COLOMBIA – a complete guide

Colombia is still suffering from the stigma of being a dangerous place torn between drug barons and guerillas. But actually, it is a beautiful and interesting place – with wonderful, honest people.
On just one visit, it became one of my favorite countries on earth. Wanna see for yourself? Then here is my complete guide

At the Goldmuseum in Bogotá, Colombia
Treasures at the Gold Museum in Bogotá – by far not Colombia’s only treasure…

My Early Encounter with Colombia

Almost three decades ago when I worked in Public Relations. One of my most important customers was the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia. An important part of my job was putting together a press map with articles published on Colombia in Germany.

Believe me, besides one or two short notes on Gabriel García Márquez and Fernando Botero, this was not pretty. Whether FARC, whether the cartels, the government, or the paramilitaries – kidnapping and bloodshed everywhere. And this is the stigma the country is still suffering from.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Over the years, the country changed for the better a lot. Nevertheless, in our heads, it’s still this dark place where you cannot take a bus without ending up in a dark hole somewhere in the jungle while your relatives are collecting money for your ransom.

Painting by Fernando Botero, Colombia's most acclaimed painter.
Fernando Botero The Killing of Pablo Escobar.
Both men are key figures in Colombia’s recent history – obviously in very different ways.

I don’t know whether it’s because people are still suffering from the stigma of the past or because they are simply super-friendly by nature. However, I was impressed again and again how they try to help and support you instead of tricking and cheating and taking advantage.

This, I experienced a lot in other countries where people are also very pleasant – cheating with a friendly smile.

Colombian people are grateful that you ‘dare’ to visit their country that has so much to offer. It’s very touching when an old lady in the streets of Cali greets you “Bienvenida en Colombia”. So if you wanna go, go. And go now, before flocks of travellers’ spoil the people’s warm and welcoming attitude.

Colombia’s Early Years

As you know, this part of the world had been inhabited by various indigenous peoples. Then, the Spanish conquistadores arrived in 1499. They conquered and colonized the region. They oppressed the native population and sucked out as many treasures as they were able to get their hands on,

In 1819, these people achieved independence from Spain and formed together with Panamá the Republic of New Granada. Only in 1886, Colombia was declared a republic – Panama then followed in 1903. Like most South American countries and Caribbean islands, today’s population reflects the mix of European, African, indigenous, and Arabic heritage; yes, Arabic: Shakira is Colombian of Lebanese descendance.

Since the 1960s, the country was troubled by terrible violent conflicts. There were left-wing guerillas fighting for more equality. Right-wing paramilitaries tried to hold a grip on some weaker and some stronger governments. And as if this didn’t have enough potential to make people suffering, drug cartels ruled entire regions.

Things Are Slowly Improving

Beginning of the 21st century, things slowly cooled down. Today, Colombia is recovering and finally has the opportunity to prove to the world its greatest treasures: nature and people.

Hiking in Salento, Colombia's sumptuous coffee region.
Hiking in Salento, Colombia’s sumptuous coffee region.

The country has a population of 49 million.

From the highlands of the Andes mountains to the coasts of the Caribbean as well as the Pacific Ocean. From lush rainforest to sugarcane and coffee growing – this country has so much natural wealth and beauty to offer.

Practical Information

Getting There and Around

Even relatively small towns such as Santa Marta have at least domestic airports. Flights are more frequent than buses in some US-areas. When booking through their pages, Avianca and Latam have really good prices. Another site that has great on flights within South America is despegar.com.

Colombia seen from above.
Colombia from above.

Travelling by bus in Colombia is easy and fast – whereby the latter is not necessarily a compliment.

If you don’t have a very strong nerve, try not to sit close to the driver. Look rather for a seat from where you cannot see what’s going on on the road.

Also, some say it is not recommendable to travel overnight.

I avoided it and if the trip was more than six hours, I rather booked a flight since I didn’t want to lose too much time.

Besides the national bus companies, there are also private door to door shuttle services such as Marsol. These are not much more expensive, however, much more comfortable. Already because they pick you up on time.

Unfortunately, Marsol is only catering to the departamentos Bolívar and Magdalena on the north coast.

Money

For a while now, namely since 1810, Colombia’s currency has been the Colombian Peso. What might be confusing for the newbies is the official symbol which is $, sometimes COL$. So don’t let anybody fool you, this sign in Colombia is not the US$.

The exchange rate is 1 US$ = 3,27 COP current rate resp. 1 €UR = 3,63 COP current rate (January 2020). Credit cards are widely accepted.

Language

Obviously, the official language is Spanish. If you’re not really fluent, you’ll be pleased to learn that besides Mexico, the purest Castellano is spoken in Colombia.

However, Amerindian languages, as well as Creole, is spoken in certain areas. Also, on the Caribbean islands, English is really popular.

If you want to learn some basic Spanish or just brush up your knowledge, there are various apps and online tools. I personally like to practice with babbel.

Where to Sleep

Obviously, there are all kinds of accommodation to be found all over Colombia. If you are on a budget, you find friendly hostels. And if you can splurge, you can spend hundreds of dollars on high-end accommodation.
I chose middle-range, centrally located hotels, and was mostly very happy with my choices.
You’ll find them listed in the respective guides – see below.

View from the Hotel Room in Cali, Colombia
Room with a view….of the city of Cali.

I personally like to know where I will lay my hat head as I get to an unknown city. Therefore, I always make a reservation in advance, and booking.com is, obviously, a great platform with lots of choices for every budget*:

Booking.com

Where to Eat

Like everywhere in Latin America, meat is king.

In this picture, you see the national dish Bandeja Paisa consisting of minced meat and some sort of steak. It’s garnished with blood sausage and some other sausage. Then, there is rice, baked beans, cheese, avocado, fried banana, and a fried egg. Phew! I was not able to finish it – and I rather tend to overeat.

Bandeja Paisa
Colombia’s national dish: Bandeja Paisa – consisting mainly of meat with meat, completed and decorated with sausage.

However, especially in the more touristy and trendy neighborhoods, there are many small, hip businesses that serve excellent vegetarian or even vegan whole food. I’m supplying you with the addresses in the guides to the individual destinations.

¡ Buon Provecho!

The Route I Travelled

The Places I Visited

These are the guides to places I visited on my trip through Colombia.

Pinnable Pictures

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Pinnable Picture Colombia, still suffering from the stigma of being a dangerous place torn between drug barons and guerillas, is actually a beautiful and interesting place - with wonderful, honest people. On just one visit, it became one of my favorite countries on earth.
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Pinnable Picture Colombia, still suffering from the stigma of being a dangerous place torn between drug barons and guerillas, is actually a beautiful and interesting place - with wonderful, honest people. On just one visit, it became one of my favorite countries on earth.
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Pinnable Picture Colombia, still suffering from the stigma of being a dangerous place torn between drug barons and guerillas, is actually a beautiful and interesting place - with wonderful, honest people. On just one visit, it became one of my favorite countries on earth.
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31 Replies to “COLOMBIA – a complete guide”

  1. I've yet to go Colombia but I'd love to! I've heard such great things and your diary confirms a lot of them

  2. Thanks for sharing about Colombia. I am gradually getting a greater appreciation for it the more I research and read. Your description of the people and the prevailing attitudes encourages me to come and see it for myself.

  3. Thanks for your comments, everybody! Yes, it was easy and pleasant to travel Colombia and people tried to make us feel very comfortable and safe.
    If you have any questions – you know where to find me (at least online…).
    Happy travels to you guys,
    Renata

  4. In Europe, people often think Columbia as a dangerous country but as you mention, the people is super friendly. At the moment I will travel to SEA but South America is on my bucket list. Columbia is one of the countries. Thanks for the post.

  5. Yes, that's right, but like I explained at the beginning – because of the dreadful past I also had this image in my head. Then I reconsidered: when was actually the last time that I've heard something really bad about Colombia?! It's bad that stigmas stay for so long. Happy travels to you!

  6. Its true. We shape our opinions based on what we learn and hear from others. People do carry a certain impression about Columbia, but articles like yours can change what people feel. Bogota is a fascinating place, from whatever I have read about it.

  7. Thank you so much for your comment, it would actually make me very happy if I could ease a little the stigma Colombians are still suffering from.

  8. I'm glad to hear that the people are so great and that it's safe to travel there. One of my biggest dreams is to visit Medellin soon. I would even consider living there for a while. I have heard such great things so hopefully I will visit and get to travel around like you as well!

    1. Yes, but to be honest, particularly the center of Medellin had a sketchy vibe to it. We stayed close to San Joaquin and that was much cooler. However, I hope your dream soon comes true. Happy travels to you! Renata

  9. I agree that there is a bias. The media I think can really skew an opinion. You just have to remember that people are just out living their lives like the rest of us. Great post!

  10. You couldn't have written this better. I was speaking to a friend about Colombia while reading your post, and viola, she thinks traveling to Colombia is a bad idea. We need substances like this to educate the world.

  11. Thank you, Kate, thank you, Lydia, your comments encourage me to not limit myself to write only on a country's happy go lucky touristy aspects and where to get the best deal for accommodations and food.

    As a matter of fact the media were right about Colombia about 30 years ago – it was a very tough time, even Colombians remember it with a shiver. The problem is that nobody writes an article "Big news: nothing bad happened in Colombia", so the old image never gets corrected and sticks in our heads for a long time.

    This fact should be a warning to take the blooming phenomenon of fake and 'alternative' news lightly. Once it's out there, it's difficult to correct it.

    Have a great weekend, ladies!
    Renata

  12. I've not thought of going to Colombia indeed because of those old stigma. But yes I've read and hear more and more good things about Colombia in recent years. Would love to see the country and Latin America in general in the future!

  13. Colombia – like every other Latin American country – is certainly not Switzerland: There are social and economic problems and you have to look after your stuff – and yourself. But as long as you behave carefully, don't hang out at certain times in certain places, do not get involved in drug matters you probably have nothing to be afraid of. Since Colombian people are happy that they slowly get rid of the stigma, they are extremely friendly and helpful.
    Happy travels – to Latin America or elsewhere – Renata

  14. You know, you're completely right, the stigma of Colombia's past really has stuck to many around the world and it's not until you go and see it for yourself that you see just how much this country has tried to shed it's old skin and re-invent itself. I spent 3 months in Colombia in 2016 and I love this country so much.

  15. Oh wow! Really? I hosted a couple of Argentinians and they also said that Colombians are so polite – almost formal-polite. I confess that I still feel a little nervous about visiting Colombia, and I think my mom would have a heart attack if I did!

    1. This is so funny! I almost had a heart attack when my daughter told me she was going to Colombia. But then she went and had a great time and I realized that I haven't heard anything bad forever – so I went, too. Maybe that would make things better: Take your mom with you! Anyway, happy travels, Nuraini!

  16. You hit some great spots in Colombia. I especially like the intro about visiting now before the charm is spoiled. You're spot on. Where was your favorite Colombian destination?

    Eric

  17. I very much enjoyed reading about Columbia. I remember learning about Columbia in my history classes and the dark past that it had. It is good to see that the country seems to be doing better and that it is becoming a place that people want to visit. I have always been interested in visiting that part of the world, hopefully I will get to soon.

  18. Reading your post filled me with wanderlust for Columbia! I haven't traveled to any country in South America and I dream of doing so someday! I would love to experience a cup of authentic Columbian coffee right at its source!

  19. I would love to travel to Columbia someday. Your photos are so lovely, especially the one showing the beautiful landscape. My Spanish is quite rusty but I know I can get by. Thanks for sharing your travel experience in this beautiful country!

  20. I have heard a lot about Colombia, especially Medelin and Cali. I would like to visit one day. Great post.

  21. It's good to hear a different perspective/opinion of Columbia… I have heard it being dangerous, so it's nice to get more info on the country to really get an overall view. Lovely pix, it would be awesome to visit all the beautiful places in the world… if only I were rich…lol

  22. Very interesting. The stigma does seem quite deep rooted, it's good to hear a different voice. I'd like to visit one day…

  23. I know 1 person who has visited, and 1 who was born and raised there. One person loves it (the visitor) and the other doesn't… they have very different perspectives.

  24. It looks like it was an amazing journey out there. I have a coworker from there and she tells me about how beautiful it is. Someday I will have to visit.

  25. Such an amazing blog post….very informative also…. I gain a lot of information from this..thanks for sharing it..

  26. Your vacation is very complete when in Colombia, I like reading your experiences. Thank you for sharing your experiences and knowledge about holidays.

  27. Like!! I blog quite often and I genuinely thank you for your information. The article has truly peaked my interest.

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