Although I did a fair bit of ‘pre-Colombian’ trip planning before heading off for 22 days of exploring this beautiful and diverse country, there’s no substitute for actually going somewhere when it comes to helpful travel tips. So here are 6 essential travel tips for visiting Colombia that will make your trip as enjoyable and memorable as ours.
1. Leave the paranoia at home.
Colombia has come a long way since its days of widespread guerrilla and paramilitary unrest, and in the 3 weeks we spent there, I never felt uneasy or at risk. There is still the presence of militia on some of what were once the more dangerous crossroads, but their random vehicle checks serve mainly as a deterrent for criminals, and pose no threat to visitors. In fact, most usually give you a thumbs-up or a smile, even posing for a photo if you ask. (I’ve found that asking first is always a good policy when someone is holding a gun.) That’s not to say that s*&t doesn’t happen in some of the more remote regions in the country, and it probably helps if you are travelling with a guided group. But don’t let the cocaine legacy of Colombia keep you from visiting – you’ll be missing out on a wonderful destination.
2. Drink the coffee, not the wine.?
Colombia doesn’t make wine – at least none that is any good – they import it from Argentina or Chile, which means it is expensive. But they do grow lots and lots of coffee, so as the expression goes, “when in Rome…”. Unfortunately, most of their best beans get exported to other coffee-holics around the world, which has led to Colombians finding their own way to drink the less premium beans: with panela (raw cane sugar) that is sometimes dissolved into the water beforehand, and helps to mellow the bitterness. This is changing, with more of the better beans staying in the country, and you can now find cafes where the premium beans are brewed, including the Juan Valdez Cafe chain if you need your fix. (I would expect nothing less from a cafe named after the coffee industry’s icon.) But I prefer the local flavour (in every sense) that comes with smaller independent coffee shops.
3. Fly, don’t drive.
Colombia is one hilly freakin’ country, what with 3 sets of Cordillera mountains running through half of it. And that means zig-zagging your way through incredible valleys, stunning gorges, and over high plateaus.
But it also means it can take you 3 hours to drive 95 kilometres. So if you’re in a rush for time, fly. It’s affordable and there are frequent flights everywhere in the country from Bogota, the capital, through Avianca air.
4. Monster-sized restaurant meals.
Colombians typically have their big meal at lunchtime, and whatever you order as a main usually comes with plantain, arepas (a kind of soft biscuit), rice, potatoes, or any combination thereof. Even ordering just soup, like their specialty, ajiaco, is a meal in itself, with a robust base of chicken chunks and 3 kinds of potato in a yummy broth, to which you add sour cream, capers, avocado, and of course, half a cob of corn. So if you’re not prepared to slip into a food coma in the afternoon, consider grabbing smaller bites for lunch and save the big meal for dinner.
5. Altitude means temperature/clothing changes
Colombia is close to the equator but very hilly (see point 3) which means at times you can be travelling at 8,000 to 10,000 feet of elevation, or conversely, you can find yourself only 300 feet above sea level in an Amazonian tropical rainforest. That means you’ll need to bring a variety of lighter and heavier-weight clothing if you plan on hopping around the country. Oh, and nothing really air dries in the Amazon, so you should think about quick-dry/performance (wicking) types of shirts – and panties – if you plan on staying there for any length of time.
6. Bring a dictionary.
Whether it’s an app or an old-school Collins book, if you’re not comfortable fumbling around in Spanish, you’ll want to bring something with you to help. Because the beauty of Colombia is that it is NOT overrun with tourists yet, meaning English is not a language you’ll find easily if you venture anywhere outside bigger hotels in big cities. (The exception is Cartagena because it has been a cruise ship destination for years.) So have some fun, and get in touch with your inner Latino!