Colombia gets a bad rap due to its long history of violence waged by drug cartels, anti-government guerrillas, and crime syndicates. But those days are largely behind them, and tourists don’t have to worry about being robbed at gunpoint at a red light. However, like any country, there are some things that are helpful to know before visiting to ensure a smooth and enjoyable time. Whether it comes to money, drinking water, or weather, these are the Colombia travel tips that are worth noting before you go.
Driving is chaotic and doesn’t follow traditional rules
You should probably think twice about renting a car and driving yourself around Colombia. Driving is something of a controlled chaos wherein you have to throw yourself into a busy intersection to get across it because no one else will stop to let you go. If you’re driving from one city to another, you may find yourself going down two-lane highways on which drivers are constantly passing each other by driving on the opposing side. It’s not for the faint of heart, so you’re better off hiring local drivers.
Everyone expects a greeting
Colombians are outrageously friendly, and everyone from taxi drivers to the security guards at grocery stores will ask how you’re doing. It’s impolite to ignore people when you enter anywhere, so get used to greeting people like you’re old friends.
Most places take credit cards
If you’re visiting one of the major tourist hubs of the country, you will be able to pay with a credit card almost anywhere. This can help you avoid the hassle and potential safety issue of taking out cash constantly and carrying around a lot of money. It’s probably not a bad idea to have some cash for small purchases from street vendors, for example, or for tipping. That being said, if you’re venturing out from a major city, you’ll find it harder to find places that accept credit cards.
Water is safe to drink in major cities
People automatically assume that you shouldn’t drink tap water in South America – I know I’m skittish about it after my disastrous Peru food poisoning experience. But tap water is actually safe in a lot of the cities in Colombia you’d probably visit including Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin, and Cali. Your stomach may need some time to adjust, as it would anywhere, but you’re unlikely to get a nasty bug that requires antibiotics to treat. If you’re still feeling a little hesitant, bottled water is cheap and readily available everywhere.
It’s always safer to have your hotel call for a taxi
While taxis are generally safe, if you want to avoid getting fleeced by a cabbie, it’s best to have your hotel or restaurant call one for you. They know the most reputable companies, so you’re less likely to get taken for a ride. It’s always a good idea to agree on a price before you get in the cab. Though they’re supposed to be metered, many cab drivers won’t turn on the meter so they can then charge you whatever they want.
Uber may be a cheaper alternative that gives you more control over your rate, but you should know that it’s illegal in Colombia. So your driver may ask you to ride in the passenger seat so they don’t get busted.
Know dry and rainy seasons
You might think that Colombia is a tropical paradise with sunny skies and warm temperatures all year long, but you would be mistaken. If you visit Colombia during rainy season, which is typically between April and June and then again between September and November, you might see less sunny skies and more torrential downpours. During dry season between December and February, you’re more likely to have clear skies and still have a warm tropical time.
Pack in preparation for heat and humidity
Regardless of when you go, it’s likely that you’ll experience more humidity in Colombia than you’re used to. It’s the kind of place where 97 degrees feels like 104, and you’ll find yourself dripping with sweat when you’re sitting in the shade at breakfast. Though I’m usually an advocate for packing light, Colombia is one destination where you may want to take a couple of different outfits per day. It’s unlikely you’ll want to wear to dinner what you’ve been sweating in all day.
Haggling is common
Whether you’re agreeing on a taxi fare or buying some handmade souvenirs, Colombia is the kind of place where haggling is not only common but expected. That means the first price you’re quoted will probably be sky-high. Offer what you think it’s worth to you, and don’t think too much about whether it’s higher or lower than the “real price.” There is no real price. Vendors may offer you a lower price if you take multiple pieces or if you’re firm on how much you’re willing to spend.
A bathroom labeled with an M doesn’t mean Men
Colombia may not be the easiest to navigate if you don’t speak Spanish. One simple mistake you might make when you’re looking for a bathroom is thinking the M stands for men. In Spanish, M means mujer or woman, and H stands for hombre or man. This Colombia travel tip can save you a lot of embarrassment.
Tipping is kind and also useful
Tipping in restaurants and hotels in Colombia is fairly common, though not required. But it’s probably a good idea to keep some tipping change handy for other situations, too. People are generally helpful and kind, and it’s nice to reward that. For instance, parking lot attendants on busy streets may hold up traffic to help drivers get in and out of difficult spots. Tipping may also be a good way to keep you and your belongings safe. A parking lot attendant that you tipped is more likely to keep a good eye on your car while you’re gone.
Getting a Covid test is super easy
If you’re traveling from a destination that requires a Covid test to return to, like the US for the time being, you’ll have a much easier time getting one with a quick turnaround on results. (Unlike the US, ironically.) Many labs in major cities offer walk-in testing and will email you a travel certificate with your results in 3-4 hours tops. Some hotels will also arrange someone to come and administer a test for you. While more convenient, this option is more expensive. But at least you have many options so if the need arises, Covid testing doesn’t have to be a hassle.
Maybe keep your opinions about Narcos to yourself
TV shows and movies can glorify objectively terrible people like drug lord, Pablo Escobar. But travelers forget that behind these ruthless power-hungry criminals, there was a lot of death and suffering. You may not realize when you’re talking about how interesting you find drug cartels or how much you love the show Narcos that the local person you’re chatting with may have been personally affected by cartels. Many Colombians have lost family members to drug violence. So it’s best to learn about the real local history with an open mind and a closed mouth.