8 tips for backpacking Colombia

8 tips for backpacking Colombia
Colombia is a nation on the rise. The land of great food and big parties has it all, from the bougainvillea-festooned streets of Cartagena and the mysterious tombs of Tierradento. There’s white-water rafting at San Gil and all-night salsa clubs in Cali, and as a bonus, the exchange rate for Colombian pesos is low, making the country even cheaper than neighbouring Ecuador. Here’s some advices on backpacking Colombia:

1. Pick your season and region wisely

 The climate difference between Colombia’s Andean and coastal regions is especially acute: the Caribbean and Pacific cities can be unbearably hot in the summer, while Bogotá sits in damp, tropical highlands and can get chilly at night. Domestic bus/flight prices can go up a huge amount in December/January and Easter week in particular, while international flights to Colombia tend to be cheapest in February.

2. Shop around for buses

Buses are the main form of long-distance public transport in Colombia. On many routes there will be a choice of options varying in speed, comfort and price, so it’s a good idea to shop around at different companies’ kiosks (the smaller “Kia” minibuses are often cheaper and faster, if a little cramped). Look out also for the “puerta-a-puerta” (door-to-door) services between cities such as Cartagena and Santa Marta, which will drop you off at your hostel and save loads of time. Hostels should be able to recommend operators.

3. Work the hostel network

The hostel system in Colombia is growing, meaning there is always an affordable place to stay. Facilities typically include free wi-fi, simple breakfast, use of a kitchen, and a laundry service, and sometimes bicycle rental, a library or book exchange. Many offer local tours or excursions and discounts for HI members. Most hostels in Colombia also produce stacks of business cards that they distribute throughout the hostel network – flick through these cards, pick out your next destination and ask the hostel you are staying at to make you a reservation.

4. Drink like a local

For a sociable (and much cheaper) alternative to bars in Colombia, look for the local estanco, essentially an off-licence/shop where you get served cold beer at supermarket rates through a grill. Especially at weekends, these spots attract a lively local crowd – a great way to try out your Spanish and make friends. In bigger cities like Medellín, look for bars/clubs that offer all-you-can drink deals, like Babylon. Don’t forget to try guaro and local beer like agila and poker.

5. Eat like a local

Colombians in general eat a big lunch and snack in the evening; you’ll save lots of cash doing the same, making the most of cheap menús del día (also called the almuerzo corriente or menú ejecutivo). Every town has a galería (cheap market area or mercado) that contains a mesa larga, an eating hall of small kitchens where you can get a fresh lunch at a bargain rate. In the evenings there is no shortage of street food in Colombia, with vendors offering hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, empanadas and delicious arepas. Don’t forget to try bandeja paisa, ajiaco and sancocho.

6. Get cheap calls

If you have a phone that will work in Colombia, it’s cheap and easy to buy a SIM card from one of the country’s mobile phone service providers – Claro generally has the best coverage, but you can use Tigo and Virgin mobile. You can also make ultra cheap local calls by using one of the numerous street vendors renting cell phones by the minute. Hostels are also usually happy to call ahead for reservations at your next stop – many of them use Whatsapp.

7. Find Éxito

This ubiquitous supermarket chain is a one-stop shop in most Colombian towns, not just for cheap food and drink, but also clothes, cups of coffee, pharmacy, ATM and travel agents, if you are looking for the cheapest supermarkets you can find Ara, D1 and justo & bueno, they have good and cheap drinks.

8. Try to gather small change
Big notes (50,000 pesos, for example) can be frustratingly hard to break in Colombia, as change is always scarce, especially in rural areas. Bus stations and supermarkets are the best places to break big notes – always keep an eye on your stock of small notes and replenish when you can.

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