Colombia is attracting more and more tourists every year. It is home to one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, a land of color, mountains, and seashores, a year-round temperate climate, rich history, and arguably the world’s finest coffee. A growing number of people are deciding to retire here, too.
Here are nine things you should know before heading to South America’s most northern country.
1. Reputation And Safety
Colombia comes with a reputation. Unfortunately, it’s generally not a good one and is enough to deter many visitors. Political instability, violence, armed guerillas, and drug cartels grabbed the headlines in the ’90s and early 2000s and cast a dark shadow over this sizable (it’s three times the size of California) South American nation. However, this nation of 50 million, with its long and rich cultural history, geographical and ecological diversity, modern cities, and colorful towns is a living juxtaposition that is emerging from its dark days like a butterfly breaking out of its chrysalis. Not only are tourists beginning to arrive, but with its temperate coastal climate, very reasonable cost of living, and vastly improved security, today Colombia is a magnet for Americans looking for a place to retire.
Colombia has moved beyond the days of drug lord Pablo Escobar and his gun-toting, smuggling groupies as well as the various guerilla groups terrorizing neighborhoods. Although Colombia officially remains on the U.S. “Do Not Travel” list due to potential safety issues, there are plenty of tour operators offering packages here. They have discovered the beauty and history of Colombia and know they are onto a winner. My wife and I recently spent eight days here, felt very safe, and plan to return for a more extensive visit to discover more of this gem of a nation.
2. Where To Go And Not Go
Like many places in this world, there are areas where you do not want to go alone, especially at night, and preferably not with an expensive camera hanging around your neck. The latest Travel Advisory (Sept. 2021) from the U.S. Department of State lists 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) driven primarily by COVID-19 concerns (particularly the Mu variant) and civil unrest, crime, terrorism, and kidnapping in some areas. We visited two of the most popular cities — Cartagena and Medellin. We walked around alone in well-populated areas, ate at outdoor restaurants in the evenings, and took many taxis without ever feeling concerned about our security. We even visited Medellin’s (formerly) notorious Comuna 13 — one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world at the start of this century — but it’s still best to do this with a tour guide. As always, use common sense and avoid places specifically called out by the U.S. travel advisory.
Medellin (the locals pronounce it Medejin) is located on a plateau surrounded by the Colombian Andes at an elevation of around 5000 feet (some of its neighborhoods which have sprawled up the mountainside) are another 1000 feet higher. We did not feel the effects of altitude but it may be a consideration for some.
An hour’s drive from Medellin is the town of Guatapé, famous for a large rock (El Peñón de Guatapé) which you can climb (704 stairs) for wonderful views of the lakes beyond. The city is also famous for its colorful zócalos (murals) that adorn several buildings.
Cartagena is a must-see. Steeped in history, with a walled old town encompassing brightly colored neighborhoods and with a coastline on the Caribbean Sea, it’s no surprise the place is a major draw for Colombians on vacation.
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 temperate year-round climate varies very little. It’s a very pleasant 70–80 degrees Fahrenheit year round. This area 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 similarly constant but with temperatures about 10 degrees higher. The most popular time to visit this coastal city is December to April when there is little to no rain but expect the beaches to be crowded.
We visited Medellin and Cartagena in September, enjoyed al fresco dining in the evenings, walked around in T-shirts and shorts, and had only an hour of rain. It was a good time to visit.
4. Getting Around
Taxis are plentiful in the cities but usually much smaller than U.S. residents may be accustomed to. They are typically yellow, seat four (five is a tight squeeze in a small Renault, Kia, or Hyundai) and have manual window openers (remember those?). So, if you are traveling as a family with large suitcases, you may need to hail two cabs or wait for an unusually large taxi. There are few SUVs or F-150s here. Taxis do not have meters so you should always ask the price before setting off. Although prices are cheap (a 3-mile trip into Cartagena’s old town was $3) negotiation is usual and expected.
Medellin is surrounded by the Andes and as the city has grown, neighborhoods have expanded up the hillsides so, if you’re going to explore these, bring comfortable walking shoes.
Prepare to become a millionaire! The exchange rate for the Colombian peso to U.S. dollars is around 3300 to $1 so you will be carrying half a million pesos in your wallet if you bring in $150 cash. Prices are frequently quoted in thousands (e.g 20k peso is 20,000 Colombian pesos or just over $6 U.S. Most things — especially services — are much cheaper than in the U.S. Most restaurants accept credit cards and they will bring the card reader to you. At larger restaurants, a 10 percent tip is often included in your bill. Check to make sure you don’t end up tipping twice.
We found English was widely spoken in the larger city hotels but not necessarily in restaurants nor with taxi drivers. A few words of Spanish goes a long way and having your destination address written for cab drivers helps too.
7. What To Bring
The clothes you will need obviously depend on the weather but since the climate is relatively consistent year round, you will need some essentials no matter when you travel. With constant sunshine, sunscreen is always a good idea as are sunglasses and a hat. In the rainy season, don’t forget a small umbrella and lightweight, rainproof jacket. Good walking shoes are a must to explore the older areas of Cartagena and Guatapé. Bring Colombian pesos if you plan to venture away from the larger metropolises.
8. Dealing With COVID Requirements
COVID requirements change all the time but good and timely planning will help a lot. Do check the Centers For Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) page on Columbia as well as the U.S.entry requirements.
Face masks are worn inside and outside in Colombia regardless of vaccination status and we found adherence to be universal. On LATAM flights, cloth masks were not permitted — you had to wear either an N95 or blue surgical type mask. It’s worth checking your airline’s requirements.
Entry into the airport terminal in Cartagena is strictly controlled. Passengers have to show their departure details before being allowed to enter no more than 3 hours before scheduled departure. It’s worth heeding the advice to arrive early though as COVID requirements can change and catch people out resulting in more time filling out forms.
Colombia requires you to complete a Health Check Migration form (known as Check-MIG) prior to entry and a second MIG form to depart the country. Forms are only available online and you can save a lot of time by filling these out before you get to the airport. We didn’t complete ours ahead of time on the way back not realizing a health check form was required to actually leave the country. Don’t make this mistake. The only publicly available WiFi signal in the airport was at a small coffee bar (fortunately it was open) where the WiFi passcode is printed on your receipt once you had purchased something.
In these days of COVID-19, it is very handy to have your own approved-for-return-to-the-U.S. testing kits (bring more than you need). You will need an internet connection and also video capability to communicate during the testing process so a laptop/iPad or good cellphone is a must.
9. Tours And Guides
There are lots of tours available in both Cartagena and Medellin. We found them to be invaluable to quickly learn about the city and learn details that would have otherwise passed us by. We can recommend Macondo though, of course, the tour is only as good as the guide. Medellin’s Comuna 13 neighborhood with its colorful murals is a must-visit area. There are a number of “unofficial” guides who live in the neighborhood and will soon offer to take you around. Beware — it’s advisable to book an official guide from a reputable company and preferably one who lives in the neighborhood. We toured with SAGTourMedellin which was excellent.
Colombia has so much to offer; from Caribbean beaches to snow-capped peaks, from colorful towns with fascinating histories and colonial architecture to modern skyscraper cities. It offers a temperate year-round climate that supports one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and visiting is very affordable and it’s nearer than you think. Don’t let its recent past history deter you from discovering this gem of a nation.
Here are some other reasons why you should visit Colombia: