Colombia


Overview

Colombia travel guide, including map of Colombia, food, drink, where to stay in Colombia, weather, health and things to do in Colombia

Once South America's kidnap capital, most of Colombia is now wholly safe and thrillingly uncommercialised – in 2010 Wanderlust readers voted it their favourite emerging destination worldwide.

Opportunities for climbing, trekking and diving are excellent. You can bathe in pools of volcanic mud, acres of flowers, remote coffee fincas high in the mountains and a CD library’s worth of music festivals. To top it all there are some superb historical sites.

The jewel in Colombia’s colonial crown is the beautiful city of Cartagena, full of wonderful old buildings lining flower-filled streets, with a fascinating history rich in emeralds and pirates. After a day of history, the city also does a smart line in international-standard beach resorts.

To the east lies Tayrona National Park, where visitors share the beaches with pelicans, enjoying an idyllic vista, the pale blue waters of the Caribbean offset by the snow-capped mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Inland, high up in the mountains, is Ciudad Perdida – an ancient centre of the once-great Tayrona culture.

Head to Zipaquirá, just a short bus-ride from Bogotá, to explore the awesome cathedral carved out of a rock-salt mine – a true wonder of this mysterious country and a favourite with pious Colombian tourists.

To the south-west, hidden in the jungle surrounding the town of San Agustín, lies one of the country’s most impressive pre-Colombian sites: the Valley of the Statues. Equally spectacular are the burial chambers in nearby Tierradentro, for which the village is famous. Scramble down the rock-hewn steps into tombs carved with ancient faces and watch as geometric patterns, celestial bodies and animals painted in red and yellow pigment appear out of the darkness.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Find a lost city. The Cuidad Perdida gets its name for a reason. Colombia's answer to Machu Picchu - but 650 years older - was only discovered in 1972, and off-limits for much of the time since. Six-day rugged hikes will find it - with a guide
  2. Chill on a beach. Equatorial Colombia should be a great place to swim, but the Pacific Coast is wet and not especially secure. Fortunately its Caribbean Coast is idyllic. Cartagena and Santa Marta are the most developed resorts, San Andres and Providencia are beautiful islands, and Koralia beach, back on the mainland, is the ultimate in chic
  3. Saddle up for the Valley of the Idols. The pre-Colombian sculptures at San Agustin in the south portray child sacrifice and more, but are beautifully scattered in verdant, rolling countryside. Rent a horse to tour the sites
  4. Get cured. Down by the southern border with Ecuador, Las Lajas is a fairy-tale church built across a narrow gorge. Stacks of discarded crutches attest to its healing properties. The church is always busy with indigenous Indians, a rarity in Colombia
  5. Go for gold. The metal that fired Spain's period of empire was usually melted down for easy transport home. See the sculptures that got away in Bogota's magnificent Gold Museum.
  6. Live like a drug lord. The head of the Medellin drug cartel, Pablo Escobar, once offered to pay Colombia's national debt. Instead he was hunted down by the police (and the Cali Cartel took over his business). Escobar is still something of a hero in his hometown, Medellin: step in his footsteps and look around his villa with a special Drug Lord tour.
  7. Spa surprise. At the Volcan del Totumo near Cartagena you can bathe in hot volcanic mud. It's not the world's most impressive cone - think a five-storey building rather than a challenging trek - but the mud column stretches a mile and a half down

Wanderlust tips

Most Colombians eat breakfast and dinner at home so some restaurants close in the evening. Take advantage of the generous set menus offered in local establishments and make lunch your main meal of the day.

Be careful with electric showers in cheaper hotels as the wiring can be dodgy and always carry your own toilet paper – many places don’t provide it.

Happy, good-natured Colombians turn into angry maniacs behind the wheel so look both ways when you cross the road, look again and don't assume drivers will stop.

I wish I'd known...

Wanderlust web intern Thomas Rees on the thing he wished he'd known before he arrived:

"Make time for a trip to Barranquilla during Carnival, when the city plays host to colourful parades and the streets echo to the sounds of salsa. Along with Santiago de Cali in the west of the country, Barranquilla boasts the best music scene in the Colombia."

Further Reading

Travel in Colombia: vital statistics

  • Capital of Colombia: Bogotá
  • Population of Colombia: 45.6 million
  • Languages in Colombia: Spanish, plus indigenous languages/dialect
  • Time in Colombia: GMT- 5
  • International dialling code in Colombia: +57
  • Voltage in Colombia: 220 AC 50 Hz
  • Visas for Colombia: Colombia visas
  • Money in Colombia: Colombian peso (COP). Exchange rates for anything except the American dollar are low and you’d be better off withdrawing money from an ATM with your credit card. Haggle for un-metered taxis and intercity buses.
  • Colombia travel advice: Foreign & Commonwealth Office
  • Colombia tourist board: Colombia official tourism portal

When to go to Colombia

Colombia’s dry season, or verano (‘summer’), is December to March, with a second dry period mid-June to mid-August (except in the northern plains). These are the best times to visit and when most festivals take place. Temperatures are fairly constant year round, varying with altitude more than season.

International airports

Bogota (El Dorado) (BOG) 12km from city; Barranquilla (BAQ) 10km from city; Cali (CLO) 19km from the city; Cartagena (CTG) 2km from the city.

Getting around Colombia

Domestic flights connect to all major cities and towns via frequent, daily services to and from Bogotá. Standards are high, perhaps because problems with road travel mean Colombia has relied on air transport. Long-distance buses link many of Colombia’s major transport hubs but are susceptible to armed robbery and guerrilla activity, not to mention accidents. In cities public transport is excellent, with joined-up systems that include metro, bus, cable car, plentiful, inexpensive taxis and dirt-cheap shared minibuses.

Colombia accommodation

Accommodation is springing up all over the place in Colombia, especially backpacker hostels in towns on the gringo trail.

It’s also worth looking for a private room in small hotels – many of them are great value.

High-end hotels are mainly clustered in the big cities with few mid-range options.

Campsites are expensive. Caffeine lovers looking for something different can stay on a coffee finca.

Colombia food & drink

Colombians don’t like to mess about with their food. They like good unpretentious grub, simply served. Breakfast might be huevos pericos (scrambled eggs with tomato and onion) followed by a hearty lunch of meat, rice, beans and a salad. Arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) is a staple. For snacks, look for tasty tamales (a meat pie steamed in a banana leaf) and arepas (flat maize cakes cooked on a griddle). Sugar fiends should try brevas con arequipe (figs smothered in a gooey brown syrup).

Health & safety in Colombia

Healthcare in Colombia is reasonably good, especially in cities; in rural areas you’ll need to travel with a first aid kit.

Yellow fever vaccination is advised, especially if you’re travelling through any national parks, as are polio, tetanus, diphtheria and hepatitis A jabs. Malaria prophylaxis is recommended for travel to rural, low-lying areas. Heatstroke is a real danger, especially in the beach and jungle regions. Drinking untreated tap water isn’t recommended. 

As for security, visitors who apply common sense should expect an incident-free stay in Colombia. A 78% drop in kidnappings since 2002 is reassuring. At the time of writing, Bogotá has less reported kidnaps than Buenos Aires or Mexico City. Still, you should avoid road travel after dark and heed warnings regarding landmines in rural regions. Some areas remain out of bounds: take local advice and steer clear.