These essential Colombia travel tips will help you make the most of your trip.

Travelling Colombia is unlike travelling anywhere else. Colombia is unique, diverse and energising. It will pique your curiosities, light up your imagination and, most likely, instil a new confidence in you. 

Colombia is also the kind of country that gets under your skin and penetrates your heart.

You’ll be able to look back fondly on your Colombia travels because they’ll stay with you long after you leave. 

If you’re wondering if you should travel to Colombia, it’ll be be a firm ‘hell yeah!’ from me. But not without knowing some essential Colombia travel tips.

Even though Colombia becomes a firm favourite for many of its visitors, it’s not the easiest country to travel – in South America or the world.

There are certainly things to avoid in Colombia, and even more things you definitely shouldn’t miss. 

Here’s how to make sure your time in Colombia is fun, safe and memorable for all the right reasons. 

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Colombia travel tips to know before going to Colombia

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Things to know before going to Colombia

Before you even set foot in Colombia, there are some things you should know about this expansive country.

These are the things to keep in mind when planning your trip to Colombia.


1 – Colombia is a diverse country 

Colombia is one of the most diverse countries in the entire world.

From the humid Caribbean coast to the mountains that spread across the coffee triangle, Colombia feels like multiple countries in one. 

It’s one of the things that makes travelling Colombia such a treat. You can be swimming in turquoise waters one day and trekking through jungles the next.

Don’t take this for granted when planning your trip (or when you’re on it). Make sure you’re prepared for different climates, different elevation levels and different experiences. 


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2 – You simply can’t see it all

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s no point sugarcoating it: you’re going to miss a lot of good stuff in Colombia.

As well as being ultra diverse, Colombia is also massive! That means it’s virtually impossible to see all of the great things Colombia has to offer.

While internal flights make it easy to hop between cities, travelling through rural Colombia can be especially tricky. In my experience, though, the harder to reach places are the most rewarding.

Don’t let logistics put you off visiting towns like Filandia in Quindio – it will be more than worth the effort!

Even if you have months to explore Colombia, it simply won’t be possible to add everything to your Colombia itinerary.

As long as you accept that, you’ll be able to fully enjoy the parts you do experience.


3 – Colombia is incredible 

I haven’t met a single person who’s travelled to Colombia and not loved it.

Its diversity means it has something for everyone and the locals always want to make your trip as good as it can be. Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in the culture and get to know the locals.

You’ll probably be planning your next trip to Colombia before you first one finishes. Colombia is just that special.


Two people at a shop in Old Penol near Guatapé in Colombia
Colombia is the kind of place you’ll probably want to go back to time and time again.

Packing and planning for Colombia tips

Want to make your Colombia travels as seamless as possible?

These Colombia tips will help you get ahead before you even get there.

4 – Dress like a local

While Colombia is fairly safe, you’ll want to draw as little attention to yourself as possible. 

The easiest way to blend in (at least a little!) is to dress as the locals do. No matter where you go in Colombia, most people wear jeans, trainers and colourful tops.

Dressing this way might not make you look like a Colombian, but you could well pass for an expat. Doing so will make you less of a target to scammers, robbers and other people who don’t have your best interests at heart.


5 – Ignore (most) packing advice

When I was trying to figure out what things I needed to know going to Colombia, the packing advice was mixed.

My advice? Ignore most of it and just try to dress like the locals. 

I read many packing guides that advised against wearing a bum bag (that’s a fanny pack for my American readers!). When I arrived, though, I saw loads of locals sporting the not-so-trendy bag. 

Perhaps style has changed or perhaps bum bags were always a thing in Colombia, but I would suggest sticking with what you’re comfortable in. 


RELATED READ: The ‘wear anywhere’ clothes I pack for every trip.


6 – Learn a little Spanish

A little Spanish goes a long way in Colombia.

The same is true for Ecuador, Argentina and pretty much all of Latin America, of course.

But if you want to explore the more rural side of Colombia (the best bit, in my opinion!) a little bit of Spanish is essential. 

A three month course on Rosetta Stone will be more than enough to get you by and enhance your travels.

It will also make you more confident when travelling to lesser know parts of the country.

7 – Get out of your comfort zone

Colombia threw me out of my comfort zone in so many ways. I love when travel does that, and it only made me love Colombia anymore. 

Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone in Colombia. Try new foods (there are loads!). Step into a different ecosystem. Or strike up a conversation with a stranger.

My best memories of Colombia come from the times I felt furthest from my comfort zone.

Having full on conversations in Spanish, hiking on difficult jungle terrain and learning to dance champeta in the street are just a few that spring to mind!


8 – Carry only what you need

In Colombia, it’s a good idea to only ever carry what you need. We’ll talk more about safety in Colombia soon, but first you’ll want to keep this is mind when packing.

When packing for Colombia, you probably need less than you think. Pack only what you need and you’ll have a much more enjoyable trip.


A person climber the steps to El Penol near Guatapé in Colombia

Tips for getting around in Colombia

Now you know how to prepare for your trip to Colombia, here’s what to expect on the ground.

9 – Be prepared to go with the flow

While Colombia has seen a massive spike in tourism in recent years, the infrastructure is still developing. 

If you want to veer from the typical ‘gringo’ trail – something I recommend you do – then you might have to wing it. 

I often found that information was only available in Spanish and I relied on locals a lot. Although frustrating at times, it all added to the adventure!


10 – Don’t trust Google maps

If I’m being honest, I’ve probably become a little too dependent on Google Maps in recent years. While it’s a great tool – and one of the apps I’d recommend for every solo traveller – it isn’t always reliable in Colombia. 

I use my phone for a lot of things while travelling, but it simply wasn’t possible in Colombia. Restaurants aren’t listed, there’s no information on local operators and opening times are rarely correct.

Ask a local, though, and you’ll be showered in useful information. In general, they’re a much better source than Google – and often share secrets Google doesn’t know.

11 – Leave some time in your schedule

Although you can book things online, I’d recommend leaving some flexibility in your Colombia plans. 

Some of the best experiences I had were things I didn’t even know existed until I arrived.

I ended up cancelling several activities in favour of others, and also ended up travelling much harder than expected to squeeze everything in.


12 – Take airline restrictions seriously

Colombia has really affordable internal flights. It makes getting between the major transport hubs super easy, but also comes with its own challenges. 

I flew with both Viva Air and Avianca and they each had their own baggage restrictions.

I had to pay for extra luggage a couple of times – one of the struggles of travelling full-time! – but would pack with this in mind if I was only travelling to Colombia.

13 – Book things in advance

Even though you can book most things when you arrive in Colombia, it’s worth booking some online. 

Not only will it guarantee your spot but, for the more popular trips, it will be cheaper. 

One trip I definitely recommend booking in advance is the day trip from Medellin to Guatapé because this one is (understandably) popular. 


A pink house with rainbow balcony in Guatapé Colombia
Colombia is full of cute and colourful towns.

Interacting with locals in Colombia

Colombia is a country where you’ll want to interact with locals at least little.

For me, the locals completely made my Colombia trip. It wouldn’t have been half as special without the moments I share with them. 

That said, there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to interact with locals. These next few Colombia travel tips will help you go about it the right way.


14 – Don’t be afraid to ask the locals

Looking for a good restaurant? Not sure whether it’s safe to take your camera out? Need a hand figuring out directions?

Ask a local!

In my experience, Colombians will go out of their way to make tourists feel safe and welcome. 

They’re also very respectful and will rarely hassle you on the street. This doesn’t mean they’re not friendly – they just mind their own business – so don’t be shy in approaching them.

I was never met with any hostility!

15 – Download WhatsApp

There’s no doubt that WhatsApp is the communication method of choice in Colombia. If you don’t already have it, download it before you go.

Colombians use WhatsApp to organise almost everything. If you’re booked on any tours or trips, they’ll probably use it to arrange pick-up before you go and feedback when you get back.

Ditto with hotel check-ins. I often used WhatsApp to let my accommodation know what time I would be arriving and ask them for help in arranging transfers.

It was also nice to be able to ask questions ahead of time (What tours can I book? Are there towels? Can I upgrade my room?). 

Since WhatsApp requires an internet connection, make sure you have a local sim or portable WiFi device with you. After testing LOADS, I recommend the SkyRoam Solis for both value and reliability. 


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16 – Don’t always take the first answer

Most locals were more than willing to help when I needed it in Colombia. And yes, that was a lot.

However, you shouldn’t necessarily take the first answer you get when asking for help. While it’s unlikely anyone will purposefully deceive you, some things are more subjective. 

I was constantly asking locals for advice on where I should and shouldn’t take my camera.

The answers I got were often mixed, so I would ask as many people as possible and use that to judge each destination. 

17 – Stand your ground (when it’s safe to do so)

It really pains me to write anything negative about Colombia, but no country is without its scammers. 

In Colombia, the only time I came into any trouble was when a taxi driver tried to rip me off. I knew he was overcharging me before we set off, but I didn’t really have any other option. I was in a remote area and just wanted to get to my next destination.

So, I agreed to the overly high price and accepted that sometimes this happens. Only, when we got to my hotel, he then tried to increase the price even more. 

If there hadn’t been other people around, I might have panicked. But, the audience gave me a confidence boost and I argued back in my broken Spanish. 

After a few rounds of back and forth, it was settled. I won. He lost. I still overpaid and he knew it, but I’m glad I didn’t back down.

That said, please don’t worry about this too much. It was the only time anyone tried to rip me off and I only argued because I knew I was in a safe space.

Elsewhere, I might not have taken the chance.


A girl on a scooter and two tourists in Cartagena Colombia
The locals in Colombia are some of the most welcoming in the world.

Colombia safety tips

Speaking of safety, here are few more tips to keep in mind when travelling Colombia. 

Colombia is much safer than it used to be, but muggings and robberies are still fairly common. These Colombia tips will help you avoid becoming a victim as best you can.


18 – Join a walking tour to take photos

If you’re a fellow photographer but don’t feel confident taking your camera out in the streets, try joining a walking tour.

As a solo female traveller, I felt much safer taking photos this way. After all, there’s safety in numbers!

Once I figured this out, I joined free walking tours all the time.

It was great to be in a group, with many of the others holding big cameras too. It also meant I made friends to walk around with afterwards, too.

19 – Make sure your insurance is adequate

If you’re taking a phone or camera to Colombia, you’ll want to make sure it’s insured.

Unfortunately, pick-pocketing is fairly common, especially in the big cities. Even though I was fine, I met countless people who had had their phones stolen in Colombia.

Make sure you have insurance that covers theft (and covers you abroad) so that you can travel with peace of mind.

You can get a quote from the gadget insurance I use here or read more about choosing one in this post.


TRAVEL TIP

Even though Colombia is much safer than it used to be, you shouldn’t travel without insurance. Make sure your policy covers you for healthcare and cancellations, as well as any activities you plan to do.

I use and recommend World Nomads because they cover things that most insurers won’t.

Check the price here or find out more about why I use them


20 – Learn from the locals

I arrived in Colombia the most nervous I’d been in years.

The only times I’ve been more apprehensive about a place are the two times I moved to another country long-term (Jordan and France, if you’re curious). 

I’d probably done a little too much research and heard too many friends’ warnings before I arrived, but I definitely went in more wary than I needed to be. 

Since I was travelling solo with thousands of dollars worth of camera gear, I feel it wasn’t entirely unwarranted. 

I quickly found a great way to suss out a new area in Colombia, though: observing the locals. My first room had a window that overlooked a fairly busy area in Medellin, and I used it to get a feel for the streets below.

You can learn a lot about a place by seeing how the locals act – and I suggest you do. Do they take their phones in public? Are they wearing headphones? How are they dressed?

Observe them, copy them and – most of all – talk to them. After all, they know the area better than anyone.

21 – Get multiple opinions

While Colombia is fairly safe now, there are certainly areas you’ll want to avoid. There are also things you’ll want to avoid doing in the areas you do go to. 

The best way to figure out the vibe of a place is to simply ask. 

In the not-so-safe places, even the locals are wary. More than the tourists, perhaps. 

Ask the locals – and ask at least a few of them since everybody has different experiences – to get a grip on each place.


A man looking at the view from Piedra el penol in Colombia

On to the good stuff… the food and drink!

I didn’t expect food to feature prominently in my Colombia travels, but I quickly discovered that Colombian food is great! It may be one of the most underrated cuisines in the world. 

Here are some things to know before going to Colombia about eating and drinking while you’re there.


22 – Eat on the street

Nobody should visit Colombia without trying at least some of the street food. Colombia’s street food is affordable, tasty and, in many ways, totally unique.

It can be a little tricky to figure out, especially if you don’t speak any Spanish.

But please don’t let that put you off – you’d be missing out on a really amazing part of Colombian life.

Some of my favourite street foods include empanadas, patacones and – the most quintessential Colombian food going – arepas. Mmmm.

23 – Drink the tap water

Unlike most South American countries, Colombia boasts fantastic tap water. In all of the major cities, the tap water isn’t just safe to drink, it’s also pretty tasty.

Pack a reusable water bottle for your trip to Colombia and skip buying single-use plastic where you can.

With free filtered water available in all the other places I stayed, I didn’t buy a single bottle while I was there!


24 – You can take water on national flights

You’ll be glad you packed that reusable water bottle if you take any internal flights.

There’s no limit on liquids when flying domestically, so you can take as much water as you like. 

Fill your water bottle up before you leave your hotel or hostel, and it will see you through to your next one.


Piedra el Penol in Colombia

Money matters

The currency in Colombia is Colombian Pesos (COP). At the time of writing (2020), 10,000 COP is around $2.50 USD or £2.00 GBP.

The easiest way to convert COP to USD or GBP is to take off two zeros and divide by 4 or 5 respectively. 

Here are a few more money-related things to know before going to Colombia.


25 – Many – not most – places take card

Before I left Los Angeles, I converted loads of dollars to pesos (at a terrible exchange rate, of course!). 

If I’d known how many places accept card, I would have saved myself the high fees and used my card instead. It has much better exchange rates!

In most parts of Colombia, I was able to book tours online or through my hostel, and I paid by card in both cases. Most restaurants and grocery stores accepted card, too. 

The only time I couldn’t use my card was for small purchases in small restaurants and shops, taxis, and one not-so-cheap tour in Filandia. 

26 – Watch out for fake money

In my three years of travelling full-time, I’ve never come across fake money before (that I know of, anyway!). 

In Colombia, though, I met a couple of travellers who had picked some up along the way. Luckily, they knew where it came from: vendors at the Lost City Trek, just east of Cartagena.

I didn’t do the trek myself, but it did make me wary of any change I accepted going forward.

The easiest way to check if your Colombian Pesos are real is to hold them up to the light. If you see a smaller version of the main image on the left hand side, the note is probably legit.


RELATED READ: The bank cards and accounts I use to save money travelling


27 – Always try to carry change

Although most things cost less than 20,000 COP, ATM’s love giving out 50,000 COP notes.

It’s not always easy to break up the larger bills, so try to break up money whenever you can.

Grocery stores and larger restaurants are usually good places to part with the bigger bills since they serve a lot of customers throughout the day.

If you’re taking any taxis or local transport, or eating at street food stands, don’t expect them to have change for anything other than a 10,000 or 20,000 COP note.


A coffee farmer in the forest in Filandia Colombia
When travelling in Colombia, please respect the people, the nature and the customs.

A few more Colombia travel tips 

Before we go, here are a few more miscellaneous things to know before going to Colombia.


28 – Be conscious of your impact

Colombia, I was pleased to discover, is an awesome ecotourism destination. Better yet, it’s incredibly easy to enjoy ecotourism in Colombia and travel responsibly wherever you go.

For a country that’s just getting started with tourism, it’s a really promising sign. As its tourism scene grows, it could well set Colombia at the forefront of ethical travel in the entire world. 

Please don’t do anything to ruin that. When a country makes it easy to be a responsible traveller, there’s no excuse not to respect its nature, people and traditions.


29 – You might need vaccinations 

In Cartagena, I met a traveller who was exploring Colombia solo because his travel partner got stuck in Brazil. The reason? She didn’t have a valid Yellow Fever certificate. 

Even if you don’t think you’ll need them, I recommend getting all the basic travel vaccinations before heading to Colombia. That includes Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid and Tetanus. 

30 – Colombians love to travel

The tourists I saw most in Colombia were, by far, Colombians themselves.

At weekends, the popular places become even more popular with the local tourists who flock there.

And don’t think Sundays will be quiet in this Catholic country – they’re the busiest of all!


31 – You’ll be talking about Colombia for a while

Anyone who visits Colombia becomes the next advocate for travelling there. There’s just something about this South American country that stays with you long after you leave.

If you find yourself constantly bringing up Colombia in conversation, you won’t be alone.

After three years of full-time travel, even I had a hard time not telling every single person I met about Guatapé’s zócalos, Filandia’s howler monkeys and the many times I followed strangers into the forest (but we’ll save that for another day).

Colombia is a country you’ll want to talk about. And, for that reason alone, I expect it won’t stay such a secret for much longer.


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31 things to know before going to Colombia