Colombia is an up-and coming travel destination in the world with tourism increasing each year. We look at 14 top mistakes tourists make when visiting Colombia.
If you are planning a trip to Colombia, congratulations, Colombia is travel destination growing in popularity for a very good reason with an amazing diversity of beaches on two coasts, mountains, the Amazon and much more.
Colombia was even chosen as the number one trending destination for tourism in 2020 in a ranking by the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA).
When I first visited Colombia as a tourist in 2006, I never imagined I would be living in Colombia. Over the past several years I have seen several mistakes tourists make when visiting Colombia. Also, several Medellin Guru readers asked about common mistakes that tourists make.
So, in this article, we look at 14 top mistakes tourist make when visiting Colombia. Note, my Colombian wife helped create this list from what she and her friends have seen. And this list is in no particular order.
1. Not Considering When to Travel to Colombia
Colombia has two rainy seasons. The two rainy seasons are April to May and September to November each year. And the driest months are usually December to February
During the rainy seasons in Colombia, it rains more but this isn’t the end of the world. The rain is typically in the afternoons and normally isn’t for very long but may put damper on doing things.
In addition, Colombia has many public holidays with a total of 18 Colombia holidays in 2020. Many of these holidays turn weekend into long 3-day weekends. And peak travel times are during mid-December to mid-January and during the week leading up to Easter, which is known as Semana Santa from Sunday, April 5 to Saturday, April 11 in 2020. Also, during the Feria de las Flores flower festival in Medellín in August is a peak travel time for Medellín.
During these peak travel times, many Colombians are traveling, hotels and flights tend to fill up and prices become more expensive for flights and hotels.
That isn’t to say you should travel during the rainy season or the peak travel times. But keep the rainy season and peak travel times in mind when planning a trip to Colombia.
2. Not Speaking Any Spanish
Most Colombians generally don’t speak much English. Also, most of the people that you will interact with on a typical day in Colombia, such as store clerks, taxi drivers and waiters will tend to speak little to no English.
In addition, Education First ranks the English proficiency in Colombia as low at 48.90 on a 100-point scale.
So, in my opinion, it is important to learn some basic Spanish before coming to Colombia. You should be able to give simple directions, how to order food and how to buy things from a store.
If you brush up on your Spanish before arriving in Colombia, you will find it much easier to get around. Try to learn as much Spanish as possible. So, your trip will be more fun, rewarding and interesting.
3. Assuming it is Safe in the Wealthy Neighborhoods
Many posts on the Internet say that the wealthy El Poblado neighborhood in Medellin, Chapinero neighborhood in Bogotá and Bocagrande neighborhood in Cartgena are safe neighborhoods.
But in reality, El Poblado has one of the highest robbery rates in Medellín, Chapinero has the highest robbery rate in Bogotá and Bocagrande has one of the highest robbery rates in Cartagena, as we discovered in our article about safety in Colombia.
The wealthiest neighborhoods in many of the cities in Colombia have some of the highest rates of robberies of persons. This is likely due to thieves targeting the wealthy areas of cities.
So, we recommend not letting your guard down in wealthy neighborhoods in Colombia. Also, take care particularly with cell phones, which are the most commonly stolen items in Colombia and are often stolen by pickpockets with no force involved.
4. Relying on Lonely Planet Colombia
The Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook is the most popular Colombia travel guide in English. But the Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook published in August 2018 missed the mark and is full of out-of-date and inaccurate information.
Travel guidebooks have many challenges to overcome. First is the timeliness of information. The publication cycle for travel guidebooks means that the moment a new guidebook is published, the information is probably at least a year out-of-date.
Also, the publishers don’t pay travel guidebook authors enough. I have talked to several travel guidebook authors and the pay is completely insufficient for the amount of work required. So, corners must be cut to get guidebooks out the door.
There is so much out-of-date information and many inaccuracies in the 2018 Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook. Also, it’s missing many of the best places in Colombia.
For example, the 2018 Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook only includes three pueblos located near Medellín: Guatapé, Santa Fe de Antioquia and Jardín. But there are several more pueblos near Medellín that are worth visiting. For example, on the Medellin Guru website, we looked at the 8 best pueblos near Medellín worth a visit including hidden gems.
In addition, the 2018 Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook only includes 19 restaurants in Medellín. And I am not very impressed with their selection of restaurants. Also, nine of the 19 recommended restaurants are unchanged from the 2015 edition of the guidebook.
Also, surprisingly the city of Barranquilla, the fourth largest city in Colombia, is completely missing from the guidebook. Barranquilla was also missing in the 2015 edition of the guidebook. But the older 2012 edition had three pages about Barranquilla.
The bottom line is that the 2018 Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook is full of out-of-date information and it has many inaccuracies. Also, it’s missing many of the best places in each city and pueblo. This is a similar problem with prior editions of the Lonely Planet Colombia guidebook.
5. Limiting a Trip to the Biggest Cities in Colombia
Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena are the most visited locations in Colombia by foreign tourists.
These three big cities in Colombia have much to offer tourists with many things to do and big selections of restaurants and lodging. For example, we looked at the best of Medellín with over 260 things to do, restaurants, pueblos, museums and much more,
But Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world, after Brazil. Colombia has a diversity ranging from snow-capped mountains to beaches, thick jungles to vast plains, small pueblos to bustling cities.
Also, Colombia is the only South American country bordered by two oceans. I have traveled throughout the country over the past 10+ years and many of the landscapes in Colombia are breathtaking.
We previously looked at 20 of the top tourist attractions in Colombia. And the majority of these top tourist attractions in Colombia are not located in the three biggest cities in Colombia.
6. Not Carrying Any Cash with You
Not all restaurants and shops in Colombia accept credit cards, particularly when you get to smaller cities and pueblos in Colombia. And you will need cash for taxis and buses. Many places in Colombia are cash-only.
Despite the potential of pickpockets, we recommend that tourists should carry what is needed for the day or night.
Also, don’t carry your passport with you. Carry a copy of your passport with another ID like a driver’s license. In addition, only bring ATM and credit cards which you plan to use. Leave your passport and other cards locked up in a safe location.
7. Relying on TripAdvisor
TripAdvisor is a popular travel website with restaurant and hotel reviews but it can’t be trusted for Medellín and Colombia due to many likely fake reviews.
The TripAdvisor website has top restaurant ratings for Medellín and other cities in Colombia. But some of these top restaurant ratings can’t be trusted for many reasons. Also, TripAdvisor has lists of the best things to do, best hotels and best hostels. But these best lists are not very accurate in my opinion.
TripAdvisor can’t be trusted for some of its recommendations for several reasons, including:
- Reviews on the site can be submitted by anyone. And the reviewers haven’t necessarily stayed at hotels or hostels reviewed or eaten at the restaurants that they review on the site. Even competitors can attack each other with reviews.
- TripAdvisor reportedly has many fake reviews. A study by The Times in the UK found a third of TripAdvisor reviews are fake. Also, a fake restaurant was even able to become the top restaurant in the UK on TripAdvisor.
- TripAdvisor is missing many restaurants and places. For example, it appears to be missing all the restaurants in the large Viva Envigado mall. So, its list of best Envigado restaurants is not accurate. And it appears to be missing all the restaurants in the large Mayorca mallin Sabaneta. Also, TripAdvisor is missing many of the museums in Medellín.
- It is possible for restaurants, hotels, hostels and other companies to buy reviews. There are Internet sites that sell positive reviews.
- TripAdvisor still includes places, which have closed. For example, the site still includes a review of Randy’s Sports Bar & Grillbut this place closed in late 2018. And it has a review of Delaire Sky Lounge but this place closed in early 2019.
- TripAdvisor includes different locations of the same restaurant chain as separate listings. So, in its list of best restaurants you may see the same restaurant listed multiple times.
- Restaurants in other municipalities are not included in best lists on TripAdvisor. So, you can’t bring up a list of the best restaurants in the Aburrá Valley that includes restaurants in Medellín, Envigado and Sabaneta. You would have to bring up different lists for each municipality.
I have been using TripAdvisor since I first started visiting Colombia in 2006 and also during the over eight years I have lived in Medellín. I have been burned way too many times by going to a highly rated place in Colombia on TripAdvisor that wasn’t very good.
8. Overstaying a Tourist Visa/Permit
This is a common mistake. Colombia offers instant tourist visas to citizens of many countries that are good for 90 days. These “tourist visas” are really just a permit stamp in your passport and aren’t really visas.
So, when you enter Colombia with a “tourist visa” you should keep track of the validity on the stamp in your passport. And if you plan to renew, you should do this about week before the expiration date.
It is quite easy to extend a Colombian tourist visa to enable staying in Colombia a maximum of 180 days in a year and we have an up-to-date guide to extending a Colombia tourist visa.
When you enter Colombia as a tourist, an immigration official will stamp your passport. And normally the official will write that it is good for 90 days. But this is at the discretion of the official and occasionally may be shorter.
Many websites incorrectly call this a “tourist visa” but it isn’t really a visa. It is a tourist permit that is just a stamp in your visa. It isn’t a visa and Colombia has many types of visas that require visa applications.
The current tourist rule is that you can stay in Colombia as a tourist for a maximum of 180 days in a calendar year (January 1 to December 31). In addition, you can’t stay for more than 180 days consecutively, even if this is across two years.
If you overstay your tourist time limit, you will have to pay a fine before leaving the country. If you overstay you will need to go to Migracion Colombia less than 15 days before your planned departure and ask for a “salvoconducto“. In our guide to Colombia tourist visas we look at what do to when overstaying your tourist visa.
9. Exchanging Money at an Airport Money Exchange
As you well know if you come to Colombia you will need to have Colombian Pesos (COP) to use. These Colombian pesos are different than other countries’ pesos, like Mexico’s pesos. There are very few places in Colombia that will accept American dollars or other foreign currencies.
Remember when converting or exchanging money there is always a fee for the service. In addition, there is the exchange rate that they offer to give you. This offered exchange rate is going to be less than the current XE rate or Bank rate.
This is where they have hidden fees (i.e. the current XE rate is 3,300 COP but they offer 2,900 COP). That is why knowing the current exchange rate helps you to shop for the best deal.
We recommend exchanging as little money as possible in an airport money exchange in Colombia because the fees can be horrible as well as the actual exchange rate they offer won’t be great.
A better option in an airport is normally using ATM machine, if available. We have a separate guide to exchanging, receiving and transferring money in Colombia.
10. Associating Colombia with Escobar, Narcos and Drug Trafficking
Colombia has a dark past and the vast majority of Colombians are not proud of it. Colombia has been painstakingly trying to get rid of their former reputation and has made tremendous progress.
Also, Colombians and Paisas in particular, generally do not like the name Pablo Escobar to be spoken.
The popular Narcos series has created demand from foreign tourists visiting Medellín who want to see Pablo Escobar’s grave and other sites related to Escobar. So, several Pablo Escobar tours exist that will take you to Escobar’s grave and other sites.
However, most Colombians don’t like the idea of tour companies offering Pablo Escobar Tours glorifying Escobar. This is a local perspective that we try to appreciate and understand.
So, we even wrote an article about alternatives to a Pablo Escobar tour. As guests in Colombia, we feel that we must be respectful of the locals wishes and refrain from engaging in activities that appear to glorify Escobar.
Many people are still healing from this painful past. We must understand that for some Escobar was a hero and for some he was a villain. And no matter what an individual felt about this man, they were affected by him. The history is still too recent.
If still, your curiosity gets the better of you, and you MUST still go on a Pablo Escobar Tour then be considerate. Find a reputable guide that will tell you the facts and not just a sensationalized story.
11. Thinking Can See All of Colombian in One or Two Weeks – Mistakes Tourists Make
I have met some tourists that have come to Colombia with trips to Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena AND the coffee triangle in only a week. They tried to cram too much into too little time and spent much of their time in transit between cities.
If coming for a week or two, make sure to factor in travel time between cities and attractions. And don’t plan an itinerary that will have you going to the next location before you are ready.
Colombia is a large country that is larger than the state of California and Texas in the U.S. combined. In addition, Colombia has an amazing diversity among its regions, foods, terrain and even weather and temperatures.
Try to visit at least two regions of Colombia when visiting. Visit Cartagena on the coast and the mountainous city of Medellín with its eternal spring climate. Or visit the bustling capital city of Bogotá and the coffee region, or any combination of locations.
Plan to spend at least two or three nights in big cities and plan for a half-day of travel between cities if flying (factoring in transportation to/from airports and time at airports) or a full-day if traveling by bus.
12. Not Trying the Local Colombian Foods and Fruits – Mistakes Tourists Make
Colombia isn’t well known around the world for its cuisine and Colombian food. But there are a number of delicious traditional Colombian dishes that are worth trying.
Some foreigners in Colombia or visiting will tell you that traditional Colombian dishes are generally bland, overly fried, too salty and meat-heavy. However, some of the dishes in Colombia are actually packed full of flavor and not everything is meat-heavy.
Also, Colombia is a fruit lover’s paradise with many delicious and exotic tropical fruits that can be difficult to find in North America or Europe. Colombia has a tremendous number of tropical fruits available. During my over eight years living in Medellín, I have been able to try many exotic tropical fruits that I never found while living in the U.S.
In addition, Colombian street food seems to be available everywhere in the cities in Colombia. And there are so many options. Colombian street food can be found at busy intersections, in the parks, near metro stations and in many other places in cities and pueblos in Colombia.
13. Not Dressing Appropriately – Mistakes Tourists Make
Some foreigners that come to Colombia think Colombia is near the equator so is hot. But Colombia has a wide range of climates. There is the Caribbean coast of Colombia including Cartagena and Santa Marta where it is quite hot and shorts and flip-flops are common.
Also, there are eternal-spring climates found in Medellín, Pereria and Bucarmanga where the average temperature all year round is about 72 °F and typically ranges from about 63 to 82 °F.
In addition, there is Bogotá at a higher elevation where the temperature during the year averages a much chillier 58 °F (14.5 °C). Also, there are a number of snow-covered mountains in Colombia.
So, bring appropriate clothes for your destination in Colombia. Jackets are needed in Bogotá and beach clothes along the coasts.
Also, dress conservatively and lose the shorts and flip-flops in Bogotá and Medellín. Wear jeans and try not to be such an obvious foreigner tourist that can make you a target of thieves.
See how typical Colombians dress. An expat in shorts and flip-flops speaking English loudly on an iPhone is likely to attract some unwanted attention in Chapinero in Bogotá or Parque Lleras in Medellín.
14. Letting Your Guard Down (“No Dar Papaya”) – Mistakes Tourists Make
There is a popular expression in Colombia called No Dar Papaya – which translates to Don’t Give Papaya. This phrase essentially means leaving yourself exposed to be taken advantage of. This means letting the guard down, so to speak.
Don’t give people a reason to target or steal from you or take advantage of you. This also means don’t leave your drink unattended at a bar, as Scopolamine drugging is common.
This expression also means many other things, such as, not wearing expensive jewelry, having your phone out unnecessarily, using an ATM on the street or drinking too much and looking inebriated.
The Bottom Line: Top Mistakes Tourists Make When Visiting Colombia
Colombia is an increasing popular tourist destination. However, many tourists visiting Colombia make mistakes. So, we identified 14 of the top mistakes tourists make when visiting Colombia in this article and how to avoid them.
Planning a trip to Colombia can be daunting, especially if you don’t speak Spanish. We recommend trying not to fit too much into one trip, learn some Spanish and take some safety precautions. Follow our tips in the above article, and you will avoid the most common mistakes tourists make when visiting Colombia.
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