Whether you’re a novice traveler or the US Secretary of State, Colombia can offer more than its fair share of surprises, both pleasant and not-so-much. Of course, that shouldn’t deter anyone from visiting one of the world’s most beautiful and welcoming nations. Just make sure to take these tips to heart before you get here.
1) Don’t stay at the party hostel
You’ll know the party hostel when you see it. The first clue tends to be shirtless and/or bikini-clad supermodel guests usually hailing from Australia or some other place where people are born buff and tanned.
Calmer hostels allow you to meet people who are actually interested in learning about things like local lifestyles and taking in their surroundings without a non-stop beer buzz. They’ll also allow you to get some sleep, which could be the difference between going postal on a bus driver blasting vallenato at 4 a.m. on a 20-hour bus ride (see tip #8) or chalking it up to a cultural experience.
And don’t worry about traveling alone. People at the laid back hostel will almost certainly be up for letting you tag along to lunch or a daytrip to a tropical island, and everyone loves to share travel war stories. The superhuman specimens at the cool hostel will probably just tan by the pool. Besides, aguardiente gives terrible hangovers, and some particularly nasty “souvenirs” can’t be cured with penicillin.
2) Stay at the party hostel
Disregard all of the above information for approximately 24 hours. After all, Colombia still isn’t quite as safe as Disney World and travelers arriving here are an adventurous (sometimes a euphemism for hedonistic) lot. Plus, a trip to Colombia without one good night of debauchery really isn’t a trip at all. Whether you stumble through Salsa dancing, destroy your eardrums at a three-story nightclub or just pass around a bottle of rum in a park with friends, going out is an essential part of the experience while you’re here.
On a serious note, many people (particularly at party hostels) are curious to try Colombia’s most famous export not named Shakira or sold at (most) Starbucks franchises, but remember that drugs fuel the country’s devastating civil conflict and have cost millions of people their lives and livelihoods. Stick to the aguardiente.
3) Don’t count on being able to stay a vegetarian
I’m glad you care about the animals. I do too. But in rural Colombia, people live off of things like chicken hearts, cow lungs and blood sausage. Of course, it’s also plenty easy to find a more conventional steak or chicken breast, but a salad will be quite a bit more complicated, and don’t even ask for tofu. The country’s major cities have plenty of veggie options, but if planning to head off the beaten path, make some dietary adjustments beforehand or make sure you stay somewhere with a functional kitchen, as you’ll more than likely be doing a lot of your own cooking.
4) Do drink the water (sometimes)
The water in almost all of Colombia’s major cities is fine to drink, although the Caribbean coast can be iffy at times. In fact, Bogotá boasts some of the purest and tastiest drinking water in the world, which ironically then dumps into one of the planet’s most polluted rivers. If in doubt, ask the locals. If they’re not drinking it, you probably shouldn’t be either. That said, amoebas can strike even in the best of conditions, so if things go south (please excuse the pun) talk to a doctor or pharmacist and you should be good to go quickly (or slowly if that was the issue… ok I’ll stop).
5) You (almost completely for sure… no seriously) won’t get kidnapped
You’re much more likely to die of a heart attack right now (see, you made it!) or have a Hollywood producer “discover” you on the beaches of Taganga. Of course, responsible travel in Colombia means being aware of areas in which violent confrontations are more common. The country is still basically at war with itself, after all. Still, most of the country is safer than downtown Washington D.C., so there’s really nothing to worry about as long as you don’t do anything outrageously, unfathomably stupid.
6) Don’t make eye contact with people trying to sell you stuff
See the above advice about not doing anything stupid. Particularly in more touristy areas of Colombia (read anywhere within an hour of the beach), people will walk around trying to sell you hats, sunglasses, beads and all manner of ridiculous and often hideously tacky souvenirs. They can be pretty aggressive and will sometimes hassle you until your ears start to bleed over a bronze replica of one of Botero’s fat horse sculptures. Just be polite and firmly say, “no, gracias.” That is, unless you were looking for a tiny, bronze fat horse.
7) Don’t wear flip-flops to Bogotá
I don’t care how hot it was when you left home, this is perhaps the most grievous Gringo mistake one can make in the Colombian capital. Movies always show Bogotanos wearing tank tops and covered in a layer of glistening sweat (looking at you, Colombiana) but the city is almost 9,000 feet up in the Andes and temperatures stay pretty chilly all year. Furthermore, after one good look at the street, you’ll want to put on some decent closed toe shoes (or a hazmat suit, depending on the neighborhood) anyway.
The same goes for shorts. People don’t wear them except for occasionally on Sundays. Don’t worry. It’s never actually hot here, despite the “I’m melting!” cries of locals when it gets above 70 degrees (which the internet informs me is equal to 21 degrees Celsius for everyone in the world not having been raised in the US).
8) Take a plane
Conventional wisdom would suggest that taking a bus is cheaper. It’s not. Apologize to the planet and beef up your carbon footprint, because bus rides are always longer than they say they will be, almost all roads in the country are winding and mountainous and unless you have the ability to contort yourself into bizarre positions and defy the centripetal force flinging you back and forth around each curve, you will not be sleeping. Even if you don’t save money, the extra time at your destination is often worth it.
The only exception is for short trips (under eight hours or so) during which it can be an incredible experience to see the diversity of the countryside. Colombia is home to as many as 100 distinct ecosystems, so things are not likely to get repetitive.
9) Brush up on your Spanish. En serio.
This seems obvious, but I’ve run into more than a handful of tourists that barely manage a “buenos días” or “gracias.” Although most Colombians speak at least a little bit of English, knowing how to get around en español will earn you street cred (and maybe a cheaper price when bargaining over a mochila or sombrero vueltiao). Plus it’s just polite and makes you look less ignorant.
10) Enjoy the little things
Colombia, for the most part, is not an appropriate destination for those looking for all-inclusive travel with five star service. Even the best-developed and most cosmopolitan areas retain some quirks that can be alternately charming or infuriating depending on your attitude.
Colombians and foreigners alike complain about the nation’s general lack of organization and the chaotic way that things get done (or don’t, as the case may be), but the glass-half-full perspective suggests that Colombians tend to focus on the truly important things in life: dinner with family and friends, going out for a coffee in the afternoon or just taking the time to catch up in person.
Indeed, even a brief taste of the local joie de vivre can be enough to convince many a traveler to stay much longer than initially planned, and anyone lucky enough to have spent time in Colombia will tell you that the nation’s human treasure far outshines its formidable natural beauty.