Have you always been wanting to visit the magical Andean paradise, otherwise known as Colombia? Colombia can be a pretty dangerous country, but it is still a place you could visit if you know how to keep yourself safe at all times. If you're intending to make a trip there someday, be sure to read more about these 5 ways we at GET.com have gathered for you to save money and stay safe while traveling in Colombia.
1. Drink Aguardiente
Colombia's national drink of choice is aguardiente, an anise-flavored clear liquor distilled from sugar cane. Aguardiente means "fiery water" in Spanish, and it definitely lives up to its Spanish name.
If you can stomach it, you'll save a lot of money by sticking to aguardiente in Colombia, where a big bottle only costs a few dollars. Try it out and see if you can acquire the taste. Colombians don't go in for chasers, and aguardiente with sugar added is looked down upon as only good for putting children to sleep. Just be sure to share your fire water freely at the party: You'll need all the help you can get to finish it off.
2. Uber It
Safety concerns have plagued Uber, but in Colombia, many locals and travelers turn to Uber because it's cheaper and safer than taking regular yellow cabs. Use Uber instead of regular taxis to save money and protect yourself from unscrupulous criminals hiding in yellow cabs.
Kidnappings, holdups and shakedowns by "taxi drivers" are rare and getting rarer in Colombia, but they do still happen. According to a survey by the Thompson Reuters Foundation, Bogota has the world's most dangerous transportation system for female travelers. And corroborated by Uber's statistics, 60% of its passengers in Colombia are women.
Be warned, however: Using Uber could make you a target of mobs of angry taxi drivers. Uber has received reports of taxi drivers harassing its drivers and passengers by shouting, cursing, throwing garbage and even rocks.
Traveler's Note: Getting around the capital is easy by Uber or by bike, but whatever you do, avoid the TransMilenio, the city's bus system, especially during the early morning and late afternoon unless you like a crush. The big red double-car buses are packed to the brim with commuters as well as pickpockets who prey on the unwary.
3. Fly On Viva Colombia
Image source: VivaColombia via Facebook
VivaColombia is Colombia's biggest budget airline, and it's the best way to jet around the country's major destinations on the cheap. Started in 2012, VivaColombia operates flights to nearly every city in the country for extremely low fares.
Travelers on a tight schedule who want to save money are in luck, as flying on VivaColombia is often cheaper than taking a long bus ride, and it's almost always cheaper than flying with Avianca or LATAM. For example, a flight from Cali to Bogota booked a week ahead of time costs about US$100 with LATAM and Avianca. The same flight booked on VivaColombia costs only US$30.
Many travel search engines like Hipmunk and Expedia don't include VivaColombia in their search results for domestic flights in Colombia. If you want to book a flight on VivaColombia, you can do it online, by phone, or at their kiosk in the airport.
Unfortunately, VivaColombia isn't partnered with any of the Big 4 airlines in the United States, so you can't automatically earn frequent flyer miles when you travel with this budget airline. If you want to earn miles on a cheap VivaColombia flight, be sure to book your ticket with a good air miles credit card.
4. Where To Go? Barranquilla, Bogota, Cali, Cartagena and Medellin
Barranquilla on the Atlantic coast is best visited during the Carnival. Barranquilla's Carnival is one of the biggest in the world, attracting revelers from all over the globe. The city is packed to the brim in the last week of February leading up to the fasting month of Lent. During the rest of the year, however, Barranquilla is a sleepy, muggy port city with not a lot to interest visitors.
In Bogota, I recommend staying in the old town district of La Candelaria. It's a bit touristy but there are lots to do and less street crime to worry about, plus many affordable hostels, hotels and Airbnb options for travelers.
Cali in the south is a great shopping destination, but it's also a bustling city with a life of its own and not exactly a "touristy" place. If you want to live like a local for a few weeks, Cali is the perfect place to do it, although the summer heat can be pretty oppressive.
Cartagena is quickly transforming into a tourist hotspot, and hotels and Airbnbs there are getting very expensive. The walls of the old Spanish forts make a fun walk, and the local flower sellers are always in full swing. While it's a very charming port city, Cartagena is not the best place to take a dip. Locals prefer smaller towns to the east like Santa Marta and the Islas de Rosario, where the water is cleaner and clearer.
Medellin, called the City of Eternal Spring for its year-round temperate weather, is a traveler's paradise. Getting around Medellin on the Metro, the elevated rail system, is a breeze. The Metro is very modern and affordable, with connections to the Metrocable, which connects the city with the slums in the surrounding hills. There's plenty to do and see in Medellin. You can usually get a great deal on tours, paragliding and other fun activities when you book through your hostel.
5. Avoid Police Run-Ins
Run-ins with Colombian police can be a very expensive affair. Obviously, don't do anything illegal while you're visiting the country. But even if you toe the line, you may still find yourself on the wrong side of corrupt law enforcement. In Bogota, I was stopped by police and searched for drugs only to find the contents of my wallet gone after the "search" was over.
I recommend keeping a "dummy" wallet in your pocket with some local currency and an expired ID to deal with corrupt cops and muggers. Take precautions, but remember that even innocent actions like asking for directions can make you a target for dirty cops.
After asking a local for directions in a rough neighborhood of Medellin, I was stopped by police and threatened with jail time. It turned out that the person whom I asked for directions was a known drug dealer, and by talking to him the police assumed I was buying drugs.
The police searched me and came up empty-handed, but I still had to pay the multa, or "fine," to get them to let me go. It's up to you whether to pay the multa, basically a bribe, to avoid the hassle, or stand your ground and demand to see a judge.