As I write this post, I am perched comfortably in a grey Burger King chair waiting to board a flight from Colombia’s mountainous and metropolitan Medellin to the coastal city of Santa Marta.
At this point I have been in Colombia, and South America, just a little under two weeks and have already experienced some wonderful highs, but a few more lows than usual, learning some invaluable lessons along the way.
This post will remain unfinished for a while, as I continue to navigate my way around Colombia for another three weeks then Panama and Brazil for another month after that.
However, I thought I would use my experiences as an excuse to kick start my blog again and hopefully help anyone thinking of travelling to Colombia. I hope that you enjoy my tales and find them helpful, while I look forward to reading the stories of my fellow blogging community.
Travel to Colombia – my top tips
As I have already learnt in just 13 short days, with much more to come, Colombia is an incredibly diverse, welcoming and inspiring country with a tragic past. The country is fantastic and the people amazing, but there are definitely some things to be aware of before you arrive.
- Make sure you have proof of onward travel: I didn’t realise as a traveller from the UK that while Colombia does not require a visa, it does require proof of onward travel. While I have several friends that didn’t get asked for proof of this at the airport, I did.
While it is possible to book a refundable ticket from your airline or online in most cases, it often involves a nonrefundable admin fee and it can take several months for the money to return to your account. Save yourself the stress and book some travel out of Colombia before you head to the airport. I booked a four-day San Blas island hopping tour ending in Panama which my airline (Avianca) was happy to accept.
- Get your yellow fever vaccination: This is required for some tours heading into Colombian rainforest or for travel to Panama. According to the NHS website, it costs around £60 to £80 to get the vaccination in the UK however, if you find yourself under-prepared as I did, you can get it done at El Dorado Airport in Bogota.
The vaccination clinic (Fontibon Hospital) is located in Departures on the second floor opposite Entrance 5. It’s not immediately easy to spot as it is tucked away down a corridor next door to an electrical shop but is signposted as vaccination throughout the airport. Once inside it is simply a case of taking a ticket from the machine, which is on the left hand side as you enter, waiting for your number to be called, filling in a form and getting your vaccination.
While the language barrier is difficult, the whole process is easy enough to navigate and you will leave with a small booklet as proof that you are now vaccinated against Yellow Fever.
- Learn basic Spanish before you leave: While I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a super experienced traveller, I have visited several non-English speaking countries and haven’t found any of them as difficult to communicate in as Colombia.
Even at airports and some hostels you may find that English is very minimal, so it’s helpful to invest in a phrase book or learn some basic phrases before you head off. Having said that, people are incredibly patient and helpful on the whole if you cannot speak Spanish and it’s fun learning as you go.
Download the Google Translate app which is super helpful in restaurants as you can simply hover your phone camera over the menu and it will translate it for you. DuoLingo is also a fun app for when you have five minutes spare per day and can help you grasp the language a little better.
- Be secure: Ninety-nine percent of the Colombians that I have encountered are among some of the most kind, helpful and welcoming people that I have ever met. However, there is no denying that certain areas, like anywhere, remain unsafe and rife with opportunistic thieves and pickpockets.
Sadly, I found this out the hard way when my purse was taken from my bag on my first day in Bogota. I was highly naive to the potential of opportunists in a busy city who could pick me out as a tourist immediately.
My advice would be to buy several padlocks for bags/suitcases and hostel lockers and to only take the absolute minimum that you need with you when you go out. If you cannot padlock your bag for whatever reason, push all your valuables to the bottom and cover them with scarves/books/water bottles, etc to make them harder to reach should somebody manage to unzip your bag without you noticing.
I have also found a money belt very helpful, which fits snugly around your waist without detection under your clothes and can hold a passport, phone, money and cards.
Several people have also told me to make a ‘fake’ purse up, containing an old or useless bank card and a small amount of money, so that if you do get asked to hand over your stuff by a thief, you have something to give them without losing the stuff that really matters.
I have spoken to Colombians who have had their phones stolen under their very nose – so just be smart and aware. These people are professional pickpockets and are very smart, so just do everything in your power to be safe and secure and you should be fine.