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.
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.
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!
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!
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”.
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, one of many neighbourhoods worth visiting during your stay. 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!
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!
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