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Colombia Holidays: 10 “Must Know” Travel Tips!

A few weeks ago, I returned from my Colombia holidays with my husband and children who were 16, 14 and 12 years old.  It was a fantastic trip that far surpassed our expectations. We went to large cities like Cartagena, Medellin, and Bogota, and smaller towns like Guatape and Ville De Leyva. We fished on the Caribbean Sea, walked on deserted beaches and watched humpback whales in the Pacific Ocean. Other days, we rode ATVs, explored incredible graffiti art, and worked our way through delicious street food. If you are interested in our itinerary, please review my blog A Fourteen Day Colombia Itinerary: A Country of Contrasts for all the details.

 

Sunset in Cartagena during our Colombia holidays

Sunset in Cartagena from our poolside deck.

 

Nevertheless, there were a few surprises on our trip. I have been to over 53 countries. This includes two South American countries (Ecuador and Peru), and two Central American countries (Costa Rica and Nicaragua). However, I was caught off guard with a couple of these. Nothing horrible or scary! Just some travel practices that were unique to Colombia.

I also stumbled upon some neat local knowledge that I think will enhance anyone’s Colombia holidays! A couple of these are pretty fun!

Here are the 10 “must know” travel tips.

 

1. Always arrive at the airport with Colombia pesos. 

Whether you are arriving or departing by international or domestic flight, you should always carry some Colombia pesos. We arrived into Cartagena on an international flight from the USA. We carry Canadian passports and had to purchase travel visas upon arrival. Luckily, credit cards were accepted. However, that was not always the case. Unbeknownst to us, we had to pay a tourist tax in Colombia pesos upon arrival at Nuqui Airport. On two separate occasions, we had to pay extra for overweight luggage when we flew on domestic flights. On both occasions, only Colombia pesos were accepted.

 

2. Never leave your hotel without cash during your Colombia holidays.

Credit cards were accepted in many places, however this was not universal. Many local convenience stores, restaurants, tour companies and souvenir shops only accepted cash. The good news is that everyone was pretty relaxed about whether that cash was Colombia pesos or US dollars. If you offered US cash, they were very good about providing a fair exchange rate, usually equal to the current market rate. Nonetheless, there will be occasions on your Colombia holidays when US cash is not accepted (see my comments above about airports) and you should make it a practice to always carry some while travelling there.

 

Walking the beautiful streets in Cartagena on our Colombia holidays

The beautiful colourful streets of Getsemani in Cartagena.

 

3. Huge tax exemptions are offered for foreignors during your Colombia holidays.

Currently, foreign tourists are exempt from a 19% tax on hotels and tours. This is a very unusual exemption in my travel experience which amounts to a huge savings. Most countries charge extra taxes on hotels specifically to earn more income from foreign tourists. You must have a properly stamped passport handy to prove your status as a foreign tourist. Make sure if you prepay for a hotel or a tour that you were not charged the tax or you confirm that you will get a refund for those taxes once you provide them with your passport.

 

4. Gratuities at restaurants are not always easy to pay.

For casual dining, you are only expected to leave a few coins after a meal. However, for more expensive dining, a 10% tip may be expected. There are two scenarios. The first is the easiest for a North America tourist – the restaurant includes the 10% tip in the bill and it is automatically charged to your credit card.  The second scenario is a little trickier – the restaurant suggests a 10% tip on your bill but does not charge that to your credit card. Then, your only choice is to leave the tip in cash. Hopefully, you have followed travel tip # 2 and you have brought some cash with you.

 

5. The tourism industry is still developing in Colombia.

Do not expect quick replies to emails or enquiries before your Colombia holidays. Give yourself at least a week to send and receive emails to book a tour or have questions answered about a tour or a hotel. Overall, local tourist agencies do not respond to emails over the weekend.

Unfortunately, all websites are not forthcoming with all the information that North American tourists usually expect. For example, we stayed at El Cantil Ecolodge in Nuqui Choco. This was expensive accomodation for Colombia. Its website emphasized its practices for sustainable tourism. However, it did not state that there was no electricity in the cabins, no windows, no screens, no air conditioning, no hot water, and practically no wifi (except a terrible connection offered a few hours a night in the dining hall).  We assumed by the cost of the lodge that these items would naturally be included. That was a completely wrong assumption!

 

El Cantil Ecolodge on our Colombia holidays

The cabins and dining hall at El Cantil Ecolodge.

 

The Pacific ocean on our Colombia holidays

The view from the cabins at El Cantil Ecolodge in Nuqui Choco, Colombia

 

While tourism develops in Colombia, I would recommend reviewing TripAdvisor carefully, especially the negative reviews, to catch some of these more fundamental omissions.

 

6. English was not widely spoken during our Colombia holidays.

I am not a tourist that arrives in a country and expects everyone to speak English to me. However, as a tourist, you do expect English to be spoken in certain situations. That was rarely the case.

At hotels, there was usually one person at the front desk that spoke English, but not necessarily the person at the front door or the bellman helping you with your luggage. We ate at some internationally renowned restaurants in large cities where practically no one spoke English. Most tour companies offered English speaking tour guides, but only at an additional cost. It was very unusual to find a sales person at a souvenir shop or food stand that could speak any English, even in a touristy area of a major city.

Everybody was kind and patient so we eventually figured things out. However, it would be in your best interests to have some rudimentary Spanish or a really good translating app on your phone before arriving!

 

7. There weren’t any markets offering Indigenous handicrafts during our Colombia holidays.

We went to three major cities and a few small villages during our Colombia holidays. However, we never came across one market that offered indigenous crafts. Last summer, we were in Ecuador and Peru, and in both countries there were multiple markets filled with native crafts in several towns outside of large cities. If markets were not nearby, stores offered those same items (at inflated prices). However, that was not the case in Colombia. There weren’t any markets and hardly any stores with Indigenous crafts. The few stores that did offer local crafts had the same limited selection everywhere.

 

8. Street Food was Everywhere

For pocket change, you could eat your way through street food during your Colombia holidays. This was one of the funnest elements of our trip to Colombia. There were healthy choices like fresh fruit, juices and coconut snacks – and not so healthy choices like fried empanadas with chicken or potatoes, and arepas de chocolo (griddled sweet corn cakes with cheese). You will not go hungry or broke feeding yourself during your Colombia holidays!

 

Lots of street food available on our Colombia holidays

Trying arepas de chocolo on our street food tour in Medellin.

 

9. Napa Please

If you buy a drink or some food and you wish you could have just a little bit more, all you have to say is “Napa por favour”. “Napa” (the “n” is pronounced like “n-ya”) essentially means “a little bit more” in Colombia.   Once spoken, the vendor will top up whatever you are eating or drinking free of charge, no matter what. Even if you purchased a small when you could have purchased a larger size, you will get a little bit more if you say “napa”.

 

Trying street food on our Colombia holidays

Napa por favour! The fruit juice was absolutely delicious from this well known street food vendor.

 

10. Bargain Shoe Shopping in Medellin

Ok, maybe this is not a must know travel tip for how to be prepared for your Colombia holidays!  But, who doesn’t like a great deal?

The Palacio Nacional is the former Palace of Justice and an architectural jewel in downtown Medellin. Today, it has been transformed into a shopping mall. However, if you are a shopper, the best part is that it is filled with store upon store offering discount sport shoes. Nike, Adidas and other similar shoe companies have significant manufacturing plants in and around Medellin. Come to admire the building and stay to buy shoes! It’s a win-win for everyone!

 

Visiting Palacio Nacional in Medellin on our Colombia holidays

The beautiful Palacio Nacional in Medellin

 

Conclusion

Our trip was extraordinary. I can’t say enough about how beautiful Colombia was or how friendly the people were. The food was delicious and there was so much to see and do. I hope that you enjoy your travels there as much as we did and that my travel tips help you along your way!

If you would like to save this article for future use, then please click on “Save” on the photo below.  Have a great day!

Colombia holidays and 10 must know travel tips

 

 



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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Deborah Regen
    September 14, 2017 at 10:21 pm

    Great tips about travel in Colombia. I would love the local coffee and fresh fruit juices and interactions with the street vendors. Sorry that this particular eco lodge was so bare for the prices charged. They should be more transparent on their website about what is and is not offered.

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      September 14, 2017 at 11:18 pm

      It is a wonderful country. People are so friendly and the food is delicious so you will enjoy coffee and juices once you get there! It was easy to overlook the barebones nature of the Ecolodge because it was so beautiful on the beach and I think that is how they have gotten away with it. But, with more tourism, people will become more demanding. I’d love them to just improve the Lodge because it is a special place.

  • Reply
    Erin
    September 15, 2017 at 5:16 am

    This trip looks like it was amazing! Colombia is definitely on my bucket list and these tips are so helpful!

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      September 15, 2017 at 3:49 pm

      Thanks Erin!

  • Reply
    Jenn
    September 15, 2017 at 3:02 pm

    These are some great tips! I’ve never been to Colombia but would like to go so I’ve pinned for later. I love that there’s great street food there. Would definitely want to try the arepas de chocolo! Thanks for a great post 🙂

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      September 15, 2017 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks Jenn!

  • Reply
    Allison
    September 15, 2017 at 9:23 pm

    Good to know. I’m pinning this because Colombia is one country that I really want to visit. #weekendwanderlust
    Allison recently posted…Cheering on the Chicago CubsMy Profile

  • Reply
    Ruth | Tanama Tales
    September 16, 2017 at 3:39 am

    Your insights are so interesting. A lot of the things you have mentioned in here are common in Latin American countries but other are unique. A bit surprising you didn’t find indigenous crafts (I dislike when souvenirs are made in China). Seems like Colombia is not that connected with that cultural component when compared to Peru and Ecuador. Would like to try tons of street food! #WeekendWanderlust
    Ruth | Tanama Tales recently posted…Autumn in New England – An Explosion of Color and CultureMy Profile

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      September 16, 2017 at 3:49 pm

      Thanks Ruth. I found a lot of souvenirs made in India, even in small towns! I found that really bizarre. I was really disappointed about the indigenous crafts. It was one of my favourite things about Ecuador and Peru, learning about their crafts and seeing their amazing works of art. I kept waiting sure that the next town would have something, and then really nothing. Maybe as tourism develops, people from more remote regions will have crafts to share with the world!

  • Reply
    Harmony, Momma To Go
    September 16, 2017 at 11:59 am

    I went to Cartegna once on a cruise stop! Would love to return. These sound like great tips. I know South?Central America and the Caribbean with thier airport fees, we are not used to that in the US. Cash on hand is probably always a good tip in the developing world – credit cards are not as widely used in smaller places. I found that true even in Europe. People dont just charge like a $2 coffee like we do in the US. Love the Napa tip! easy to remember if you think of Napa Valley – wine – drinks

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      September 16, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      Thanks Harmony. My husband’s favourite spot was Cartagena. It is really beautiful and very set up for tourists. My favourite spots were more off the beaten path. Both are available in Colombia.

  • Reply
    Eric Gamble
    September 16, 2017 at 2:27 pm

    hat is crazy that they dont charge tax for tourists. You would think that would be their prime target as you said. Plus as a tourist I sometimes dont mind paying extra to help.
    Colombia sounds like one level up from Cuba with regards to the cash situation and the needing of pesos. Though I would probably want to just carry their cash.
    Bye the way, I was just literally practicing saying “NeeYaaaPaa” in my living room as I said this!
    Eric Gamble recently posted…Bucket List Guide of Things to Do in YellowstoneMy Profile

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      September 16, 2017 at 3:42 pm

      Too funny! I had this immediate visual of you walking around your living room saying “napa” to no one in particular! Awesome! With respect to the tourist tax, I think they just want tourists to start coming. I know from talking to the tour guides that their hope is that I tell the world how amazing Colombia is so the tourists start to come. Once they start coming, my guess is they will change the tax exemption.

  • Reply
    Erin Klema | The Epicurean Traveler
    September 16, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    Ever since I visited Peru two years ago, I’ve been itching to get back to South America. Colombia, along with Argentina, are high on my travel wishlist. So, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post and found it very helpful. That hotel tax exemption is very unique, and certainly is an enticement to visit sooner rather than later. I was just about to eat lunch and now I’m craving all the street food you mentioned. I’ll have to keep “Napa, por favor,” in mind for my future trip! #WeekendWanderlust

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      September 16, 2017 at 5:47 pm

      Thanks Erin. I’m keen to get to Argentina too. South America is still a little undiscovered in the travel world so my goal is to visit as much as possible before everyone discovers how amazing it is there!

  • Reply
    Amanda - EatWorkTravel
    September 19, 2017 at 1:07 am

    What a great round-up of tips! The cash piece is always important as I rely so heavily on credit cards. The language barrier can be quite difficult to overcome. Love the tip of “napa”, it sounds really useful!

    • Reply
      nlhunter
      September 19, 2017 at 1:55 am

      Thanks Amanda!

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