I honestly wish I had read more Colombia travel tips before I went to the country. Not that I had a bad time – quite the contrary, actually – I had an excellent time. Still, there are some tips that really would have come in handy had I known about them before I got there.
I recently traveled to Colombia as a solo female traveler, and I met a ton of cool people and had zero safety incidents. So, if you’re planning a trip to Colombia and are wondering what you need to know before you go, then don’t worry, I got you. In this article, I’ll dish my top Colombia travel tips so that your trip can be easy breezy and you have a safe and fun time. Let’s get into it!
24 Colombia Travel Tips
No Dar Papaya (Don’t Give Papaya)
Chances are, if you’ve been researching safety in Colombia, then you’ve heard the term “no dar papaya”. Translating into “don’t give papaya”, the phrase essentially means not to give anyone else a reason to rob you.
I know, the #1 slot on this list is a bit of a kicker, but I don’t mean to scare you. The truth is that, while Colombia is generally safe, you have to keep your wits about you when it comes to the safety of yourself and your things.
So, don’t put yourself in a vulnerable situation, and don’t make it easy for someone to rob you.
To “not give papaya”, I recommend not pulling out your phone, wallet, camera, or any other “flashy” thing on the street, using a slash-proof day bag (I personally carried the TravelOn Anti-Theft Bag in Colombia and loved it), and walking around with someone else whenever possible.
I stuck to these few rules and never had an incident in Colombia.
Pack for Many Climates in Colombia
Be warned, Colombia is not one-size-fits-all when it comes to weather and climate.
For example, Colombia’s capital city of Bogota usually sees year-round temperatures between 7°C/44°F and 19°C/66°F and rarely deviates from this. Meanwhile, the coastal city of Cartagena is fairly hot year round — even the coldest month (January) sees average temperatures of 27.6°C/81.6°F.
And that’s not even taking into account all the Colombian deserts and rainforests in between.
Safe to say, pick your precise Colombian destinations and pack accordingly.
Rideshare Apps are Illegal (But Still Widely Used)
It’s a paradox that tends to trip up a lot of travelers when they arrive in Colombia: rideshare apps like Uber are illegal, but tourism workers will tell you to use them.
It’s true, though Uber technically operates in Colombia due to a loophole, it is “illegal” in the country. Still, you can access it in all major cities and it operates like it does elsewhere.
And because of how Uber operates with the trust and rating system, it is technically also the safest way to get around the major cities, despite the illegalities.
The only catch to this is that you’ll have to sit in the front seat of the rideshare, instead of in the back. This makes it look like you’re a friend of the driver. Trust me, I did this, it’s a thing.
Never Hail a Taxi off the Street
When it comes to staying safe in Colombia, knowing who you’re in a car with is paramount. For this reason, never hail a cab off the street, and always use a rideshare app.
While the #1 way I got around the major cities was by using Uber, I do also recommend having the app Cabify downloaded on your phone as an alternative.
It’s technically illegal too, but safety is always the top priority.
Book Shuttles From the Airport to Your Hotel
Another caveat to using rideshare apps in Colombia is that they’re not recommended for use at the airport. To be honest, with military personnel and other officials around, it’s not worth the risk of using this method.
Of course, as I said above, do not use the taxi services at the airport either. Bag theft is an issue, especially at the Bogota airport.
Instead, plan ahead and schedule a shuttle service. I recommend either booking a private service through a trusted provider or choosing a hotel that will schedule a shuttle for you.
The only way I got to and from airports in Colombia was by booking shuttle services through my hotels. They weren’t as cheap as I expected but they weren’t as expensive as some other places (cough, Cancun, cough).
Bring a Water Filtration Device
Overall, Colombia has a safe drinking water supply for both locals and visitors. You may find that the water has a heavily-chlorinated smell, but for the most part, you can drink the tap water in Colombia.
However, this generally only applies to urban areas. If you’re staying at a hotel, then you can absolutely use the water from the tap. However, this may not hold true in all rural areas.
A good strategy is to ask if the water is safe to drink when you get to a new destination, or just get used to purifying it as you go. I purified my drinking water by using my Grayl Geopress, and I never got sick once. Anecdotal, maybe, but true nevertheless!
Acclimate to High Elevation Places in Colombia
Did you know that Bogota is the 4th-highest capital city in the world? It’s true, and at 8,612 feet above sea level, it’s a fact that really shouldn’t be ignored.
Landing in a city like Bogota, especially when coming from a place closer to sea level, makes it easy to get winded and feel light-headed. The oxygen is much thinner at these heights.
Due to this, I recommend taking it easy on your first couple of days at high-elevation Colombian destinations. Don’t drink alcohol or do any strenuous activities like hiking while you’re acclimating.
I actually witnessed the fallout of this on the Montserrat cable car. My tour group was sharing a car with a family from France, and just as we were getting close to the top of the mountain, one of the daughters in the family just *passed out*. Like, collapsed clean cold onto the floor of the cable car.
She was totally okay in the end, but still, a reminder to not take the low oxygen levels lightly.
Plan Your Colombia Itinerary Around Both Urban Areas and Nature
The beauty of Colombia lies in its wild diversity. Between the bustling cities, quaint small towns, lakelands, oceanfronts, deserts, and rainforests, it’s hard not to see that it really has it all.
So in a country with so much to see, it’s a good plan to experience as much of this diversity as you can.
Explore the food markets in Bogota, hike amongst the tallest palm trees in the world in Valle de Cocoa, dance the night away in Medellin, and climb all the way to the top of Piedra del Penol in Guatape.
This is the tip of the iceberg, but you get the picture.
Take Guided Walking Tours in Colombia
On my first day in Colombia I booked a local cuisine walking tour around La Candelaria, Bogota (this was the exact tour I booked, and my guide was Lorenzo). I ate fantastic dishes, met some locals, got the lay of the land, and met a bunch of fellow travelers that I had beers with at the Cranky Croc Hostel all night.
On my second day in Colombia, along with the travelers I met the night before, I took a major sites walking tour around Bogota (similar to the one I personally took).
In my opinion, booking walking tours is the best way to see the cities of Colombia.
Expect Relatively Cheap Domestic Travel
I’m not going to lie, it cost just under a full arm and leg to let myself from my home in Winnipeg, Canada to Bogota. However, once I was in Colombia itself, I was pleasantly surprised to find the prices of buses and planes were reasonable.
Now, I wouldn’t put the prices quite in line with notoriously economical destinations like Southeast Asia, but they didn’t break my budget either.
I flew within Colombia twice — the first time with Avianca and my second time with LATAM. My flight from Bogota to Medellin was $291.180 COP ($98.80 CAD) and my flight from Medellin to Cartagena was $256.412 COP ($87 CAD).
Note the Currency Punctuation
You’ll notice in my point above about domestic travel that I wrote “291.180 Colombian Pesos”. This doesn’t mean that my flight was 291 Pesos, it means that it was 291180 Pesos. As in hundreds of thousands.
This is because, where in the USA you’ll have a “,” and in Canada you’ll have a space to denote tens and hundreds of thousands, Colombians put a period.
This is important, as assuming that the period means the end of a dollar amount could mean you end up paying hundreds of thousands more pesos than you had anticipated.
Don’t Stray too Far off the Beaten Track
Look, y’all know I love a good adventure off the beaten trail, but I’m going to caution this method of travel in Colombia.
There are still parts of Colombia that are very dangerous and where tourists should not go under any circumstances, such as the Darien Gap. Still, even more than this extreme, you should do a lot of research before you plan your route. Some places are safer than others.
Basically, have fun, but don’t completely fly by the seat of your pants when it comes to your itinerary.
Learn Some Spanish Before You Go
Full stop, if you don’t know some Spanish, you’re going to have a tough time in Colombia. Most people in Colombia simply do not speak English, and you’ll have to resort to miming to communicate.
Of course, most people working in the tourism industry, such as at big hotels, will speak English. And there are plenty of day trips and tours in Colombia with English-speaking guides. But as for restaurant workers or Uber drivers, not so much.
I recommend knowing at least the basics to get around Colombia.
Expect a Strong Military Presence & Highway Checkpoints
As every Colombia safety guide will warn you, crime is still an issue in the country.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have solo traveled Colombia if I thought it wasn’t safe to go, and I certainly wouldn’t be advising you on it now if this wasn’t the case, but pickpocketing and theft are still relatively common.
For these reasons, you’ll see a strong police and military presence in the country, especially around the financial districts and on highways.
Don’t Glorify Pablo Escobar or Narcos
I’ll be the first to admit that I took a Pablo Escobar tour in Medellin. It was fantastic. I learned a ton about his influence on Colombia, and I visited some very important historical sites in connection with him.
But I didn’t bring him up on the street to anyone and everyone, and I wouldn’t recommend that you do either. Pablo Escobar’s reign is still very recent, and many scars remain from that time. Almost every local has a connection to this story, and unless they instigate it, I’d hesitate to bring it up.
Don’t Judge Colombia by its 80s & 90s Reputation
Speaking of Pablo Escobar, it’s important to note that Colombia has come a long way since he was alive. The security and safety situation has drastically improved, and though the country is absolutely still dealing with some of the effects, it’s not quite like it once was.
For this reason, be open and curious while visiting Colombia. Always keep your wits about you, but don’t live in fear the whole time you’re there either.
Tipping isn’t Required, But Appreciated
It’s a Colombian travel tip that’s on many a mind: “How much should I tip in Colombia?”
And thankfully, the answer is pretty simple (unlike in Canada where I’m expected, or not, I dunno, to tip everyone and their grandmother). Tipping in Colombia isn’t required but 10-15% is absolutely appreciated, especially in sit-down restaurants.
Research the Crime Rate in Your Desired Colombian Destination
I’ve touched on this a few times, but the crime rates in Colombia vary greatly by region, city, and even neighborhood.
Because of this, research where you’re going to stay in Colombia, by city, and by neighborhood.
Moreover, I don’t recommend wandering aimlessly in Colombia’s major cities, as doing so could mean leaving a safe area for a lesser-safe area without really knowing it.
Dress Smartly, But Not Flashy
It’s no secret that the people of Colombia are some of the most gorgeous and well-put-together in the world. And it’s no wonder — beauty is a big deal here.
So, my friends, it’s important that our clothing choices fit in with the crowd and are classy, but not too flashy.
Again, “No Dar Papaya”, but it’s not unusual to see women in nice jeans, dresses, and skirts, while men wear nice pants and well-fitted shirts.
Get Cash From ATMs Inside Colombian Banks
First-off, planning to exchange cash from your home currency to Colombian Pesos, while in Colombia, is going to give you a terrible exchange rate. I wouldn’t do this, personally.
Instead, I recommend ordering Colombian Pesos in advance of your trip from your bank at home. Then, only use ATMs in banks to withdraw cash while in Colombia.
Only withdrawing cash from banks means you know the machines haven’t been tampered with, and that nobody can take your money while you’re on the street. Again, no dar papaya.
This Colombian travel tip will save you some money and keep you from getting scammed at shady ATMs.
Always Have Some Cash on You
Cash is still king in Colombia. While you’ll be able to pay with a credit card at most hotels, shopping centers, and major restaurants, most smaller places will be cash-only.
I recommend only carrying a day’s worth of cash on you at a time, for both safety and budget reasons.
Don’t Put Too Much on Your Itinerary
Guys, my Colombian itinerary was jam-packed to the teeth. I wanted to see as much as possible and found myself in transit more than I would have liked.
Of course, if you have months of travel time at your disposal to explore Colombia, then disregard this point entirely. But if you have limited vacation time, then I recommend only choosing one or two destinations and making the most of them.
There is honestly so much to see in this country; don’t run yourself haggard trying to do it all.
I know I know, “packing light” is one of the most basic Colombian travel tips of all time. But hear me out — I’ve spent a lot of this post explaining “no dar papaya” and the need to fit in with the locals — so dragging a ton of luggage around simply won’t tick off either of these boxes.
Make life easy on yourself and only bring the essentials.
So, why do I have so much luggage in this photo, you ask? Well, I traveled to Panama directly after this trip, and carried around a drone and other camera equipment that I took out a total of zero times.
So, yeah, pack light folks.
Try the Local Beer
I’m going to be honest with you, my Pablo Escobar tour guide bought me this beer. He dropped the rest of the group off at their respective hotels, grabbed us a couple of beers for the road, and then proceed to drive me to my hotel and ask me about relationships and the minds of women (lol).
Right after I took this photo, I got a text from him asking if I wanted to go dancing (I politely declined).
Still, the moral of this story is that no matter where in the world you travel, Colombia included, beer brings people together. Drink the local beer, take in the local sights, and have the time of your life. Plus, it’s just good.
Thanks for reading my travel tips for Colombia! I hope this gave you a ton of insight into the country, and be sure to ask me any questions in the comment section!