Getting there & away
Colombia requires, technically at least, that visitors have an onward ticket before they're allowed into the country. This is quite strictly enforced by airlines and travel agents, and probably none of them will sell you a one-way ticket unless you already have an onward ticket. Upon arrival in Colombia, however, hardly any immigration official will ask you to present your onward ticket.
Colombia borders Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, but has road connections with Venezuela and Ecuador only. These are the easiest and the most popular border crossings. The only crossing completely out of the question is the Panamanian border. This stretches across the infamous Darien Gap, a hostile area of swamps, jungle and guerrilla fighters.
The only viable border crossing from these two countries into Colombia is via Leticia in the far southeastern corner of the Colombian Amazon. Leticia is reached from Iquitos (Peru) and Manaus (Brazil). See Leticia for details. The area around Leticia is safe.
Virtually all travelers use the Carretera Panamericana border crossing through Tulcán (Ecuador) and Ipiales (Colombia). Parts of the Panamericana (particularly the section between Pasto and Popayán) may be at times unsafe to travel; check for news when you come. The province of Putumayo is another risky area, and best avoided. If you find the road too risky for travel, consider flying to Cali from Ipiales or Pasto.
There are four border crossings between Colombia and Venezuela. By far the most popular with travelers (and probably the safest) is the route via San Antonio del Táchira (Venezuela) and Cúcuta (Colombia), on the main Caracas-Bogotá road. See Cúcuta for details.
There is another reasonably popular border crossing at Paraguachón, on the Maracaibo (Venezuela) to Maicao (Colombia) road. Take this if you plan to head from Venezuela straight to Colombia's Caribbean coast. Buses and shared taxis run between Maracaibo and Maicao, and direct buses between Caracas/Maracaibo and Santa Marta/Cartagena. Your passport will be stamped by both Colombian and Venezuelan officials at the border. See Santa Marta and Cartagena for details.
Not so popular is the border crossing between Colombia's Puerto Carreño and either Puerto Páez or Puerto Ayacucho (both in Venezuela). Still less useful is the crossing from El Amparo de Apure (Venezuela) to Arauca (Colombia), a guerrilla-ridden region.
A valid passport (with at least six more months of validity) is an essential document and it must be stamped with a visa if you need one. Entry into Colombia is fairly straightforward. You'll be asked to fill out a customs form, which will be stamped and handed back. Keep the form safe - you'll need it when leaving the country and will pay a lower departure tax if you return the form. Immigration procedures at both the airport and border crossings are fairly streamlined and won't take long, although lines tend to back up at the airport.
Following is a list of some overland operators offering tours in South America:
Dragoman (1728-861 133; www.dragoman.co.uk)
Exodus Travels (020-8673 0859; www.exodus.co.uk)
Guerba Expeditions (01373-826 611; www.guerba.co.uk)
Last Frontiers (01296-653 000; www.lastfrontiers.co.uk)
Top Deck (0208-8796 789; www.topdecktravel.co.uk)
The USA has plenty of tour companies specializing in South America. They are advertised in travel and outdoor magazines such as Outside, Escape and Ecotraveler, as well as magazines of a more general nature, including Natural History and Audubon. Here is a list of some reputable operators:
Eco Voyager (305-629 3200, 800 326 7088; www.ecovoyager.com)
International Expeditions (205-428 1700, 800 633 4734; www.ietravel.com)
Lost World Adventures (404-373 5820, 800 999 0558; www.lostworldadventures.com)
Mountain Travel Sobek (510-594 6000, 888 687 6235; www.mtsobek.com)
Southwind Adventures (303-972 0701, 800 377 9463; www.southwindadventures.com)
Wilderness Travel (510-558 2488, 800 368 2794; www.wildernesstravel.com)
Wildland Adventures (206-365 0686, 800 345 4453; www.wildland.com)
Colombia's main entrepôt is El Dorado airport (BOG; 1-413 9053; www.bogota-dc.com/trans/aviones.htm) in Bogotá. Other airports servicing international flights include Cartagena's Rafael Nuñez airport (CTG; 5-359 6273; firstname.lastname@example.org), Barranquilla's Ernesto Cortissoz airport (BAQ; 5-334 8052; www.baq.aero/index.php in Spanish), San Andrés airport (ADZ; 8-512 6110), Medellín's Jose Maria Codova airport (MDE; 4-601 1212) and Cali's Alfonso Bonilla Aragón airport (CLO; 2-442 2624). Charter flights bringing international package tourists fly into Cartagena.
Avianca (AV; 1-404 7862; www.avianca.com), Colombia's flagship airline, connects Bogotá with Europe (Madrid), North America (New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Mexico City), Central America (San José and Panama City) and South America (Caracas, Quito, Guayaquil, Lima, Santiago, Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro). It has a well-serviced fleet and a reasonable safety record.
Other airlines flying to and from Colombia include the following.
British Airways(BA; 1-800 934 5700, 1-900 331 2777; www.britishairways.com; hub Heathrow Airport, London)
The shortest route between Australasia and South America goes over the South Pole. Aerolíneas Argentinas flies three times a week between Auckland and Buenos Aires, and has arrangements with other carriers which cover the Auckland-Australia leg. Aerolíneas Argentinas can fly you to Bogotá, but the total fare will be pretty high; expect to pay between A$2500 and A$3000 for the Sydney-Bogotá return flight. The Auckland-Bogotá fare will be only marginally lower.
Another option is to fly right across the southern Pacific to Santiago de Chile. Lan Chile flies from Sydney via Auckland to Santiago, and has flights on to Bogotá. The Sydney-Bogotá return fares of Lan Chile cost much the same as those of Aerolíneas Argentinas.
Most travelers from Canada end up flying to Colombia by connecting through a US gateway city, though Air Canada has direct flights three or four times per week from Toronto for US$850 return. A good choice for student, youth and budget airfares is Travel Cuts (866-246 9762; www.travelcuts.com).
Colombia has regular flight connections with most Central American capitals. Sample fares include: Guatemala City-Bogotá US$390 to US$410, San José-Bogotá US$370 to US$400 and Panama City-Bogotá US$200 to US$250.
It may work out cheaper to go via the Colombian island of San Andrés and then get a domestic flight to the Colombian mainland.
A number of airlines, including British Airways, Air France and Iberia, link Bogotá with European cities. Colombia is one of the cheapest South American destinations to reach from Europe, and many travel agents will offer flights to Bogotá. The cheapest return flight is with Iberia from Madrid to Bogotá (US$838 return). From Amsterdam, expect to pay US$1100 return on KLM and Air France. Some recommended agencies:
Anyway (0892 302 301; www.anyway.fr) French travel agent.
CTS Viaggi (06-462 0431; www.cts.it) Italian company that specializes in student and youth fares.
NBBS Reizen (0900 1020 300; www.nbbs.nl in Dutch) Branches in most Dutch cities.
There are a dozen flights a week between Quito and Bogotá (US$200 to US$250). Tame (an Ecuadorian carrier) has flights between Cali and Tulcán in Ecuador (US$95 one way) and between Cali and Quito (US$140 one way).
A one-way ticket to Lima on TACA, Avianca or LAN Peru will cost US$240 to US$300, or just US$174 for a student fare. A flight to Santiago, Chile on TACA is not too bad if you can get a student fare (US$300 to US$350), but a regular-priced fare will cost around US$550. To Boliva, student fares run around US$250 to US$280 while regular tickets cost US$300 to US$450.
There are several flights daily between Caracas and Bogotá, with Avianca, Aeropostal and Servivensa. The regular one-way fare is US$200, but there may be some promotional fares that could bring the price down to US$150.
Fares to Brazil can be ridiculous. From Bogotá to Sao Paulo, you'll pay US$700 to US$800 with TACA or US$750 to US$900 to Rio de Janeiro. It will be cheaper to fly through Leticia in the Colombian Amazon. See Leticia for details.
Compared with other European cities, London has reasonably priced fares to Bogotá. You'll find plenty of deals listed in the travel sections of weekend editions of London newspapers. Advertisements for many travel agents appear in the travel pages of the weekend broadsheets, such as the Independent on Saturday and the Sunday Times. Look out for free magazines, such as TNT, which are widely available in London.
Prices for discounted flights from London to Bogotá start at around UK£250 one way and UK£400 return. Bargain hunters may find lower prices, but make sure you use a travel agent affiliated with the ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents). If you have bought your ticket from an ABTA-registered agent who then goes out of business, ABTA will guarantee a refund or an alternative. Unregistered bucket shops are sometimes cheaper, but can be riskier. Travel agents include the following:
Flightbookers (0800 082 3000; www.ebookers.co.uk)
STA (08701-630 026; www.statravel.co.uk)
Travel Bag (0800 082 5000; www.travelbag.co.uk)
The major US gateway for Colombia is Miami, from where several carriers, including American Airlines, Avianca and Aces, fly to Bogotá. A 90-day return ticket normally costs about US$400 to US$500 depending on the season.
On the West Coast, the major departure point is Los Angeles, but flights to Bogotá can be expensive. The cheapest 60-day return fares will be probably somewhere between US$700 and US$800. The cheapest flights are with TACA, which makes stops in El Salvador and Costa Rica. TACA is not recommended during the hurricane season (September to November) because almost daily bad weather in San José frequently causes planes to be diverted to other airports, and you'll miss your connection.
STA Travel and Council Travel are two of the most reputable discount travel agencies in the USA. Although they both specialize in student travel, they may offer discount tickets to nonstudents of all ages.
Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com)
Orbitz (888 656 4546; www.orbitz.com)
STA Travel (800 781 4040; www.sta-travel.com)