13 Things to Know Before Traveling to Colombia

After my almost 2-year hiatus from international travel, I embarked on an adventure to my 33rd country: Colombia! Located in Northwest South America, Colombia offers some of the most stunning landscapes, delicious food, and vibrant culture. My 9-day journey took me all throughout Colombia from Cartagena, Colombia’s Caribbean Coast to Medellin, nestled in the Andes Mountains, to Circasia, Colombia’s coffee region.

Here are 13 things I’ve learned from my trip that you should know before traveling to Colombia:

Guatape is the most colorful town in Colombia and is one of my favorite cities.

1. Beware of carry-on weight allowances when buying local flights.

I used Kiwi.com to find affordable local flights in Colombia. Unless you’re a super light packer, make sure you add checked luggage. Some airlines have low carry-on weight allowances for their domestic flights. I don’t know how any traveler is expected to have a carry-on that only weighs 8-pounds.

2. Fill out the Check- Mig Form for entry and departure from Colombia

Between 24 hours and 1 hour before departure to Colombia, you must fill out the ‘Check-Mig’ form, available on the Migración Colombia website. You will receive a confirmation email that you will need to present upon arrival in Colombia. You will need to fill out the Check-Mig form again 24 hours to 1 hour before departing Colombia. During my connection from El Dorado International Airport in Bogota to JFK, the customs office didn’t check my form, however, some of my friends were asked to present it.

Pro-tip: Although it seems that the mig-form is optional for departing Colombia, it is better to be safe and have it available if you do need to present it. The website is glitchy. I recommend completing it before you get to the airport and have strong wifi.

3. Light fabrics and layers are key to being comfortable in Colombia.

Colombia is typically a warm country. It’s one of the few countries in the world where the climate stays the same year-round. But the weather varies slightly by region.

In Cartagena expect to experience tropical heat (high 80s/ low 90s F). I thought I experienced the maximum heat there until I took a day trip to Palenque, 35 miles from Cartagena. The heat in Palenque is dry and smacks you in the face. I highly recommend light and airy clothes for both places.

The temperature in Medellin and the Cocora Valley are more temperate (low 70s) because it’s nestled in the Andes Mountains. You should definitely have a sweater or light jacket when visiting these cities.

4. In general, tipping isn’t customary in most places, but is always appreciated.

Other than places like restaurants and hotels, tipping isn’t expected in Colombia. But as a traveler who recognizes that wages are extremely low and my money goes a long way here, might as well as tip a few extra thousand pesos if you’re in doubt. For context, 5000 pesos is $1.32, 10,000 pesos is $2.63.

Restaurants

“La cuenta por favor”, is how you ask for the check in Colombia. The server will ask you “servicio incluido?” which means service included? If you say yes, which you should, they will add a 10% service to the bill which shows up as “propina” or “incluido el servico”. It’s not like the USA where you add the tip to the empty line in the bill. If you dine at a small family-owned restaurant, the tip is likely not included in your bill, so feel free to leave a couple of thousand pesos behind.

Lunchtime in Baru!

Taxi Rides

Tipping taxi drivers isn’t expected in Colombia. However, we always tipped a few extra pesos. For our private drivers who were with us all day, we tipped 10% and bought them lunch (definitely isn’t customary, but they were really grateful).

5. Learning Spanish phrases before your trip is advised.

It would be helpful to learn key phrases in Spanish. I traveled in a group where our levels of Spanish proficiency ranged from basic to advance intermediate and it was extremely helpful. In Cartagena, there were a lot of Colombians who spoke English, but everywhere else we traveled the English-speaking was limited. Duo-lingo is a great app to learn Spanish for your trip.

Pro-tip: Download the google translate app and use it while there.

6. Colombia TSA is relaxed about liquids, but be mindful of where you purchase your duty-free liquor.

In general, Colombia TSA has relaxed liquid restrictions on domestic flights. My friend was able to bring a bottle of Hennessy through her carry-on from Cartagena to Medellin.

However, if you plan on buying duty-free liquor to bring back to the USA, make sure you buy it from a connection destination directly to the states. My friend purchased duty-free alcohol in Cartagena, but it wasn’t allowed on our connection flight from Bogota to JFK because of a USA liquid policy.

7. To avoid getting ripped off, have a general idea of how much your taxi ride will be.

Cartagena

Taxis are extremely affordable in Colombia, but to avoid getting ripped off, it’s a good idea to do some research beforehand on how much your ride should be and always agree on a price before getting in the car. In Cartagena, we asked an Airport Security guy how much a ride should be from the airport to Centro Historico which is about a 15 min drive and he said 15,000-20,000 pesos. The first taxi driver that approach us was trying to charge 30,000 pesos. We walked away until we found one that was being reasonable.

Medellin

In Medellin, our AirBnB host told us in advance that the taxi from the José María Córdova International Airport would be 80,000 pesos. The ride from the airport to Medellin city is about 40-50 minute drive. Taxis can be conveniently hailed from the street and many of these taxis use the meter so it eliminates the guesswork. We didn’t use Uber during our trip, but it is available in Medellin and prices are slightly cheaper than taxis.

8. Choose your neighborhood to stay in based on convenience.

Where to stay in Cartagena

Staying in the Old Town aka the Walled City of Cartagena was the best decision. We were within walking distance from the best restaurants, nightlife, and main attractions. Also, it’s so colorful and charming. It felt unreal to be able to wake up and roam these streets! Bocagrande is another recommended area. It has more of a Miami-esque vibe, it’s located on the beach with high rises.

Pro-tip: Many of the old colonial-style AirBnBs may not have elevators. Be prepared to walk up big flights of steps with your luggage.

Where to stay in Medellin

We stood in an AirBnB in Laureles which is a local area and we loved it. It felt like home. La Floresta is a chill area with central access to every zone in Medellin. El Poblado is known as the “Foreigner’s Favorite” because it attracts a lot of tourists with its centralized location, huge party scene, and fancy shopping centers.

9. Vendors in Cartagena are very in your face.

The rumors are true, here’s what you can expect during your walks in the Old Town:

  • Palenque Women (the women in the colorful outfits and fruit) will approach you to take a picture with them.

  • Teenage rappers will come up to you and freestyle. I got to admit they’re really talented!

  • People coming up to you to sell every souvenir imaginable, water, candy, and even cigars.

If you say no thank you or simply ignore them if they persist they will go away. I never felt threatened by any of the vendors, they are just trying to make a living.

10. There are many ways to get to the Cocora Valley.

Known for its iconic 200 ft tall wax palms, the Cocora Valley is a sight to see in Colombia. It felt like I stepped onto the pages of Dr. Seuss’ Lorax. You can hike the Cocora Valley or horseback ride through it.

There are multiple ways to travel to Cocora Valley. The closest airports are El Edén International Airport in Armenia and Matecaña International Airport in Pereira. Pereira is the larger airport with more flight options. We stood in a lovely Airbnb on a coffee farm in Circasia which is a 45-minute drive to Cocora Valley. However, most people choose to stay in Salento, which is right outside of the Cocora Valley (22 minutes). We choose to stay in Circasia because the housing options looked better than the ones in Salento.

Stunning views from my room in Circasia.

11. Beware of Gnats on top of El Peñol.

Instagram vs. Reality

Guatape is one of the most unique places to visit in Colombia . Climbing 600+ flights of stairs of El Peñol is like a right of passage for travelers visiting Guatape. I’ve seen pictures of this beautiful view on my IG timeline for years. But there’s something that wasn’t mentioned in the captions of those pictures. There’s a huge gnat problem up top. We were constantly swatting in between our photos. They were vicious. Also, the stairs going down are much narrower and steeper than the climb up. My legs were extremely shaky about halfway through.

12. If you’re searching for a peaceful hot springs experience you won’t get it at Santa Rosa Thermal Springs, but the views are everything.

I’m used to visiting hot springs and having a relaxing and quiet experience. That wasn’t the case when we visited Santa Rosa Thermal Springs, instead there were kids jumping in the pools and people swimming. Despite it not being the zen experience I thought it would be, I still recommend it. The lush views were breathtaking.

Santa Rosa is 30 miles from Salento.

13. If you’re prone to seasickness you should be fine sailing in Cartagena.

I usually get bad seasickness, but I’m happy to report that the Caribbean sea in Cartagena didn’t give me any issues during my visit in August. I took one draminine and I was fine sailing for 6 hours.

Ready to book your trip?

Check out my 9-day Colombia Itinerary packed with details on what to do, what to see, where to eat, and where to stay in Cartagena, Medellin, and Circasia. It includes phone numbers of reliable taxi drivers and links to reputable activity vendors.

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Jewels Rhode

Frequent Flyer. Chief Enjoyment Officer. Helping you make your travel dreams a reality!