In Colombia, knowing what not to do is as important as figuring out what to do.

Colombia is a fascinating country, and one that I absolutely loved getting to know.

From its many ecotourism initiatives to its colourful towns that were made for strolling, Colombia is full of new and diverse experiences for the curious traveller. 

But, as with any destination, there are plenty of actions, situations and places to avoid in Colombia. 

Whether for the sake of travelling Colombia safely or making the most of your time there, these are nine things that should be avoided.

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COLOMBIA TRAVEL MISTAKES
 

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1 – Giving papaya

It’s pretty much impossible to spend any length of time in Colombia without hearing the phrase dar papaya. 

As a linguist, this is the type of phrase I love learning because it doesn’t translate into English. It’s one of those times when language is the only way to get to know a country a little deeper

While there’s no direct English translation for “giving papaya”, it essentially means “making it easy”. 

This handy little phrase can apply to a lot of scenarios and situations, but it’s usually used in the context of making a thief’s job easy. In other words, don’t make yourself an easy target!

Flashing valuables, leaving your bag unattended or not zipping things away securely would all be examples of giving papaya. And they’re definitely things you don’t want to do in Colombia.


TRAVEL TIP:

Many people warned me not to take my camera out at all in Colombia. As a photographer, that was a challenge! And it also made me afraid.

When I got there, though, I found most areas were fine.

I carried my Canon RP most days, although I did change the lens based on how safe I felt. If I felt an area wasn’t so secure, I switched my $2,300 15-35mm RF lens for my £100 50mm prime. Most importantly of all, though, I made sure I had adequate camera insurance.

If you’re a fellow photographer and on the fence about taking your camera to Colombia, I say – do it. Colombia is special and you’ll only regret it if you don’t.

But, please make sure you have good travel insurance. I wrote this entire post about what to look for and the policies I recommend.


2 – Only eating in restaurants 

Colombian food and drink may not be well known, but I think it should be!

I guess there’s simply so much to see and do in Colombia that food gets overshadowed by the nature, wildlife, beaches, music and city vibes.

But Colombian food is an adventure in itself. 

While you can enjoy lots of great food in restaurants, don’t skip the small stalls and stands you see on the street. 

Colombian street food isn’t famous in the same way as, say, the food in Mexico (mmm, tamales!). It also doesn’t tend to be available in one central market or location, as it usually is in Asian destinations like Thailand or Taiwan.

Add in the fact that it’s rarely labelled and the vendors only speak Spanish, and trying Colombian street food can be pretty intimidating! 

Don’t let it put you off, though. The street food is some of the best food in Colombia – not to mention it offers great value for money. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed but ready to tuck in, ask a local for help in figuring out what to try. I guarantee you’ll be back for more in no time!


A woman preparing arepas in Cartagena Colombia
The best arepas I had in Colombia came from this street stall!

3 – Trying to do everything yourself

Colombia is a strange place to visit in that it’s not super easy to travel but also depends a lot on organised tours and transfers.

For that reason, Colombia is definitely a destination best suited to more experienced travellers (for now). But you may have to – or want to – surrender some of your independence while you’re there. 

It’s not impossible to travel around Colombia completely independently without even speaking to another person.

But I wouldn’t recommend it for several reasons. 

First of all, the locals and my interactions with them were one of the things that made my ten days in Colombia so special.

Colombians truly are some of the kindest and most helpful locals I’ve encountered while travelling. Many of them quickly became friends.

Secondly, tourism services are relatively cheap. Not only does it mean you won’t save much by booking a private tour or transfer, but you’ll also be contributing to the growing tourism sector.

Right now, that’s at a pivotal point and is heading in a great direction.


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Right now, Colombia is one of the best destinations in the world for responsible and sustainable travel, and supporting these emerging businesses can help keep it that way.

And finally, you can’t travel Colombia without considering safety.

Even though things have changed a lot in the last decade, taking public transport always comes with risks.

Armed robberies aren’t unheard of in Colombia, and they mostly occur on public buses or street taxis.


A local man in the forest in Filandia Colombia
Don’t be afraid to let a local show you around.

4 – Leaving the hotel unprepared

Colombia is a bit like the UK in that the weather can change from one minute to the next. Even as a Brit, I struggled to remember to take everything I needed for the day.

As a good rule of thumb, you should always carry a rain jacket or umbrella, plus some kind of protection from the sun. 

And sunscreen is a must in Colombia – don’t even think about leaving the house without it!

Even though Colombia isn’t as sunny and hot as many people imagine, it’s deceivingly easy to get burned. The cities are especially unforgiving given the high altitude.


A red jeep sits in a rainstorm in Filandia Colombia
The sudden rainstorms in Colombia can be fun – if you prepare for them!

5 – Sticking to the cities

Speaking of cities, make sure you get out of them!

It’s not that Colombia’s cities aren’t fun to explore. In fact, they’re packed with awesome food, interesting street art and some of the best museums in the world.

But to visit Colombia and only see the cities would be a HUGE mistake, in my opinion.

Colombia’s charm lies in its impressive diversity, and you simply can’t experience that inside the cities.

Make sure you visit at least one or two other regions of Colombia, whether it’s the white sand beaches and turquoise waters of the Caribbean coast or the rolling hills of the coffee region.

6 – Arriving without insurance

Travelling without insurance is a big no-no for any destination, and that’s especially true in Colombia.

From travel delays and missing luggage to suddenly getting sick, there’s nothing worse than taking a financial hit on top of whatever went wrong on your trip. 

Make sure you don’t just have travel insurance, but adequate travel insurance for your trip.

That means it will need to cover your entire time in Colombia (most policies only cover up to 30 days abroad, so check this if you’re travelling long-term!) and all of the activities you want to enjoy. 

I use, have claimed with and recommend World Nomads because they cover activities that other insurers won’t. Those activities include many of the things you may want to do in Colombia, such as hiking at altitude, skydiving and snorkelling.

You can see the full list here or click here to get a free, 30-second quote.


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7 – Going on a Pablo Escobar tour

If you only know one Colombian name, it’s probably Pasco Escobar. 

Even if your knowledge of Colombia extends beyond its violent, drug-ridden past, there’s a good chance you’ll arrive with curiosity about it. 

Pablo Escobar tours aren’t hard to come by in Colombia – probably because so many tourists eagerly sign up to them. But, in my opinion, doing so would be a mistake. 

For a start, the locals hate any mention of the notorious drug lord’s name. Understandably, they want to break their association with events that are now decades in the past.

Plus, there is so much more to Colombia, and SO many developments that have taken place since then.

If you want to learn about the history of Colombia, I recommend learning about it through its most recent history.

Instead of joining a tour that locals would rather didn’t exist, learn about Colombia’s new initiatives and developments on a transformation tour.

This one is Bogota will introduce you to a former gang leader while this one in Medellin focuses on the art scene that has grown from one neighbourhood’s unsavoury past.

Plus, it’s almost impossible to not come across traces of Escobar throughout your Colombia travels. Even a day trip to the now underwater town of Old Penol will give you the chance to see one of Escobar’s houses – still in disrepair from a 1993 bombing.


Free walking tour in Cartagena Colombia
There are plenty of other tours in Colombia and the locals would prefer you take them.

8 – Ignoring local advice

Throughout my solo trip to Colombia, I often relied on the locals. Without their help, there are a lot of things I wouldn’t have figured out. 

More importantly, though, I asked locals for advice on areas I didn’t know – which was pretty much everywhere. 

While I took time to figure out my surroundings in each new city or region I visited, it’s impossible to understand anywhere like a local.

The locals know exactly what’s up in the area, from streets to avoid to what’s been happening in recent weeks. Therefore, they can be an invaluable source of information.

I highly encourage you to speak to the locals wherever you go – not just because they’re some of the friendliest people in the world but because they can help you infinitely.

Moreover, they’ll be able to advise you on safety aspects that you simply can’t research online.

Even if you prefer to do things independently or don’t get much chance to interact with the locals, make sure you listen when they share advice. They want to look out for you, and ignoring any cautions would be reckless.


Filandia Colombia
The beautiful town of Filandia isn’t on the typical travel route in Colombia, but I absolutely loved it.

9 – Only following the tourist route

Tourism is still developing in Colombia – that much was clear very quickly to me. That means that infrastructure doesn’t always exist, and you might need to wing it sometimes. 

That said, Colombia does still have a pretty well-established backpacker route. And, whether they follow it exactly or pick and mix parts, most travellers stick to it.

While that’s most a good idea – and will help you stay safe in Colombia – don’t think you have to stick to it perfectly. In fact, I’d recommend putting your own spin on it when you can! 

In the coffee region, for example, I decided to skip the town of Salento and stayed in nearby Filandia.

I found pretty much zero information about Filandia online – in English, at least – and I knew I wanted to cover it.

It made things a little more difficult when I first arrived, but it turned out to be the best decision of my entire trip. I loved Filandia!

In fact, Filandia was the absolute highlight of my trip to Colombia.

So, what I’m trying to say is this: don’t be put off by a lack of information.

As long as you’re not heading anywhere dangerous, getting off the tourist route can be a fun way to see a different side of Colombia.


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THINGS TO AVOID IN COLOMBIA