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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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