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Backpacking in Colombia – 8 Things I Wish I Knew

Medellin, Antioquia

Colombia is an insanely beautiful country which unfortunately has such an undeserved reputation. Of course, it is not a place for beginner travellers, it felt a bit intense at times. It’s useful to know a few things to make sure you can seriously enjoy this wonderful country.

1. Narcos is Just a TV Show

Despite being set in Colombia, the country and the Netflix show have absolutely nothing in common. Watching Narcos will give you a very distorted view of what Colombia is really like. This is because Colombians didn’t even make this show, brazilians mostly made the show. It’s hated here and gives a very American-centric view of Colombia’s darkest history.

Thanks to Narcos, distasteful tourist tat can be found throughout the country

In addition, the events of Narcos are inaccurate to what actually happened. The accents are incorrect and it is littered with Colombian stereotypes. Above all, the show depicts Escobar as some kind of mix between Tony Montana and Robin Hood. In reality, Escobar was a ruthless and evil man who did not value human life. To many this is a sore subject in the country and I recommend steering clear of making light of such issues.

2. It’s not That Dangerous, Just Watch Your Pockets

Although Cartagena is occupied by menacing street vendors who want to try to take advantage of tourists. In most other places people tend to stay out of your way. Just don’t take unnecessary risks and don’t try to get yourself lost at night. However, one thing that could ruin your trip is being pickpocketed. At my hostel in Medellín, I was informed by the other people staying there that three of them had been pickpocketed. Be very cautious in crowded areas, especially on the metro where people had said to be pickpocketed.

3. Colombia is Bigger Than you Think

If you look at Colombia on a map, it looks quite small, however it’s much bigger than it looks. The truth is that the country is twice the size of France and this means some places are quite far from each other. For example it would take more than 13 hours to get from Cartagena to Medellín if you took the bus.

4. Taking the Bus is Like Hell

Speaking of busses, I strongly recommend against taking the bus from one city to another. Especially if you think it will be more than 4 hours as it will take a long time. This is because due to the mountainous terrain all over the country, there are barely any motorways. Most roads you will see in a lot of places are bendy roads on the side of a mountain. These roads take a tediously long time to haul through. Furthermore, traffic jams are commonplace on these roads, one of my least pleasant travel experiences was being stuck in traffic for 3 hours on a bus from Medellín.

5. It Isn’t Hard to Find Authentic Food

Empanadas and arepas are both synonymous with Colombia and can be found almost everywhere on the streets of every city. What’s ideal is that these foods don’t tend to be too expensive as an arepa tends to cost about £1.50 and an empanada from a bakery can cost about 40p. Unlike Mexico, I didn’t feel there was any risk of mutilating my stomach with food poisoning, even in very basic looking bakeries at bus terminals.

6. Most People Just Speak Spanish

Unless you’re staying in a hostel or visiting a place regularly frequented by tourists, there will be slim chances that you will run into people who can speak good English. Thankfully I have been fluent in Spanish for four years and could make my way around with ease.

I even met British tourists with no knowledge of the language who said they had no problems with the language barrier. Despite that, I do recommend brushing up on some Spanish as it could seriously bring you out of trouble, a good way of getting people to warm up to you and makes your visit so much easier.

7. You’re Better Off Flying

Railways being nonexistent in this country and long distance bus journeys being an absolute nightmare. The best way to get around is by air, as I hate every aspect of flying I find this an unfortunate reality of travelling in Colombia. I took a 1 hour flight from Cartagena to Medellín with Viva Air which can easily be booked in English on the website. However just like other budget airlines, they try their best to trick you into paying for different kinds of extras.

It’s also possible to fly with Avianca which is Colombia’s biggest airline, although their faire prices are a bit pricier, I found flying with them to be a pleasant experience when I flew into Colombia.

8. 10 Days Isn’t Enough for Colombia

I had 10 days to experience Colombia, I spent this time in Cartagena, Medellín, Armenia and Bogotá. All I can say is that this wasn’t nearly enough to get a good impression of the country. I’d advise if you’re planning a trip to Colombia, I recommend dedicating at least two weeks for it and I have to say it’s absolutely worth it. I could spend so many more days in Medellín and Bogotá as they are legendary cities.

It’s worth mentioning that travelling in Europe is heavily different from Latin America. It’s all too easy to spend a month in Europe and seriously get under the skin of Poland in under 10 days. On the other hand Colombia takes a lot of time to get to know, mostly because Medellín and Bogotá are both huge metropolitan cities. Furthermore, it takes a lot of time to get from one place to the other as the country is so huge.

Take a look at these posts if you enjoyed this and want to know more about Colombia:

My time in Bogotá

My time in Medellín

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