Colombia - Not Much Left of Pablo Escobar

Thru February to end of April 2022 and again a few days in August, we visited Colombia for about 3 months.

Here some practical information about our overlanding journey. For more ample details and pics please refer to our respective posts.

Kindly note all information given is based on our personal perception and observations. Of course, you might experience it in a different way and judge situations differently.

Definitely, in Certain Areas You May Still Socialize with FARC, ELN and Pablo’s Successors

Despite the huge effort of the government to pacify the country, it still fights against an important number of rebel organizations, unruly militia, and drug’n’crime cartels. To this, add all kind of armed and unarmed strikes – and you have the full picture.

To be sure which areas are more dedicated to ordinary tourists, and which are more in the interest of hostage-addicted guys, there is information in the daily newspapers, as well as some maps distinguishing between these 2 areas, and quite a number of internet resources. E.g. Colombia Reports.

Maybe you quickly have to cross an area where government is not really doing well – just drive fast and ignore everything you may see.

Despite these small inconveniences, Colombia will turn out to be a very friendly and hospitable country. Apart from some seedy’n’dark corners in a few urban areas we never felt unsafe. 

If an urban area feels scruffy it normally is. Just take an Uber to avoid situations like that. They’re illegal in Colombia, but readily available. And they’re safer than classical taxis.

Red Tape – Difficult to Avoid

Easy. Just 1 note for US citizens. Take your passport, not sure if Colombian migration will stamp your driving license. 

Still, there are 3 steps to follow to make sure everything works well:

  • Fill in their electronic immigration form – Check Mig within 72 h before crossing the border. Easy, normally working well, even available in English and French for guys ignoring local languages. Once you’ve filled in whatever they need to know, there may be a problem to see the print version of your masterpiece. Just check your e-mail – you’ll find the confirmation that everything is fine. And that’s it.
  • Have a flight out of the country. Of course, stupid’n’inconvenient for overlanders flying in from Panama due to the Darien Gap. Nevertheless, especially at Panama’s airport, they may be extremely nasty with regard to your ticket back to mummy. The solution? Rent your ticket. Just google fake ticket and you’ll find what you need. We always get them with onewayfly. Some 20 bucks for a real ticket valid for 48h. They can successfully check it at the airport (and they did it).
  • Vaccination against Corona: of course, currently you need 2 of them to enter. Even don’t think about going to quarantine for 2 years because you don’t believe that these vaxxes are vegan.

Money – Without, You’re a Poor Guy in Colombia

Just to start with: there’s a simple fact that the Colombian Peso is Colombia’s currency. This applies even to US citizens convinced that their greenback is the only viable currency in the world. Contrary to many Central American countries where you may use the US$ if you’re ready to pay significantly more for everything, in Colombia this practice is simply illegal. And nobody would be pleased to accept a greenback instead of some Pesos.

The second important issue: Colombia is pretty cheap compared to its Central American neighbors. Of course, arriving in Cartagena from Panama, sipping a beer for 12 000 pesos in the old town may not feel expensive. But just imagine in rural areas the very same beer in a bar will be just 3000 pesos.

Obviously, nobody needs to bring bundles of pesos from home. It’s enough to own 1 or 2 cards (not charging you any additional fees) for Colombia’s numerous ATMs. But you have to choose the right bank to get your Pesos. Avoid them all, except Davivienda and Scotiabank. They don’t have any local fees. So that’s your choice. And their limit is normally 2 000 000 pesos. Enough for your sundowner. Just don’t allow them to convert the amount into your card’s currency. Every ATM has this stupid question. Just say no. Currency conversion is the task of your bank back home, or you lose some 10-15% of the amount.

If we speak about conversion, the same care should be taken if paying for a hotel with a credit card. Never have the amount converted into your card’s currency. That would also set you back by 15%.

If speaking about money. Some nationalities consider tipping the most important issue of their whole trip. A brave US citizen seems to be totally unhappy if she cannot add some 25% to the initial amount. Contrary, we Europeans are more than happy if we don’t need to consider any tipping because it’s just included.

Well, in Colombia it’s not included. But there are quite clear rules on what to do. In a cheap eatery, of course, they don’t expect anything. So, no need to expect to give anything.  A little different in a decent restaurant. But it’s 10%. Not 25% – even for US citizens. Otherwise, they will just consider you a crazy gringo that da papaya. Meaning motivates everybody to reduce his wealth. Even by force when strolling back.

Anywhere else? Not really seen or heard about any tip paid. Even for guided tours apart from US and Canadian citizens, nobody would ever care about that. And even if it’s hard for some of our distinguished readers, we still believe in adapting to local customs.

Getting your Car to Colombia

Principally it’s not complicated. You’ll need a TIP and insurance (SOAT). Normally the TIP is valid for 90 days, renewable once.

SOAT is about 25000 COP for 3 months and it’s definitely mandatory.

If your car arrives by boat in Cartagena, things are getting more sophisticated for you. Not because of the Colombian red tape, but the port’s self-induced regulations. But that’s another story you can read here.

Driving in Colombia – Even Don’t Think About a Road Without Trucks

Don’t think it’s more difficult to drive in Colombia than anywhere else.

Of course, there are a few special issues to consider:

As with its neighbors, the car in front of you indicates that you may bypass it by giving a signal to the left. Of course, at the same time, this may also indicate the car turns immediately to the left. Consequently, you’ll need a certain talent to foresee the future in these situations. Probably Colombians are born with it. Foreigners maybe not.

Another thing is speed. On certain roads, maximum speed may change every 100m. Therefore they installed signals accordingly, and especially in the north and on highways they mix them with speed traps. No idea what happens once they get you. Maybe nothing, because we never had any problems. But who knows.

Police: we never had any bad experiences with these guys. A very few times they checked our TIP and insurance. But never any further socializing.

Anyway, they never got us for an infraction. Then it may be different.

And now to the most boring issue: Traffic, especially trucks.

Do never expect a road in Colombia without 100reds of trucks. Mainly huge US-built monsters on their last kilometers before definitely breaking down. So be aware, they’re slow, on the numerous small’n’winding roads they are difficult to bypass and they often break down or have accidents – blocking the roads for a few hours, True, a real pain in the ass, apart from big double-lined highways simply don’t expect to drive more than 50km an hour. But consider that without trucks you wouldn’t drive much faster on many roads, either.

Finally, something really delightful: Gas prizes. Strangely, they indicate prizes in US gallons. If indicated in liters, the amount would be too small to ask money for. Anyway, count of 1 to 1,50$ for a gallon of diesel. True, in Europe it would cost 7x more.

Roads in Colombia – Your Opportunity to Become a Master on Gravel Roads

Just to start with –  on most roads you pay a toll. Mostly quite reasonable, but the better the road, the more you pay.

Of course, the fastest connections are the highways. not all really double-laned super highways, but in a good shape. Mostly connecting the big towns in the valleys, a few crossing even the Cordilleras.

Other paved roads often in mountainous areas.  Thus, pretty narrow and winding. In reasonable condition except when the terrain becomes a little bit more challenging for construction. Then they often degrade to gravel roads for a short distance. Don’t expect to drive more than 50km/h. Often even less, if there are too many trucks on the way.

Then, there are numerous gravel roads thru the mountains, Don’t expect to drive them with a small car. Mostly they require a certain clearance. Still, Colombians drive many of them with 2×4. But a 4×4 may be preferable.

Finally, urban roads: pretty ok, in big towns huge highways cross from 1 end to the other. Inside towns often huge traffic jams if you choose the wrong time. Normally we used public transport or Uber in towns like Bogota or Medellin to get around. It’s simply faster and easier.

In every town, you’ll find numerous parqueaderos. Safe parking lots you may use for a few nights, or just an hour. Always reasonably priced. Except in the old town of Cartagena.

Your Boyfriend Risks to Fall in Love with Another Girl – the Urgent need to get home

Officially you may not leave the country without your car. But don’t worry, if you return within the period they gave you on your TIP nobody cares. Just find safe accommodation for your car and don’t forget to be back on time.

Should you need to extend this period there’s no way to interrupt the TIP as you can in other countries.

Nevertheless, there’s a way out of this if you drive to Ipiales at the border to Ecuador. It’s a kind of duty-free zone. Maybe only for Ecuatorianies and Colombies. Not sure about this. Nevertheless, there are a few parking lots where overlanders leave their cars for some time. Due to corona sometimes even for years. They’re cheap and pretty safe, some even covered. We went to Parqueadero Lamaye, former La Amistad .

It was ok when we left our car. But we consider the guys not too honest. We don’t know if the elderly couple, Yolanda and Eduardo are still managing it. The young guys we found on our way back were not very nice and tried to cheat a little bit. Whatever the car was safe. Maybe next time we would look for another place.

A SIM Card – Your Connection to Your Virtual World

Normally, you don’t want to use the SIM card you bring from home. Roaming would just be too expensive.

Of course, you need to prepare for that:

  • you need an unlocked cellphone. Either buy it unlocked, or quickly fly to Congo or Afghanistan to have it unlocked.
  • you agree with your bank, that you will use internet banking without using old-fashioned SMS to confirm anything. If not possible go to a modern bank.
  • you teach your grandma how to use WhatsApp for calling you. And for you, please note that WhatsApp is not solely linked to your phone number, but to your cellphone.  Thus, it works anywhere, with any number.

Finally, you buy a Colombian SIM card. Best claro. For that go to a claro Service Center. Only there they can register your phone immediately and you’re free to use it. Costs next to nothing. Should you buy the card somewhere else, after a few days you’ll get a message that they will block your phone should you not register it officially.

Finally, just buy the prepaid package you like in a shop or on internet. Cheap again.

Finally wonder how well it works everywhere. Better than at home.

Last but Not Least the Most Important – Beer

A very easy issue:

  • Club Colombia – no other industrial beer. It’s pretty ok at a cost of 3000 to 15 000 a small bottle. Depending on the place and the number of tourists around you.
  • For a splurge: Cerveza Artisanal of BBCBogota Beer Company. Of course, the best is their IPA.
  • And for heaven’s sake don’t touch any other beer.
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