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.
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.
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.
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.
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.