Colombia travel info

15 days,  August08




Kind of travel: alone in a fully independent travel

When: 8th- 22nd August 2008

Do I need a visa?: No, as for all the South American countries your passport is enough.

How I moved: comfortable long distance buses connects all the main cities, minibuses get almost everywhere otherwise replaced by funny speed boats; domestic flights seem a good option as well, but forget railways :-(

Freezing or baking?: definitely colder than I thought. In Bogota' I even wished I had a pair of gloves, while northward of Mompos gets warmer till Cartagena where's even too hot. Medellin wins for the best climate!

Where I slept: the hostels in Bogota' (Platypus) and in Medellin (Palm Tree) are among the best I've ever seen (dorm: 7€); 17€ in Villa De Leyva since cheap places were full-booked, while El Refugio in Rio Claro is a relaxing great place into the nature

What I liked: the Botero-characterized Medellin with its funiculars and the wild Rio Claro valley with the super-cool 3h adventure in the cave; on top of everything, in any bus terminal you'll feel at ease.

What I disliked: I found Bogota' anonymous, I hated the freezing air-condition in the buses and overall part of the country is off-limit, particularly the Pacific coast and the area bordering with Panama

How much daily: medium expensive: my daily budget turned out 37€/ day: sleeping is the main expense (10- 20$), but also long distance buses aren't for free, although the service satisfying.

Dangers/ hassles: I had no hassles, but I generally never felt relaxed so I stayed particularly on guard: my impression at the end was Colombia isn't 100% safe (more about safety)

What to have: a warm sweater, thick long pair of pants, a handy spanish dictionary and a flash lamp to swim in the darkness of the Rio Claro cave


Landed in Bogotá from Milan, with a stop-over in Madrid, I immediately realised packaging my rucksack I had underrated the coldness (in fact the following morning at first I wished I had a pair of warm long pants). I took a taxi from the airport to the nice Platypus hostel (6$) where I settled in a 4 bed room for 10$. The hostel is comfortable but, as most of all the other places in Colombia, I felt in a kind of prison: to access the building you have to pass a double door (like in a jewellery) and signs everywhere warn you not to walk outside in the evening, if you wanna move around, taxis are a must.
In the quick stroll I had in the morning Bogotá didn't excited me, while I got surprised seeing how tidy and calm was the bus terminal that typically is the shittiest place!
At midday I was already on a bus heading to Tunja (4h), where in turn I changed to reach Villa De Leyva (45min). It's a cute 2100m high village characterised by cobblestone streets and white housing. Luckily by chance I turned there before the kite festival, so the skyline was full of colourful kites, nevertheless I found Villa De Leyva a little too touristy and a-kinda-of-fake for the Colombian standards.
The interesting part was to rent a bike and cycling few hours around visiting:
- El Infiernito: a strange place characterised by penis-like rocks with a lot of white dressed guys dancing (and smoking a lot!)
- El Fosil: a house built over a huge 7m long lizard fossil
- Granja De Avestruces: an ostriches farm where you can both play with the animals and taste an ostrich steak, ostrich-egg omelette…
The same day in 5h by minibus I reached San Gil, where I settled in a cheap place (10$ for a double) having the usual grilled chicken with potatoes dinner. The following day I had a daytrip to one of the most beautiful colonial town of Colombia: Barichara. The town is a kind of movie set characterized by hilly cobblestone street, white façades and green windows, the whole plunged in the fog under the daily light rain. Then before the sunset I pulled into the big town of Bucamaranga 85h from San Gil), where I had hard times to find a cheap accommodation, so I ended up sleeping in a kind of brothel. In the evening I had a walk to eat something but I felt so unsafe I ran (running physically) back to the brothel.
In the morning I started the Bucaramanga- Mompos leg, definitely the most adventurous part of my Colombian travel:.
Leaving Bucaramanga at 8.00am I was sure to reach Mompos by the sunset, but….
The minibus was comfortable and for the first 5h the road was even tarred, thus an easy travel. In El Burro everything turned tougher: the super-bumpy dirty road let a max speed of 15km/h, so after two jumping hours some passenger got sick and the girl right next to me (CHE CULO!) puked on the seat twice!
Finally the bus stopped and everybody got off: I was happy to be in Mompos, when, instead of a town, I saw the road ending and the minibus being loaded on a kind of rusty ferry. It took a lot before this rusty stuff began floating downstream till reaching again a dirty road where unloading the minibus that proceed jumping again for 40min, when it stopped for a breakdown (DOPPIO CULO!)
Luckily it got fixed quickly and I happily pulled into a town sure to be in Mompos. I turned strongly disappointed founding out it was El Banco, still far from my destination. Moved by pity, the bus driver took me to his accommodation, a very cheap guesthouse in the outskirt of the town. In the early morning I was at the harbour to get the 4WD for the left 2h drive. Mompos itself is cute but nothing so special, or at least not as cool as the travel to get there. I poked around few hours and then, first by moped (1h), then by fast boat (30min) and finally by shared taxi (3h) I reached Cartagena.
Here despite the town being very picturesque, the hotness was unbearable. The first day I hung around taking picture of the colourful facades and the second one I went to Rosario island by a boat daytrip tour visiting the nice aquarium and the typical white sand beaches of the Caribbean sea. After 2 days I was fed up of feeling sticky and headed southward to Medellin by a 13h night bus ride. Definitely not a pleasant night since inside the bus the temperature was freezing, the ceiling was dripping (right over me) for the heavy rain and at the end I felt sick due to the numerous hairpin bends.
On the other hand I got enthusiastic of Medellin!
In particular I enjoyed the Chicago-like underground, the Botero sculptures spread everywhere, and the funicular lines working as metro to reach to steep parts of the town.
I wouldn't say the town is safe but I felt at ease, or at least more than I felt in Cartagena.
The following day I visited El-Penol, a funny panettone-like rocky mountain you can climb up to admire the wonderful green lake spotted area. In the afternoon I walked to Guatape festival where, hung on a trolley, I launched from a '100m high and 1km long' funicular cable: SUPER GREAT!!
On the way from Medellin to Bogota' I stopped in Rio Claro valley (4h from Medellin, 5h from Bogota'), a wild green area used to be off-limit due to the guerrilla, but now enough safe to be explored.
I settled in a nice hut-like guesthouse treated like a king but the keeper. Honestly I didn't expected so supercool the 3h cave trip I had with a local guy. With my flash lamp and wearing the swimming suit we entered a narrow cave (less then 1m in some part) dug by the river. Sometimes the water is so deep that it's necessary to swim and in few point you have to dive in the dark water trusting the guy there's no sharpen stalagmites ready to sting you like a giros kebab.
The last day settled in Bogota' I had a daytrip to Zipaquira', a salt mine area where a huuuuge underground salt cathedral (for more than 8.000 people) has been dug in the rocks.
Although I missed, you can reach the cathedral (2h from Bogota') also by a colourful steam train leaving twice per week, it's a unique chance since the only passenger train of the whole Colombia!



Colombia has nice mountains, the seaside very exotic, many towns are particularly colourful, means of transport comfortable, generally the country is clean…, so in theory there's everything to enjoy the country.
Yes, but something didn't work. In particular two elements didn't help: my huge expectations and the feeling of always being unsafe. All the times I heard about Colombia it got described as a heaven, but at the end nothing really impressed me, while on the other hand so many people warned me about the risks that, although nothing happened to me, I never lowered the guard and consequently I didn't feel free to wander around the country as I like.
I'm not discouraging you to go, but, since there'r many travels that excite me, there'r as well some in which something didn't click, and I don't want to be afraid to tell.



Colombia travel stories



When I reached Bucamaranga I was curious to taste the Hormiga Culona, a big ant specie I read it was eaten fried by the locals. Although being out of the season I easily found them at the bus station. These 4mm diameter black balls were sold in small transparent plastic bags. Immediately a great idea popped up in my mind: buy the fried Hormiga Culona as gift for my Italian friends! So I did and I put them in my backbag. Stupid of me, it didn't take that long I forgot to have. In fact then I left Bucamaranga, starting my long travel to Mompos: 5h of paved road, 2h of superbumpy dirty road, the river crossing on the rusty ferry, again superbumpy road, the breakdown, finding an accommodation in 'El Banco', spending the hot night in a dirty locanda and the following morning finally reaching Mompos. Here I left my bag in a shop while visiting the town and when it was time to proceed to Cartagena I retrieved it looking for a moped to reach the river and take a boat. While walking I felt at first some hitch, than many bites all over my back. It was painful! I tried to understand what it was when I saw the bag and part of my body covered by hundreds of small red ants! I immediately stopped, took off the bag, and I saw a flow of this shitty animals coming out right of my rugsack. I was jumping for the bites while trying to remove them from my body, but they were everywhere, few even in my slip! I guess the scene seen from outside was exhilarant, luckily not many people around in that moment. I didn't realised immediately what was exactly happened till I opened the bag and saw the flow of insects converging to my 'Hormiga Culona' plastic bag. The small red ants were eating their fried big colleagues, in a word, cannibals!
I promise you, it took a looot to remove all these shitty red animals: the following day in Cartagena I was still beating every single thing I had, to avoid the risk, for instance, to wear a pair of slip with even few biting read ants loitering over! :


Colombia travel tip


EU citizens don't need any visa, and there's no entry fee to be paid at the immigration.




The currency is the Colombian PesoS (COP) (1€= 2870 COP, 1$= 1805 COP). US$ seems still to be the most convenient currency to be changed, but also euros are well known.



I had the usual vaccinations: ephatite A, B, typhus and tetanus. I took the antimalaric profilassis (Lariam), but, since I saw very few mosquitos and most of the trip was in cold areas, I had the feeling to have been over-cautious. Morevoer I hadn't any problem with the food or the drink, anyway I never drank tap water.



I used Lonely Planet (in italian 3rd ed, translated from 4th ed, June 2006), as usual it's a good support, but I was surprised how weak is the part concerning the food and the dedicated dictionary. Morevoer I wouldn't cost that much to have the map of the whole Colombia and not only the 30%.




SAFETY at the time of writing (10/2008)

  • Safe areas :
    - The axis Bogota'- Cartagena
    - The axis Bogota'- Medelli- Cartagena
    - The axis Bogota'- Cali
    - The axis Bogota'- Cucuta (on the way to Venezuela)
    - All the Carribean Coast and its inland (Ciudad Perdida as well)


  • Areas off-limits:
    - Puerto Lopez
    - San Jose' del Guaviare
    - Puerto Carreno,
    - Puerto Inirida
    - Mitu'


  • Areas whose safety is discussed:
    - Buonaventura
    - Cali- Pasto
    - Turbo
    - Tumaco



DARIEN GAP(source)

The passage between Central America and South America is a problem that many travellers are forced to face. The Pan-American Carretera is interrupted in the region of jungle and swamps called Darien Gap, making impossible land connections between Panama and Colombia.
The options in order to exceed the Darien Gap, avoiding the dangerous passage by land (in the Colombian region of the Choco are present groups of guerrillas and paramilitary), are substantially three:

  • sailing ship or boat from Cartagena (Colombia) directly to Panamanian territory, passing for the Islas de San Blas (cost: approximately 250$)

  • flight between Panama City and Bogotá, Medellin or Cartagena (cost: variable according to the season, 150-300$)

  • bus from Medellin or Cartagena to Turbo (23$), traveling by night in order to reach Turbo in the morning and to go up on lancha or boat until Capurganà (20$, 2hours) where there are economic lodgings and the Caribbean is wonderful. From Capurgana’ you can take another lancha for Puerto Obaldia (10$, 40 min), that is already in Panamanian territory and there is an immigration office. From Puerto Obaldia there are two flights every week towards Panama City (57$).



Rio Claro
The cave exploration of the Rio Claro valley has been the most exciting thing I did in Colombia.
It's a 3h walk/ swim in a narrow cave dug by a small tributary of the Rio Claro. Although technically possible I don't recommend to go alone at least the first time; even if you are the bravest person in the world, the entry of the cave being in the middle of the jungle it's hard to be spotted. A guide in the 'El Refugio' guesthouse (3km from the cave) costs around 8$, and don't forget you need your flash lamp, to wear a swimming suit and a pair of sport shoes. In few points you have to dive in the darkness trusting the guide telling you where there'r no rocks.
Apart of the cave, in Rio Claro there'r a lot of thing to do: tubing and rafting down the river or simply walking along the wild valley and swimming in the river.
I slept in the guest house 'El Refugio' where there's a kind of restaurant as well (15$ dorm+ 3 meals). The place is on the road connecting Bogota' (5h from Bogota') with Medellin (4h from Medellin). Once dropped off at the bridge with the Claro river (at 94th km), you can walk to reach in 30min 'El Refugio'.

A useful website is: /