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Colombia Tips & Tricks: Every FYI You Need To Know

BY JERRY ALONZO LEON

featured colombia tips and tricks

Home to beautifully preserved colonial towns like Cartagena, spectacular views of the Caribbean coastline, treks to extraordinary archeological sites such as Ciudad Perdida and San Agustín, stunning heights of Andean peaks, impressive Amazon jungle and, of course, Cali, the capital of Salsa, it’s no secret why Colombia continues to be one of South America’s most popular countries.

5 things to avoid:

  1. Never flash or flaunt your valuables in public. Try to be discreet to avoid pickpockets and thievery.
  2. Be wary of any plainclothes ‘police officers’ who ask for your passport or to ‘register’ your money; they are most likely not who they claim to be.
  3. Don’t accept food, drinks or cigarettes from strangers who approach you on the street, especially if they are ‘too friendly’.
  4. Avoid taking night buses, especially in rural, less populated areas of the country.
  5. Never leave your belongings unattended. Always keep a watchful eye on them.

Weather:

  • Oct-Nov: Rainfall: 3.5-4.5 in. Weather: 70-80°F. Low Season means low water level in the Amazon, which is great for hiking and hitting up the beaches as well.
  • Mar-Sep: Rainfall: 1.5-4 in. Weather: 70-85°F. Rainy season during shoulder season means great time to go whale watching on the Pacific coast.
  • Dec-Feb: Rainfall: 1-2 in. Weather: 70-80°F. High season brings about sunny skies and warm days, with most tourists flocking to the big cities and the Amazon.

Botoga Colombia street performer

Time:

Local time is GMT minus five hours.

Visa requirements:

Citizens from the following countries are not required to have a visa for entry into Colombia and can stay up to 90 days.

Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Brunei, Bhutan, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech, Denmark, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Granada, Greece, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Marshall Ialands, Korea, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Micronesia, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Saint Lucia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, UAE, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Language:

Here are a few phrases you should know:

  • Hello = Hola
  • Goodbye = Adiós
  • How are you? = ¿Cómo estás?
  • Fine, thank you? = Bien, gracias
  • Excuse me = Perdón
  • Sorry = Lo Siento
  • Please = Por favor
  • Thank You = Gracias
  • You’re Welcome = De nada
  • Yes/No = Si/No
  • What’s your name? = ¿Cómo se llama usted? (formal), ¿Cómo te llamas? (Informal)
  • My name is… = Me llamo_____
  • Do you Speak English? = ¿Hablas inglés?
  • I don’t understand = No entendo

Botoga Colombia city view

Etiquette:

Unlike most of Latin America, kisses upon the cheek are only common when two women greet or between a man and woman. Typically men will greet one another with a handshake only. Colombians tend to be neat eaters, so practicing good table manners is a must, which means using cutlery to eat your food rather than using your hands is expected. If a local invites you somewhere then that means they will pay for you, whether it’s for a restaurant, breakfast, lunch, coffee, etc.

Safety:

Though Colombia has come a long way in terms of improving safety, some common sense can help to avoid unnecessary headaches. Avoid walking home at night, especially in sketchy areas, parks and dark streets. The same applies for using night buses either within a city/town or between regions. Instead, take taxis as much as possible. Never resist a mugging (you’re life isn’t worth fighting over a camera, wallet, or what have you). Avoid excessive drinking, as you will make yourself a target to be robbed.

Money:

Colombia uses pesos (COP). Banknotes come in denominations of 50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000.

Money exchange:

Avoid exchanging money on the street. It’s better to look for casas de cambio (exchange offices) to change money, usually best at banks or at an airport.

ATM/Credit cards:

ATMs are widely available but for security reasons, it’s always best to withdraw cash in the daytime and also inside a bank building rather than at an ATM machine that is open to the street.

Credit cards are widely accepted at hotels, restaurants and major stores in big cities, though, it’s always best to carry cash with you just in case. Have a form of identification ready in case you pay by credit card, such as a driver’s license or photocopy of your passport.

Botoga Colombia church bell

International calls, mobile phones & SIM cards:

Skype, Google+ Hangouts and FaceTime are still the best options when calling international, though there are call centers (centro de llamadas) if you happen not to have a mobile phone. The country code for Easter Island is the same for Chile: +57.

If you plan to bring your own phone, Entel provides GSM cell service.

Look for Claro (the largest mobile provider in the country), Movistar or Tigo SIM cards, which are available at any newsstand or store. Colombia operates on 2G and 3G networks, operating on 850 Mhz for Claro and Movistar networks and 1900 Mhz on Tigo. Recently, however, all three carriers have started implementing 4G/LTE in their networks, with Claro operating at 2600 Mhz and Movistar and Tigo at 1700 Mhz.

Wi-Fi:

Wi-Fi and Internet access is widely available, from large cities to small towns. Internet cafes are readily available so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a good Wi-Fi spot.

Electricity:

Colombia uses American-style (grounded and non-grounded) plugs, typically at 110-120 volts or in some areas it can be 220-240 volts.

Water:

In major cities water is safe to drink from the tap but always drink from bottled water when in small towns or rural areas.

Botoga Colombia street art

Tipping:

Tipping is not generally expected at cafes, bars and restaurants though you can always round up to the nearest whole amount if you wish to leave a little extra. If you’re eating at a finer restaurant then a 10% tip is the norm. Tipping for taxi rides is not expected.

Taxi:

Taxis available everywhere and are very economical. Make sure to use only the yellow taxicabs since they are licensed vehicles.

Free walking tours:

To learn more about the history, culture, food and music of Bogotá, check out Free Bogotá Walking Tours! Tours are conducted in English and last three hours. It’s a free walking tour (though tips are always welcomed) that start every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 2PM at the office of Bogotá Bike Tours (another excellent free tour, and if you love Colombian food check out their cooking class as well).

Photos: Flickr/Jerry Leon

Jerry Leon contributor profile

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