My name is Frank and I run a travel agency based in Bogota, Colombia. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please write them in our comments section. Thank you and have a great trip to Colombia!
Ah, Colombia, the South American jewel! Colombia draws scores of tourists around the year and almost each one of them faces this dilemma: how to get around in Colombia with its gorgeously rugged topography, awe-worthy landscapes and epic wildlife? For starters here is what you must know. Colombia is huge, almost 4.5 times the size of the UK and with mountain peaks up to over 5.500 meters! Traversing around the country is a question travellers ask most often because getting to Colombia is easy, but getting around in Colombia is not an easy task if you’re not prepared; take it from someone who has covered over 40,000 km by road in this country! Excited yet confused about the best route to take while your travels? Read on to find out the best tips and ways to get around in Colombia.
Travelling from city to city within Colombia comes with a specific list of rules – the dos and don’ts. It means maneuvering through the tall majestic Andean mountain ranges, the Amazon jungle in the south East or the Caribbean coast. Colombia is home to some of the most scenic and diverse landscapes in the world. Worry not! In this modern country you will find various options to travel around ranging from Air travel, Public transport such as buses, car-rental services, and private transportation and even by sea!
1. Traveling by Air in Colombia
Colombia is a huge country and traveling by air to cover the huge distances between major cities and popular tourist destinations seems like the most sensible option. While air travel will naturally cost you more than a bus ticket, the ease and convenience are worth the extra bucks! In recent years with the boom in tourism, Colombia has also witnessed a rise in several budget airlines with airports in all major, small and even remote towns making almost every location in this stunning region easily accessible for tourists and locals alike. The Andean region in Colombia is densely populated, especially owing to the metropolitan life in Medellin and Bogotá. It is no secret that most tourists immediately flank to these bustling major cities. The best option would be to opt for air travel as you fly above the rugged mountains with their magical snow-capped tops, the wide-spanning plateaus, fertile, lush green lands and the all-encompassing Amazon forest. These beautiful views will be etched into your memory for a lifetime, surely. Adrenaline junkies can also opt for a thrilling helicopter ride in local stations.
The new major international airport ‘El Dorado’ is located in central Bogota. Colombia is home to several passenger, domestic, and small carrier and charter airlines. Jet aircrafts that are modern and efficient are used on busier routes while single propellers or tiny aircrafts serve the purpose of commute to remote areas. The main domestic airlines in Colombia include ‘Avianca’, ‘Latam Colombia’, ‘Satena’ and ‘Copa Airlines’. These airlines cover almost all the major cities and towns in Colombia. Then you have also some cheap carriers like ‘Viva Air’, ‘EasyFly’ and ‘Wingo’.
The best part about air travel is the shorter travel time, usually an hour long. However, everything comes with a price-usually a steep one. Tourists should prepare to pay anywhere from COL $80,000 to COL$500,000 for a 30 to 60 minutes flight between major cities. Commercial carriers such as Satena regularly offers flights to areas near the Pacific coast, the Amazon and Los Llanos reaching a vast number of areas including remote villages and towns that would’ve dealt with the misfortune of being inaccessible by all other means of travel. Thanks to air travel for virtually linking the entirety of Colombia and making it merely a short flight away and easier to access for curious tourists.
Wondering how to avail of the best ticket prices and deals? Always book in advance! Some airlines drop and surge the prices of their tickets 2-3 weeks prior to departures. Tourists would benefit from avoiding last minute bookings near national holidays such as Easter, Christmas or festivals as locals rush to airports for a much-needed break. Additionally, tourists can avail special discounts through packages to major tourist locations such as San Andrés and Cartagena offered by select airlines. Make sure to visit the official Colombian websites for accurate prices and best deals. Try out different browsers and your mobile phone and computer and you will experience different prices. For several domestic flights, passengers can use their foreign credit cards while in some case scenarios they will have to make a booking in advance and pay the agent in cash to purchase their ticket. But be aware, sometimes those platforms just don’t let you buy a flight. Fret not, last-minute tickets are also an option for those running out of time as long as you avoid the rush seasons.
Bear in mind that a ‘Departure tax’ is applicable to internal flights if tourists have stayed for over 90 days or more. There is also an additional Tax for flights to San Andres, approximately COP 115,000 per person. Sometimes this fee has to be paid in the airport directly.
If you are looking for connections, you will find national and international connections with the relevant airline in our travel guides from the according destinations.
2. Driving in Colombia
Here’s honest advice – don’t drive in Colombia! Yes even if you’re a self-proclaimed pro driver. As mentioned earlier, Colombia is home to different topographical features and the infrastructure is not exactly fully-developed as of yet. Expect to face head-on collisions with speedy drivers and huge trucks and buses whirring past you on single-lane roads curved atop mountains. Did we mention that the occasional livestock casually passing through will also be a normal occurrence in this wild country? Traveling inter-city to the main cities in the central region might still be easier but the wild-drivers still make it extremely difficult on the roads. Ironically, Colombians are known as some of the friendliest people in the world and yet the worst drivers. Road rage is real here! You will get blocked, side-tracked, cursed, honked at and even forced to face near-death experiences as vehicles overtake precariously. Car accidents are responsible for an alarmingly high number of deaths here. Underage drivers on motorbikes driving in congested and not always well-maintained roads are often amongst the unfortunate. After driving over 40.000 Km’s around the whole country I calculated my average speed, which was around 40Km/h, so I literally spent 42 days driving in the last 2 years. If time is something you can waste, there is at least one argument less to not drive in Colombia.
3. Car Rental in Colombia
Your best bet would be resorting to car-rental services but make no mistakes; they will cost you quite a lot! You can find rental car services that can set you back at least COL $200,000 per day! Gas is also really costly in this part of the world; expect to pay up to COP$9,990 a gallon as you hit the road. We suggest doing your research and opting for the most reasonable car rental companies during your travels. Some good options are Avis, Hertz and Budget. Remember, the Colombians drive on the right side of the road and insurance is compulsory. You will need a valid international driver’s license while some companies may accept your national driving license as well. Car seats for children are mandatory along with seatbelts for all seats. Pay heed to the speed-limits; in urban areas the speed limit is 30-60 km/h (28-37 mph), in rural areas it is 80 km/h (50 mph) while the motorways allow you to speed up to 100 Km/h (62 mph). But to be honest, there is always a flood of signage and I personally usually do not know which speed limit is valid.
Also, something from my own experience I would like to share. I had once a cracked windshield, just on the side. On a checkpoint the police confiscated my car, as after Colombian law it was not secure anymore. I got my car back a few days later after getting the windshield replaced in the parking of the police, paying a huge fine and standing in line for 5 hours.
Also on my journeys, I got stopped by some corrupt police officers and they were looking for whatever reason to generate some additional income. If you will rent a car, just be aware of that risk.
Further, if you as a foreigner will have an accident, the risk that somebody wants to take advantage of the situation and make money out of that is very high. Foreigners are all regarded as rich.
Additionally, there is this funny concept called Pico y Placa in Colombia, where you have restrictions in the city depending on your license plate. That might lead to the situation that you cannot leave or enter a city.
4. Taking a Taxi in Colombia
Resorting to taxis is a far better idea since they are much cheaper than rental cars and safer than taking the wheel by yourself. However, taxi drivers sometimes charge extra from tourists even though cities like Bogota, Cali and Medellin have taximeters. Be prepared to bargain with the drivers to the best of your abilities. Also in some cities they don’t have taximeters and in some cities they have them but only use them sporadically. Just always check your price in advance to reduce the risk of being cheated.
There are also other services available and you will find the links below. Be aware that UBER still is not a legal service in Colombia and if you use it, you need to sit on the front seat. It also happened in the past that taxi drivers identified Uber drivers and beat them up.
Also, an important to know is that taxi drivers, without exception, where Formula 1 drivers in their former life. Don’t be surprised therefore if you are going to break the sound barrier within the city limits.
5. Bus and Public Transportation in Colombia
The most important of all, you need to learn the Colombian way of waving the hand so that taxis, buses etc. will know you want a ride and will stop to pick you up.
Public transport remains the most sought after option for locals and tourists alike all over the world. Colombia has significantly improved its infrastructure over the years. The improved network of roads and highways makes bus travel in this region easier and safer than ever, especially through the mountains as you make your way to the Andean cities! This mode of travel is reasonably cheap too! An overnight, one-way bus ticket for a 10-hour trip would cost you around 70,000 pesos (about 25 USD).
Buses in Colombia come in wide variety and range depending on comfort-level and distance. Tourists have plenty of options to choose from. Starting from The shared mini-bus or ‘colectivo’ to air-condition buses covering long-distances and over-night buses offering the luxury of business-class seats, entertainment, snacks and even near-flat bunks/beds – Colombia has it all! Buses that cover long-distances make it especially easier for those looking to travel different cities during their trips and these intercity buses offer seats much more comfortable than your basic coach-class with air-conditioning, decent leg-room and even Wi-Fi service. Tourists opting for over-night trips would be well-advised to wear warm clothing to bear the artic cooling of the air-conditioner and keeping ear-buds for noise-cancellation to enjoy a peaceful nap. And another important tip, always pay attention to your luggage.
Buses are usually safe and make frequent stops at police and military checkpoints. Don’t be alarmed if some sniffing-dogs casually enter the bus and start sniffing you up and down. You can also find the fatality statistics for buses at the ticket counters and make informed decisions. Most buses have restrooms and long-distance buses usually stop for meal breaks too. All intercity buses depart from the passenger terminals that are easily accessible by local transport and easy to navigate around. The most popular and well-known bus companies include Bolivariano, Berlinas, Brasilia and Rapido Ochoa. Tourists would benefit by booking their bus tickets ahead of time and planning their travels before or after national holidays such as Christmas or the long holiday weekends to avoid hassle and rush.
Moreover, the biggest cities in Colombia have their dedicated and modern bus metro systems as well. Colombia is home to the infamous and much raved about ‘transmilenio’. This bus service in Bogota is the world’s largest bus rapid transport system covering 90 km with pre-paid cards and an online system for bus route inquiries.
Why should you opt for a bus instead of renting a private transport or a car? The answer is pretty obvious! Buses are safer and cheaper. Opting to drive in a capricious country like Colombia on your own is no less than a risk, especially if you’re a tourist who is looking to cover multiple cities such as the major Andean cities that you cannot reach on your own. Lastly, who wouldn’t want to travel in luxury and comfort of a secure bus without caring about the fatalities that await you on the road if you take the wheel?
Also, try this app, it might be helpful
6. Express point to point service in Colombia
Another interesting aspect is, that not all buses leave from the central bus station. In Santa Marta and Cartagena for example, some bus companies have their own terminals within their business address. True, the vehicles are not real buses but rather minivans but if you are looking for an express point to point transportation, this might be the service you are looking for.
What better way to explore this diverse region that is a feast to the eyes than by paddling your way around on a charming bicycle? Cycling is very popular in Colombia and there are several routes designed specifically for this very task. Mountain bike routes, cross-country treks, expeditions that span over several days and intercity and local cycling-you name it and Colombia has it! Bogota boasts one of the most extensive and advanced cycle route networks and the proof lies in the fact that citizens there traverse around the city accounting for over 400,000 bicycle trips every 24 hours! Moreover, this particular city shuts down its roads on Sundays and public holidays for ‘ciclovia’ where the space is exclusively dedicated to joggers, skaters and cyclists alike.
While buying a bicycle is not cheap they can be hired easily at bike rental shops that are usually located near parks mostly in coastal cities and less so in mountainous regions. We would advise the tourists to be cautious and to take into account the zealous driving conditions and habits of native drivers before recklessly cycling around the country. Wear your helmet, knee and elbow pads at all times and remember to have fun while you’re at it! Looking for your very own second-hand bike? Try the website www.mercadolibre.com for the best deals.
8. Traveling by boat in Colombia
Before the advent of railroads, better infrastructure and highways, travelling via the river remained the principal means of travel inside Colombia. Even today, you can only travel to some parts of the Amazon such as Puerto Nariño through river travel. Traveling by boat inside the only South American country fortunate enough to share coastlines with both the Atlantic (Caribbean) and the Pacific Ocean coastlines is surely a treat! Embark on the greatest adventure of your life as you sail in the brilliant blue waters surrounding this gorgeous region. The major seaports in Colombia are located in Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Buenaventura (Pacific coast). Due to this prime location Colombians witness an influx of ships and cruise lines from Mexico, the USA, Central America, the Caribbean.
There are several kinds of boats that you can choose to travel around this ruggedly beautiful and mountainous region from:
For the tourists seeking thrill and adrenaline rush can opt for the fast Speedboats that travel from northern Antioquia (Necocli and Turbo) to the Caribean towns of Sapzurro and Capurganá. Tourists can find plenty of boat services such as ‘Lunas Castle’ especially for a sailing trip from Panama to Colombia for an average rate of $450-$650 for a 5-day trip which will include decent meals too! From Leticia you can also drive to Iquitos in Peru or Manaus in Brazil, which I heard is an interesting journey.
Fancy a delightful cruise under the warm sun? You can easily find cruise ships traveling to Colombia that will usually make a stop at Cartagena.
Although a slower way to travel, Cargo boats sailing via the Magdalena River are always an option for passengers who don’t mind constantly travelling for several days. The Buenaventura port is the hub for cargo boats plying on the pacific coast. Tourists with sufficient time on their hands can book a bunk to travel to both the north, south and to Nuquí and Bahía Solano as they take their time to drink in the glorious views that surround them.
Most hotels and hostels can arrange for private boats for tourists too. Some great boat rental companies are at the disposal of tourists that charge either per hour/per day or the number of people on board. Want to experience the best fishing in Rionegro? You can rent a 4 person center console for the price of USD 600 a day with a minimum booking for three days. Are you the life of the party? You can Charter the 44ft Lagoon 440 Cruising Catamaran Boat that can host up to 23 people with reasonable rates as you cruise in Cartagena, Bolívar in style and luxury!
Colombia is a rising force in the contemporary world with a massive increase in tourism and hospitality. With several means of travelling inside this magical country, tourists can choose from a number of options according to their budget and itinerary. Happy travelling!
9. Hitchhiking in Colombia
To be honest, I tried it only little in Colombia but it depends a lot on the region. In Bogota and the surrounding area, the people are in a constant state of fear, it seems to be part of the city culture. Therefore it will be most unlikely that somebody will take you unless you are a cute blonde girl with blue eyes. In rural regions, though, it is a different story. Many times I was surprised how lonely girls or elderly ladies were getting into my car without hesitation, but for the farming population without resources to even buy a bicycle, that seems to be normal.
Anyway as a foreign tourist I am not sure if I would try to tramp the country by hitchhiking. Although Colombia is much safer today, I would not like to take the risk.
- Bicitaxi: This is the Colombian adaptation of a Rickshaw but with a bike integrated.
- Chiva: Some might think the time of the chivas should long have been gone but those big buses did not find a worthy successor yet. Those sometimes huge mostly very colorful buses run all over Colombia. Depending on the region, they have a different function. In Bogota they use them as party buses, driving through the city with loud music, with no windows and poles in the middle and of course, lots of alcohol. In more rural areas those resistant tanks get the masses everywhere. You can see them fully packed inside and also on the roof, defeating muddy roads. Those buses are an institution in Colombia and part of the culture.
- Colectivo: A colectivo can actually be every kind of vehicle that transports people but is not an official public transportation. You not only find those in rural areas but also like cities. A good indication that you are in a colectivo is that you have to pay the driver in cash. Sometimes there is also a second person collecting the money. In Bogota you have the old crappy buses that some years ago got included into the official transportation system, but they are still colectivos. In other areas, you can find jeeps, pick up trucks, normal cars, buses or even vehicles you can’t identify. The colectivos usually transport everything from people, goods and animals.
- Metro: This is the mass transportation system of Medellin. It is modern, clean and very good. But don’t get mislead by the name, it is not an underground system.
- Metrocable: The cable cars in Medellin are called Metrocable and are connected with the Metro system.
- MotoTaxi: In many areas, mostly with a warm climate, you see many motorcycle drivers driving slowly and with an additional helmet. In some regions, they also honk all the time. You can wave them and they will get you wherever you want. Be careful, this is not the safest way to get around. In some areas, it is prohibited to have 2 people on a motorcycle to prevent robbery.
- TransMiCable: This is a brand new transportation system in Bogota. Cable cars that bring you up the mountain. So far there is one in the south with the same idea as in Medellin, to integrate the poorer areas into the cities and providing them access to work.
- TransMilenio (TM): This is the mass transportation system of Bogota. You will see those huge red buses running mostly on their separate lines.
- TransCaribe (TC): This is the mass transportation system of Cartagena. You will see those huge orange buses running mostly on their separate lines.
- Willy: The Willy’s are mostly used in the coffee region and are actually Willy Jeeps. Although you will find other brands like Toyota, and Nissan, so it does not depend too much on the brand but the type of vehicle. You will find them in different sizes and shapes, some open, some closed but usually overcrowded. Those vehicles are the workhorses and transport everything around mountainous areas. They also serve as school buses and tourist attractions.
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