If you’re even thinking of planning a trip to Colombia, congratulations! Great idea! There isn’t a country on the planet with a greater diversity of things to do or with friendlier people.
Of course Colombia has had its problems, notably in the late 20th century, but it has moved on considerably since that time and there is a palpable sense of determination to make the country great again. And part of that determination shows itself in the welcome it give its visitors.
Or maybe that welcoming nature is just part of the Colombian psyche. It’s a place with a lot to offer and its people are proud of what they have and eager to show you.
If you’re the independent type who likes to do all the planning from scratch, more power to you. But if you’d appreciate a little assistance and guidance from professionals who know Colombia inside out, then you’re in the right place with Palenque Tours.
In this overview we’re going to run through some of the basics, starting with the question of visas: do you need one or don’t you?
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR TRAVELING TO COLOMBIA
There is quite a long list of countries whose citizens don’t need a visa for a short stay. They just turn up and are given a tourist visa at the port of entry.
Unfortunately (for some) there is also a list of nationalities who need to apply for a visa in advance, and the nature of international politics means that those lists change from time to time.
Therefore it makes sense to take the simple step of contacting the Colombian embassy in your part of the world.
Or if you speak Spanish, you could look at the official Colombian immigration website Migracion Colombia, where you’ll find everything the potential visitor needs to know.
WHICH AIRPORTS TO FLY INTO
A trip to Colombia can mean many different things, because it is a big country with distinct regions, some of which will appeal to the visitor more than others, depending on your interests, and it makes sense to fly into an airport close to where you’re going to be based – unless you’re planning a tour of the whole of Colombia, which is not out of the question.
The obvious name is Bogota, the capital, and most of us like to at least get acquainted with a country’s flagship city. Bogota has a lot going for it, but if, for whatever reason, it’s not on your list, there are plenty of international flights into Medellin, Cali, the coastal city of Cartagena and, in the north, Barranquilla. Take some time to assess which is the best for you as regards location, price and the number of stops you’ll have to make.
Those of you blessed with patience and a nose for a bargain can devote an evening to browsing the Net, hunting down the ideal flight. And even those of us who don’t have that sort of personality are perfectly capable of doing it. No? Then get a travel agent to do it, armed with your requirements and stipulations.
PLANNING A TRIP TO COLOMBIA BASED ON THE REGION OF THE COUNTRY
Down by the borders with Peru and Brazil, the Amazon & Llanos region is a nature-lover’s paradise. As the name suggests, there is a river involved: one of the world’s greatest, most celebrated rivers. And there is grassland – vast swathes of it, demonstrating that the world hasn’t yet gone completely to rack and ruin.
Eco tourism is the name of the game here: the kind that involves observing and enjoying nature and the way life is lived in a particular area, while cherishing it and, as they say, “taking only pictures and leaving only footprints”.
It’s a subject that is dear to our hearts at Palenque Tours.
Cundinamarca is the department generally taken to include Bogota (technically it doesn’t, but that’s another matter). And although Bogota is a fine metropolis, combining the old, the stately and the grand with all the modern trappings of a vibrant capital city, the age-old Andes mountains remind us that there was life here long before urban sophistication brought the high-end shops and restaurants.
Cundinamarca means condor’s nest, and the imperious elegance of that legendary bird looms still over hills and skyscrapers alike.
Planning a trip to Colombia is not all about mountains and coffee. Let’s not forget the shimmering beaches and indigo sea of the Caribbean coast. The difference between this and many resort areas is that there is a sense of history here in the colonial splendour of Cartagena and its lesser-known sister towns. They have been adapted for the relatively recent phenomenon of lazing by the sea in the sun, but you can sense the history of the colonial era, the 17th century arrival of Spanish explorers who, with the ruthlessness of their time, stamped their authority all over an area that had already been home to the indigenous tribes for many, many years.
The coffee region: the name speaks for itself. Colombia is one of the world’s leading producers of that unique bean that some genius decided to roast and use to make a hot drink. In this region we can arrange for you to get close to the start of the process, to see the coffee growing and even talk to small producers, families whose life is based on providing the world with the dark, heady breakfast fuel. It is possible to plan a trip to Colombia without checking out the coffee region, but really, it’s part of the country’s modern character, so why not take a look?
Antioquia is a region with a curious but admirable blend of nature and technology. The splendid city of Medellin is a prime example of Colombia’s resurgence, a cultured environment with a cafe on every corner and a host of good restaurants. It is also home to a new generation of entrepreneurs operating in the “tech” world where the internet is king.
This “City of Eternal Spring” has a year-round balmy climate that encourages you to spend time in its many parks, and at an altitude of 1,500 metres (4,900 feet) it is one of the world’s higher metropolises.
Take a bus or a cable car and you can soon be at closer to 8,000 ft in the magnificently unspoilt Parque Arvi and the town (more a collection of villages) of Santa Elena, where the air is pure and the temperature decidedly bracing. Here, in rolling countryside that is preoccupied mainly with tourism these days, the history is all about the silleteros, the flower growers who cultivated the verdant landscape to produce nature’s floral adornments. As thunder rolls over the hillsides and the deceptively strong sun illuminates the world, towns such as Santa Elena get on with life as if time had stood still.
The Pacific coast demonstrates that Colombia has more than its fair share of nature’s bounty: not one ocean but two. And here, off the beaten track, you will find beaches and forests, rivers and waterfalls. It’s a rugged landscape and another part of Colombia where the 21st century has made relatively little impression – and long may it remain so.
At Palenque Tours our local experts specialise in planning trips to Colombia, putting together bespoke tours, so tell us what you’re interested in and we’ll make sure you find it.
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU BUDGET FOR A TRIP TO COLOMBIA?
Many of the delights of a tour of Colombia are natural and free, so the question of budgets mainly revolves around travel and the standard of your accommodation. Palenque Tours can work to a budget to provide the most cost-effective trip, with none of the hit-and-miss aspect that comes from making it up as you go along. Cost is just one factor, though, and other ways Palenque Tours can help with planning a tour of Colombia is by looking at it from the points of view of regions, interests/experiences or length of time, be it one week or 21 days.
The roads in Colombia are generally pretty good, although as ever, the roads less travelled are also the roads less maintained, so it can get bumpy and dusty in parts.
Internal flights can whisk you from one area of interest to the next. Medellin to Bogota is only around an hour, for instance, and there are small airports in less obvious places.
Buses are also a good option. You can hire a car if you like to be in control of your own destiny, stopping here and there when a village or area takes your fancy.
SAFETY CONSIDERATIONS WHEN PLANNING A TRIP TO COLOMBIA
Be aware that some of the more remote areas can still be dangerous, with renegades from the Nefarious Nineties still living the outlaw life and preying on the unsuspecting visitor. Take local advice on each stage of your journey (car rental firms, police, hotel staff and so on). It’s not the Wild West like it used to be, and there are no-go areas all over the world, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Even in the cities it pays to be careful. Don’t advertise your wealth or wave your open wallet around in public. This can help to avoid not just being robbed but being ripped off. There are often two prices for things: one for “ordinary” people and another for anyone who looks like they can afford more.
Look for up-to-date advice, such as bulletins issued by the US Bureau of Consular Affairs. As at January 2018, for instance, its recommendation was this: “Do not travel to Arauca, Cauca (except Popayan), Choco (except Nuquí), and Norte”. For a different perspective, get the UK government’s views.
DON’T GIVE PAPAYA
This is a Colombian expression meaning don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of, and if they coined it, they obviously know it happens. When taking a taxi, for instance, ask the driver how much it’s going to cost before you get in the car, and if it seems exorbitant, politely say no and look for another. Cab drivers can be a good barometer of the friendliness of a town. If they clearly see you as a gringo who’s going to provide them with an unexpected windfall, don’t give them the chance. If you get a good, helpful one, you might want to tip him a few dollars, depending on the fare, but it is not customary.
With waiters and waitresses, in a homely setting you can make their day with the equivalent of a few dollars, so if they’ve done a good job, why not? Even in a fairly upmarket place it is probably not necessary to go to the heights of 15% as you might in New York or London, but do your bit to foster local-foreigner relations. So 10% would be nice.
WHAT TIME OF YEAR SHOULD YOU GO?
Weather is one of life’s great imponderables, but there is statistical information available. The key fact is that Colombia doesn’t have the four seasons that the US and Europe do. In this part of the world you’re looking at two rainy seasons and two dry seasons. Assuming that most people will take the dry option, that means planning your trip to Colombia for December to March or July/August. But that’s not set in stone, just a guide based on history.
The good news is that when it does rain, it’s not long, icy downpours. Tropical rain is warmer (although just as wet).
As some wag once said, there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes, and there is a lot to be said for having a cagoule rolled up in a corner of the suitcase. And while an umbrella may seem like a rather uncool, city-dweller accoutrement to be taking to South America, they can come in handy for fending off the sun too.
Bear in mind that altitude has a relationship with temperature, so coastal areas tend to be warmer than mountainous ones. As we saw in the Antioquia summary above, t-shirts in Medellin won’t be enough half an hour up the hill in Santa Elena, so if you’re going somewhere high up, take some layers with you. And suitable footwear.
FOOD AND DRINK
Colombia has some wonderful regional dishes, legendary among those who live there and eagerly recommended. “You’ve got to try the fish/ajiaco/mondongo etc.” Check out our Colombian food section.
As for drinks, the tap water often comes with the advice from the locals, “Well, we drink it, but we might just be used to it, so be careful.” If you have a particularly sensitive stomach, bottled water is available everywhere.
Alcohol tends to be quite expensive, particularly wine. The famous Colombian booze is aguardiente, an aniseed flavoured spirit that is quite cheap and very drinkable.
Local beers are inexpensive and pretty good, and the Bogota Beer Company, whose products can be found further afield than just the capital, produces a wide range of styles including some modeled on British and German beers.
There is always something going on in Colombia, be it to do with salsa, film , theater, a horse parade, concerts or a bird fair. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Colombian Festivals for details.
The currency is Colombian pesos – and they’re not worth very much, which means you will have to get used to paying what sounds like an incredible amount for even modest purchases. In January 2018, for example, $100 was worth around 284,000 pesos. So a nice meal for two is going to sound like a mortgage until you get used to it.
Exchange rates vary considerably and aside from USD it is difficult to exchange foreign currency, with Euros possibly the exception.
The best bet is to use ATMs, but remember to withdraw pesos, as that’s all that is accepted as regards cash. And take as much as you can get, all in one hit, because every transaction incurs a charge.
Be careful when using ATMs. Those inside banks are much safer than the ones in the street.
Major credit cards are widely accepted, but you will have to show some ID. In fact ID is required for many transactions, so if you’re not comfortable having your passport on you, at least have a photocopy of it.
PLANNING A COLOMBIA VACATION WITH KIDS
Colombians have a strong sense of family and children are welcome just about everywhere. Having said that, it’s not exactly groaning with things for them to do in the 21st-century sense. Parents will, then, be earning their corn getting the youngsters interested in the more traditional pursuits, such as actually getting outside, playing on the beaches or rambling in the countryside, discovering nature.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of the internationally-recognized child-pacifiers, fast food joints. So let’s just look at these beautiful butterflies and funny old iguanas and if you’re good, there’s a Big Mac in it for you.
Let’s face it, they’re probably going to moan at some point, even in the hallowed halls of Disney World, and this is a vacation in a foreign land where their phone won’t work, but there’s wifi in the hotel for later, so they’ll just have to rack up some real experiences to tell their friends about. Might do them some good.
Here are a couple of options for you, one for coffee-related fun and a more general one with a lot of water involved, which is always fun for kids.
Planning a trip to Colombia offers so many possibilities that no two experiences will be the same. Al, you’ve got to do is make sure you tailor your trip to experience your Colombia.