5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Colombia

Colombia is a much-misunderstood country. With a complex political history and diverse geography, our local insider Chris Bell shares his tips to help you avoid any awkward misunderstandings.


Photo © iStock/garytog

1. When to Visit Colombia

As a tropical country with many climactic zones, Colombian weather can be unpredictable.

Traditionally the high season is between December and February, when travelers can expect sunny days in the Andes and the Caribbean.

The best time to visit the Pacific coast is between July and October for whale-watching, while the Amazon is driest between March and October.

Be aware that on national holidays and during the Christmas and Easter periods, hotels and transport usually book up fast. Perhaps the best time to visit for a perfect combination of good weather and fewer crowds would be February and March. 

2. What to Pack

Pack for a variety of climates and temperatures, it's a common mistake for travelers to pack nothing but shorts and t-shirts for a tropical climate, and then find themselves freezing cold in the Andean regions.

Always include some warmer items of clothing for when you are walking around high altitude cities like Bogota at night.

Be wary of mosquitoes on the Caribbean Coast in places like Minca and Santa Marta, and pack light, long-sleeved clothes and repellent for the best mosquito bite prevention.

Colombians are very neat and formal people, especially in big cities, so going out to dinner in shorts and flip-flops is a no-no – pack at least one smart-casual outfit if you plan on a night out.

3. Money and Costs

The currency in Colombia is the Colombian Peso (COP$), which can be withdrawn from all ATMs.

Colombia is still very much a cash economy. Although most hotels and tour companies will accept credit cards, many smaller shops and restaurants won't, so always carry some cash.

Tipping is not usually expected, but fancier places will add a discretionary 10% service charge onto your bill, and some will ask if you’d like to include service in your bill.

Bargaining in markets is common, but aggressive tactics are not welcome; always haggle with a smile.

The most common scams involve fake banknotes. The best way to identify a real note is to hold it up to the light and check for a watermark of the person depicted on the note.

4. Should You Talk Politics?

Colombia is a politically polarized country, and is still feeling the effects of a 52 year civil war. While most Colombians are happy to share their opinions, they are less likely to respond favorably to being contradicted, so approach these conversations with caution.

Whatever your views on the Colombian conflict, try to be respectful and polite. It's possible that the person you are talking to has been personally affected by the violence. And please, don't wear that Pablo Escobar shirt in public!

5. No-go Regions

Since a peace deal was signed with the FARC guerrillas, many formerly no-go zones are opening up to tourism.

You should always be wary of traveling far outside cities in several departments east of the Andes such as; Arauca, Putumayo, Caquetá, Guaviare and Meta.

Rural areas along the Venezuelan border, such as parts of Norte de Santander, La Guajira and Cesar, are also best avoided.

In the departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó, Huila and Nariño, urban areas are generally considered safe, but avoid traveling too far off-the-beaten-path.

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