When you’re planning a trip, it’s always hard to know where to start. You want to book your flights, in order to book your accommodation, but how do you know which cities to visit and for how long? What’s the best season to visit, and when will the flights be a good price? Personally, I only had a few weeks off work, and I had to coordinate with 2 people coming from other countries as well. We also wanted to go somewhere during Christmas, which reduced our options considerably. However, we had an amazing time, and I’m so glad we chose Colombia as our destination! I can’t answer all those questions for you, because it’s very personal. But I can give you ten tips that you should be aware of when you’re travelling to Colombia!
1) Get a Sim Card – You used to be able to travel anywhere without technology. While you technically still can, having access to internet on the go is extremely helpful. For less than $15 at the airport, I saw able to get a SIM card, 1GB of data, and some small amount of credit for calls/texts. It did take about half an hour at the airport to get everything set up on two different phones, but totally worth it for the two-week trip. It let us check the hours of museums, know which bus routes to take, check out TripAdvisor for nearby restaurants, use translation apps, and order Uber to take us home. Especially recommended if you don’t speak the language.
2) Take out some money at the airport – While I normally try to get some currency before I even leave my home country, that wasn’t an option this time. However, I did know that I would probably need money for things like snacks at the airport, a SIM card for my phone, and a taxi to our hotel. Therefore, one of the first things I did after our plane landed was find an ATM. I used my Canadian debit card to take out cash in the local currency. I recommend having an idea of the exchange rate before you go so you have an idea what something might cost. ATMs usually charge a fee, and your bank may also charge a fee, but I don’t find it’s much different from a fee that would be charged at any exchange place anyway. I also recommend taking out the maximum allowed so you don’t have to pay the fees many times. The max is usually only about $300, so it’s not like you’ll be carrying around millions of dollars and feel unsafe. Many places only take cash (like small corner stores, drink vendors on the beach, etc.) so you will need to have some on hand. Just make sure to tell your bank before you leave, and use your debit card instead of your credit card (because credit will charge you interest from the first day, like a cash advance).
3) Figure out which areas are safe – We actually felt really safe in Colombia. I know a lot of people worry about the country, thinking that it’s full of gangs and drug trafficking, but it has really cleaned up in the last couple of years. There are certain areas I wouldn’t want to walk alone at midnight as a woman, but I could say the same about most countries to be honest. If you’re worried, I would recommend looking up each city before you arrive. You can find comprehensive lists of which places are okay, and which to avoid at certain times of day. For example, here’s one I found from a quick Google search of Medellin: No-Go Areas in Medellin. *However, I recommend taking any safety advice with a grain of salt. The above guide says that the escalators in Comuna 13 “aren’t a tourist destination” and that it’s unsafe to go there. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in that area (during the day) and would highly recommend it to others. But people have told us that just 3 years ago it was very obviously unsafe. Trust your gut and only go where you feel comfortable. If you start to feel risky, turn around or take a cab the rest of the way.
4) Visit a few museums – In some countries, museums can be really boring or expensive. However, in Colombia they’re trying to attract lots of visitors, so the prices are super reasonable. Often, the museums only charge about $2-3 and they’re world class quality. The Gold Museum in Bogota is especially popular, and quite interesting. Although they do have similar gold museums in Bolivia, I found the one in Bogota to be much larger, with better quality artifacts, and interesting information provided too. The Botero museum in Bogota is also a must-see if you love art, since Botero insisted all his donations must be free for the public to see indefinitely.
5) Use the approved taxis at the airport – At the airports in Colombia there are real taxis (approved and regulated by the state) and there are other taxis which aren’t licensed and will try to get you to come with them as soon as you step off the plane. As someone who just got off a maybe 12-hour plane – sleep deprived, confused, and not understanding the local language – it can be really easy to make a mistake. Taking the wrong taxi can lead to a scary and/or dangerous situation, so try to make sure you’re in the correct line to get an official taxi. They will use the meter or charge a set rate so you pay the correct price for where you need to go.
6) Check out free tours! – In every city we visited, there was a free city tour. Some were amazing and some weren’t as great, but for the most part, it’s a wonderful way to see the historical parts of a city on a budget. Although you can walk the streets on your own, you visit places you probably never would have on your own. Also, if you don’t like the tour then you can always leave early or just give a lower tip, since you didn’t have to invest anything to sign-up. In particular, I highly recommend the Free City Walking Tour in Medellin, and the Free Graffiti Tour in Bogota.
7) Use Uber instead of Taxi’s – When we were in the big cities (Medellin and Cartagena) we took all sorts of transport: buses, metro, taxis, Uber, and walking. Taxis are definitely the easiest when you’re in a crowded place (like a concert) and want to leave quickly, but we relied on Uber for the rest of our trips. There are a few reasons that we prefer it. A) We do speak some Spanish, but some people we were with did not, and even we didn’t know the city well. I love that you type your destination into the app so you don’t have to give directions and describe where you’re going to the driver. You can also follow along on your trip to see the route and know how long it will be until you arrive. B) The drivers always want a good rating so they’re really friendly and talkative. C) We found the prices to be super reasonable, and we liked being able to see how much it was going to be before leaving. D) It’s really easy to get multiple drop-offs and split costs between multiple people. E) You don’t have to worry about tipping or have the correct change. *Note – Uber may not be completely legal in Colombia, so do whatever you’re comfortable with. They also may make you sit in the front seat to avoid suspicion, but we had no problems with this.
8) Know the weather for the season/city you’re visiting – Colombia might not be as big as Canada but it has a lot of different climates. When we were visiting in December/January, the lowest temperature forecasted for Bogota was around 5 degrees at night, while the temperatures during the day in Cartagena could reach 35 degrees – a huge range! By planning which cities you’ll be in, you can plan your wardrobe accordingly. In Medellin, for example, it was supposed to rain every day we were there (so we carried umbrellas or raincoats), but thankfully it just stayed cloudy for some of the day and then cleared up. Conversely, Cartagena is basically the Caribbean, and I’d recommend a bathing suit, hat, and plenty of sun screen for my pale friends!
9) Learn a bit of Spanish before you go – In some Spanish-speaking countries, everyone speaks English anyway. However, in Colombia, this is less common, and basically, only those in the tourist industry will be able to communicate with you in English. I’m not saying you need to be fluent, but it’s worthwhile to at least learn some basics (greetings, numbers, directions, etc.). There are tons of great phone apps (like duoLingo), computer programs (like Rosetta Stone), and dictionaries or phrasebooks (like Lonely Planet) that can help you with this.
10) Try some of the local food – In many countries, the food can be either good or bad. You either like spicy food or you don’t, and you either want to try things out of your comfort zone (like bugs) or you’re totally grossed out. In Colombia, there is food for everyone. My mom had a stew with ribs in it that was her favourite, and I tried a local dish which is basically cheese in hot chocolate. In the tropical areas like Cartagena, you can also try a lot of new fruits they probably don’t sell in your home country. There’s something for everyone!
I hope you have an amazing trip to Colombia! If you’re interested in learning more about what I did on my trip in December 2016, check out the rest of my blog series on Colombia.
Check out the rest of our Colombian Christmas Adventures, including:
- Only Have 6 Hours in La Paz, Bolivia? You’ll still have a blast!
- Feeling the Vibe in Medellin, Colombia (coming soon)
- Christmas in the Old City of Cartagena, Colombia (coming soon)
- New Years and Graffiti in Bogota, Colombia! (coming soon)
- Finding my Way Back to Bolivia (After 2 Weeks in Colombia) (coming soon)