HERE ARE 11 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE MAKING YOUR WAY DOWN TO "THE GATEWAY TO SOUTH AMERICA".
Colombia had always been high on our travel bucket list. But it wasn't until a perfect storm - Covid-19, time zone requirements, and cost of flights - made us finally book two one-way tickets and head down to the colorful country.
We showed up in Cartagena without doing much research or really having the slightest inkling of what Colombia would be like. Luckily, it only took us a couple of days to get in the swing of things and start to get an idea of what makes Colombia so unique and so special.
Below are 11 things to keep in mind when planning your own trip to Colombia, "the gateway to South America".
1 | The Weather Changes by Elevation, Not Season
This was definitely something we had to get used to. For starters - and we 100% blame this on the USA school system - we thought because Colombia was so close to the equator that it would be dreadfully hot year-round. Turns out, that is very far from the truth.
The temperature and weather patterns are entirely dependent on where you are in the country, and more specifically, your elevation. For example, Bogota is downright cold (the hottest month is March at an average temperature of 58° F/14.5° C, while the coldest month is December at an average temperature of 54° F/12° C). But that is because Bogota sits at 8,660 feet or 2,640 meters above sea level (in fact, it is the third highest capital city in the world after La Paz, Bolivia and Quito, Ecuador).
But if you go down in elevation to a city like Medellin (4,905 feet or 1,495 meters) you will find the weather to be downright pleasant year-round (think mid-80s). Or if you are looking for very warm temperatures head all the way down to Cartagena, which sits along the Caribbean Coast. There you will experience very hot and humid weather (average temperature is 89° F or 32° C and 90%+ humidity).
EXPLORE MORE | THE ULTIMATE TRAVEL GUIDE TO CARTAGENA
2 | The Country is Incredibly Biologically Rich
Now, this is something that really blew us away: Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world behind Brazil - a country 10x its size! As of 2016, over 55,000 species were registered in Colombia, of which almost 10,000 of them (or nearly 1/5) were endemic - meaning they are only found in Colombia.
While the country is ranked second in biodiversity overall, it ranks first in the number of orchids and birds, second in plants, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish, third in species of palm trees (including the world's tallest palm tree, the Wax Palm) and reptiles. It also holds the fourth position in the biodiversity of mammals.
One of the best ways to explore this biodiversity is by checking out one of the country's 59 national parks, which range from the high Andes to volcanoes, deserts and all the way to tropical coasts and coral reefs.
GOOD TO KNOW: Colombia is one of seventeen megadiverse countries in the world.
EXPLORE MORE | COLOMBIA'S 6 BEST NATIONAL PARKS
3 | There are A Ton of Adventures to Be Had
While the country has definitely become quite popular with international travelers in recent years - and digital nomads especially - there are still a ton of places to explore and adventures to be had off of the Gringo Trail.
WHAT IS THE GRINGO TRAIL
While it is not exactly a set “trail”, the common tourist circuit through Colombia usually involves the cities of Bogota (common to fly into), Medellin, Guatape (located right outside of Medellin), Cartagena, Tayrona NP/Santa Marta and if you have extra time, maybe Salento or Cali.
If you are like us though, you will likely be looking to head off the Gringo Trail, not only in order to save a few bucks but to have a better chance of having a real, authentic Colombian experience. And of course to do some incredible adventuring.
SOME GREAT PLACES TO EXPLORE INCLUDE
| Armenia/Filandia: these two cities are located very close to Salento but are a lot less busy. You also have the chance to explore Los Nevados National Park, one of the most insane places we have ever been, as well as the famous Cocora Valley, home to the world's tallest palm tree the Wax Palm.
| San Gil: a small city in the Andes mountains famous for its wide array of adventure sports (canyoneering, hiking, whitewater rafting, paragliding and rock climbing). Plus, you can also explore nearby Chicamocha Canyon and ride one of the longest cable cars in the world.
| Neiva: another small but very well-located town in southern Colombia that is full of outdoor adventures. One of the biggest draws of this city is the nearby Tatacoa Desert, the second largest arid zone in Colombia. The desert occupies more than 330 square kilometers and is renowned for its rich deposits of fossils.
EXPLORE MORE | EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HIKING IN COCORA VALLEY
4 | Riding Buses is a Must
If there is one easy and efficient way to get around Colombia it is by bus. Seriously, riding the buses - which range from luxury overnight buses to simple 12 seat mountain trundling metal boxes - is the quickest, cheapest and most straightforward way to get around the country.
Plus, the buses go practically everywhere - including small out-of-the-way villages and far-off mountain trailheads - and cost very little. The easiest way to catch a bus to your desired destination is to head down to the town bus terminal, which can be massive in larger cities (Cartagena, Medellin) or just a one room shack (like in Salento). The bus terminals are usually marked on Google Maps or Maps.me, or if they are not, just ask the locals.
EXPLORE MORE | BUS TRAVEL IN COLOMBIA: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
5 | The Cultures are Very Different Depending Your Location
Similar to how the weather changes by location and elevation, the cultures of Colombia also change depending on where you are. While there are some universal characteristics (speaking Spanish for one), the diversity of cultures is very apparent once you start to explore various parts of the country.
For example, along the Caribbean Coast you will likely find a strong African influence, especially in music, food and dress. This is because during the Spanish control of the country the Caribbean Coast, and the city of Cartagena in particular was a popular area for shipping slaves to the America's (Cartagena was the largest slave port in the Spanish Empire).
Whereas closer to Medellin you will encounter the paisa culture, whose name likely came from the Spanish term, “Paisano” which translates to countryman. Historically, the people from the northwestern part of Colombia (modern day Medellin, Pereira, Manizales and Armenia) were more cut-off from other parts of the country and were somewhat left alone by the Spanish conquests. This relative isolation allowed the paisa people to create their own identity and culture - which is still evident today.
EXPLORE MORE | WHY WE CHOSE TO SLOW TRAVEL IN COLOMBIA: WHAT TO KNOW
6 | You Will Connect Better if You Know (Some) Spanish
While you definitely do not need to be 100% fluent in Spanish, knowing at least a couple of basic terms will go a long way when interacting with local Colombians. This is especially true if you are planning to head out of the more touristy cities (Medellin, Cartagena) where very few people speak or understand English (or other languages).
We suggest spending a bit of time before visiting learning the most basic of terms: hello, goodbye, how much, money, etc. This will not only help you have a smoother experience traveling through the country, but it also shows your respect for the culture you are visiting.
EXPLORE MORE | BASIC SPANISH TERMS ALL TRAVELERS SHOULD KNOW
7 | They are Trying to Move Past Their Escobar Past
When we first told people we were heading down to Colombia for a couple of months, one of the first things they said was, “isn’t it dangerous?” More often than not, that thought stemmed from one thing: "Narcos", the Netflix show about one of the most infamous Colombians, Pablo Escobar.
While during Escobar’s heyday Colombia was far from safe, today the country is 100% trying to move past its dark history and instead focus on modernizing its country to be one of the top places to visit and live in the world.
Take Medellin for example. The city was once heralded as the most dangerous city in the world, but today is now often ranked as one of the most innovative, fun and exciting cities to visit. In fact, in 2013, the Urban Land Institute chose Medellin as the most innovative city in the world due to its recent advances in politics, education and social development.
EXPLORE MORE | THE BEST ADVENTURES FROM CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA
8 | The Military and Police Presence is Intense
We had gotten a taste of this while traveling around Peru, but one thing you will definitely notice right away is the heavy police and military presence all over the country. We are talking police officers at every intersection, riding around on their vibrant green motorcycles on every street or piled into pickup trucks trundling down the major highways. And always with their guns showing.
The police and military presence is especially apparent in busy tourist locations. For example, we saw dozens of police officers and soldiers stationed around Cartagena’s historic Walled City and public beaches, to a point where we thought there was either an important person driving through, or there was an imminent attack. We found out later that this was just common practice.
9 | The Coffee is Delicious - But a Bit Different
When traveling through Peru a couple of years ago we were surprised to find that many of the locals drank instant Nescafe coffee instead of the coffee beans they were literally growing a mile away. While we expected the same kind of situation in Colombia, we were happily surprised by a much stronger local coffee culture. This was especially apparent when we decided to leave the coast and head inland to the coffee region (Eje Cafetero or Coffee Axis).
In places like Salento, Filandia, Armenia and Pereira, coffee is an art, a culture and a way of life. People have been growing coffee in the region for decades and it is likely that everyone knows somebody who works in some part of the coffee industry. It is a lifeblood, a moneymaker and a history.
One of the most common ways to drink coffee is a tinto, a small cup of coffee that often has panela in it (a type of sugar). You’ll see these small cups of coffee served all over the place - from the local lady walking around with various thermoses full of the dark liquid, to more upscale establishments. Even when exploring the coffee region you will likely come across family-owned and operated cafes serving tintos in tiny aluminum cups.
EXPLORE MORE | SALENTO'S DELICIOUS COFFEE ROUTE: OUR COMPREHENSIVE TRAVEL GUIDE
10 | The People Are Incredibly Friendly
We had heard this from many other travelers while down in Peru and Ecuador, but one thing you do notice right away once you land in Colombia is how friendly the people are. This is especially true once you head out of the larger cities and start exploring less touristy places.
But one thing we also noticed and actually came to like was that it felt that everyone kind of looked out for each other and was aware of each person's needs. It sounds kind of weird to stay, but Colombian people just seemed more in tune with other people. Maybe we felt this because we grew up in a country that definitely focuses more on self and not a community as a whole. But in Colombia, the people seemed to be looking out more for the greater good.
11 | You Will Fall in Love With the Country
Honestly, after a couple of days or weeks of exploring the country you will likely find it pretty difficult to leave. The culture, the people, the food, the landscape is seriously amazing, to a point where you will start to wonder why you would ever actually want to leave.
We found it so hard to leave after spending three months in the country that we actually bought flights back for a couple of months later. For us, it felt like we just hadn't seen or experienced enough. And if you are a traveler who enjoys meeting new people and exploring new places and landscapes, you will likely feel the same.
Colombia is a bit of an enigma. While you hear a lot of stuff about the South American country, both good and bad, you can't really grasp what the country is like until you experience it for yourself. And because of how diverse the country is, you likely would need months if not years to explore it all and really dive deep into what makes the place so incredibly special.
Hopefully if you are planning to make your way to Colombia in the future these 11 things will help prepare you for what to expect in the stunning gateway to South America.
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WHAT IT'S LIKE TRAVELING TO COLOMBIA IN 2021 | Traveling the country during Covid-19
FILANDIA | Why You Should Visit this Cute Coffee Town
ARMENIA | Everything to do and see in one of the coffee regions most important cities
SALENTO | The ultimate guide to one of Colombia's cutest mountain towns
BEST CITIES IN COLOMBIA FOR DIGITAL NOMADS | The best cities to base yourself for work and adventure
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