16 May 14 Things to Know Before Traveling to Colombia (Plus Video)

We are Dorene and Troy, an Ex-Marketing Executive and TV Editor couple from Canada. We’re redefining our mid-life by lifestyle redesign and full-time transformative travel. We help people who feel stuck and uninspired to make meaningful, conscious change in their life, work and travel at Travel Life Experiences. We were lucky to spend a few days with Jedd and Michelle in Medellín this year, and share some of what we love about this country.

We’ve fallen in love with Colombia. After living and traveling in this country for several months the last two years, we can’t help but share with you what we’ve seen here in this video.

We would do Colombia a disservice if we didn’t share what we learned about traveling in Colombia. There are many misconceptions about this country and here are some tips to get you prepared for your travels.

Our Top Tips and Insights to make your travel experience more meaningful:

1. It’s Colombia, not Columbia

The name of this country is spelled incorrectly all the time. It’s a major pet peeve for Colombians. I recently explained to a Colombian friend that we have a province in Canada called British Columbia and a very large travel brand in the United States that is called Columbia, so it was no wonder there was some confusion, but it was explained to me as getting your own first name spelled wrong every time. To alleviate this error, there is a brand called “It’s Colombia, not Columbia” dedicated to communicating this spelling error. It’s no wonder why it’s a favorite brand, and a subtle nudge to correct any guest that doesn’t know the difference.

2. Colombians are some of the friendliest, most welcoming to visitors to their country.

We can definitely say the Colombians are hands down some of the happiest, warm and welcoming people we have met in our 20 years of travel, and this is consistent across the country. It’s partly cultural and their approach living, and for many years they claimed top country for the happiest people in the world report, even though they lived through over 50+ years of war. During your visit, it won’t take long to be greeted with warm smiles and salutations when you visit and be prepared for a greeting from total strangers walking down the street. This is one of the many things to appreciate about Colombians.

3. Stop reinforcing perceptions of Pablo Escobar, Cocaine, and Violence. There are so many positive aspects to Colombia.

Television shows like ‘Narcos’ might be your kind of entertainment, but they reinforce the dark past instead of the good about Colombia. Colombians want to move away from these perceptions and move toward transformation, optimism, and peace. In fact, the signing of the historic peace treaty in November 2016, is a clear indicator that peace is its priority. Colombians will be quick to inform you of the many good parts of their country such as its biodiversity, national parks, ocean coastlines, festivals, music, and art.

4. Colombia is safe to travel, even despite the significant police presence.

There is a significant police presence throughout Colombia, usually at every mall, major attraction, recreation centers, parks, Metro and bus stations. It may seem rather confronting at first but they are present to avoid issues not because there are issues. There is over 1 million military in Colombia and many police officers in the country; it’s no wonder given what Colombia has gone through the last 52 years. Our views of new reports in the 90’s will definitely paint a bleak view of crime in Colombia, but it has changed, and there is evidence of this wherever you go. Like any country, it is important to know where you should go and where you shouldn’t. We’ve spent considerable time in this country the last 3 years and we have not faced any issues. However, like any country, taking regular precautions is wise, its an unfamiliar country and safe keeping your valuables and walking with someone at night are wise steps to follow anywhere.

Police presence is everywhere

5. Colombians are helpful and forgiving when it comes to practicing the Spanish language.

Colombians are very patient and forgiving when travelers attempt Spanish, and better yet, they are more than willing to help. And at times, they downright go out of their way to assist you if you need help with communication. I’ve had numerous interactions, where a person walking nearby drops into my conversation to help me out with my Spanish, and they are very open to talking slower if you ask. Colombia is one country that takes the intimidation out of learning Spanish.

6. Colombia’s climate can be very different wherever you travel.

Be prepared to experience any kind of weather if you plan to travel throughout Colombia. From the high altitude cooler climate in the mountains of Bogotá, extreme heat in Cartagena and Santa Marta, to spring-like temperatures in Medellín and Bucaramanga. During our first visit here, we didn’t plan for the cool nights in Bogotá, nor the frequent rains in May, so be prepared to dress in layers.

7. Understanding the Currency and Credit Cards

Cash is king in Colombia even in large chain retailers and rarely is USD accepted. The denominations of the Colombian Peso (COP) is in thousands or “mil” in Spanish. Notes come in 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000, with coins in 50, 100, 200, 500, or 1,000. Often, the ‘000’s are dropped in verbal communication and referred to as “5 mil” for 5000 COP$. It is confusing at first, but it does allow for practice in large numbers in Spanish. ATMs are widely available where ever you go. Credit cards are not widely used, and they may charge you the 5% credit card fee. During a transaction, you may be asked, “Cuantos cuotas?” This inquiry is asking if you want to pay in installments. For one standard payment, as you would pay back home, and you would indicate one cuota.

8. How Tipping works in Colombia

Tipping is customary in Colombia and it is definitely appreciated. At the end of your service, you will be asked if you want “propina voluntaria or servicio”, which is if you want to leave off a tip or include a 10% tip on the bill. Please consider tipping in Colombia for all services (Taxis are exempt) they are greatly appreciated and the hourly wage here is very low. There is also a unique phenomenon here known as reverse tipping or the “ñapa” or bonus. Sometimes you get a little extra of something at no charge especially if you are a regular customer. For example, if you are at a juice bar, and there is still juice left in the blender, often you will get the rest of the juice. What a pleasant surprise to get a bonus!

9. Colombian food is not on any list of top international cuisine, but you might be surprised and delighted by it.

Colombian food can best be described in western terms as comfort food: hearty, filling and rich. We highly recommend going on a food tour, like this one, or getting a local to introduce you to the popular dishes. There are a lot of fried fast foods, but there are also excellent meals. Notable foods we loved in Colombia were Ajiaco, Sancocho, Empanadas, Patacones, Arepas con Huevo and the delicious Limonada de Coco beverage. The cuisine is worth some exploration.

The hearty dish of Bandeja Paisa – in Medellín

10. Fruit is the passion of the country, and you will understand why.

Fruit is an essential part of the diet here, and you must visit the fresh fruit markets and small shops to get the best price and supply. Juices are the staple drink for meals and also readily available is the “salpicón’’ the perfect marriage between a fruit salad and a smoothie. Many of the fruits are not found in other countries. Our particular favorites were Guanábana, Lulo, La uchuva, Granadillas, Maracuyá (Passion Fruit), Tomate de árbol (Tree tomato), and Pitahayas (Dragon fruit). The quality of the fruit is incredible including the sweet Pineapple and Papaya, which melts in your mouth. It is the gold standard for fruit especially for us North Americans who don’t get fresh tropical fruits in our own backyard.

Colombia’s abundant fruit markets, this one is Minorista Market in Medellín.

11. Colombia is not easy for vegetarians.

Fried pork, fried chicken, and arepas are mainstays often served with every meal. Although there are vegetarian restaurants in larger centers, it’s hard to get past the quantity and price of Colombian high carb and meat dishes and snacks. There are options like rice, beans, vegetables (best to source in markets) and, of course, fruits. Often, if you mention that you are a vegetarian, they will assume that chicken or fish is acceptable for you. Just be prepared as you will need to make some modifications to your meal. In bigger cities like Bogotá, Cartagena, and Medellín, international cuisine is growing, and there are a variety of vegetarian restaurants and international options.

12. Don’t slam the car door!

When you get into a cab, you will notice how light and thin the doors are, so taxi drivers will often warn you not to slam the door, and get very upset if you do. Foreigners have a reputation of slamming car doors in this country; perhaps it is because we are used to large, sturdy and heavy doors on our own vehicles that require a forceful push. Watch if you notice this action!

13. There are lots of options for reasonably priced transit.

Take advantage of transit when you come to Colombia it is affordable, decent and in our view, the best way to see a city and the rest of the country. Often, there are no posted schedules, so you do have to ask. Be prepared to keep bills smaller than 10,000 pesos so you can get the correct change. The Medellín Metro (trains and cable cars) are the best in the country, and you can even download the schedule app. Bogotá has an extensive bus system, with their service called TransMilenio. Although rush hour is a nightmare there, plan your trip accordingly. Cabs are very reasonably priced in all cities, and they are metered to manage a consistent cost for the ride. There are other great taxi apps here, like Tappsi and Easy Taxi, to organize your trip. Even Uber is running in all major cities here.

 

14. Domestic travel is excellent.

Flights across the country are low-cost like discount airlines like VivaColombia, and often Avianca has comparable prices (and they don’t charge for all the incremental discount airline fees like Viva Colombia). Bus transit is still a great option, although travel in the country is slow with long, winding roads through the mountains. The bus system consists of comfortable western-style buses with bathrooms for longer destinations. Be prepared for loud Colombian music playing during your ride, and bring a warm shirt as the A/C may be blasting! We’ve used bus services such as Rapidochoa and ExpresoBrasilia. They are excellent services with detailed schedules on their websites. Please note that in some cases bus and airlines will not take foreign credit cards, so you have to book in person and pay with cash.

Travel Colombia

We hope these tips have helped you plan your travels to Colombia and answered some of your concerns. We hope you love Colombia as much as we do.

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