A Traveler’s Guide to Transportation in Colombia

WIllys, aka Jeeps, are the only form of public transit in Salento, Colombia... which means they're the only way to get to the famous Valle de Cocora hike!
A traveler's guide to transportation in Colombia, from colectivos to buses to mototaxis and everything in between! After a month of backpacking, we figured out everything you need to know to get around Colombia.

Before travelling to Colombia, we did a lot of research. But transportation in Colombia wasn’t something we found much information on. We looked up how to get from each city that we wanted to visit to the next destination on our list, and most information was vague: “just take a colectivo,” it said, or “there’s usually a bus going that direction.” Um, what’s a colectivo? How do I actually find the bus?! This was the kind of information I knew we’d need about transportation in Colombia, and I wasn’t finding it. It made me a little nervous, since I’m the kind of person who likes to know what to expect. After a month of travelling by bus, van, jeep, and motorcycle through Colombia and finally figuring the whole system out – transportation in Colombia is a LOT different than what I’m used to in the USA – I decided to write the post that I wish I would have seen before we arrived! Read on to find out the types of available transportation  in Colombia and the pros and cons for each type.

Guane on the Camino Real hike from Barichara in the Santander region near San Gil, Colombia. To get there, just take a bus from San Gil! Read all about transportation in Colombia in our guide.
Stunning Guane, next to Barichara, the so-called most beautiful town in Colombia. In the Santander Region, a short bus ride away from San Gil, Colombia.

Colectivos in Colombia

What is a Colectivo: A “colectivo” is a shared van or small bus, usually for about 6-12 people. Typically they are privately owned by an enterprising individual who has purchased the vehicle themselves and uses it to shuttle people around, pocketing the proceeds. Although they seemed sketch at first, colectivos are a totally legitimate form of public transportation in Colombia and usually very cheap. You can find them anywhere that tourists are common. Typically their drivers will call out the destinations or approach you asking if you’re going to that destination. They will round up passengers going to the same place until they fill up their vehicle (which sometimes takes a while, be prepared).

Pros for taking Colectivos in Colombia:

  • Cheap: a great form of transportation in Colombia for budget travelers.
  • Because they are not on a set route, drivers are usually flexible and will drop you nearby their destinations or wherever you ask (like a hostel, an ATM, a certain intersection, etc) which saves you time and money getting to your ultimate destination versus being dropped at a bus station.

Cons for taking Colectivos in Colombia:

  • Not always air-conditioned… or comfortable.
  • Drop-off location and fee is at the driver’s discretion – so negotiate before getting into the colectivo.
  • Unreliable leave times. You could be waiting for a while for the driver to find other passengers. Allow yourself extra time.
  • Colectivos are privately owned, so you can’t exactly call lost and found or complain to customer service if anything happens. We never had any issues, though!
Sprawling metropolitan Medellin, Colombia. Medellin offers loads of options for transportation in Colombia, from a subway to hilltop gondola rides! Read more about transportation in Colombia in our traveler's guide.
Sprawling metropolitan Medellin, Colombia. Medellin offers loads of options for transportation in Colombia, from a subway to hilltop gondola rides!

Public Buses in Colombia

Public buses in Colombia are best for short term travel, like getting around town or somewhere relatively nearby. The public buses in Colombia can be a bit confusing, but they are by far the cheapest option for getting around. Each bus looks totally unique: they’re all very colorful and most of them have giant pictures of Jesus absolutely everywhere, both inside and outside.  There is no singular bus system operating public buses in Colombia anywhere that we have been except for Bogota. We also haven’t been able to figure out how bus stops work. From what we can tell, buses drive a set route, and you’re welcome to be dropped off anywhere along that route if you ask the driver. Your fee will be calculated by the driver or other bus employee based on how far along the route you are travelling – negotiate this in advance of entering the bus.

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Pros for taking Public Buses in Colombia:

  • The cheapest transportation option by far: perfect for budget travelers.
  • A good way to see parts of town and people that you probably wouldn’t otherwise interact with.
  • You can get picked up anywhere along the route by flagging down the bus, and dropped off anywhere along the route by asking the driver.
  • There is always someone hopping onto the bus offering to sell you snacks, and the snacks are usually pretty good.

Cons for taking Public Buses in Colombia:

  •  A/C is unlikely, which can be unbearable in a hot place like Cartagena.
  • Storage space for your bags can be a little sketch and not close to where you’re seated. Pack your valuables in a smaller bag that never leaves your hands and put locks on your suitcase/backpack.
  • People are constantly getting on and off the bus and selling things, which is somewhat entertaining but can also be confusing.
  • As is always the case with buses making multiple stops along the route, a public bus is typically the slowest way to reach your destination.
A picturesque coffee farm in Salento, deep within Colombia's scenic coffee region. To get to Salento, we took a 12-hour bus ride from Medellin. Read more about transportation in Colombia in our traveler's guide.
A picturesque coffee farm in Salento, deep within Colombia’s scenic coffee region. To get to Salento, we took a 12-hour bus ride from Medellin.

Coach Buses in Colombia

Coach buses are best for long term travel, such as from one city to another. Private coach bus companies like Berlinas or Flota Occidental operate set routes running on a timely schedule from a bus station in one destination to another station in another town or city. They don’t take many unscheduled stops, which means they are typically faster than a public bus. They are usually air conditioned and often have Wi-Fi on board. For these conveniences you will pay a higher fee. It’s easy to figure out how to take a private bus once you find your way to the town’s bus terminal: just walk around looking for signs for your destination and ask what time the bus leaves and how much it costs. There are usually multiple options all leaving at different times, usually costing similar prices. You’ll find buses like these throughout South America! Read more about bus travel throughout South America  in this post by Travel Outlandish. 

Pros for Coach Buses in Colombia

  • Generally reliable timetable (give or take an hour for your arrival)
  • Usually air conditioned.
  • Sometimes have Wi-Fi onboard, and sometimes it is even free!
  • Easy to find – just ask for the bus terminal. Ask anyone – your taxi driver, hostel staff, people on the street. They’ll all know where to direct you.
  • There are loads of routes going all over Colombia. Just walk through the bus terminal and look for signs for the town you’re headed to. If you need to take multiple buses and transfer, someone usually will explain it to you.
  • Typically a long coach bus ride will make a half-hour stop for lunch in some random location in the middle of nowhere. This is great for a toilet break and stretching your legs, but the quality of the available food is a complete tossup. Honestly, we had some of the best Colombian food at bus rest stops; we’ve also had some terrible options! Bring a snack (and plenty of water!) just in case.
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Cons for Coach Buses in Colombia:

  •  It’s not always easy or cheap to get to the station – they’re not usually in the center of town. You will likely have to take a taxi to get there. Watch out for cities like Medellin and Bogota that have two terminals for different destinations  (north and south) – make sure you ask for the right one! Also, note which one you’ll be arriving at.
  • They are relatively expensive, but the price is universal (usually … we have gotten up-charged without realizing it until later. Make sure you’re being charged the same as a non-Gringo.)
  • Little to no flexibility. You can ask the driver to drop you off somewhere along the route, but they may or may not do so (depending on the bus company). Typically you will be dropped off at a bus station in your destination town and then will need to transport yourself to your actual destination.
Cartagena, Colombia. Find out all about transportation in Colombia in our traveler's guide.
Colorful Cartagena, Colombia. Our first destination in Colombia. Our taxi driver didn’t know where it was and couldn’t find it, so we spent 45 minutes trying to help him with broken Spanish and no clue where we were – all in a 90 degree car sauna! The best part? He didn’t charge us extra for the trouble. Colombians are the sweetest!

Taxis in Colombia

Taxis are the most convenient form of transportation in Colombia. However, the easiest way to get around is always the most expensive. Taxis are easy to use and universal – yes, they’re all yellow! The main thing to know is to always negotiate fare or ask for an estimate before getting into the taxi, as they do not necessarily have a meter like you’re probably used to. Some cities, like Medellin, have working meters. Others, like Cartagena, do not. On the plus side, a negotiated fare stays the same no matter the traffic, route, or amount of effort required to find your location. Note: Uber is illegal in Colombia, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (your driver will ask you to lie if you get pulled over, though). However, taxis are common enough that we haven’t really needed to use Uber.

Pros for taking Taxis in Colombia:

  • Easy to pick up anywhere – there is always a taxi around, or you can ask someone to call one for you.
  • Comfortable and private.
  • Fastest way to reach your destination because there won’t be any other stops to make.

Cons for taking Taxis in Colombia:

  •  Do not expect working seat belts in the back seat. They do not exist.
  •  A/C is not guaranteed.
  • Typically the most expensive form of transportation in Colombia.
  • Fee is decided at the driver’s leisure and you may be quietly paying a “gringo tax” without realizing it.
  • Driver may or may not know your destination. Have a map and the address handy and be prepared to help them locate it if necessary.
Sunset over the Caribbean ocean in Minca, Colombia. Getting around Minca is most easily accomplished using mototaxis, which can take you through jungle forests with ease. Read more about transportation in Colombia in our guide.
Sunset over the Caribbean ocean in Minca, Colombia. Getting around Minca is most easily accomplished using mototaxis, which can take you through jungle forests with ease.

Mototaxis in Colombia

A mototaxi is exactly what you’d think: a motorcycle taxi. Go ahead – channel your inner Che Guevara! Mototaxis are probably the most fun form of transportation in Colombia! You will be riding on the back of someone’s motorcycle or scooter. It’s much cheaper than a taxi, and a bit of a thrill for the adventure seeker. But it can also be more dangerous, especially in inclement weather. We saw a bad mototaxi accident happen in a rainstorm. Don’t risk it! Mototaxis are best when you don’t have a lot of baggage with you, and ideal for short distances. Always negotiate pricing before climbing on.

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Pros for taking Mototaxis in Colombia:

  • Mototaxis are so much fun!
  • Cheaper than a taxi.
  • No stops needed for other passengers.
  • Can generally find one anywhere. We once took one back from a waterfall in a forest in Minca.
  • Mototaxis can also go places where cars can’t, like unpaved paths or forests!

Cons for taking Mototaxis in Colombia:

  • Can be dangerous – don’t ride if they don’t offer you a helmet to wear.
  • You’ll be holding onto a complete stranger, which can be uncomfortable and also sweaty.
  • Only one person can ride at a time, so you’ll need multiple mototaxis if you’re travelling with others.
  • Mototaxis don’t offer much in the way of storage space. Not great if you’re carrying a lot of baggage, but a  small backpack will be fine.
Wax palms on the Valle de Cocora hike in Salento. Colombia! To get to and from the valley, you'll need to take a Willy, one of our favorite forms of transportation in Colombia.
Wax palms on the Valle de Cocora hike in Salento. Colombia! To get to and from the valley, you’ll need to take a Willy, one of our favorite forms of transportation in Colombia.

Willys: Jeep Transportation in Colombia

Willys are like a cross between a taxi and a collectivo.  Willys consist of a Jeep with a modified backseat suitable to fit up to 15 people: 8 people seated in the back, 2 + a driver in the front, and 5 people standing!  Yep, standing – literally standing on the back of the Jeep and holding onto the rack on top. It’s SO MUCH FUN. We’ve actually only seen Willys in Salento, but I bet they exist elsewhere in Colombia (anyone know where?) They were actually the ONLY form of public transit in Salento – there weren’t any taxis at all! Honestly, we recommend taking a Willy if you can just because it’s REALLY fun.

Pros for taking Willys in Colombia:

  • Usually cheap – many of our rides around Salento were $1 each
  • Jeeps have no trouble with unpaved roads, so you’ll find these in places cars can’t go
  • Standing on the back is one of the most fun ways to travel ever, up there with Mototaxis. And possibly less dangerous…? But honestly, there’s no better to appreciate the stunning scenery of the Eje Cafetero/Coffee Region than flying through it in the open air.

Cons for taking Willys in Colombia:

  • Can be expensive – it really just depends on the driver. Most of our rides in Salento were cheap, but once we paid 3x more than we should have coming back from a coffee farm because there was no other option.
  • There are no other options in Salento, so when the Willy drivers aren’t around, that’s it. You’re kind of stuck. We once arrived in town after 8 and had to wait for a long time for a driver to show up.

And there you have it – a complete rundown of the transportation in Colombia for travelers. Note that we haven’t included easy to navigate transit like the subway in Medellin – which is fantastic, by the way, read all about it here – or impossible transit like the bus system in Bogota, which we actually couldn’t figure out. Did we miss anything? Please let us know your questions in the comments!

4 Comment

  1. K says: Reply

    Mi esposo y yo estamos en las mismas. Ya llevamos cinco meses en Colombia y si el medio de transporte ha sido muy interesante. También somos de California. Suerte y sigue disfrutando Colombia.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Gracias! Yo voy a tratar responder en espanol (disculpe porque mi espanol es terible). Pensamos que el transporte todo es una parte de la aventura en Colombia. Esperamos que disfrutan Colombia tambien!

  2. Rianne says: Reply

    Thanks for this summary of transport options! My husband is Colombian, so I’ve been to Colombia several times, but we’ve never taken any public transport. Always taxi’s or we drive a car rental or borrow cars from family and friends. To cover large distances within the country, most Colombians I know fly between the main cities.

    I just wanted to make you aware that perhaps it is good to warn people about the safety of using different types of transportation. My husband doesn’t take public transport because he is afraid of robbery, and as a ‘gringo’ we are the ultimate target. Being a foreinger equals having money… Several of his friends and family members have been robbed of their smartphone while taking a bus.

    But on the other hand, taxis have their risks as well, since there are criminals that collaborate with taxi drivers as well. In this case they will drive you to several cash points around the city so you can empty all your accounts for them. Obviously using force, in which case you are always advised to comply. To prevent this from happening, we always try to make sure we only use registered/official taxis.

    These are all stories I have heard from Colombians, living in Colombia. Although on a side note, I have found Colombians to be extremely cautious and risk averse at times. I believe this might be due to the years of violence they’ve had to endure, and perhaps the country isn’t as dangerous as they still tend to think/fear. Oh and perhaps it also doesn’t help that my husband is from Cali, which is still considered more dangerous and tourist don’t usually go there.

    Would love to hear if you have ever heard about these risks/dangers, and how you feel about it all!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks for the insight, Rianne! We actually felt incredible safe in Colombia – far more so than some of the other countries we visited in South America, and certainly more so than most of the cities we visited in Europe and our own home of San Francisco, where getting your phone stolen on public transit is as common as getting your hair cut. We specifically avoided Cali because we heard it was dangerous (though we’ve since regretted our overly cautious attitude, because we hear Cali is awesome). But everywhere that we travel, we always follow basic safety guidelines to keep us, and our stuff safe. You can read about what we do to say safe here: http://practicalwanderlust.com/2016/09/travel-safety-tips.html

      I’ve actually had worse/scarier experiences in taxis similiar to what you described (being at the mercy of a taxi driver, especially late at night, is SO scary) in New Jersey, USA – but we find ourselves so frequently scammed, insulted, and inconvenienced by taxi drivers that we tend to avoid them now! Though we do us Lyft wherever possible. In general, I’d say you’re as safe taking public transit in Colombia as you are in most major cities in the world: keep a firm grip on your phone and a hand or eye on your belongings, and you’ll be fine.

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