Daily budget Basic US$50, occasional treat US$90 Drink Fresh fruit juice US$2 Food Pargo frito con arroz con coco (fried snapper with coconut rice) US$8 Hostel/budget hotel US$20/40 Travel Bogotá–Cartagena bus (663km; 19hr) US$75
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Crime and personal safety
Colombia today is far safer and more accessible than it has been in decades. That said, pockets of guerrilla activity remain in remote parts of the country, particularly the jungle – a haven for drug-running activities – both by the rebels and particularly by the paramilitary groups who have the tacit support of the government, and who have been criticized for using techniques as dirty as those employed by the rebels. The FARC have renounced kidnappings for financial or political ends, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll remain true to their word. Although, reassuringly, tourists have not been targeted specifically in the country’s civil war, certain areas should still be avoided, including the Chocó, parts of Nariño, Putumayo, Meta, Arauca and rural parts of Cauca. Most guerrilla/paramilitary activity is confined to rural areas near the border with Panama and Venezuela. However, it’s imperative that you stay abreast of current events: for up-to-date travel advice check www.travel.state.gov or www.gov.uk/fco.
Violent crime does exist, particularly in poor neighbourhoods of the big cities, but visitors are far more likely to encounter pickpockets, so keep a sharp eye on your belongings. Beware of scams – such as criminals posing as plain-clothes policemen and asking to inspect your passport and money, allegedly in search of counterfeit notes, which they then confiscate. Counterfeit notes do exist, so ask locals how to identify them.
When out and about, take only as much cash as you need for the outing, and leave the rest (as well as your passport) in a safe in your lodgings. Always carry a photocopy of your passport with you – the main page and the page with your entry stamp. Local police have a mixed reputation for corruption.
Drugs are widely available in Colombia, cocaine and marijuana in particular. Possession of either is illegal and could result in a prison sentence, and being caught with drugs while trying to cross a border can have serious consequences. If you do decide to take drugs, be very careful: they are much stronger than in Europe and the US. Do not accept drinks, snacks or cigarettes from strangers as there have been reports of these being spiked with the tasteless and smell-free drug burundanga, or “zombie drug”, that leaves victims conscious but incapacitated and susceptible to robbery and rape.
A passport and onward ticket are the sole entry requirements for nationals of most of Western European countries, Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Upon arrival, all visitors receive an entry stamp in their passports, usually for sixty days. You can request up to ninety days but this is rarely granted. Double-check the stamp straightaway for errors. Make sure you get an entry stamp if coming in overland and that you get a departure stamp upon exiting to avoid trouble.
Thirty-day extensions cost COP$72,350 and can be obtained at the former DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad) offices from the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (www.cancilleria.gov.co). You’ll need two passport photos with a white background, copies of your passport and entry stamp as well as the original, and an onward ticket.
Vaccinations against hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid are strongly recommended and rabies should also be considered; consult a travel health clinic weeks in advance. Vaccinations against yellow fever are necessary if visiting coastal national parks; some countries, such as Australia and Brazil, will not let you into the country without a yellow fever certificate if you’re travelling directly from Colombia. Insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are present, particularly in the Amazonas, Chocó, Antioquia, Córdoba, Bolívar, Putomayo and Atlántico departments – bring plenty of mosquito repellent (50 percent DEET, unavailable in Colombia) and cover up with long sleeves and trousers. Altitude sickness (soroche) may affect travellers at altitudes over 2500m, including those flying directly to Bogotá – take time to acclimatize before continuing your journey, drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol.
Colombia offers some of the best healthcare in South America; all major cities have hospitals, while in rural areas healthcare is more difficult to come by. In the case of serious health issues, you may be transferred to a larger hospital with more specialized doctors and facilities.
Despite the significant rise in tourism to Colombia in recent years, the practical information available at tourist offices is often rudimentary. Almost every town has a tourist office, although their staff often don’t speak English, and hostels are often much more useful for gathering information.
In Colombia, the annually updated (Spanish only) Guía de Rutas, sold at tollbooths and some tourist offices, has excellent maps, as well as potential road-trip routes and extensive local listings.
colombiareports.com Latest news, sports, culture and travel in English.
colombia.travel Colombia’s official tourism site, with plenty of photos, good background and some practical information.
hosteltrail.com/colombia Budget accommodation and local attractions.
parquesnacionales.gov.co Portal to Colombia’s national parks.
Internet cafés can be found even in small towns (from COP$3000/hr), and free wi-fi spots are becoming easier to find.
Sending a postcard or a letter abroad can be done for COP$5500–6500 from almost anywhere in the country, using the efficient 4-72 (4-72.com.co). Packages are best sent via private companies such as Avianca (aviancaexpress.com) and Deprisa (deprisa.com).
Money and banks
Colombia’s national currency is the peso (COP), divided into 100 centavos. Coins are for 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 pesos and notes for 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 pesos. At the time of writing, rates were: US$1=COP$1800; £1=COP$2700; €1=COP$2300.
Changing large notes can be problematic outside big cities.
ATMs are plentiful, with at least one even in small towns. For changing money, casas de cambio offer slightly better rates, have more flexible hours and provide quicker service than most banks. Travellers’ cheques can also be exchanged at casas de cambios and banks, but few businesses accept them. Using moneychangers on the street is not recommended.
Shops are open 8am until 6pm, Monday to Friday. Many businesses also often open on Saturdays until mid-afternoon. Outside Bogotá many businesses close at noon for a two- or three-hour siesta. Commercial hours in cities in warmer areas such as Cali often get started and end earlier. Government offices often follow the same pattern. Banks open around 9am and close at 4pm. Casas de cambio stay open later.
The three major mobile phone networks are Movistar, Claro and Tigo, and it’s inexpensive to purchase a local mobile phone: a basic handset will set you back around COP$50,000–60,000; if you have an unlocked phone, a SIM card will set your back around COP$12,000, with around COP$5000 worth of credit, with top-up credits sold in every corner shop. However, it’s cheapest to make domestic long-distance calls using the mobile phones in corner stores that buy minutes in bulk (look for the word “minutos”). Call centres (telecentros) allow you to make inexpensive calls both to local numbers and abroad, though Skype is by far the cheapest way to go, given the proliferation of free wi-fi.
- January 1 New Year’s Day (Año Nuevo)
- January 6 Epiphany (Día de los Reyes Magos)
- March 21 St Joseph’s Day (Father’s Day)
- March or April Easter (Semana Santa)
- May 1 Labour Day (Día del Trabajo)
- May Ascension Day (the Monday six weeks and a day after Easter Sunday)
- May/June Corpus Christi (the Monday nine weeks and a day after Easter Sunday)
- June 29 Saint Peter and Saint Paul (San Pedro y San Pablo)
- July 20 Independence Day
- August 7 Battle of Boyacá
- August 15 Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Asunción de la Virgen)
- October 12 Columbus Day (Día de la Raza)
- November 1 All Saints’ Day (Día de Todos los Santos)
- November 11 Independence of Cartagena
- December 8 Immaculate Conception (Inmaculada Concepción)
- December 25 Christmas Day (Navidad)
Colombians take much joy in their particular style of linguistic acrobatics and slang. Colombians freely convert verbs to nouns and vice versa, so take each word as a fluid concept.
(n), camellar (v) Work, or working. A good way to refer to a particularly trying task.
(adj) Used to describe a situation or thing that is wonderful. Roughly synonymous with the youthful American usage of “awesome”. Variations include “Qué chimba!” (“Nice!”).
(n) Body odour. A crass but still useable term.
(adj) “Cool”, loosely. Used to describe the subset of cool things – or happenings – that’s particularly classy, well executed or elegant. Think football passes or a good outfit. Chevere and bacán are other words for “cool”.
(adj) “That really sucks”. Used in response to a comment or situation that’s aggressively bad or heavy.
(n) Cocaine. Regional translations include scrambled eggs, coffee with milk or (as here) a parakeet.
(adj) Common response to a question like “How was your day?” that means “Good!” or “Perfect!”
Culture in Colombia
In Colombia you will notice a great disparity between the wealthiest members of society – who live a lifestyle akin to that of their counterparts in Europe’s capitals – and the rest of the population: the poor city residents who live in dangerous neighbourhoods, and below them on the poverty scale the rural poor, particularly those who live in isolated areas where armed conflict still goes on.
When interacting with Colombians, Westerners will note that sincerity in expression, often expressed via good eye contact, is valued more highly than the typical steady stream of pleases and thank-yous.
Tipping ten percent at mid-range restaurants is the norm; some establishments will ask you if you’d like for the tip to be included when you ask for the bill, while some add it on automatically. For short taxi trips, round up to the nearest thousand pesos.
The machismo often ascribed to Latin American culture is present in Colombia, though a significant number (around 30 percent) of politicians and diplomats are female. The country’s Catholic roots run quite deep and are apparent in sexual attitudes among both men and women, though there is some flexibility – and contradiction – in views toward gender and sexual orientation.