Colombia, South America - Stein Travel
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Colombia is rapidly changing its negative image as a hotbed of criminal 'bounty' kidnappers, drug overlords and gangsters, and travellers are returning to this rewarding country crowning the continent of South America. While both the US State Department and British Foreign and Commonwealth Office still advise against travel to Colombia, the country is statistically safer than most countries in the region. Those intrepid and curious travellers and tourists who do venture here are rewarded with the most diverse destination in South America: an exhilarating fusion of shabby, colourful towns, Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Andean valleys, Amazonian jungle, and wide plains.

Most visitors see the capital, Bogota, the legendary resort town of Cartagena and the duty-free offshore island province of San Andres. In recent years Cali and Medellin are also popular stopovers. Wherever one chooses to explore, a fascinating, exciting and trouble-free experience is likely to be had.

The fortunes of modern Colombia had their foundations laid in the coffee plantations, but the onset of political violence and civil war in the 1950s effectively cauterised the industry. The exception to this can be found in the pretty hilly Quindio province, where many former farmers have turned their traditional red-tile roofed homesteads into good quality bed and breakfast establishments, set among exotic gardens and rows of leafy coffee bushes.

Urban Colombia centres on Bogota, home to about 20 percent of the country's inhabitants. This ancient city was the pre-Columbian capital of the Chibcha Indians and remains a blend of old and new, teeming with Spanish colonial buildings and plazas alongside modern skyscrapers. Beggars rub shoulders in the streets with smartly dressed business people, while mule trains wind their way through the traffic jams.

A major drawcard for tourists is the Spanish colonial port of Cartagena with its spectacular walled old town, a medieval wonderland of palaces, monasteries, plazas and overhanging balconies. To the south of the town are Colombia's major seaside holiday resorts with excellent beaches and scuba diving opportunities.

The country's equatorial rainforests clothe the river valleys, riddled with magnificent airplants, vines, creepers and brilliant flowers and birds. The Los Katios National Park in Choco contains hundreds of species of plant and animal life that have yet to be listed. The country's jungles also shelter wondrous archaeological treasures, like the ancient city of La Cuida Perdida and the monuments, tombs and burial mounds at San Augustin and Tierrodentro.

Colombia is a gem of a destination slowly starting to shed its unpalatable reputation to reveal its unique beauty.

Information & Facts


Formality in Colombian business is expected, more so inland than at the coast, and this applies to protocol as well as to dress. Punctuality for appointments is important, regardless whether the host is there on time or not, and handshakes are customary on arriving and departing. Many business people speak English, although all presentation materials and documentation should be translated into Spanish, and the use of visual aids widely used where possible. It might be necessary to use a translator, but it is best to check beforehand to avoid causing offence. Business cards should also be printed in both English and Spanish. The importance of building social relationships should not be underestimated, and small talk before and after meetings is vital towards building a sense of trust and goodwill. Business hours are generally 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.


Generally the climate is wet and tropical. Summer is the principal rainy season although there is no specific dry season. The eastern Caribbean and Pacific coastal lowlands experience an equatorial climate with high temperatures and high humidity all year round, with rainfall averaging 40 inches (1, 000mm) a year. In the mountainous parts conditions are cooler and can be changeable depending on prevailing winds, altitude and topography.


The international dialling code for Colombia is +57. The outgoing code depends on which network is used to dial out on (e.g. 005 for Orbitel, 009 for Telecom or 007 for ETB), which is followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 00544 for the United Kingdom). The area code for Bogota is 1, but the access code to make a call within the country from another area also depends on what network is used (e.g. (05)1 for Orbitel or (09)1 for Telecom). The country has cellular telephone operators with GSM networks. Mobile phone companies have active roaming agreements with many international network operators. Colombia, particularly Bogota, is well connected to the Internet with dozens of Internet cafes throughout the city, some doubling as bars.


Homosexuality is not widely acceptable, and couples are advised to be discreet. It is prohibited to take photographs of military sites. Columbians use both their maternal and paternal surnames. The paternal surname is listed first and is used in conversation if addressing someone by his or her title.

Duty Free

Travellers to Colombia over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 500g of tobacco; perfume for personal use; and 2 bottles of alcohol per passenger.


Electrical current is 110 volts, 60Hz. Two-pin flat blade attachment plugs and three-pin (two flat blades with round grounding pin) plugs are in use.


Mosquito borne illnesses like dengue fever and malaria are prevalent in Colombia. In 2007 there was a dengue fever outbreak, infecting 40, 000 people. Travellers to Colombia must be sure to take preventative measures, pack enough mosquito repellent and wear concealing clothing. A yellow fever vaccination is recommended for all travellers. Visitors should not drink tap water, unbottled beverages or drinks with ice. Fruit and vegetables should be peeled, cooked and eaten while piping hot. Avoid undercooked meat or fish. Medical care is adequate in major cities but varies in quality elsewhere. Medical insurance is essential.


Spanish is the official language.


The unit of currency is the Colombian Peso (COP), which is divided into 100 centavos. Banks have no fixed policy on exchanging cash and travellers cheques. Some provide the service, some not, and different banks can differ on this from day to day. Generally foreign exchange is only offered in the early morning. Cash can be exchanged at casas de cambio, or money exchange bureaux, located in cities and border towns. US Dollars are preferred for both cash and travellers cheque exchanges. Travellers cheques are difficult to exchange outside of Bogota. Visitors are warned to beware of fake US Dollars, which are printed in Colombia. Credit cards, especially Visa, are becoming more widely accepted and are welcome at top hotels and restaurants, travel agents and car rental agencies. In the main towns and cities ATMs are becoming more prevalent, but cards should be used with caution for security reasons.

Passport Visa

All tourists visiting Colombia must hold valid passports, tickets and documents for onward or return travel, and sufficient funds to cover their stay. Those who plan to visit coffee plantations must apply to 'Vegetable Sanitary Control' at the airport on arrival, or to a Columbian consulate or embassy in advance. Extensions on visas are possible.


Visitors to Colombia need to be aware they face various risks and should maintain a high level of vigilance. The risk of terrorist attacks from domestic Colombian groups in the towns and cities on public places like bars, restaurants and nightclubs frequented by expatriates, is high. Foreigners are also targeted by thieves, pickpockets and drug traffickers especially in urban areas, and crime is usually accompanied by violence. Never hail taxis in the street (book them through your hotel) and never accept food, drinks, chewing gum or cigarettes from strangers. These could be drugged to incapacitate victims. Foreign nationals have also been victims of kidnappings in recent years, the risk being high in rural areas; foreigners are advised against travel to the departments of Sucre, Bolivar, Choco, Putumayo, Meta, Arauca, Nariño and Caqueta. Some parts of the country are particularly dangerous and fraught with guerrilla and paramilitary activity. The rural areas of Antioquia, Cauca, Valle de Cauca, Huila and Norte de Santander are the most affected by political/narcotic violence and should also be avoided. All travel to southern parts of Meta and to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, including the 'Lost City', should also be avoided due to a high risk to personal safety. Travellers are advised to contact their country's consular representatives and acquaint themselves with the latest situation before entering these areas, or preferably avoid them completely. Floods and landslides are common during the rainy season in April/May and October/November.


Local time is GMT -5.


Tipping is common and expected for most services. Waiters in restaurants should receive 10% of the bill if it has not automatically been added. Porters expect around US$0.50 per bag. It is not obligatory to tip taxi drivers, but 10% is appreciated. Hotels usually add a service charge of 16% to the bill.

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