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Visiting Colombia - some tips

COLOMBIA | Monday, 10 April 2006 | Views [13139] | Comments [28]

A farmer in the high Paramo.

A farmer in the high Paramo.

I spent three great weeks in Colombia in December/January 06. Here are a few tips for other travellers going that way. It´s a lovely country and well worth the effort.

Travel was very easy, most towns have modern bus stations and lots of competition on routes which kept prices low. There was no mention of hold ups or roads being unsafe, although I did not travel at night, but then I wouldn’t anywhere in Central/South America. I was stopped at a police checkpoint only once. In some places you will see soldiers around, at the sides of the road etc, but I never saw anything that gave me cause for anxiety. The main danger, as it is almost every where in this region is reckless driving.

The guidebooks say that middle class Colombians fly everywhere! I went to places that attracted a lot of Colombian tourists as it was during the festival season, and people from Bogata don’t seem to have a problem driving around their own country. I would say that Colombia is safer for tourists than many of the surrounding countries, as there is a lot of general security in places like bus station and tourists are such a novelty that thieves don’t target them particularly.

One of the great things about Colombia is that people are genuinely friendly and interested to know where you are from, as they see so few visitors. Prices are also very cheap and the quality high, you will enjoy it here. 

I flew into Medellin, not a lot to see there but it’s a good gateway. Lots of hostels most of which have opened over the last year to meet demand. They include ‘Black Sheep Hostel’, ‘Case Jerusalem’ and ‘Case Kiwi’. I stayed at Casa Kiwi, which is in a nice area, very safe. There is a great restaurant close by called ‘Crepes and Waffles’, good food and good prices. They have branches in Bogata and Cali. 

I then took the bus south to Manizales and stayed at a hostel called ‘Mountain House’. Again in a nice area, near the University. I only stayed one night before heading for Salento.

Salento is a lovely colonial town in the coffee region. The place to stay here is a great hostel called ‘The Plantation House’, (no website) which is run by an English guy called Tim who is mine of information on the area. There is a great trek in the Wax Palm valley of Cocora, very beautiful. I also did a three trek up into the mountains here, staying at a Finca in the High Paramo. I’ve written detailed route notes on this trek, so if anyone wants a copy, drop me a line.

From there I went to Cali, which was over a holiday weekend so not much happening. I’m not a party animal so I can’t comment on the nightlife. One thing to do there, especially if you are heading to South America is to visit the Zoo. They have a great collection of Latin American animals in nice surroundings. I stayed at the ‘La Iguana’ hostel which was in a quiet area, with some good places to eat nearby, including ‘crepes and waffles’. 

Next I went to Popayan, a lovely colonial town with a university so a really nice buzz, some great cafes to sit and hang out. There is no hostel as such here but lots of cheap places, I went up market and had a lovely room next to the Central Plaza for $26. I used it as a base to visit the statues at San Agustin. One of the books (Rough Guide) says that the road is difficult and dangerous. This is not true. The trip is a hard six hours because the road is in such bad condition and goes over a mountain range. San Agustin is a very laid back place and worth a few days, although you can see most of the statues in a day if you push it. Lovely countryside all around.

From Popayan, I went south to Ecuador breaking the journey at Pasto, where I stayed at the ‘Koala’ hostel. This trip is stunning scenery all the way, from Popayan to Pasto sit on the right of the bus to see the views, from Pasto to Ipiales (on the border) sit on the left.

Don’t let the out of date scaremongering in the guide books put you off going to Colombia. I would certainly go back.

Tags: Travel Tips

Comments

1

I have just gone all sentimental reading your description of Colombia. I completely agree with your comments on it being a worth while country to visit. Beautiful scenery, great people and very varied. I travelled as a lone female and felt the safest in Colombia over other South American countries I visited.
So you had the pleasure of meeting Tim from the Plantation House in Solento. Great Fellow. I loved his daily life of providing information to people, drinking great coffee and living in that spot. Not a bad life from his previous existence programming computers in the UK!
I loved it so much I am heading back out there in October.
When you stayed in San Augustine, did you camp or are there places where you can stay?
If you are still travelling then enjoy the rest of your trip.

Sarah

  Sarah Aug 15, 2006 9:09 PM

2

Dear Sarah,
Good to read your positive comments. There was a recent article in the ‘Economist’ magazine about how the Colombians are trying to encourage more tourists and how it’s tipped to be new ‘hot destination’. Let’ s hope it happens. San Augustine is a lovely place to spend a few days. While I was there I stayed at a small hotel called ‘Mi Terruño’, a very simple room but cheap at around $8. They have a lovely garden which is filled with birds. There are lots of hotels, try and stay on the outskirts of the town where it is quieter. I ate at a nice family restaurant called ‘El Fogon’, excellent food but it’s very good in every other place I tried in town. There are also some nice places to eat on the road out to the statues. Have a great time.

  Will Aug 19, 2006 1:06 AM

3

Howdy,

Thanks for the info you've posted. I've been to Bogotá and Cartagena and am planning on hitting Cali, Popayán, Armenia and Medellín for three weeks next month. I want to head out to San Agustin from Popayán since many foreigners do/have done it, but a caleña friend is trying to scare the hell out of me due to la guerrilla and such. Is it that bad of a route? she also claims the people, especially los esmeralderos, of San Agustin are very strange. What did you think?

thanks,

pete

  pete Sep 21, 2006 2:21 PM

4

I went to San Augustin at the end of January from Popayan. As with all travel in Colombia you should check with the locals as to the safety of a route before setting out. The trip itself is no problem although you should put aside most of the day for the bus journey as it takes about six hours. The route climbs up onto a mountain plateau and although the distances involved are not great the road is in a bad condition, so it’s slow. Some the guidebooks (Rough Guide) mention that the direct road is closed because a bridge across a ravine has been blown up by Farc - this is ancient history. The bridge has been replaced and the road was open when I did. On the way out we were stopped by an Army checkpoint who frisked the male Colombians, but not me and had a half hearted look at the bags. This checkpoint had gone on the journey back. San Augustin is a popular attraction for Colombian tourists and there is no reason for foreigners not to go there. It’s an interesting and very quiet place with some lovely countryside around it, a good place to chill out. The local people seemed very pleasant to me and alwasy interested in meeting foreigners. San Augustin does seem to attract 'stone hugging' young Colombians who go there for the vibe. There was one place where a young woman appeared quite emotionally distrubed and was climbing over the barriers and touching the stones. Her friends aplogised for her behaviour and didn't seem to know what to do with her. Maybe this is what your friend meant? Go and see for yourself.

Best
Will

  Will Sep 23, 2006 12:36 AM

5

Hi Graham

Thanks for the great post. I'm heading that way over Xmas so would love to get your Paloma trek details. I have limited time so please tell me if it's must do!! Your info was very helpful...glad you had a good time. If anyone is heading to Medellin, try Black Sheep - cheap accom in a great area, and Kelvin there is a mine of info, and a nice guy as well!

Thanks

Val

  Val Nov 27, 2006 9:42 AM

6

Hi
Congradulation for your blog. It is very interresting to read your articles. It gives a rare good opinion of Colombia. I will probably go in this contry for the first time in a few months. I wanted to know if you have been to rulal area & autochtone villages. Do you know witch are the places that are safe and the others that are not.And what is the current safety there. Is it possible to travel in some rural area as a solo traveller? Thanks in advance for a reply
Wish you well
olivier

  Olivier Dec 11, 2006 7:38 AM

7

Dear Olivier,

I don’t really feel qualified to give advice on current safety. I was in Colombia in January of this year and a lot has happened in the country since then.

I would suggest that you post a question on travelers’ bulletin board like Lonely Planets Thorn Tree Forum. This is a good way to get advice from travelers who have been in the country recently. Follow this link to find it - http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com/

Best regards,

Will
Writing from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

  Will Dec 11, 2006 5:35 PM

8

Im colombian, i live in cali and was a nice surprise for me to read about your travel experience in my country. I hope u can come back and visit our deserts, our beaches, our cities. Anyway I want to invite u to my weblog

rutasdelvalle.blogspot.com

where I have made a "few" comment of my routes and show some pics. I must advice all text are in spanish.

Good luck, see u on the road!

  santiago Dec 16, 2006 4:07 PM

9

The report is not so wrong...apart from recommending only hostels where people speak nothing else than English...
Try to avoid these places...as you wont get in touch with the Colombian culture.
Avoid Lonely Planet for Colombia apart from the 2nd edition which you cannot get anymore. The 3rd and the 4th edition are a waste of money as cut by half...
That is my opionion after having spent 9 months in Colombia...

  Roger Mar 14, 2007 8:40 AM

10

Roger,

I accept your comments about the hostels mentioned being only English speaking. However the point of this article is to encourage people to visit Colombia, a country which has had a very bad press over the years. If the payoff is that they only stay in 'backpacker' hostels then that's worth it, if people take the 'chance' on visiting what is preceived as a 'dangerous' country. Besides, after nine months residence, I guess your Spanish is pretty good, which may not be the case for all travellers. As I have mentioned in one of my follow up posts above, Colombians are very friendly and always interested in meeting travellers, so where you stay should not make that much difference to your cultural experience.

Lonely Planet. I was working for them when they bought in the 'new' editions. It's true that they have been cut back, and this is particularly the case for marginal titles like Colombia, where they don't make that much money from the titles, as sales are fairly low. As I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Footprint are the only guides worth carrying in South America.

Will
Writing from Anyuna,Goa,India

  Will Mar 14, 2007 4:49 PM

11

Hello
Adding my 2d worth : As a sola, blonde traveller, I too felt safest in Colombia out of the ?10/11 S.American countries visited last year.
I used overnight busses for all long haul trips with no problem. (Every Colombian was quite paranoid on my behalf and urged me to 'not go further north / south ... not go - or at very least to take a flight. As a South African - I could relate to their anxiety lest anything bad happen to our valued foreign visitors and so exacerbate a bad country image).
The Colombian police / street officials were genuinly helpful - and unlike other destinations, none were on the take from me.
The Colombian people utterly charming and gallant.
My personal El Dorado - and I'm going back to buy a little home somewhere near Salento / Manizales.
I would have liked the 'Santa Claus' fella to win the elections - but I guess Colombians like Senor Uribe better!
Final word - the best hostels in S.America are in Colombia. (All that free coffee helped - but some indefinable charm and stylishness about everything in Colombia ... including those darned big-butted ants the Santander folk eat!:)))) I nominate Herman at the Platypus, Bogata, as Honorary Tourism Ambassador.
Ain't we all so darned lucky to have visted this fabulous country?!
Dee from Cape Town, S.Africa

  Dee Apr 18, 2007 9:28 AM

12

i have not been planning on going to columbia but now i am entertaining the idea. I will be in South america for the next 4 months traveling aroud. I will also have some expencive camera equipment. what is your advice if i was to change my plan and go to colombia?

Raleigh from Mexico City

  Raleigh Sullivan May 8, 2007 9:53 AM

13

Dear Raleigh,
I was interested to see you are writing from Mexico City. For me that is one of the most dangerous places on earth, I was robbed there on the Metro but luckily they only managed to steal my guidebook. Not to mention the recently shot dead body I came across the Plaza des Armes. It can only get better.

There is a risk everywhere in Latin America if you don’t follow common sense rules, see my article on security for some tips. Colombia is no more dangerous than anywhere else, in fact I would argue it’s less so, simply because there are so many uniforms about. Black spots for crime like bus stations are particularly well guarded and police and soldiers often pop up in the most unexpected places. And unlike other Latin cities, they don't all knock off at 6pm.

In the cities the areas where the hostels are located are usually pretty safe and I had no problems there, even at night. Outside them, take licensed cabs. In small towns you will be unlucky to encounter problems.

Don’t let worries about crime put you off, otherwise you might as well put the whole region off limits.

Will

  Will May 9, 2007 2:24 AM

14

It was very interseting to read everyones posts. I and my GF will be travelling through SA for 6 months starting in September. We are currently debating about the northern part ie Ecuador, Colombia and Venazuala, but on advice from our government (Australian), and many people including those who have lived in Venazuala (they said not to go to parts of Venazuala as well), we were going to avoid Columbia all together. They stated that kidnappings and murders are on the rise, armed robberies etc etc etc. Petty crime will never put me off travel, and I like to think I have common sense, but when different sources advise against travel, it makes me think they might have a point. I understand that MOST people go through without an incident, and it sounds like you all had a great time.

When you were travelling, were you warned of any Hot-spots?

Wayne

  Wayne May 10, 2007 6:32 PM

15

First of all don’t take too much heed of what the guidebooks say about ‘hotspots’, they are usually years out of date. The warnings on government websites, US,UK and Australian are better but should only be used for guidance. Ask the locals, the hostel owners and other travellers are one of the best sources. I have not followed the situation in Colombia recently but most of the problems were always confined to certain areas, which you should avoid. I note that the UK gov is advising against travel to San Augustine, which is a pity; although it is worth checking in Popayan as to the current threat.

On the main Andean route I travelled on, it was normal to see soldiers patrolling on the sides of the main highways and guarding bridges, and travelling here should be safe in daylight. I would not advise travelling at night anywhere in Latin America unless you absolutely have to, always try to avoid arriving in a town in darkness.

I did not go to Venezuela, mainly because of the cost of the flight, it was cheaper to go to Colombia from Panama. I heard a few stories from travellers who had been there, as many of them had been robbed. Caracas is developing a particularly evil reputation, and quite a few people I met had been robbed by the police!

Best, Will

  Will May 10, 2007 11:28 PM

16

Cheers Will

Yeah, Ive heard from everyone to avoid Caracus at all costs. The airport is suppose to be very dodge. Well equiped thieves will dress up in police clothing and even have road blocks set up.

Will check into Columbia a bit more.

Wayne

  Wayne May 11, 2007 5:57 PM

17

I am currently planning a trip to Medellin in July/August with my wife. I am a Colombian who has not been there since 1998 and she is a Jamaican who has never been there. We'll be there for a little over 2 weeks.

I've had many people recommend that we go to the coffee growing region known as El Eje Cafetero. This area is comprised of the cities of Pereira, Manizales, and Armenia. Are there any recommendations you can give for someone who wants to drive around the area? I will probably borrow an uncle's old car and head out from Medellin. I was hoping to find hostels along the way, but I think my wife would prefer to stay in a cheap hotel. One thing that I would love is if you could suggest a place where I could find road maps. I know the roads in Colombia are not well marked, so you have to depend a lot on stopping and asking the locals for directions. Fortunately, my Spanish is still "paisa" enough to get along well with locals, but I would still love to be able to have a map handy.

Any feedback is greatly appreciated.

Carlos,
Brooklyn, NY

  Carlos Jun 2, 2007 5:15 AM

18

"Colombia is no more dangerous than anywhere else, in fact I would argue it’s less so"

This is ridiculous. What's the murder rate in Colombia Will? The point is your claims are anecdotal and one can't help but notice a biased pro-Colombian streak. Hell, maybe it's just me huh?

Your comment shouldn't be surprising as you used to work for LonelyPlanet, a guidebook series that constantly claimed (or rather, lied) that Washington D.C. was the most dangerous city in the Americas throughout the 90's.

  Roberto Jan 12, 2008 2:28 PM

19

Dear Roberto,

You don't say if you live in Colombia or even if you've been there. I have been there, so my 'claims' can hardly be anecdotal.

On Lonely Planet, I have looked at their new guide to Colombia which seems very poor. It was being reserched when I was in Colombia and I heard stories that the authors were not getting out to places. This seems to be true from what I've read.

Where is dangerous? The only place I've seen someone robbed in broad daylight was in the centre of Boston, Mass, on a Sunday afternoon. The only place I've seen a policeman go for his gun was in downtown Vancouver. You can find trouble anywhere you go, but in North America it's more in your face.

Will

  Will Jan 16, 2008 5:14 AM

20

I'll take extra measures, but will visit, reguardless of any(hidden?) dangers.
I plan on visiting the Choco region of Western Colombia to study the hidden Indian (Choco) culture, flora, and fauna of this specific locality.
Although, I am no photographer, I hope and dream to get some nice photo shots of the Phyllobates terribilis, and describe in voluminous detail of the flora, and geographical layout of their microclimate, as well as investigating the hypothesized diet of these beautiful creatures. All this to better understand and an attempt to accomplish a book in great length of information, including scientific names. If I live through it and come out as planned, maybe, it will prove worthy and beneficial to the herpetological world and scientific community. I'm not certain on how feasable or practicle this will be. But I believe very much worth while.

  Shawn Statzer Apr 16, 2008 11:59 PM

21

Can anyone tell me how long the Ipiales-pasto bus journey is? Some people are saying an hour and ahlf, some are saying 4hrs! Also, does anyone know how far from Ipiales El Sanctuario de Las Lajas is? Thank you

  Miranda May 7, 2008 11:21 AM

22

hahaha... that msg from 'roberto' cracks me up.
As someone who has been traveling in south america for the last 6 months (3 of which in Colombia), i'd have to say your blog is pretty much spot on.
I really wonder if that idiot actually has been to colombia? i don't know how many times it has to be said, that here is definitely one of the safest places going around- but you just take the normal cautions and particularly listen to what locals tell you :-)
good stuff on your writing anyway...particularly funny that you mention that you heard the Lonely Planet writers didn't go to some of the places around here, and it comes out now in his new book, of one of the blokes (i think he only wrote the history section or something) didn't visit here!

  Peter May 9, 2008 1:37 PM

23

Oh and miranda...i don't mean this in a bad way, because i actually don't know exactly myself, and know you only want a bit of extra info; but does the 3hour difference really matter? knowing colombians roads around there, you might strike it lucky and do it relatively quickly, or budget safely on doing it in 4.

  Peter May 9, 2008 1:42 PM

24

I am planning a trip for 1 week to Pereira, my ex-boyfriend lives there and I will be going for the first time. In the past I was very reluctant to travel there..but he will be with me the entire time. I am really not too nervous about going there, but more concerned on the bus trip from the Medellin airport to Pereira. Any ease on my concerns??

Thanks,
Paula

  Paula Jun 20, 2008 4:28 AM

25

So, I have read over all the blogs. It's so nice to hear that I will be travelling somewhere safe. There isn't one person who knows I'm travelling to Colombia that's excited for me! With the new hostage release situation, parents, friends and colleagues are begging me not to go. I was really looking forward to this trip as I have had a long time friend from Colombia who has been begging me to go for years. I am traveling alone..single, blonde, blue eyed and I understand that I may not "look" like everyone else, but based on everyone's comments, I feel like as along as I use common sense, I will be OK! No one else quite gets that..my argument is that you can get in "Colombian-type" situations anywhere really..I live in L.A..I think South Central/Compton could be worse than Colombia on any given day. Any advice you guys could give me would be great! I'm staying in Cartagena and Medellin..not sure where I'll go or what I'll do from there. Any advice? Thanks for all the great blogs..I feel revived in my enthusiasm for travelling to Colombia!

  Renee Jul 6, 2008 2:52 AM

26

Hi Will,

Excellent post, very interesting and informative. Is it possible to get a copy of the detailed notes you have on the trek in Wax Palm Valley?? Thanks.

  Taryn Hentz Dec 26, 2009 1:24 PM

27

i am tryin to find out if columbia is a safe place cuz i hear it has a lot of rapists and crackheads thes isnt safe i wanna know!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  SAM Mar 24, 2011 5:41 AM

28

Hi Will,

Thanks for this write up on Colombia! My boyfriend and I are planning a trip in December for just over two weeks. We plan on flying in and out of Bogota, but would like to see Medellin, Cartagena, and Santa Marta. Do you have suggestions on how to get around for such a short time? Or do you have any other itinerary ideas?

Thanks so much!

  Marisa Oct 10, 2011 9:51 AM

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