Colombia Travel Questions & Answers
- Where does the name Colombia come from?
- How big is Colombia?
- Do I need a visa for Colombia?
- How many days should I spend in Colombia?
- How do I get there?
- I don’t speak Spanish - can I travel independently?
- Is Colombia a safe place to travel?
- What currency is used?
- How widely accepted are credit cards?
- How much will I spend each day?
- What's the tipping culture like?
- When is the best time to visit Colombia?
- How should I pack?
- What’s the food like?
- What’s it like to travel on public transport?
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. It is the fourth largest country in South America.
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 the capital of Bogotá to Medellín, the Zona Cafetera (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 but you can find relatively low-cost flights to both the capital and Cartagena. Carriers that serve Colombia include Air Canada, Air France, American Airlines, Avianca, British Airways, Copa, Delta, LATAM, 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), Atlanta, Houston, Washington D.C., Orlando, Miami, and Tampa. 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.
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How do I get around Colombia?
The main cities of Bogota, Medellín, Cali, 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 Chocó on the Pacific Coast and Amazonas in the south are typically reached by domestic flights that take anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours.
Colombia's low-cost domestic air-carrier is Viva Air. They cover major routes within the country (including to Amazonas) although their extra fees can be prohibitive and frustrating. Avianca and LATAM airlines are the two most reliable airlines within the country, with decent service, although with LATAM baggage fees are not included. As of 2019, Avianca still includes a free checked bag in the fare.
Long distance inter-city buses are 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. Wifi is also available on some buses. Do be aware that Colombian drivers err on the aggressive side, and it's not uncommon for bus drivers to speed around curves and pass other vehicles indiscriminately, which can be jarring for first-timers to the country.
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 islands of San Andres and Providencia, many 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 and 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 petty 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 and countries in 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 practice common sense.
What currency is used?
The Colombian currency is the peso (COP). As of 2019, $1 = 3080 pesos. It’s a good idea to get some Colombian pesos from an ATM (bring a debit card for this) after arrival to pay for budget meals, bus tickets, small souvenirs, and taxis.
How widely accepted are credit cards?
Credit cards are widely accepted at restaurants, hotels, shops and other services such as tour companies. However, many smaller shops and eateries may not yet accept cards, and of course, roadside stands and street vendors will only accept cash.
How much will I spend each day?
If you are traveling as a couple, expect to spend around $50-$150 USD per person per day on transport, lodging, food, and activities. Of course, this will vary based on the hotel class you choose, as well as 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 on 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 Bogota's upscale Zona T neighborhood—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, although there is a wet and dry season here. If you want to avoid the rain, visit between December and February (most of the rain falls from April to October). However, this coincides with the high tourist season (Dec 20th-Jan 7th). During this time period, not only are foreign tourists in the country, but many Colombians are on their holiday break and they too head to popular destinations like Cartagena.
October and November see fewer amounts of tourists, which makes this shoulder season 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. As mentioned above, December and January are peak months for tourism in Cartagena, so you will need to plan your stay well in advance, and know that some hotels also require a three-night minimum stay during this time. Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter, is always a popular (and crowded) time in Cartagena as well.
How should I pack?
Depending on where you go, you'll want to prepare for different climate conditions. In Bogotá, the average high is 66°F/19°C, with chilly nights and intermittent rains. For these reasons, pack a pair of long pants and a fleece jacket. Medellín has a perpetual springlike climate with an average high of 75°F/24°C and is mostly sunny with the occasional light shower. In the cities and towns of the Zona Cafetera coffee region, you can expect a slightly warmer climate with a high of 80°F/27°C; however, the Cocora Valley is chilly and wet, with a high of 57°F/14°C. The city of Cali, located in the Cauca Valley, is warmer as well, with highs of 85°F/29°C. It's hottest on the Caribbean Coast, which sees an average high of 90°F/32°C, so pack shorts, sandals, and light layers.
A pair of light, long pants and shirt are good for hiking in the jungle for added protection from mosquitoes. Also, consider bringing a light rain jacket and an umbrella. Hikers will want to bring a pair of durable 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 in Bogotá is ajiaco (stewed chicken with corn, potatoes, avocado, and local herbs). In Antioquia, you can dine on bandeja paisa, a mound of sausages, egg, rice, and bean with arepa (clear your schedule, because you'll need a nap afterward). Street food options are typically empanadas (fried, stuffed pastries) or arepas stuffed with cheese, ham, eggs or chicken. Fruit and fruit juices are sold everywhere.
Most dishes in the country include some type of meat, which can make life challenging for vegetarians.
What’s it like to travel on public transport?
Local transportation in cities and towns varies greatly. Small busetas can be noisy and crowded. In Medellín, you can get around with ease on their world-class metro system, which includes trains, buses, and cable cars. In Bogotá, the best way around is their modern TransMilenio BRT system that features wide buses traveling in their own dedicated lanes.
What vaccinations do I need?
The CDC recommends that all travelers to Colombia be up to date on routine vaccinations, such as Hepatitis A and typhoid. Yellow fever vaccinations are required for visitors arriving from Brazil and recommended for everyone traveling to areas below 7,546 feet (2,300 meters) in elevation. The main bus terminal in Bogotá offers free YF vaccinations in their clinic, even to foreigners. There is no risk of malaria in Bogotá, Cartagena, and Medellín, but other areas may pose a risk. Depending on your travel plans, talk to your doctor to see if you might need to take prescription anti-malaria medication before, during, or after your trip.