Key Things to Know Before You Go to Colombia – South America   Recently updated !


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Officially the Republic of Colombia, this country of amazing Andean peaks, colonial Cartagena and the unspoiled Caribbean coast sees more than 3 million tourists visit Colombia each year.  It’s a huge change for the country that was once the murder capital of the world.  Colombian’s throughout this most northerly of South American countries are friendly and welcoming as the country increasingly tops the must visit destinations of the year.

No matter how friendly or easy to visit a country is, there’s always a list of things to do before you travel there.  Colombia is no exception.   So before you book your flight to Bogota, or take the boat from Panama to Cartagena, here’s our complete guide to what you need to do before you go to Colombia.

You can use our table of contents to navigate this article, or read through.  We’re tried to organize our Colombia travel advice in the order in which you’ll need it.

Check Entry Requirements for Colombia

Requirement number 1 before you go to Colombia.  Check to see if you need a visa to enter Colombia.  Closely followed by check to see how long you can remain in the country.   As British Citizens we can stay up to 90 days without a visa.  We always check with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  Here are some key links for what your entry requirements are for Colombia. (note you may need proof of onward travel).

Canada Entry Requirements for Colombia – no visa needed, but a reciprocity fee of CAD$95 is to be paid at immigration

  • USA Entry Requirements for Colombia –  no visa, 60 day stay allowed
  • UK Entry Requirements for Colombia – no visa, 90 day stay allowed
  • Germany Entry Requirements for Colombia – no visa, 90 day stay allowed
  • Netherlands Entry Requirements for Colombia  – no visa, 90 day stay allowed
  • Australia Entry Requirements for Colombia – no visa, 90 day stay allowed
  • New Zealand Entry Requirements for Colombia – no visa needed, 90 day stay allowed

Before I leave this section, you’ll also need to know where you are staying for at least your first night in the country.  No matter how or where you enter Colombia you’ll have to complete a customs form, which although different from immigration (where there are no forms), you will need to write down the address of your stay.  You may also be asked at immigration.  If you haven’t booked anything, find yourself a hotel here and book a cancellable room (although we prefer to book our first night in a country anyways!)



Booking.com

Colombia Proof of Onward Travel Required

Colombia is one of the countries that requires proof of onward travel.  It’s an increasing trend and it’s likely that if you’re flying in if you can’t prove that you have an onward travel ticket you won’t be allowed to board the plane.  This is because the airline is responsible for getting you out of the country again if you’re refused entry.  It’s recommended that you have an airline ticket out of the country. (This is the recommendation of the UK FCO, your country may differ).

We flew into Cartagena from Fort Lauderdale, clutching an onward flight receipt to Quito, Ecuador, but weren’t asked at either check in or immigration in Cartagena. (Here’s everything you need to know about arriving in Cartagena.)  That’s not to say you won’t be.    The easiest way to organize proof of onward travel is to book a flight with a carrier or supplier that lets you cancel within a certain period.  Expedia lets you do this.

We have more on providing proof of onward travel here, when we really don’t know when or how we want to leave a country.

Understand that Colombia is the Country.  Columbia is the federal district of Columbia (or DC) in the USA.

That’s right.  The name of the country that you’re visiting is Colombia.  Like the outdoor clothing company, but not like the US state of the similarl but differently spelled same name.  Get used to the spelling now.

Is Colombia Safe to Travel To?

Colombia is as safe to travel to as many other similar countries.  There are some areas that you should NOT travel to and these are not safe, however use the standard precautions that you take when travelling anywhere.

  • Know where you’re going before you leave for your destination
  • Use caution when taking money out of an ATM
  • Don’t flash valuables around
  • Don’t leave your cell phone/camera/wallet on a table
  • If you travel with a handbag (purse), daypack or bag tie it to the table or chair when you sit to eat or drink. Use waist straps on your daypack
  • Watch how the locals act in an area. If they carry their daypack on their front, do the same.
  • If you’re recommended to get a taxi at night then get a taxi.

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Sign up for Foreign Travel Advice for Colombia

Regardless of your home country, your government will provide advice for foreign travel.  In the UK we have the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the FCO.  If you sign up for notifications, and the government policy about a certain country or area changes, then you’ll get notified automatically by email.  Check out their advice.

Colombia_travel_advice_FCO

You’ll probably be the first to know if trouble breaks out around you, but the FCO are pretty good at letting you know if there’s anything else to be aware of and somewhere you should NOT be going to.

Colombia Foreign Travel Advice From Your Government

  • UK Government Advice on Travel to Colombia – the FCO > details here
  • US Government Advice on Travel to Colombia – the State Department > 
  • Australian Government Advice on Travel to Colombia – DFAT – the Smart Traveller > 
  • New Zealand Government Advice on Travel to Colombia > details here
  • European Union – EU Advice on Travel to Colombia – details here
  • Canada Government Advice on Travel to Colombia – details here

Whether you think this advice is over the top or not bear in mind that if your government says you shouldn’t be travelling in an area and you then go into it two things will happen.

  1. You’ll be bottom of the list for rescue and help from your government, if you even make it to the list at all. If things are REALLY serious, then the consulate staff may not even be in the country/area either!
  2. Your travel insurance will be null and void.

Get the RIGHT Travel Insurance for Colombia

Regardless of where you’re planning to travel to in Colombia, you need to take the right travel insurance.  If you’re leaving from your home country it’s pretty straightforward, but if you’re on a longer trip it may be more complicated.  There are only a handful of insurance companies that will allow you to take out a policy once you have left your home country or allow you to extend your policy once you’re away from home OR renew it while you’re away.  One of those is World Nomads > Get an insurance quote NOW.  READ THE SMALL PRINT.

We have had travel interrupted twice in two years, and two claims totalling around US$9000 – both of which were paid in full.  We can’t emphasise enough how important it is.  (Unless you’re seriously rich of course… in which case, you’re very welcome to adopt us…)

The insurance challenge with Colombia is altitude.  Bogota, the capital city sits at 2,640 metres above sea level.  Most travel insurance policies require an additional payment if you want to go for a hike or a walk at more than 1,000 metres.  We checked with several who said that spending time in the city would be covered, but heading out of the city would necessitate buying the higher altitude packages.

 

So make sure the travel insurance covers ALL your activities.  If you’re planning on hiking the famous Valle de Cocora (an easy hike) near Salento, then be aware it’s between 1,800 and 2,400 metres.  El Peñon, the stunning rock formation outside of Guatape, near Medellin is 2,135 metres above sea level.  So be sure to check the altitude!  Make sure that your company covers you at that altitude.  Or if they don’t, that you can extend the package that you have to somehow cover it.

You can buy, extend and claim online, even after you’ve left home. Travel insurance from WorldNomads.com is available to people from over 150 countries. It’s designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities.

Book Your First Night in the Country

What can I say, we’re cautious travellers, and we’ve been on the road since 2014 and our Spanish is ok, but we still choose to always book the first night in a country.  We do the research as to the areas in which we want to stay, we work out a short list of the accommodation we want to stay in, so we might as well book it Sometimes we’ll get a better rate if we just rock up somewhere, but that rarely happens on our first night in a country, which tends to be in either a major city or a border town.

Colombia is well travelled – and Booking, hostelworld and Airbnb are well used.  There are additional taxes to be paid on booking.com if there’s a Colombian in your group (19 %!!).

If you’re travelling in Colombia over Christmas Holidays, over New Year and into January or over Easter book well in advance.  Colombians themselves take holidays seriously and you’ll struggle to find accommodation if you don’t book.  Some locations, like Salento and Guatape are weekend locations for Colombians so again take this into account



Booking.com

What Should You Pack for Colombia

Your clothes packing list for Colombia depends on where you’re going.  If you’ve arrived into Cartagena, then you’ll be sweltering in 32 degrees with high humidity.  The temperature and humidity are the same for the Lost Cities hike (which is why we one of the reasons that we decided not to do it).

At 2,640 metres in the capital Bogota you may be a little cooler.  Even in Salento at 1900 metres, we need a fleece in the evening.  The climate changes fundamentally between different areas of Colombia and that includes the cities.

Work out your itinerary through Colombia and then figure out what you need to wear for your trip.   Layers always work well.

What about Electricity in Colombia?

Electricity in Colombia runs at 110 volts and Colombian electric sockets are two or three pronged.  You can use your US plugs or adapters here easily.

Buy or Take Sunscreen to Colombia

Its 32 degrees year round in Cartagena.  Bogota is at 2,640 metres above sea level.  Even if it’s not hot where you are you’re probably at altitude, where the sun is strong.  Cover up, slap on the sunscreen and take a decent pair of sunnies with you.

Health Concerns in Colombia and Malaria – Yellow Fever

Check with your government and healthcare advisor about the risk of both Malaria and Yellow Fever, as there are areas of the country that are higher risk for both diseases.

The UK’s NHS Fit for Travel advice on Malaria protection for Colombia is here

And remember just because you’re travelling in a non-malarial area doesn’t mean that there aren’t mosquitos.  If you’re prone to being bitten (like Sarah), then stock up on mosquito repellent.

Download WhatsApp to Use in Colombia

If you don’t already use WhatsApp then you’re going to want to download it.  WhatsApp lets you use data or Wi-Fi to send text messages, voice messages and share videos with groups of individuals. When you’re travelling away from home it’s a way to message without having to pay rates to message internationally.

It’s a useful tool for messaging – we’ve used it to communicate via message with restaurants, hotels and bus company providers, quickly and easily and over Wi-Fi networks when we don’t have a data connection.

We use WhatsApp to communicate with hotels and hostels that we are staying in, we’ve booked buses and also tables in restaurants too.

Download XE currency converter

While you’re downloading apps for travel to Colombia get yourself the XE currency converter app.  The Colombian Peso is one of the currencies you can track and work out how much or how little you’re paying for things.  Don’t forget to add the Colombian Peso (COP) currency to your app to track the exchange rate.  Even if you don’t have internet access XE will give you an idea of the exchange rate from your last internet connection.

Tell your bank that you’re going to Colombia

It’s easy to pay for accommodation on a card in Colombia, you’ll find lots of places to stay on booking.com or Airbnb.  It’s also easy to book flights and long distance buses using your credit card (be sure you have one that doesn’t charge an additional fee for foreign currency transactions though!)

We prefer to use cash when we buy bus tickets at the station.  We also mostly eat local (and small cafes and street vendors don’t usually accept cards!), so we ensure that we have the ability to get cash from ATM’s without additional fees.

Make sure you accept the charges from the ATM in local currency, to get a MUCH better exchange rate.  You’ll also want to shop around when it comes to ATM’s as most of the ATMs in Colombia charge a usage fee, which can be up to 12,000 COP per withdrawal.  Different Colombian ATMs also allow different amounts of cash to be withdrawn in each transaction.  Our recommendation is to use the Davidienda or BBVA ATMs which only smaller amounts per transaction, but which have no fees. Remember that although these banks might not charge fees your home bank may do so, so make sure you get an ATM card that doesn;t charge foreign ATM transaction fees.

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Download Maps.me and Colombia Maps

Maps.me is a great offline mapping tool.  Before you get to Colombia download the app and the relevant maps and you’ll always know where you are and where you’re going.

Maps.me is just one of the resources that we use when planning a Trip > you can check out where else we (and a host of other travellers) look when we’re trip planning.

If you don’t like maps.me, then offline Google maps are also a great resource.

Download Google Translate Spanish Dictionary

Unless you’re a native Spanish speaker we recommend you download the offline Spanish dictionary from Google Translate.   Even if it’s just to help over a difficult word, it’s a great resource to have at your disposal.

Try to Speak Spanish in Colombia

Although you can travel the country without speaking any Spanish, you should buy a Spanish phrasebook and learn a few key words.  Colombians are the friendliest of people.  You’ll get a hello if you stay in apartments every day from everyone.  You’ll get a buen provecho (good appetite/enjoy) when you’re going to start your meal.  You can do all of this in English if you want to, as Colombia is well established on the backpacker and travellers trail, but you’ll have so much more fun if you know at least a few words of Spanish.

There are a number of Spanish Schools throughout Colombia, where you can take a series of classes or just a top-up.  We recommend Hablea, located in both Medellin and Jardin.

We spent two months learning Spanish in Guatemala, have a daily dose of Duolingo and at least attempt everything in Spanish before we resort to English.

Booking and Using Transport in Colombia

This is a HUGE country.  HUGE.  There are long distances between the major cities, and even longer commutes between the smaller places, where the distance might be short, but the roads aren’t great, or there are, perhaps mountains in the way.

Flights in Colombia

It’s often cheaper to fly between Colombian destinations.  Check out the prices.  And ALWAYS when offered the option select your country as COLOMBIA (you’ll mostly likely get the option to pick the language as English) you’ll find the flights are much cheaper, even with major airline, Avianca.

Read what I just said again.  If you set the country s Colombia, then your flight will OFTEN be cheaper.  Up to 50% cheaper.  Country = Colombia and pay in Colombian Pesos.  Even if you’re booking the flight from the USA or Australia.

If you’re not able to select the country as Colombia, we suggest you open up a VPN (we recommend ExpressVPN), set your country as Colombia and see how you go.

Recommended airlines for Colombia

  • Avianca
  • Easyfly
  • Latam
  • JetBlue (in and out of the USA)

Flights will win over buses for time and if you’re taking an overnight bus you’re not going to see much (or get much sleep) anyways.   Rome 2 Rio is a great solution for a quick overview of how to get between places.  And never trust the suggested time that Google tells you it will take to get anywhere in Colombia.  Buses will stop, rest breaks will happen.  Wiggly mountain roads get in the way.  It does not take 5 minutes to go 5 km on a mountain road.  Ever.

Buses in Colombia

If you’re catching a bus, where you buy the ticket from the driver it’s possible to haggle, especially if he wants to go and he doesn’t have many folks on the bus.  Many, although not all, buses can be booked ahead of time through either redbus.co or busbud.com (depending on your route you’ll need to check both sites as they don’t carry the same operators).  If you can’t find routes bookable online, find out the bus company that runs it and check if they have a web page or a Facebook page.  It’s likely that they will accept a reservation over either WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger (where both of you can use Google Translate).  You’ll just need to turn up at the bus ticket office an hour (at least) before the departure time to confirm your ticket and pay.

As Colombia has been on the backpacker trail for a while, another option you have if you’re uncertain about a route, head to a hostel and you’ll often be able to book minibus travel to your next destination. or at least get the information that you need.

Colombian Taxis and Uber Colombia

Taxis are generally safe, but only metered in certain places (like Bogota and Medellin, but not in Cartagena or Santa Marta), so always agree a price before getting into the car. (Even at the airports)  Have your hotel/hostel/doorman at the apartment get you a taxi or make sure it’s a regulated one.  Uber is here and recommended but not strictly speaking legal here, so you’ll always want to sit in the front seat.

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Get ready with your ear plugs.  Colombia is LOUD

Seriously loud.  In bars, on buses, in general life.  If a review of a hotel or a hostel tells you its noisy, then don’t even contemplate (like we did) “well what’s the worst it could be?”  We stayed in the noisiest room we have not slept in during almost 5 years of being nomadic.  Without a doubt.  Bars, discos, partying goes on until 4am.  And then when your host returns with his buddies and they continue the party in the next room.  Ahem.  Two nights of no sleep and we were like the walking dead.  Book your rooms after carefully reading reviews.

Can you Drink Tap Water in Colombia

Tap water is safe to drink in the major cities of Colombia, so you’ll not see huge piles of bottled water in supermarkets.  You will see plenty of street vendors wanting to sell you a bottle of cold water in the tourist areas of Cartagena.  Always check the bottle lid is sealed.

That said, we always travel with filter water bottles (we seriously don’t want to contribute to the single use plastic issues the world has!) AND we always run water through our filter water bottles.  (A 6 week recovery from an upset stomach in Nepal will do that for you).  Here’s our review of the best filter water bottles you can buy.

Outside of the major cities and if you’re planning to hike you should do yourself and the environment a favour and get a filter water bottle.  That way you’ll be able to top up from any source and not add to the scourge of one use plastic bottles.   We save around US$425 a year by travelling with a filter water bottle.  When we’re in a location where the water is safe to drink we simply remove the filter and top up our bottles from the taps. (Even airports, where all cafes will top up your bottle from their taps).

Street Food in Colombia is Safe

Generally Colombian street food is safe to eat.  The fruit of Colombia is also safe, and so delicious to eat.  You’ll want to try mango with salt and lemon (so good) and avocado especially from Jardin.

Stock up on Hand Sanitizer

Eating street food?  Buying fruit?  Taking a bus journey where the food stops are greasy Empanadas?  You’re going to get icky sticky.  Your hands are probably dirty to start with as you’ve just got off a bus/been wandering around the city etc.  Do your digestive system a favour and wash up the best way you can.  Don’t get me wrong, so far, Colombia is pretty darned clean, but if you normally wash your hands before you eat at home, now is not the time to start bucking the trend!

Colombia Milk and Water comes in Bags

The reason you might not spot the milk or water in a supermarket is that a lot of it comes in bags.  There you go, look down for those bags that look like they’re washing powder.  In the Fridge.  Most places you stay will have a jug that you can store the milk in,

Toilet Paper in Colombia goes in the bin not the toilet

What can we say?  In Colombia toilet paper in the loo doesn’t work.  The pipes are old, they’re narrow and your paper will block it.   Unless your accommodation indicates otherwise, put the paper in the bin and save yourself a sh!t load of trouble.  You’ll probably also want to carry your own toilet paper if you’re taking long bus journeys and relying on bus toilets or roadside stops.

Many public and bus stop toilets will not have seats, so you’ll have to learn to squat / hover.

In Colombia carry ID at all times

Make a habit of carrying your ID with you at all times.  If you’re paying by card somewhere they’re likely to want ID, especially if it’s a big amount.  If you’re buying a bus ticket you may need ID.

If you’re not comfortable carrying your passport around with you all the time, leave it back at your hostel, hotel or apartment and get a laminated copy of the photo page.  If you’re asked for ID by an official, then you can always explain that you leave the original locked up for safety.

We utilise the PacSafe portable safe when we travel.  IT secures out laptops, passports, cash and other valuables.  It’s a wire mesh lined safe that we attach to something solid in our room, apartment or even a tree when we’re snorkelling.

Download and use a VPN in Colombia

We always travel with a Virtual Private Network (VPN).  We fire up our VPN when connecting to public Wi-Fi networks (even now as I write this in an apartment in Cartagena).  As well as securing my data between my laptop or phone and the website, stopping man in the middle attacks on my information is helps us save a bunch of money while we’re travelling.

There are no reports that the Colombian government blocks access to certain websites, like China or Turkey do, but we’ve found that cloaking our location helps us find cheaper flights.

As you’re likely to be connecting to the public Wi-Fi in the local parks, you’ll also want to fire up your VPN before you put any passwords, banking details or credit cards into whatever site you’re using.

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Finally, in Colombia you may be able to use your cell phone data from your package at home – BUT in the main these deals do NOT allow tethering.  SO you can only use the data on your cell phone, you can’t share it with your laptop or tablet – unless you have a VPN.  Using a VPN lets you tether successfully.

We recommend (and have used ExpressVPN for nearly 6 years – SUCCESSFULLY in China, Cuba, Turkmenistan, Turkey and more than 40 other countries – check out what we think is the BEST VPN for World Travel.  A VPN both secures your internet traffic and masks your location.  A VPN also makes it safer to input your credit card details and passports when you’re on public Wi-Fi networks.

Read how VPNs can help you save money in our Common Sense Guide to VPNS here – or get a VPN from US$8.32 a month with ExpressVPN.

Get ALL the Details of What a VPN Gives You

 

Wi-Fi in Colombia is good

Generally you’ll find internet access in Colombia to be very good.  Every hostel, hotel and apartment that you stay at will have it.  Mostly Colombian Wi-Fi will be good and reasonably fast.   Colombian coffee shops provide internet access.  There is also fast Wi-Fi access in many parks and public places in Colombia.

If you’re using these public Wi-Fi hotspots, you’ll receive a warning to NOT do any personal banking on these hotspots for reasons of security.  If you’re going to be relying on public Wi-Fi we seriously recommend using a VPN in Colombia.

Getting a local SIM in Colombia

If you feel the need to have a Colombian SIM card for internet access, then the Claro network is your best option.  There’s more and better coverage with Claro than the other providers, plus your SIM can also be used in adjacent South American Countries.  Pick up a SIM from airports or major shopping malls.  Be sure to get it registered otherwise it will time out after 30 days.  You can of course always just get another one.

We’re using our UK registered Three network sim card, which allows us to use our PAYGO allowances abroad for up to 2 consecutive months in a 12 month period in their supported countries (Colombia is one of the countries).  If we didn’t have this, we probably wouldn’t get a local SIM as Wi-Fi is ubiquitous.

Pick up an SD Card

You’re going to take a heap load of photos in Colombia.  So make sure you back them up.  There’s no need these days to carry around a heavy portable drive, just grab a few SD cards, back up to them and when you get to Wi-Fi upload your photos to the cloud.

Tipping in Colombia

It is not standard to tip in Colombia.  Unless you’re eating in higher end places, and in Cartagena, that appears to be anywhere that isn’t the street.  You’ll find a “propina” (tip) of 8-10% added to bills at cafes and restaurants – and you will want to go to some of them.  Head more local and that will disappear.

Your taxi driver will likely find himself a tip from you by not having any change or smaller notes.   Keep change handy, if you land at an airport either book a transfer (much more expensive), or head to an airport store and buy a bottle of water or some candy and get some smaller notes.

Colombians Are Seriously Friendly and Welcoming

In every place that we’ve visited people say hello.  From the folks in the elevator in our apartment outside the city in Cartagena, to people on the streets.   You’ll get a hello, a smile and welcome to Colombia.  They’re also seriously happy.  The folks at the Real City Tours in Medellin have a theory on this – and it’s that so much bad stuff has happened in the country, that now things are good, heck you might as well enjoy it.  And they do.  So enjoy your welcomes to Colombia!

 

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