21 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Colombia
Colombia is a South American country with such rich diversity that instead of our planned one month visit we stayed here much longer. An interest in traveling to Colombia grows every year, so we want to share with you 21 essential things you should know before visiting this beautiful country.
# 1 Watch your steps
We've never stumbled that many times when walking on streets as in Colombia. Some parts of the pavement are very often missing, and all of sudden, there is just a hole so watch your steps, especially in bigger cities.
Cities are not wheelchair and stroller friendly, because usually, you must surmount a big step when you want to get from the road to the pavement. Also, do not expect that you will be given priority when crossing the street, always look around.
READ MORE: Cartagena: The Crown Jewel of Colombia
# 2 Colombia Safety
The association with drug cartels and violence slowly disappears, however, we were a bit concerned before our travels to Colombia. It was the first country in South America we've visited, and some of the articles made us feel uneasy.
Fortunately, our fears did not fulfill. In all countries around the world it is useful to know that some parts are better to avoid, but when you use your common sense, you travel with someone, follow mostly the backpacker's trail, don't wear shiny jewelry and don't walk lightheaded after dark, you should be fine.
You should always watch your belongings (once in Bogota I left my phone in a jacket I had around the waist and was a victim of a sneak robbery immediately), especially in crowded places and on public transport. Always have your backpack with you, don't store all valuables in one place and in case of robbery, pass everything over without resistance.
Because we take lots of photos during our travels, it is impossible to keep the camera in the backpack all the time. We usually take a smaller mirrorless camera when going to the city and use the larger one when we travel in the countryside. Also, when Martin takes photos, I try to be around, stay cautious and pay attention to his surroundings (however silly it can sound).
# 3 Forget Your diet for a while
Colombian food is hearty and filling. In a nutshell, especially at the beginning, we felt a bit desperate and it was hard to adapt to this change as this food was completely different from our usual eating habits.
Everything we found was fried, not fresh, without herbs or too sweet, not exactly what we usually eat. Also, not everytime when we travel, we can allow spending lots of time looking for a restaurant, that's why we very often ended up with food we didn't like.
After some time, the situation improved. We learned some words in Spanish, always in restaurants looked for menu del dia which consists of soup, the main course with meat, salad, and juice (for about COP 10 000) and for dinner, we usually cooked something on own. Later, we discover some really nice restaurants and generally, after we traveled more south of Medellin, the situation improved and we looked forward to eating again.
The street food usually consists of empanadas (fried pastry with meat and potato filling) which we usually bought when traveling all day on the bus and arepas (dough made of maize), which we found particularly ugly.
READ MORE: Colombia: The Perfect 4 Weeks Itinerary
#4 Fruit is delicious
Although we found food in Colombia a little bit dull, we must say, that fruit is incredibly delicious. We got addicted to papaya and pineapple, which became every day must, but also tried native fruits such as guanabana, guava, lulo, tomato del arbol and many more.
# 5 Learn some Spanish before you go
English is not widely spoken in Colombia. To be honest, we were surprised that literally, no one speaks English, not even in the tourism industry.
After a few days when we had a problem to order in the restaurant, we decided that it is necessary to learn some basic Spanish. We recommend you to have at least a translator on your phone ready, otherwise, you won't be able to get any help.
READ MORE: San Agustin: Colombian Archeological Wonder
# 6 Colombians are very friendly and helpful
Hadn't we have the language barrier, we could've enjoyed their hospitality much more. Colombians are very friendly and helpful when you ask for any information or advice, and when they don't know the answer, they will surely find a friend around who can solve your troubles. If you have a problem or don't know your directions, they will do their best to help you out.
# 7 It is not a cheap country (as it probably used to be)
Colombia is not that cheap when it comes to traveling. Don't expect similar prices as in Southeast Asia for sure. Bus tickets are pretty expensive and although the food and accommodation are slightly cheaper than in Europe, traveling in Colombia cost us more than we expected.
# 8 Public transport is slow
When traveling by bus, be prepared, that the journey will be more than slow. Our average travel speed was 40 km/h. The distance you are able to cover per day is limited, so don't forget to plan your itinerary accordingly.
READ MORE: Crossing The Border: Colombia to Ecuador
# 9 Weekends and holidays get busy
Colombians love to travel, especially in large groups. It seems that every weekend they decide to take all their family and friends for a trip. Try to avoid long weekends and if you travel on Saturday or Sunday, book in advance.
# 10 Sugar is everywhere
First words we learned in Spanish were sin azucar. We found everything in Colombia too sweet, to be honest. From a classic bread to white yogurt, be sure that sugar is in it.
We had to make an effort while shopping and look for exceptions, which took us quite a lot of time.
READ MORE: 10 Best Places to Visit in Colombia
# 11 Colombia is a diverse country, and we can guarantee that you will enjoy it
We have never believed we would enjoy traveling in Colombia that much. The country is incredibly diverse as you can find here the ocean, mountain peaks over 5000 meters high, deserts, colonial cities and much more. Generally speaking, Colombia is a destination for everyone.
# 12 Hot water doesn't mean hot in the true sense of the term
Does your accommodation advertise a hot shower? Let's say that hot shower in Colombia means rather a tepid water. It was a real treat when we found a place with warm water as it happened very sporadically.
# 13 Police and soldiers are everywhere
There is still a strong police presence in Colombia. You can see policemen and soldiers everywhere around, and it takes time to get used to the fact, that they are not here because something is going on, but they are on the streets to make sure that no issues will arise.
# 14 Netflix TV series Narcos
Have you seen the TV series Narcos from Netflix and did you like it? Fine, but keep it for yourself when traveling in Colombia.
Drugs are still very sensitive topic here in Colombia for understandable reasons, and locals have a feeling that the show doesn't depict the reality correctly, and also they don't want Colombia to be seen as a drug country again, so do not provoke.
# 15 Haggling
You probably can try to haggle in Colombia, there are some places such as market (for example in Medellin), where it is even expected, but to be honest, we didn't have the need. Unlike in Southeast Asia, we never felt overcharged, and many times we saw that locals pay the same price as we do.
For us, it was a nice change not to bargain all the time.
# 16 Bags of water
You can buy water in big plastic bags, and although it is not the most practical thing, it helps you to save some money as it is cheaper than bottled water. We did the same before going to Tatacoa Desert. Click on the link below to read our story.
READ MORE: Tatacoa Red Desert Hike, Colombia
# 17 Cult of beauty
You might notice that Colombian girls are very often well-positioned when it comes to the world beauty competitions.
When in Colombia, we could see that the cult of beauty here is really strong and everyone, guys included, care about their appearance, maybe too much if you ask. An obvious trend is to wear braces in every age to have straight teeth, and it also seems that plastic surgery is a real thing here.
# 18 Coffee
Where else to drink coffee than in Colombia, the country with one of the world's largest productions? Colombians usually drink coffee called tinto, a small, cheap and sweet cup you can buy along the road. Tinto is the second quality coffee, as the most of the premium quality is exported (it is too expensive for locals).
To get the first quality coffee, go to coffee shops and ask for it or as we did, visit an organic coffee farm. Not only we could see how hard it is to get a tasty cup of coffee on customers' table, but also we could taste the best coffee we've ever had.
READ MORE: 5 Best Things to Do in Salento, Colombia
# 19 Colombians are very polite
Even in informal everyday conversation, Colombians talk very politely, and instead of using simple sentences, they always say extra thousand words. Although it is nice, it always made it to us much harder to understand the real point.
# 20 Taxis
Generally, it is safe to use a taxi. It is always better to ask in the hotel or in the restaurant to call a radio taxi for you.
We never had a problem with yellow taxis, they always brought us to our destination safely and asked for a reasonable amount. You can use Uber in bigger cities, only note that Uber in Colombia is illegal, so it is always better to sit in the front next to the drivers so it looks like he is giving a ride to a friend, and not to a customer.
# 21 Cash is a king
You won't buy much with your credit card in Colombia. You can use it in some shops (Exito) and better quality hotels, but cash has always a priority.
The highest value bill is COP 50 000, and the highest amount we were able to withdraw, was COP 780 000. If you see garish green ATM with black Servibanca sign, that's the one you are looking for!
Here you can find links to all the services you might find useful when planning your big trip.
When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
Going on a road trip is fun, and rental car is a great way to explore the country.
WHAT TO PACK FOR TRAVELING IN COLOMBIA
We've created an ultimate packing list for South America, but here are five essential things you should pack with you for Colombia.
GoPro | Colombia is a country where you can try many outdoor activities, so we would opt for an adventure camera to capture all your memories without being worried to break it.
Sunscreen | Sun protection is necessary in every country in South America.
TRAVEL INSURANCE - SIMPLE & FLEXIBLE
We never leave our home without travel insurance which is designed to help cover your expenses if something goes wrong on your trip. World Nomads Travel Insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers, to cover your trip essentials.
Travel smarter and safer!