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Country Facts – Colombia

This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).

Colombia Country Guide

Once strictly off-limits for all but the most essential travel, Colombia is now enjoying something of a renaissance. As the drug-related violence and crime has dropped away due to government initiatives, so tourists have started to rediscover all that Colombia has to offer.

Now considered much safer for travellers, Colombia is a hugely diverse country boasting a seemingly never-ending array of different foods, languages and culture.

If you’re looking for an unusual travel destination that is awash with experiences to awaken the senses, you would be well advised to consider exploring this dynamic and varied country.

Climate

Located at the southern tip of Panama, Colombia boasts a wealth of climatic zones and, as a result, a large diversity of wildlife.

Unsurprisingly for its location, Colombia has a tropical climate with the typical wet/dry season split seen in many other Central and South American countries. In Colombia the rainy season lasts broadly from May to December, where rain can fall in torrential downpours. At such times landslides can occur, rivers can swell and more rural roads can become impassable. Outside of this period the weather is drier and much more conducive to tourism.

However adding to geographic diversity is the wide range of altitudes seen here. These combine with the climate to produce five different key habitats; namely tropical forest, savannah, steppe, desert and mountain. There are even areas above 4,000 metres in height where snow lays year-round. Each of these zones boasts a slightly different weather system, and resultant differences in flora and fauna.

Indeed, such a variety of environmental niches are present in Colombia that it boasts more species of bird than any other country in the world; more than both Europe and the USA added together. In addition Colombia also boasts more endemic species than anywhere else on earth.

Indeed, so diverse are the environmental conditions found in Colombia that no matter what your optimum temperature and level of precipitation you will be able to find an area whose weather suits you perfectly.

Culture

Colombia has long been associated with the international drugs trade. The diversity of habitats here makes the country perfect for drug-production, while its position at the northern tip of South America makes it ideal for trafficking purposes.

It is for this reason that Colombia has become infamous over the years, keeping tourists away from this historically violent and crime-ridden part of the world.

These days, however, such impressions are somewhat anachronistic. The government of Colombia has worked hard in recent decades to stamp out drug-related crime. While the country still has some way to go, Colombia is now safer than it has been for years, and tourists are starting to tentatively return.

Arguably this makes it the perfect time to visit Colombia; the lack of visitors from the USA and Europe have meant minimal development of many towns and cities. The country is packed with stunning colonial settlements that have changed very little since the original Spanish settlers arrived at the end of the 1400’s.

The reality of the situation is that whilst violence was once rife in Colombia, the drug cartels represent only a tiny percentage of the population. The vast majority of native Colombians are as law abiding as any other country and have grown as frustrated with the problems as anyone.

The population of Colombia is intriguingly different to the classic gun-toting image of the country. Indeed, Colombians typically value manners and decorum above all else.

Most towns and cities are kept neat and tidy, rubbish is carefully placed into bins and household guests are warmly welcomed. This national identity is one more reason why this country is becoming ever more popular with tourists.

Language

Colombians speak a surprisingly diverse range of languages. For example 65 Amerindian languages are recognized, with two Creole languages commonly spoken too. The official language of Colombia however is Spanish (often referred to as Castillian), which is hardly surprising when so much of the population can trace their heritage back to the time of the Spanish invasion.

English-speaking can be rather patchy. Generally speaking you are more likely to be understood speaking English in and around the major cities where tourism is more commonplace.

In the more rural areas, however, English is less seldom encountered. As a result for anyone travelling extensively around Colombia it will almost certainly be necessary to use some Spanish if you are to make yourself understood.

Transportation

Colombia is a large country, so if you are to make the most of your visit you will want to travel extensively. Fortunately there are a wide range of possible transportation options available to you.

First and foremost, most of Colombia is connected by a cheap public bus service. These buses, while reliable and wide-ranging, are often slow and massively over crowded, making them less tempting for visitors than other forms of transport.

That said, for a truly Colombian experience try catching a lift on one of the much-loved “chiva” buses, which are hand-painted works of art in their own right.

Within urban areas taxis are plentiful and comparatively cheap so are usually the preferred mode of transport. Those within the major cities are metered though in more rural areas it will normally be necessary to negotiate a price before embarking on your journey. Be specific about whether the cost applies to each passenger individually or not; travellers tell tales of unscrupulous taxi drivers outside of the main hubs significantly overcharging unwitting foreign visitors.

Even cheaper than a standard taxi are the “shared” taxis – known in Colombia as “buesta” – which pick up and drop off on demand. That said, care should be taken in vehicles where passengers are already present. It is not uncommon for these “passengers” to actually be accomplices, and the poor unsuspecting traveller to become the victim of a mugging.

For safety, then, avoid getting into taxis that already contain passengers. It is also recommended that you order a taxi via telephone or one of the many apps operating in Colombia in order to ensure you are making use of a reputable taxi firm. It is not unheard of for private vehicles to pose as taxis in order to take advantage of wealthy foreign visitors.

While no passenger train lines are present in Colombia, the city of Medellin does boast both a Metro and a system of cable cars, which can not only make navigating the hillsides more pleasant, but can also afford some impressive views of the city below.

Driving in Colombia is possible, and may actually be one of the best ways to see the more rural parts of the country. While the rainy season can see road surfaces deluged – or even washed away – many of the roads in Colombia are well-maintained and enjoyable to drive on.

That said, the situation is rather different within the major cities, where driving is considered both chaotic and dangerous, as few drivers pay attention to the driving rules in place. Also, driving at night is best avoided if possible due to the significant increases in both accidents and crimes occurring after dark.

Lastly, be aware that cycling is something of a national pastime in Colombia. Bicycles can be easily hired or purchased.

Healthcare

Over the last few years Colombia has become a popular medical tourism centre. Both public and private hospitals are present here, and both offer high standards of care. A two-tier system ensures that all Colombians have access to free health care, irrespective of their income level. After significant changes in the 1990’s, good health is now considered a basic human right in the country.

Sadly, over-crowding is a problem in public health centres, where waiting times can be considerable. As a result most expats and tourists opt for private medical care. Not only will you likely be seen much quicker at a private facility but the standard of care is also typically higher. Most of the best-educated doctors and nurses are drawn toward private practise due to the higher salaries and many of these individuals, having been educated abroad, speak fluent English.

Note that the ambulance service in Colombia, while contactable on 123, is not considered reliable. This is especially so outside of the main urbanizations where it may take hours or even days to receive medical care. Clinics in these areas can also be significantly under-equipped.

This is a further reason why investing in appropriate health insurance should be considered mandatory, so that relocation to facilities with appropriate equipment can be expected if needed.

Money

The official currency within Colombia is the peso, though this is normally signified in shops and cafes by a dollar ($) sign. There are numerous currency exchange offices and banks in the major cities which will readily change both US Dollars and Euros.

Note that while credit cards are widely accepted in more urban areas, credit card fraud is big business in Colombia. For this reason, should you decide to settle a transaction using plastic you are strongly advised to take suitable precautions. Firstly, do not let the credit card out of your sight. Secondly, check the amount carefully before entering your PIN, and lastly retain receipts in case you need to refer back to them in the future.

Public ATMs are commonplace in cities like Medellin and Bogata, but are common locations of crime. For this reason it is advisable to only use indoor ATMs located inside banks, shops and the like. Patrons of such machines are far less regularly targeted by thieves.

Schooling

You may be surprised to hear that Colombia boasts a thriving and successful education system. Compulsory education is broken down into primary (age 6 to 10) and secondary (11 to 14). As a result of this system, Colombia boasts an impressive 93.6% literacy rate for school leavers.

While it is in theory possible for expat children to attend public schools in Colombia, the reality is that most parents opt for international schools. There are a number of reasons for this, not least the fact that Colombian public schools invariably teach in Spanish rather than English. In addition to this there are two academic calendars used by public schools; a school year either runs from February to November, or from September to June. This can make moving schools somewhat problematic as the pupils attempt to integrate into an existing and established class.

There are a surprising number of top-quality international schools present in Colombia which generally follow a standard US or UK schooling system. Lessons are most likely to be taught in English. Facilities are typically excellent and small class sizes mean more of the teacher’s attention.

The end result is that expat children can be accommodated well in Colombia and are unlikely to drop behind their friends back home. Such a concept is important because it means that transitioning to university overseas – if the desire arises – is far simpler.

Food & Drink

Colombia is an interesting country from a culinary point of view. The reason is that the diversity of habitats mean that different foods are more easily produced in some areas than others. Combine this with the wealth of ethnic diversity also shown within the country and one starts to understand why Colombia is such a fascinating prospect.

The end result of such diversity is that rather than having a handful of dishes which are popular right throughout the country, instead each area has its signature dishes. While there are common themes between them, the reality is that these huge range of foods and drinks can make visiting Colombia a tremendously exciting prospect for the palette.

As one travels across the country, so the menus change and new taste buds are stimulated. Fortunately the culinary diversity in Colombia means that irrespective of your tastes you will likely succeed in finding foods that appeal.

The closest thing that Colombia has to a national dish is known as “bandeja paisa”, a hearty dish of steak and pork, served on a bed of rice and beans and topped with a fried egg. It should come as no surprise, however, that this meal may come in many forms and much debate exists even within Colombia as to what the “right” way to serve it is.

To give some ideas about other popular meals, “bunuelos” are deep-fried balls combining flour and cheese, while tamales are the Colombian equivalent of pasties; maize dough that has been filled with meat and vegetables and then fried.

Perhaps rather less appealing to Western palettes is “hormigas culonas” which takes the form of giant flying ants that have been salted and roasted. Quite why the locals consider this an aphrodisiac is anyone’s guess.

Colombia has a long tradition of coffee production and you can expect some of the strongest, freshest and most delicious coffee of your life here. For non-coffee drinkers the other national institution is freshly-squeezed fruit juice. Mixed like cocktails, these juices are cheap to buy, delicious to drink and full of goodness.

Tap water is considered safe to drink in the main cities, though outside of these areas you are encouraged to drink bottled water and avoid ice in drinks.

Safety

While Colombia has sadly adopted a reputation for danger and crime, the reality is that most trips these days are without incident. That said, it would be foolish not to consider taking some basic precautions to help keep yourself safe.

Keep belongings on your person and try to conceal valuables wherever possible, especially in busy public areas. Travellers report that public transport is generally far safer than you might imagine, and buses may be caught with few issues.

These days the bigger worry when visiting Colombia are the number of infectious diseases present. These include not just Dengue Fever, Malaria and Yellow Fever but also Chikungyunga virus. The worst problems with malaria are experienced on the Pacific coast so special care should be taken here.

Travellers should visit their doctor to receive appropriate vaccinations in plenty of time before travelling. Bearing in mind the mosquito which spreads Chikungyunga flies during the day, and cannot currently be vaccinated against, care should be taken to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Use repellent daily and try to keep bare skin to a minimum.

Colombia also has a range of other natural forces which can cause issues. Of these, earthquakes and volcanoes do the most damage. Check carefully for news on these issues with the Foreign Office before leaving home, and keep an eye on local media in case of any change.

Places to Visit

In such a diverse country, filled to the brim with history, it should come as no surprise that there are a huge number of sites worth seeing, and no single trip could ever hope to experience everything that this incredible country has to offer. That said, here are a few of our favourite sites for visitors:

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Built in 1536, this enormous triangular-shaped fortress sits on a hill overlooking historic Cartagena. Both the castle and the city are UNESCO-listed monuments, offering an intriguing and well-preserved look at life in the time of the Spanish conquistadors.

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira

The town of Zipaquira was once famous as a salt mine. The local population burrowed into the local mountains, removing copious amounts of the mineral for food preservation long before the invention of the fridge-freezer.

Astonishingly, to make use of the hollowed-out Halite mountain the locals here built a Roman Catholic church some 200 metres underground. Even today it is considered one of Colombia’s most notable architectural achievements.

Mompox

Despite its unfortunate name, sounding rather like an unpleasant disease to Western ears, Mompox actually represents a fascinatingly well-preserved colonial city sat on an island plump in the centre of Cauca River.

These days the historic centre draws visitors from around the world, keen to explore the narrow streets, baroque churches and even the original colonial dungeons.

Tayrona National Park

Colombia’s most visited terrestrial national park, Tayrona represents 58 square miles of almost unblemished jungle and “picture postcard” beach. Of all the national parks present in Colombia, it is here where you stand the best chance of seeing an assortment of rare and beautiful wildlife. Many of the 300+ species of bird are to be found nowhere else in the world – some a barely found outside the confines of this incredible nature reserve.

San Augustin

The town of San Augustin has become world-famous after gaining UNESCO World Heritage status. History buffs will find themselves rejoicing when confronted by the largest collection of religious monuments found anywhere in South America. Come here to wonder at the diversity and scale of the sculptures, and to gain further understanding of the ancient Andean culture which once flourished here.

For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.

Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Colombia please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.

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