Colombia – It’s Not All Bad

When you mention the word Colombia, you come to expect two different reactions. The first and is the stereotype of danger, drugs, guerrillas, violence and other horrors. The second, and much more positive is that it is a beautiful country with a diverse culture, beautiful landscapes and lots of salsa dancing.

I’m very much in the second group of thought. I believe Colombia is an amazing country, and every different region is so different and individual, with each one having their own traditions, food, music and much more.

Having lived in and visited a lot of Colombia, I’d like to share my knowledge for those of you thinking of visiting the country – places to visit and my top tips for tourists.

The following cities are a must see:

Bogota

The capital of Colombia, Bogota is a huge city with a lot to offer. You can visit the Candelaria, a historical part of Bogota, some of Bogota’s many museums, churches and parks, and Mount Monserrate, which can be reached by cable car or funicular and which boasts exceptional panoramic views of Bogota.

Cali

If you plan to visit Colombia for salsa, then Cali, known as the Capital Salsa of the world is the place to head for.

Cartagena

Cartagena is one of the most beautiful cities in Colombia. If you visit Cartagena, it is highly recommended that you stay in the stunning historical part of the city, surrounded by the city walls which accommodate bars and offer views of the sea. From Cartagena you can do a day trip by boat to Playa Blanca and the Islas del Rosario, breath-taking beaches with white sand and crystal blue waters. Cartagena is also home to the Volcan de Lodo el Totumo (also known as the mud volcano), a fun day out that involves fully submerging yourself in a 15m high mud volcano and then washing it off in a nearby lake. Great for the skin, but be warned, you cannot avoid getting fully covered in the mud.

Guatape

Guatape is a small village surrounded by lakes that can be visited as a day trip from Medellin, about a two hour bus ride away. Guatape offers stunning scenery and is home to the Peñon de Guatape, a huge stone measuring over 220m in height. The views from the top are well worth the 650 stairs it takes to reach it.

Medellin

If you are planning on going to Colombia around Christmas time, visiting Medellin to see the Christmas lights is a must. Even if not, visiting Medellin is still a must. It is the only city in Colombia with a metro, making it very easy to get around and visit all of the many sites there are to see, from the metro cable offering incredible views of the city, to the interactive museums and parks, botanical gardens, many churches and cathedral, and Plaza Botero featuring Botero’s famous statues. These are just a few of the many attractions Medellin has to offer.

San Gil

If extreme sports are your thing, then San Gil is the place to go. Paragliding, bungee jumping, rafting and much more are on offer in this small town in Santander. There are beautiful villages that can be visited nearby, such as Barichara and Guane, as well as Parque Chicamocha, a national park with fantastic views and a cable car that travels across the Chicamocha Canon.

Santa Marta

There are many things to do in and around Santa Marta. Nearby Taganga is a great place to do scuba diving courses with its many diving schools. Beach Playa Grande which can be reached by a short walk or by boat is part of the famous and very popular Tayrona national park. The huge ecotourism park includes beautiful beaches, reached by jungle trails with monkeys swinging in the trees over your head, reefs, and Tayrona Indian ruins. Tayrona Park can be visited for the day or you can stay in hammocks, cabins or tents. From Santa Marta you can also do the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek, a 5-day trek through ancient ruins, historic sites, mountains and amazing scenery.

Travel Advice

I have a few tips that you should bear in mind when visiting Colombia in order to stay safe and make the most of your trip:

Taxis

There are always taxis available that you can hail down. Just make sure it is a licensed taxi – you can tell this by looking for a card which will be over the back of the driver or passenger seat with a photo of the driver and all of his information. If you aren’t sure, don’t get in it and call a taxi. While some cities have taxi meters in all of the taxis, others don’t. If you don’t see a taxi meter when you get in, make sure you negotiate the fee when you get in to avoid getting ripped off.

Personal belongings

Although Colombia is generally safe, you should still be vigilant when it comes to valuables and other belongings. Try not to show cash, cameras, phones etc., especially in quiet streets with few people around or at night. You aren’t at a high risk of being mugged, but it does happen and it is better to be safe than sorry, so just be aware.

Bus journeys

Most bus journeys in Colombia involve high windy roads, generally taken at high speed by the bus drivers, so if you suffer from travel sickness (or even if you don’t) try and carry some travel sickness tablets with you. Also, try and negotiate bus prices when you go to buy the tickets. Most companies don’t have set prices and they tend to hugely overcharge tourists – if possible, try and get a native to buy your tickets for you to get a better price.

Vendors

Watch out for street vendors, or people selling items on the beach. They can get very pushy and won’t take no for an answer, so if you’re not interested, try and avoid eye contact and looking at their products. They will also try to overcharge you so never accept the first price they give you for something.

Is it Safe to Visit Colombia?

The answer is yes*. An asterisk because it’s safe if you come well prepared. If you believe the US State Department’s warnings about this country, you will be a bit discouraged, as they still warn Americans against traveling to Colombia, the US’ most important ally in South America. Other foreign affairs ministries of several developed countries also advise their citizens not to travel here. At the other end of the spectrum is the travel guide books which mislead their readers by presenting the major attractions of the country without warning them of the risks they run in certain areas.

The truth is somewhere in between: traveling inside Colombia can be as safe as anywhere else in the world, but stray just a bit too much from the established path and you will be exposed to serious dangers. For instance, it’s now possible to travel safely from the Caribbean coast to Medellin by road, but it’s ill advised to stop in some of the towns along the way. Two American backpackers traveling separately told me they had spent the night in Taraza, Antioquia on the way to Medellin from Cartagena. Both were a little surprised when I informed them that the north of Antioquia is still a very active zone for armed rebel groups, paramilitaries and organized criminals in the drug trade. Coca fields are abundant and the murder rates in small towns like Taraza and Caucasia are shocking.

Large areas of the country are still in the throes of the war against the illegal drug trade and the heavily armed columns from the so-called liberation armies of the FARC and ELN, which often stage attacks on roads and against towns. This is particularly true in the provinces (departamentos) bordering Ecuador and Venezuela. Nariño, Putumayo, Choco, Valle, Cauca, Meta, Guaviare, Caqueta, and Arauca, make the headlines on a regular basis, as do some areas in several other provinces, such as the north and southeast of Antioquia, and the rural areas of Bolivar, Cesar, Guajira and Cordoba.

However, in terms of cleansing the country of the illegal armed factions, the Colombian army has them running in almost very area, and has in fact routed them from several provinces, including Cundinamarca, Caldas and Risaralda. Overall, it’s a battle they are winning, and I hope the pressure will continue to be applied under whichever President is elected in May of 2010 to replace the outgoing Alvaro Uribe.

The US state department warns that kidnappings are a serious problem in Colombia, but I have not heard of any foreigners being targeted this way in a very long time. Sure, if you walk into an area controlled by rebels you could very well be captured and kept prisoner for several years, but the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom, as happens frequently in Mexico, is unheard of here, so my take is that the State Department needs to review its facts!

We have talked about where not to go, now let’s discuss where you can. Most of the major and intermediate cities of Colombia, including Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Manizales, and Barranquilla are either very safe to visit, or at least nowhere as hazardous as it is to stroll through Brazilian cities such as Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Cali and Pereira are hotbeds for the drug organizations and also rife with petty crime. You might want to skip them on your itinerary!

As with most cities anywhere in the world, you can do the basic to mitigate your risk of being victimized: dress modestly, leave the baubles back home, do not dangle cameras around your neck, do not carry a lot of cash, only use ATMs inside malls, do not wander into neighborhoods you know nothing about, and avoid hailing taxis off the street. I’ve lived in Colombia for over two years now and although I stand-out like a sore thumb for being so tall and blond, I’ve yet to be victimized in any way by following those simple rules!

Yes, come to Colombia! It’s an incredibly beautiful land with a sophisticated culture, and best of all, it’s not polluted by throngs of tourists, so it’s still very authentic, not “Disneyfied” as in so many other parts of the world, and the people are genuinely earnest in letting you see the good side of their much maligned country. Nothing bad will happen to you if you come here well informed.

Consider the Best Ways to Make a Money Transfer to Colombia When You Visit

If you plan to visit Colombia, you will be thrilled to find out that it is rather cheap compared to the United States. Before you go, however, you need to know the best forms of money to bring. For example, some countries do not accept traveler’s checks or certain types of cards. Before you visit this country, you should first find out the best way to make a money transfer to Colombia.

The currency in this nation is the Colombian peso, so you will need to exchange your cash to this legal tender for it to be useful here. You do need to be aware that this country is known for its counterfeit bills, so bringing your own cash in American dollars may be best. You can keep some and exchange as much as you think you will need, but changing money on the street is not advised. Instead, check out banks like Bancolombia and Banco Union Colombiano in order to get money safely and avoid being ripped off.

Traveler’s checks are useful in this country, and are considered safe to travel with. Amex kinds are the best to have since more places take them, and more banks exchange them easily. Consider this form of payment one of a few good types to have in this nation, but not the only one.

Credit and debit cards can indeed be used in this area, especially since the number of ATMs and merchants accepting cards has increased lately. You can use your personal credit or debit card, or you can make a money transfer to Colombia safely and cheaply on a prepaid debit card. You can add as much as you need for $5 USD every time, and you can use either the Internet or a phone to do so. It is advised that you add only what you will use in a few days in case you lose the card, as this way, it is not the same as losing your debit card that is connected to your personal bank account. Visa and MasterCard are most accepted here, so take that into account when choosing the best prepaid debit card to make a money transfer to Colombia.

In general, taking some cash, some traveler’s checks, and at least a prepaid debit card are all good ways to ensure that you do not run out of money in Colombia. You can keep some cash in American dollars, exchange some to pesos, and then bring your prepaid debit card and traveler’s checks with you when you go shopping or book a hotel so that you always have options. While most major stores do take more than just cash, some may surprise you, so it is best to be prepared.

Now Is The Time To Travel To Colombia

Cartagena is Colombia’s number one tourism attraction, and the country’s most frequently visited city. Possibly the most beautiful city in South America, Cartagena ozzes charm and character and is a very romantic holiday destination. The old town is full of beautiful plazas and churches, and there’s nearby laid back beaches and resorts such as those at the idyllic Rosario Islands.

Colombia’s Caribbean coast has a host of wonderful beaches, most of which remain completely undeveloped. To the West, the San Bernardo Islands and Capurgana are rarely visited but offer lovely empty beaches in addition to fantastic scuba diving. Further East, there’s more undeveloped beaches at the Guarija Peninsula, in addition to visits to indigenous Wayuu villages.

Colombia’s rainforest backed beaches of the Pacific Coast are remote, and while security considerations advise against travel to certain regions, others are safe to visit. The whole coastline is great rainforest tours and also for surfing – the town of Nuqui is the best base for surfers. Bahia Solano is another small resort on the Pacific, and a perfect base for deep sea fishing.

Colombia offers more than just beaches though. The huge range of activities is immense, and one could easily send over a month and still have only seen a small piece of what the country offers.

In addition to Cartagena, Colombia has numerous other wonderful, peaceful, colonial towns. Villa de Leiva is the most beautiful, and ha been the set of many films and Colombian soap operas. In addition to walking around the tranquil and beautiful streets of the small town, the surrounding countryside offers good hiking and horseback riding, and ancient relics and remains of giant fossilised pre-historic animals can also be visited. Other beautiful colonial towns in Colombia include Santa Fe de Antioquia, Popayan and Mompos.

Colombia also offers excellent opportunities for wildlife trips. Leticia is in the Amazon in the far South, where there various jungle lodges and river cruises available. In addition, the birdwatching is some of the best in South America – in fact Colombia has the highest bird count of any country in the world.

Tourism is starting to boom in Colombia as travellers discover that it’s reputation for danger is unfounded. Now is the time to visit before the tourist hordes descend.