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, Ecuador and Peru to the south west.
Although there is a certain amount of violence in remote areas, the current government has increased its presence in the countryside and in all major tourist areas, so whereas in the past travel might have been risky, this is no longer the case except in the areas of known guerrilla presence.
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 coast and eastern plains; cold in the highlands; periodic droughts. Colombia is an equatorial country, so there are no seasons in the common sense of the word. Temperatures do not vary much throughout the year. What Colombians normally refer to as the winter is the rainy season. Cities such as Bogotá, Tunja, and Pasto have been known to reach temperatures under 0 degrees Celsius, so if you are sensitive to cold weather be prepared.
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 costal range. note: nearby Pico Simon Bolivar has the same elevation
Colombia became independent from Spain in 1819. It was one of the five countries liberated by Simon Bolivar (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.
There are regular international flights into major cities including Barranquilla, Cartagena, Cali, Medellin and Bogota as well as to other smaller cities in the borders with Venezuela and Ecuador.
There are daily direct flights to and from the U.S, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Spain, France, and South America.
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.
Enter from Venezuela by the San Cristobal-Cúcuta / Maracaibo-Maicao pass.
Enter from Ecuador by the Tulcán-Ipiales(Rumichaca) pass.
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.
Most Western countries don't need a visa. American citizens do not need a visa unless they are staying for more than 90 days. Colombian authorities will give American citizens an on-arrival visa free of charge, which is printed onto your passport and lets the person stay for a maximum of 60 to 90 days. It's very hard to get 90 days tourist visa on arrival. Immigration officers will ask you to show all the tickets of your route for it. Irish citizens need to apply for a visa at a Colombian embassy and can't extend their visa.
You can apply for a one-month visa extension at a DAS-office in most cities, which costs around COP $60.000. 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.
The most important domestic carriers in Colombia. Avianca (including SAM), Aero Republica, Satena and Aires 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.
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. The longer the distance, the newer and more comfortable the service is. In Bogotá you can find the Transmilenio and in Pereira the Megabús, highly efficient and neat bus transit systems that are spreading to other cities.
It is highly 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's best to travel together with Colombian friends. It is possible you may be stopped at police check points. A calm attitude is the best key to avoid inconveniences. Long-distance trips rarely cost over US$55.00 (one way).
There is only one metro system in Colombia. It is in Medellin, in the Antioquia department. It connects the cities that make up what is known as "Medellin" - Line A departs from Itagüí to Niquía ,Line B from San Antonio to San Javíer and Line K(Metrocable) from Acevedo to Santo Domingo Savio. The metro is made up of two light rail lines, and one line called the MetroCable. Riding it is a unique experience, as passengers travel up the mountains in gondolas. The MetroCable has four stations, including the transfer to the north-south line. There is a police presence in each metro station; however, they are very courteous towards tourists.
The taxi networks in big cities such as in Bogota are extensive and very cheap. A 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 adress. 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.
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 in cities like Cali, the dialect of Spanish is the voseo form. Meaning that instead of the first person familiar pronoun tú, vos is used instead. Though tú is also understood by the people of Cali.
English is taught in school, and Colombians are often exposed to subtitled Hollywood films, so while shy many Colombians know at least a few basic phrases in English. Expect to meet teenage Colombians who will 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 some English.
French and German are also spoken, but to a much lesser extent.
The Colombian textile industry is well-recognized and reputable around South America and Europe. Clothing and lingerie are particularly regarded as high quality and very affordable. Leather garments, shoes and accessories are also of interests for foreigners. The best place to buy either clothing or lingerie is Medellin, known for being the fashion capital of the country. You can get very high quality at a very low cost.
Colombian emeralds and gold (18k) jewelry can also be very attractive for visitors. A very Colombian style of jewelry is the copies of precolumbian jewelry, which are fabricated with gold, silver and semiprecious stones.
The "mochila" is 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 used to 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 were carried by the natives to eliminate hunger, 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 go down by 2,000 to 3,000 pesos, however 2,000 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.
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 Quindio). 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 Medellin. 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 broasted 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: tamarindo, mangoes, guanabanas, lulo, mangostinos (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.
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.
Concerning potatoes, you must know the pre-Columbian civilizations had about 200 varieties of this plant. Well, Colombia as an Andean country, is not the exception. Even McDonalds recognized the quality of this product and buys them. But while you are there you don't want to go to McDonalds--you've got to try the local preparations like "salted potatos" (papas saladas) or "stewed potatos" (papas chorriadas).
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.
Colombia offers an enormous variety of fruit and hence fruit juices. Do not miss them!
For breakfast, take a home-made hot chocolate. It is generally prepared with panela (dried cane juice), cinnamon and cloves, which gives it a special taste.
Colombia's national alcoholic beverage, Aguardiente tastes strongly of anise, and is typically bought by the bottle or half bottle. People usually drink it in shots. Each region has its own aguardiente, "Antioqueño" (from Antioquia), "Cristal" (from Caldas), "Quindiano" (from Quindio), "Blanco del Valle" (from Valle del Cauca) and "Nectar" (from Cundinamarca). There is also a variety of rum beverages, like "Ron Viejo Medellin" (also from Antioquia) and "Ron Viejo 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 no 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 plantation) 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.
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.
The 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 language programs.
Colombia Education is generally strict and is kept to high standards. Most Colombian degrees can be legalized in foreign countries. You can find several programs in different universities around the country. You can also find programs with Language Institutes that could offer a variety of courses.
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 "English demand" is high. Also you could work for a NGO.
Colombia has suffered from a terrible reputation as a dangerous and violent country. In the last few years safety has improved greatly. By South American standards Colombia is relatively safe as more and more visitors are discovering. Tourists won´t have any problems moving around in cities, but it pays to think safe, just as you would in any other large metropolitan city. To discover the forest, ask somebody to stay with you. Walk freely during the day, but during night take precautions and from time to time observe who's around you. Normally the people who steal look awful, so be cautious when a stranger who looks messy come near you!
Colombia's ongoing civil war is over 40 years old, although it can still be noticed today. It is not accurate to say that it is over, as although an agreement with the government resulted in the disarmament of 80% of the paramilitaries in 2005, the FARC and ELN guerrillas are still fully operational. These guerrillas, however, operate mainly in the rural areas, and as long as you stay on any of the big cities you will be safe. Police can be found everywhere nowadays, even outside of the city. River police, highway police, newspapers, and fellow travelers can be a useful source of information. (Note that the native pronunciation of guerrilla is "gair-EE-ya", not the English expression "guh-RILL-a".)
Major cities in Colombia have low crime rates, just take some usual precautions and you shall be fine. In the downtown areas of most cities it is quite rare to encounter any problems but it is very important to exercise 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, since some distant parts outside the cities are not recommended for tourists. If possible speak to a trusted local.
Cocaine manufactured in Colombia is mostly consumed in the US and in Europe, local consumption is low, however it can be seen in certain areas and sometimes at dance clubs.
Most Colombians are deeply offended by jokes about drugs. Drugs and mafia have widespread a bad image of the country, although the police and armed forces fight furiously to combat them. All Colombian governments have had strong commitments to fight drug production and trade. Current President Alvaro Uribe, with significant aid from the US government, has led in the last 4 years a policy of massively destroying drug plantations using chemical defoliants.
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.
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, Manizales or Medellin, the quality of the water is optimum. In 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 civil war 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 great pain remembering all the victims of the political and narcotics wars of past and current conflicts.
Accordingly, do not approach these subjects in your first conversation with a Colombian. Even if you want to denote being informed about the country's main issues, most Colombians will find it rude if your first association of the country is with drugs, war, or corruption (they are clearly aware of their country's bad reputation). Most likely they will answer with "Colombia has many more wonderful things besides that", which is true, and turn away.
Always say "please" ("Por favor" or "Hagame 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 who's calling you.
Despite being a formal people, Colombians tend to speak their minds and opinions quite freely. They are also not shy of asking questions about health, salary or social status and thinking--topics that could be offensive to others or considered personal information.
Like many other Americans, Colombians dislike arguing. So if you get involved in one with a Colombian person, it is likely that most people will avoid talking to you, so while discussing certain issues, keep yourself cool and express yourself with calm and reason. Colombians admire people with such nature.
Most Colombians are laid back regarding racist issues, since white or creole persons 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". But remember, even if you're not a tourist, when you use the word "Negro", try not to apply any rude tones or use the word in a derogatory way, because that will mean that you're using it in a racist way.
Differences between British persons, white U.S citizens or northern Europeans are not perceived by most Colombians. Hence, you can expect to be called "gringo" even if you are, say, Russian. Don't let this offend you as a non Spanish-speaking visitor.
The same statement could be issued regarding Asian visitors. Due to the fact that the most common and familiar Asian ethnicity in Colombia is Chinese - even though there is no Chinese travellers in Colombia, very often visitors from the Pacific Rim and the Far East such as Korean, Japanese, Thailand, Malaysian, among others, are considered the same race, hence, the expression "Chino" for males and "China" for women (Chinese in either case) to all people coming from an Asian ethnicity. If this is your case, trying to point out your ethnical and cultural background will be difficult, so passing by this perception could avoid uncomfortable situations and instead will allow you get in touch with the warmth and friendliness of Colombians. (Something peculiar is that Colombians refer to children as chinos, in a casual sense.)
Colombians have a very unusual and funny mannerism of pointing to objects with their mouths. Sometimes it is because pointing to a person with the finger may be considered a rude gesture in Colombia.
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 (with the green wet leaves envelope). 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.
Colombians like to dance a lot. It's part of the cultural ancestry. And as in another 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 all their lives. Colombian night life goes on mostly about dancing, and bars where people sit or stand are rare.
In Bogota, Andres Carne de Res is especially famous and El Salto del Angel. Also in Medellin you can find great places like the "fondas", they´re places that resemble the old country houses in the Antioquia region. You can find many objects, pictures and other artifacts that are part of the coffee culture. They're great places to eat and dance, and you must visit them every time you come to Colombia
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 used for sexual encounters or as sexual signs. Here you could find salsa in children "piñata" parties, or even in parties for old people. North Americans and Europeans could find this odd or confusing because of the use of salsa and Latin rythms 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 "garotta" dancing samba in the carnival is not inviting you to have sex with her but inviting you to enjoy, to be happy, to join to the celebration, to join the exuberant disinhibition and to be part of a free life (sort of a ritual thing imprinted in the Colombian genes).
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. Young people are more open to learning about other religions and debate on this subject.
Colombians are very conservative about homosexual issues, so it's not common to find a couple of men holding hands or kissing in the street. Young people by comparison are more open-minded, but don't expect too much. As a general rule, socially "liberal" Colombians are roughly the equivalent of a socially "conservative" Western European, so you can expect older Colombians to have quite stringent values.
Colombians use their hands to show the height of people and animals in a different way. Avoid using your hand with the palm facing down to describe the height of another person; it is used for animals and may be insulting. If you must describe the height of another person, use your hand with the palm facing inward.
When writing the name of the country do not spell it "Columbia". Everyone will spot the mispelling 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".