South America is quickly emerging as one of the top destinations to travel to. And after my trip to Colombia, I see why!
What strikes you most about Colombia is how colorful it is. There is such rich diversity in everything - culture, food, geography, climate... everything!
I spent 2 weeks, in three cities in Colombia, and I still haven't seen even half of what the country has to offer. Bogota, Cartagena, Cali, Medellin, the coffee region, Tayrona national park, Rosario Islands, the Amazon region, Ciudad Perdida, San Andrés... the list is never ending. All you need to do is plan your trip - start with booking your flights then booking your accommodation!
Travel to Colombia feels approachable, but the planning part is difficult. Getting to know the local culture is valuable, and connecting with a local BEFORE you head down can help you get the most out of your trip.
To make the first step easy, these 10 things you absolutely must know before you go to Colombia:
1. Colombia is generally safe to visit
There was a time when travelers avoided the country due to its ugly association with cartels and violence. That has largely disappeared and what remains is a vibrant country with spectacular scenery, friendly people and a rich culture. In fact, some areas in Bogota, like the sophisticated and electric Zona-T, feels like any other cosmopolitan city from the developed world. The public transportation of Medellin, a city that has emerged from the shadows of drug cartels, the Medellin Metro is a thing of beauty and is one of the most successful in the world.
Violence should not be a reason you are avoiding that trip to Colombia. But, having said that, it is wise to be aware of your surroundings. Practical safety considerations, same as any other unfamiliar city, are essential. Stick to largely crowded place - on your first trip, consider popular tourist destinations or the cities of Colombia. Colombia is still struggling to with economic disparities so it is better to refrain from ostentatious displays of wealth and branded accessories.
It's also recommended to get travel insurance before you go - look into World Nomads for some good deals.
2. Understand the Colombian Peso
The local currency is the Colombian Peso (COP$) and the denominations are in mil, Spanish for thousand. Menus at restaurants and cafes might list a cappuccino for $5.000 - this means the cost is 5mil. In common parlance, the mil is often dropped. Frequently used notes come in denominations of 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 20000 and 50000 pesos.
3. You get the best exchange rate by using cards or at ATMs
Even better if you have an international card with no transaction fee. A Citibank card works best - they give great exchange rate at ATMs, which are commonly available in major cities and if you have a card, you don't have to bear the additional fee. But even with the fee, in case you don't have a Citibank card, you still get a better deal using a card for payment or withdrawing from an ATM.
4. Check visa requirements
Check again,you just might not need a tourist visa to enter Colombia. For example, while passport holders of countries like USA, European Union and Canada, among others, don't require visa to enter; holders of United States Visa or Schengen Visa (except transit visa), from China, India, Thailand and Vietnam are also granted visa-free access. It is best to visit Migración Colombia or call their customer support number and check the current status for your country. They are also prompt to reply to emails.
5. Check the weather app before planning your visit
And I cannot stress on this enough. Every city has a completely different climate, mainly because of the different altitudes they are located at. While Bogota enjoys a chilly, autumn-in-NYC like weather all year round, Medellin is slightly warmer and Cartagena is a sunny, tropical coastal town. Dress and pack accordingly: for Cartagena, pack a hat, sun-glasses, (loads of) sunscreen and flowing dresses while Bogota calls for jeans and scarfs and sophisticated western wear.
6. Getting around in Colombia
Flights might be the best option for inter-city travel, especially when you have to cover so much in little time - and it is not expensive. Go to the local sites of LAN, Avianca or Copa for better deals.
Public transport, like anywhere else in the world, is the cheapest means to get around within a city. Medellin has a fantastic metro system and I recommend riding it at least once. Bogota's version of public transport, after many failed attempts at a metro, is the Transmilenio - a bus rapid transit. Quite efficient, this can be a little hard to figure out, but not impossible. Ask if you don't understand - the people are very helpful.
If you must take a cab, refrain from hailing it off the road. Download Easy Taxi or Tappsi - these apps are popular and a safer way to hail a cab.
7. Consider investing in a travel guide
Yes, even if you have done all your research. And this is mainly to keep track of all the trivia and history tidbits these guides offer, and not to follow a certain trail. I was blown away by how rich in history Colombia is and found that my travel guide was a good story teller.
8. It is not imperative to be fluent in Spanish to visit
I hardly know any Spanish and I had a blast! Not a lot of people speak English (especially in Medellin) but a fair amount of them do. People in Colombia are very helpful and most of them are patient enough to see you awkwardly act out words. Carry a piece of paper and pen if you must (this was handy for me when I had to ask around for Transmilenio route numbers in Bogota - the Transmilienio staff spoke no English).
I will recommend signing up to Babbel to learn a few basics before you go. Practice basic words that will help you get around.
9. Go with an appetite
There are plenty of international food options available in Colombia but please do try the local cuisine. Try the Ajiaco (a Bogota staple soup made with chicken, three varieties of potatoes, and Colombian herbs), Cazuela de Fríjoles (red bean stew), Arepa (a flatbread made of ground maize dough or cooked flour), Empanada ( a popular street food made by folding dough or bread with meat or cheese stuffing) and if you dare, Mondongo (soup made from diced tripe slow-cooked with vegetables).
For some guideance on what to eat, join a food tour, private gastronomic tour or beer tour.
10. Haggling is accepted
This is true for certain means of transportation like taxis off-the-road and (especially) street vendors. I bought a necklace from a street vendor for $10COP. He quoted $50COP to start with. Ha! Look out for them on the streets of Bogota and Parque Lleras in Medellin. And remember to definitely haggle when buying sombreros in Cartagena!
This should be good preliminary preparation. Colombia is a wonderful country and I highly recommend you plan your next vacation there. Oh, and don't forget to carry your camera!
While you can travel around Colombia on your own, if you're less adventurous and prefer to join a group then check out the G Adventures tours in Colombia.