My three week trip to Colombia was such an adventure for me: it was my first time backpacking in another country, first time in South America, and the longest trip I’ve ever taken!
I went on this trip shortly after living in Germany for three years, so my recent travel experiences were in Europe. And needless to say, a lot of things in Colombia really surprised me! From money to standards of living to buses, everything was just different.
Not necessarily in a bad way, but I’m really glad that my traveling partner had been to South America before and was able to explain a lot to me. But some stuff was new to her, too.
So here are some things that it’s nice to know before you start your trip, broken down into a few sections: general, hostels, transportation, food & drinks, and popular destinations.
General Things to Know About Colombia
1. Fake money can be a problem.
We received a 50,000 peso note (either from a hotel or a bus) during a transaction, and when we tried to use it at a restaurant later were told it was fake, or “falso.” The servers showed us that the hologram on it wasn’t right, and neither was the texture in certain places. We had NO IDEA!
I know it’s already hard enough to get used to a different currency and conversions, but Colombian currency is especially difficult because they have old and new versions of each of their notes. So you have to know what’s right and wrong on a lot of bills!
Here’s a post that can help you get acquainted with what real and counterfeit Colombian currency looks like.
After our experience I started reading some travel forums about the issue, and it’s a pretty lost cause. You can even receive counterfeit bills from ATMs. The best thing you can do is learn what real looks like for when you’re doing cash transactions, and if you need to get money out of an ATM do so at one with a bank connected to it during business hours. This way you can talk to someone at the bank if you receive a fake bill in their ATM. It’s not always realistic to do that, but it could help if it happens to you.
2. There are lots of street dogs.
In almost every city we visited there were lots of dogs roaming the city streets. In the bigger cities they kept more to themselves (like Bogotá), but in the smaller, touristy towns (like Salento) they were pretty friendly with travelers. Some of them looked skinnier than others, and I never saw one that was aggressive to people.
With lots of street dogs comes, you guessed it, dog poop. You’ve got to keep your eyes peeled as you walk around so you don’t step in it!
3. English was not common in locals.
Now I know that not everyone in the world speaks English. They don’t have to! But coming from my experience traveling in Europe, it was very easy to get by without knowing the local language of each country. Almost everyone spoke English.
In Colombia that wasn’t the case, and I was very lucky that my friend spoke Spanish fluently and helped me translate in many situations. I think it helps to brush up on basic Spanish before you go, like maybe numbers, directions, and simple phrases.
4. You can use your credit card easily in big cities.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that we could use our credit cards almost everywhere in Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena. When we went to smaller towns, however, that wasn’t the case. At the bus station in Santa Marta they only accepted cash, as well as at Tayrona National Park.
5. There are some scams you have to watch out for.
Besides counterfeit bills, you should be aware of some common scams that con artists use to steal belongings or cheat you out of money. It’s hard to NOT look like a tourist in Colombia, so you’re an easy target. If you have a spidey sense that something isn’t right about an interaction, remove yourself.
6. Toilet paper and hygiene items are thrown away in the trash, not the toilet.
I don’t think there needs to be further explanation for this one.
Things to Know About Colombian Hostels
We stayed in hostels for our entire trip and always opted for a private room with a private bathroom, with the exception of one glamping stay on a beach with a shared bathroom.
P.S. You can read about our glamping adventure as well as my other 10 favorite experiences from Colombia.
7. All free breakfasts are not created equal.
We were pretty spoiled with our first few hostels and free breakfast. We had eggs, toast, fruit, juice, and coffee. And it was made to order as soon as we woke up. It really filled us up and got us going with a pleasant start.
But our hostel in MedellÍn was not so special. You had to sign up for the free breakfast on a sheet the night before, and then it was prepared by hostel staff the next morning and left on the kitchen counter for you. For who knows how long. And when I saw the first breakfast I thought something was missing…the vegetarian breakfast was fruit and yogurt. So in my bowl was about 7 small pieces of cut fruit, and there was a box of yogurt out for you to pour on top. That was it. Oh, and there was no milk for coffee. You had to buy that on your own.
I feel like this ‘free breakfast’ was simply provided to check a box on accommodation websites so it wouldn’t be filtered out of searches.
I guess it was technically free and it was food, but as a breakfast standard I don’t think so. It was a breakfast snack.
Having varied experiences with hostel breakfasts may not be new to you. If you’re on a budget and trying to have a free breakfast count as a filling meal, make sure to read the reviews so you know what you’re getting into. And at the end of the day, that doesn’t always help. The place where we had a disappointing breakfast was raved about in a few reviews! That’s the fun of backpacking and hostels, I guess.
8. Mold was in several hostel showers.
Like I said, we almost exclusively stayed in hostel rooms that were private and had a private bathroom. And in more than one hostel there was mold in our shower. Not like a teeny, tiny spot, but a large patch in a corner or along the shower curtain. I believe this was due to the lack of ventilation in some bathrooms as well as the overall humidity in the area.
I feel like this is important to mention because I am allergic to mold and didn’t bring medication. I was able to pick up antihistamines at a pharmacy, but my poor friend had to hear me struggle to breathe for a few nights in Salento with a combination of mold and mildew in the air.
It’s completely my fault for not bringing medicine, but if you also have mold and mildew allergies don’t forget yours either.
9. You can’t be picky about showers in general.
In our hostel in the forest at Paso del Mango (Finca Carpe Diem), our shower basically had a hose as a shower head. It turned on, and it turned off. There was no temperature adjustment, and it just came straight out. In Salento, we had an electric shower and the water got pretty warm, but not hot, and the same happened in Bogotá.
Hey, you’re in Colombia to travel not to shower, right!? Yea, but it’s just a head’s up.
And almost every place we stayed has a little sign reminding us to conserve water since it’s a precious resource.
10. Every hostel we stayed at provided towels for us.
From what I’ve heard it’s common in other South American countries for guests to be charged for towel use, or have them not provided at all. We didn’t encounter that.
11. Free hostel Wifi isn’t necessarily accessible from your room.
Overall I would say our hostel Wifi experience was iffy. Some hostels had GREAT Wifi all around, others only had it accessible in common areas, and some really struggled to provide any service at all (even though it was advertised).
This is pretty important since we depended on hostel Wifi to help us plan each leg of our trip as we went on. We needed to look up bus times, book upcoming accommodations, and communicate with our families back home. It helps if you have some sort of mobile data in your cell phone plan as a backup.
Things to Know About Colombian Transportation
While in Colombia we relied on buses, taxis, Ubers, boats, and one domestic flight to get us around the country. Most of my transportation things to know are about buses, which you’ll probably use if you’re bouncing around towns on a typical backpacker route.
12. Colombian driving is some of the scariest I’ve ever seen.
I thought after visiting Sicily that I had seen crazy driving. No. Just no.
Colombians don’t necessarily drive fast, but they pass a lot, even around sharp turns. I couldn’t watch as some of our buses drove through mountains, or as some of our taxi drivers weaved through city traffic. On more than one bus ride there were passengers vomiting (thankfully into plastic bags). If you get carsick I would recommend bringing some dramamine.
13. Plan for some extra bus time.
According to all the travel blogs we read, the bus from Bogotá to Salento was supposed to take about 7ish hours. It took us about 10ish hours actually. And what a long day that was! There was construction and traffic that slowed us down.
We had a similar experience going from Salento to MedellÍn, as construction on the route led to significant delays.
The best idea is to take a night bus, that way you encounter less traffic on the road and there are less people to pick up.
14. Don’t count on bus Wifi.
In our experience bus Wifi had nothing to do with the brand of bus we were on, and was hit or miss based on each individual bus you took. We had to transfer at a bus station to get from Santa Marta to Cartagena, and our first bus had excellent Wifi but the second had none. Often times we could connect to the bus Wifi network, but the network didn’t actually provide any internet.
If you’re taking a bus from one city to another and are going to be checking into a new hostel, make sure you save the address of the hostel in your phone (or go old school and write it down) since you may not be able to use bus Wifi to pull it up on your journey.
15. You can ask for a custom stop.
Something you might see when traveling by bus is that passengers will ask the driver to stop at random spots along the road to be dropped off. People may even be picked up at random spots on the road by local buses. It’s all normal.
If you have a specific place you want to be dropped off along the route, let the driver or the money guy (my made up title for the person who manages payments and bags for passengers) know a little ahead of time. That way they can get your bags ready and keep a look out for the place.
We did this on the way to our hostel outside Tayrona National Park, Playa Los Ángeles. That way we didn’t have to take a taxi or walk that far from wherever the bus was taking us to get to our accommodation.
16. Uber works. Kind of.
Now according to the internet, Uber is supposed to be completely legal in Colombia. But in Bogotá one of our Uber drivers explained that they always ask a passenger to sit up front so that it doesn’t look like an Uber because they might get in trouble with police. He even said at the airport that Uber drivers will get out of the car and hug their passengers to make it look like they are family or a friend picking the passenger up instead of an Uber driver!
When available I preferred Uber to taxis because the rate is established through the app and I had a way to identify the individual/car if anything went wrong (like they took an extra long route or we left something in the vehicle).
Uber was not an option in some of the smaller cities, particularly Salento and Santa Marta.
Read up on some taxi 101 knowledge before using them in Colombia so you’re prepared to handle them.
Things to Know About Colombian Food & Drinks
You might have the misconception that Colombian food is spicy, but overall that’s not the case. They have a lot of fried foods, exotic fruits, and, when you’re on the coast, amazing seafood.
17. Vegetarian options for food can be limited.
It can be difficult at times to find Colombian food as a vegetarian. Or you at least can’t be picky. Often there would only be a handful of meals on a restaurant menu that were vegetarian. Some items you can keep an eye out for are patacones (fried plantains), arepas (corn flour bread), or veggie/cheese filled empanadas. Rice and beans are pretty easy to find as well.
If you eat fish you can try river trout in the Salento area and outstanding ceviche around Cartagena.
Outside of Colombian food, it is easy to find stuff like pizza and pasta, which are easily vegetarian.
18. There is conflicting information on where you can drink tap water.
Before visiting Colombia I read about backpackers sterilizing tap water before they drank it, and about how some cities had tap water that was good to drink, and others didn’t. We heard that you could drink tap water in Bogotá because the city is in the mountains where the water is fresh. One of the employees at our Bogotá hostel told us we could only drink tap water there since they have the cleanest, purest water.
So, after we left Bogotá we strictly drank bottled water…until we were served tap water in Medellín at a restaurant. Which we drank and were fine.
The internet consensus seems to be that tap water in bigger cities is safe, and bottled water is best in smaller towns. At the end of the day, see what the locals are doing, and follow accordingly. In Santa Marta, for example, there was a large water jug in our hostel lobby where you could refill your water, so we used that.
No one wants to get sick on vacation, so I would opt for bottled water over tap if you’re ever in doubt.
19. You have to try the fruit juices.
Colombia is famous for having a wide variety of exotic fruits. As you walk down the city streets you will see vendors selling fruits that look like they’re straight out of a cartoon! They’re bright colors and shapes and have all different sorts of tastes.
At some point during your time in Colombia you will be served fruit juice to accompany your meal. Some you may like, and some you may not like. And if you’re wanting to try more of them then hit up some street vendors and be adventurous!
My favorite was definitely guanana, and I wasn’t a fan of the lolo. Here’s a list of some exotic Colombian fruits to try.
If you go to Medellín, consider taking the exotic fruit tour as well.
20. The accepted standard for tipping at restaurants is 10%.
Check your bill after dining at a restaurant and see if there’s a line item called “propina.” This is the 10% suggested tip that is typically automatically added to your bill total. If you’re comfortable with that, go ahead and pay with it included. Most people do. If you had exceptional service feel free to go above and beyond.
Just make sure to check and see if the tip is already included in your bill before paying. Every once in awhile it won’t actually be included in the total, but the math will have been done on the bill so you know what to leave.
For other situations, see this guide to tipping etiquette in Colombia.
Things to Know About Popular Colombian Destinations
Most backpackers bounce around to a few popular areas in Colombia, so here are a few small tips about those places.
21. Ride on the back of the Willy to the Cocora Valley.
If you’re going to Salento, chances are you’re going to the Cocora Valley. Seriously, don’t miss it! You’ll pick up a ride there from the Salento town center in an open Jeep that everyone calls a ‘Willy.’ If you want the best views on the way to the valley be the last people to hop on the Jeep so that you can stand on the back and take in the beautiful drive to the Cocora Valley.
I’ts not as scary as it sounds!
22. Talk with your hostel about where not to go in Santa Marta.
Due to our itinerary we stayed at two separate hostels in Santa Marta at different times. Upon check-in EACH hostel explained to us what streets in the city we should avoid as tourists, and which ones were safe for strolling. If you don’t get told this information when you check-in, I would ask hostel staff to let you know.
23. Cartagena has A LOT of vendors and performers.
When you start walking around Old Town Cartagena, you’ll notice that there are a lot of vendors. Some selling jewelry, straw bags, toys, magnets, artwork, you name it. You’ll also see women dressed in colorful outfits with fake fruit hats on their head waiting for you to snap a picture (and then pay them).
And if you decide to eat dinner at a restaurant outside, you will be approached by vendors to buy their products or even contribute money to performers nearby. In some squares it was mildly annoying, and in other more crowded and touristy squares it was incessant. We were approached about every 5 minutes and by the same people over the course of the few hours.
If you do want to buy something from a vendor, don’t be afraid to bargain with them. If you don’t haggle you will be overpaying!
24. You can easily do the day trip to Guatapé on your own.
My friend and I were trying to decide if we should do an organized tour to Guatapé or head there on our own. Ultimately we decided to go there on our own and it had two big benefits: first, we were on our own schedule for climbing El Peñol (the rock formation) and then walking through the town, and second, it was cheaper.
If you want information on doing the same read this blog post.
25. Think about Pablo Escobar tours before doing them.
This point is more my personal opinion, but I feel like it needs to be said. There is more to Colombia than Pablo Escobar. Yes, he is an influential part of their story, but he’s not everything.
During our free walking tour in Medellín our local guide did not even say his name out loud because to this day Colombians have polarized opinions about him. Our guide explained that simply learning about Pablo Escobar on a tour is not wrong, but going to lay flowers on his grave or play paintball at one of his former villas is disrespectful. There’s a fine line between glorifying his life and educating yourself on the impact he had on Colombia as a whole.
This post by Desktop Dirtbag sums things up really nicely.
Keep in mind that these 25 things to know before backpacking in Colombia are based on my personal experiences as a first time traveler to the country and continent of South America as a whole. Just because things are different doesn’t mean they’re bad, and I hope this prepares you more for your trip to beautiful Colombia!
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