I’ll admit, going into Colombia, I was a little nervous. It was my first time going to a new country by myself and rather than pick like Canada or France or something, I chose a country that most Americans only knew from Narcos and Pablo Escobar. I knew that the times have changed significantly and that I shouldn’t be too worried, but a reputation like Colombia’s is hard to get over. It didn’t help that the day before I arrived, Colombians voted against a peace treaty against the rebel group that has violently plagued the country for decades.
With the threat of retaliatory violence, a hurricane ravaging the Caribbean, and season two of Narcos fresh in my mind, I headed into a country that I knew very little about. To call my time there eventful would be a gross understatement, and it started and ended as fittingly as possible.
Upon arriving in Cartagena’s airport, I ordered an Uber to take me basically across the street because it was nighttime and I did not want to be the dumb traveler who gets robbed immediately. Little did I know that Uber is actually illegal in Colombia but brave and rebellious drivers will do it anyway. My car pulled up, a guy jumped out of the passenger seat and started hugging me and started throwing my luggage into the car. He ushered me into the front seat and then walked away as fast as he hopped out. That’s when I found out Uber was illegal, and with such a heavily policed place like an airport as the pickup point, they had to strategically make it seem as if they were simply picking up a close friend rather than a paying customer.
That chaotic start for a groggy traveler fresh off the plane did not bode well for the rest of my transportation experience in Colombia. From reckless bus drivers that turn four hour rides into eight hour rides to going off-roading on a jeep (as in literally on top of the jeep), the adventures never really stopped. Like I said, the trip ended as fittingly as possible with an all-out brawl at Medellin’s airport due to a flight being cancelled. Bottles of alcohol were being thrown and two fathers got into a fist fight. Both of them were carrying a child in one arm while throwing punches with the other. Colombia, man. If you put up with the chaos that bloggers like me will pass off for passion and liveliness, then you are in for the experience of a lifetime.
I was completely unprepared, but I survived and thrived. I can only imagine how much fun someone would have if they actually knew what was going on ever. Lucky for you, I’m going to let you know some tips on how not to die in Colombia, from yours truly, an expert on not dying in Colombia.
Here’s a pretty dope video of all the memories I made of not dying in Colombia! Check it out, like and subscribe, and the rest of the article is right below the video.
First things first, let’s get the most obvious thing out of the way. Be street smart. Don’t go wandering off by yourself at night in sketchy neighborhoods. Don’t flash your Rolex to everybody on the metro. Don’t go into Medellin’s most dangerous community and leave your backpack full of valuables unattended while you go kick some little children’s asses at soccer.
That list can go on and on just because there’s so many things to keep an eye out for in Colombia. You’ll have hordes of drug dealers and prostitutes in many of the big cities, and as much as you want to have a great time, I highly recommend staying away. Colombia is known for its cocaine and possession is legal up to one gram over there, but you never know how trustworthy that random guy you met outside of your hostel is.
If you have even the slightest bit of common sense and street smarts, you should be fine in Colombia. Actually wait, I kind of hate that cliched advice because even the smartest, most capable traveler will encounter minor problems, so let me rephrase that. If you have even the slightest bit of common sense and street smarts, you won’t get kidnapped by any Colombian drug lords or murdered. Pickpockets, scams, bad drugs, and a slew of minor things are avoidable but still possible, not matter how prepared you are.
I want to start off with transportation simply because it was what I had the most trouble figuring out at first. After a few terrible bus rides, I learned a thing or two and decided to fly with VivaColombia as it was literally $20-30 to fly within the country. Flights are pricier for certain routes but I still recommend paying the extra money to save yourself a miserable time on the hazardous Colombian roads with even more hazardous bus drivers.
If you opt to take buses, be prepared. My first bus in Colombia was meant to be a four hour trip from Cartagena to Santa Marta. I went to the bus terminal in Cartagena and was immediately overwhelmed. I felt the rush of adventure trying to weave my way around the dozens of booths and restaurants. It felt nice to be lost amidst a lot of chaos, but I had to find a bus. It was easy enough but little did I know what exactly I was getting myself into. I bought a ticket from a normal bus company, then decided I wanted to leave a bit earlier, so I bought one from one of those people that yells at you to buy bus tickets from them. You’ll find that they are everywhere in South America. Anyway, that was a big mistake.
Although the new bus I was taking was meant to leave an hour earlier, it made its way to the gas station and stayed there for a full hour trying to fill up the bus with more passengers. Salesmen hopped on and off the entire duration of the trip, turning the four hour trip into about eight hours. We had all sorts of people hop on, from typical food salesmen to pastors handing out their mix-tapes. If you have time to kill and want to be miserable for a while, take the bus route. Otherwise, take the damn planes.
Buses are also known to be pretty dangerous in Colombia, especially at night. No one I knew had any problems but erring on the side of caution is never a bad thing. I ended up flying from Cartagena to Bogota to Medellin to Bogota and never taking another bus in all of Colombia.
In terms of other transportation, taxis are really cheap in Colombia. They might charge tourists a higher rate, but even if they do, the rate is still much cheaper than you would expect to pay in your home country.
I love exploring cities by bike, but there was no way I was going to try to cycle my way through the crowded streets of any Colombian city. As soon as you step onto those Colombian roads, it becomes a game of survival. Good luck.
The people of Colombia are a lot of fun and generally very friendly, but don’t be too trusting of strangers. I’ve found that most people that approach you probably have some sort of hidden agenda, whether it is as harmless as asking you to join their tour to something more sinister like offering you drugs then taking your money (or a lot worse). Colombians speak Spanish, so it will help if you can speak at least a little bit of their language. Not only does it help you communicate, it also makes you seem a bit less of a tourist and therefore less of a target for drug dealers, hookers, and thieves.
Colombian food is actually pretty diverse in terms of what type of cuisine they offer. You’ll have your mix of Latin-American restaurants, some Asian fusion places, and your American chain restaurants of course. Food poisoning is basically a fifty-fifty shot when you’re in Colombia. I got it in Bolivia and Mexico but not in Peru or Colombia. I even drank copious amounts of tap water in Colombia because I was too cheap to buy water from the bars. I have not died yet and it has been about three months, so I think it’s okay. Most people will recommend against it, and bottled water is really cheap there, so you should be smart and just do that.
Colombia is definitely a country known for its nightlife. From Medellin to Cartagena to Bogota, the rules are the same. Don’t be an idiot. It’s easy to get drunk and make ridiculously idiotic decisions, so try not to do that. Have some friends with you and try to never be alone just in case something happens.
It’s also crucial that you know how to get back home. If you’re drunk and take a cab back to your accommodations, the cab driver might take advantage of you. There have definitely been instances of cab drivers working together with criminals to rob unsuspecting passengers, and you’re never more vulnerable than when you’re drunk. Knowing how to get home will help you sense if something is awry like if the driver is clearly taking you the wrong direction.
It’s hard to cover all of nightlife, but there’s one thing for sure that you’ll need to know about in Colombia.
Drugs are easily accessible in Colombia, but that doesn’t make them legal or safe. A lot of tourists go to Colombia expecting belligerent nights out with cocaine and hookers and if that’s what you’re going for, then dude have a great time. There’s a lot you’ll need to be wary about, however. First off, if you’re buying cocaine, know that it is technically illegal to buy and sell cocaine but it can be “gifted” to you, if you can work your way around that loophole. Don’t break the laws because you’ll just end up in an extremely shitty situation. Aside from the legal aspect, buying drugs off the street can be pretty sketchy and potentially dangerous. There’s no FDA inspecting every single baggy of crack to make sure it’s up to the latest safety standards, so be really careful or don’t even risk it at all.
The US dollar goes a long way in Colombia and it is definitely a good budget-friendly destination. Some cities differ wildly in prices, though. Cartagena, for example, is extremely touristy and charge accordingly. Other cities like Medellin and Bogota charge more reasonable prices. If you leave the big cities for smaller towns, you’ll find that everything is even cheaper.
To stretch out your money as much as possible, either do some grocery shopping or eat in less touristy areas. I was getting massive steak meals for about $3 in some areas of Bogota, or six empanadas per dollar just outside of Medellin. On the flipside, I was paying about $15 for a pizza in Cartagena’s old town. I could have saved a lot of money in Colombia if I wasn’t such a fatass.
I didn’t have a problem using my debit or credit card in most places in Colombia, but if you go into smaller towns, you’ll probably want to have a lot of cash handy. ATMs are harder to come by in Colombia than what you’re probably used to, but they do exist.
Compared to the rest of South America, Colombia is right in the center when it comes to how modern and developed the country is. Medellin is one of the most efficient cities I’ve ever been to in terms of transportation, and even the formerly dangerous slums are now bustling with innovation. When it comes to culture, Colombia is tough to beat. The friendly people love to have a good time and every night can be a party if you can keep up with the locals.
Colombia definitely takes a little bit of adjusting to, but once you get used to it, it will quickly become one of your favorite countries.