Colombia might not be at the top of many Americans’ destination lists, but in my opinion, it should be. We tend to associate Colombia with the drug trade and assume it’s unsafe to travel there. At one time, that was the case — but no longer so. As long as you’re staying in cities and avoiding rural jungles near Venezuela, you’ll have little to worry about. Colombia is a beautiful, incredibly friendly country with a lot to offer. Here are my top reasons why Colombia is indeed a budget traveler’s paradise.
(Note: This list will focus on Cartagena and Bogota, because those are the two cities I’ve traveled to so far, but there are many other amazing cities to visit in Colombia, like Medellin.)
You can fly there for cheap on Spirit Airlines.
Spirit offers several flights to Colombia routed through Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. My round-trip flight from Dallas to Colombia was about $500 and was quite short in length — Colombia’s actually not that far away!
Prices are typically low.
Without a booming tourism industry, Colombians also haven’t overinflated prices, meaning you can have an excellent, comfortable vacation for very little money. Even the cerveza you drink in Colombia is likely cheaper than the normal price of beer back home.
The people are amazingly friendly.
Because the country is still getting over a negative image, it’s rare for the people to encounter tourists, and they’re grateful and happy to see Americans when they do. Anyone who’s traveled outside the United States and Mexico knows how rare that reception is. Every Colombian I came into contact with completely overwhelmed me with kindness, enthusiasm and over-the-top hospitality — from the bar owner who invited me to join his table with his friends and family for a memorable night of conversation in broken Spanish, to the family who invited me to join their rented cabana on the beach simply as a kind gesture, to the young woman I arranged to meet in Bogota for language exchange who ended up picking me up from the airport just to be nice (and is someone I call a friend to this day). I have yet to experience this kind of warm reception as a tourist anywhere else.
There are so many free or cheap things to do in Colombia.
Some of the best and most fun experiences you can have in Colombia cost very little or no money at all.
Every Sunday and holiday in Bogota, the streets are closed to cars, which then fill with bicycles and pedestrians. It’s called Ciclovía, and it’s a trend that appears to be growing (even in my home city of Dallas, a festival called Ciclovia was held in which streets were shut down for the same purpose — and it was said to have been directly inspired by Bogota’s example).
Natalie, an expat living in Bogota, wrote this about Ciclovía in her blog A Year Without Peanut Butter:
“The pride and joy of the city, Sunday (and holiday) Ciclovía is, hands down, one of the greatest treats Bogotá has to offer. You can’t really get to know this town until you stroll one of the main streets when it’s packed with bikers, rollerbladers, skate punks, kids on tricycles, dogs lounging in baskets or trotting alongside their owners, juice vendors, roadside bike repairmen and just about everything else. All you need to enjoy Ciclovía is a pair of shoes, some water and a serious appreciation for the best people-watching in central Colombia.”
Indeed, people-watching and simply strolling around and exploring historic neighborhoods is one of my favorite things to do in Colombia. In Bogota, the famous historic colonial neighborhood is called La Candelaria. Strolling the streets of La Candelaria is like walking into Bogota’s colonial past.
In Cartagena, the historic district is still bordered by stone walls, and the walled city of Cartagena has been called the jewel of South America. When you get bored of strolling the ancient streets, admiring the colorful architecture and sampling from the many street food vendors, you can take a boat to nearby islands for some relaxation on Colombia’s Caribbean beaches.
In Bogota, many museums are free, including the Museo Nacional and the Museo Botero, which houses artwork of famous Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero. You can also see Botero’s sculptures installed as public art in Medellin, Botero’s hometown, and Cartagena, pictured here:
Bogota is also known for its free concerts in public parks, like Estereo Picnic in April. Also recommended for first-time visitors to Bogota is the Paloquemao market, which Natalie of A Year Without Peanut Butter describes as “a sensory attack of colors, flavors and smells.” Entrance is free.
For me, the appeal of Colombia is how easy and inexpensive it is for Americans to get to such a place that simultaneously offers history and culture, colorful and crumbling architecture, art and Caribbean beaches — but how friendly and welcoming everyone is when you get there truly makes the trip worth taking. If you’re planning a vacation to Central or South America, I urge you to stray from the beaten tourist path and consider Colombia.