- The easiest way to cover the huge distances between big cities in Colombia, air travel has become more accessible lately with the advent of budget airlines, and booking in advance can make it a very reasonable way to travel. Nearly all cities have airports, as well as many smaller, remoter towns.
- While flights are normally more expensive than a bus on the same route the difference is not always that great – especially on longer, high-volume routes. It's not worth taking a bus from Medellín to the Costa to save COP$30,000.
- Shop around among airlines as prices can vary greatly on the same route. Ticket prices to some destinations drop in the last week or two before the date; for some other destinations, they may rise significantly.
- It's cheaper to purchase online than in agencies and airline offices.
- Some airlines have different prices depending on which version of the website you are on – make sure to visit the Colombian page for the best prices.
- You can reserve and pay for some domestic flights online with a foreign credit card but for others you'll need to make a booking and then pay cash at an agent.
- Some airlines offer packages to major tourist destinations (for example, Cartagena and San Andrés), which can cost not much more than you'd pay for air tickets only. If purchasing these package deals from overseas you are exempt from the 19% IVA (sales tax) – be sure to ask for this discount, as many Colombians are unaware of it.
Airlines in Colombia
Colombia has several main passenger airlines and many smaller carriers and charter airlines. Busy routes are operated with modern jet aircraft while flights in remote areas can be in anything from tiny single-propellor three-seaters to Soviet jets and even WWII-era DC-3s!
Satena, the commercial carrier of the FAC (Colombian Air Force) services flights to the vast areas of the Amazon, Los Llanos and the Pacific coast; it lands at numerous small towns and villages that would be otherwise virtually inaccessible.
26 major destinations all over the country
Armeia, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, Cartagena, Cúcuta, Ibague, Manizales, Medellín, Neiva, Pereira, Popayán, Quibdó, Valledupar, Yopal
Barranquilla, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, Cúcuta, Leticia, Medellín, Pereira, San Andrés, Santa Marta, Valledupar, Yopal
Bahía Solano, Bogotá, Cali, Guapi, Ipiales, La Macarena, Medellín, Nuquí, Pasto, Pitalito, Providencia, Puerto Asis, San Andrés, San José del Guaviare
Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cartagena, Leticia, Medellín, Montería, Pereira, San Andrés, Santa Marta
Barranquilla, Bogotá, Cali, Cartagena, San Andrés
- Colombia is not the easiest of countries for cyclists, though the sport is wildly popular in certain regions (Boyacá, for example).
- Road rules favor drivers and you'll end up fighting traffic on main roadways. Never assume that a driver will give you right of way.
- On the plus side, most roads are paved and security is improving. Even the smallest towns will have a repair shop and you can get your bike fixed cheaply and easily.
- Bike rentals are uncommon outside main traveler areas but you can buy a bike almost anywhere.
- Colombian cities are becoming more bike-friendly, with new bike tracks, plus ciclovía in the likes of Bogotá and Medellín (the weekend closure of selected streets to cars and buses, making them tracks for cyclists and skaters instead).
- Fast speedboats run from Turbo and Necocli in northern Antioquia to the towns of Capurganá and Sapzurro in the Caribbean, and in the Pacific from Bahía Solano to Nuquí.
- Cargo boats ply the Pacific coast, with the port of Buenaventura as their hub. Travelers with sufficient time can get a bunk for travel to points north and south including to Nuquí and Bahía Solano.
- Before railroads and highways were built, river transportation was the principal means of transportation in mountainous Colombia. These days river travel is not common but remains the only way to move in parts of the Amazon, such as from Leticia to Puerto Nariño.
- The Río Atrato and Río San Juan in the Chocó have passenger services but should both be avoided due to armed groups operating in the region.
The main way to get around Colombia, buses range from tightly packed colectivos (shared minibuses or taxis) to comfortable, air-conditioned, long-distance buses, and connect nearly every town in the country. Buses are the principal means of intercity travel, and go just about everywhere. Most long-distance intercity buses are more comfortable than your average coach-class airplane seat, and the overnight buses sometimes have business-class-sized seats. Wi-fi is now pretty much standard on nicer buses (though it's often patchy or doesn't work at all). A word of warning: many Colombian bus drivers turn the air‑con up to arctic temperatures. Wear a sweater, a beanie and gloves, or better yet, bring a blanket. Bus drivers also tend to crank up the music and/or action movie (dubbed in Spanish) on the TV, even in the middle of the night. Earplugs are a boon.
It is common for buses to stop at requisas (military checkpoints), even in the dead of night. The soldiers at checkpoints will ask everyone to get off the bus, check everyone's identification, and then pat people down. They may look through your bags but often ignore foreigners altogether.
Long-distance buses stop for meals, but not necessarily at mealtimes; it depends on when the driver is hungry or when the bus gets to a restaurant that has an arrangement with the bus company.
All intercity buses depart from and arrive at a terminal de pasajeros (passenger terminal). Every city has such a terminal, usually outside the town center, but always linked to it by local transportation. Bogotá is the most important bus transportation hub in Colombia, handling buses to just about every area of the country.
The highway speed limit in Colombia is 80km/h, and bus companies are obliged to put a large speedometer at the front of the cabin, so passengers can see how fast the bus is going (although in practice they are often broken or disabled). Bus company offices are also required by law to post their accident/fatality statistics at the ticket counter, which can give you a good idea of their safety record.
Types of Buses
Most intercity buses are air-conditioned and have good legroom. On shorter routes (less than four hours), smaller busetas ply their trade. There are sometimes also vans, which are faster but cost more and are far from comfortable. In remote country areas, where the roads are bad, ancient chivas (a truck with a wooden carriage on the back with open rows of seats rather than a center isle) service smaller towns, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. The fastest service is called Super Directo.
The chiva is a Disneyland-style vehicle that was Colombia's principal means of road transportation several decades ago. Also called bus de escalera (which roughly translated means 'bus of stairs,' referring to the stairs along the side) in some regions, the chiva is a piece of popular art on wheels. The body is made almost entirely of wood and has wooden benches rather than seats, with each bench accessible from the outside. The body of the bus is painted with colorful decorative patterns, each different, with a main painting on the back. There are home-bred artists who specialize in painting chivas. Ceramic miniatures of chivas are found in just about every Colombian handicraft shop.
Today, chivas have almost disappeared from main roads, but they still play an important role on back roads between small towns and villages. There are still a few thousand of them and they are most common in Antioquia, Cauca, the Zona Cafetera, Huila, Nariño and on the Caribbean coast. Chivas take both passengers and any kind of cargo, animals included. If the interior is already completely packed, the roof is used for everything and everybody that doesn't fit inside.
Nighttime city tours in chivas are organized by travel agents in most large cities and have become a popular form of entertainment. There is normally a DJ and sometimes even a band on board playing loud music, and a large stock of aguardiente (anise-flavored liquor) to create the proper atmosphere. A tour usually includes some popular nightspots and can be great fun.
Bus travel is reasonably cheap in Colombia. Bus prices can be negotiable outside of peak holiday times although an agent often already quotes the discounted fare to ward off the competition – for this reason it's often cheaper to purchase tickets at the terminal than online. Try your luck with a polite 'Hay discuento?' (Is there a discount?) or 'Cual es el minimo?' (What is the minimum?), then work your way down the counters. You want to take the second-to-cheapest offer; there's usually something wrong with the cheapest bus.
When you get on a bus out on the road, you pay the fare to the ayudante (driver's sidekick). Ayudantes are usually honest, but it's worth knowing the actual fare beforehand to be sure you're not getting a gringo price.
Outside of peak holiday periods (like Christmas and Easter), reservations are not needed. Just rock up to the bus station an hour before you want to leave and grab the first bus going. On some minor routes, where there are only a few departures a day, it's worth considering buying your ticket several hours before the scheduled departure.
A common trick, especially with smaller buses, is to say they only need one passenger to leave, then they lock your bag in the back and you end up waiting an hour for the bus to leave, watching other buses leave before you do. Don't get into the bus or pay until you see the driver start the engine and prepare to leave.
Car & Motorcycle
- Useful for traveling at your own pace, or for visiting regions with minimal public transport. Cars can be hired in major cities, but they're generally not cheap.
- What's more, the security situation remains dodgy in remote and rural parts of the country, increasing the risk of vehicle theft and pushing up insurance prices. Check government websites for warnings before setting out anywhere remote.
- In the cities, on the other hand, traffic is heavy, chaotic and mad. Driving 'manners' are wild and unpredictable. It takes some time to get used to the local style of driving. This goes without saying for motorcycle travel as well.
- Colombians drive on the right-hand side of the road and there are seatbelt requirements, so buckle up or risk a fine. The speed limit is 60km/h in the city and 80km/h on the highway. The nationwide highway police telephone number is 767.
- If you do plan to drive in Colombia, bring your driver's license. The driver's license from your country will normally do unless it's one of non-Latin-alphabet origin, in which case, you'll need an International Driving Permit as well.
Several international car-rental companies, Avis and Hertz (www.hertz.com) for example, operate in Colombia. Expect to pay from COP$170,000 per day including the Loss Damage Waiver, plus gasoline. You'll get better deals, as always, by booking online. Carefully check clauses pertaining to insurance and liability before you sign a rental contract. Pay close attention to any theft clause as it may load a large percentage of any loss onto the hirer. If you rent a car with tinted windows, you'll need a special document from the rental agency that police at checkpoints will ask for. Agencies don't generally volunteer the info so be sure to inquire.
- Hitchhiking in Colombia is uncommon and difficult. Given the complex internal situation, drivers don't want to take risks and simply don't stop on the road.
- Hitchhiking is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travelers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.
Colectivo in Colombia can mean a midsized bus, a shared taxi, an overloaded Jeep Willy, and everything in between. They are most popular in short intercity hops of less than four hours. Because they are smaller than regular buses, they can travel quicker, and charge around 30% more as a result. They often depart only when full.
In some cities they depart from and arrive at the bus terminal, but in smaller towns they are usually found in the main square. The frequency of service varies greatly from place to place. At some places there may be a colectivo every five minutes, but elsewhere you can wait an hour or longer until the necessary number of passengers has been collected. If you're in a hurry you can pay for all the seats and the driver will depart immediately.
Almost every urban center of more than 100,000 inhabitants has a bus service, as do many smaller towns. The standard, speed and efficiency of local buses vary from place to place, but on the whole they are slow and crowded. City buses have a flat fare, so the distance of the ride makes no difference. You get on by the front door and pay the driver or the assistant. You never get a ticket.
In some cities or on some streets there are bus stops (paraderos or paradas), while in most others you just wave down the bus. To let the driver know that you intend to get off you simply say or shout, 'por aquí, por favor' (here, please), 'en la esquina, por favor' (at the corner, please) or 'la parada, por favor' (at the coming bus stop, please).
There are lots of different types of local buses, ranging from old wrecks to modern air-conditioned vehicles. One common type is the buseta (small bus), a dominant means of urban transportation in cities such as Bogotá and Cartagena. The bus fare is usually somewhere between COP$1000 and COP$2500, depending on the city and type of bus.
A bus or buseta trip, particularly in large cities such as Bogotá or Barranquilla, is not a smooth and silent ride but rather a sort of breathtaking adventure with a taste of local folklore thrown in. You'll have an opportunity to be saturated with loud tropical music, learn about the Colombian meaning of road rules, and observe your driver desperately trying to make his way through an ocean of vehicles.
In general, local buses are of limited use to travelers, since you have to know their routes in order to make use of them.
Mass transit is growing increasingly popular in Colombia. Bogotá boasts the TransMilenio, and Cali and Bucaramanga have similar projects, called the MIO and Metrolínea, respectively. Medellín has its famous metro, the only commuter rail line in the country that links up with cable-car lines. Pereira, too, offers the MegaBús system.
Taxis are cheap, convenient and ubiquitous in the major cities and most midsized towns. In most big and medium-sized cities taxis have meters, but in some parts of the Caribbean coast and in smaller towns prices are fixed according to the destination. While in theory these prices should be listed on a card hung from the passenger seat, this is in reality often missing, in which case you should agree on a price before getting in.
When there are no displayed prices it's a case of haggle or pay extra, and many drivers are eager (especially in Cartagena) to see just how much they can take advantage of your naivete. That said, a surprising proportion of taxi drivers are honest individuals. The better you speak Spanish, the more bargaining power you'll have, and the less likely you'll pay hyperinflated prices.
Although it is rare, there are occasionally deceptive, untrustworthy individuals masquerading as taxi drivers in fake taxis. Don't use taxis with a driver and somebody else inside. While taxi drivers sometimes have a friend along for company or for security reasons, such a situation may be unsafe for you; this is a common robbery tactic. If something doesn't seem right don't get in, hail another taxi. Better still call for a taxi, which costs a mere few hundred pesos extra.
Apps like like Tappsi (www.tappsi.co), Easy Taxi (www.easytaxi.com) and Uber (www.uber.com) have drastically improved taxi security and should be used by all with a smartphone. They operate in most of Colombia's major cities.
Taxi fares are always per taxi, never per number of passengers. Many taxis have somewhat flimsy doors – be kind, do not slam doors when getting into or out of vehicles.
A taxi may also be chartered for longer distances. This is convenient if you want to visit places near major cities that are outside local transportation areas but too near to be covered by long-distance bus networks. You can also rent a taxi by the hour in the major cities – a good way to make your own impromptu tour.
- Many smaller towns and some cities, especially in the north, plus Leticia in the Amazon, use motorcycle-taxis, which are a quick way of getting around if you're on your own. These, however, are not the safest method of transportation and are even illegal in some places, including Cartagena (though no one seems to stop them).
- Helmet laws are enforced in built-up areas throughout the country – your driver will have an extra one for you, although it may have a busted strap or other defect that renders it useless in a serious accident. And hopefully it won't be too sweaty from the previous client.
Chinese-made tuk-tuks are increasingly popular in smaller tourist towns. Moto-taxis seat three and have a covered roof, plus a tarp that can be lowered around the sides in case of rain. You'll see these in Barichara, Darién, Mompós, Santa Fe de Antioquia, the Desierto de la Tatacoa and in some of the small towns on the Pacific coast.
Colombia has a nationwide network of train track that is largely unused (or is overgrown or has been ripped up and sold off). The only train you're likely to board is Turistren, which runs on weekends from Bogotá to Zipaquirá.
Those visiting San Cipriano, just off the Cali–Buenaventura highway, can enjoy the novel sensation of traveling on a railroad handcart (trolley) powered by a motorcycle.