Chapter 2. Colombia

Valle de Cocora

Colombia is one of backpackers’ favourites, thanks to the varied landscape, friendly people and entertainment opportunities. Like the others, I really liked Colombia too!

Colombia is huge and, even though I spent six weeks there, I had to cut out some destinations on the original itinerary. I started off in Bogota and headed to the coffee region, where the highlight was Salento. I stayed in this region for a while to volunteer with some amazing people, and then I moved on to Medellin. From here, I took a very long bus to Santa Marta and started exploring the North. I went to the Tayrona National Park, Palomino, Rioacha and all the way up to the most northern point of Colombia, Punta Gallinas. I made my way back to Cartagena, which was the last stop in the country.

Unfortunately, if you really want to get to know this amazing country, you will need at least two full months, and so, I wasn’t able to see all the places I would have liked to visit. On my list there were also other stops, like San Gil, which is the place to go if you like adventure and extreme sports. The reason why I decided to skip this was because I had plans to visit Baños, in Ecuador, which has kind of the same vibe. Other stops on the bucket list were the Tatacoa Desert, where you can take a less touristy trek in the mountains than Ciudad Perdida; Cali, the place to be if you love salsa; and Leticia, the town you go to explore the Amazon and cross into Peru by boat.

Food and drinks you need to try:

Coffee: If you happen to visit the Salento region in Colombia, make sure to visit one of the coffee farms and try a freshly grounded and brewed coffee.

Drinking coffee at a coffee farm

Arepa: Arepas are very common in Colombia and they are usually served with any meal you get throughout the day. These delicious food made of maize dough is usually served with cheese or avocado – or both!

Chicha: a fermented or non-fermented drink usually made from maize, which is a symbol of cultural identity in several places in South America and tastes very nice.

Yucca: A vegetable similar to a huge potato. You can try it in different forms, but my favourite is yucca fries!

ATMs:

Although many money exchange offices advertise their low or fee-free transfers, they will give you a very bad exchange rate, and so you will end up losing more money.

For the best exchange rate, it is a good idea to use ATMs. We tried a few different ATMs to find out which one took the lowest fee, since we couldn’t find enough information online. Servibanca and Bancolombia charge a fee or just over COP10,000, however, with Servibanca you can withdraw up to COP780,000.

Banks that didn’t charge us fees are Banco Caja Social, Banco Agrario and Davivienda. The first allows you to withdraw up to COP700,000 without any charge. The other two – which are also free of charge – only let you withdraw COP300,000.

Keep in mind that your bank back home is usually going to charge you a service fee – mine was €2 per transaction. For this reason, you should always take out the maximum amount you can in one go and use your card for larger sums.

Getting around:

As far as buses are concerned, to get out of Bogota the two best bus companies are Bolivariano and Brasilia. Prices are reasonable, and the buses are very comfortable. The only problem is that you cannot book your bus ticket online unless you have a Colombian passport. During low season, you can simply show up at the station a couple of hours before the bus departs and buy your ticket. During high season, it’s best to go to the station a day earlier or you can ask the reception of your hostel to call the bus company/station and book a seat for you.

Bus journeys in Colombia are so long! You also generally need to add two to four hours to the expected travelling time, especially when travelling from North to South (or vice versa), since it happens a lot to get stuck in the mountains because of road works and accidents. We only got buses within Colombia, in an attempt to keep our carbon footprint to the minimum. However, if you are covering very long distances, for example you need to go from Bogota straight to Cartagena or Santa Marta, you could look up flights and with Viva Colombia you can usually find cheaper – and faster -options than the bus.

Safety:

Despite what people say about Bogota – or Colombia in general – being not safe, we only had one issue at our arrival.

Once we got outside the airport, we were stopped by a “taxi driver”, who offered to take us to the city centre. As we started walking off with him, we noticed he was starting to go far away from the main area where all the taxis were, so we started slowing down until the police approached us and told us to ONLY get the yellow taxis that are parked just outside the door of the airport, since there have been cases where tourists were robbed by fake taxi drivers in the area, while the fake taxi driver disappeared.

Since this happened minutes after we landed in the country, we were a little worried. However, after this episode, we had no problems at all. We always felt safe, even going out at night, and we felt that people were very friendly and ready to help you if something happened. You will obviously need to use common sense and avoid wandering around at night drunk or on your own, particularly if you don’t speak the language. However, nothing different than any other big city in the world or any place you are not familiar with.

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