I spent almost 4 weeks in Colombia during August-September of 2015. I visited Barranquilla, Bogota, Cali, Cartagena, Medellin, and Santa Marta. Some cities I visited twice, such as Bogota, Medellin, and Santa Marta. Spent most of my time, almost 2 weeks, in Medellin. Spent the least time in Barranquilla (1 day. Not much to see). I went by myself and met people along the way. I took planes between most cities and buses when I was on the coast.
Entering the Country
Entering from the US is quite easy. No need for a Visa or any vaccinations whatsoever. And it’s actually quite cheap to fly there. ~$250 for a round trip from BWI to Bogota if you buy it at the right time and willing to take a cheap airline like Spirit and sit economy. For me, price is my #1 concern, I’m willing to torture myself to save a few bucks. But that’s just me. Also you can take a boat from Panama to Cartagena which I am told is a great option. That is a 5 day trip but involves some cool excursions on the way. Hoping to do that next time.
I also entered Colombia from Costa Rica and also didn’t have any issues entering. I was pleasantly surprised they didn’t check for yellow fever vaccination.
Now the Tourist Visa is only valid for 6 months but all you have to do is leave the country for a day and then return for a new 6 month Visa.
Colombia uses Colombian Pesos exclusively. Can’t use your US dollars at all here. The conversion rate is constantly changing but when I was there, it was about 3K Colombian Pesos for 1 USD. The money is paper like the USD and they also have coins which you won’t use much.
My debit card only worked in the ATH machines, but if you have a debit card with a chip on it, it might work in more machines. Seemed like the ATH machines took the largest variety of cards. You will know it’s an ATH machine and not a regular ATM machine, because the machine will have a sign that says ATH on it. Simple enough. There were some fees for using the ATH but they were fairly insignificant. Just a couple bucks.
I was able to use my Visa and my Mastercard there without any problems. I used my Visa a lot actually since it has no currency conversion fees (Capital One Venture Card). If you are going to travel to Colombia or any country that doesn’t use USD, I’d recommend getting a card with no currency conversion fee. Should save you a good chunk of change.
Hostels are great for lone travelers like myself. There are some in every city I visited so finding one shouldn’t be hard. Medellin and Cartagena especially. I would recommend the Maloka Hostel in Medellin (I like that I can rent a basketball) and Media Luna in Cartagena. I’m sure there are plenty of other great ones but those were my favorites. The person at the front desk of the hostel will always speak english so that’s another plus.
Hotels are normally cheap but rarely do the employees speak English. Unless you are going to a hotel resort on the coast.
Airbnb is another option and for the most part the host will speak English. I used Airbnb in Medellin some nights and it was great.
I couch surfed one night at a friends place in Bogota. CouachSurfing.com I’m sure works in Colombia but I didn’t use it.
Taxis in Colombia are dirt cheap and relatively safe compared to other countries these days. Just make sure you get in actual registered cabs and not unregistered cabs. Though to be fair the best taxi I ever took in Colombia was an unregistered taxi in Medellin. Normally I wouldn’t have taken the ride but I met a native Colombian on the bus ride from the airport so we ended up sharing a taxi to Parque Lleras. She seemed fine with jumping in the unregistered taxi so I went along with it. The driver and I had some trouble finding and then getting into my Airbnb place in Medellin, but the driver stayed with me until I got in. He even called the Airbnb host to help negotiate with the security guard to let me in. Great guy. Taxi drivers in Colombia are for the most part a lot more friendly and helpful than any I’ve met in the States.
No need to tip taxi drivers unless they go above and beyond like the guy I mentioned above. At first I tried to tip all of my taxi drivers but eventually gave up because most wouldn’t accept the tip.
I used Uber the most and it’s quite prevalent in Bogota, Medellin, and Cali. Not as many drivers in Barranquilla it seemed. No other cities in Colombia have Uber. Worked just fine with my credit card from the states. I believe you will need a Colombian Simcard to use Uber though.
One annoying thing with the Uber drivers in Colombia is they always called me once I made a reservation. My Spanish isn’t strong to understand most of what they say over the phone, but a simple ‘Lo siento no hablo espanol’ will do and they will hang up and still come pick you up.
Uber English exists in some cities and those drivers speak English, but expect to pay a bit more. Overall UberX is competitively priced compared to ordinary taxis. So it’s worth it, considering it’s safer and you don’t need to deplete your cash reserves. Plus you get a free bottle of water out of it half the time.
Buses are another cheap option and a must when traveling on the coast. On the coast you can arrange bus transportation at your hostel. If not at a hostel just call Marsol Transport and they will pick you up wherever you are staying and take you to Cartegena, Barranquilla, or Santa Marta.
You should also take a bus to/from the Medellin airport to/from the city. It is a lot cheaper than a taxi. Only bad thing about Medellin is the airport is so far from the city! Another option to go to/from the airport is a shared taxi where they cram 4 people in a taxi and it’s around the same price of a bus.
There are buses that can take you from any city to another, but I wouldn’t recommend them except on the coast. Better to fly when in the center of the county. National flights are about the same price as a bus ride and take 1/10th of the time at least.
Medellin has a really nice metro system. It’s 2,000 pesos for a one way ticket (~0.66 USD) and the metro covers all of Medellin’s best areas. The trains are very clean, 10x nicer than the trains I’m used to on the DC metro. I rode a few times but since taxis are so cheap, I can see why many people might just skip the metro. Also it gets packed at peak hours.
There is a bikeshare in Medellin. Never tried it but it’s an option.
Flights from one city to another are very cheap. I paid $50 for Avianca flights out of Bogota, Medellin, and Cali. VivaColombia is a cheaper option but frequently those flights are delayed or canceled (Had a flight from Bogota to Medellin canceled on me). If they do cancel they book you an Avianca flight later in the day or the next day so if you aren’t in a hurry I think VivaColombia is actually the best option. If you want to save some money that is. Not uncommon to get a $30 flight on VivaColombia.
If you choose VivaColombia, don’t be alarmed if your ticket doesn’t have a seat number on it. There are no assigned seats, it’s a free for all.
Spanish is obviously the native tongue and very few Colombians speak decent English. But most do want to learn/practice their English so they will admire your proficiency with the English language. Made me realize how lucky I am to be a native English speaker.
Airbnb hosts and employees working the front desks of hostels will speak English. Tour guides will speak sufficient English as well. Pretty much anywhere you go in the world, English is the language of tourism.
Uber English exists but the service is a little spotty. Be prepared to wait a while for one to be available.
Overall, to enjoy Colombia to it’s fullest, you really should speak some Spanish. But I think you can survive armed with just basic Spanish and a Spanish/English dictionary.
It’s the rainforest so there is a lot of rain, just about everywhere in Colombia. The temperature ranges from chilly to very hot. Bogota is chilly, Cali is hot, and Medellin is perfectly in the middle (the City of Eternal Spring). Cartegena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta are hot as an oven. So pack accordingly.
I wasn’t a big fan of Colombian food, but I can’t say I gave it a fair shot. I will say their take on cerviche is quite good.
I missed the food from back home and luckily Colombia didn’t disappoint in it’s offerings of “American” style food. I had some of the best pizza I’ve ever had in Colombia and some good burgers. Not hard to find franchises from the States either. Dominos, McDonalds, Subway, TGI Fridays… the list goes on.
Also the food is incredibly cheap. Not in quality but price. You won’t save money eating at Dominos, McDonalds, or other US franchises but everywhere else is about 1/3 to 1/4 of the price I’d pay back home in the States.
One thing I couldn’t find was good milk. I still don’t have an answer as to why milk in Latin America is stored in bags and boxes, is on the shelves, and tastes horrible (well it tastes different than the milk from the States). I longed for a good tasting cold gallon of milk while in Colombia to say the least.
Colombia is a relatively safe country. Don’t listen to anyone that tells you otherwise. Sure there are some bad areas, just like any city in the world, but you would never go there. I was by myself most of the time and never felt in danger.
That being said, always be aware of your surroundings and don’t carry too much with you if you can help it. Don’t wear jewelry and don’t have your phone out at all times taking pictures. Follow that advice and you’ll be perfectly fine.
I got a prepaid (prepago) Claro Simcard for 5,000 pesos (couple bucks), put it in my spare Nexus 5, and added a month’s worth of data for about 30,000 pesos or so (10 bucks). Don’t bother with text messages, everyone uses WhatsApp in Colombia. But buying some minutes wouldn’t hurt. But in Colombia, you only use your minutes if you call someone. If they call you, your minutes aren’t used. Data is 3G, 4G isn’t quite available yet.
A lot of places have WiFi. Hostels WiFi is notoriously shoddy. Airbnb WiFi is typically solid and hotel WiFi is normally sufficient. I would imagine if you lived there you could get a pretty solid Internet connection.
Traveling alone? Fear not! Hostels are great ways to meet people (You will be sharing bunks with people after all). They will be travelers just like you from all over the world. Often traveling alone just like you!
If you want to meet some natives, especially those of the gender you are attracted to, the typical dating sites are another great option. Tinder, PoF, and OKCupid are used by Colombians, especially Tinder.
There are some stunning beaches in Colombia, but all require some effort to get to. I’m talking about Isla De Baru and the beaches in Parque Tayrona. It’s not like Cancun where you have a long stretch of picture perfect beaches with hotels/resorts right there. Yeah there are beaches in Cartegena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta but you don’t want to go to those. Though I found the beach at Taganga to be surprisingly pleasant with clear water.
I didn’t surf in Colombia but I’m told there are some good spots. Again, they take some effort to get to.
Things to Do
Short list of things you must do Colombia:
- Party in Parque Lleras in Medellin.
- See the Walled City of Cartegena.
- Do bike tours in Bogota and Medellin (Do the walking tours if you don’t want to or can’t bike).
- Visit Tayrona Park.
- Dance Salsa in either Cali or Cartagena.
There is an exit tax in Colombia but it is added to your plane tickets so don’t worry about it.
If you bought anything like clothes or electronics in Colombia, you can get money back on the taxes you paid at the airport. This is what I’m told. I lost my receipts so I wasn’t able to do this. Keep your receipts!!!
Other than that, nothing to note on leaving Colombia. Immigration is a breeze to get through.
Colombia appears to be an up and coming country. It has just about everything. A bustling city in Medellin, full of innovation, commerce and nightlife, beautiful people everywhere, and a few stunning beaches to boot. Not to mention it’s shockingly cheap for the US traveler. Definitely recommended.