Colombia is a nation on the rise. The land of Shakira, Gabriel García Márquez and James Rodríguez has it all, from the bougainvillea-festooned streets of Cartagena and the mysterious tombs of Tierradento. There’s white-water rafting at San Gil and all-night salsa clubs in Cali, and as a bonus, the Colombian peso is at its lowest level in years, making the country even cheaper than neighbouring Ecuador. Here’s our advice on backpacking Colombia:
1. Pick your season and region wisely
The climate difference between Colombia’s Andean and coastal regions is especially acute: the Caribbean and Pacific cities can be unbearably hot in the summer, while Bogotá sits in damp, tropical highlands and can get chilly at night. Domestic bus/flight prices can go up a huge amount in December/January and Easter week in particular, while international flights to Colombia tend to be cheapest in February.
2. Work the hostel network
The hostel system in Colombia is growing, meaning there is always an affordable place to stay. Facilities typically include free wi-fi, simple breakfast, use of a kitchen, and a laundry service, and sometimes bicycle rental, a library or book exchange. Many offer local tours or excursions and discounts for HI members. Most hostels in Colombia also produce stacks of business cards that they distribute throughout the hostel network – flick through these cards, pick out your next destination and ask the hostel you are staying at to make you a reservation.
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3. Shop around for buses
Buses are the main form of long-distance public transport in Colombia. On many routes there will be a choice of options varying in speed, comfort and price, so it’s a good idea to shop around at different companies’ kiosks (the smaller “Kia” minibuses are often cheaper and faster, if a little cramped). Look out also for the “puerta-a-puerta” (door-to-door) services between cities such as Cartagena and Santa Marta, which will drop you off at your hostel and save loads of time. Hostels should be able to recommend operators.
4. Eat like a local
Colombians in general eat a big lunch and snack in the evening; you’ll save lots of cash doing the same, making the most of cheap menús del día (also called the almuerzo corriente). Every town has a galería (cheap market area or mercado) that contains a mesa larga, an eating hall of small kitchens where you can get a fresh lunch at a bargain rate. In the evenings there is no shortage of street food in Colombia, with vendors offering hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, empanadas and delicious arepas.
5. Drink like a local
For a sociable (and much cheaper) alternative to bars in Colombia, look for the local estanco, essentially an off-licence/shop where you get served cold beer at supermarket rates through a grill. Especially at weekends, these spots attract a lively local crowd – a great way to try out your Spanish and make friends. In bigger cities like Medellín, look for bars/clubs that offer all-you-can drink deals, like Babylon.
6. Beware all-day closings
Colombians love festivals and celebrating with them can be the highlight of a trip. But travelling during peak holiday times – around Christmas or Easter (Semana Santa) for example – can be a nightmare and are best avoided. Beware also of the numerous “Lunes festivos” or “puentes”, essentially bank holiday Mondays – buses are packed, and shops, banks and restaurants shut down.
7. Learn a little Spanish
An obvious one, but this will make a huge difference. Even elementary level castellano will likely amaze and delight the folks you meet in Colombia.
8. Get cheap calls
If you have a phone that will work in Colombia, it’s cheap and easy to buy a SIM card from one of the country’s mobile phone service providers – Claro generally has the best coverage. You can also make ultra cheap local calls by using one of the numerous street vendors renting cell phones by the minute. Hostels are also usually happy to call ahead for reservations at your next stop – many of them use Whatsapp.
9. Find Éxito
This ubiquitous supermarket chain is a one-stop shop in most Colombian towns, not just for cheap food and drink, but also clothes, cups of coffee, pharmacy, ATM and travel agents.
10. Choose local tour operators
You’ll get a lot more out of Colombia by occasionally using the services of local tour operators that specialize in backpacking trips; for the hike to the Lost City you have no choice, but other recommended operators include Popayan Tours and the folks at Macondo Hostel in San Gil who can advise on a host of adventure sports.
11. Try to gather small change
Big notes (50,000 pesos, for example) can be frustratingly hard to break in Colombia, as change is always scarce, especially in rural areas. Bus stations and supermarkets are the best places to break big notes – always keep an eye on your stock of small notes and replenish when you can.
12. Don’t act like a sucker
Colombians are a friendly, welcoming bunch, but travelling here it’s important to never dar papaya – “give papaya” or, less literally, "be asking for it". If you leave fancy electronics lying around (your precious “papaya”), you are inviting someone to take them; get drunk in a dodgy part of town and you may be asking for trouble. As with most developing destinations, don’t let your guard down and you’ll be fine.
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