Colombia travel guide
Since emerging from decades of civil unrest, Colombia has established itself as one of the world’s top destinations. And rightly so: this exquisite South American nation is blessed with natural beauty – think high Andean peaks, Caribbean beaches, pristine Amazon jungle – not to mention mysterious archaeological sites, colonial treasures and thriving cities. It’s a joy to travel around.
At the heart of it all is Bogota, the pulsating capital. Once synonymous with drug cartels and gangs, the city has recast itself as one of South America’s trendiest destinations; a place of hip bars and street art, vibrant markets and colourful architecture. Sprawled across the Andean plateau, Bogota offers a fabulous mix of old and new; the cobbled streets of La Candelaria offer a stark contrast to the urban chic of Zona Rosa. But it works.
Elsewhere, Colombia’s colonial towns have been lovingly preserved, most notably the UNESCO-listed city of Cartagena. But don’t stop there. Other historic settlements also warrant a visit, amongst them the cities of Mompós, Villa de Leiva and Barichara. The mysterious “lost city” of Ciudad Perdida is also worthy of a detour, but you may leave with more questions than you arrived with.
The more you travel around Colombia, the more you marvel at its diversity. While the Caribbean and Pacific shores boast beautiful beaches, islands and coral reefs, the lofty Andes offer high-altitude plains, snow-capped mountains and limpid lakes. Then there are the eastern lowlands with their grassy wetlands and bountiful birdlife, not to mention the virgin forests of the Amazon.
Colombian culture is no less magical. Garcia Marquez’s land of magic realism is alive with festivals and music; the high-energy city of Cali is recognized as the salsa capital of Colombia, while bustling Barranquilla hosts a dazzling carnival to rival Rio’s. To cap it all off, visitors can expect a warm welcome from the country’s friendly inhabitants, who, after years in the wilderness, can finally show their true colours. And what a picture they paint.
1,141,748 sq km (440,831 sq miles).
48,829,027 (UN estimate 2016).
40.9 per sq km.
President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón since 2010.
President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón since 2010.
Mostly 110 volts AC, 60Hz. North American-style plugs with two flat pins (with or without round grounding pin) are standard; some sockets may not accept plugs with a grounding pin however, so you may need an adaptor.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Despite improvements in security, crime rates remain high in Colombia. Illegal armed groups and other criminal groups are heavily involved in the drugs trade and serious crime including kidnapping (for ransom and political purposes), money laundering and running extortion and prostitution rackets.
Street crime is a problem in major cities, including Bogota, Medellin, Cali and the northern Caribbean coast. Mugging and pickpocketing can be accompanied by violence. British nationals have been robbed at gun point in the Candelaria area of Bogotá. Be vigilant, particularly if you are in public places used by foreigners, or near official buildings. Avoid deprived areas of cities. Take care on city streets, especially after dark or if you are on your own. Don’t carry large amounts of money or wear valuable watches or jewellery. Avoid using your mobile phone in the street.
The British Embassy has received reports of criminals in Colombia using drugs to subdue their victims. This includes the use of scopolamine, which temporarily incapacitates unsuspecting victims. Drugs can be administered through food, drinks, cigarettes, aerosols and even paper flyers. Victims become disoriented quickly and are vulnerable to robbery, sexual assault, rape and other crimes. Avoid leaving food or drinks unattended and don’t take anything from strangers.
Where possible, plan how you will travel to and from your destination. Only use pre-booked taxis. Be wary if you are approached by a stranger.
Express kidnappings – short-term opportunistic abductions, aimed at extracting cash from the victim – also occur. Victims can be targeted or selected at random and held while criminals empty their bank accounts with stolen cash cards. Most cases in major cities involve victims that have been picked up by taxis hailed from the street. There have been incidents where those who have resisted the kidnappers’ demands have been killed.
Drugs, organised crime and terrorism are inextricably linked. Control of the drugs trade is a major driver of much of the armed conflict. In July 2015 the UN reported that coca cultivation in Colombia had increased. There is evidence of high levels of coca cultivation in the following Departments in Colombia: Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta,Guaviare, the Catatumbo region in the Norte de Santander department, northern Antioquia, and southern Bolivar. There’s a risk to your safety in any area where coca, marijuana or opium poppies are cultivated and near to cocaine processing labs.
Illegal armed groups and criminal gangs are active in all of the Departments where coca is cultivated, processed or transported, as well as in many cities. The risk is particularly significant in rural areas near to the borders with Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador; in the Parque Nacional Natural de La Macarena in the Department of Meta; and the port towns of Buenaventura in the Department of Valle de Cauca, Turbo in the Department of Antioquia and Tumaco in the Department of Nariño.
In many rural areas the authority of the Colombian State is limited, and the British Embassy’s ability to help British nationals in trouble in these areas will also be limited. If you travel to remote or dangerous areas, seek professional security advice and make arrangements for your security throughout your visit. You should also seek up-to-date advice from the local authorities before each stage of your journey. Mobile and internet connection in rural areas is often limited.
The Pacific coast of Chocó is a popular eco-tourist destination. However, much of Chocó is remote and unsafe. Illegal armed groups are active and involved in the drugs trade throughout the Department and particularly near the border with Panama. On the coast, the towns of Bahia Solano and Nuquí are considered less dangerous and are well known for whale-watching. If you intend to travel to these towns, only do so by air and don’t travel inland or along the coast out of town.
If you travel to the ‘Lost City’ in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, you should only do so as part of an organised tour.
The archaeological park at San Agustin is located in the department of Huila. The FCO doesn’t advise against travel to this department, but the department is known for activity by illegal armed groups. You should enter and leave the park on the main road through Neiva or Popayán.
The tourist site of Caño Cristales is located in the department of Meta, in the Parque Nacional Natural de la Macarena. If you’re travelling to Caño Cristales, only do so with a reputable tour company, and travel by air to and from the town of La Macarena.
Public buses and coach services
There have been several recent incidents of armed robberies on buses.
Avoid displaying valuable items like laptops, cameras and mobile phones. Don’t wear jewellery and only carry minimal amounts of cash. Avoid travelling on your own or at night, especially at border crossings or areas where there are few other people around. When travelling to remote areas it may be safer to travel with others or take part in a tour with a reputable company.
To drive in Colombia, you will need a valid UK or other recognised driving licence and car insurance. Driving standards are poor and traffic accidents are common. Avoid driving at night, which can be particularly hazardous. Don’t hitch-hike.
The risk of violence and kidnapping is higher in some rural areas, and there is a risk of being caught in roadblocks set up by illegal armed groups. Main roads are generally safe during daylight hours.
Although the FCO advise against travel to the rural areas of some departments through which the Pan-American Highway passes, the road itself is generally well guarded. Always seek up-to-date advice from the local authorities before each stage of your journey.
Land border crossings
If you enter or leave Colombia by land via Venezuela, you should cross at Cucuta, and not via other routes.
If you enter or leave Colombia via Ecuador on the Pan-American Highway, don’t stop en route between the border and Pasto.
Avoid crossing between Panama and Colombia by land. The ‘Darien Gap’ is a dangerous area renowned for the presence of several illegal armed groups, illegal migration, and drugs trafficking. There’s no road crossing between Colombia and Panama.
Colombia is affected by land mines and unexploded ordnance. Mined areas are often unmarked. Be vigilant when visiting remote areas or travelling off the main roads.
Safety concerns have been raised about INSEL Air. The US and Netherlands authorities have prohibited their staff from using the airline while safety checks are being carried out. UK government officials have been told to do the same as a precaution.
Colombia is a presidential republic with separation of powers. Since 1990 Colombia has had a multi-party system. Colombia’s last Presidential elections took place in 2014; the next Presidential elections take place in 2018.
Colombia has suffered from internal armed conflict for over 50 years. On 24 November 2016, Colombia’s President Santos signed a peace deal with the FARC guerrilla to end the internal armed conflict.
This peace agreement comes after four years of negotiations. In August 2012, the Colombian government and the FARC announced that they would start peace talks, based on 6 main points: agrarian development policy; political participation; the end of conflict; a solution to the illicit drugs problem; victims, and the implementation of the peace deal.
The FARC have upheld a unilateral ceasefire since 20 July 2015. The Colombian government introduced a bilateral ceasefire on 19 August 2016.
The Colombian constitution guarantees extensive rights to indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups over their traditional territories and to protect their culture. Indigenous communities have special jurisdiction within their territories within the bounds of the national judicial system.
Political demonstrations can occur in the capital city of Bogota and throughout the country. These can be confrontational and occasionally turn violent. You should monitor local media and avoid all demonstrations.