We arrived in Cartagena, Colombia with a lot of high expectations and a lot of questions to answer - most notably: “what is international travel like right now?!”
After spending the past 8 months in the USA, in a small mountain town no less, we were definitely curious to see how the rest of the world was handling 2021 - most notably the COVID pandemic. It didn't take us long to realize that things were pretty different in Colombia, especially when it came to tourism and overall safety.
This is our personal experience on what Colombia, more specifically the city of Cartagena, is like during 2021.
\\ Arriving in Colombia & Documentation
Probably the thing we were most nervous about when planning to head down to Colombia was the arrival process in the country itself. International travel can be a bit nerve-wracking to begin with, so when you add on a global pandemic that nervousness and trepidation just amplifies. Luckily, we didn’t experience any hiccups* on our flights to Cartagena.
*(Though there was a moment of sheer panic when the lady checking us in at the airport asked for a negative COVID test - which we did not have - in order to fly to Colombia. After showing her the Colombian Migration website, she explained that their system was just not up to date...).
When we first booked our flights to Colombia we immediately started researching what protocols were in place for landing in the country. Did we need a COVID test? Did we need to show information on vaccinations? Did we need to prepare for a 2-week quarantine?
In the beginning (when we bought our tickets in mid-May) Colombia was requiring a negative COVID test result 72 hours prior to arrival in the country. But soon after (early June) they changed the requirements and instead were no longer requiring a negative COVID test upon entry. And by the time we got on our flight to Cartagena, the country was allowing all international passengers (except those coming from India) to arrive without a negative COVID-19 test result or any documentation on vaccines or prior COVID diagnosis.
But, even though they were not requiring a negative test result, they still needed every passenger to fill out a Migration Form - which you could do online (which we did), or use a printed out form, which at least in our case, was handed out by the airline (though it was only in Spanish).
It took about 10 minutes to fill in the form and once we landed at the airport in Cartagena, the immigration official did ask to look at the paperwork for both of us.
Besides the form, which might have been a requirement before COVID, there were no other requirements or paperwork needed to enter the country. Similarly, though we had read about health screenings upon arrival in Colombia, we didn’t get our temperatures scanned or anything like that upon landing or exiting the airport.
One thing we were really curious about when heading to Colombia was whether the tourism sector would be back in full swing. We had heard from travelers previously, most notably when we were in Peru a couple of years prior, that there were quite a lot of international travelers in Colombia, especially in the more popular cities (Medellin, Cartagena, etc.).
So we were interested to see, after a year like 2020, whether that would still be the case.
Turns out, it wasn’t.
We couldn't decide whether it was because of COVID or whether it was because we were visiting in the “low” season (though there really isn’t a clear offseason in Colombia). Or maybe a mix of both, but either way, there just were not that many other travelers in and around Cartagena.
Even in the more touristy areas of Cartagena - the Walled City and the hip Getsemani district - the number of Western travelers in particular was very low. In fact, it took us about a week or so before we actually spotted any.
Now, this is usually a great sign: the feeling of discovering a spot that not a lot of tourists head to (like this
hidden gem in Peru) but for some reason we were really hoping to meet some new people and build some friendships during our time. Even when we asked around at some of the Spanish language schools, where we were hoping to not only get better at Spanish but also meet new people, most of them said they didn’t have any students yet.
In the end, the lack of other foreign travelers actually allowed us to really get an idea of what Cartagena is like without the flood of tourists. We could walk down the narrow streets of the Walled City and likely only see local Colombians going about their day. And there is something really special about that.
But, it also pains us to know that because tourism hasn’t bounced back yet, a lot of people are suffering - including many of the businesses that rely solely on travelers.
\\ COVID Policies
It didn’t take us long to realize that Colombia had put in place a lot of policies regarding public health and safety. This included mandating masks in all stores and restaurants (until you were seated at your table), requiring people to wear masks when walking around and/or in busier areas (like the Walled City), and placing convenient hand sanitizing stations everywhere. Even the security guide at the Exito supermarkets would give you hand sanitizer before you entered the store.
And the thing was, pretty much everyone was following the requirements. It was only when we were out at the beach that people would remove their masks; otherwise, in Cartagena especially, everyone wore a mask, used hand sanitizer and tried to stay 2 meters apart.
So if you are worried about visiting Colombia right now because of the pandemic, we would say you can rest assured that the country is taking it very, very seriously. At least from what we saw seen in Cartagena - though we suspect that the same could be said about other parts of the country, especially in busier areas like Medellin and Bogota.
\\ Final Thoughts
When we first booked our flights to Cartagena, we were definitely a bit nervous about what we would find in Colombia - as we are sure most travelers are, especially right now. But, by the time we arrived at our apartment, we were definitely more excited than nervous at the opportunity to explore such a beautiful city and country.
So if you are considering a trip down to Colombia in 2021, just know that you will, more than likely, find it to be way less touristy than in previous years as well as very, very safe.