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Planning to visit Colombia for the first time? Here is a comprehensive guide filled with Colombia travel tips that will help you have a great time there and prepare for your Colombia trip with ease. These 20 tips for visiting Colombia are shared by Samantha from My Flying Leap.
The recommendations cover everything you need to know before going to Colombia: from the answer to the question: Is Colombia safe to tips for preparing your trip to Colombia and tips for your visit to Colombia: what to eat, what tours to skip, tipping in Colombia, and more.
20 Tips for Visiting Colombia
I spent a little over two weeks visiting Colombia and I’ll admit it—I fell madly in love. The time passed so quickly and it didn’t seem like nearly enough. Everything about the country is pure magic, from the lush greenery, the rich and diverse culture, the food, and the people. The more I saw of Colombia the more I wanted to see. It’s seriously addictive.
I had the opportunity to go to Cartagena, Medellín, and Bogotá, Manizales, and Salento. It felt like the right amount of time in each city for the time I had while visiting overall. Though it really just whet my appetite to see more of Colombia and I think you’ll find the same when you go.
Just bring an open mind and a genuine interest to get to know the place and the people and immerse yourself in the magic of Colombia.
Is Colombia Safe?
The reactions that I got when I told people where I was going were interesting and fed into my concern a bit that maybe Colombia isn’t a safe country to visit. It certainly has a reputation for its violent history. Of course, everything I knew was either from Hollywood a la Narcos or the news from the 1990s. A lot has changed!
Throw out everything you think you know about Colombia. That’s it! Just throw it away and go with an open mind ready to embrace Colombia and all that it is.
Colombia is as safe as any country you go to, likely including your own. You have to take the normal precautions that you would anywhere, especially when you are in the cities. Keep an eye, or better yet, a hand on your belongings at all times.
Be aware of what is going on around you and be sure to research or to ask about areas before you go. I never had any issues traveling and I went solo to Colombia.
Be prepared for people’s reactions as Colombia is still not on most people’s radars. Honestly, it really wasn’t on mine! A new friend mentioned going and that sparked an interest.
I had thought it was unsafe to go so I never really considered it! But push through it and push past any concerns they raise in you. You won’t regret it.
Helpful Tips for a Trip to Colombia
The level of tourism is increasing rapidly in Colombia, though it’s still not a highly touristed country. Like with any trip, it’s a good idea to prepare before you go.
This is a list of what you should know before you visit Colombia, and for you to consider while you’re there.
Tips for When You are Planning Your Colombia Trip
When you are planning your visit to Colombia, it’s a good idea to keep these tips in mind. Some of them are also useful while you are visiting as well.
1. You need to learn some basic Spanish
English isn’t very common in Colombia overall, even in shops, restaurants, and hotels. You will find more people in the larger cities of Cartagena, Medellín, and Bogotá speak English, but even still, it’s not very often. It will be helpful to at least know some basic Spanish so you have a way to navigate, to order a meal, and to purchase things.
2. You can’t get to know Colombia from visiting one city
I was surprised by the number of Americans I met while traveling in Cartagena. It actually wasn’t a lot, maybe 6, but it was more than I expected. All of them were only visiting Cartagena. It’s a great city, but it’s only a small slice of Colombia.
Even Medellín and Bogotá are each very different from Cartagena, not to mention the small towns. So, one of my best tips for your Colombia holiday is to include multiple cities on your Colombia itinerary in order to get to know the country.
To get to know the country, you really have to go to a few places, and I recommend a mix of big cities and small towns. I read on a blog post about the “Gringo Trail,” which includes Cartagena, Medellín, and Bogotá, Salento, and Tayrona Park. It’s a great idea to do at least these, and more if you can swing it.
3. Don’t drink the water in Colombia
Most people can handle following this guidance, but they forget two other important things. You also can’t drink anything with ice in it (think about your favorite soda), and you can’t eat any fruits or vegetables not cooked or peeled. I never want a salad as much as when I’m traveling to places where I can’t drink the water!
Next on this list of best tips for visiting Colombia is that it’s a good idea to bring a filtered water bottle or a SteriPen to make sure the water you drink won’t make you sick and to reduce the waste of purchasing bottle water.
There are a ton of different options including filtration system and water purifiers. Unless you’re planning a trek in the rainforest drinking out of rivers and streams, you can’t really go wrong. It’s mostly a matter of personal preference.
4. The weather is very diverse in Colombia
If you’re traveling to multiple areas, do your homework in advance and check the weather averages. When I went, Cartagena had highs near 100 with high humidity and Bogotá had lows in the 40s.
It takes a bit of planning to be prepared for such large weather swings, but you will be happier for it. Researching is the golden rule of traveling – and it’s also one of the top recommendations as part of this list of 20 things to know before visiting Colombia.
5. Be prepared to pay in cash
Credit cards aren’t widely used in the country though you find some usage in the larger cities. Though I generally found hotels that accepted credit cards or pre-payment with the reservation online, I did stay at one hotel in Manizales that didn’t accept credit cards. Depending where you are, some of the small towns can be challenging to get cash.
Tips for While You are Traveling in Colombia
These tips are really helpful to keep in mind while you’re visiting Colombia.
6. Day tours are a great way to get to know an area
When you can find a day trip that seems reasonably priced and includes transportation, give it a shot. Don’t pay too much, though, or you’re paying a “gringo tax.”
Tours are an amazing way to get an insider’s perspective on what you are seeing. If it’s an individual or a small tour company, they help the local economy. So, another useful Colombia travel tip is to book day tours to see the most of the country.
Don’t forget to buy some souvenirs – here is a list of the authentic Colombian souvenirs you can bring back home or buy for your friends and family.
7. Always carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you
Many bathrooms will not have paper and you will quickly find yourself cheering when you find one that does. Though, it may not have a toilet seat. And paper towels are not very common to find. If you’re lucky, there may be a well-used towel to dry your hands. Remember: one of the top things to know before your visit to Colombia is to always have toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you!
8. Don’t flush paper
While we are on the fun topic of toileting, dispose of paper in the small trash bin you will find next to the toilet and don’t flush the paper. Most places have septic and really old pipes.
Accumulated paper may cause them to have to pay to empty the septic or worse, it may clog the pipes. Please be kind.
9. Be cautious with taxis
Make sure the meter is running or negotiate the cost upfront. I would generally suggest Uber in most countries, however, they are technically illegal in Colombia.
I say “technically” as they are found in the cities, however, in Cartagena, I heard of incidents where taxi drivers harassed passengers or worse.
10. Things are generally not offered for free
The culture in Colombia is that there is an expectation that work should be compensated. If a person ties a bracelet on your wrist, they are expecting money for it. Even if you didn’t ask.
This happened to me in Medellín. Several times I said no and walked away, but the young man followed me and slipped it on my wrist. Then he demanded money.
So, another useful thing on this list of Colombia tips is to pay attention to local scams and to never accept anything for free, as there is no such thing.
11. You will see a strong military and police presence
It can be unnerving at first, but it’s actually a good thing. It is generally not because of crime in an area but it is used as a strong deterrent. And it works.
12. Do not mention the man from Medellín
You may get one of three reactions, I was told on a walking tour in Medellín. You may get hugged, you may get slapped (or worse!), or you may get a blank stare. Overall, people are very ready to put the country’s dark past behind and want to move past it. Let them. And skip the Escobar tours.
13. People are generally incredibly kind and helpful
When they offer to help, they mean it. I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical at first and carried my “New York-style attitude” when people would approach me, but they did and were wonderful.
When I struggled in a restaurant to order, someone approached me to help. When I was overloaded on a subway, someone took my hand and led me through the crowd to my next train.
14. Try an “almuerzo” lunch
Almuerzo means lunch in Spanish, and this is akin to a daily special offering which generally features bandeja paisa. It often starts with soup then a gut-busting dish of bandeja paisa with meat, white rice, red beans, arepa, plantain, and a small salad, along with a drink.
It’s monstrous and very cheap, generally around 8k COP or $2.50 USD. And you won’t want to eat again that day.
15. Try aguardiente
It’s a locally-made liquor of distilled sugar cane. We were offered it by our host in Salento, Colombia with aguapanela, a drink made of sugar cane boiled to bubbly goodness and cooked for a long time, with water added.
It is sweet, but not overly so, and has the taste of a lightly sweetened iced tea. It’s sometimes mixed with some lemon juice so that tastes like an Arnold Palmer.
16. Go hungry to restaurants
Portion sizes are generally monstrous in Colombia. I got an ajiaco, which is a local traditional soup that I highly recommend.
I literally ate this for three meals! It is a chicken-broth based soup with chunks of chicken, three kinds of potatoes, a local herb called guascas, and some Peruvian corn. The sides can sometimes vary, but usually include white rice, crema, capers, arepas, and hot sauces. Yum!
17. Tips aren’t required (though they are nice)
You can pay 10% at restaurants. Taxis don’t require though you can round up if you wish. Of course, consider tips for guides and tours (10-15%).
18. The fruit juices are crazy good
Maracuyá (passionfruit), lulo, and mora (blackberry) were my favorite. Lulo is a local fruit called naranjillo which was described as a citrusy rhubarb.
Note: they do have water and ice in the juices. At first, I tried a shake thinking it might have no water in it, but it had ice. I have read that these are often made with purified water (agua filtrado) however, I’m not sure. They were so crazy good I decided they were worth the risk.
19. Colombia is generally safe
The Colombian people are very proud and you will usually have no issues when you travel. You do need to take regular precautions that you would while traveling anywhere, especially to the larger cities, but I didn’t find there was an increase in safety concerns.
Be smart, have a grip on your things, and keep your eyes open and you will be fine.
20. Be prepared to fall in love with Colombia
Like, madly in love where you never want to leave. This country will truly steal your heart.
These 20 travel tips for visiting Colombia will help you to prepare for your trip and have a great time while you’re there. It is an amazing place to visit.
The large cities and the small picturesque towns offer a lot of appeal. Be part of a revitalization of the country by going to support with your tourist dollars and you will get so much back in the process. Colombia and the Colombian people will take a piece of your heart.
About the author:
Sam is a travel-obsessed animal lover with big plans to travel the world with her dog. When she’s not blogging about her travel adventures at My Flying Leap, you can find her volunteering with her pet-therapy cat and dog, on the top of a mountain, or enjoying a glass of bold red wine planning for her next trip. Follow her on Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter too.