So if you’re interested in reading about what immunization shots you should get, how much money you should have, where to avoid etc, those lists already exist and you’ll find it through a quick Google search. This list is all that I wish those lists told me before I entered Colombia!
I now have two official travel buddies: my partner Dex and her (now my) best friend Rachel. Last year we did Barbados together and then decided we needed to get to South America. Our first choice was Peru but then we realised Peru is way too big to explore in the time frame we had ( 7 days) and we were also looking for the most budget friendly trip which turned out to be Colombia – and I’m so glad it was.
I’ve been pining for Colombia since I left – it truly is a magical place and my favourite trip to date! We explored Colombia’s three most trod cities: Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena with a ridiculously packed itinerary which surprisingly went smoothly.
I’ll explore our itinerary in another post in case anyone out there is interested in exploring Colombia in one week. For now, let’s look at some of the things that surprised us while we were there!
1) Where the black people at?
After landing in Bogotá I spent 5 hours in the airport waiting for Rachel to arrive and I could have counted on one hand the number of black people I saw – but I didn’t pay it any mind. In fact, I didn’t give much thought to race at all before the trip because I’ve never travelled to a country where black people were few and far in between. Now Colombia isn’t a country like that but we flew into Colombia’s capital Bogotá and let me have you know that we got some stares.
Thankfully we didn’t have any negative experiences, everyone was pleasant and so many of the black people we saw gave us that knowing smile but it was really evident that three black girls (with natural hair to boot) casually strutting down the calle was not a common sight! In fact, while on our bike riding tour of Bogotá (highly recommended) one man in the street pointed at us and shouted ” Oh look! She’s black!”. I’m not kidding!
Thankfully found ALL the black people when we landed in Cartagena. We landed there and it felt like we had arrived home – the air smelled different, the vibe of the place was different and then we found all the black people and we were home!
Many of the black people in Colombia live on the coast in Chocó, Cartagena, Cali and Baranquilla. Many in Cartagena live in Palenque – enslaved Africans ran away from plantations during enslavement and formed Palenque which then became one of the first free African towns in the Americas. We met some women from the village while in Cartagena – they have preserved and still practice a lot of customs from their ancestors and travel to Cartagena daily to sell fruits and sweets.
Read more on my trip to Bogotá here!
2) Buy a SIM card
I never buy SIM cards when I travel but thank God I thought through this one before. We had to use Uber because taking random taxis especially in the night time wasn’t smart and we also needed Google Maps because we didn’t want to taxi everywhere when we could walk.
I bought a SIM card in the airport when I landed for $12 USD. It came with data which lasted the entire trip – and we used a lot of data for Google Maps, Uber and Instagram. It was a great deal. If you’re wondering where to get the SIM card in the airport, it’s the mini mart next to the Cambio which is on your right after clearing customs. The cashier didn’t know a word of English so if you can’t speak any Spanish maybe use Google Translate and know what you need before you purchase.
3) Google Maps is a saviour (but also sometimes it’s trash)
If Google Maps didn’t exist we would have ended up in Ecuador. We used it for directions to everywhere. It worked really well up until our final day in Bogotá. We went to have lunch at Casa Vieja – this quaint cafe with great food in La Candelaria district. Google maps told me our AirBnb which we meant to check in to after eating was a 10 minute walk away so we decided to just foot it instead of getting an Uber.
We walked and walked and walked up hills, down mountains and walked some more. Let me pause here to say that we travelled with backpacks which weren’t super heavy but they weren’t light – especially after walking for 30 minutes. We eventually gave up on Google Maps because my phone died and resorted to asking people in the street for help. We still had no luck with that and had to end up hailing a random taxi which took us to the AirBnb.
Later that evening we left the AirBnb to go to Monserratte, took two steps out of the apartment, peered down the road and there was Casa Vieja where we had dined earlier that day. Can anyone tell me WHY Google Maps took us around the entire neighbourhood on a 30 minute + long walk when we could have literally walked up the street?
Lesson? Pay attention to the route Google Maps suggests, especially if it keeps changing mid trip.
4) Learn some basic Spanish before you go
So I did Spanish right through secondary school but then I stopped practicing for 5-6 years and only downloaded Duolingo a couple months before the trip. Thankfully most of my Spanish came back to me while in Colombia and so we were able to interact with people well for the most part.
Many people did not speak a word of English but gestures go a very long way. To be safe though, make sure you know the basics (greetings, directions etc) and there a lot of Apps out there which make it easier to learn and interact while there (Google Translate).
The big exception in all of this is numbers. The Colombian Peso (COP)’s rate to USD was at best $1 USD to $2720 COP. This meant that everything was in the thousands. My Form 6 Spanish did not prepare me for those numbers. For the first two days we were in a hot mess trying to not only figure out the currency but also understand what siete mil cincuenta y seis is when it sounded like seetemileeyentaysayees…it took a while, and people may have very well robbed us of some pesos in the earlies.
Lesson? Learn your numbers! In the touristy areas though, most of the vendors will show you the cost on a calculator or phone.
5) Take thick clothes if you’re heading into Bogotá
So this was entirely our fault. I saw that Bogotá was cold before we left but I figured we were only going to be there for one day at the start of the trip and another at the end- we’d be fine. Nope! We froze our butts off. For people accustomed to chilly weather it’s probably nothing to write home about but we froze!
Most times it felt like a chilly spring but on our last day we felt like we couldn’t even move from the Airbnb, even after layering. We didn’t have good jackets and because we spent most of the time in Medellin and Cartagena (which are considerably warmer) buying jackets didn’t seem necessary. My scarf saved me!
6) Change your money to Colombian Pesos
There were probably three places (if so many) on our entire trip which willingly took US dollars. One night in Medellín we went out in our Sunday best for a night on the town with a wallet filled with USD only to be told they don’t take USD – and it’s not that they didn’t take $50s or $100s, they just didn’t take it on a whole. We were hesitant to use our cards because one of my friends visited Colombia some months before, her cards got skimmed and thousands of dollars were stolen from her account.
We had a few pesos on us which we used to get ONE drink and sat down looking cute and broke in the bar with one beer until they felt sorry for us and gave us two on the house. We changed our money so quickly the next day! Be sure to change your cash to pesos before your trip begins!
7) Definitely, positively, always use Uber
Before arriving in Colombia we heard a lot of negative things about using Uber which is illegal there but we still took the chance and used it and it was fine. Because it’s illegal though, someone always has to sit in the passenger seat to make it appear as if you know the driver. This was especially important in the airport where there’s a police presence. Our Uber driver who took us to the airport when we were leaving actually told us we should act friendly with him when leaving the car if we saw any police. He told us that if they knew he was an Uber he would get a ticket and his vehicle would be taken away (temporarily).
I recommend Uber though, there were Ubers around in every city we travelled to and it was affordable. Most drivers don’t speak English and you’d think you don’t need to speak to them once you input your location and destination but trust and believe you’re going to need to.
Before this I had only ever used Uber in Trinidad and it’s really simple and straightforward; your pick up location is wherever you are. In Medellín however, we tried to take an Uber from the Metro station to our AirBnb and it was a mess. There are many highways outside of the station which we were obviously unfamiliar with. I requested the Uber and stayed on one side of the highway waiting for it for quite some time only to realise that our pick up location was different to where we actually were. The Uber was on the other side of the large highway and there was no pedestrian crossing and Colombian’s drive crazily. This happened to us about four times and resulted in many cancelled Uber trips which we had to pay a fee for.
After a while we got the hang of it and were sure to double check that we could get to the pick up location easily. There is another app called Easy Taxi which you can use but I found Uber to be cheaper and more reliable. It’s also not unsafe to hail a yellow cab during the day if you’re a smidge familiar with your surroundings – fares were comparable to Uber.
8) Run across the zebra crossings
Listen to me. We nearly got ‘bounced down’ every damn day. We almost got swept off our bikes by huge buses during the bike tour and were nearly flattened while using a zebra crossing while the light was red. Drivers are always rushing to God knows where and never stop. Pedestrians seem to enjoy galloping across streets regardless of what colour the traffic light is on – it seemed like a game after a while. After two days we just started running too.
Our guide on the bike tour told us that if you get killed by a bus, the company pays for your funeral and that’s that. He said it so matter of factly and we learned really quickly that it just meant run like hell across the streets because the buses won’t stop for you to cross.
9)Eat all the food – all of it
Y’all, there are huge ass servings of food everywhere and it’s all yours to have. I’ll do a seperate post on Colombian food but note that you won’t go hungry if you’re travelling on a strict budget and there’s a decent variety of snacks, drinks, heavy meals, light meals and fruits which you can find street side, in cafes, restaurants, hole in the walls, bars etc…we had some favourites (la bandeja paisa, ajiaco, arepas con huevo) and some not so favourites (tamales).
I have a really strong stomach – I don’t get a runny tummy quickly but I ate so much that yea… It’s fine though – you get over it. Pack some ginger in your luggage to nibble or put in tea and soldier on!
We found bottled water to be pricey (a little over $1 USD everywhere) and be sure to tell them you want it ‘sin gas’. We bought water in the airport without reading the labels and ended up with three club sodas. I didn’t think and decided to drink my entire bottle of club soda in one go before going through security because I didn’t want to waste it. Have you ever gulped down hot club soda?
I literally had to speed through security to the bathroom. I’ve learned my lesson. So have the pipe water – it tasted normal and you’ll save money because buying water constantly adds up!
There’s so much more to say about Colombia so look out for more posts on the food, our budget, itinerary, the cities and the people in the coming weeks! And put Colombia on your bucket list – travelling to the three cities was like travelling to three completely different countries. It was an amazing lah hay!