and a fruit drink. A lunch of fish and plantain is usually served near the coast.

A typical dish is ajiaco (stewed chicken with corn, potatoes, avocado and local herbs). In Antioquia, you can dine on badeja paisa, a mound of sausages, egg, rice, and bean with arepa. Most dishes include some type of meat, which can make life challenging for vegetarians.

Street food options are typically empanadas (fried, stuffed pastries) or arepas stuffed with cheese, ham, eggs or chicken. Fruit and fruit drinks are sold everywhere.

What’s it like to travel on public transport?

Long distance inter-city buses and clean, comfortable and go everywhere. Some overnight buses have large seats similar to business class on a plane. Buses have air-con and drivers like to turn it up full blast, so you should keep a sweater with you even on hot days. Wi-fi is available on some buses. Because of the security situation in the country, you may have to get off the bus at military checkpoints where soldiers open luggage.

Local transportation in cities and towns varies greatly. Small busetas can be noisy and crowded. In Medellín, you can ride a subway or cable car to your destination. In Bogotá, the best way around is a modern BRT system that features wide buses traveling in their own dedicated lanes.