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Colombia

Photo © O.Carson

Travel Guide South America Colombia

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Introduction

Casa de barro

Casa de barro

© All Rights Reserved Raf-Ellen

Colombia offers travellers sandy beaches, majestic snow-capped mountains, vast rainforests and lovely colonial cities. In every respect, it is a great destination; the people are some of the most hospitable and friendly you'll ever meet and they love to meet and talk to the newly arriving foreigners in their beautiful country. Colombia is a very different place to ten years ago; President Uribe's firm hand has produced a relatively safe country contrary to the out-dated stereotypes and tourism is an exponentially growing industry. Come here to experience a life-loving culture where every week seems to be a national holiday with something to celebrate.

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Brief History

The Spanish settled along the north coast of today's Colombia as early as the 1500s, but their first permanent settlement, at Santa Marta, was not established until 1525. In 1549, the institution of the Audiencia in Santa Fe de Bogotá gave that city the status of capital of New Granada, comprised in large part of what is now territory of Colombia.

The period between 1796 and 1806 was marked by intense conflicts over the nature of the new government or governments. Constant fighting between federalists and centralists gave rise to a period of instability, which came to be known as la Patria Boba (the Foolish Fatherland). Each province, and even some cities, set up its own autonomous juntas, which declared themselves sovereign from each other. Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena for short) established a junta on May 22, 1810, followed others, including the viceregal capital, Bogotá, on July 20 (today Colombia's Independence Day). The dispute over the form of government erupted into civil war by the end of 1812, and once again in 1814.

In 1863 the name of the Republic was changed officially to "United States of Colombia", and in 1886 the country adopted its present name: "Republic of Colombia". Two political parties grew out of conflicts between the followers of Bolívar and Santander and their political visions - the Conservatives and the Liberals - and have since dominated Colombian politics.

From 1974 until 1982, different presidential administrations chose to focus on ending the persistent insurgencies that sought to undermine Colombia's traditional political system. Both groups claimed to represent the poor and weak against the rich and powerful classes of the country, demanding the completion of true land and political reform, from an openly Communist perspective.

Emerging in the late 1970s, powerful and violent drug cartels further developed during the 1980s and 1990s. The Medellín Cartel under Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel, in particular, exerted political, economic and social influence in Colombia during this period. These cartels also financed and influenced different illegal armed groups throughout the political spectrum. Some enemies of these allied with the guerrillas and created or influenced paramilitary groups. In recent years, the country has continued to be plagued by the effects of the drug trade, guerrilla insurgencies like FARC, and paramilitary groups such as the AUC, which along with other minor factions have engaged in a bloody internal armed conflict.
During the presidency of Álvaro Uribe, the government applied more military pressure on the FARC and other outlawed groups, under the stance that nearly half a century of negotiations with no results was a sign that "some entities just cannot be negotiated with." Mostly through military pressure and increased military hardware from the USA most security indicators improved, showing a steep decrease in reported kidnappings

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Geography

Colombia shares international borders with Panama to the west, Venezuela to the east, Brazil to the east and southeast, Peru to the southeast and Ecuador to the south. It also borders the Pacific Ocean in the west and the Caribbean Sea in the north. Colombia is the only South American country which borders both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Including its Caribbean islands, it lies between latitudes 14°N and 5°S, and longitudes 66° and 82°W.
There are five main natural regions with their own characteristics: the Andes mountain range (with peaks over 5,700 metres above sea level), the Pacific Ocean coastal region, the Caribbean Sea coastal region, the Llanos (plains) and the Amazon Rainforest. A few islands make up a special region, like the San Andres and Providencia islands which are actually closer to Central America than to Colombia.

Part of the Ring of Fire, a region of the world subject to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, Colombia is dominated by the Andes (which contain the majority of the country's urban centres). Beyond the Colombian Massif (in the southwestern departments of Cauca and Nariño) these are divided into three branches known as cordilleras (mountain ranges): the Cordillera Occidental, running adjacent to the Pacific coast and including the city of Cali; the Cordillera Central, running between the Cauca and Magdalena river valleys (to the west and east respectively) and including the cities of Medellín, Manizales, Pereira and Armenia; and the Cordillera Oriental, extending north east to the Guajira Peninsula and including Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Cúcuta.

East of the Andes lies the savanna of the Llanos, part of the Orinoco River basin, and, in the far south east, the jungle of the Amazon rainforest. Together these lowlands comprise over half Colombia's territory, but they contain less than 3% of the population. To the north the Caribbean coast, home to 20% of the population and the location of the major port cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena, generally consists of low-lying plains, but it also contains the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, which includes the country's tallest peaks (Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar), and the Guajira Desert. By contrast the narrow and discontinuous Pacific coastal lowlands, backed by the Serranía de Baudó mountains, are sparsely populated and covered in dense vegetation. The principal Pacific port is Buenaventura.

Colombian territory also includes a number of Caribbean and Pacific islands. This is considered by some as a sixth region, comprising those areas outside continental Colombia, including the department of San Andrés y Providencia in the Caribbean Sea and the islands of Malpelo and Gorgona in the Pacific Ocean. However, cultural ties are with the respective coastlines. In this region Colombia has a lot of stable sand banks of considerable size, considered suitable for the development of artificial islands.

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Regions

  • Andean Highlands
  • Caribbean Lowlands
  • Colombian Amazon
  • Eastern Plains
  • Pacific Lowlands
  • San Andres and Providencia - Caribbean islands

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Cities

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Sights and Activities

Amazon Basin

Colombia is one of those countries where you can visit parts of the Amazon Basin and your best place to base yourself is Leticia in the southwest corner of the country, on the border with Brazil and Peru. From here you can visit the National Park of Amacayacu and enjoy the rich life of plants and animals in the forests and lakes, including the famous pink dolphins. Other activities are more of the cultural kind and you can visit indigenous tribes like the Tikunas, Yaguas, Huitotos and Boras people living in the Amazon Basin.

Archeological sites

The main archeological parks in Colombia are located in the southwest and include San Agustin which is the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America and the National Archeological Park of Tierradentro.
This last one contains several monumental statues of human figures and huge underground tombs (some burial chambers are up to 12 m wide) beautifully decorated. Most date back around 1000-1500 years ago. Popayan functions as the main gateway to these sites but is a very attractive town of its own with whitewashed buildings and a big Easter festival.

Cartagena

Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena de Indias

© All Rights Reserved aniel

Cartagena is probably the most pleasant and beautiful city in the country, located along the Caribbean coastline in the northwest of the country and is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Fortifications, cathedrals and churches, plazas and colonial style buildings are fantastic and there are great guesthouses to stay. Many people decide to stay much longer than they intended to stay. Cartagena and the towns/cities close by also offer a fanstastic base for scuba diving and snorkelling in the Caribbean.

Isla Gorgona

Isla Gorgona and its national park are located in the Pacific Ocean about 30 kilometres out of the Colombian coast. Formerly it was a prison island and now it is a major tourist destination with a national park, dense forests and wildlife includes poisonous snakes, whales, monkeys, lizards and turtles. Even the blue footed boobies which you can find on the Galapagos Islands are found here as well. If you want to see the massive humpback whales it is best you visit from July to October which has the best chances. Getting here is best organised from the coastal city of Buenaventura where there are scheduled boats as well as (diving) tours to the island.

Los Katios National Park

Los Kation National Park is located in the west of Colombia close to the border with Panama and is a park with forest and hills with an extremely rich and biological diverse ecosystem found within the park. Many endangered species of flora and fauna call this park home.

Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary

Malpelo Island and the surrounding marine environment are located 500 kilometres west of mainland Colombia in the Pacific Ocean. This is a no fishing zone and a perfectly undisturbed environment where snorkelling and diving is perfect with clear waters and many species of fish and other sea creatures including whales, sharks and turtles.

Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca, Colombia

Playa Blanca, Colombia

© All Rights Reserved Rraven

Playa Blanca is a beautiful, isolated, 3.5-kilometre-long beach located on Barú Island which lies along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, off Cartagena and near Las Islas del Rosario. It is a laid back place with no running water or electricity, so accommodation and facilities are basic, but it represents what many expect and dream Caribbean beaches should look like.

Other Sights and Activities

  • Ciudada Perdida - a pre-colombian city in the jungle near Santa Marta in the north of Colombia. Santa Marta is a beautiful city along the Caribbean coast with nearby beaches. Simon Boliviar has died here.
  • Historic centre of Santa Cruz de Mompox - a typical Spanish colonial city playing a vitale role in colonisation.
  • Caribbean Scuba Diving and Snorkelling - Colombia offers some of the cheapest opportunities in the Caribbean for both experienced and beginner divers.
  • San Andrés Island - tropical getaway, 750 kilometres west of the mainland towards Nicaragua.

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Events and Festivals

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Weather

Much of Colombia enjoys a tropical climate with hot and humid weather. Temperatures along the coastline of the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean are normally around 30 °C or more during the day and well above 20 °C at night. Inland temperatures might be somehwat lower at night. This applies to the southwestern part of the country as well which lies in the Amazon Basin.

Rain is possible during every month but is a bit lower between June and September. On the other hand, cities like Barranquilla and Santa Marta in the north are drier from December to April. Bogota in the centre of the country is located on the central high plateau above 2,600 metres and never gets really warm. Average temperatures here are around 20 °C during the day and 10 °C at night but it can freeze sometimes.

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Getting There

By Plane

Avianca is the national airline of Colombia, based at El Dorado International Airport (BOG) near the capital Bogota with another hub at José María Córdova International Airport (MED) near Medellin. From Medellin, flights include those to New York, Miami, Panama and Aruba, with more flights from Bogota to countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States and Madrid. To the latter, Iberia has flights as well. Air France flies to and from Paris.

By Car

The most used crossing by car is the border with Ecuador. You can cross into Brazil in the extreme southeast at Leticia, but you have to fly there first. The border with Panama can be crossed over land at the Caribbean coastline, but just across the border you have to take a plane onwards to Panama City. Crossings with Venezuela are possible but borders tend to close down once in a while because of tensions between both countries. Nowadays, they are open. Be sure to have the proper documentation and insurance, as well as an international driver's licence.

By Bus

There are several options of getting to and from Venezuela. There are direct buses between Caracas, the capital of Venezuela and Bogota. If you want to visit the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia from Venezuela, there are direct buses from Caracas all the way to Santa Marta and Cartagena. These buses also travel to and from Maracaibo in Venezuela. It is often cheaper to use only domestic services in both countries and cross borders on foot.

Between Colombia and Ecuador, crossings are at the Ipiales (Colombia) border along the Panamericana. To and fro Ipiales you can travel by bus or take flights to Cali and Bogota.

By Boat

Colombia can be reached by boat from both Brazil and Peru. From Brazil, there are slowboats all the way from Belem, via Santarem, Manaus and Tefe to Tabatinga where you can cross borders into Colombia at Leticia. Once a week there also are fast boats between Manaus and Tabatinga via Tefe. From Peru, both slow and fast boats travel the Amazon River to Tabatinga as well.
In the east of Colombia there are several river crossings to and from Venezuela, but they are mostly used by travellers that want to visit Colombia on a daytrip from Venezuela. The most used crossing is from the Venezuelan town of Puerto Ayachucho in the Amazon/Orinoco area of Venezuela. Onward travel further into Colombia is either impossible by land or not recommended due to drug traffic and other hazards. Best to fly onwards.

Cartagena is an important port for charter boats between Colombia and Panama. There are several private boats doing that trip. Fare varies between US$375 and US$500 depending on size of the boat and on-board services. The trip usually takes 4 nights and 5 days and includes a 2 or 3 day stopover in San Blas Islands. At the Panama end, the boats either leave from the Portobelo Area or from Carti Islands Kuna Yala rather than Colón. Reliable information about departure dates and captains can be found at the hotel Casa Viena, at Zulys Backpackers Hostel[8], Mamallena Hostel or Luna's Castle Hostel in Panama City, at Hostel Wunderbar in Puerto Lindo, Hostel Portobelo [12], or the Darien Gapster in Panama.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Colombia has a very good airport system with a total of over 980 airports, of which 100 have paved runways, although only 20 of these airports can handle jet aircraft. The most important and larger airports are located in the cities of Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Cartagena, Cucuta, Leticia, Pereira, San Andres Island, and Santa Marta. All of these cities' airports have regular connections with each other, although often through Bogota. Many of the other airports are quite small and only have regional service with non jet planes, or are used by private aircraft.

By Train

Colombia has 3,034 kilometres (1,885 miles) of rail although only 2,611 kilometres (1,622 miles) are still in use. Most of it is used for freight and passenger-rail use was suspended in 1992 and not started again until the end of the 1990s. The passenger rail system is very poor and is reflected in use, in 2005 there were 160,130 passengers while 5 million people used the rail system in 1972. Currently only 7 of the 10 major cities in Colombia are linked by rail and are under utilized because of security concerns, lack of maintenance and the strength of the road transport union.

By Car

There is an extensive network of paved highways in Colombia right now. Although most of these roads go into areas that might be dangerous for a foreigner driving a car on their own.

By Bus

Colombians, like most South Americans, travel by bus. The country has an extensive domestic bus system that connects almost every single city and town in the country. The only places that don't have buses going to them are places that don't have roads, such as towns located on the banks of major rivers. Remember to take something warm on the bus as it is common for the drivers to put the air conditioning on full, even throughout the night. Bus tickets can sometimes be bargained for in the bus terminals, be careful to know the usual price before heading off.

By Boat

In Colombia there are over 11,000 kilometres of inland navigable waterways that are easy to access. There is a well developed transport system for passengers on these rivers. Remember that the more remote areas of the south and east of Colombia are controlled by rebels.

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Red Tape

Citizens of the following countries do not need a visa to enter Colombia as a tourist for up to 180 days:

Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Finland, France, Germany, Grenada, Greece, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Liechtenstein, Lituania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, Saint Lucia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.

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Money

See also Money Matters

Colombian Peso (COP - symbol Col$) = 100 centavos

Notes come in denominations of Col$50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 2,000 and 1,000.
Coins come in denominations of Col$1,000, 500, 200, 100, and 50

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Work

Do to increasing security and more tourism, work opportunities are appearing more frequently in Colombia. In the major cities, work can be found in specialised lines of work but most foreigners you will find are normallt EFL teachers like in all of South America. Colombia is quite strict on VISA control and so it is essential that you work for an institute that will correctly sponsor you for a work VISA. Unfortunately, the system requires you to leave the country in order to aquire the correct papers, this could mean a road trip to Venezuela or Ecuador.

Expect to earn around 1,500,000 pesos per month (2010) which is a decent enough wage relatively but could depend on the hours you work.

Bogotá has most of the teaching opportunities but in the other larger cities there are institutions that will take native speakers on. In Medellín the University EAFIT and El Colombo-Americano are respectable places to teach.

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Study

  • Relato Cultural Center - Spanish Classes, dancing classes (salsa, merengue, reggaetton etc.), cooking classes, arts and crafts and many more!

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Language

Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases

Spanish is the official language of Colombia. English is the second most spoken language.

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Eat

There's a huge range of gastronomies according to the region in which you are travelling. It's basically divided into 4 zones.

  • Caribbean Region - Fish, Seafood, Rice in the coconut juice, fried plantain are among the main ingredients, Sancocho de Pescado (fish Soup)
  • Central Region - Soups such as Ajiaco (chicken and spices soup) and Changua (eggs and bread soup), Tamales (mainly corn and chicken and pork), Lechona (pork filled with rice and some species)
  • Pacific Coast - Sweet Plantain is found in a huge variety of dishes. Milanesas (pork and cow meat, covered with wheat flour and fried), Sancocho de Costilla (ribs Soup)
  • East Valley (Llanos Orientales) - Mamona (a 5 hours grilled cow meat preparation), Hayaca (one more kind of tamale)

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Health

See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Colombia. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Colombia. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A and yellow fever vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Malaria is prevalent in the country, but only below 2,000 metres. It is recommended to take malaria pills and take other normal anti-mosquito precautions as well. Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

For many years serious internal armed conflict deterred tourists from visiting Colombia, with official travel advisories warning against travel to the country. However, in recent years numbers have risen sharply, thanks to improvements in security resulting from President Álvaro Uribe's "democratic security" strategy, which has included significant increases in military strength and police presence throughout the country and pushed rebel groups further away from the major cities, highways and tourist sites likely to attract international visitors.

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Keep Connected

Internet

Internet cafes are easy to find in any city or town. Expect rates to run about $1,250-2,500 (around $US 0.50-1.00) per hour, depending on how much competition there is (i.e., cheap in Bogotá, expensive in the middle of nowhere). Quality of connections varies enormous and tends to better in populated places and tourist areas. Wifi is getting more and more popular in some hotels, restaurants and bars, but don't count on it and be careful regarding your privacy.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The country calling code to Colombia is: 57. To make an international call from Colombia, the code is: 005.

Using your own phone and SIM card is expensive so if you are planning to do quite a few calls, buy a phone or just a SIM card. It's simple enough to get a SIM card and even an unlocked phone at the international airport in Bogotá, although there is, of course, a price hike. They're not hard to find in any city either, just ask your hotel or hostel staff where to go. Topping up is also easy, and can be done pretty much on any street corner. The carriers you'll most likely see are Claro, Tigo, and Movistar. Claro is the most expensive (by a little bit), but has the widest coverage in the country, if you expect to get off the beaten path.

Post

4-72 is the unusual name of Colombia's postal service. They have post offices throughout the country, which are open usually from 9:00am to 5:00pm Monday to Friday and sometimes on Saturday mornings as well. That doesn't apply to all offices though, only the larger ones in the big cities. But for example along the Caribbean coast, offices tend to close between noon and 2:00pm. But even at the ones that are officially open all day long, it might be difficult to get anything done during those hours. For domestic services, sending letters and postcards is mostly reliable but takes days, for international services don't hold your breath. Eventually, a postcard or letter might arrive in the country of destination but it's almost not worth it. For parcels, you are better off using companies like FedEx, TNT, DHL or UPS.

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Quick Facts

Colombia flag

Map of Colombia

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Capital
Bogotá
Government
Republic
Nationality
Colombian
Population
40,350,000
Languages
Spanish
Religions
Christianity (Catholic)
Currency
Colombian Peso (COP)
Calling Code
+57
Time Zone
UTC-5

Contributors

as well as Lavafalls (6%), sirwhale (5%), Peter (3%), Tilion87 (3%), dr.pepper (2%), Hien (2%), dparra77 (1%), Sam I Am (1%), nigelpeaco (1%), icgv79 (<1%), juanchopc (<1%), Off2 Colombia (<1%)

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Colombia Travel Helpers

  • kichikacha

    Cycled from Turbo (North West) to Pasto.

    Ask kichikacha a question about Colombia
  • i c e

    Just spent a month living in Bogota and Medillin. I need any help would be happy to anwser any questions. Im not a tourist so not too much of that type of info more for serious travelers. AND YES COLOMBIA IS DANGEROUS AND FULL OF DRUGS. If you are a tourist you should waste your time, go strait to Ecuador or another country.

    ice

    Ask i c e a question about Colombia
  • Lunalunera

    I am from Colombia and I am now exploring this magical country.

    Ask Lunalunera a question about Colombia
  • thaumatrope

    I was born in Colombia and have travelled through the Andean Region, the Atlantic and the Pacific Coasts.

    Ask thaumatrope a question about Colombia
  • CanadaKid

    Information about staying in Cali,Armenia,Salento. Visting the parque nacional del cafe. Some experience off the beaten path away from the big cities. Bogotá. Transport from the Amazon (Leticia) into Perú on the river.

    Ask CanadaKid a question about Colombia

Accommodation in Colombia

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