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Colombia Travel Tips – 25 Things to Know Before You Go

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Cartagena, Medellín. and Colombia are all lots of fun to visit, but you will find very quickly that you can benefit from Colombia travel tips when you go.

There are some helpful tips that will make your visit easier. They will also make your trip a lot more fun if you know about them beforehand. (So, good for you for researching in advance and finding this post!)

This is my list of the top 25 best Colombia travel tips to be sure you have a great time so you are well prepared.

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Is Colombia Safe for Travel?

As you start to plan for your trip and talk to people, you may be a little surprised by people’s reactions. Most people will either give you a blank stare as if they are trying to get into your brain to figure out why you would want to go there.

Or, they will say that it’s not safe due to the reputation it has. Some may come out directly and say, “is Colombia safe to travel?”

Now, the history of Colombia is a bit sketchy and there were significant issues from drug cartels in the 1980s and 1990s that were blasted all over the news.

Take a poor country with a very corrupt government with the perfect climate for growing a certain white powder and before you know it, there is a significant and bloody problem. This is all true and is well documented.

What’s not true, however, is that is how the country is now. Is there still drug production? I’m sure there is, however, the drug cartels have ceased their large-scale production and the country is much more peaceful now.

There is still crime and it is still, sadly, a poor country, so things happen. But believe it or not, Hollywood doesn’t always get it right and doesn’t always tell the whole story. Shocking, right?

So, I encourage you to do your research and you will find a beautiful country full of amazing people.

Throw out everything you think you know about Colombia and consider going with an open mind. I fell madly in love with this country and I think you will too. And no, this isn’t even one of the tips (though it should be)!

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Guatapé Lake

Planning Your Colombia Vacation

Colombia isn’t a very heavily touristed country overall, though tourism is increasing rapidly. You will find more tourists in certain areas, especially the bigger cities.

I saw mention of the “Gringo trail” on a blog I read before I went and found that very much to be true. There are certain areas the tourists or gringos, usually go.

In general, this includes Cartagena, Medellín, Bogotá, Tayrona Park, and Salento (for the amazing Cocora Valley hike). You’ll find a good number of tourists backpacking or traveling through Colombia in these areas.

When I went, this was where I found the most tourists. I do recommend those areas and loved the ones I went to. But, I encourage you to step off the “gringo trail” to visit other places if you can to get a really good feel for the country.

In addition, it’s a good idea to at least see 3-4 places when traveling in Colombia. Each place is so very different, and even the big cities are worlds apart from the small towns.

There are some amazing UNESCO World Heritage sites in Colombia recognized for their beauty, cultural aspects, or other significance. I went to the Coffee Triangle and to Cartagena.

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Salento

25 Helpful Colombia Travel Tips

Going to a developing country takes some extra planning, and it’s a bit different from what you may be used to. I encourage you to consider going to more local-type establishments to get to know the real Colombia instead of staying in 5-star resorts and not leaving the property.

To enjoy the trip, you will want to do some preparation in advance and these Colombia travel tips will be helpful for when you arrive and you are traveling around.

The first five is a list of Colombia travel tips that will be great to know before you leave, though they can help you while you’re in Colombia as well. The remainder will be helpful while you’re traveling.

One thing to keep in mind is that many of these Colombia travel tips apply to many Latin American countries. So, flag this page for future trips!

1. Learn Some Basic Spanish

Most Colombians don’t speak English, though you can generally find someone who can help you in a pinch in larger cities like Bogotá, Cartagena, and Medellín.

It will be really helpful if you learn at least some basic Spanish to help you with basic things like checking into a hotel, ordering food, finding your way around and getting directions, and purchasing things.

My Spanish is pretty poor, but I know some basics and between that, context, and pantomiming, you’d be surprised how well you can communicate.

Bring a dictionary or have Google Translate teed up on your phone. It’s one of the really helpful apps that I highly recommend and one you will make good use of in Colombia.

2. Bring Cash

You will find that credit cards aren’t widely used in Colombia, even in hotels and restaurants. They are used more often in the larger cities but always be prepared in case cards are not accepted.

A nice hotel I stayed at in Manizales didn’t accept credit cards and I was surprised. The good thing is that coming from many countries, the exchange rate is very favorable. You don’t need to bring a large amount to get by, and banks and ATMs are pretty easy to find.

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The Stunning Temple del Sagrado Corazon los Agostinos

3. Plan for Wide Swings in the Weather

You will find the weather is very diverse in Colombia if you are traveling to multiple places. Check out the weather averages before you leave and plan accordingly with what you pack.

Bogotá had lows in the 40s Fahrenheit but Cartagena was extremely humid when I went with highs in the high 90s. I had to bring some tanks and a down jacket.

It takes some planning to be prepared for this but you’ll be much happier if you bring what you need. Of course, you can always buy something while you’re traveling as well.

4. Visit Several Places in Colombia

I mentioned this earlier but this is such an important tip. You can’t just go to Bogotá to really feel you’ve been to Colombia. It is so very different from Cartagena, or the small town of Salento. There is really no comparison.

Most of the Americans I met were in Cartagena, though there weren’t many of them. I did meet a family in Bogotá as well, but none during my other travels.

You will find the Colombian people overall to be very warm and friendly. There are definitely differences throughout the country in the people, the food, and what the land is like.

Do yourself a favor and really get to know and enjoy Colombia and all of its amazing variety.

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Guatapé

5. Don’t Drink the Water

Anyone who does their research before going to Colombia will find this, but there’s actually a little more to it than simply drinking water. The two things that people have a tendency to forget when eating fruits and vegetables.

You can’t eat anything that was rinsed in water. The only way you can in order to ensure you won’t get sick is if it’s peeled or cooked. I have seriously never wanted to eat a salad as much as when I travel to countries where I can’t drink water!

Also, you can’t have ice. So, think about it when you get your favorite soda and ditch the ice. You’ll be happier for it.

6. Keep Mum About the Man from Medellín

Yes, you know the one I mean. Him. He’s much of the reason why Colombia got its bad rap to begin with so the people overall aren’t fond of him and don’t want to talk about him. The Colombians are very proud and want to put it behind them. Let them.

You may get some strong reactions if you do mention him so if you do so, do it quietly.

Do the country a favor and skip the tours dedicated to him. It’s just not a good practice to support this kind of tourism. Colombians want to forget him, so please let them.

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Former property of “the man from Medellín” on Guatapé Lake

7. Use the Trash Bin Next to the Toilet for Paper

In Colombia, people dispose of paper in the trash bin and they don’t flush it. This is because most of the country has septic systems and old creaky pipes.

You don’t want to be that person who clogs the pipes. So, do the kind thing and toss your trash in the bin they kindly left for you.

8. Always Carry Hand Sanitizer and Toilet Paper

While we’re on the fun subject of toileting, here’s another good idea for you. You will often find bathrooms don’t have toilet paper so it’s a good idea to have some with you. And when they do have paper, they may not have a seat on the toilet.

You will want to buy a lottery ticket if you find a bathroom with toilet paper, a seat, paper towels, or a working hand dryer.

9. Take Day Tours to Learn the Area

If you can find a reasonably-priced day tour (with no “gringo tax”) they are a great idea. You get an insider’s perspective about the area and it’s nice to have help navigating as public transportation in Colombia can be really challenging.

I took a day tour from Cartagena to the town of Palenque, a trip to the colorful Guatapé from Medellín, and I went on a Zipaquira Salt Cathedral day trip from Bogotá.

All of these trips were amazing. Though I might have found a way to do it with public transportation, I would have missed out on all the wonderful history behind these areas. Just don’t get caught thinking you need to pay hundreds of dollars for these trips.

The most expensive one I took was $65 USD and they were all amazing. Perhaps this is two Colombia travel tips in one- both suggesting taking day tours and being aware of the “gringo tax.”

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Zipaquirá Cathedral

10. Be Careful with Taxis and Uber

Uber is technically illegal in Colombia. I say “technically” as you will find Uber operating in some of the cities by some industrious locals. However, I did hear about some harassment by taxi drivers and worse in Cartagena.

it’s best to not use Uber, both for safety and to support the local taxi drivers. They will appreciate it and it’s a good practice to support local business owners when you can.

For taxis, make sure the meter is running or negotiate the cost of your trip up-front. This is similar to what you’ll see in many other countries and not unique to Colombia.

11. There are Many Dogs (and Cats) Roaming the Streets

They seem better cared for in some areas though they can pull on your heartstrings. It’s a good idea to not approach them unless they approach you to avoid the risk of being bitten.

When we stopped for a quick break on the way back from Guatapé, I saw my bus driver pull a large bag of dog food out of the bus and fed some of the dogs. One used only three legs and was very friendly with people. They were clearly very well-fed.

12. You Will See a Strong Military Presence

You’ll see military troops almost everywhere you go, especially in the larger cities. 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. This is part of how Colombia has “cleaned up its act.”

You don’t want to do anything to call attention to yourself, of course. But unless you’re doing something illegal, you generally won’t be bothered by them.

13. In-Country Flights are Cheap

Buses are very cheap and can be a crazy experience, but they can take a long time. If you’re short on time, give a flight a look. EasyFly and VivaColombia are two local airlines to look for if you’re interested in a flight. 

I booked a flight on EasyFly from Medellín to Armenia when I learned the 6 to 8-hour bus ride was taking more than 11 hours. I only had a few days in Salento and decided it was worth the cost to save time.

The plane was tiny and my international-sized carry-on didn’t even fit in the overhead compartment but it was no issue. The bags were all lined up next to the place when we got off.

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Rickety Wood Bridges on the Cocora Valley Hike

14. Try the Almuerzo

Almuerzo means lunch in Spanish. But, what I’m referring to is the special lunch offering which is generally bandeja paisa.

You usually start with soup and then a massive dish of meat, white rice, arepa (cornmeal cake), plantain, red beans, a small salad, and a drink (remember, no ice, and don’t eat the salad unless you’re feeling very lucky)!

It’s huge and usually runs around 8k COP, which is around $2.50 USD. Seriously. And go hungry and plan to not eat dinner, it’s that huge.

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Bandeja paisa

15. Portions are Massive

While I’m on the subject of large meals, you will find most of the meals in Colombia are large. The bandeja paisa almuerzo is a good example (when it’s served at dinner time they usually call it bandeja paisa, but it’s essentially the same thing).

I got ajiaco which is chicken soup. They literally filled my table with dishes including a large bowl of chicken broth, chicken, Peruvian corn, three kinds of corn, and guascas (a local herb).

Then they brought dishes with arepa and white rice. And not to stop there, they brought more dishes with toppings including capers, hot sauces, and crema.

I literally ate this one dinner meal for three meals. And it was amazing! (I highly recommend trying some of the soups, which are a Colombian specialty).

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16. Try Aguardiente

What is 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.

Tejo is a fun game in Colombia played by throwing rocks at packets filled with explosives. What doesn’t sound amazingly fun about that??

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Tejo, a Fun Game with Rocks and Explosives

17. Don’t Expect Anything for Free

Colombians generally expect that work should be compensated so don’t expect samples for free. And if someone offers you something, they will expect you to pay for it.

This happened to me in Medellín when a young man kept trying to give me a woven bracelet. I declined, several times, in fact, but he kept trying and ended up tying it loosely on my wrist. Then he promptly demanded money for it. I was a bit put off, of course.

This also happens when you see people dressing up for you to take a photo of. They want money for it. Even if you aim your phone in their general direction.

When you’re in Bogotá, avoid this creepy-looking dude at all costs. I didn’t even have my phone up when he heckled the @#$% out of me for money. I finally gave up and paid him then snapped this picture. And yes, he actually tried to get money from me a second time.

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18. Drink Lots of Fruit Juices (Jugos)

The fruit juices are crazy good and I highly recommend them. A word of caution though, as they do have water in them. If you get a shake with milk thinking you’re avoiding the water, you’re not, as they put ice in them.

I finally gave in and tried one and I was hooked. Now, I have read that they are often made with purified water (agua filtrado), however, I’m not sure if this is true or not. I can only tell you that if you’re going to take a risk, this is where you want to take it.

Traditional flavors are good, but try something different. My favorite was lulo, which is the naranjillo fruit. It was described as a citrusy rhubarb and that really nailed it. It’s sweet and tart and amazing.

Mora (blackberry) is great and I loved maracuyá (sweet passionfruit) as well.

19. Try the Snacks Sold on Buses

Last food one, I promise! This was a bit weird to me, I’ll admit it. I took a couple of buses and people get on and sell homemade snacks. Weird, right? Well, buy them. It’s quite common in Colombia.

I bought an empanada for the equivalent of 20 cents in USD, and it was filled with strawberry goodness. She had already hopped off by the time I tried it or I might have been tempted to buy more! Yum.

20. Go to the Mercados

The mercados, or markets, are where the locals do their shopping. They don’t go to supermarkets, which are usually at a higher price. You can find the freshest ingredients in the mercados as much less than you can at the supermarkets.

You also get to people-watch with the locals, which is always fun. In addition to food, you can find some really nice handmade items like carvings and woven goods so it’s a good idea to go to bring gifts back for the people who thought Colombia was unsafe to travel to.

21. Tips Aren’t Required

If you’re coming from the US or even Europe, most people expect to tip for any service. Things are a bit different in Colombia, though.

Taxis don’t require tips, though you can certainly round up to make your life easier (and not have a pocket full of change). You can pay 10% at restaurants if you wish, though they are not expected.

Most restaurants pay their staff what would be considered a living wage. Tips aren’t factored into that compensation.

You should consider paying tips for tours and guides and 10 – 15% is a great guideline for those. They aren’t generally required overall, but they are nice and appreciated, especially if you feel the service warrants one.

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Finca in Cocora Valley Where You Can Get Drinks and Soup

22. The Colombian People are Amazing

Most people that you meet are very kind and helpful and it’s genuine. I met a sweet young woman in a crowded subway car in Medellín. I was exhausted from a long day and was pushing to go see just one more thing (or two) before calling it a day. But it was hot and I was pretty overwhelmed.

She made eye contact with me and smiled and said something. I was far too tired for my brain to comprehend and though I understand a little bit of Spanish, I don’t really know enough to be able to have a conversation.

We got off on the same stop and she said something that I believe was asking where I was going. My radar went up but I told her the stop. She got all excited, took my arm, and led me to the right train.

We ended up getting off at the same stop again (which she probably told me, had I understood) and she led me out then gave me a warm hug and waved goodbye. It was incredibly sweet and so appreciated.

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Street Art in Getsemani, Cartagena

23. Colombia is Generally Safe

You need to be aware and careful as you do anywhere. Would you go to New York City and walk around with a backpack on your back that was open? Of course not.

So, you take the same precautions. Keep an eye, or better yet, a hand, on your belongings at all times. This is one of the most important Colombia travel tips to consider when you visit.

Be aware and make sure you aren’t zoning out on your phone and not paying attention. Colombia is a poor country and some people may take advantage of the opportunity if presented. Don’t do so, and you will be fine.

24. Keep an Open Mind

No matter what preconceived notions you have about Colombia, leave them in the airplane. Take an open mind with you when you land and be open to all that Colombia offers you.

From the incredibly friendly and industrious people to the history and culture to the incredible food—Colombia offers a lot for those willing to embrace it.

25. Be Prepared to Fall Madly in Love with Colombia

Colombia truly is amazing. If you are open and give it a chance, you will get swept up in how amazing it is and you may be surprised to find you don’t want to leave.

These Colombia travel tips will help you along the way to make your trip easier so you can see what an amazing country it is.

Like most of Latin America, Colombia is a place where it is a great idea to prepare before you leave. Review these Colombia travel tips to help you set your expectations.

They’ll also help you to know what you should and should not do when you’re there. Bring an open mind and have an amazing time.

25 of the Top Colombia Travel Tips

Don’t miss visiting Colombia. You’ll fall in love with everything from the incredible natural beauty, architecture, people, and food. It’s an amazing place you won’t get out of your head for years after your visit—trust me on that!

It’s a different type of country to visit, but you’ll be prepared with the top Colombia travel tips.

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