In 2016, we quit our jobs, put everything we owned in storage, and took off for South America with only what we could fit in our backpacks. Our first destination? Colombia. We got a lot of weird looks when we told our friends and family we were starting our trip out by backpacking in Colombia; looks that said things like “so, you’re starting a coke ring?” and “but you know there’s plenty of coke in San Francisco, right?” Despite the worst assumptions made by our friends and families (love you guys, thanks a lot), we aren’t interested in coke (like … at all. Why is that still a thing? It’s 2016, not 1985), and it’s not why we wanted to visit Colombia.
It may come as a surprise to some, but Colombia has shed its unsavory reputation from the past few decades to emerge as a fantastic tourist destination. The enormous country has scenery diverse enough to appease even the most variety-craving traveler: everything from warm Caribbean tropical beaches, to the rolling green hills of the coffee region, the tallest palm trees in the world, the 2nd largest canyon in the world, ancient ruins hidden in the jungle, and several huge metropolitan cities with all of their comforts. In Colombia you can swim, para-sail, rappel down an enormous waterfall, white water raft, hike, trek through the jungle, bungee jump, drink farm-fresh organic coffee, and eat your way through the many delicious foods of Colombia.
After 1 month of gringo-ing around in our new favorite country (here’s our Colombia itinerary, if you’re curious) we’ve made some observations – with love and affection, we swear – about backpacking in Colombia. Without further ado and in no particular order…
Things You Should Know Before Backpacking in Colombia
All of the coins are different sizes, even in the exact same denominations. This has the effect of making it impossible to get an idea of which coin is which without staring at it for a while, so you constantly feel like Harry Potter when he first tries to pay for something with Wizard money.
Honking is like a national Colombian past time. Drivers will honk to say hello, to tell you to move, to comment on your outfit, to assert their authority, or just to say “hello world! I have a car and I’m driving it! Look at me!”
- Road rules are fun suggestions that nobody pays attention to. Things like double yellow lines or speed limits are usually taken as challenges and aggressively ignored.
- Toiletries in Colombia are expensive and poor quality. I suspect it’s because every Colombian has been blessed with perfect hair genes (see: Sofia Vergara’s hair) and has no use for gringo things like conditioner. My split ends and I are squeezing every last drop out of the hotel-sized toiletries I brought with us!
- You can’t throw toilet paper into the toilets here, and things like soap and paper towels are luxuries. Often, you must pay for the privilege of using toilet paper or soap. Whenever we find a bathroom that has all 3 included, we feel spoiled and find ourselves saying things like “oooh! Paper towels and free toilet paper! Fancy.“
- Tomato sauce is hard to find and expensive, but ketchup is readily available. If only we could make pasta with ketchup. (I wanted to try, but Jeremy said no, so there will not be a “Ketchup Pasta Recipe” blog post, sorry.)
- Condiments in Colombia come in squeeze bags with screw tops, and we decided we actually like that way better. It’s much easier and cleaner to make a sandwich while balancing all of your food on your lap during a bumpy bus ride! Plus, you can squeeze out every last drop, like toothpaste. Which if you’re
a stingy assholefrugal like me, is really important (I paid a WHOLE DOLLAR for that mayonnaise, ok?!!)
- If you don’t convert Colombian Pesos to US Dollars, all of the prices are comparable to what you’d expect in the US. And then, once you do the conversion, you realize everything is 1/3 the cost of what you thought it was. YAY! It’s really exciting at first. Then, eventually, you stop doing the conversion, and start being enraged about prices again. No? Just me?
- Hostels in Colombia are inexpensive and fantastic quality. I’ve written more about our favorite hostels in Colombia here. But let the record stand: when a hostel dorm costs less than $10/night, it’s worth it to upgrade to a private! We’ve spent months on our our honeymoon sharing dorm rooms with 8 loudly snoring people and sleeping in separate beds, all so we could save a few bucks. I’ve been having cheapskate regrets (which is so rare for me because I’m
- Most Colombian hostels include a filling breakfast in the cost of a room. Yes, that’s right. A bed for less than $10 a night, PLUS 2 fried eggs, bread with butter and jam, juice, fresh fruit, coffee… It sounds too good to be true, but that’s just another reason why we love Colombia! We often found ourselves filling up on breakfast and saving money on food for the entire day!
- Everything and everything in Colombia is Tranquilo. It’s like, a national state of existence, the same way “chill” describes the entirety of southern California. Everyone tells you tranquilo all the time. Lost or stranded? Tranquilo. Running late, out of money, dropped off hours away from your intended destination? Tranquilo. Having a panic attack while dangling from a rope on a waterfall 250 feet in the air (story here)? Tranquilo. Doesn’t matter how legitimate you feel your anxiety may be, someone will cheerfully tell you to be tranquilo. We even had one super chill Colombian bro say “tranqui” to us once. Tranqui, breh. Fersh.
- Time moves differently in Colombia. It is also tranquilo, and thus does not follow the ordinary laws of time. So expect to wait 20 minutes for your coffee to be served, 45 minutes for food, and an hour for the check to be brought to your table (we’ve given up on waiting, actually. Just walk up to someone who works there and pay them). Expect a paid tour to be 2 hours late, and a bus to take at least 4 hours longer than expected. And if you find yourself panicking about missing your bus/plane/train/everything, take a deep breath, and repeat after me: Tranquilo.
- Don’t forget to bring a full sized towel. We brought a tiny travel towel that’s about the size of my left thigh, and trust me: tiny travel towels are NOT worth the .00005 oz weight savings. Fuck you, tiny travel towel. Not only have we spent more on renting towels than it would have cost to just bring our own stupid towels, but not ever hostel even HAS a towel available to rent. This is one of our biggest packing regrets for our trip.
- If someone wants to serve you soup at a typico/traditional Colombian restaurant, or there is soup on the menu, you eat that soup. Do not question this. I don’t care if it’s 85 degrees in the shade, trust me, you will never regret eating Colombian soup. It is bomb.
- English speaking is not common here. If you don’t speak much Spanish, you’re going to struggle to communicate. Luckily everyone is tranquilo and doesn’t seem to mind waiting patiently for you to act out whatever it is you’re trying to say.
- If you see a fruit you can’t identify, you should try it. Especially if it has crazy armor on it. In fact, the weirder it looks, the better! Our favorite fruit is Cherimoya. It looks like a melted artichoke on the outside, and alien brains on the inside. But it tastes like honeysuckle and bubblegum and happiness.
- Aguila is our favorite Colombian beer. It’s sort of like Colombian Budweiser. It’s always costs less than $1, and it tastes the exact same as the fancier brand, Club Colombia (and, frankly, every other beer we’ve tried here. There’s not a lot of variety). It won’t get you drunk, though – for that, drink Aguardiente. Yum.
- Colombians are friendly, kind, generous, and very happy to help. If you’re lost or confused, find anyone on the street and ask them for help. Even with your shitty Spanish and Charades-style communication skills, they’ll usually be happy to help. Colombians are some of the friendliest people we’ve ever met!
- Tips are included with your bill. We thought they weren’t, so we overpaid for like 2 weeks straight and were super confused as to why everyone was so thrilled. Look for a line that says “propina” on your receipt, just above the total – that’s the tip.
- Every Colombian song has the word “corazon” in it at least once, usually several times. Also, a lot of cowbell. Once you notice these things, you can never un-notice them. Sorry, we just ruined Colombian traditional music for you. Whoops.
- Reggaeton is the best music ever and you will end up loving it even if you don’t want to. It’s just so freaking catchy. Plus, it’s played EVERYWHERE! Resist all you want, but you’ll succumb too. Shakira, Nicky Jam, Enrique Iglesias, and Bomba Estereo are the new soundtrack for my life, and also my life is a constant Latino party. Below is our favorite song from Colombia. Not only does it begin with the word “corazon,” (THREE TIMES!) but it will make you want to drop everything and go to Parque Tayrona immediately. And it’s catchy, AND it’s inclusive! Look, just watch the video, we promise it’s great.
- The milk in Colombia is extremely sweet and sold in bags. But since there’s no Cinnamon Toast Crunch or other decent cereal to eat it with, we don’t have any use for milk anyway.
- In addition to milk, everything in Colombia is sweeter than what you’d expect, from fresh fruit juice (jugo naturales) to cakes and desserts (postre) to sodas (gaseoas). We once ordered a piece of cake and neither of us could finish it – and we both have a MAJOR sweet tooth! We’ve taken to eating fresh fruit for dessert just to keep our heart rates down.
- Things in Colombia have a way of magically working themselves out. 3 times we’ve gone on a long hike, only to run out of water, run out of time, AND run out of money. 3 times we’ve found somewhere to buy water, caught the last bus with seconds to spare, and been happily driven to an ATM where the entire bus patiently waited for us to get more cash. Is it travel magic, or is it realismo magico? Whatever it is, Colombia is magical. We’ve begun internalizing tranquilo and just waiting for things to work themselves out. We’re SO chill now, you guys. Seriously, we only freaked out like, 18 times last week.
- Visit the nearest Colombian mercado for fresh produce and meat! If you have access to a kitchen (and know how to cook), this is the cheapest and freshest way to eat. All of the produce is farm fresh, and all of the meat here is grass fed and pasture raised. I’ve met a lot of very happy livestock in Colombia, and they all tasted delicious.
- Sidewalks are for chumps. You will find yourself walking in the street along with everyone else soon enough, and casually floating to the side whenever someone honks at you. Tranquilo.
- Hats are an important accessory in Colombia for more reasons than you’d expect. Fedoras, an American symbol of being an asshole, are in fact a fashionable accessory here (particularly for gringos) and you’ll see them for sale everywhere. We were actually tempted to buy one. A more traditional Colombian hat is the attractive striped sombrero vueltiaos. This iconic striped sombrero is a useful way for judging things like whether the food somewhere is good, or whether you’re likely to get stared at for entering somewhere: the more men wearing striped sombreros you see in a place, the more traditional it is (and thus the food is better and you will probably get stared at). I once walked into a little shop full of men in striped hats and immediately everyone froze and someone whispered, “es una gringa!” Awkward.
- Salespeople are kind of relentless in Colombia. Walking into a mercado, you’ll be confronted by a continual chorus of “a la orden!” which is an idiom that means, basically, “at your service.” We haven’t yet figured out how many of these we have to acknowledge with a smile and a “gracias” or “buenas” to not seem like those gringo assholes, versus how many we can safely ignore while we shop in antisocial peace.
- Bus rides in Colombia are adventures in and of themselves. Buses never leave at the time they’re supposed to (thanks to the Colombian space-time continuum where everything is delayed a few hours), and if a bus has even a couple of empty seats, it will circle around for hours trying to find people to fill them before actually leaving for your destination. If by some miracle your bus DOES leave on time (once we even left with a half empty bus!!!) you’ll inevitably hit traffic or construction, spend an hour at some random lunch spot, get dropped off at completely across town from your destination, and arrive at your destination roughly 5 hours late. On the plus side, you’ll never need to bring snacks on a Colombian bus – there’s always vendors hopping on to sell you food or offering snacks through the window in traffic. Read more about ridiculous Colombian transportation.
Our month backpacking in Colombia was a blast and we enjoyed every minute of it! Well, okay, we’ve enjoyed at least 95% of the minutes, and the other 5% were really terrible and stressful and mainly involved hiking and being rescued off a waterfall, so you can’t blame us for not enjoying those minutes.
Psst: We’ve got a ton of other resources for Colombia that you’ll want to look at before your trip!
- What to Pack for Colombia
- The Best Hostels in Colombia
- Colombia Itinerary: Ultimate Guide to 1 Month of Backpacking Colombia
- A Complete Guide to Transportation in Colombia
- The Best Colombian Food: What to Eat in Colombia
Have you ever gone backpacking in Colombia? Did any of these ring true for you? Leave us a comment below!
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