There’s never been a better time to visit Colombia. After two decades of relative peace, the country has reshaped its international image. No longer associated with drug lords and guerrilla/paramilitary violence, Colombia is now lauded as much for its welcoming culture as it is for its abundance of natural beauty. The result is booming tourism, a thriving art and nightlife scene, and an exciting gastronomic identity that together make Colombia an irresistible destination du jour.
Colombia’s sprawling cities, gorgeous colonial pueblos, dramatic landscapes, and fascinating indigenous cultures will have you chomping at the bit to get there. But some planning is essential to ensure that you don’t overlook important details. These can mean the difference between a fantastic trip or a disappointing one. Read on for some practical advice to prepare for an enthralling visit.
Preparing For Your Visit
Citizens of most countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, must possess a passport valid for at least six months from your date of entry into Colombia. Most visitors do not need a tourist visa and are permitted to stay 90 days. The visa can be extended once at any of the immigration offices (Migracíon Colombia) throughout the country. You can spend no more than 180 days in Colombia each calendar year.
If you’re planning on travel to Amazonia, you may be asked to provide proof of vaccination for yellow fever (although this is rare). Some countries, such as Costa Rica, may also require proof of such vaccination if you are arriving from Colombia.
Travel insurance is a wise investment. Besides the possible loss of possessions, the big concern is whether you’re covered in case of medical issues. Most towns have private physicians and clinics of high standards, but facilities in rural areas are minimal. And standards at government-run centros de salud (health centers) can be of low quality. Supplemental evacuation insurance is highly recommended in case of medical emergency, as well as insurance for trip cancellation or loss of baggage.
Colombia’s currency is the peso, denoted as C$ or COP. Coins are issued in denominations of 50, 100, 200, and 500. Banknotes are issued in denominations of 1,000 all the way to 100,000. U.S. dollars and other currencies are rarely accepted, so you’ll need to change money at banks or exchange bureaus found throughout Colombia. If you’re planning on visiting remote areas such as La Guajira or Chocó, it’s wise to take all the cash you’ll need, as you can’t rely on being able to change money or use credit cards. Be sure to take plenty of small denomination bills.
Credit cards (tarjetas de crédito) such as Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted, and some places will accept American Express, Discover, and others. Most banks have ATMs, which can be found at strategic locations in most cities. Some ATMs dispense up to C$600,000 (about $210 in mid-2018), while many have a limit of around C$300,000 (about $105).
Always be aware of your surroundings when using ATMs; those inside supermarkets, shopping malls, etc. are preferable to street-front ATMs, where the risk of being robbed is greater. And of course, before departing for Colombia, advise your bank and credit card issuer of your plans to travel.
Colombia is served by direct flights from major cities in North America and a few cities in Europe. However, from Europe, it may be cheaper and easier to fly via Miami. The majority of flights land at Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport, which is the country's main air hub. Some international flights do serve Cartagena, Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, and even San Andres island. A taxi from El Dorado airport to downtown Bogotá should cost about $15.
Colombia is a large country and getting around takes some planning. Bogotá is a heavily-trafficked and sprawling city, and although La Candelaria—the colonial center—is walkable, getting around everywhere else can be time-consuming. Bogotá has efficient transport options, including the TransMilenio rapid transit system, while Medellín is served by a Metro train and cable-car system. Taxis are available everywhere, including "Willys Jeep" taxis in the Zona Cafetera.
Airports are located throughout Colombia, and several domestic airlines compete for business at competitive fares. Thus flying is the most efficient way of getting around the country if you're planning an extensive trip. The three biggest air carriers are Avianca, Copa Airlines, and LATAM.
Regarding terrestrial travel, multiple companies offer inter-urban bus transport with directo (fast) and regular (slower) service. Larger companies like Bolivariano, Rapido Ochoa, and Copetran link many cities and use modern air-conditioned buses with reclining seats. Note that drivers tend to crank up the a/c and play movies and music. Pack a sweater or jacket plus ear-plugs. In more remote areas, colectivos (collective taxis) and Willys Jeeps are often used to connect communities.
If you’re planning on exploring widely, renting a car gives you the most flexibility. Rental car agencies are found in most cities (we recommend opting for a 4WD vehicle), and anyone 25 years or older should be able to hire a car with their existing license. Vehicle rental is relatively expensive—expect to pay about $100 per day, including insurance. Note that distances on maps are often deceiving—destinations that appear close can take far longer to reach than you may imagine. This is especially true if trying to cross the east-west Andean mountain routes.
The biggest thing self-drivers should be aware of is the pico y placa system. To reduce traffic congestion, Bogotá, Medellín, and several other major cities ban specific private vehicles twice weekly according to the last digit of their license plate (placa); days rotate every six months, so you'll need to check on which days you'll be affected for each city. Rental cars are not exempt, and infractions can incur fines or even seizure of a vehicle by transit police.
Although the security situation in Colombia has improved markedly in recent decades, crime remains a problem, especially in major cities. Visitors are often easy targets. Be conscious of pickpockets and similar petty crime, especially in crowded places like bus terminals, city buses, and markets. To mitigate risk, carry only as much money as you think you’ll need for that day. And if you are the victim of an armed robbery, don’t resist.
Practically speaking, it’s unwise to walk alone late at night in major Colombian cities. This goes for more remote areas as well, including national parks. Ask your concierge or a trusted local about areas considered unsafe. If you need a ride always hail an official, metered, radio taxi. Make sure the driver's photo identification is displayed prominently. You can also call ahead for a radio taxi, and most hotels and hostels will be happy to call for you.
When out at restaurants and bars, avoid accepting drinks from strangers. It could be tainted with burundunga (scopolamine), a drug that causes you to do whatever you're told, and without recall of memory. And lastly, be wary of Colombians claiming to be plainclothes police and demanding to see your documents, then money. Never hand over such documents; instead, find and inform the nearest uniformed police officer.
Most places in the country are now safe from guerrilla activity. Nonetheless, a few more remote zones are still considered dangerous for unescorted travel. Remote areas of Chocó and Nariño, as well as Caquetá and Meta provinces, require caution. Check with your embassy website for advisories on the current situation.
When to Go
Colombia is so close to the equator that there is little variance in temperature throughout the year. The variation that does occur is determined by altitude, and the higher you go, the colder it gets. It's for this reason that Colombians refer to tierra calienta (hot land) for the coastal and Amazonian lowlands and tierra fría (cold land) for the highlands.
However, the country also enjoys such extremes of terrain that microclimates abound. What may be the best time to visit one region may not be the best for another. Most regions have a wet season and a dry season, while in the La Guajira desert, rain rarely falls. Plus, many parts of the highlands have two wet seasons (typically April to June and October to December). For more info, see this article on the best time to visit Colombia.
Consider also whether you’re interested in visiting one of Colombia’s famous festivals and events. The three biggies are Carnival (February) in Barranquilla; the Fería de las Flores (Flower Festival, August) in Medellín; and the Miss Colombia pageant (November) in Cartagena.
Where to Stay
One of Colombia’s big pluses is that it’s blessed with excellent accommodation for every budget, from well-run hostels to deluxe metropolitan hotels and chic boutique lodgings for romantics. In more remote areas, your options are vastly reduced as you're likely to find more hospedajes (family homes that rent rooms) than hotels. As a rule, you'll always want to make hotel reservations in advance, particularly if you’re visiting during a popular festival.
Bogotá and other major cities offer a full range of lodging options. Many larger hotels offer a full complement of business facilities. Popular colonial pueblos, such as Villa de Leyva, Barichara, and Santa Fé de Antioquia are known for their charming historic inns. And beach resort destinations such as Santa Marta, Boca Grande (in Cartagena) and islands San Andrés and Providencia, often feature all-inclusive resorts and surf camps.
Colombia also boasts many superb country lodges—often colonial-era haciendas that are throwbacks to another time. And one of the great pleasures of visiting La Guajira is that you’ll have little option but to sleep in a hammock or a simple reed-hut in a community ranchería. (A note about any lodging marked as a "motel": in Colombia, "motel" is used to denote a place of coital convenience, typically renting out by the hour and used for trysts.)
For information on lodging in Colombia, see these articles:
Best Boutique Hotels in Bogotá
Best Boutique Hotels in Cartagena
Best Boutique Hotels in Medellín
Best Boutique Hotels in the Coffee Region
Family Friendly Hotels in Medellín
Famly Friendly Hotels in Cartagena
Incredible Hotel Pools in Cartagena