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. Backpacking in Colombia is as exciting as it is hectic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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