Colombia does not rank high on tourist destinations for Americans. Many fear the violence that once marked Colombia among the most dangerous in the world, and it still has a reputation for nefarious drug cartel activity and terrorism. In fact, the U.S. State Department still lists travel warnings about the country--the latest being posted on 2/21/12, which was four days after I arrived in Bogota for a recent visit.
But as long as you're not visiting remote rural parts of Colombia where terrorist groups like FARC or the ELN continue to kidnap and ransom citizens, you're about as safe as you'd be in any large U.S. urban area. Usual common sense guidelines apply to all areas of the planet.
Colombians LOVE their country, and for good reason. Colombia has a lot going for it. Home to more bird species than any other country on Earth, the landscape is varied and remarkably beautiful. Its citizens and government steadfastly preserve this natural resource; they rank as ecologically aware as U.S. citizens in Oregon and Washington state. Perhaps even more so--tourist sites are far less commercialized than those you'll encounter in the United States. "Going green" seems to run within the genes of Colombians.
The people are incredibly friendly. I especially found this in Medellin (which ranked as the most violent city in the world two decades ago). They actually promote "smiling" as you ride their magnificent metro system, and this has positive effects that spread across the area.
Compared to the U.S. lodging and food are very inexpensive. Had I realized how safe and and relatively easy it is to navigate Colombia's traveling infrastructure, I would have elected to travel completely independently without pre-booking with a tourism company. I could have saved around $1,000 on a two and a half week journey.
With sufficient research and travel savvy, any adventurous or experienced travellers can do the same. Speaking Spanish would be a huge plus for Colombian travel since most people you'll encounter speak Spanish only or limited English, but this is not totally necessary. Finding creative ways to deal with language situations becomes a part of the adventure.
The Internet provides a great deal of information that will help advance planning. In addition, very likely find great local information sources at individual hotels and hostels. If they don't offer much assistence, then talk with fellow travellers, and you'll find whatever you seek... along with some welcome surprises along the way.
If you're still leery, then you can take the "safer" route and book with a reputable tourism company. The main problem I encountered was finding a reliable source for independent travel since many companies specializing in group tours could never gather a large enough number to guarantee a trip to Colombia.
I'm posting this to vouch for the Colombians who absolutely love their country. It's definitely worth a visit... and I recommend bumping Colombia up on your future travel list. Check the Colombia Highlights
photos from my recent journey for evidence:
* Below the hostel picture below are details that may help travel plans
I booked an individualized itinerary
via See Colombia Travel (click that link for specifics).
- Passionate about promoting Colombia tourism--do list worthwhile places to visit
- Marcella -- awesome for her positiveness, truly bilingual, knows the territory. Makes her ideal for troubleshooting when problems crop up
- Books lodging and pick up transport for you
- Can assist with local transport when transferring to another city--helpful with bus lines, especially
- Listed itinerary may not match delivery: mine listed 12 breakfasts and 2 lunches provided but only delivered 2 breakfasts; listed that I would be staying at a plantation finca in the coffee region but it was actually a hostel in a small town.
- Communication breakdowns may occur between main office and local operations. Be SURE to have your hotel/hostel information in hand before traveling. I was not met when first arriving in Medellin or Cartegena so had to hire my own taxi.
- Expense. You pay a premium for the service. Many of the hostels I was staying at only cost around $25 a night, so you can figure the math to determine if the added service is worthwhile.
- Air travel. This is an additional cost with See Colombia Travel, and you must book this yourself. While I was there LAN airlines was severely delayed for each fight, and LAN requires flying into Bogota for each leg of the journey. It would be worth checking Avianca Airlines for alternative travel since they may fly more conveniently and reliably--for instance, they have flights that go directly to Cartegena from Medellin.
- Bus travel. Also an additional cost with See Colombia Travel, these are not too bad and give an additional local flavor. Inability to speak Spanish may be a bit intimidating at the terminals, however, since there are a number of bus lines and a variety of people promoting their services.
Check Trip Advisor and other online services for hotel and hostel recommendations. A few notes on the hostels that I stayed at below.
Bogota: Cranky Croc
- Average facility--you can probably do better
- Location and safety are good--walking distance to the main square and decent restaurants
- Breakfast not included--someone supposedly begins cooking at 9 AM but that is not reliable
- Rather noisy. Quiet hours are listed but not enforced much.
- Various people on desk duty and few are bilingual. Many seem to be trainees so very inconsistent management
Villa de Leyva: Renacer
- Great facility--a bit far from the central square but this made for a more peaceful rest
- Hammocks on the porch a huge plus
- The manager on duty, Felippe, was awesome. Truly bilingual and extremely helpful. However, he only works part time so not likely to be around most of the year and is studying engineering.
Salento: Tralala Hostel
- Good location, just a couple of blocks from central square
- Listings for local sights at the hostel and how to get there. Salento is right in the heart of the coffee region so very accessible for checking out the scenic Corcora Valley and other worthwhile places
Medellin: Wandering Paisa Hostel
- Awesome facility with fully bilingual staff that goes WAY beyond normal duty to help its guests
- Location is excellent--very safe neighborhood with plenty of restaurants and just a few blocks away from the Metro
- Good Internet services at a low cost
Cartegena: Casa Villa Colonial Hotel
- Good location, within walking distance of the historic district
- Safe and a number of good restaurants in the area