If you ever considered a trip to Colombia, go. This is definitely one of my favorite destinations. But with travel warnings and a bad publicity wrap, many people are wary about setting foot into what was once a country in political chaos tainted by the drug trade. Colombia is now probably the safest it’s ever been.
A lifetime in this country wouldn’t be enough. There is something unique about Colombia, with its lush humid green landscape edged with blue Caribbean coast and crowned by snow-peaked mountains. The people are as warm and sunny as the beaches, the food as fresh and colorful as the sunsets. I’ve been to many places, but I will remember Colombia as one of the most beautiful.
Here are some general tips to make the most out of your trip.
It’s safer than everyone would have you think.
Everyone, including family members, friends, and even locals, told me to watch my back and tread with caution. Many suggested I travel to a different destination. But in reality, I felt safer in Colombia than in many places in the United States. It’s sad that Narcos and other glorified media sources have tainted the country’s reputation. Colombia has significantly increased in safety over the years. The locals are unbelievably friendly, and I never felt creeped out, cheated, or suspicious. In fact, I deem the locals friendlier than Texans. Obviously there are bad neighborhoods, just as there are bad neighborhoods in any city in the United States, that I only explored with local friends, and some neighborhoods my local friends wouldn’t even consider walking through alone. Most places, however, felt completely safe and there are police and security officers throughout. I went running, walking alone at night, traveling solo, and never felt uncomfortable. I’m not telling you to be careless, but I am saying that if you’re hesitant to visit Colombia because of safety concerns, brush them aside and buy the ticket. While many rural areas of Colombia can still be unsafe, I never felt threatened, even when I had to hike in the jungle in the pitch black and knock on stranger’s doors to find a place to sleep.
Brush up on your Spanish.
Unlike most other countries, where English is the universal language, Colombians aren’t as fluent in English as I’d hoped. In fact, Spanish was necessary to survive. And while hand gestures and charades can be useful, they can only help to a certain extent. Luckily, the locals are all very kind and even if your Spanish is broken, they enjoy meeting people from other countries and will try their best to help you. Even the taxi drivers would try to give me Spanish lessons in the car.
Always carry pesos.
Outside of Centro, basically no one has a credit card machine. Even if you go out planning on not spending anything, you never now if you’ll need a taxi or emergency bus ride. Another tip is that the taxis don’t have meters so agree on a price before you get to the destination.
Colombian Time is Real.
Take hours of operation with a grain of salt in most places. Businesses open and close when the workers feel like it that day. Luckily, most businesses are open fairly late into the night (unlike in Europe where most stores close around 5 pm) because it’s much cooler at that time. It’s not always wise to go walking around in the midday heat and humidity so many of the Caribbean cities come to life around dusk. However, it’s difficult to find anything open early, as most Colombians enjoy sleeping in. And if a Colombian tells you to meet up at a certain time, don’t be offended if they’re half hour to an hour (or even more) late. Colombians are very laid back and time is flexible here, so relax and try to enjoy this aspect of Colombian life. After all, where else can you be an hour late with no consequences? Kick back and enjoy la dulce vida.
Everything is cheap.
Even in Centro, compared to American prices, everything was so cheap. At 2500 pesos to a dollar, it takes a while to get used to see things priced in the thousands. But at the end of the day, I was getting my groceries for less than $8 USD per trip, group taxis for $1 USD per trip, and even clothes for amazing deals. Just don’t shop in the touristy areas, as you’ll likely pay more.
Eat the Fruits
I had no idea so many weird fruits existed. Things like maracuya (passion fruit), cherimoya, uchuva, guanabana, and lulo are just a few examples of tropical fruits available in the region. It’s so fun to grab an unknown fruit and figure out how to eat it. The variety is dizzying, but definitely one of the most interesting culinary aspects of the country. And you can find fruit anywhere, as every streets seems to have a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of some kind of produce for sale.
My Favorite Points of Interest
This city is beautiful. Vivid colonial buildings framed by an ancient wall make Centro a great place to start. A bit touristy, there are still a number of interesting cafes, restaurants, and shops. It’s a great place to just stroll around and get lost. Outside of the walled city, however, the city becomes much more interesting. The neighborhood I lived in was called Crespo, and it was nice in that the beach was a short 3-minute walk from my house. This area has a very retired feel to it, everything is nice and calm. A few streets over, however, and the poor parts of the city are visible. Here, dirt floors, bright shanty-like homes, and flea markets pop up. I thought this was the most fascinating part of the city, and was where I volunteered. While my coordinators told us to never visit these neighborhods alone, there was something beautiful (and obviously sad) in these dirty streets lined with bright homes, smiling undressed children in the doorways, and grandparents sitting on the porches watching all the passersby’s.
Santa Marta and Tayrona
Santa Marta is a great central location for getting around Colombia. From here, you can jump on a thirty minute bus to Tayrona National Park or a forty-five minute collectivo for Minca and the Sierra Nevadas de Santa Marta. Many bus lines go back and forth from Santa Marta to Cartagena.
While Santa Marta itself isn’t too much of a point of interest, Tayrona National Park is a must-see. The beautiful hikes in the jungle and the secluded beaches along the way make for a perfect few days in the outdoors. While you can choose to stay in a tent at one of the campsites, the hammock might be the better choice as the tent becomes stuffy and hot. But either way, the park abounds in beautiful views and is worth a night or two of discomfort. I stayed at Cabo San Juan, the second or third campsite and also the busiest. Luckily, it wasn’t as busy as I expected but there was still a decent crowd. The hikes past San Juan are very secluded, as no one really goes the whole way. I hiked the whole park in one day and made it back to San Juan around 5pm. Honestly, don’t overthink this trip, which is something many people do. I started early, skipped the bus that drops you off at the trail entrance, and just walked from the park entrance. It added an extra 30 or 45 minutes but that’s the point of going to a nature park anyways- to hike. The hike to San Juan wasn’t very difficult or long if you’re used to hiking, so I’d suggest doing what I did, and make the whole hike to Pueblito and then back to San Juan for a full day of good hiking. Plus, the trails past San Juan are much harder and more fun than the ones before, as they move uphill into the mountains of the park, offering plenty of Indiana Jones vibes and beautiful views without the crowds.
This was by far my favorite area of Colombia. This little mountain village is the starting point for the giant loop of hiking that winds through the Sierra Nevadas de Tayrona There are two coffee farms within close proximity of the hiking loops, as well as one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at – Casas Viejas. This hostel offers beautiful views and some of the best food I actually had in Colombia. The hiking is beautiful, and winds uphill towards Los Pinos, which offers a great view of the mountain range, back down to Minca. The Coffee and cocoa farms offer tours on demand and are worth a stop. There were no crowds, like those in Tayrona, and it seemed so incredibly untouched and undiscovered compared to other parts of Colombia. The summer is the wet season here, however, and while we didn’t get rained on (by some miracle), the ground is eternally muddy. Prepare for this with by wearing shoes you don’t mind destroying.
I wish I could go back and explore this country more. It was so less touristy than I expected, which is harder and harder to find these days. My entire two and a half weeks exploring, and I never saw a single Starbucks. I saw one McDonalds and a few Subways. But other than that, everything from the radio music to the grocery store options were unique and authentic. The southern part of the country enjoys Amazonian rainforest, the Northern part boasts the Caribbean coast and Sierra Nevada Mountains, while the central areas include higher elevations and the larger cities. In the extreme north you can even find desert. Colombia is a an adventurer’s paradise.