Colombia has successfully evolved into a thriving vacation destination, attracting millions of visitors each year. It is on nearly every list of “Hot Vacation Spots” or “Top Places to Visit This Year”. This vibrant South American country has completely turned over a new leaf. The word “Colombia” now invokes images of picture-perfect colonial villages, cosmopolitan cities, diverse geography, and of course, burlap bags filled with some of the best coffee beans in the world. After reading this insider’s guide to Colombia, you will simply wonder why you didn’t take this vacation sooner.
Located on the northern tip of South America, Colombia covers an area of 440,831 square miles. It is bordered by the Central American country of Panama to the northwest. It shares other land borders with the South American countries of Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela. Colombia is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the north. With a population of over 49 million, it is the third-most populous country in Latin America.
Colombia has six natural regions, each with distinct geography. Because of this, the climate varies by region. Colombia is located near the Equator, so each region maintains an average temperature year-round. It is generally hot by the coastline, while temperatures can drop below freezing in the mountains.
The climate is largely determined by elevation. For example, the mountain region has four distinct climates. Below the elevation of 3,281 feet, the temperature in the “warm” zone remains above 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Conversely, at altitudes above 13,123 feet, the mountain region experiences below freezing temperatures and glacial conditions.
When traveling to different regions of Colombia, you will most likely need to pack wardrobe pieces from all seasons. The beaches of Cartagena may be sweltering, while the streets of Bogota are chilly. It’s not uncommon to see people in the capital city wearing warm jackets and scarves at night throughout the year.
The official language of Colombia is Spanish, and over 99 percent of the people speak the official language. Compared to other Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America, Colombian Spanish is regarded as more formal and easier to understand. While you will find English speakers in tourist hubs, that is not the norm. Learn some key Spanish phrases, and download one of the many translations apps available for smartphones.
In the Archipelago of San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina, English does have official status. This Colombian department is located just over 480 miles northwest of the mainland in the Caribbean Sea.
The Colombian peso (COP) is Colombia’s official currency. The U.S. dollar is not widely accepted as payment, but it is easily exchanged. The best place to exchange currency is at an ATM. Airports and hotels generally charge a large fee, and money exchanges on streets of major cities are not all trustworthy. Counterfeit money is also an issue, so if you do need to use an exchange bureau or kiosk, make sure your money is undamaged. Worn or torn bills are not accepted.
While tipping isn’t as common or extravagant in Colombia as it is in the United States, the gesture is widely appreciated. At casual restaurants, simply round up the bill. At most nice restaurants, a service charge (propina) is already added. This money goes to the entire staff, so if your server was exceptional, leave a small cash tip.
Taxi drivers are not usually tipped, but international rules of tipping do apply at hotels. Tip the bellman, concierge and maid an amount equivalent to a few dollars. In fact, tipping in actual dollars is not uncommon.
Colombians are generally friendly and outgoing people. They enjoy social interactions and telling tourists about their country. Family is at the forefront of the culture, and family functions always take precedence over friends and business. Children rarely move far away from home, and there is a deeply ingrained sense of familial responsibility. While the majority of the country identifies as Catholic, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. However, the Catholic faith does make a large cultural impact on the country.
Colombians are extremely proud of their country. It’s important to enthusiastically share positive details of your travel. Drug-culture stereotypes are offensive, incorrect and should never be mentioned. When greeting a Colombian, use a firm handshake and maintain eye contact. When greeting a woman you have met before, a kiss on the right cheek is acceptable. The use of first names is also acceptable, but titles, such as doctor, are important.
When dining out, keep your elbows off the table, your hands visible, and do not sit until the host has invited you to do so. Always use silverware. If you invite someone to a restaurant, be prepared to pay the entire bill.
Colombian cuisine varies regionally and is heavily influenced by the cuisines of various countries and the indigenous people. Some of the most common ingredients are maize, rice, legumes, meets, seafood, potatoes, cassava and tropical fruits. In fact, Colombia is one of the largest consumers of fruit juice (jugo) in the world. Colombia is also known for arepas (corn cakes), patacones (flat, fried plantains), fresh fish, empanadas and tamales.
Of course, Colombia is known for coffee. To act like a true Colombian, order a cafe tinto (black coffee). If you are brave, try aguardiente. Translating to “fiery water”, aguardiente is a strong, alcoholic spirit made from sugarcane and infused with anise.
The Colombian meal structure includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. Traditionally, lunch is regarded as the most important meal of the day, especially in rural areas. Lunch consists of soup, a main dish, a drink and a sweet dessert. Dinner is treated more like a snack. However, lunch and dinner are reversed in larger cities.
Safety in Colombia has improved dramatically over the past two decades. However, it is still best to exercise caution. While tourists are not specifically targeted, kidnappings and violent crimes do occur. Fortunately, the Colombian government recently approved a peace agreement with the largest operating criminal group. Remain alert, and always be aware of your surroundings.
Theft is the greatest threat. Passports have been reported stolen in major airports, and pick-pocketing groups are known to operate around ATMs. Rather than hailing a cab, book a transfer before your trip or have a hotel or restaurant call a taxi for you.
The mountainous Andean Region is the most densely populated region of Colombia. The urban centers of Bogota, Medellin and Cali are all located here. Bogota, the highest major city in the world and the capital of Colombia, has seen major rejuvenation. Impressively, it is the third-most bike-friendly city in the world, just behind Amsterdam and Copenhagen. For an awe-inspiring view of Bogota, hike or take a tram up Monserrate Mountain.
Known as the “city of eternal spring”, Medellin offers a close-to-perfect climate and rich nightlife. The Feria de la Flores, or Flower Festival, occurs in the beginning of August and is the most important social event each year.
The scenic city of Cartagena is located in this region. It is arguably one of the best-preserved colonial cities in South America. Stroll through the cobbled streets, and revel in the historic sites. Most of the 20 fortresses built to defend the original walled city still stand.
The desert of La Guajira is also located in the Caribbean Region. The tropical oasis of National Natural Park of Macuira is the jewel of the surrounding desert and the Serrania de Macuira mountain range. If you are up for the adventure of a lifetime, take a 5-day jungle trek to the 9th-century ruins of Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City.
The Pacific Region experiences high humidity and some of the highest rainfall amounts in the world. Because of this, the region is sparsely populated and tourism is low. The dense rainforest of the Darien Gap is located here, so it’s no surprise that the region is an important “biodiversity hotspot”. This region does feature magnificent black sand beaches, and the SCUBA diving is superb.
The Orinoco Region is comprised of beautiful plains in eastern Colombia. The area is home to Tuparro National Park and the Cano Cristales. Known as the “river of five colors” or the “liquid rainbow”, the Cano Cristales is a winding river that is naturally colored red, yellow, blue, green, and black from the end of July to early December.
Like the Pacific Region, the Amazon Region experiences high heat and humidity and is sparsely populated. Leticia, the capital of this dense, jungle area, is where Colombia, Peru, and Brazil all meet in an area known as the “Tres Fronteras”. The Amazon Region is a perfect spot to experience the preserved culture and cuisine of the indigenous people who have called the rainforest home for centuries. Unsurprisingly, ecotourism is thriving in this region.
From cosmopolitan nightlife to treks through dense rainforests, it’s no wonder that Colombia is continuing to rise on the tourism radar. The hospitality of the locals , the beautiful coastline and the urbanized mountain peaks all make Colombia stand out. Use this insider’s guide to Colombia to better acquaint yourself with this diverse and magical destination.
It’s time for you to embark on a trip to Colombia. Start planning your Colombia vacation today.