Colombia attracts more and more tourists every year. It is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, a land of colors, mountains and seaside, a temperate climate all year round, a rich history and arguably the best coffee in the world. An increasing number of people are also deciding to retire here.
Here are nine things you need to know before heading to South America’s northernmost country.
1. Reputation and security
Colombia has a reputation. Unfortunately, this is usually not good and is enough to deter many visitors. Political instability, violence, armed guerrillas and drug cartels made headlines in the 1990s and early 2000s and cast a shadow over this important South American nation (that’s three times the size of California). However, this nation of 50 million people, with its long and rich cultural history, geographic and ecological diversity, modern cities and colorful towns is a living juxtaposition that emerges from its dark days like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Not only are tourists starting to arrive, but with its temperate coastal climate, very reasonable cost of living, and vastly improved security, Colombia today attracts Americans looking for a place to retire.
Colombia has passed the time of drug lord Pablo Escobar and his armed and smuggling groupies as well as the various guerrilla groups terrorizing neighborhoods. Although Colombia officially remains on the US ‘Do Not Travel’ list due to potential safety concerns, many tour operators offer packages here. They have discovered the beauty and history of Colombia and know they are on the right track. My wife and I recently spent eight days here, felt very safe and plan to return for a more in-depth visit to experience more of this gem of a nation.
2. Where to go and where not to go
Like many places in this world, there are some areas you don’t want to go alone, especially at night, and preferably not with an expensive camera hanging around your neck. The latest Travel Advisory (September 2021) from the US Department of State ranks Colombia at Level 3 (Reconsider Travel). Just a few weeks ago (when my wife and I visited) it was at level 4 (Do not travel) mainly due to concerns related to COVID-19 (especially the Mu variant) and civil unrest, crime, terrorism and kidnappings in certain areas. We visited two of the most popular cities – Cartagena and Medellin. We walked around well-populated areas on our own, ate in outdoor restaurants in the evenings, and took numerous taxis without ever worrying about our safety. We even visited Medellin’s famous Comuna 13 (formerly) – one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world at the start of this century – but it’s always best to do so with a guide. As always, use common sense and avoid places specifically indicated in the US travel advisory.
Medellin (locals say it Medejin) is located on a plateau surrounded by the Colombian Andes at an elevation of about 5,000 feet (some of its neighborhoods that stretched out into the mountainside) are still 1,000 feet higher. We didn’t feel the effects of the altitude but that may be a consideration for some.
An hour’s drive from Medellin is the town of Guatape, famous for a large rock (El Peñón de Guatapé) that you can climb (704 steps) for wonderful views of the lakes beyond. The city is also famous for its zocalos (murals) that adorn several buildings.
Cartagena is a must see. Steeped in history, with a walled old town encompassing brightly colored neighborhoods and a coastline on the Caribbean Sea, it’s no surprise that the location is a major draw for vacationing Colombians.
3. When to go
Medellín is known as the city of eternal spring “ciudad de la eterna primavera)”, and for good reason. Located less than 450 miles from the equator, its year-round temperate climate varies very little. It’s a very pleasant year at 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This region of Colombia is green and lush, which means rain. April to June and September to November are the wet seasons and you should expect some rain each day.
Cartagena’s climate is also constant, but with temperatures around 10 degrees higher. The most popular time to visit this coastal town is December through April, when it rains little or no, but expect the beaches to be crowded.
We visited Medellin and Cartagena in September, enjoyed the alfresco dinners in the evenings, walked around in T-shirts and shorts, and only had an hour of rain. It was a good time to visit.
4. Getting around
Taxis are plentiful in cities, but generally much smaller than those US residents are used to. They’re usually yellow, seat four (five is a little squeeze in a small Renault, Kia, or Hyundai), and have manual window openers (remember that?). So, if you are traveling as a family with large suitcases, you may have to hail two taxis or wait for an unusually large taxi. There are few SUVs or F-150s here. Taxis do not have a meter, so always ask for the price before leaving. While the prices are cheap (a 5km trip to Cartagena Old Town was $ 3) bargaining is usual and expected.
Medellin is surrounded by the Andes and as the city has grown the neighborhoods have grown into the hills. If you plan to explore them, bring comfortable walking shoes.
Prepare to become a millionaire! The exchange rate between the Colombian peso and the US dollar is around $ 3,300 to $ 1, so you’ll have half a million pesos in your wallet if you bring $ 150 in cash. Prices are frequently quoted in thousands (for example, 20,000 pesos is 20,000 Colombian pesos or just over US $ 6. Most things – especially services – are much cheaper than in the United States. Most restaurants accept credit cards and they will bring you the card reader. In larger restaurants, a 10% tip is often included in your bill. Make sure you don’t tip twice.
We found that English was widely spoken in major hotels in the city, but not necessarily in restaurants or with taxi drivers. A few words of Spanish go a long way and having your destination address written down for taxi drivers helps too.
7. What to bring
The clothes you will need will obviously depend on the weather, but since the climate is relatively constant all year round, you will need a few essentials no matter when you are traveling. With constant sunlight, sunscreen is always a good idea, as are sunglasses and a hat. In the rainy season, don’t forget a small umbrella and a light, waterproof jacket. Good walking shoes are essential for exploring the older neighborhoods of Cartagena and Guatape. Bring Colombian pesos if you plan to venture away from major metropolises.
8. Dealing with COVID Requirements
COVID requirements change all the time, but good and timely planning will help a lot. Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) page on Columbia as well as US entry requirements.
Face masks are worn indoors and outdoors in Colombia regardless of vaccination status and we have found that adherence is universal. On LATAM flights, cloth masks were not allowed – you had to wear an N95 or blue surgical type mask. It is worth checking your airline’s requirements.
Entrance to the Cartagena airport terminal is strictly controlled. Passengers must show their departure details before being allowed in no more than 3 hours before scheduled departure. It’s worth following the advice to arrive early, as COVID requirements can change and catch people, resulting in more time filling out forms.
Colombia requires that you complete a Health Check Migration Form (known as Check-MIG) before entry and a second MIG form to leave the country. The forms are only available online and you can save a lot of time by filling them out before arriving at the airport. We did not fill ours out in advance on the way home, not realizing that a health check form was needed to leave the country. Don’t make this mistake. The only WiFi signal available to the public in the airport was in a small cafe (luckily it was open) where the WiFi access code is printed on your receipt once you have purchased something.
In these days of COVID-19, it is very convenient to have your own test kits approved for return to the United States (bring more than you need). You will need an internet connection and video capability to communicate during the testing process, so a laptop / iPad or a good cell phone is a must.
9. Visits and guides
Many tours are available in Cartagena and Medellin. We have found them invaluable for quickly learning about the city and learning details that would otherwise have eluded us. We can recommend Macondo although of course the tour is only as good as the guide. The Comuna 13 district of Medellin with its colorful murals is a must-see. Many “unofficial” guides live in the neighborhood and will soon offer to accompany you. Please note, it is advisable to book an official guide with a reputable company and preferably one that lives in the neighborhood. We did a tour with SAGTourMedellin which was excellent.
Colombia has so much to offer; from snow-capped Caribbean beaches, colorful towns with fascinating stories and colonial architecture to modern skyscraper towns. It offers a temperate year-round climate that supports one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and the tour is very affordable and closer than you might think. Don’t let its recent past stop you from discovering this gem of a nation.
Here are some other reasons why you should visit Colombia: