Colombia is taking strides towards improving accessibility but remains a somewhat challenging destination for travelers with disabilities. Forward-thinking Medellín is perhaps the easiest place for travelers with reduced mobility followed by other major cities like Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Cali.
Sidewalks are often uneven and while more and more ramps are being added they are far from being universal. Motorists also are used to flying around corners without stopping for those crossing the road.
Many restaurants and hotels do not have ramps for visitors with impaired mobility. Large chain hotels are more likely to have accessible rooms – usually just a couple – and public areas. Larger shopping malls also usually have ramps and elevators.
Most major integrated public transport systems including the Transmilenio in Bogotá and the metro in Medellín have accessible stations and vehicles but overcrowding can make travel difficult and unpleasant. The majority of Colombia's taxis are small hatchback vehicles that are not particularly easy to get in or out of and often have little space for wheelchairs or other bulky items.
Accessible Travel Online Resources
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel
Bargaining is limited to informal trade and services, such as markets and street stalls.
In areas where taxis are not metered there is generally an official list of prices although some haggling may be possible.
Dangers & Annoyances
Keep your wits about you, avoid travel to dodgy parts of town and be extra vigilant after dark, and Colombia should offer you nothing but a good time.
- Avoid wandering off the grid, especially without checking the security situation on the ground.
- Be cautious when using ATMs after dark; avoid doing so entirely on deserted streets.
- Carry a quickly accessible, rolled bundle of small notes in case of robbery.
- Avoid drug tourism.
- Be very wary of drinks or cigarettes offered by strangers or new 'friends.'
- Beware of criminals masquerading as plainclothes police.
Government Travel Advice
Feature: Emerging from a Violent Shadow
Few countries in Latin America or elsewhere have done more to turn around their own image than Colombia, which spent most of the 1980s and '90s as a woefully feared tourism black hole as an intertwined civil military conflict and international drug war wreaked havoc on daily life. Today, most travelers will find Colombia safer on average than all of the country's immediate neighbors – an astonishing turnaround. Problems remain, however. Street crime is still an issue, especially in bigger cities including Bogotá, Calí, Pereira and Medellín, so vigilance and common sense are always required; and guerrillas, paramilitaries and narco-traffickers still linger in some Colombian departments (although the peace deal with the FARC and formal peace talks with the ELN could mean guerrillas will soon be a thing of the past) so forward planning is essential if you are going to get really off the beaten track.
Guerrilla & Paramilitary Activity
Despite the peace deal between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; FARC), there remains isolated pockets of guerrilla activity in remote parts of Colombia, with dissident FARC soldiers operating in some areas and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional; (National Liberation Army; ELN) – who are locked in peace negotiations with the government – yet to disarm.
Of perhaps more concern are neo-paramilitary groups engaged in drug-trafficking who have extended their operations around the country following the withdrawal of the FARC and whose areas of influence are more difficult to identify.
Going off the beaten track should be done with great caution, if at all. While most armed groups no longer specifically target tourists, most are very suspicious of unannounced visitors in their territory – and cases of mistaken identity have led to kidnapping and deaths.
Large swathes of Colombia are not currently covered by Lonely Planet, as the security situation remains dubious and tourist infrastructure currently simply does not exist: these include much of the west of the country, remote areas bordering Venezuela and chunks of the Amazon region (though the area of the Amazon we cover is extremely safe).
Theft & Robbery
Theft is the most common travelers' danger. In general, the problem is more serious in the largest cities. The most common methods of theft are snatching your day pack, cell phone or camera, pick-pocketing, or taking advantage of a moment's inattention to pick up your gear and run away.
Distraction can often be part of the thieves' strategy. Thieves tend to work in pairs or groups, often on motorcycles; one or more will distract you while an accomplice does the deed. They may begin by making friends with you, or pretend to be the police and demand to check your possessions. Inside banks, pay special attention when withdrawing money from ATMs and be wary of criminals posing as bank employees and offering help – a common robbery tactic.
If you can, leave your money and valuables somewhere safe before walking the streets. In practice, it's good to carry a decoy bundle of small notes, a maximum of COP$50,000 to COP$100,000, ready to hand over in case of an assault; if you really don't have a peso, robbers can become frustrated and, as a consequence, unpredictable.
Armed holdups in the cities can occur even in some more upmarket suburbs. If you are accosted by robbers, it is best to give them what they are after, but try to play it cool and don't rush to hand them all your valuables at once – they may well be satisfied with just your decoy wad. Don't try to escape or struggle – your chances are slim, and people have been murdered for pocket change. Don't count on any help from passersby.
Cocaine and marijuana are cheap and widely available in Colombia's major cities. Purchasing and consuming drugs, however, is not a good idea. Many Colombians find Colombian drug tourism very offensive, especially in smaller towns. It's important to note the majority of Colombians don't consume drugs and many believe the foreign drug trade is responsible for Colombia's decades of violent conflict. So, asking after drugs, or openly using drugs, could land you in a lot of trouble (note: it's illegal to buy or sell drugs in any quantity).
A recent rise in travelers coming to Colombia to use ayahuasca (or yagé as it's often known in Colombia) is another worrying trend. The hallucinogenic drug, derived from various rainforest plants and used by Colombia's indigenous peoples in ceremonies for centuries, causes purging and vomiting alongside incredibly strong hallucinations. In 2014 a 19-year-old British backpacker died near Putumayo while trying the drug, and we strongly recommend that you avoid it.
Sometimes you may be offered drugs on the street, in a bar or at a disco, but never accept these offers. The vendors may well be setting you up for the police, or their accomplices will follow you and stop you later, show you false police documents and threaten you with jail unless you pay them off.
There have been reports of drugs being planted on travelers, so keep your eyes open. Always refuse if a stranger at an airport asks you to take their luggage on board as part of your luggage allowance.
Cocaine Holiday? Consider the Consequences
Drug tourism is an unfortunate reality in Colombia. And why not? Cocaine is cheap, right? Not exactly.
What may appear a harmless diversion directly contributes to the violence and mayhem that play out in the Colombian countryside every day. People fight and die for control of the cocaine trade. Purchasing and consuming cocaine helps finance that conflict.
Worse still, the byproducts from the production of cocaine are extremely damaging to the environment. The production process requires toxic chemicals such as kerosene, sulfuric acid, acetone and carbide, which are simply dumped afterward on the ground or into streams and rivers. Further, it's estimated that between 500 and 3000 sq km of virgin rainforest are cut down every year for coca production.
Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The people, the music, the dancing, the food – there is already enough stimulation to overwhelm the senses.
Burundanga is a drug obtained from a species of tree widespread in Colombia and is used by thieves to render a victim unconscious. It can be put into sweets, cigarettes, chewing gum, spirits, beer – virtually any kind of food or drink – and it doesn't have any noticeable taste or odor.
The main effect after a 'normal' dose is the loss of will, even though you remain conscious. The thief can then ask you to hand over your valuables and you will obey without resistance. Cases of rape under the effect of burundanga are known. Other effects are loss of memory and sleepiness, which can last from a few hours to several days. An overdose can be fatal.
Interacting with the Police & Military
While the Colombian military is highly trustworthy and the federal police have a decent reputation, local cops have more of a mixed reputation. They don't get paid a lot of money, and incidents of bribery and bullying of tourists have been reported.
Always carry a photocopy of your passport with you, including your entry stamp (you're more likely to avoid trouble if you keep your papers in order), and never carry drugs of any kind, either on the street or when traveling.
In some areas, there are specialized tourist police; many speak some English. They are uniformed and easily recognizable by the Policía de Turismo labels on their arm bands. At the first hint of trouble, go to them first if you can.
If your passport, valuables or other belongings are stolen, go to the police station and make a denuncia (report). The officers on duty will write a statement according to what you tell them. It should include a description of the events and the list of stolen articles. Pay attention to the wording you use, include every stolen item and document, and carefully check the statement before signing it. Your copy of the statement serves as a temporary identity document and you'll need to present it to your insurer to make a claim.
If you happen to get involved with the police, keep calm and be polite, and always use the formal 'usted' (the word for 'you,' instead of 'tu'). Keep a sharp eye out when they check your gear.
Under no circumstances should you agree to a search by plainclothes police officers asking to inspect your passport and money. Criminals masquerading as plainclothes police may stop you on the street, identify themselves with a fake ID, and then ask to inspect your passport and money. A common scam finds these 'officers' claiming your money is counterfeit, preceded by, of course, its confiscation (a variation on this scam involves jewelry as well). Legitimate Colombian police will never make such a request. Call out for uniformed police officers or decent-looking passersby to witness the incident, and insist on phoning a bona fide police station. By that time, the 'officers' will probably have discreetly walked away.
Traveling overland in most parts of Colombia, especially during the day, should present no issues other than which iPod playlist you choose to drown out the bus driver's loud and questionable musical taste. In the past, taking night buses was not a good idea – FARC used to control many of the major highways – but this is no longer the case. Night buses to most destinations are a comfortable way to avoid wasting a day in transit, plus you save the cost of a night's accommodation.
There are no longer any major routes on which you should avoid night travel although some minor routes including the road from Popayán to San Agustín and from Ocaña to Cúcuta are best traveled when it's light.
Feature: Safe Areas
The Colombian government's historic 2016 peace accord with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) – and subsequent ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN) in 2017 – ended a five-decade civil war. As a result, the country is dramatically safer than it once was and many previously no-go areas are now safe for travel (though neo-paramilitary groups involved in drug trafficking are still present in many parts of the country and FARC dissidents remain in some jungle areas). All the areas covered by us are generally safe for travel, and providing you do not wander far from recommended locales, you aren’t likely to run into any problems.
Embassies & Consulates
Most of the countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Colombia have their embassies and consulates in Bogotá. Some countries also have consulates in other Colombian cities.
Emergency & Important Numbers
|Colombia's country code||+57|
|International access code||00|
|Ambulance, fire & police||123|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Most travelers will arrive in Colombia by plane, or overland from Ecuador, Venezuela, and less often, Brazil. There are also numerous sailboats that bring travelers from Panama via the San Blas Islands.
You'll need a valid passport (with at least six more months of validity) and some nationalities will need a visa. Travelers receive a 90-day tourist visa, which can be extended another 90 days per calendar year.
When arriving by plane (but not overland), you'll be given a customs form which you'll need to fill in and hand to the official after reclaiming your baggage. If you have a connecting domestic flight your bags may be sent right through from Bogotá to your final destination – which is unusual in the region – but you still need to fill out the form and pass customs before heading up to your domestic departure gate.
- Colombian customs looks for large sums of cash (inbound) and drugs (outbound). If they have the slightest suspicion you are carrying either you can expect an exhaustive search of your belongings and your person.
- Expect to be questioned in Spanish or English by a well-trained police officer. The latest method is x-raying your intestines: if you look in any way out of the ordinary, or fail to give a convincing response to the officer's questions, they will x-ray you to see if you are a drug mule.
- You can bring in personal belongings and presents you intend to give to Colombian residents. The quantity, kind and value of these items shouldn't arouse suspicion that they may have been imported for commercial purposes.
- You can bring in items for personal use such as cameras, camping equipment, sports accessories or laptops without any problems.
Nationals of many countries, including Western Europe, the Americas, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, don't need a visa. Otherwise, expect a nominal fee.
Canadian travelers do not need a visa but will be charged a COP$160,000 reciprocity fee upon arrival at the airport or land border crossing. It can be paid in cash in Colombian pesos or with an international debit or credit card. It is waived for travelers under 14 or over 79. At international airports there is a special immigration line to pay the fee marked with a Canadian flag.
All visitors get an entry stamp in their passport upon arrival and receive a 90-day tourist visa. Double-check your stamp immediately; errors are sometimes made.
If traveling overland, make sure you get an entry stamp or you'll have troubles later. Overstaying your welcome can result in heavy fines, and in some cases can result in being barred entry in the future. Similarly, make sure you get your departure stamp or there will be trouble the next time around.
Migración Colombia handles visa extensions for tourists via Centros Facilitadores de Servicios Migratorios offices around the country. Visitors on a tourist visa may extend up to an additional 90 days at the discretion of the officer. To apply for an extension, known as a 'permiso temporal de permanencia,' you'll be asked to submit your passport, two photocopies of your passport (picture page and arrival stamp) and two passport-sized photos, along with an air ticket out of the country in most cases. The fee of COP$92,000 can be paid by debit or credit card at Migración Colombia offices.
If you're paying in cash it must be deposited into the government bank account, which is often Banco de Occidente but depends on the city in which you are applying. Show up first to fill out forms, then they'll direct you to a nearby bank to pay the fee.
You can also complete the process and pay online and once it's approved pop into a Migración Colombia office to get the stamp.
If you apply for the extension in the office, expect the process to take an entire morning or afternoon. It can be done at any of the Centros Facilitadores de Servicios Migratorios offices in Colombia, which are present in all the main cities and some smaller towns (there's is a list on the Migración Colombia website). You'll usually (but not always) get the extension on the spot.
Fines for overstaying range from half of to up to seven times the minimum salary (COP$737,717 as of 2017), depending on length of overstay.
- Introductions When members of the opposite sex or two women meet its customary to exchange a single kiss on the right cheek. Men shake hands.
- Greetings In Colombia it's polite to greet everyone in the room when entering with a simple 'Buenas Dias' or 'Buenas tardes'. This also applies when approaching someone on the street for directions or information.
- Invitations Generally the party making the invitation to a meal will pick up the tab; splitting the bill is not common.
- Honorifics Show respect to older members of society by using the honorific don (for men) or doña (for women) before their name.
- Drinking When out with friends Colombians usually buy a bottle of liquor and all take shots at the same time rather than sipping at their own glass.
- Ideally, all travelers should have a travel insurance policy, which will provide some security in the case of a medical emergency, or the loss or theft of money or belongings. It may seem an expensive luxury, but if you can't afford a travel health insurance policy, you also probably can't afford medical emergency charges abroad if something goes wrong.
- If you need to make a claim on your travel insurance, you must produce a police report detailing loss or theft. You also need proof of the value of any items lost or stolen. Receipts are the best bet, so if you buy a camera for your trip, for example, hang on to the receipt.
- Colombian law stipulates that in emergency situations hospitals must treat you, whether or not you can pay. If you don't have the Spanish to insist on this right, you may have difficulty getting treatment.
- Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
- Colombia is a wired country. Internet is everywhere and cheap – rarely more than COP$2500 per hour.
- In smaller towns and more remote destinations, the government's ambitious and heralded Plan Vive Digital has brought free wi-fi to almost everywhere. You can usually stop by the local library, park or cultural center to get online.
- Almost all hostels and hotels offer wi-fi. Shopping centers often have free wi-fi and so do most restaurants and cafes. Major airports offer wi-fi although it's usually very poor.
If arrested you have the right to an attorney. If you don't have one, one will be appointed to you (and paid for by the government). There is a presumption of innocence and you can expect a speedy trial.
The most common legal situation that travelers find themselves in involves drugs. In 2012, Colombia’s Constitutional Court decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cocaine (one gram or less) and marijuana (20 grams or less) for personal use, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. Although you cannot be criminally prosecuted, police may still give you a hard time and you may be ordered to receive physical or psychological treatment depending on your level of intoxication.
- Compared to some Latin American countries, homosexuality is well tolerated in Colombia (it was declared legal by the government in Bogotá in 1981).
- There is a substantial gay undercurrent in the major cities and as long as you don't broadcast the fact in public you are unlikely to be harassed.
- With popular apps like Grindr for men, most contact is initiated online these days.
- In 2011 Colombia's Constitutional Court ordered Congress to pass legislation addressing same-sex marriage by June 2013; if they did not, the ruling dictated same-sex couples would automatically receive all marital rights from that date forward. Congress failed to act and Colombia's first gay wedding was performed on July 24, 2013. Full legal rights were confirmed in 2016 when the country's constitutional court ruled that the constitution required the state to process and recognize same-sex marriages.
- For LBGTI-specific listings check the website www.guiagaycolombia.com.
- It's difficult to find detailed maps of Colombia outside the country itself. In the USA, Maps.com (www.maps.com) has an excellent supply of Colombian maps. A similarly extensive selection is available in the UK from Stanfords (www.stanfords.co.uk).
- Within Colombia, folded road maps of the country are produced by various publishers and are distributed through bookstores. Of special note is the Movistar Guía de rutas, a Spanish-language guidebook to Colombia with excellent maps. You can buy it at any tollbooth (ask the bus driver beforehand to buy it for you), or from a handful of better bookstores.
- The widest selection of maps of Colombia is produced and sold by the Instituto Geográfico Agustín Codazzi, the government mapping body, which has its head office in Bogotá and branch offices in departmental capitals.
- Newspapers All major cities have daily newspapers. Bogotá's leading newspaper, El Tiempo (www.eltiempo.com), has reasonable coverage of national and international news, culture, sports and economics; El Espectador (www.elespectador.com) is also good. The leading newspapers in other large cities include El Colombiano (www.elcolombiano.com) in Medellín, and El País (www.elpais.com.co) in Cali. Semana (www.semana.com) is the biggest national weekly magazine.
- TV Colombia has plenty of national and local TV stations. Each region has its own TV station; Bogotá TV is dominated by City TV (www.citytv.com.co). Nationwide channels include Caracol TV (www.canalcaracol.com.co), RCN TV (www.canalrcn.com), and government-run Señal Colombia (www.senalcolombia.tv).
- Online For English-language coverage of Colombian news and current affairs check out Colombia Reports (www.colombiareports.com).
ATMs are widely available. Credit cards are common.
- Almost all major banks have ATMs, and they usually work fine with cards issued outside Colombia (Bancolombia being the ornery exception for some folks). Cash machines affiliated with Banco de Bogotá/ATH and BBVA are good bets.
- Most banks have a maximum cash withdrawal limit of COP$300,000 per transaction, but it varies. Bancolombia, Davivienda and Citibank allow double that from most branches. If you need more, just pull out twice, and be quick about it. The machines have very little tolerance for those that take their time navigating the menu – a second of hesitation and it cancels the transaction!
- If you must use an ATM after dark, always use one inside a gas station or shopping mall. Some ATMs can be fussy if you do not have a chip-and-pin ATM card.
- The Colombian peso (COP$) is the unit of currency in Colombia.
- There are paper notes of COP$1000, $2000, $5000, $10,000, $20,000 and $50,000. The coins you will use are primarily the COP$100, $200, $500 and $1000; the $50 is rarely seen outside of supermarkets, and some people may refuse to accept it.
- Counterfeit pesos are a major problem in Colombia and you'll notice cashiers everywhere vigorously checking notes before completing transactions. While it is difficult for visitors to identify dud bills, if you are given one that is old, battered or just doesn't seem right, hand it back and ask for another.
- Credit cards are common in Colombia and used extensively in the major cities and larger towns. When paying with a credit card, you will be asked, '¿En cuantas cuotas?' (How many payments?). Colombian customers can choose to divide the payment over one to 24 months. Foreign cardholders should just say 'one.'
- The most useful card for cash advances is Visa, as it's accepted by most banks. MasterCard is less common but still processed by many banks. Other cards are of limited use.
- You can get advance payments on cards from the cashier in the bank or from the bank's ATM. In either case you'll need your PIN.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
- If you need money sent to you quickly, MoneyGram and Western Union are your two principal options. MoneyGram is usually cheaper, and is what most overseas Colombians use to send remittances home to their families.
- Your sender pays the money, along with a fee, at their nearest MoneyGram or Western Union branch, and gives the details on who is to receive it and where. You can have the money within 15 minutes. When you pick it up, take along photo identification and the numbered password they'll give the sender.
- Both services have offices in all the major cities and most smaller towns.
- You are better off using your ATM card in Colombia, as you will get a much better exchange rate.
- The US dollar is the only foreign currency worth trying to change in Colombia; expect dismal rates for euros, pounds sterling, Australian dollars etc.
- Many but not all banks change money; in major cities and in border regions there are usually several casas de cambio (currency exchanges).
- Avoid changing money on the street; some informal changers have fast fingers and often dodgy calculators.
- Colombia is considered a leader in producing counterfeit banknotes, including US currenc,y which is worth noting if you are changing your pesos back at the end of a trip.
- Your passport is required for any banking transaction. You'll also have to provide a thumbprint.
- There's a fair amount of paperwork involved in changing money (to prevent money laundering).
- Restaurants A government regulation dictates that in midrange and top-end restaurants (anywhere there is a service charge), your waiter must ask you if they can add the 10% service charge to the bill.
- Taxis Tipping in taxis is not commonplace but rounding up to the nearest 500 or 1000 pesos is quite normal.
In midrange restaurants it's acceptable to decline to pay the service charge with a polite 'sin servicio, por favor' if you are dissatisfied. In top-end restaurants refusing the pay the service charge is likely to bring a manager to your table to inquire what was wrong with your meal.
- Traveler's checks are neither well known nor understood in Colombia. You're better off bringing your bank card and getting cash from the ATM.
- If you must travel with traveler's checks, make sure they are in US dollars, as you will get the best exchange rate. Do not bring checks in euros, pounds sterling etc.
- Banks in major cities often change US dollar traveler's checks at rates slightly higher than the cash rate (though still not as good as just using your ATM card).
- Exchange rates vary from bank to bank, so shop around. Some banks charge a commission for changing checks.
- Banks 9am to 4pm Monday to Friday, 9am to noon Saturday
- Bars 6pm to around 3am
- Cafes 8am to 10pm
- Nightclubs 9pm until very late Thursday to Saturday
- Restaurants Breakfast from 8am, lunch from noon, dinner until 9pm or 10pm
- Shops 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday, 9am to noon or 5pm Saturday; some shops close for lunch
The office working day is typically eight hours long, usually from 8am to noon and 2pm to 6pm weekdays, but in practice offices tend to open later and close earlier. Most tourist offices are closed on Saturday and Sunday, and travel agencies usually only work to noon on Saturday. Bank hours vary in rural areas, where banks sometimes close during lunch.
Postal hours vary widely. In Bogotá, many are open from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday, with some branches also open on Saturday morning, but on the Caribbean coast many close for lunch.
Most of the better restaurants in larger cities, particularly in Bogotá, tend to stay open until 10pm or longer; restaurants in smaller towns often close by 9pm or earlier. Many don't open at all on Sunday.
Large stores and supermarkets usually stay open until 8pm or 9pm Monday to Friday; some also open Sunday.
- Colombia's official postal service is the terribly named 4-72, which has turned the debilitating pension liabilities and inefficiency of Colombia's former government postal service, Adpostal (shut down in 2006), into a profitable and efficient business.
- There are also numerous private courier companies, including Avianca, Deprisa and Servientrega.
- If you want to receive a package in Colombia, you have a choice. The sender can ship via a courier like DHL, which guarantees fast, dependable delivery, but also guarantees Colombian customs will open the box and charge often exorbitant duty. If you're not hurried, have the package sent via regular airmail (four to eight weeks).
- Identification is required to ship packages or letters from Colombia, so head to the post office with your passport.
The following days are observed as public holidays in Colombia.
Año Nuevo (New Year's Day) January 1
Los Reyes Magos (Epiphany) January 6*
San José (St Joseph) March 19*
Jueves Santo & Viernes Santo (Maundy Thursday and Good Friday) March/April (Easter). The following Monday is also a holiday.
Día del Trabajo (Labor Day) May 1
La Ascensión del Señor (Ascension) May*
Corpus Cristi (Corpus Christi) May/June*
Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (Sacred Heart) June*
San Pedro y San Pablo (St Peter and St Paul) June 29*
Día de la Independencia (Independence Day) July 20
Batalla de Boyacá (Battle of Boyacá) August 7
La Asunción de Nuestra Señora (Assumption) August 15*
Día de la Raza (Discovery of America) October 12*
Todos los Santos (All Saints' Day) November 1*
Independencia de Cartagena (Independence of Cartagena) November 11*
Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception) December 8
Navidad (Christmas Day) December 25
When the dates marked with an asterisk do not fall on a Monday, the holiday is moved to the following Monday to make a three-day long weekend, referred to as the puente (bridge).
- Smoking Forbidden in public transport, enclosed spaces, including bars and restaurants, and workplaces. Some hotels have ventilated smoking zones although many are completely smoke free.
Taxes & Refunds
The value-added tax (IVA) in Colombia is 19% and is levied on pretty much everything. Many hotels quote prices without the tax and then add it to the bill – make sure to check when making a booking. In stores prices shown generally already include the tax. Meals in restaurants don't attract IVA but rather an 8% sales tax that is usually included in the prices on the menu.
Everything except water, sanitary products and public transport attracts the VAT. Be sure to hang onto your receipts for any big-ticket luxury items. Foreigners may request a refund of the 16% IVA on all goods purchased with a foreign debit or credit card above COP$318,000 during their stay in Colombia. Get to the airport with plenty of time to submit your receipts to DIAN (Dirección de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacionales; the customs bureau) – you must do it before check-in. You'll need to bring a copy of your passport and the entry stamp. The maximum claimable amount is COP$3,185,900.
The telephone system in Colombia is modern and works well for both domestic and international calls. Landlines are operated by different companies in different cities, many of which were once state entities that have been privatized.
Public telephones exist in cities and large towns, but they are few and far between, and most are out of order. In their place you'll see shops, kiosks and street vendors selling 'minutos' or phone minutes on a bunch of mobile handsets. These vendors purchase prepaid minutes in bulk, and it is always cheaper to make calls with them than to use credit on your own handset. For this reason many Colombians use their handsets to receive calls only and use street vendors when they need to make calls. Rates oscillate between COP$150 and COP$400 a minute to call anywhere in the country.
Internet cafes almost always have a few cabinas (telephone booths) where you can make both local and international calls for around a few hundred pesos a minute.
It is possible to call direct to just about anywhere in Colombia from any phone, but to dial a landline from a cell (mobile) phone, you'll need to prefix the number with 03 + area code. Many landlines are barred from making calls to cell phones.
Landline phone numbers are seven digits countrywide, while cell-phone numbers are 10 digits. Area codes are single digits.
Colombia's country code is 57. If you are dialing a Colombian landline number from abroad, add the single-digit area code and then dial the local number. Cell numbers have no area code and should be dialed directly after the country code.
Cell (mobile) phone and mobile data coverage is excellent. Most unlocked cell phones will work with a local SIM card.
Colombians love their cell phones, and in urban areas almost everyone has at least one. The three major providers are Claro (www.claro.com.co), Movistar (www.movistar.co) and Tigo (www.tigo.com.co). Claro has the best nationwide coverage, and is the most useful to the traveler. Cell phones are cheap, and many travelers end up purchasing one – a basic, no-frills handset will set you back around COP$130,000.
Alternatively you could bring your own cell phone from home and buy a Colombian SIM card which usually costs around COP$5000. You will need to take ID to buy a SIM from one of the companies; you can also buy them from third parties but eventually you'll need to register with the company or risk having your handset blocked.
Colombian cell-phone companies do not charge you to receive calls, only to make them.
All of Colombia lies within the same time zone, five hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). There is no daylight saving time.
- There are very few public toilets in Colombia. In their absence use a restaurant's toilet. Museums and large shopping malls usually have public toilets, as do bus and airport terminals and some supermarkets.
- You'll often (but not always) find toilet paper in toilets, so it's wise to carry some with you. Never flush toilet paper. The pipes are narrow and the water pressure is weak, so toilets can't cope with paper. A wastebasket is normally provided.
- The most common word for toilet is baño. Men's toilets will usually bear a label saying señores, hombres or caballeros, while the women's toilets will be marked señoras, mujeres or damas.
- Bus-station restrooms will usually charge COP$800 to COP$1000 plus COP$200–300 for toilet paper.
- Almost all towns and cities that are frequented by tourists have a Punto Información Turística (PIT) – an information kiosk or office identifiable by the red 'i' logo. They're often located near the central plaza as well as at transport terminals.
- Colombia has a number of good regional and national websites offering information (sometimes in English) about what to do and where to stay.
- The country's principal portal is the excellent www.colombia.travel.
Travel with Children
- Like most Latin Americans, Colombians adore children. Due to a high rate of population growth, children make up a significant proportion of the population, and they are omnipresent.
- Few foreigners travel with children in Colombia, but if you do plan on taking along your offspring, they will find plenty of local companions.
- Almost all attractions in Colombia offer discounted admission for children.
- Pick up a copy of Lonely Planet's Travel with Children for general tips.
- You can buy disposable diapers (nappies) and baby food in supermarkets and pharmacies.
- There are quite a few shops devoted to kids' clothes, shoes and toys; Pepeganga (www.pepeganga.com) in particular is recommended.
- Most restaurants with a menu, which excludes cheap set-lunch places, will have high chairs available for small children.
- Baby-changing facilities are not standard in public toilets and are rare in men's facilities.
- Breastfeeding in public remains controversial in some sectors of Colombian society although education programs are seeing attitudes slowly changing.
Colombia offers a decent array of volunteering opportunities in education, the environment and social fields. Most major international volunteer boards have in-country listings.
One worthwhile local organization is Goals for Peace (www.goalsforpeace.com) in Bucaramanga where volunteers can help out giving English classes, sports training, arts and crafts workshops or with homework assistance.
While some hostels will offer travelers 'volunteer' positions in exchange for food and board this is technically illegal as it takes jobs away from Colombians.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures Usually the metric system. Exceptions include petrol measured in US gallons, and fresh food often sold in libras (pounds).
- Women traveling in Colombia are unlikely to encounter any problems.
- The usual caveats apply: bring your street smarts, don't wander alone in dodgy neighborhoods after dark, and keep an eye on your drink.
- Female travelers are also more likely to be victims of a bag-snatching or mugging attempt, as you will be perceived as less likely to fight back.
- Also be careful taking taxis alone after dark – while rare, there have been reports of taxi drivers raping single female passengers.
- In order to take part in any paid employment in Colombia it's necessary to apply for the appropriate visa through Migración Colombia; your employer will need to sponsor the application which is more likely if you have formal qualifications and are willing to commit to a longer contract.
- There is a growing demand for qualified English-language teachers in Colombia. Some schools may be willing to pay cash-in-hand for a short period of time, but for longer-term employment you will have to find a school willing to organize a work visa. Don't expect to get rich teaching English: you're unlikely to make more than a few million pesos a month, and usually much less.
- As a general rule, the more popular the city is among travelers, the harder it will be to find employment.