Travel to Colombia
Colombia lies in the northern part of South America with its capital in Bogota, situated towards the interior of the country. Colombia is bordered by the Caribbean to the north, Panama to the northwest, Ecuador and Peru to the south, Venezuela to the east, Brazil to the southeast and the North Pacific to the west.
American Indians have occupied Colombia since 12000 BC. Some of these people are the Muisca, Quimbaya, Tairona along with the Incan Empire, which spread to the southern fringes of the country.
Colombia is famous for its lush biodiversity. The Amazonian rainforest is teeming with wildlife species that are endemic to this part of the world. Interestingly, Colombia harbors a wide variety of different climates within a relatively short distance of one another.
People visiting Colombia will be enthralled by the many options and experiences the country has on offer. From the cultural and intellectual core of Bogota for the music, dance and theatre scene, to the magical Lost City of the Tayrona Indians, to the beautiful old town of Cartagena, the salsa capital of Cali and the tropical beaches on the Pacific and Caribbean Coast.
The best time to visit Colombia is during the dry season from December to March. The days are sunny with warm weather – given the proximity to the Equator. Make sure you pick some of the best places to visit in Colombia, which we mention in this Colombia tour guide.
We hope that this carefully prepared travel guide will ease your travel planning for your holidays in Colombia and encourage you to plan a Colombia vacation.
If you’re looking for a tour to Colombia, we recommend looking at the tours hosted with Contiki, G Adventures, Viator and Intrepid Travel. Alternatively, consider getting a local guide to plan your Colombia itinerary – find local Colombia guide to start planning your trip on Viahero.
Visa Requirements for Colombia
When the purpose of visiting Colombia is tourism, the citizens of several listed countries do not require a visa to enter the country unless they are staying for more than 90 days. These include citizens of most EU countries, South American countries, the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and some Asian countries.
Colombian authorities will stamp the passport for the citizens of the above countries with permission to stay for 30 to 90 days. You can apply for an extension of the visa at the Asuntos Migratorios office in larger cities for a fee. Maximum duration of stay in Colombia cannot exceed 6 months in a year.
Citizens of other countries need to apply for a visa for Colombia in their country of residence, prior to travel.
Please check the current guidelines, of the visa requirements for your country and ways to get a Colombian visa before you travel to Colombia.
Important Cultural Information
Colombians prefer formal modes of address and are very particular about saying please and thank you. Make a point of saying ‘por favor’ (please) and ‘muchas gracias’ (thank you) to everyone and for everything.
Race differences are not viewed critically in Colombia. Whites, criollos and mixed races blend with natives and Afro-Colombians in everything from education, living, politics and marriage. However, Colombians can be quite offhand and appear racist in labeling different ethnicities. Colombians however, don’t mean it in a racist manner although it may appear to be the case.
Most Colombians are Catholic and pay a lot of importance to ceremonies and religious practices.
Pointing at different objects with fingers is considered rude. It’s better to point to an object with the chin. Similarly, indicating a person’s height with the palm facing downwards is considered rude and is used for animals and non-living objects.
Dancing is an important component of Colombian nightlife. Salsa movements can be quite sensual but they are not intended as a sexual overture- but rather as an invitation to enjoy oneself through the medium of dance, free expression and celebration.
Read our guide on tipping in Colombia to make yourself familiar with the best tipping practices in the country.
Banking & Money in Colombia
The currency of Colombia is the Colombian peso, which is symbolized by COP or $. Frequently used coins are $50, $100, $200, $500 and $1000. Banknotes come in $1000, $2000 (blue), $5000 (brown), $10,000 (red), $20,000 (orange), $50,000 (violet) and $100,000 (green) denominations.
The Spanish for ATM is Cameron Automatico. Expect lines at Colombian ATMs and for the line to move very slowly. Most of the major banks in Colombia have ATMs, except in rural locations where the banks might not have ATMs. Some Colombian ATMs will charge you fees per withdrawal. ATMs will be found at airports as well.
The best Colombian ATMs which will not charge you a withdrawal fee are those of Davidienda, BBVA and Colpatria. The central bank is Banco de la Republica.
Medical Emergency Information
Some Emergency numbers to keep at hand when visiting Colombia include the following:
- 123 is the 24 hour single emergency number for casualty and emergency assistance
- 156 is the Immediate attention center number
- 144 is the Civil Defence Number
- 132 is the Red Cross Number
The Servicio de Atencion Medica de Urgencia (SAMU) is the national ambulance service of Colombia. The service is free and available to all citizens. If traveling to Colombia as a visitor it is advisable to purchase travel insurance including hospital and medical coverage and civil liability coverage.
The names of some notable hospitals in Colombia include Centro Medico Imbanaco in Cali, Fundacion Cardiovascular and Hospital Internacional de Colombia in Bucaramanga Colombia and Fundacion Cardioinfantil in Bogota.
Make sure to get good travel insurance for Colombia beforehand. Compare options with both WorldNomads and SafetyWing.
Wi-Fi and Internet in Colombia
The most common carriers in Colombia are Claro, Tigo-UNE and Movistar.
Virgin Mobile and Uff! Movil are also in use. It is quite say to purchase a SIM card and even an unlocked phone at the Bogota International Airport. You can find them easily in and around the city as well. Claro has the most extensive network among all the operators.
The country code for Colombia is +57. To call a Colombian landline from a foreign country you would need to dial +57, then the eight digit number (or a ten digit number for a mobile phone). Many Colombian cellphone users use 4G networks instead of slower 3G.
Internet cafes are quite easy to find and have varying prices depending on how abundant they are. They would be cheap in a big city but expensive in remote areas. The connection speed would be higher in city centres too. Make sure to set-up a VPN (like ExpressVPN) before using public Wi-Fi spots (it’s super important to use a VPN while traveling anywhere!)
Arrival in Colombia
The main ports of arrival by air into Colombia, are via international airports at Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Cartagena, Pereira, Cucuta, Armenia and San Andres Island. Bogota Airport has two terminals: Puente Aereo and El Dorado.
Taxi service from the airport is safe and reasonably priced. The journey should take about 20 minutes. Be aware that Medellin has two airports. The Jose Maria Cordova International Airport services international and domestic flights while the other airport services domestic flights.
Search for flights to Colombia on Expedia.
You can enter Colombia via road from Venezuela and Ecuador. The San Cristobal-Cucuta or Maracaibo-Maicao passes provide access from Venezuela into Colombia.
The Tulcan-Ipiales Pass or Lago Agrio-Mocoa provides access from Ecuador into Colombia. There are no major roads traveling into Colombia from the neighboring countries of Panama, Brazil and Peru. Bus connections are also available from Venezuela and Ecuador into Colombia.
It’s possible to enter Colombia from Panama via the Puerto Obaldia-Capurgana Pass (you can also go sailing from Colombia to Panama). From Capurgana another boat takes you to Medellin and Monteria. There are weekly boats from Brazil – from Manaus to Tabatinga/Leticia through the Amazon River.
Areas of Colombia
These are the main geographical regions of Colombia. The main cities include Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Cartagena.
The region of central-western Colombia in the Andean highlands. Has beautiful national parks and coffee plantations. There are many things to do in Medellin – one of the key cities in this region.
Key Places: Bogota, Medellin
The northern coastal part of Colombia that fronts the Caribbean. It has a number of coastal cities worthy of exploration and where you can find some of the best beaches in Colombian indulge in a number of beach activities.
Key Places: Cartagena, Palomino, Santa Marta, Barranquilla
The eastern plains with tropical savannah, forests and wetlands which are not popular with visitors.
Key Places: Villavicencio
Coastal part of Columbia where it merges into the Pacific. The tropical forests of the Choco, the lure of Cali nightlife, Pacific Marine life and Columbia’s religious culture make this a tourist hotspot.
Key Places: Cali
Home to the amazing, vast and remote Amazon jungle (read our experience of doing the Amazon Challenge).
Key Places: Amacayacu National Park, Leticia, Mocoa, Puerto Narino
Remote tropical islands that are good places for diving and other water activities, located in the Caribbean and with some enviable Colombia beaches.
Transportation in Colombia
The main domestic carriers in Colombia are Avianca (main airlines in Colombia), LATAM Colombia, EasyFly, Satena, VivaAir, ADA (Aerolinea De Antioquia) and AEXPA. For low cost fares VivaAir is a good option.
Air travel is popular within Colombia as the roads, especially those in the Andean region are not the easiest to navigate due to their curvature. A 35 minute flight from Bogota to Medellin takes 8 hours by road. The Bogota to Medellin route is the one most traveled in South America – with 40 non-stop flights a day.
There are no passenger trains that service the country. On the other hand there is a wide network of roads across the country. They may not all be easy to navigate. Foreign visitors are permitted to drive with an international driver’s license.
Long distance bus travel is available but is very slow because main highways are only two-lane roads with a lot of trucks.
Bus transit systems are in place in big cities. In Bogota it is called ‘Transmilenio’, in Medellin ‘Metroplus’, in Barranquilla ‘Transmetro’ and in Pereira ‘Megabus’.
The only metro system in Colombia is in Medellin. Taxis are cheap and run extensively in Bogota. All taxis are metered.
Given that a large part of the Colombian population lives in the Andes, cable car travel is popular.
Accommodations in Colombia
The international traveler will be able to experience and enjoy a number of accommodation options in Colombia. Everything from luxurious five star hotels, to bed and breakfasts, to cheap hostels are on offer. Hotels are available in many of the larger cities that are near major bus terminals. Hence, they are easy to use for those tourists who are not overly particular about their environs and want to maximize sightseeing time.
Big names in the hospitality industry have major luxury hotels in the big cities of Colombia. Names like Sofitel, The Four Seasons, The Hilton and InterContinental are to be found. The best cities to find the most variety of hotels are Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla, Cartagena and Cali. The Sofitel Bogota Victoria Regia, The Cali Marriott Hotel, Hotel InterContinental Cartagena, Hotel Caribe Cartagena and W Bogota are all great places to enjoy your stay if you have the budget.
Apart from the luxury hotel scene, there are a number of boutique hotels opening in Cartagena, Bogota and other major Colombian cities. If looking for something in the budget category and thinking of backpacking Colombia, The Los Patios Hostel in Medellin, Coffee Tree Boutique Hostel in Salento, Republica Hostel Cartagena are all forces to be reckoned with.
What to Eat and Drink in Colombia
Colombian food varies regionally and has influences from indigenous cuisine, African and Spanish influences. Some commonly used ingredients are cereals such as rice and maize, potato and cassava, legumes, beef, chicken, pork, goat and fish. Tropical fruits are abundantly available like dragon fruit, papaya, guava, passion fruit, mangostino and cape gooseberry.
Some unique Colombian food, drink and snack items to sample include:
- Bunuelos (deep fried corn flour balls with cheese)
- Arepas (thick corn tortillas made with cheese and served with butter)
- Tamales (maize and chopped pork/chicken, veg and eggs that are steamed in banana leaves)
- Empanadas (potato and meat)
- Sancocho de gallina (chicken soup with rice and veg)
- Ajiaco (chicken soup with potato, veg, herbs served with rice, avocado, corn)
- Pan de Yuca
- Pastel Gloria
- Aguardiente (alcoholic beverage with anise flavour)
Things to Do and See in Colombia
There are many wonderful places that will feature on the list of Colombia tourist attractions.
Tayrona National Park is one of the brightest of Colombia’s national treasures. The park is unique in the fact that it is the place where lush jungles meet idyllic Caribbean beaches. Book your tickets to park online here.
The colonial Caribbean port city of Cartagena is a must-see on your Colombian adventures. There are so many tourist things to do in Cartagena. The Walled City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The best way to experience the city is via a walking tour (like this one). Make sure at the end of the day, you head to the Cafe Del Mar on the city walls, to enjoy sunset views and a cold beer.
A visit to Chicaque Natural Park is a chance to experience sleeping in a treehouse, in the unique cloud forest ecosystem, which is just an hour outside Bogota. The park is home to 300 species of birds including hummingbirds and toucanets.
Volcan del Totumo is an active mud volcano located near sea level in northern Colombia in the municipality of Santa Catalina. It’s popular for its alleged healing mud bath.
Ciudad Perdida or the Lost City is one of the most important pre-Colombian archaeological sites in the country. It is located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park and consists of 200 or more stone terraces and tiled roads established by the native Tairona people in 800 AD.
There are many things to do in Bogota. One must enjoy the famous street art in Bogota (join this street art tour).This is often the first place that Colombian visitors visit when arriving in the country. Canvases are provided by the city’s high-rise buildings and tunnel walls. Some of the best murals in Bogota are found in the La Candelaria area.
Colombian coffee is world famous and a trip to a coffee farm is a must on your Colombian adventures. Colombia’s coffee triangle consists of Manizales/Pereira/Armenia in Antioquia. Enjoy a truly Colombian experience on this guided tour of a Bogotá coffee farm.
Shopping in Colombia
Some of the top souvenirs to pick up in Colombia are:
- Wayuu Mochila Bags
- Miniatures of the Chiva Bus
- Colombian Coffee
- The Volteado Hat or Aguadeno Hat
- A Hammock made by the Wayuu people
- A Ruana poncho
- Colombian rum or aguardiente
There are many places to shop in Colombia. They include many artisan markets in Bogota. The Galeria Artesanal and the Centro Colombiano de Artisanias are two centrally located markets that are packed with gems like leather goods, handmade woven items, textiles, artwork, coffee and hats. Weekend flea markets like San Alejo and Usaquen are popular places to go,
Gemstones, particularly emeralds are the shopping highlight in Cartagena. Head to Plaza Pierno Gallo for gems. Be prepared to bargain for gemstone prices in Colombia.
The best places to head for Colombian nightlife are Bogota, Cali, Cartagena and Medellin.
Bogota has earned a reputation as the hipster capital of Colombia and neighbourhoods like Chapinero are inundated with bars that serve good drinks.
Medellin is Colombia’s second largest city and there are tonnes of clubs, bars and music venues to be enjoyed into the wee hours. Some of the best areas to party include Las Palmas, La Strada and Parque Lleras.
Cartagena’s Caribbean nightlife is like no other. Cartagena is a sleepy beach town on the Caribbean but at night everything wakes up and the locals surely know how to have a good time. Most bars open at around sunset and stay open until 3-4 am. There are many places that play live music. The House of Beer has nice views of the city from high up on the city’s walls. Clubs are open Thursday to Saturday and may get quite sweaty.
You will be sure to enjoy the vibrant nightlife in Cali. Cali is known as the ‘salsa capital’ of the world. Cali has a number of salsa bars that provide everything from dance classes, live bands and salsa performances most days of the week. For a non-salsa Cali experience, head to Martyn’s Bar to enjoy live music at this American-style rock and roll venue.
Safety Tips for Colombia
Is Colombia safe? – this is a frequently asked question. Colombia may have earned a bad reputation for being very unsafe for tourists in the past but the situation has improved since the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. That does not rule out the fact that there are certain situations and places to be aware of and if possible avoid.
Certain areas that are considered unsafe are the jungle areas, the Darien Gap at the border with Panama, Putumayo and Caqueta.
Land mines are riddled across certain places in the countryside and new ones are planted every day, so tread with care in unknown areas. Kidnappings are on the decline, being a source of financing for guerilla operations in the past, but they are known to occur.
Taxi crime is present in big cities so it is a good idea to call cabs from trusted phone numbers or from official taxi ranks. The government works tirelessly to protect against drug production and trade. Scopolamine is a dangerous mind control drug that targets people into making them susceptible to requests- be they ATM withdrawals, handing over belongings or otherwise. Drugs can be blown into your face by persons who protect their own nostrils from inhalation or added to drinks at a bar.
Colombia is an exceptionally lush, biodiverse country with history, beautiful beaches and many more things to recommend itself to the culturally curious traveler.
The Walled City in Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Caribbean port city is perfect for walking and exploration. Colombian nightlife is lively and vibrant and the best places to enjoy it are in Bogota, Cali, Cartagena and Medellin. Particularly the salsa bars in Cali are to be enjoyed well into the night. Bogota is the place to go for taking in all the interesting street art.
Tourists should be aware of potential areas that may pose as security risks and tread very carefully in those areas. On the whole, Colombia is much safer to visit for a tourist than a few decades ago.
Amongst other not to be missed tourist opportunities are the Lost City – an important pre-Colombian archaeological site. Also lush jungle and biodiversity in the country’s many national parks, including Tayrona National Park, Chicaque Natural Park amongst others. Enjoy myriad bird species- hummingbird, lush jungle and immense scope for biodiversity exploration.
With myriad opportunities to explore, a rich cultural history, biodiversity and ancient history, Colombia should definitely be on your travel radar.