Colombia is becoming a popular place to travel to in South America. It’s a country of diverse landscapes, from coastal villages to Andean Mountains, gorgeous beaches to lush jungles and coffee plantations to colonial towns. With its rich history, culture and stunning natural scenery, Colombia has plenty to offer tourists. If you’re thinking of visiting this amazing country, here’s 15 things to know before going to Colombia.
Colombia was one of the first places I travelled to with my kids, and even with having my purse stolen – read the section on safety below! – it was still such a great experience for us.
But I found that when I was planning our trip, there was so little information on what to know before going to Colombia and we basically learned as we went.
So we’ve compiled this list of things to know before going to Colombia, to help make your trip planning a bit easier, and to avoid the lessons we learned the hard way!
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First things first though.
Whether you’ve already booked a trip to Colombia or you’re just thinking of visiting, one of the most important things to know before going to Colombia is how to spell it.
It’s Colombia, not Columbia. That one letter makes a big difference!
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s get on to what you should know before going to Colombia.
15 Things to Know Before Going to Colombia
When we first booked our trip, there were so many people that asked “is Colombia safe to travel to?”
And while Colombia once had a reputation as being unsafe, that’s no longer true.
The stories we’ve heard about drug cartels, corruption and kidnapping may have been true years ago but nowadays Colombia is a fairly safe country.
I say fairly safe, because there are a few areas, such as the border with Venezuela and parts of the Amazon region that aren’t recommended to travel to for safety reasons. Aside from that, Colombia is safe to travel to.
In fact, I didn’t hesitate to travel there with my twin three year olds.
As with any time you’re travelling, use common sense. Don’t walk around at night, and if you do go out at night, take a taxi and be sure to use a registered taxi.
Try not to draw attention to the fact that you’re a tourist in Colombia. While you’ll definitely want to take photos, don’t walk around with your camera out all the time, like you might in other countries.
And don’t leave your belongings unattended, especially cell phones and cameras.
We learned that lesson the hard way – checking into our hotel, I set my bag down at my feet to hand over my passports (luckily!) and someone standing beside me walked off with my bag and wallet. Always be aware of your belongings and don’t set anything down, unless you’re inside your hotel room!
Colombians are very family oriented and children are always welcome.
In fact, you’ll find priority lines for families with young kids all over, from the customs lines at the airport to taxi queues and entrances to attractions. Really, if you’re travelling with small kids you’ll be ushered to the front of any line.
There are plenty of things to do with kids in Colombia as well. In Bogota, there’s an excellent children’s museum called Maloka, which is interactive and educational.
There are also parks, playgrounds and outdoor spaces all over the city, as well as a cable car ride that takes you to the top of Monserrate for stunning views of the city.
In Medellin, don’t miss a visit to Parque Explora, an interactive science museum that will keep the kids entertained for hours and in Cartagena, kids will love exploring the old walls or riding the hop-on, hop-off bus to see the sights.
If you’re travelling with kids, Colombia is definitely a great choice for a family vacation.
Colombia is a tropical country but it’s also mountainous, so temperatures will vary throughout the country.
Some places, like Bogota, are high in the mountains and will be cooler than places along the coast, like Cartagena.
In Bogota, expect spring like weather, cool temps through the day with nights being a touch chillier, while Cartagena is much more tropical and has hot humid days with warmer nights.
Being so close to the equator means that temperatures in Colombia remain fairly consistent throughout the year. And while temperatures remain consistent, as with many tropical countries, rainfall does not.
The rainy season is generally from April to May and September to November, with November being the rainiest month of the year.
So if you’re looking to avoid the rain, the best time to visit Colombia is from December to March. But keep in mind that this is also high season so accommodation and flights will be more expensive during this time.
While some places in Colombia are on the coast or a lower elevation, there are also many places that are at a higher elevation in the mountains.
Bogota is an amazing place to visit – one of my favourites to be honest, but it’s also one of the highest capital cities in the world.
This means that there are few things to keep in mind: don’t plan too much for your first day, just in case you need to adapt to the elevation and be sure to drink plenty of water.
Also, sunscreen is a good idea, even if it’s not too hot out – the high altitude means that the sun is much stronger.
5. What to Pack
Colombia is a tropical country, but with its diverse landscape and altitude changes, you will need to pack differently depending where you are going to.
A good rule of thumb is to pack warm weather clothes, sunscreen and bathing suits if you will be visiting the coast, and layers and jackets for more places in higher altitudes.
We brought pants, short sleeve shirts and a jacket for when we were in Bogota, and shorts and tees and summer dresses for Cartagena.
We also suggest bringing a rain jacket, especially if you are travelling in the rainy season (anytime outside of December to February).
While Spanish is the official language, some people will speak English at hotels and tourist attractions, as many Colombians learn English as a second language.
However, don’t expect everyone to speak English and it’s always appreciated if you can at least say a few words or phrases in Spanish.
Hola (hello), por favour (please) and gracias (thank you) will go a long way!
Another important phrase that we always to try learn is “habla usted Inglés” (do you speak English), and “dónde está…” (where is) is good to know as well!
Google translate is also a fantastic app for families that travel and it can definitely help in many situations.
Food in Colombia is delicious although it can be very sweet and there is plenty of fried food. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it can take a bit to get used to if it’s different than what you normally eat.
That being said, there are also many healthy options available, especially if you’re in a larger city like Bogota or Medellin.
One of the most popular dishes in Colombia is called bandeja paisa and it’s a plate of food that includes beans, rice, avocado, plantain, chorizo, and arepa (a fried corn cake).
You’ll also find arepas sold all over, filled with ham, cheese or even chicken.
Empanadas, which are pastries filled with meat and potatoes, are also popular and available everywhere.
And be sure to try ajiaco – it’s a Bogota specialty but you’ll find it throughout the country. Ajiaco is a chicken soup, served with corn, capers, avocado and a bit of cream.
There’s also plenty of fresh fruit, pineapple and papaya, guava and Lulu (only found in Colombia) as well. You can find fresh fruit in any market in Colombia or from the fruit ladies in Cartagena.
Ceviche is also a popular food to try in Colombia, especially when in Cartagena or elsewhere on the coast.
The local currency is Colombian pesos, COP. Paper bills range from COP$1,000 to COP$100,000, but at the high end, that’s only roughly $20USD so don’t be surprised to see the large numbers on bills.
Exchanging money at the airport is a possibility, but the rates are not great. Outside of the airport, it’s hard to find currency exchange places, so your best bet is to withdraw money as needed from an ATM.
ATM’s are widely available and will accept most international bank cards.
Credit cards and debit cards are accepted as well, although you will find many places outside of hotels and tourist attractions will only take cash. Street vendors, local souvenir shops and markets will only accept cash.
Most restaurants will accept credit cards, and they will bring the card reader to you. Although tipping is not required in Colombia, it’s welcomed. At large restaurants, a 10% tip is often included in your bill, so check to ensure you aren’t tipping twice.
Taxis are the most popular form of public transportation in Colombia and they are very inexpensive. As we mentioned above, be sure to use registered taxis and never get in a taxi if there is someone else other than the driver.
Another important things to know before going to Colombia, is that as in many other countries, seatbelts are not always required and will often not fit North American car seats.
If you plan to travel in Colombia, long distance buses are comfortable and usually have air conditioning. But distances between places can be long and may be worth taking a flight.
Colombia isn’t the largest country in South America, but it’s still pretty big!
Flights within the country are fairly inexpensive.
This might seem a bit odd to include in a list of things to know before going to Colombia, but it’s an important one!
Colombians speak Spanish, which means all of the signs will also be in Spanish.
When using the washrooms, the “M” stands for mujeres, which means women, not men as you would find in English speaking countries. The mens side will have an “H” for hombres.
11. Sidewalks and Strollers
Another slightly odd thing to mention is sidewalks, but hear me out.
If you’re travelling with young kids and using a stroller, it can be quite tricky to get around.
The streets are uneven, or even sometimes missing pieces, and this can be tricky with stroller wheels, especially umbrella strollers.
There’s also not usually a ramp at the edge of the sidewalk, so you’re bumping the stroller up and down every time you cross a road.
This isn’t meant to deter you from visiting with kids though!
Just be aware that it’s not the most stroller-friendly place to visit.
I didn’t find Bogota to be that bad, but after the first day of fighting with the sidewalks in Cartagena, I ended up leaving the stroller at our accommodation and just walking everywhere.
A baby carrier or wrap can be a good idea, although keep in mind that it’s pretty hot and humid!
It’s quite common to see military in the streets, especially in Bogota. However it’s not something to be concerned about and it doesn’t mean that it’s unsafe, it’s just part of daily life.
You’ll see them around government buildings, but also just walking the streets or standing on corners.
They’re not to be feared, as is the case in some countries, or a sign of an issue or a riot, as we experienced when we visited Chile. They’re around to make sure nothing does happen, or as security for government officials.
It took a bit of time to get used to, but really they were very helpful with directions or even helping you cross the street in the crazy traffic of Bogota.
There are plenty of souvenirs to buy in Colombia. Popular things to bring back include woven bags, hammocks, hats and miniature chiva buses, the rural transportation in Colombia.
Emeralds are another popular souvenir to buy, but to ensure you have an authentic emerald, it’s best to buy them at the emerald trade market in Bogota. You can also take an emerald tour that takes you through the market and shows you how to identify authentic emeralds.
But there are so many other great ideas that we’ve written a whole separate post on souvenirs from Colombia.
I probably shouldn’t have saved this one until the end, but the people in Colombia are very helpful and friendly.
At first I thought it was because I was travelling with young kids, but during our time in Colombia, we found that locals were quick to help with advice or information anytime someone asked.
And if there weren’t sure, they would quickly find someone who could help you.
Even if you didn’t ask for help, locals were still helpful, whether it was pointing out the shorter line to wait for an attraction or just smiling and saying hello.
Of course, you will always find exceptions to this rule, but in general we found the people of Colombia to be extremely helpful and friendly.
15. You Will be Back
Colombia is such a diverse yet fascinating country that I guarantee you will want to return.
It’s a large country and there simply isn’t enough time to see everything that you want to see!
Whether you have one week, two weeks or even a month, I guarantee you will leave with places you still want to visit.
I know we did!
Colombia was one of the first places I travelled to with my kids, and even with having my purse stolen, it was still such a great experience for us.
But I found that when I was planning our trip, there was so little information on what to know before going to Colombia and we basically learned as we went!
I hope this list of things to know before visiting Colombia has helped you plan your trip!
It’s an amazing country, with so much to see and do. In fact, it’s been on our list to visit Colombia again, as there are still SO many interesting places to visit within the country.
And with its relatively low cost of travel, it’s becoming an increasingly popular destination, which means that now is the time to visit Colombia!