We spent a month or so in Colombia, spending time in a wide variety of places, environments and cities. From Capurgana on the Caribbean coast, to Bogota and finally to Leticia in the heart of the Amazon. Along the way, we inevitably learnt a few things that might come in handy if you’re travelling to Colombia for the first time.
1. It’s Safe
Colombia still has a reputation for being unsafe, a heritage of its chequered history of guerrilla warfare, vigilantes and one Pablo Escobar. The reputation now, though, could not be less deserved. The people are amazingly friendly (we really can’t state that enough – it was truly staggering), the cities obviously have parts you shouldn’t go wandering around at night, which goes for any city anywhere in the world, but for the most part are lively, busy, safe and rife with interesting museums, walking tours, amazing street art and great food, and the countryside is among the most beautiful and varied in the world. There’s really no good reason not to visit.
2. Internal flights
Flights internally in Colombia are really cheap, or at least, compared with the rest of South America they are. There seem to only be a few airlines, the best of which is LATAM, closely followed by Avianca and Viva Colombia. Things to know though – Viva Colombia is cheaper, but you have to pay extra for your baggage, so it, more or less, balances out with the others. LATAM have this weird and very easily avoidable thing on their website, where if you try and switch the site to English and/or GBP you’ll pay ludicrously over the odds. Leave it in Spanish and COP and use Google Translate. As an example, when we left it in Spanish and COP, our flights from Bogota to Leticia were £77 total, for the both of us. Switch it to English and GBP and mysteriously it’s £115 per person. Seems pretty outrageous to me. Brush up on your Spanish!
We never had any problems with them, but of course, you hear horror stories. Thankfully, the sharing economy has well and truly come to Colombia and there are two very good Uber-esque apps available (don’t use Uber itself – it’s great, but you’ll get stung with massive transaction fees, which are probably more than the value of your actual journey) – Tappsi and Easy Taxi. They’re great, and you can pay in cash at the end of the journey. Although you might end up having to direct your driver, as they don’t seem too clued up on locations, despite you having provided one… Failing that, ensure you’re on the meter and have a vague idea of where you’re going to avoid scamming. Google Maps Offline Areas or Maps.ME are very handy for this. Oh and you’ll need to provide the driver with the last two numbers of your phone number, upon getting in the taxi. That really confused us the first time.
No, not those drugs. Should you have the misfortune to fall ill in Colombia, you can buy pretty much anything over the counter. Unfortunately it happened to Antie, and after some long distance telediagnosis (don’t just randomly buy prescription drugs, duh…) and a recommendation from medical family members we were able to buy, very cheaply, some fairly serious antibiotics and resolve the issue. Use your brain though, if you’re not sure and don’t have someone you can ring for a pretty reliable telediagnosis, go and see a doctor, don’t Google it!
5. Street Food
We initially avoided the street food (sorry Colombia, it’s a hang up from travelling Asia!), but fairly swiftly realised it’s cheap, tasty, safe and a brilliant insight into the Colombian cuisine. Try mazorka, which is a crazy over the top pile of meat and cheese, panobono (yucca and cheese bread – super tasty), obleas, empanadas and really anything else that you’ve seen around. Try and make sure it’s freshly cooked, or at least hot (street food rule number 1) and you will not be disappointed!
6. Talk to People!
We’ve been blown away by how friendly the Colombians are. Just a smile to someone on the street is enough to get them talking and singing their country’s praises, telling you about all the beautiful places you have to go and the delicious food you must eat. It’s a cliche, but they really, genuinely are the friendliest people I think we’ve ever met while travelling. Even the most rudimentary Spanish is enough to get by (trust us…) and combine that with a bit of Google Translate offline dictionary and you’ll manage to have, pretty much an entire conversation.
7. Regional Differences
Like most countries, Colombia is divided into different regions, but what’s different here is that owing to a fairly chequered history and limited internal travel, each one has a fiercely proud tradition and identity, culture, music and food. Try and find out what the region’s specialities are, e.g. Medellin and Antioca is the area of the paisas, which means bandeja paisa, arepa con huevo and a whole host of other specialities. Bogota means ajiaca (a delicious and filling soup of chicken, potato and corn) and chocolate completo (hot chocolate with cheese in it – yup, for real). There are many more, so get searching!
8. It’s Not All Hot
Depending on where you arrive in Colombia, you’ll experience a range of temperatures and weathers. We arrived from Panama, into Capurgana, which is the Caribbean coast and so has the soaring temperatures, humidity and beautiful beaches to go with it. But, if you fly into Bogota, be prepared for the fact that it’s up at nearly 3000m and as such is cool. It’s not cold (although the Colombians will tell you otherwise), but the average temperature is in the mid to high teens. Similarly, the eje cafetero region, around Pereira, Guatape and Salento, is high, cool and foggy. So bring your raincoat and some layers – if you’re a Brit, this should be second nature, but we assume things are different abroad, so sometimes get caught unawares.
9. The long distance buses are cold
Really cold. I totally underestimated this, being British and pretty warm-blooded, but seriously, the air conditioning is cranked to an obscene and really pretty unreasonable level. Quite why I’m not sure. Anyway, wear long trousers, have a jumper to hand and you’d be well advised to extract your sleeping bag, or a blanket if, for some reason, you have one with you. Also, there’s a really handy app called Busbud, which lets you buy your tickets in advance for longer journeys, so you don’t have to go running around the bus terminal trying to check prices, etc… You’ll probably need to get your tickets printed though.
10. Walking Tours
Most of the cities we visited (Cartagena, Medellin and Bogota) had great, free walking tours dedicated to either the city’s history, or the street art scene. Bogota particularly has a fantastic street art tour, owing to its extremely relaxed stance towards the art. Your hostel will almost certainly be able to point you in the right direction, but most are a quick Google away if that fails. They’re usually run by a local, or someone who really knows the city, speaks good English and is passionate about the subject. They’re also a brilliant way to learn a bit more about the city, orientate yourself and maybe even try some of the local food highlights.