Where: Bogota, Armenia, Salento, Valle de Cocora, Pijao, Buenavista, Cali, Popayan, Medellin, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, Tayrona National Park.
Transport: Airlines, Bus, Taxi
When: December 2014, for sixteen days
Who: Two backpackers
One of the most misinterpreted countries on the planet is Colombia, which has come a long way in terms of safety and security of not just the tourists, but the locals themselves. Colombians take pride in where they are now, from the days of drug wars and instability.
A lot of countries have an option of visa-upon-arrival, but it’s best to check their website and apply for a visa well in advance as the consulate may take anything between 1 to 4 weeks. Also, the visa upon arrival may be applicable to citizens of certain countries with different rules, based on the pre-existing visas or residency levels in the country you’re living. Visa are given typically for 30 days.
Getting a Colombia Visa
Getting a Colombian visa was very easy. Just create an account on their website and submit your documents online – passport-size photograph, last 3-months bank statements and last 3-months paystubs. Fill in the form online and submit it. You will be taken to a page that accepts payments, but the banks listed there are Colombian banks, where you can’t pay. So you will have to walk to the consulate in your nearest city to make a payment in money order. Upon making the payment, you will receive an e-visa (in your email) within 5 working days.
Colombia’s currency is Peso. There is no subdivision of the Peso. The abbreviation COP or ‘$’ is used everywhere and the exchange rate was USD 1 = COP 2200 at the time of the trip.
|IMPORTANT NOTE on Currency Exchange
The exchange rate of Colombian Peso fluctuates very easily, and the locals will use their own exchange rate. Which means there’s no way to know how much you’re paying in your own currency. Banks in Colombia have the best exchange rate and airports have the worst.
Carry about COP 50,000 when entering the country and exchange it in a bank, unless you land on a weekend then you need to carry more COP.
The banknotes come in 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 20000 and 50000 Pesos whereas the coins are 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 pesos.
Here are some tips that I experienced on my trip to Colombia:
- Humbleness – Colombians are known for their humbleness and you will experience it everywhere. The locals are very helpful, very humble and very friendly. Of course, every traveler must exercise caution and basic safety rules.
- Habla Español? – Spanish is the primary language of Colombia; in fact it is said that Colombians speak the ‘cleanest’ or ‘purest’ Spanish. If you don’t speak Spanish, then it’s best to know a few words or sentences because locals don’t speak English.
Other than tourist places like Cartagena, most of Colombia, including the capital Bogota, English is not widely spoken. Some hostel or hotel staff may speak English, but it will be very basic; and restaurants will have menus in Spanish.
- Buses are the best way to commute between cities. Distances seem shorter for the time it takes to travel, but that is because of one-lane highways passing through the villages. For shorter distances, small 15-seater buses are the most convenient, but for long distances, luxury buses from companies like Brasilia run overnight buses as well.
- Domestic flights are not cheap (for a budget traveler) as compared to other South American or European destinations. For example, one-way flight from Medellin to Cartagena costs $154 on Avianca whereas an overnight bus costs $66; or one-way flight from Bogota to Armenia costs $110 on Avianca.
- Taxis is the most preferred way of navigating within a city. They are convenient, cheap and accessible. Most big cities have taxis that are metered, so you pay what you see. But this doesn’t apply to smaller towns where you negotiate the price before getting in.
- Credit cards or cash – Most restaurants and hotels will accept credit cards, but hostels and small shops will accept only cash. When you get the Colombian Pesos, you may want to get them in millions, because you will not realize but they do go fast! For example, a night in a hotel can cost COP 120,000, which is about $50. A bottle of water costs COP 2,000 (about $1) and one-way bus ticket in Bogota costs COP 3,000 (about $1.25).
So it’s best to carry lot of cash with you for almost everything, but use credit cards where available. Just make sure to get a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.
- Utilities & others
- Water – Officially, tap water is safe to drink only in Bogota and Medellin. But most big cities like Cali and Armenia has safe tap water. But bottled water is very cheap (costs COP 2,000 – 4,000) and available everywhere. Similar to elsewhere in South America, you get two options of bottled water – sin gas (with gas, or club soda) and con gas (without gas, or plain water). Make sure to read the bottle for the kind of water you’re getting before purchasing.
- Wi-fi – Wi-fi may be available in hotels, restaurants, and businesses, although not guaranteed. Even if it’s available does not mean it will work.
- Mobile services – For COP 20,000 (approx $9) you can purchase a SIM card from Claro and use it for calls and 3G/LTE data of 1GB. The validity is 6 months and you can recharge at most groceries stores around the country. Note that Bogota airport does not have any mobile phone company stores, so the only way to purchase a SIM card is to walk into a Claro store in the city.
- Public toilets – Available everywhere for a small price of COP 500 ( about 20 cents) or COP 1,000 (about 45 cents). You may have to pay extra for paper and not all toilets will even offer any paper. Public toilets are very dirty, and the bathrooms are not maintained at all. Carrying your own paper is recommended.
|Offline maps & directions
If you are using a smartphone, then you know how expensive international data plans can be. And if you find yourself lost in a place, then using the device for maps and directions can sometimes be a life-saver. But with no data to find directions in an unknown city can be frustrating.
So while you are at your hotel where you have wifi access, open the maps app and point it to the address or area in the destination town or city. Then zoom-in and zoom-out around the area, or around the entire town if it’s a small one. This time the app will load all the maps and places in cache (memory). That’s it. When you arrive at the destination, just open the maps app and you will still be able to browse around without any data.
Just make sure not to remove the app from the memory (kill it entirely).
Note: All values in USD, unless otherwise mentioned, are approximate and based on the exchange rate of USD 1 = COP 2200 at the time of publishing. Each cost is for one adult.
|Delta Airlines||$1,230||Flight from Los Angeles, USA (LAX) to Bogota (BOG) via Miami (MIA). Return.|
|Total Costs||$1,360||Per person|
|Overall Costs||$1,360||Per person|
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Capital city, Centro Internacional.