Colombia Tourist Guide & Info
Colombia is one of the equatorial countries of the world, but unique in its extreme topography and abundance of water. From Bogota, 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 the accompanying flora and fauna, and to the West you can find the Magdalena River valley and its hot weather. A few islands can also make it the perfect beach holiday.
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.
Origin & Culture
Bandeja paisa is common in most places. This includes rice, beans, fried plantain, arepa, fried egg, chorizo, chicharron (pork crackling) with the meat still attached. Tamales (very different from their most famous Mexican cousins) and empanadas are delicious. You will find about 200 varieties of potatoes.
In many areas of Colombia, it is common to have bunuelos (deep fried 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. Bogota and the central region have its own breakfast delicacy of tamales, often served with home-made hot chocolate. For lunch you should try a sancocho de gallina (rich chicken soup, served with part of the chicken itself, rice and vegetables/salad). Another soup, served in Bogota and the periphery, is Ajiaco (chicken soup made with three different kinds of potato, vegetables and herbs, served with rice, avocado, corn, milk cream and capers).
A great variety of tropical fruits can be tasted: tamarindo, mangoes, guanabanas, lulo, mangostinos, and a great variety in citrus. In addition, you can find some of those rich and strange flavours in prepared food like ice cream brands or restaurant juices. Pastry is prevalent, both salty and sweet, including Pandebono, Pan de Yuca, Pastel Gloria, and Roscon.
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. Regarding Colombian coffee, you can find a lot of products that are both made commercially and home-made from this very famous produc.
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.
Modern Colombian music is a mixture of African, native Indigenous and European influences, as well as more modern American and Caribbean musical forms. The national music of Colombia is the cumbia, a mixture of Spanish and African music. Also, styles like bambuco, vallenato, salsa and porro can be heard. When the waltz became popular in the 19th century, a Colombian version called pasillo was invented. Colombians like to dance a lot. It's part of the cultural ancestry. 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.
Its vast territory is one of great physical contrasts, ranging from the towering, snow capped peaks of the Andes to the hot, humid plains of the Amazon River Basin. The highest peak is Pico Cristobal Colon standing at 5,775 m above sea level.
Several rebel movements against the Spanish rule were attempted, most of them either being crushed or remaining too weak to change the overall situation. Finally Colombia became independent from Spain in 1819, liberated by Simon Bolivar. Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama then formed the first Republic of Colombia. All eventually left this Republic within 80 years or so. In recent decades the country has been plagued by the effects of the influential drug trade and by guerrilla insurgents The powerful drug cartels have helped the Colombian balance of trade by creating a steady and substantial influx of foreign currency, but on the other hand, the drug lords have destabilized the government. The different insurgent often resort to kidnapping and drug smuggling to fund their causes. Since the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, some security indicators have improved, showing a decrease in reported kidnappings and a huge decrease in homicides.
The tropical region is also known for its abundant animal life. The wildlife is made up of jaguars, pumas, tapirs, peccaries, sloths, anteaters, opossum, armadillos, and several species of monkey and red deer. Alligators, once numerous along the principal rivers, have become scarce due to intensive hunting. Some 1,665 species of South American and migratory birds have been spotted as well.
Here is a short list of National Parks worth visiting:
Swimming and water sports are available along beaches and resorts along the coast, as well as on the islands of San Andres and Providencia. While on the islands you can dive into the tropical waters of the UNESCO Seaflower Biosphere Reserve.
You can hike the nature trails; cycle and rock climb in many of the country’s national parks. Climb the snow-capped Nevado del Ruiz, white-tipped volcano at 5,400 m. Several tour operators offer jungle excursions into the Amazon basin, river rafting Cundinamarca and Fonce, or boat trips to the Amacayu National Park.
Organized sports have grown steadily in popularity among the Colombians, and without question the most widely played and watched sport is soccer. Basketball and baseball draw an increasing number of fans, and golf, tennis, and skiing. At the Plaza de Toros Santamaria you can watch the bullfights during the months of January and February.
Other Useful Info
Major credit cards are usually accepted in larger hotels, or shops and restaurants of big cities. But more often then not, cash will be the method of payment, so always carry some pesos with you.
Colombians customarily describe their country in terms of the climatic zones: the area under 900m in elevation is called the hot zone (86% of the country, 24 to 38 Celsius), elevations between 900 and 1,980 m are the temperate zone (8% of the country, 19 to 24 Celsius), and elevations from 1,980 m to about 3,500 m constitute the cold zone (6% of the country, 10 to 19 Celsius).
The rainy season is roughly from May through October. Rainfall in the hot zone is heaviest in the Pacific lowlands and in parts of eastern Colombia, where rain is almost a daily occurrence and rain forests predominate.
For temperatures charts please refer to your destination of choice.
The International dialing Code for Colombia is 57. Telecom is the phone company, with offices in every town. From them you can make local, long-distance, international calls and send faxes. Hotel rates are expensive. Roaming agreements exist with a few international mobile phone companies. Coverage is limited to urban areas. There are Internet cafes in most towns and cities.
There are several daily Spanish newspapers available, such as El Tiempo, El Espacio, El Nuevo Siglo and Vanguardia Liberal.
Drink only bottled water outside the major cities. The water in major cities is safe but it still is advisable to stick with bottled water. 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). If you're staying with relatives or friends especially you could ask for boiled water. It is advised to avoid uncooked foods or unpeeled fruits and vegetables.
Gastro-intestinal complaints, known as the turista, are the most common health issue and usually occur in the first few days. In the Amazon there are plenty of bugs flying about, so be sure to wear bug repellent. In the Andes you should be careful of altitude sickness.
There are no required vaccines to enter the country, unless you are arriving from a yellow fever affected destination. The following vaccines though are highly recommended for any tropical destination: hepatitis A and B, rabies, typhoid, tetanus and yellow fever. Less frequented areas of Nicaragua may also be prone to Cholera, Dengue fever, Diphtheria and Malaria. If you plan an adventure trip, it may be a good idea to get inoculated.
January 6 – Epiphany
March/April – Good Friday/Easter
May 1 – Labour Day
July 20 – Independence Day
August 7 – Battle of Boyaca Dauy
October 12 – Columbus Day
November 1 – All Saints' Day
November 11 – Cartagena Independence Day
December 8 – Immaculate Conception
December 25 – Christmas Day
The following religious holidays are observed but dates vary from year to year, please verify: St Joseph’s Day, Maundy Thursday, Ascension, Corpus Christi, Sagrado Corazon, St Peter and St Paul, Assumption.Bogota's Carnival is celebrated every year on August 5th and 6th for the city's anniversary of its Hispanic foundation.
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. Guerrillas still operate in the rural areas. Most of the cocaine consumed in the US and in Europe comes from Colombia, but local consumption is low, hence you will not be offered nor will see any drugs there.
Use good judgement, keep money and travel documents well hidden in a money belt and take advantage of the safety deposit boxes provided by the hotels. Always lock your hotel door or your rented car. Never leave any luggage unattended and be inconspicuous with jewellery, cameras, or anything of value.
The Colombian textile industry is well-recognized and reputable. Clothing and lingerie are particularly regarded as high quality and very affordable.Leather garments, shoes and accessories are also of interests for visitors. The best place to buy either clothing or lingerie is Medellin, known for being the fashion capital of the country. The mochila is a traditional, indigenous, hand-woven Colombian bag, normally worn over the shoulder. Colombian emeralds and gold jewellery is a popular purchase, especially when inspired by pre-Columbian pieces.
Handicrafts are commonly sold in markets and on street corners. Many street vendors will approach people. If you want to buy something, this is a good time to exercise your bartering skills. Usually you go down by 2,000 pesos and go from there. If you don't want to buy anything, a simple thank you and a non-committal wave of your hand will deter sellers.
The departure tax of around US $31, per person, must be paid when leaving the country. For long stays the departure may be higher, please verify.
A government sales tax of 16% is added on most goods and services. Food, except in restaurants, is not taxed. Usually hotels add an extra insurance fee of 2,000 pesos.
Restaurants and hotels add 10% service fee. If it has not been added, a 10% tip is recommended. Chambermaids are tipped $1 per day. Bellboys and airport porters should receive 1,000 pesos per bag. Doormen and people guarding your car expect at least 2,000 pesos for their services. Taxi drivers do not expect tips.
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. Domestic carriers offer regular service to major towns and cities in Colombia. You can also arrive by car or bus from Venezuela and Ecuador.
If you rent a car, remember that driving is on the right hand side of the road and most cars have standard transmissions. You will need an international driver's license. Insurance is cheap and mandatory. There are many toll crossings; the fee is about US $3.
Travel by bus is widespread and has different levels of quality. In Bogota you can find the Transmilenio and in Pereira the Megabús, highly efficient and neat bus transit systems that are spreading to other cities. Keep an eye on your belongings and never accept food or drinks from strangers. There is a metro system in Medellin. Taxis are regulated, reasonably priced and safe from the airports. The taxi networks in big cities are extensive and very cheap. If you order a taxi by phone the company will then give you the taxi registration number. Taxis from city to city are easy to arrange by phoning ahead and agreeing the price.