Difference between revisions of "Colombia"
Revision as of 19:19, 25 September 2012
Colombia is the only country in South America with coastlines on both the North Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Lying to the south of Panama, Colombia controls the land access between Central and South America. With Panama to the north, Colombia is surrounded by Venezuela to the east, Brazil to the southeast, and Ecuador and Peru to the south west. The country was named in honor of Christopher Columbus, following the Italian version of his name (Cristoforo Colombo). Although Columbus never actually set foot on the current Colombian territory, in his fourth voyage he visited Panama, which was part of Colombia until 1903.
It is really important to understand that Colombia is a country of civil conflict. Although the situation has improved in the years following 2002, there are still many areas of the country that are considered too dangerous for tourism. Heavy day-to-day fighting between guerrillas, narco-traffickers, paramilitaries and state forces takes place in most of southern, south-eastern and north-western Colombia as of 2010, including certain smaller urban centers. Rural areas bordering Venezuela are also to be be avoided. It is not considered appropriate to travel by bus across the country; instead domestic airlines like Avianca are to be preferred. Although many parts of the country are now considered relatively safe for tourism, it is also important to remember that millions of Colombians, predominantly from the poorer classes, suffer from the ongoing conflict every day. Nevertheless, the most dangerous are provincial areas in the country. There are ongoing fights in the Cauca region in the southwest of the country, but not in the provincial capital. Major cities, like Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla, Cartagena, Bucaramanga, Cucuta, and generally speaking, province capitals are very safe, although you should avoid going out to certain areas of said cities in the night, as crime is often common, just like in any other city in the world. The FARC, the most important guerilla group, have their forces weakened by government actions and the political situation is stable, with a steady democratic system. Common sense must be used, as you should use it anywhere.
Traveling in Colombia is definitely worthwhile. From Bogota, with a temperate climate 2,600 m (8530 ft) above sea level and at a constant temperature of 19 degrees Celsius, a drive of one or two hours North, South, East or West can take you to landscapes which are as diverse as they are beautiful. To the East are the oriental plains which stretch out far beyond the horizon with little modulation. To the North are the more rugged contours of the higher Andean region. To the South the weather is sub-tropical and has flora and fauna concomitant with this, and to the West you can find the Magdalena River valley and its hot weather. Colombia is one of the equatorial countries of the world, but unique in its extreme topography and abundance of water.
The climate is tropical along the coast and eastern plains; cold in the highlands; periodic droughts. Colombia is an equatorial country, so there are no seasons, what Colombians normally refer to as winter is the rainy season. Cities such as Bogotá, Tunja, and Pasto have been known to reach temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius, so if you are sensitive to cold weather, be prepared. Some mountains are also covered in snow perenially. Cities along the Atlantic coast (Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta) are hot and humid, while some cities at mid-altitude in the Andes (Medellín, Manizales and other cities in the Coffee Triangle region) have 'everlasting spring' weather.
Flat coastal lowlands, central highlands, high Andes Mountains, eastern lowland plains
Natural hazards: highlands subject to volcanic eruptions; occasional earthquakes. Recent volcanic disaster occurred in Armero, 1985. 25,000 people were buried by lahars that the Nevado del Ruiz produced.
Highest point: Pico Cristobal Colon 5,775 m (18950 ft) of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The mountain is the world's highest coastal range. note: nearby Pico Simon Bolivar has the same elevation
Colombia became independent from Spain in 1810. It was one of the five countries liberated by Simón Bolívar (the others being Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia). Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama then formed the first Republic of Colombia. Ecuador and Venezuela declared their independence from Colombia in 1830. Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903 with the support of the United States of America. A 40-year communist insurgent campaign to overthrow the Colombian Government escalated during the 1990s, under girded in part by funds from the drug trade. Although the violence is deadly and large swaths of the rural countryside are under guerrilla influence, the movement lacks the military strength or popular support necessary to overthrow the government. Illegal anti-insurgent paramilitary groups have grown to be several thousand strong in recent years, challenging the insurgents for control of territory and illicit industries such as the drug trade and also the government's ability to exert its dominion over rural areas. While Bogotá continues to try to negotiate a settlement, neighboring countries worry about the violence spilling over their borders.
Most Western countries including most European countries, all South American nations, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Bhutan, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore don't need a visa, unless they are staying for more than 90 days. Colombian authorities will stamp the passports of those citizens giving them permission to stay for a maximum of 30 to 90 days. It's very hard to get the full 90 days on arrival; immigration officers will ask you to show all the tickets of your route for it. Irish citizens no longer need to apply for a visa at a Colombian embassy, and should have the same treatment at immigration as any other visa-free travelers.
You can apply for a one-month visa extension at a DAS-office in most cities, which costs around $32.00 USD You need two copies of your passport's main page, two copies of the page with the entrance stamp, two copies of a ticket en route out of the country, and four photographs. The procedure takes some time and includes taking your fingerprints. The maximum length of stay can not exceed 6 months in 1 year with a tourist visa.
There are regular international flights into major cities including Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Cartagena, Pereira and San Andres Islands as well as to other smaller cities in the borders with Venezuela, Ecuador, Panamá and Brazil.
There are daily direct flights to and from the U.S, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Spain, France, and South America.
Beware that Medellín is the only Colombian city served by 2 airports: International and long-range domestic flights go to José María Córdova International Airport (IATA: MDE) while regional and some other domestic flights arrive in Olaya Herrera airport (IATA: EOH) .
Bogota has two airport terminals: Puente Aereo and El Dorado. Outside the airport, be aware of enterprising men who will help you lift your bags into a taxi or car, and then expect payment. It is best to politely refuse all offers of help unless from a taxi driver you are about to hire.
Taxis are regulated, reasonably priced and safe from the airports. A taxi ride from the airport to the central business district in Bogota, takes approximately 20 minutes.
Connections can be made from the Caracas main terminal to most cities in Colombia. From the main terminal, Maracaibo (Venezuela) you can find buses that run to the cities (Cartagena, Baranquilla, Santa Marta) on the coast. The border at Maicao provides a relatively easy, straightforward entry into Colombia from Venezuela.
It is very straightforward to enter Colombia from Ecuador. Travel to Tulcan, where you can get a taxi to the border. Get your exit stamps from the immigration offices and take another taxi to Ipiales. From there you can travel further to Cali, Bogotá, ...
You can't cross from Panama to Colombia by bus--the Darien Gap begins at Yaviza, where the Interamericana runs out. Consider using the boat crossing instead. There are often Yachts will shuttle you between Colombia and Panama and offer a stop in the gorgeous San Blas islands. Airlines with flights between the 2 countries are: Avianca, COPA, Aires.
The most important domestic carriers in Colombia  are : Avianca , COPA Colombia (formerly AeroRepublica) , Satena , LAN Colombia , EasyFly  and VivaColombia (starting in mid 2012) . They all have well-kept fleets and regular service to major towns and cities in Colombia. The major Colombian airports have been certified as "Highly Safe" by international organizations. Please be aware that the online payment process of some domestic airlines is complicated: For example Easyfly does not accept international credit cards. Payments can be done at the airport or official ticket offices.
There is limited train service in Colombia. There is metro service in Medellin and its surroundings.
Driving is on the right hand side of the road-most cars have standard transmissions. Colombia's fleet is composed mainly of cars with 4-Cylinder engines that are of European and Japanese manufacture. Foreign visitors may drive if they show an international driver's license (a multilingual endorsement card issued by automobile and driver's clubs around the world).
Insurance is cheap and mandatory.
The speed limit in residential areas is 30 km/h (19 mph), and in urban areas it is 60 km/h (37 mph). There is a national speed limit of 80 km/h (50 mph).
The country has a well-maintained network of roads that connect all major cities in the Andean areas, as well as the ones in the Caribbean Coast. There may be significant landslides on roads and highways during the rainy season (November to February), by which traffic gets interrupted. This usually is resolved within 6 hours to 4 days. There are many toll crossings; the fee is about US$3.00. There are also plenty of dirt roads of variable quality. International land travel is only possible to Ecuador and Venezuela.
Travel by bus is widespread and has different levels of quality. Long-distance trips rarely cost over US$55.00 (one way). When acquiring tickets for the bus, the local custom is that the passanger comes to the terminal and buys the next available bus going to the desired destination. Depending on the company or terminal, it may be even not possible to purchase a ticket 1 or several days in advance! Therefore, it is recommendable to know at least when a particular service starts and ends in a day. Long distance bus travel tends to be very slow because main highways are two-lane roads with lots of truck traffic. For any distance more than 5 hours, you may want to check into air travel. Aires often has very competitive rates (www.aires.com.co)
Some companies that offers routes to the north:
Other companies that goes to the south part of the country:
By urban bus
Around the turn of this century urban centers in Colombia saw the development of a highly efficient and neat bus transit systems that are spreading to other countries. In Bogotá you can find the Transmilenio, in Medellin el Metroplus , in Cali el Mio, in Barranquilla Transmetro, in Bucaramanga Metrolínea, in Pereira the Megabús. It is still recommended that you keep an eye on your belongings and that you do not carry valuables, excess cash (more than $20,000 COP visible) or unnecessary items. Never accept food or drinks from strangers. Avoid talking to strangers at bus stops or terminals. It is possible you may be stopped at police check points. A calm attitude is the best key to avoid inconveniences.
The only metro system of Colombia is in Medellín, in the Antioquia department. It connects the towns that make up what is known as "Medellin" - Line A departs from Itagüí to Niquía, Line B from San Antonio to San Javíer. The metro system also has two cable car lines : Metrocable Line K from Acevedo to Santo Domingo Savio and Metrocable Line J departing from San Javier. Riding the cable cars is a unique experience, as passengers travel up the mountains in gondolas. The MetroCable has six stations and an extension to the new Arví ecopark. Ride to Arvi costs about 4USD (3500 COP). There, after a 20 minutes trip in the gondola carts you reach an altitude of 2500 meters above sea level.
The taxi networks in big cities such as in Bogota are extensive and very cheap. A (bright yellow) taxi journey across Bogota, can take up to a day but cost less than US$15.If you order a taxi by phone the company will then give you the taxi registration number. Then the taxi will be waiting at the given address. You may need to give them a three or four digit code given to you when you book the taxi. During the day some taxi ranks outside hotels, office buildings and government offices will only allow certified drivers and companies and will also take your name and details when you board the taxi. Taxis from city to city are easy to arrange by phoning ahead and agreeing the price, it will still be cheap by western standards and is safe and quite agreeable. The meter in all taxis starts at 25, and then increases over distance. The number it arrives at corresponds to a tariff that will be on display on the front seat of the cab. Note that taxi and bus prices increase on sundays, public holidays, early in the morning and late at night. For taxis there are also extra charges for baggage and for booking in advance by telephone. Unlike many other countries it is not customary to tip the taxi driver. It's up to the individual. Many taxis are not allowed to travel outside of Bogota due to boundary restrictions with their licences. You should always make arrangements to travel outside of Bogota by taxi ahead of time. In some locations (Las Aguas in the Candelaria district of Bogota for example) you may find an individual acting as a tout for taxi drivers - they will offer you a taxi and lead you to a particular cab. They then recevie a small tip from the driver. Taxis (and much else besides) are much more expensive in Cartagena than in other cities.
By cable car
Since most of the Colombian population lives in the Andes, cable car systems are becoming popular for both commuting and tourist transportation. You can ride the ones in Manizales and Medellín, which are integrated in the Metro system , as well as the ones in rural small towns of Antioquia : Jardín, Jericó, Sopetrán and San Andrés de Cuerquia. Also enjoy the magnificent view of the new cable car above the Chicamocha river canyon in Santander.
The official language of Colombia is Spanish. Some indigenous tribes in rural areas continue to speak their own languages, though almost all people from those tribes will be bilingual in their indigenous language and Spanish.
If you've recently learned Spanish, its a relief to know that the Colombian variety is clear and easy to understand. The Spanish does vary, however, from Cartagena to Bogota to Cali. Generally the Spanish on the coasts is spoken more rapidly, and Spanish from Medellin has its own idiosyncrasies. Note that in cities like Medellín and Cali, the dialect of Spanish is the voseo form. Meaning that instead of the second person familiar pronoun tú, vos is used instead. Though tú is also understood by everybody, vos is a more friendly voice while tú is reserved for intimate circles.
English is taught in school, and Colombians are often exposed to subtitled Hollywood films, so while shy, many younger Colombians in the largest cities know at least a few basic phrases in English. Expect to meet teenage Colombians who may want to practice their English skills with you.
Colombians from more affluent backgrounds will have lived and worked in the U.S., Canada, England and possibly Australia in order to learn English. Many university text books are in English, and the majority of high ranking professionals, executives and government workers in Colombia speak an acceptable level of English.
French, German and Portuguese are also spoken, but to a lesser extent.
Much of Colombia is in the Andes, which means there is very nice mountainous scenery to be found. On the other hand, there are also nice beaches to be found in the lowlands. The altitude of some peaks mean that snow can be seen even though they lie in the tropics.
There are a lot of things to do in Colombia, and you can find parties and celebrations wherever you go. Colombians especially love to dance, and if you don't know how, they'll happily teach you. Colombia is known for its exciting night life.
There are many groups and agencies offering eco-tourism and it is very usual to find trekking plans (locally named 'caminatas' or 'excursiones') on weekend; many groups (named 'caminantes') offers cheaper one day excursion, special trips (on long weekends or during periods of vacation time (January, Holy Week, July, August, October, December) to different places in the country. Some recommended groups based out of Bogotá are: Viajar y Vivir, Fundación Sal Si Puedes, Caminantes del Retorno; there are many other. Patianchos in Medellín; Rastros in Bucaramanga. They usually offer guidance and transportation to the place; on long trips include lodging and other services. The recommendation is asking if the guide has the official certification.
The Colombian textile industry is well-recognized and reputable around South America and Europe. Clothing, including lingerie is particularly well-regarded as high quality and very affordable. Leather garments, shoes and accessories are also of interest to foreigners. The best place to buy either is Medellin, known for being the fashion capital of the country, where one can buy very high quality goods at a very low cost.
Colombian emeralds and gold (18k) jewelry can also be very attractive for visitors. A typical Colombian style of jewelry is a copy of precolombian jewelry, which is fabricated with gold, silver and semi-precious stones.
The "mochila", the Spanish word for "backpack" or "rucksack", is also a traditional, indigenous, hand-woven Colombian bag, normally worn over the shoulder. They are commonly sold in shopping malls, especially in the Santa Marta/El Rodadero area. Mochilas usually come in three sizes - a large one to carry bigger things, a medium one to carry personal belongings, and a small one to carry coca leaves. Coca leaves are carried by local tribe members to reduce hunger, increase energy and to combat altitude sickness.
Handicrafts such as intricately designed jewelery are commonly sold in markets and on street corners. Many street vendors will approach people, selling t-shirts, shorts, glasses, bracelets, watches, necklaces, souvenirs, and novelty photographs. If you want to buy something, this is a good time to exercise your bartering skills. Usually you can go down by 2,000 to 3,000 pesos, however 10%-15% is the generally accepted rule. For example, if someone is selling a shirt for P$10,000, try asking if you can pay P$8,000. Go from there.
If you don't want to buy anything, a simple gracias, ("thank you") and a non-committal wave of your hand will deter would-be sellers.
The currency of Colombia is the Colombian peso. Most banks and money changes will accept major world currencies such as the US dollar and the Euro.
For transport, accommodations, tourism and food: cheap: $US30 for one person, $50 for two (at 2,000 pesos per dollar). comfortable: $US60 for one person, maybe $100 US for two.
typical costs: modest but clean (and occasionally charming) hotel $25 (50,000 COP), nice meal $15 for two, beers $0.6-$1.5 depending on bar, bus 100km about $6 (cheaper per km for longer trips, more for dirt roads), urban transport 50 cents.
In many areas of Colombia, it is common to have buñuelos (deep fried corn flour balls with cheese in the dough) and arepas (rather thick corn tortillas, often made with cheese and served with butter) with scrambled eggs for breakfast. Bogotá and the central region have its own breakfast delicacy of tamales - maize and chopped pork or chicken with vegetables and eggs, steamed in banana leaves, often served with home-made hot chocolate.
Empanadas, made with potato and meat with a pouch-like yellow exterior, are delicious and entirely different from their Mexican counterparts. Pastry is prevalent, both salty and sweet, including Pandebono, Pan de Yuca, Pastel Gloria, and Roscon. These vary in quality--ask the locals for the best niche places to indulge.
For lunch, especially on Sundays, you should try a sancocho de gallina (rich chicken soup, served with part of the chicken itself, rice and vegetables/salad). Sancocho is widespread throughout the country, with countless regional variants. On the coast it features fish, and is highly recommended. Another soup, served in Bogotá and the periphery, is Ajiaco (chicken soup made with three different kinds of potato, vegetables and herbs(guasca), served with rice, avocado, corn, milk cream and capers).
"Bandeja paisa" is common in most places, (the "paisas" are the natives from some departments in the North West, such as Antioquia, Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío). This includes rice, beans, fried plantain, arepa, fried egg, chorizo, chicharrón (pork crackling) with the meat still attached. It's a very fatty dish, but you can leave what you don't like, and if you're lucky enough, you could find a gourmet bandeja paisa in a good restaurant in Bogotá or Medellín. They are lighter and smaller.
There are a few chains throughout the country. In addition to worldwide franchises (McDonald's, Subway, T.G.I.F., which are specially focused on Bogotá and other big cities), Colombian chains are very strong and located in almost every city. Presto and especially El Corral serve outstanding burgers, Kokoriko makes broiled chicken and Frisby specializes in roasted chicken. Crêpes and Waffles, as the name indicates, is an upscale breakfast/brunch restaurant with spectacular... crêpes, waffles and ice cream. There are many international restaurants, including rodizios (Brazilian steak house style), paella houses, etc.
A great variety of tropical fruits can be tasted, and the corresponding variety in juices, from some of the oddest ones you can find around the globe (really) to the sweetest ones. You just must know how to find and prepare them. Anyway, anyone would be pleased to teach you. Some examples of those exotic fruits include: tamarinds, mangoes, guanabanas, lulo, mangostines (really great and rare even for Colombians), and a great variety in citrus. In addition, you can find some of those rich and strange flavors in prepared food like ice cream brands or restaurant juices. Most of Colombians drink juices at home and in restaurants, they are inexpensive and natural everywhere.
In Colombia there are a great variety of "tamales" if you like them, but be aware they are very different from their most famous Mexican cousins. They differ from region to region, but all of them are delicious. They are called "envuelto", the sweet tamale made of corn.
Regarding coffee, you can find a lot of products that are both made commercially and home-made from this very famous Colombian product, like wines, cookies, candies, milk-based desserts like "arequipe", ice-cream, etc.
Colombians are famous for having a sweet tooth, so you are going to find a lot of desserts and local candies like "bocadillo" made of guayaba (guava fruit), or the most famous milk-based "arequipe" (similar to its Argentinian cousin "dulce leche" or the french "confiteure du lait"). That just covers the basics, since every region in Colombia has its own fruits, local products, and therefore its own range of sweet products. If you are a lover of rare candies, you could get artisan-made candies in the little towns near Bogotá and Tunja.
The "tres leches" cake is not to be missed - a sponge cake soaked in milk, covered in whipped cream, then served with condensed milk, it is for the serious dairy fiend only. Another delicious dessert is is 'leche asada', like a grilled milk.
Organic food is a current trend in big cities, but in little towns you can get fruits and veggies all very natural and fresh. Colombians aren't used to storing food for the winter, since there are no seasons in the traditional sense. So don't ask them for dried items like dried tomatos or fruits. All you have to do is go shopping at the little grocery stores nearby and pick up the freshest of the harvest of the month (almost everything is available and fresh all year). As for pickles and related preserved food, you can find them in supermarkets, but they are not common in family households.
Pre-Colombian civilizations cultivated about 200 varieties of potatoes. Colombia as an Andean country, is not the exception. Even McDonalds recognizes the quality of this product and buys them. Try the local preparations like "papas saladas" (salted potatoes) or "papas chorriadas" (stewed potatoes).
All in all, in Colombia it can be fun to have the ingredients and the preparation of a lot of exotic recipes explained to you.
For breakfast, take a home-made hot drink. The choices normally include coffee, hot chocolate or "agua de panela". The latter is a drink prepared with panela (dried cane juice), sometimes with cinnamon and cloves, which gives it a special taste. In Bogotá and the region around, is a custom to use cheese along with the drink, in a way that small pieces of cheese are put into the cup and then after they are melt, you can use a spoon to pick them up and eat it like a soup. It is the same way to drink hot chocolate.
Colombia's national alcoholic beverage, Aguardiente, tastes strongly of anise, and is typically bought by the bottle or half bottle or a quarter. People usually drink it in shots. Each region has its own aguardiente, "Antioqueño" (from Antioquia), "Cristal" (from Caldas), "Quindiano" (from Quindío), "Blanco del Valle" (from Valle del Cauca) and "Nectar" (from Cundinamarca). There is also a variety of rum beverages, like "Ron Medellin Añejo" (also from Antioquia) and "Ron Viejo de Caldas" (also from Caldas).
The water is drinkable right from the tap in most of the major cities, but be prepared to buy some bottles if you go to the countryside. Agua Manantial Bottled water is recommended, it comes from a natural spring near Bogotá. An advice, make sure you do not use ice cubes, or drink any beverage that might contain non distilled water, ask if the beverage is made with tap or bottled/boiled water.
If you are lucky enough, and if you are staying in a familiar "finca cafetera" (coffee farm) you can ask your Colombian friends not only for the selected coffee (quality export) but for the remaining coffee that the farmers leave to their own use. This is manually picked, washed, toasted in rustic brick stoves and manually ground. It has the most exquisite and rare flavor and aroma ever found.
In Bogota and the rest of the country, black filter coffee is referred to as "tinto" - confusing if you were expecting red wine.
Also, you can find specialized places where you can drink coffee with many different combinations (like Juan Valdés Café), hot or frozen preparations.
Commercially, you can find a lot of products made out of coffee too like wines, ice-creams, soda-pops and other beverages.
In Colombia you can find a range of options, bed and breakfast conditioned to western standards and hostels to five-star hotels. There are also apartments that rent per day.
Colombian Spanish is considered by many around the world as the purest in Latin America and there are many universities and language schools that have Spanish programs.
Colombia education is generally strict and is kept to high standards. Most Colombian degrees can be legalized in foreign countries. In contrast to American education, a typical Bachelor's degree program in Colombia is 160 credits or 5 years long. You can find several programs in different universities around the country.
Colombia is one of the mother countries of Salsa and you will be able to listen to this music all over the place. In the last years several of the Salsa World Champions came from Colombia. Especially in Cali and Cartagena there are plenty of clubs and schools.
If you want to work for a national company, such as Bancolombia/Conavi, Avianca, or Presto, you must be able to speak Spanish with near-native fluency. Depending on your qualifications, companies may offer Spanish lessons, however always make sure that you are indeed eligible for the position advertised. You can teach English for extra money, especially in smaller cities where the demand for it is high. Also you could work for a NGO.
In recent years, there have been reports of scopolamine, a date-rape drug, being used on unwary tourists. Scopolamine makes the victim highly open to suggestion, allowing the attacker to confiscate your wallet, keys, or anything else they may want. Always be cautious, especially when approached by strangers. The U.S. Embassy in Bogota advises their government employees and any other Americans traveling through the country to always watch their drinks in any bar or other establishment.
Colombia is on the path to recovery currently, and Colombians are very proud of the progress they have made. The security situation is different for many parts of the country currently. Parts of the jungle are patrolled by the army, (particularly in the area around Leticia, see Amazonia) which makes some parts safe. Other parts are not patrolled by the army, particularly Putumayo and Caqueta and hence should be avoided by the traveller. In Bogota follow standard global safety precautions for other nations recovering from war. Avoid the Darien gap which is like Caqueta a haven for drug traffickers. Check region sections because security varies widely between different regions.
As of 2010 Colombia has the second highest amount of landmines in the world, only Afghanistan has more. Therefore it is not appropriate to walk around in the countryside without consulting locals first. Landmines are found in 31 out of Colombia's 32 departments, and new ones are planted every day by guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Due to this it is difficult, even for locals and police, to know where the landmines are, as areas free of landmines today can be full of them tomorrow. Therefore it is important for travellers to observe extreme caution outside of urban centers.
There was an agreement in 2005 with the government which resulted in the disarmament of some of the paramilitaries. Paramilitaries however are still active in drug business and as a political force. It is not expected that they will intentionally harm tourists, but especially in rural areas and in or around Medellín it is recommended to be careful.
In 2010 more than 280 civilians were kidnapped in Colombia, which is considered a 25% increase over 2009. Most are held for ransom by criminal groups and guerrillas. Kidnappings are particulary a problem in southern departments like Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Caquetá.
The guerrilla movements which includes FARC and ELN guerrillas are still operational, though they are greatly weakened compared to the 1990's as the Colombian army has killed most of their leaders. These guerrillas operate mainly in southern, southeastern and nortwestern Colombia, although they have a presence in 30 out of the country's 32 departments. Big cities rarely see guerrilla activity, excluding Cali where the FARC has urban militias. As long as you stay in the metropolitan areas or nearby, you should be safe. River police, highway police, newspapers, and fellow travelers can be a useful source of information. (Note that the native pronunciation of guerrilla in Colombia is "gair-EE-ja" [or "gair-EE-ya" for Spanish natives], not the English expression "guh-RILL-a".)
The crime rate in Colombia has been significantly reduced since its peak in the late 80's and 90's, however, major urban centers and the countryside Colombia still have very high crime rates, and crime has increased dramatically in 2009 and 2010 compared to earlier years. In 2010 more than 16,000 people were murdered in Colombia. If you just take some usual precautions you should be fine. In the downtown areas of most cities it is not rare to encounter problems and it is very important to exercise extreme caution in the less developed parts of the urban regions. If you want to take a taxi, ask for it using a phone service-- it costs the same and your call will be answered rapidly. If you want to travel around the country you should research the areas you intend to visit and try to not go alone, since some distant parts outside the cities are not recommended for tourists or even locals. If possible speak to a trusted local. It is often advised to try to avoid 'looking rich'. In March of 2011 two tourists were robbed and murdered in Barranquilla and Medellín. Authorities claim this is because the culprits identified them as 'rich foreigners'.  Try, if possible, to dress like the local population.
Cocaine manufactured in Colombia was historically mostly consumed in the US. With US consumption on the decline more and more of it is going to the EU instead. Local consumption is low. However, it can be seen in certain areas.
Widespread drugs and cartels have created a negative image of the country. Although the police and armed forces fight to combat them, corruption and bribery have always won as high ranking officers are presumed to have 'agreements' with the drug dealers. The Colombian government has a strong commitment to fight drug production and trade. The last President Alvaro Uribe, with significant aid from the US government, led a policy of massively destroying drug plantations using chemical defoliants, but this has helped just a little against the organized drug dealership.
Be sensitive. Colombians are a proud people, and are proud of the progress they've made. Do not make jokes about the drug trade in Colombia, as it has ruined many innocent citizens' lives.
Given Colombia's increasing aggression toward combating the drug trade, drug offenses are not treated lightly. If you are caught by the authorities possessing a controlled substance, expect serious problems.
Marijuana is illegal. Police will tolerate you having a few grams of this drug on your person, but you are flirting with danger if you carry much more. The real danger is consuming drugs as a foreigner in Colombia. If you are caught smoking marijuana on the street in most towns in Colombia, you will be in serious trouble. It is not always the police you have to deal with, but a vigilante. Often the vigilantes keep the peace in towns and they have a very severe way of dealing with problems. The safest way to deal with them is having cash on you; it can help you get out of many situations, as you do not want to go to jail there. If you do not have cash on you, they may take anything valuable that you have, such as mobile phones or cameras - the best thing to do is to avoid placing yourself in such situations.
Drink only bottled water outside the major cities. The water in major cities is safe. Anywhere else, never get drinks with ice cubes in them, and always make sure that the water you are served in restaurants comes from a bottle (they should open it in front of you). Doing anything else may result in health problems.
If you're staying with relatives or friends especially you could ask for boiled water since families are used to having it around.
In cities like Bogotá, Pereira, Manizales or Medellin, the quality of the water is optimum. On the other hand, Cali, Santa Marta, and other low-land cities lack this quality. In Pereira or Manizales for example, the water, besides being processed, comes from pristine natural sources near a nevado. In Bogotá, the water comes from the high mountains, 3,330 meters above sea level.
In the coastal cities you had better watch what you drink in streets or beaches.
Generally avoid discussing politics or the present armed conflict in public, except with well-known acquaintances or relatives that have your trust and confidence. In general, nobody will react with violence to different opinions, but the hearts of Colombians suffer deeply remembering all the victims of the political and narcotics wars of past and current conflicts.
Accordingly, do not approach the subjects of drug wars or political turmoil in your first conversation with a Colombian; this can really grate on their nerves, since they are clearly aware of their country's bad reputation and the government has been persistently working to improve the country's condition. When approached with these topics, it is not uncommon for them to utter a snide remark (likely regarding your country of origin) and walk away. However, Colombians eventually become willing to discuss these topics once they feel comfortable enough with someone.
Always say "please" ("Por favor" or "Hágame el favor") and "thank you" ("muchas gracias") for anything, to anyone. Colombians tend to be very polite and formal, and explicitly good manners win the approval of those around you. Sometimes it can sound rude to Colombians if somebody calls you and you answer with just an "Ehhh?"--the proper response being "¿Señora?" or "¿Señor?", depending on the gender of the person calling you.
Despite being a formal people, Colombians tend to speak their minds and opinions quite freely. However, asking Colombians questions about certain topics (i.e. questions that may be seen as judgmental of religion, class, or economic status) may be considered a private or only-for-close-friends matter.
Like many other Americans, Colombians dislike arguing. So if you get involved in an argument with a Colombian person, it is likely that most Colombians will try to diffuse the situation and avoid prolonging the discussion, so while discussing certain issues, keep yourself cool and express yourself with calm and reason. Colombians admire people with such natures.
Most Colombians are laid back regarding race issues (which have never been the cause of conflict in the country), since white, criollo and mestizo (mixed race) people blend naturally with natives and Afro-Colombians in everyday life (education, living, politics, marriage). So the word "negro" can be used regardless of who's saying it, or who is being referred to in this way. You can hear expressions like "negrito" or "mi negro" in a restaurant or on the street. You could hear someone calling "negra" to a woman, regardless of the race of the person. And in general, Afro-Colombians don't find it offensive, as they are simply variations on the Spanish word for "black". When you use the word "negro" (pronounced "NEH-gro"), whether the intent of the speaker is to be racist or not is inferred from tone of voice and context, so be careful to avoid any confusion.
Differences among white British persons, white U.S. citizens or Europeans are not perceived by most people. Hence, you might be called "gringo" even if you are, say, Russian. Don't let this offend you as a tourist or visitor. Should you feel like it, just mention where you're from; most people will remember your nationality. The same term (without offensive connotations) could also potentially apply to any foreign-language (especially English) speaker of any race.
It is also quite common for Colombians to refer to all white people with light hair as "monos" or "rubios" (blonds). Even white people with clearly red or brown hair may be called these terms. Just as with "negro", these terms are not intended to be offensive.
The same statement could be issued regarding Asian visitors: differences among east Asians, southeast Asians, and Asian U.S. citizens are not perceived by most people. Hence, you might be called "chino" or "china" (Chinese in either case) even if you are, for example, Indonesian. As with the case for European and white visitors, don't let this offend you as a visitor; a simple explanation of your ethnicity or where you're from is usually well accepted.
Sometimes Colombians also refer to children as chinos ("kids"); this use comes from Chibcha, a language spoken by indigenous Colombians, and is not a reference to the people of the Asian country.
Colombians have the mannerism of pointing to objects with their mouths. This is because pointing to a person or even an object with your finger can be considered rude.
Avoid indicating a person's height using your hand palm down, as this is considered reserved for animals or inanimate objects. If you must, use your palm facing sidewards with the bottom of the hand expressing the height.
Regarding table manners, a lot of the more traditional elder Colombians hate when the guest leaves some of the food uneaten on the plate. This sometimes can be uncomfortable to visitors due to the "exotic" food that can be served, like tamales (wrapped in wet green palm leaves). However, you can explain your fears regarding certain foods--they'll understand. When you are eating with young people, you can negotiate and even ask what is going to be eaten in the first place, as Colombians are generally very accommodating to foreigners.
Colombians like to dance a lot. It's part of their cultural ancestry. As in other Central and South American countries, it's very common to hear and feel rhythmic music such as salsa, son, merengue, cumbia or reggaeton. Anyone will be glad to teach you how to dance, and they will not expect you to do it correctly, since they have been practicing every weekend for most of their lives. Colombian night life centers mostly on dancing, and bars where people sit or stand are less common among young people.
When dancing, despite what you might think of all the sensual movements of men and women, people just enjoy music and dancing and are normally not intended as sexual encounters or as sexual signs. Here you could find salsa being danced at a children's "piñata" party, or even at parties for older people. North Americans and Europeans could find this odd or confusing because of the use of salsa and Latin rhythms in their countries. A Colombian dancing innocently could be misinterpreted, and in general, Colombian women or men are not "easy" just because of the way they dance. It is applied in the same way as in Brazil --an almost-naked "garota" dancing samba in the carnival is not inviting you to have sex with her but inviting you to enjoy, to be happy, to join in the celebration, to join the exuberant shedding of inhibitions.
Regarding religion, most Colombians are Catholic, and it´s important to them to keep certain ceremonies and respect for all things related to religion. You could visit great architectural churches, even going inside, but taking pictures may be considered disrespectful during a mass celebration. Young people are more open to learning about other religions and debate on this subject.
Colombians are quite conservative about homosexual issues, so it's not that common to find a couple of men holding hands or kissing in the street. Young people are comparatively more open-minded, but it isn't that common yet. You should expect some people's comments about same sex couples they see, but they reserve those comments to themselves, so you shouldn't expect rude attitudes or harsh comments regarding your sexuality. Indeed, Colombia is one of the countries that aprove civil unions between same sex couples. In fact, the Constitutional Court of Colombia has exhorted Congress to approve laws regarding same-sex marriage before 2013. After that deadline, if the Senate doesn't outline specific laws regarding same-sex marriage, it will be automatically legalised by the Court. The opinions of Colombians on homosexuality are pretty much like those you'll find in the United States.
When writing the name of the country do not spell it "Columbia". Everyone will spot the misspelling right away, and though not necessarily offensive, Colombians are aware of this common mistake and find it rather annoying. The Spanish (and English for that matter) name of the country is "Colombia".