After years of being closed off by internal conflict and drug-related crime, Colombia is now South America’s rising star of the travel scene. With the security situation having improved dramatically, even many Colombians are just starting to discover their own country for the first time. And what a country it is.
Colombia has a reputation for something other than the clichés of cocaine and kidnapping: serious partying. So if you really want to know what Colombia is all about, set aside the tick-list of locations and hit the festival trail.
Colombians celebrate everything from donkeys to jeeps, and such events invariably end up with people drinking, dancing, and competing to spray as much canned foam as possible on the people around them.
These festivals are also a great way to get a handle on the country’s diverse culture: as a result of its history of colonialism and slavery, Colombia has a mesmerising blend of European, African and indigenous influences, clearly evident in the racial mix of its people, and in their music and dance.
It’s also a country of staggering and varied natural beauty. The Andes plunder their way up through the heart of the country, giving plenty of opportunities for trekking, adventure tourism, or just kicking back in beautiful colonial-style towns and villages. There are coastlines to tempt you on both the Pacific and the Caribbean side, though the latter is the one that’s safer and more accessible. There’s even access to the Amazon via the remote jungle town of Leticia.
Is Colombia safe?
The security situation in Colombia is much better than it was just ten years ago, with kidnappings down to a fraction of their peak in 2000, but some areas are still not considered secure. Street crime is also still commonplace in Colombia. Make sure you know which parts of the city are okay to visit, keep an awareness of your surroundings, and heed the advice of locals.
Don’t dar papaya (to ‘give papaya’ is to be blatant about your possessions), never leave your drinks unattended and take special care at festivals.
Getting to and from Colombia
Colombia is well served by international flights. From Europe, the main options are Iberia, Air France, Lufthansa and Avianca (Colombia’s national airline).
International coaches provide links with Venezuela and Ecuador, although going to the border and crossing independently is usually easier. Adjacent Panama is not accessible by land as there is no highway, and the region is highly dangerous due to the presence of armed groups.
An increasingly popular way to arrive in Colombia is by chartered sailboat from Panama. Cruises last five days and usually go via Panama’s idyllic San Blas islands. You can also arrive via the Amazon River from Brazil or Peru, though you’ll need to take a flight if you want to connect with the rest of Colombia. It’s also possible to boat-hop from a remote part of southern Panama, but this would also require an onward flight to connect with the rest of the country.
Travel visas for Colombia
Tourists from USA, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Ireland and other countries don’t usually need a visa to enter Colombia, and can theoretically be given up to 90 days on entry, though 60 is more usual. This time can be renewed at a DAS office in Colombia, or you can leave the country and re-enter, but you can only stay up to six months in any calendar year as a tourist. Check your local Colombian embassy for the latest information specific to your nationality.
Colombia travel resources
Check out our Colombia podcast or browse the articles below.
This page was written by Neil Bennion, a freelance travel writer who spent a large part of 2010 learning how to dance like a Colombian. He has written a book about his experiences: Dancing Feat.