COLOMBIA TRAVEL GUIDE
Soaring Andean summits, unspoiled Caribbean coast, enigmatic Amazon jungle, cryptic archaeological ruins and cobbled colonial communities. The country’s varied terrain is fertile ground for outdoor adventurers to dive, climb, raft, trek and soar. San Gil is the undisputed adventure capital, but Colombia boasts alfresco pleasures in all corners.
A wealth of ancient civilizations left behind a fascinating spread of archaeological and cultural sites throughout Colombia. Ciudad Perdida (the one-time Tayrona capital), built between the 11th and 14th centuries, is one of the continent’s most mysterious ancient cities, arguably second only to Machu Picchu.
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COLOMBIA QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Bogotá
- Currency: Colombian Peso (COP)
- Area: 1,138,910 km²
- Population: 49,650,000 (estimate 2018)
- Language: Spanish (official), indigenous native languages
- Religion:Roman Catholic 70.9%
If you are planning a trip to Colombia, you might want to learn a colloquial expressions (known as the 11th commandment) the way everyone uses it: “no dar papaya” means “never let your guard down”. It's a defining feature of the Colombian mindset that compels them to never put themselves in a position of danger, nor give anyone the chance to take advantage of them. It is a reality that travellers present an attractive target for thieves and Colombians believe that introducing you to the idea of “no dar papaya” they prepare you better for an enjoyable trip. Although you should heed the usual warnings and take care of yourself and belongings, you should also take care not to get swept up in this collective paranoia as it encourages a culture of victim shaming.
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COLOMBIA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 6 January, Epiphany*
- 19 March, San José Day*
- 1 May, Labour Day
- 29 June, St. Peter & St. Paul Day*
- 20 July, Independence Day
- 7 August, Battle of Boyacá
- 15 August, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary*
- 12 October, Día de la Raza*
- 1 November, All Saints*
- 11 November, Independence of Cartagena*
- 8 December, Immaculate Conception
*If date does not fall on a Monday, observed on following Monday.
Also, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Ascension Day, Corpus Christi, and Sagrado Corazon, the last three of which are observed as public holidays in Colombia on the Monday following their actual dates, if they do not fall on a Monday.
FESTIVALS IN COLOMBIA
- Feria de las Flores - (August) The Flower Festival brings sweet smells to the Colombian city of Medellín. Highlights include concerts, a gastronomy fair, a horse parade, orchid exhibits and the Desfile de Silleteros, when farmers parade through the streets laden with enormous baskets of flowers.
- Festival de Música del Pacífico Petronio Álvarez - (August) In Cali, one of Colombia’s best fests celebrates Afro-Colombian music and culture over five days in mid-August, when more than 100 groups light up the city. You’ll find infectious rhythms and welcoming, dance-happy crowds.
BEST TIME TO VISIT COLOMBIA
Colombia has a rich and diverse climatic variation resulting from its complex topography. In most of the Pacific lowlands, precipitation exceeds 7600 mm annually making this one of the wettest regions in the world. Rainfall averages decrease as one moves east along the country, to levels as low as 2540 mm. The eastern slope of the Andes experiences high rainfall rates (~ 5,000 mm per year) due to its topographic diversity. Northern areas have a single long rainy season, from May through October, with an annual average rainfall of 1070 mm. Extensive areas of the Caribbean interior are permanently flooded during this time due to poor drainage and land degradation.
Sporadic rainfall can be seen at any time of the year and the weather is somewhat unpredictable at times. The coastal areas become very humid and hot while the higher regions have relatively cooler temperatures. Regions above 2000 meters are by and large warm during the day, with the nights tending to get chilly.
- December to February - Dry everywhere except the Amazon, but prices countrywide are at their highest.
- October & November - Low water levels in the Amazon means excellent hiking. Prices everywhere are at their lowest.
The peak tourist time for Colombia is the dry season from December to February and from June to August. The dry season in Colombia however, doesn’t specifically mean “no rain at all,” but showers are less regular during this period. Although best weather-wise, you are bound to find a heavy holiday crowd during these months, with accommodation and transport rates on the higher side as a result. The maximum influx of tourists to Colombia is typically between mid-June to mid-July, and also during the Easter period.
To avoid busy beaches and the heavy holiday crowds, plan your vacation during the wetter season of Colombia, which occurs between the months of March to May and September to November. Although it can rain heavily, you will have the advantage of lower accommodation rates and fewer tourists during these months.
COLOMBIA WEATHER SYNOPSIS
Colombia has a rich and diverse climatic variation resulting from its complex topography and its interaction with the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and inter-annual El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). In most of the Pacific lowlands, precipitation exceeds 7600 mm annually making this one of the wettest regions in the world. Rainfall averages decrease as one moves east along the country, to levels as low as 2540 mm. The eastern slope of the Andes experiences high convective rainfall rates (~ 5,000 mm per year) due to its topographic diversity. Northern areas have a single long rainy season, from May through October, with an annual average rainfall of 1070 mm. Extensive areas of the Caribbean interior are permanently flooded during this time due to poor drainage and land degradation.
COLOMBIA TOURIST SEASONS
Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists.
Off Peak Season
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN COLOMBIA
While Colombia does not have any ski lifts, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is one of the most northerly snow-capped mountain ranges in South America and it is technically possible for experienced ski mountaineers to hike up and ski down.
HIKING & CYCLING IN COLOMBIA
The best time for outdoor activities in Colombia is from December to March. July to August can also be quite pleasant but with occasional showers.
BEACH OPTIONS IN COLOMBIA
The beaches in Colombia are best enjoyed during the dry season from December to April.
SURFING IN COLOMBIA
The best time for surfing in Colombia is from December to March, during the dry season, and along the Caribbean coast. Waves tend to be bigger during the wet season from April to December, along the Pacific coast.
KITESURF IN COLOMBIA
The season with the most consistent wind in Colombia for kitesurfing is from December until April or May, which is also the dry season, but you stand a good chance of wind throughout the rest of the year too. The most popular spots are Santa Veronica, a versatile spot with waves and freeride and Cabo de la Vela, which is a lovely flat spot.
For more details on kite surfing in Colombia expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN COLOMBIA
Be aware of possible health risks in
Yellow fever - The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no medicine to treat or cure an infection. To prevent getting sick from yellow fever, use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and get vaccinated.
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
COLOMBIA TRAVEL COSTS
While Colombia definitely isn’t going to break your wallet - unless you’re not careful, costs can escalate quickly, especially if you indulge in the up-and-coming gastronomy scene. Accommodation is inexpensive unless you are staying at major hotels chains. Hostels are cheap (especially when you leave the big cities) and there are a lot of great value local hotels throughout the country. There are a ton of markets with cheap food. Local attractions are cheap. Buses are cheap. Obviously 'cheap' can be relative - if you're from the US almost anywhere is cheap! Regardless, you'll be hard pressed to spend a lot travelling Colombia if you travel and eat the way locals do.
On a backpacker’s budget, you’ll probably spend about US$45 per day - assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating mostly local food, cooking some of your own meals, and using local transportation to get around. If you're plan to drink a lot, do more tours, or eat a lot more Western food, you should probably budget closer to US$ 55 per day. (Although the BudgetYourTrip link below shows that you can travel for less than this, you should rather aim to use the mid-range style option as a guide.)
On a mid-range budget of about US$80 per day, you can afford an Airbnb or hotel; eat anywhere you want within reason (even splurging once in a while); fly a couple of times, and take whatever tours you want. If you’re going to stick to more luxury hotels, meals, drink more, US$ 100 or so a day should do you well. If you travel as a couple there are some good savings to be made when you share accommodation.
How To Stick to a Budget:
Slow down - stick around and enjoy a place rather than rushing off to the next destination. The further and faster you go, the more you’ll have to pay.
Eat like a local at street stalls or markets.
Opt for dorm rooms or share a room with a buddy.
Stay in fan (non-air-con) rooms with shared bathroom.
Travel overland instead of flying.
Book flights online (and bus tickets where possible) rather than paying an agent commission.
Choose small towns instead of big cities.
Be discriminating about which sites and national parks to visit.
Factor in more free days: on the beach and exploring neighbourhoods.
Avoid package deals (transportation, lodging, touring).
Know how much local transportation should cost and bargain accordingly.
Avoid surprises by negotiating taxi fares before getting inside.
Don’t forget to factor in the costs of visas.
Track all of your daily expenses so you know your average costs.
COLOMBIA TRAVEL TIPS
It’s hard to beat the beauty of the Caribbean coast, especially around Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. You can sleep in a hammock near Arrecifes and spend the day scouting gorgeous coves and sparkling beaches. Colombia has a massive cycling culture, with great road-biking as well as a growing mountain-biking scene – particularly near San Gil.
Travelling around the country is fairly easy as there is an excellent internal air network. Don’t book tight connections in Colombia – planes frequently get cancelled from smaller airports. You should be prepared for rescheduled or postponed flights.
Buses provide the main means of getting around the country and are cheap, efficient, and extensive. Unfortunately, the roads, except for main routes, can often defy description. Always check flight prices as well before booking a long-distance bus – sometimes there’s not much difference.
Getting around the cities by bus can be slow and they are usually crowded, but taxis are excellent value and can also be chartered for long distances. Other forms of transport include chivas (an old-style, wooden bus used primarily on outback roads) and collectivos (a cross between a bus and taxi, used on fixed routes). Independent travel (car or motorcycle) is not particularly recommended.
Although taxis do have meters you must make sure the driver turn it on. While prices from the airports are regulated and non-negotiable, everything else is just a matter of your bargaining skills. If you’re going to take taxis, haggle before you get in the car! In Colombia, traditional public transportation services are highly regulated and unfortunately, the Colombian government has taken extreme measures to prevent innovation in the transportation sector - repeatedly siding with traditional taxi services over Uber and other ride sharing services.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF COLOMBIA
- Cartagena - Wand the enchanting, perfectly preserved streets of this colonial city.
- Bogotá - Visit excellent museums, cosy bars and vibrant clubs.
- Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona - Soak up the sun on the spectacular jungle-lined beaches.
- Ciudad Perdida - Hike through the dense jungle of the Sierra Nevada to these mysterious ruins.
- Manizales - Try your hand at picking fresh coffee beans on a working farm in the Zona Cafetera.
- Amazon - Paddle through flooded forests and spot pink dolphins.
- Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy - Enjoy a day hike within sight of the glaciers.
- Medellín - Soar high above the city in a cable car before sampling its many bars and restaurants.
- San Agustín - Explore the glorious countryside peppered with ancient sites and statues.
National parks in addition to private reserves in Colombia are a dream for wildlife lovers. There are 43 National Nature parks and Flora and Fauna Sanctuaries in Colombia with the larger ones along with the forests of the eastern lowlands and smaller ones like the island of Corota in the Laguna de la Cocha.
Must see places in Colombia include the Archaeological sites of San Agustin, Tierradentro and Ciudad Perdida, Cartagena and Popayan. Another interesting place to visit is the Museo del Oro in Bogota, which is known as the best gold museum in the world.
2 WEEKS IN COLOMBIA
Spend a day or two in Bogotá, Colombia’s Gotham City, where you can admire La Candelaria, the best of myriad museums, and experience world-class food and nightlife. Head a few hours north to the calming colonial villages of Villa de Leyva and Barichara, both miraculously preserved and picturesque. Take a day to walk the historic El Camino Real to Guane. Bus from there to San Gil to pick up the long ride to Santa Marta, from where you can access Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Tayrona – time enjoy the park’s otherworldly beaches for a few days. Continue southwest along the Caribbean coast to Cartagena, a postcard-perfect old city chock-full of colonial romance. From there it’s another long bus ride to Medellín, where again you will be faced with Colombia on overdrive: culture, cuisine and beer, paisa-style. Raise a toast to El Dorado and exit via Bogotá.
REGIONS OF COLOMBIA
The capital of Colombia, a cosmopolitan city two miles high, with some eight million people sprawling outwards from Andean mountains - is where you'll find excellent museums, world-class dining, and almost everything one wants from a big city. The city’s cultural epicentre is La Candelaria, the cobbled historic downtown to which most travellers gravitate. Here, a potpourri of carefully preserved colonial buildings is home to museums, restaurants, hotels and bars, peppered amid 300-year-old houses, churches and convents. The city’s grittier sides sit south and southwest, where working-class barrios continue to battle their reputations for drugs and crime. In the ritzier north you’ll find boutique hotels, and well-heeled locals piling into chic entertainment districts such as the Zona Rosa and Zona G. Here, rust-tinted sunsets dramatically bounce off the bricks of upper-class Bogotá’s Andes-hugging residential buildings – a cinematic ceremony that begins the city’s uproarious evenings.
NORTH OF BOGOTÁ
- Villa de Leyva is a city frozen in time. Archaeological relics, colonial monuments, petroglyphs, caves, lakes and waterfalls are among the attractions surrounding this picturesque colonial village.
- For a small city, San Gil packs a lot of punch. This is the outdoors capital of Colombia and a mecca for extreme-sports enthusiasts. The area is best known for white-water rafting, but other popular pastimes include paragliding, caving, rappelling and trekking.
- Dubbed ‘The City of Parks,’ Bucaramanga (Santander’s capital) has some fine green spaces and is a suitable spot to recharge your batteries. It comes to life at night, when dozens of clubs, hundreds of bars and the students of 10 universities don their party hats.
Sun soaked and rich in culture, Colombia’s dramatic Caribbean coastline is its dazzling crown, from the dense jungles of the Darién Gap on the border with Panama to the hauntingly atmospheric desert of La Guajira near Venezuela. The jewel along the coast is the colonial city of Cartagena, its beauty and romance unrivalled anywhere in Colombia - despite the enormous number of visitors it attracts. A (as yet)
undiscovered version can be enjoyed by journeying inland to find gorgeously isolated Mompós, a sleepy colonial hamlet lost in the jungle. Other attractions are more natural: the PNN Tayrona, a wonderful stretch of perfect beach and virgin rainforest, and the thrilling and arduous Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) trek, which will satisfy adventurers keen to discover the remnants of an ancient civilization against a stunning mountain backdrop.
- Santa Marta makes for a popular base for adventure tourism in the beautiful areas surrounding it, and unique in the sense that it offers you beautiful beaches one day, and the next a walk to the foothill of a snowy mountain, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest in the country.
- Barranquilla, the Gold Port and fourth-largest city in the nation, isn't necessarily that exciting place to be most of the year, but its Carnival is the second biggest in the world after Rio's.
More location information and points of interest are available in the above map
SAN ANDRÉS & PROVIDENCIA
The archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia is geographically located near Nicaragua, historically tied to Great Britain and politically part of Colombia. Here you’ll find isolated beaches, unspoiled coral reefs and an alluring island flavour, and with just a little digging the 300-year-old English-Creole- speaking Raizal culture. San Andrés, the largest island in the archipelago and its commercial and administrative hub, attracts many Colombian tourists seeking duty-free shopping sprees. The crowds, however, are not difficult to escape. Providencia offers the same turquoise sea and extensive coral reefs but is much less commercialized. Its colonial heritage is thriving in hamlets of colourful wooden homes peppered about the island. Both islands offer a total change of pace to the mainland and are well worth the effort of getting to.
- Medellín, the City of Eternal Spring and capital of the Antioquia department is a bustling place of industry and commerce, especially in textile manufacturing and exported cut flowers. On weekends Medellín lets its hair down, the moderate temperatures putting a spring in the locals’ steps, at work and at play.
- Manizales, the center of the Zona Cafetera offers the opportunity to visit Los Nevados National Park and to engage in the coffee plantation experience. Manizales is a pleasantly cool, midsized university town with hilly streets, surrounded on all sides by green mountain scenery – the real attractions are the surrounding nature activities and the town’s vibrant nightlife.
- Pereira - the capital of the Risaralda department and a major city of the coffee region. It's near to Santa Rosa hot water springs and the National Park of "Los Nevados" and also contains the famous "naked Bolívar" and Matecaña Zoo. Almost all visitors to Pereira come for one thing – to do business. Pereira doesn’t offer much in the way of attractions, but if you want to experience a fast-paced yet friendly Colombian city away from the gringo trail and with a good dining scene, it certainly fits the bill.
- Los Nevados National Park is Colombia's high altitude volcano park offers great trekking opportunities. Highlights include visits to the beautiful Laguna del Otún, and the ascents of the three snow-capped volcanoes: Nevado del Ruiz, Nevado de Santa Isabel and Nevado del Tolima. The best months to see snow in Los Nevados are October and November and from March to May. Outside of those times you’re more likely to get the dry, windy conditions favourable to trekking and clear views.
- Cali is Colombia's third-largest city, renowned as the salsa capital of Latin America. Cali is a hot, gritty city with a real zest for life that draws you in and stays with you long after you leave town. Beyond a handful of churches and museums, Cali is light on sights – but the city’s main attraction is its beguiling, electrifying atmosphere. If you make the effort you will find great nightlife, good restaurants and plenty to do, especially in the evening, when a cool mountain breeze dissipates the heat of the day.
- Popayán - this beautiful, white-washed city is Colombia's religious center. Home to the second largest Easter festival in the world (after Seville, Spain), this town has contributed more Colombian presidents than any other. Popayán is now home to numerous universities, and the streets of its old center are filled with students in the daytime. Bordered by the Puracé National Park and gateway to the archaeological sites of San Agustín and Tierra Dentro in nearby Huila.
- The small, attractive colonial town of San Agustín basks in refreshing, spring like weather year-round and is the gateway to one of the most important pre-Columbian archaeological sites on the continent.
This region, known to Colombians as Amazonia, is a vast 643,000-sq-km slice of rainforest accounting for a third of Colombia’s total area – about the size of California – and spread over some eight of the country’s departments. There are no roads here, just fast-flowing waterways and vast tracts of wilderness where, for now at least, humans have had relatively little impact on nature, and indigenous groups deep in the jungle have managed to keep their cultures intact. Tourism is still relatively undeveloped here, and what little there is can be found in and around the towns of Leticia and Puerto Nariño.
WHAT TO EAT IN COLOMBIA
Colombian food has a distinctive Spanish influence and the local fare includes arepas (eaten instead of bread), bandeja paisa (meat dish with rice, cassava, and other accompaniments), and ajiaco (chicken stew with potatoes, served with cream, corn on the cob and capers). Colombians rarely drink alcohol with food and prefer aerated drinks or coffee.
Coffee is the number-one drink – though the quality in most establishments will not impress aficionados. Tinto, a small cup of (weak) black coffee, is served everywhere. Other coffee drinks are perico or pintado, a small milk coffee, and café con leche, which is larger and uses more milk.
LGBTQ IN COLOMBIA
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in Colombia are among the most advanced in Latin America and have substantially progressed since consensual homosexual activity was decriminalised in 1981. Between February 2007 and April 2008, three rulings of the Constitutional Court granted registered same-sex couples the same pension, social security and property rights as registered heterosexual couples. In 2011, Congress passed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, and on 28 April 2016, the Constitutional Court legalised same-sex marriage, making Colombia the fourth South American country to legalise it.
Today same-sex relationships are predominantly accepted and Colombia also hosts an annual Pride Parade in Bogotá.
WHERE TO STAY IN COLOMBIA
While dormitories are usually the cheapest option for budget travellers, private rooms in hostels in Colombia are often fancier and more expensive than local-oriented budget options. It’s usually possible to find cheaper rooms, albeit with less facilities at your disposal, at local hospedajes, residencias and posadas.
A hotel generally suggests a place of a higher standard, and almost always has private bathroom, while residencias, hospedajes and posadas often have shared facilities.
Lodging will be one of your biggest expenses. Here are some tips for keeping sleeping costs down:
- If the price is too high, ask if the hotel or guesthouse has anything cheaper.
- Unless it is the low season, most rates are non-negotiable – though it never hurts to ask for a discounted price.
- Pay for the first day rather than for multiple days all at once. This gives you the option of changing hotels if the conditions are unsuitable.
- However, if you do decide you are going to stay for a few days, ask for a discount. Some hotels will give better rates if you’re staying more than a couple of nights.
- Advance reservations (especially with advance deposits) are generally not necessary.
- If you do make a booking, don’t use an agent, who will charge a commission.
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