As travelers discover the wonders of Colombia, it is quickly becoming a must-see destination. For many people the idea that this country is not safe still lingers, but this beautiful place has undergone an amazing transformation over the last few decades. An intro to traveling around Colombia will give you the highlights to planning an incredible Colombia itinerary.
An intro to traveling around Colombia – the highlights
Colombia really does have a little something for everyone. Culture, history, food, music, dancing, shopping, and nature – from the Amazon to the lush mountains to the beautiful beaches and blue water. On top of all that, this South American country is surprisingly affordable – what’s not to love! An intro to traveling around Colombia, will hit on the highlights you’ll want to know about while planning your South American adventure.
Its Col-o-mbia, not Col-u-mbia
And that is exactly how it is pronounced; so, take extra care to make those os with an “oh” sound and not an “uh” sound.
While the country is located on the equator, it isn’t all hot weather. It really depends on if you are in the mountains or not. In fact, you can find everything from sunny, hot beaches in the coastal areas, to warm, spring-like regions in the mountains, to snow-capped peaks in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. However, in each of these places, the weather is pretty much the same year around with the exception of a rainy season and a dry season.
It’s time to practice your Spanish! Not many people speak English here, so the ability to speak at least a little Spanish really is key. And if you want to visit some of the more out of the way destinations, Spanish is a must.
The Colombian Peso (COP) is the currency in Colombia, and while it is good to have some cash, you can use credit cards pretty much anywhere in the major cities. If you do need cash, there are ATMs (cajero) all over the cities – BBVA is my favorite because they don’t charge any fees. Typically, $100 US dollars will get you around 300,000 (300 mil pesos).
Occasionally when you pay for something with a credit card, you’ll be asked “Cuántas cuotas?” roughly, “How many payments?” If you’re American (like me), just go with “one,” “una.”
If you don’t have an international plan, I recommend getting one, but this is really up to you and how well you navigate in foreign places. Most places have free wi-fi, but I prefer not to connect to these. Again, it is up to you and your comfort level. I have T-Mobile and my plan automatically includes international data which is really nice when traveling!
For those of you who are new to traveling, if you don’t already have WhatsApp, it’s time to get this messaging app. It is one of the most popular messaging apps in the world and the majority of Colombians you communicate with will use it – your driver, your tour guide, your Airbnb host – and they don’t just send text messages, they will leave voice messages as well to keep you updated.
Electricity / Plugs
As a citizen of the United States, Colombia is incredibly easy because you don’t need adapters or converters, Colombia’s electric outlets accept U.S.-type plugs (socket types A and sometimes B) and run at 110 volts.
Food and grocery delivery
Rappi is an amazing delivery service for food, groceries, and errands. If you use Rappi in Colombia, be prepared to miss it when you get back home. Basically, Rappi will pick up and deliver almost anything for you for what I consider a small fee and tip. They will even run errands for you. Once we bought coffee from one of our favorite local coffee shops but forgot to get it ground. The next morning when we realized our mistake, Rappi came to our rescue – picking up our coffee, taking it to get ground, and bringing it back.
All the fruit (except yellow lemons)
Seriously, I had no idea the variety of delicious, colorful fruit that existed on this Earth until I went to Colombia. It’s strange to realize you don’t have an “English” name for something, because you’ve never seen it before, ever. Or that you only have one, high-level name for a whole group of things – passion fruit for example – there are a ton of very different varieties of passion fruit – each with their own unique name!
Think about it like this, there is a HUGE difference between a Honey Crisp apple and a Red Delicious apple, but if all you’ve ever had is a red delicious apple, this is what you consider an apple.
I highly recommend finding a fruit tour while in Colombia. Your guide will be able to pick the fruit when it is ripe, so you get the fruit at its best! Just don’t expect to see any yellow lemons for some unknown reason.
No intro to traveling around Colombia would be complete without giving you the highlights about some of the common food and drink you are likely to come across.
These little fried corn cakes are made of a special cooked corn flour called masarepa or masa de arepa and can be served with a piece of cheese or stuffed with all kinds of goodness including eggs, cheese, and avocado.
Empanadas are baked or fried pastries filled with meat and or cheese, like a little turnover or calzone.
arroz con coco (coconut rice)
Coconut rice is often served as a side and is simply rice cooked in coconut milk. Panela, a raw, brown sugar is added that helps make this rice simply delicious!
patacones / tostones – fried green plantain
These twice-fried plantains are like chips and are often served as a side or appetizer with a sauce for dipping.
This meal is typical of the Antioquia region (the area around Medellín and with Paisa’s, the people from that region) and it is quite the meal. In fact, it is an entire platter of food! It includes beans, rice, shredded ground beef, chicharron, chorizo, fried egg, plantain, avocado, and an arepa.
all the cheesy bread
- pan de bono – yuca or cassava starch/flour and masarepa, Colombian cheese
- pan de yuca – yuca or cassava starch/flour and cheese (quesco fresco)
- almojábanas – masarepa and cuajada cheese
limonada de coco
This refreshing drink is basically a coconut-lime drink smoothie – yum!
Milo is a popular powdered chocolate and malt mix that can be added to water or milk.
Hatsu makes a variety of things from snacks to soda, but you’ll notice one item in particular popping up again, again – the tea. The brightly colored bottles will catch your eye, but the flavors, like white tea & mangosteen and roses & lychee, will have you ordering Hatsu again and again.
This fruit tea or infusion is a delicious option when you want a warm drink and a break from coffee. The Aromática de frutas rojas is particularly delicious.
Aguardiente or “Guaro”
Aguardiente is a distilled liquor made from cane sugar and anise that you’ll see everywhere in Colombia and while it might be fun to try, it isn’t really something you sip on. I much prefer Pisco, and while it is Peruvian rather than Colombian, it is one of my favorites – try a Pisco Sour!
Menú del Día
Lunch is the time to look for this special set menu – it’s often both very budget friendly and delicious. You’ll typically get a fresh juice, appetizer (often soup), main dish, and sometimes a small desert for anywhere from 7,000 COP – 15,000 COP (7-15 mil pesos). I’ll usually add a coffee on at the end of my meal and it ends up being around $5 USD.
Colombia is known for its coffee, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to find a great cup of the stuff. In fact, a majority of the really good beans are exported. You’ll probably be surprised to see how many people use instant coffee. But don’t worry, there’s still a big coffee culture and you’ll be able to find that great cup of coffee in a coffee shops or on a coffee farm.
Juan Valdez is a well-known, Colombian, coffee shop (think Starbucks, Costa, or Tim Hortons). There’s one on almost every corner. As we are hitting on some of the highlights in this intro to traveling around Colombia, I want to introduce Juan Valdez as an easy and comfortable place to start your coffee journey, but you must venture beyond Juan Valdez while traveling around Colombia – there is so much more out there.
Uber and the Colombian government don’t always see eye to eye. After exiting the country momentary in early 2020, Uber was back after just a few weeks. When you get an order, get in the front seat, like you are riding around with an old friend and close the door softly!
Beat is another ride share option available in Colombia, but I’ve never used it myself.
He Who Must Not be Named
Remember how we just covered that the official language is Spanish and many Colombians don’t speak English. Now, if you are speaking in English and you’re talking about the country’s history with drug cartels and you’re mentioning people by name, that is the only thing a lot of Colombians will understand – they’ll just know you’re talking about him. So, to avoid giving this horrible person any attention and given that this is recent history and many Colombians remember the horrors of his actions it is best to avoid this topic.
- End of February / Beginning of March – Carnaval de Barranquilla
- April – Semana Santa – basically everything will be closed this week, so plan wisely
- August – Feria de las Flores
Did you know Colombia produces most of the world’s emeralds? If you are looking for a great, unique souvenir or gift from Colombia, emeralds are just the thing!
No dar papaya
This Colombian saying basically means don’t flaunt expensive things because it will only make you a target. Colombia is generally pretty safe if you stay aware of your surroundings. Keep in mind there is a big wealth discrepancy in the country and so you don’t want to be flashing your expensive iPhone or jewelry.
So, as they say in Colombia, no dar papaya, literally, don’t give papaya.
An into to traveling around Colombia -the highlights: Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena
If you are traveling to Colombia for the first time, you will want to spend some time in these big cities. An intro to traveling around Colombia will give you the highlights so you can see a lot in a short time span. Plus, these cities are pretty easy to travel to as they all have major international airports.
An intro to traveling around Colombia – the highlights: Bogotá
As the capital of Colombia, this is where the history is – it is a big city with museums, shopping, and nice restaurants. It is a busy, working city. The city is located high in the Andes at 2,640 m or 8,660 ft. so bring a sweater or jacket for the cooler temps.
The free walking tour from Beyond Colombia is a great way to get acquainted with the city when you arrive. But before your trip, check out these fun music videos to get a feel for what Bogotá is all about:
- Dove by Pillar Point – I saw this video right before my first trip to Colombia and I couldn’t wait to visit!
- Wild by Jonas Blue ft. – Will give you some incredible views of this stunning city
La Candelaria is the historic city center. It has cobblestone streets and colonial-era buildings. You’ll feel like you are in a different world when you are here. La Candelaria is home to many popular sites.
Museo del Oro – the Gold Museum
The Museo del Oro is home to more than 30,000 pieces of pre-Columbian gold. This is one of the largest collections of gold artifacts in the world. I recommend setting aside a of couple hours to wonder around and see everything.
This museum showcases the artwork of famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings, and sculptures.
Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Carmen
Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Carmen, is a distinctive red and white striped church that will be sure to catch your eye when you are walking around.
Plaza de Bolivar
This plaza in the heart of Bogotá is named after Simón Bolívar, who liberated many South American countries, including present day Colombia, from the Spanish. You can find his statue in the plaza (and many other places in Colombia). The square is surrounded by stunning buildings like the Palacio de Justicia (Palace of Justice), Palacio Liévano and Capitolio Nacional, and the Catedral Primada de Colombia that will have you feeling like you are in Europe.
Cerro de Monserrate
This 17th century monetary sits at 3,152 meters (10,341 feet) above sea level and delivers stunning views of the city below. You could hike to the top, but I recommend taking the funicular or cable car.
Where to go from Bogotá
From Bogotá there are many options for day and overnight trips. Visit Villa de Leyva with its cobblestone lanes, whitewashed colonial buildings, and Plaza Mayor, the largest square in Colombia. On the way stop to visit Zipaquirá and see the incredible underground Salt Cathedral. If you wanna learn more, check out Planning your trip to Zipaquirá & Villa de Leyva to get all the details about these great destinations!
An intro to traveling around Colombia – the highlights: Medellín
The truth is, I didn’t really care for Medellín the first time I visited – we stayed in a hotel and a guide showed us around all day. I didn’t get it. But after returning to spend more time in the city as a digital nomad, I absolutely fell in love and it is now my favorite city in Colombia. When I visit, I never want to leave! This intro to traveling around Colombia will give you some of the key highlights you should know when visiting Medellín, but don’t worry, we have a more in-depth overview of this great city in A guide to planning a trip to Medellín.
Medellín is more modern and dare I say it, fun, than Bogotá – it really is a completely different vibe. Plus, you can ditch that sweater because the weather is perfect (most of the time).
Medellín has all the conveniences of a modern-day city with a local-neighborhood vibe. You can drink the tap water; quickly call an Uber, taxi, or take the metro; and wander around all day shopping and hanging out in coffee shops, chatting with locals, expats, digital nomads, and other travelers.
Please go shopping – Medellín is a big center for textiles manufacturing and you can find some incredible pieces. People always stop me to ask about the pieces I have gotten here!
Did I mention the weather is perfect? As someone who is from a less pleasant climate, the way spaces in Medellín seamlessly flow from indoors to outdoors with plants and greenery everywhere is just fascinating.
Venturing outside the city
Another great thing about this city is that you don’t have to stay put. There are so many great day trips available.
Visit a coffee farm and see how coffee grows, how the beans are harvested and prepared to make coffee, and even taste fresh coffee – the good stuff.
Go to Guatapé and climb the 700-ish steps to the top of La Piedra del Peñol for a stunning view of the lakes below.
Visit the County
Venture to any of the numerous little pueblos in the surrounding country; including Jardín, Santa Fe de Antioquia, and San Rafael.
An intro to traveling around Colombia – the highlights: Cartagena
This is the fun, vacation spot of Colombia. The old town, with its stone streets and brightly colored buildings adorned with flowers is gorgeous; and while a bit touristy, it is also easy going and relaxed. You could wander the little streets, stopping at little cafes and shops all day – or like me, for multiple days.
When traveling around Colombia, a highlight should be planning an excursion to Cartagena. I always end my trips to Colombia here for some sun, sea, and shopping!
You’ll want to check out some of the nearby islands as well, either as a day trip or to spend the night. It is a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the old town, and they have great beaches, with activities like snorkeling and diving.
The Islas Rosario (Rosario Islands) are beautiful with white beaches and the clearest blue waters. I highly recommend taking a day to visit and hang out.
If you have more time: head to Santa Marta
If you have move time to spend in Colombia or are making a return trip, I recommend making the trip to Santa Marta – there is so much to do in this area of Colombia. An intro to traveling around Colombia will give you a quick overview of some of the highlights you can visit in this region of Colombia.
An intro to traveling around Colombia – the highlights: Santa Marta
You can easily fly into the coastal city of Santa Marta from any of the big Colombian cities. It is not your end destination, but it makes a solid jumping off point for other adventures. Stay the night, stock up on supplies at Éxito (a popular, Colombia supermarket), visit Parque de Los Novios in the evening for dinner, and plan out your next steps.
Tayrona National Park
Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona or Tayrona National Natural Park, has definitely been one of my highlights when traveling around Colombia. The national park is popular for its hiking, wildlife, and beautiful beaches. It is pretty easy to get to, and yet, a bit of a challenge because it is difficult to find clear, accurate information on the topic. But this hasn’t stopped me from making the trip twice in under a year! It is so worth the trek.
I think the most important thing here is to just travel however you feel most comfortable – Do you want to have a private car drop you off and pick you up? Great! Are you content taking a bus without air-conditioning? Go for it!
You can make a day trip of it or spend the night in one of the camps. Again, do what makes you feel most comfortable. Do you want to sleep in a hammock, with no electricity and all the stars on the beach or take a hot shower at the end of the day – in the end, I opted for the hot shower, both trips.
If you are thinking about going to Tayrona, get all the details about planning your trip to Tayrona National Park first, so you can plan the perfect adventure!
You might have made the trip to Santa Marta because you want to visit Minca. This mountain town is a short 30 – 45-minute drive from Santa Marta and it is a nature lover’s dream! I only spent a couple days in Minca, but I wish I stayed longer. We ran into people spending days and even weeks here. If you are planning on visiting Minca, be sure to check out these 10 things to do in Minca, Colombia!
Are you planning yet?
Hopefully with this intro to traveling around Colombia – the highlights, you now have a great start on planning your trip to Colombia! But if you have any questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the TravelHive team and Contact us.