With Latin American zest, Colombia is one of South America’s most famous countries that has been at the forefront of Latino culture. Whether you’re reading a classic by Gabriel García Márquez or you’ve just started to binge watch Narcos on Netflix, Colombian culture is everywhere.
But beyond the country’s culture, travelers are eager to explore its untouched wilderness. With a Caribbean and Pacific coastline, the Amazonian jungle, vibrant greenery, and snowy peaks, the country has a diverse array of landscapes.
Bienvenidos – Welcome to Colombia
Adventure travelers will enjoy exploring nature, as well as experiencing history in one of the many ancient and colonial towns. With culture that rivals Machu Picchu in Peru, Colombia’s tombs and ruins are just as mysterious and enticing. From Ciudad Perdida to San Agustín, you can unlock Colombia’s history and experience its ancestral past.
Bogotá is the capital of Colombia and the place where the colonial past blends with the cosmopolitan future. The city is also considered to be the heart of Colombia and the place where travelers escape to explore the cuisine, dining, and social scenes. La Candelaria is the historic downtown district, which consistently draws in visitors who flock to the cobblestone streets. With a high-altitude location, Bogotá’s dramatic background only adds to the beauty and makes this city Colombia’s main star.
- Culture and Language
- Visa Requirements
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
Much like the history of all of South America, Colombia started out as a land ruled by the indigenous people, who were then colonized by Europeans. Hunter gatherer tribes used to roam throughout Colombia before they started to make permanent settlements. Ciudad Perdida is Colombia’s most famous ancient settlement, which was estimated to have been founded in 800 CE.
While the indigenous people thrived, the entire country was changed with the arrival of the Spanish in 1499. The colonization of Colombia was a part of beginning the New World and Bogotá was officially given the status of New Granada and it was an important city for the administration of the Spanish Conquistadores.
But it was with the help of Simón Bolívar that Colombia gained its independence and it became a new country, which they named the Republic of New Granada. However, by 1863, the name was changed to the United States of Colombia. But even with independence, Colombia struggled to find stability with the oppressive National Front.
The most famous period of time for Colombia was after the fall of the National Front, when the country was dominated by conflict between guerilla soldiers and drug cartels. The Medellín Cartel was once the world’s most powerful with Pablo Escobar at the helm.
Today, the history of Colombia and its conflicts still have influence on travelers today, who seek out famous cities and sites related to the deceased drug lord. But Colombian culture expands beyond just its historical events and visitors will find that the country is very diverse. While Spain and indigenous cultures are the most prominent, there are also influences from religion, race, music, and literature.
Catholicism is the domination religion and it has ingrained within the culture the important of family and deep respect for tradition. The family unit is strong and very large, but children are also taught traditional gender roles.
Colombia also has developed its own ethno-racial caste system, with European-born people being favored. Anyone of mixed ancestry is considered to be mestizo, mulatto, or moreno by the caste system.
Finally, two of the largest influences that have shared Colombian culture with the world are the Nobel Peace Prize winning author, Gabriel García Márquez and international singer, Shakira. Often considered to be the father of magical realism, García Márquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (affiliate link), is a landmark for Colombian culture. While Shakira’s upbeat tunes have brought universal joy and further ingrained Colombian culture within the United States.
Spanish is the official language of Colombia and 99.2% of the population speak the language. While the majority of society and the government utilizes Spanish, there are also 65 Amerindian, 2 Creole, and various international languages spoken as well.
English is spoken in Colombia, but it is usually only encountered in San Andrés, Providencia, and the Santa Catalina Islands. However, with a strong tourist industry, you may be more likely to encounter English speaking Colombians in urban areas with high numbers of international visitors.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Colombia, you are not required to obtain a tourist visa prior to your arrival, if you are planning to stay for less than 90 days. You may also request a 90-day visa extension, once you are in Colombia, from the Colombian Migration Authority, if you wish to extend your vacation. However, if you overstay your visa, you will be required to pay a fine before you will be allowed exit from the country.
If you applied for a visa prior to your arrival that is valid for longer than 90 days, you will need to register at the Migración Colombia office within 15 days of your arrival in the country. For any traveler, you may be denied entry if you do not have proof of onward travel.
Other entry requirements include having a US passport that is valid at the time of entry. But it is important to note that many airlines will not allow you to travel with a passport that does not have at least 6 months validity remaining. One blank page is also required for your entry stamp.
A yellow fever vaccine is required if you are traveling from Brazil, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, or Uganda and it must have been administered at least 10 days before you arrive to Colombia. However, it is suggested that you are up to date on all your vaccinations at the time of travel.
Finally, the US Government has placed a Level 2 and 3 Travel Advisory on certain areas in Colombia. Aracua, Cuaca, Chocó, Nariño, and Norte de Santander should not be traveled to due to concerns with crime and terrorism. For the same reason, you should reconsider traveling to the departments of Antioquia, Caquetá, Casanare, Cesar, Cordoba, Guainía, Guaviare, Meta, Putumayo, Valle de Cauca, Vaupes, and Vichada.
Travelers should always be aware of their surroundings and they can stay safer by enrolling in the STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program), which will give you current updates from the US Embassy.
Whenever you are planning a trip, it is also important that you consider how much money you can spend or need to spend when visiting a foreign country. Colombia won’t break your bank, but it isn’t the ideal backpacker’s budget destination either. But you can still travel on an affordable budget, if you plan wisely. The most important parts of your budget will be the airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
Colombia is located way in the south from the United States and it is still a long journey down to the country, even if you won’t be traveling halfway around the world. Flights from the United States major cities like Los Angeles and New York often have direct flights to Bogotá with an average price of $500 US dollars. However, there may be special deals that can lower the price to about $380 US dollars.
But other factors like when you travel to Colombia and how far in advance you book your ticket can also affect the cost. The tourist high season in Colombia runs from December to March. High tourist season means that plane tickets will be more expensive. But you can save some money by booking your ticket in advance and not waiting until the last minute.
Accommodation is also an important consideration because you’ll need a safe place to rest and recuperate from your adventures. Hostels are the most affordable accommodation options in Colombia with prices normally ranging from $9-$15 US dollars per night. However, private rooms in hostels will likely be $30 US dollars per night during the tourist high season.
If you would prefer a hotel, you may find budget options for about $20 US dollars per night, but the nicer locations will cost about $45 US dollars per night. Boutique or luxury hotels will be the most expensive option and you should expect to pay a minimum of $200 US dollars per night.
Airbnb is also available in big cities like Bogotá and it can be a more affordable way to travel if you are in a group. Bookings for a private home or apartment start at $30 US dollars per night. Larger housing options will cost more than $80 US dollars per night.
Once your accommodation has been decided, you will need to consider the cost of food into your budget. Food is essential and it is also a great way to experience the local culture and lifestyle. Colombian cuisine is abundant with fresh fruits and vegetables all year because of the country’s unique climate. Here, the food is consistently cooked with fresh ingredients.
Bandeja paisa is a traditional dish, which is also a staple in Colombian cuisine. The dish is made with rice, beans, ground beef, chorizo, and avocado. Bogotá is famous for its ajiaco soup, which features potatoes and guasca herbs. Colombia also has their own version of tamales, which can be made to be sweet or savory.
A unique Caribbean dish is called rondón, which is a coconut rice soup with yams, potatoes, and yuca. A more unique dish is hormigas culonas, which are literally fried ants. As a snack, the ants are often roasted and eaten like popcorn.
But good taste doesn’t have to be expensive and you can easily find meals for less than $5 US dollars at local establishments. For quick snacks like an empanada, you can expect to pay about $0.30 US cents. Ceviche is the most expensive and it will usually cost up to $5 US dollars for a dish.
If you are looking to eat in more tourist areas, you should expect to pay more. Meals will cost about $10 US dollars but can cost more. There are also very nice places in urban areas like the capital, Bogotá. These types of restaurants will likely have prices that are more similar to fine dining in the United States. You could pay up to $50 US dollars for fine dining meals.
Drinking in Colombia may also pique your interest, but you should be cautious. It is officially illegal to drink in public, which means that you’ll have to stick to licensed establishments or in the privacy of your accommodation. Most drinks in Colombia are affordable and will cost less than $4 US dollars. However, if you are buying bottles in a supermarket, you should expect to spend up to $20 US dollars.
Overall, budget travelers can explore Colombia on about $50 US dollars per day. But it will require that you spend time to pre-plan and stick to your budget while you’re on vacation. A more moderate budget would be spending about $80-$100 US dollars per day. This would provide you with nice hotels and meals. A luxury vacation could cost hundreds of dollars per day.
How to Get Around
Transportation will also need to be taken into consideration in regard to your budget and there are a few different ways to get around Colombia. Bigger cities, like Medellín, may have an established metro.
The metro is an affordable way to explore a smaller area and usually costs less than $1 US dollar for a single ride. However, you are more likely to travel by local buses, which are more frequent in smaller cities and towns. These are also affordable and cost about $0.80 US cents per ride.
Taxis and Ride Sharing
Taxis are another local option, but they can be more expensive. Some taxis will charge up to $10 US dollars for a ride. A more affordable way to travel is to use Uber. Uber rides will normally cost about half the price of a taxi.
For longer distances, buses are the most affordable ways to travel around Colombia. Intercity buses will normally cost less than $20 US dollars for a ticket, but you should expect to spend long hours traveling.
Flights are an option but not for budget travelers. Domestic flights can cost up to $200 US dollars but are a faster way to travel. But there may be special last minute deals, which would make a flight cost less than a bus ticket.
During the daylight hours, walking is also an option around cities and towns. However, you should always be aware of your surroundings and travel in a group. It is also suggested that you do not walk alone at nighttime.
Top Cities to Visit
While Bogotá is the heart, there are plenty of other cities to visit in Colombia too. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top tourist city destinations in Colombia.
Bogotá is often the first city that tourists visit and unavoidable if you arrive to Colombia by plane. The capital is known to be hectic, but its vibrant lifestyle is packed with entertainment, while still preserving the colonial past. Here, you can walk the old cobblestones or stop and take in the view of the green mountain backdrop. But with a high altitude, you should remember to stay hydrated.
While the city is attempting to distance its image from the world-famous cartels, it is hard to forget that Medellín was once dominated by Pablo Escobar. While the people feared him, they also loved his Robin Hood style methodology, which also saw the construction of entire neighborhoods funded by the late drug lord. In Medellín, you can take tours to visit some of the famous locations that were once bases for Pablo Escobar. But the cities difficult past has been modernized and the world of Pablo Escobar has been left behind.
With museums, parks, art, and delicious dining, Medellín has become a bustling metropolitan scene that’s beautiful setting is enough to draw in the tourists.
Located on the Caribbean coast, this is one of the most well-preserved colonial towns in all of Latin America. Cartagena is like taking a time machine to the past, as you soak in the views of narrow streets, colonial architecture, carriages, and impressive churches. The Old City is the heart of the tourist district and it is often described as being picturesque.
Cali is an interesting city that is also used to visit nearby natural beauties. The city is often said to be the founding location of Salsa and the love of music is still present in the nightclubs, streets, and bars. Historic sites can also provide you with quality education and entertainment.
With almost all white colonial architecture, this city is certainly a sight to behold. The historic preservation has been successful, and the town’s history is still alive. Popayan was once an important destination on the trade routes, but now it has become popular due to the universities and nearby natural wilderness.
Points of Interest
While Bogotá gets most of the hype, along with the other major cities, there are also various points of interest throughout the country. With plenty to explore, here are the top points of interest in Colombia.
Zipaquira Salt Cathedral
Located to the north of Bogotá, the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral was built in an old salt mine and become a popular tourist hotspot. The unique construction reveals the beauty beneath the earth. You can visit during an active service or take a walk through the nearby Brine Museum.
Tayrona National Park
Lagoons protected by reefs make the Tayrona National Park one of the most beautiful and safe spots to swim in Colombia. Here, the turquoise water also gives you the chance to view rare aquatic wildlife like stingrays. With plenty of beaches, it doesn’t always have to be focused on adventure and you can sit back and relax too.
Santuario de Las Lajas
Sitting on top of the Guaitara River, the Santuario de Las Lajas is a Gothic style cathedral that is known for its impressive construction. With a tall base, the bridge carries you over the river and into the impressive buildings, which sits cliffside. The white and grey façade also make it a striking contrast to the surrounding plants and cliffs.
Los Nevados National Park
While it looks barren, Los Nevados National Park is actually filled with wildlife. Here, there are bears, tiger cats, pumas, and birds that may be spotted along your journey. With large volcanic peaks, the park has become one of the most popular in the country. With plenty of chances to camp or explore the landscape, people are often eager to explore the backcountry and experience this barren landscape’s beauty.
Considered to be Colombia’s Machu Picchu, Ciudad Perdida is a pre-Colombian settlement of the Tayrona Indians. Previously called the Lost City of Teyune, this long-abandoned location is most famous for its stone terraces. Guided tours are the most popular way to see the site to guarantee that you are not lost along the way and are provided with accurate, historical information.
Valle de Cocora
Like a real-life version of Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, the Valle de Cocora is most famous for its wax palm trees that tower towards the sky. With little ground vegetation, the palms stand out amongst the landscape and highlight its beauty. With so many shades of green, this area is also re-energizing as you take in the awesome sight of nature. But the remoteness of the location means that you should hire a local guide to take you into the area.
Get Out and Go
As a country that was once ravaged by a poor public image due to its ties with the cartels, Colombia has re-emerged as a top tourist destination. Its fertile landscape is perfect for tasting fresh cuisine and exploring remote places. But with modern cities, you don’t have to stay in nature forever. The cities are the place to go for good times with entertainment, but don’t forget to stop and enjoy the wilderness too.