Colombia Survival Guide

I’ll admit, going into Colombia, I was more than a little nervous. It was my first time going to a new country by myself. Rather than pick like Canada or France or something, I chose a country that most Americans only knew from Narcos and Pablo Escobar. I told myself that the times have changed and that I shouldn’t be worried but try as I did, 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 with the rebel group FARC that 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 at Cartagena’s airport, I ordered an Uber to take me literally across the street. To be fair, 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. Brave and rebellious drivers will do it anyway. My car pulled up, a guy jumped out of the passenger seat, started hugging me then threw my luggage into the car. He ushered me into the front seat then walked away as fast as he hopped out. That’s how I found out that Uber was illegal. With such a heavily policed place like an airport as the pickup point, they had to strategically make it seem as if they were picking up a close friend rather than a paying customer.

“How have you already done something illegal…” my friend texted me after I recapped the strange sequence to her, mostly just to confirm to someone else that it was in fact, not normal.

That chaotic start for a groggy traveler fresh off the plane did not bode well for the rest of my transportation experience in Colombia. Reckless bus drivers would turn four-hour rides into eight-hour rides. I even went off-roading on a jeep at some point. By that, I mean that I was literally on top of the jeep. The adventures never really stopped in Colombia.

Like I said, the trip also ended as fittingly as possible. What better way to close out my time in Colombia than with an all-out brawl at Medellin’s airport over a canceled flight? Bottles of alcohol were thrown and two fathers got into a fistfight. Both were carrying a child in one arm while throwing punches with the other. Colombia, man. If you put up with the chaos that bloggers pass off as passion and liveliness, then you are in for the experience of a lifetime.

I was completely unprepared but I survived and I 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 neighborhood and leave your backpack full of valuables unattended while you go kick some little children’s asses at soccer. Do as I say, not as I do.

medellin colombia

That list can go on and on just because there are 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. 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.

The biggest question most people have before coming here is is Colombia safe? 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, no matter how prepared you are. Those things happen everywhere and definitely aren’t only exclusive to Colombia.

Transportation

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 while weaving my way around the dozens of booths and stalls and hordes of people. It felt nice to be lost amidst a lot of chaos but first things first, 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 proper 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.

The new bus I was taking was supposed to leave an hour earlier. Technically, it did leave the bus station as advertised. However, it literally just went across the street to the gas station and stayed there for over an 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, get on a damn plane.

bogota colombia

Buses are also known to be pretty dangerous in Colombia, especially at night. I don’t know how much truth there is to this but I would often be told about bandits robbing the buses. A guy I knew had left some of his belongings out and fell asleep and was promptly separated from them. It might have been an isolated incident 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.

For 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.

medellin colombia

People

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 and 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.

But seriously, the Colombian people are amazing. When you go on a night out, you can expect to befriend at least a dozen of them. Colombia knows how to have fun. Keep your wits about and you should be okay. You can always kind of tell when someone has a hidden agenda or doesn’t mean well but in general, you’ll have a great time with Colombian people.

Food

Colombian food is pretty diverse in terms of what type of cuisine they offer. You have your mix of Latin-American restaurants, Asian fusion places, American chain restaurants, and more. 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. Bottled water is really cheap there, so you should be smart and just do that.

Nightlife

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 the nightlife, but there’s one thing for sure that you’ll need to know about in Colombia.

Drugs

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. 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 is sketchy and dangerous. There’s no FDA inspecting every single baggy of crack to make sure it’s up to the latest safety standards. Be careful or don’t risk it at all.

Money

The US dollar goes a long way in Colombia, making it a budget-friendly destination. Some cities differ wildly in prices, though. Cartagena is extremely touristy and the prices reflect that. Other cities like Medellin and Bogota are more reasonable. 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, do some grocery shopping or eat in less touristy areas. I was feasting on steak meals for $3 in some parts of Bogota, or on six empanadas per dollar just outside of Medellin. On the flipside, I once paid 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 middle 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. 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 takes adjusting to, but once you get used to it, it will become one of your favorite countries.

 

guatape colombia

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23 thoughts on “Colombia Survival Guide

  1. Thanks for posting this. …your domain is the partying traveler, doesn’t sound like you did much partying in Colombia? Is it really that dangerous?

    Do you recommend using a taxi app like tappsi, since Uber is illegal?

    Any sketchy experiences at all while you were there?

    1. Plenty of partying in Colombia! Just not a lot of it appropriate enough to put on a blog that my parents read 😉 Colombia was chaotic, not dangerous. I never felt like I was in danger, and the only person that stole anything from me me was an old smooth-talking American dude, believe it or not. It gets a bad rep, but the cities are pretty safe. The rural areas are more war-torn but peace treaties have helped relieve tensions a bit.

      I didn’t use any taxi apps because the taxis were really cheap. Once I found out my 30 minute taxi ride from the bus station to the hostel was around $3, I didn’t bother with using any other apps.

      No sketchy experiences at all. The first few days were a bit uncomfortable but I wouldn’t consider them sketchy once you realize that’s just the way things go there.

  2. It’s difficult to find well-informed people on this matter, but you sound like
    you comprehend what you’re talking about! Thanks

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  4. Love the article! I’m looking to go visit soon and have been looking on a real, informed and fun blogger to fill me in a bit more. Thanks for the post and you’ve got a lifelong follower on here and instagram now!

  5. Hi there, I just stumbled upon this as I was doing some reading about Colombia after reading Jon Lee Anderson’s article about Medellin in this week’s New Yorker. I traveled alone around Colombia in 1992, at the height of the drug wars portrayed in Narcos. This was pre-internet, pre-Uber, pre-cellphone, pre-debit card or ATM (you carried all your cash on you, hidden) and at a time when Medellin was considered the most dangerous city in the world. More than 7,000 murders took place in that city in 1991, and when I got there on a bus from Bogota in early ’92 it was, well, the last place on Earth any normal traveler would go to. I didn’t see another tourist during the few days that I wandered around that city, nor a uniformed cop (Escobar had put a bounty on the heads of cops, and 250 had been killed). I left on a bus for Cartagena, where I helped a guy crew his sailboat into a Caribbean hurricane, which actually felt safer than Medellin. Having said that, I only read now about what an amazing place Medellin is and I would like to visit it again. It can only be calmer and safer now.

  6. I am planning a trip to Colombia for 2 weeks from now (Wednedsday to Tuesday over Memorial Day Weekend). It will be two single guys, early 30s. We want culture and activity during the day, a little pool time, but also good partying (obviously try to meet some girls). We are thinking two cities between Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena. Which two do you recommend and why? Thanks!

  7. This is truly a great tips and very useful. Just like you, whenever I travel to a new country, especially when I’m alone I entertained a lot of questions. I appreciate that you covered almost everything about Colombia, and with your guide, surely I can survive in Colombia on my own without facing any hassle and trouble. I’m happy that Colombia has diverse food to choose and looks like their food is really luscious. Thank you so much for this.

  8. You’re very brave to go to Colombia on your own! I didn’t know that Uber is illegal there, but you made it. And thank you for the great tips on how to survive in Colombia – especially the public transportation. In every country it’s different and getting around is so important!

  9. This is a great guide for first time travelers like me to Colombia. I’ve read so many good things, I want to see it for myself!

  10. Columbia has been on my radar more recently as a place to visit. Thanks for the advice on how to stay out of trouble. If we go we’ll definitely avoid the buses and keep out valuables at home.

  11. Great tips. We were in Colombia few months ago and generally had a similar experience. It’s a pretty safe place to be as long a stay you use a bit of common sense and stick to the well trodden tourist routes. There’s still parts of Colombia that aren’t safe but tourists done really go there so it’s fine. I would add to what you said about buses that if you do have to go by bus choose a respectable company – we had some pretty good experiences with Expreso Brasilia. We took a few night buses with them – the seats are pretty comfy and the drivers just don’t stop in any of the dodgy areas! (Although I agree if you an get a cheap flight that’s far more comfortable.)

  12. I’m nervous about South America because of the drugs and threats of instability, but I’m willing to give it a chance since it’s cheap and literally on my country’s doorstep! One does need common sense and vigilance wherever one goes, even in so-called “safe” destinations!

    1. I think South America gets a bit of a bad rap, more than it deserves. Colombia’s definitely a totally different world to the U.S. or Europe but I wouldn’t say that makes it particularly dangerous!

  13. Thanks for the really informative post. It paints quite a dangerous picture of Colombia. It’s always somewhere that’s intrigued me but I’ve never been over. Like you say, don’t get yourself into dodgy situations and you should be fine

    1. Eh true, I didn’t mean to make Colombia sound particularly dangerous. I don’t think it’s much more dangerous than the other South American countries, but you definitely have to keep your wits about!

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