6 Lessons Learned From Living in Colombia for Six Months
Colorful, cultural cities, welcoming people, diverse destinations and a relaxed way of life. Combine that with a low cost of living and incredible landscapes, and Colombia might just be one of the top slow travel destinations in the world. Seriously, if you are thinking of traveling somewhere for a decent amount of time — at least a couple of months — then we cannot recommend this beautiful South American country enough.
We were lucky enough to spend six months in the country: one month in the north (in Cartagena), two months in the bustling city of Armenia and then three months in the beautiful mountain town of Salento. During our six-month rendezvous in Colombia, we learned a lot — about ourselves as people and travelers, and about the country. Below are six of those lessons.
1 | Colombia is Very Safe
When we first brought up the idea of traveling to Colombia to our parents they thought we were joking. While they were used to our somewhat questionable schemes and untethered adventurous spirit (they had to live through our motorcycle road-tripping phase), they seriously thought we were playing a joke on them when we told them we were thinking of heading south to Colombia for the winter.
It took us buying our tickets (one-way no less) and finding an apartment for them to realize that nope we were indeed 100% serious about traveling to and exploring Colombia.
Why were they so surprised at our decision? Well, because they grew up in an era where Colombia was one of the most dangerous countries in the world, run by narcotraffickers and drug kingpins. And in their minds, nothing had changed over the years. They thought — no thanks to a little Netflix show — that Colombia was still this dark and dangerous country that no one in their right mind would want to visit.
Luckily, we didn’t heed their statements and went ahead with our plans. And you know what, we never once felt unsafe.
Because the thing is, Colombia has changed. It has thrown off its dangerous past and moved into a new era full of groundbreaking projects, modern, thriving metropolises and exciting tourist opportunities.
We spent six months in the country and never once felt in any serious danger — and we definitely didn’t just stick to the major tourist areas. In fact, if we are being honest, the only times we felt a little uncomfortable were in some of the main tourism hubs (mainly Cartagena).
So if you are thinking of coming to Colombia but are worried about your safety, don’t be. We promise you will feel very safe exploring all parts of the country, from the busy cities to the quiet mountain towns.
2 | The Locals are Incredibly Friendly
Upon landing in Colombia, it is quite likely that you will notice right away that the people are incredibly friendly. But more so, Colombian people are just super helpful, kind, warm, and welcoming. Even in the bigger cities — like Cartagena and Medellin — we experienced nothing but kindness.
And once you got out of the major cities that kindness is even stronger. In our experience, if you were willing to speak with the locals in Spanish (no matter how bad your Spanish was) you would find nothing but friendliness and a helping hand. We have traveled to numerous other countries around the world and believe that Colombians are likely some of the friendliest people we have met.
But in our opinion, the real thing that sets Colombians apart is not just their kindness, but this feeling that the local people are not just being nice to you because you are a foreigner. In fact, and maybe this was because we visited numerous off the beaten path towns, we felt like we were never treated any differently just because we weren’t Colombian.
It sounds really weird and maybe a bit uppity, but we really enjoyed the feeling of being treated like a local. We never felt like we were getting ripped off or that we were paying more just because we weren’t locals. This is one of the perks of slow traveling and spending a decent amount of time in one place — you start to feel like a local and in return get treated like a local.
► We have written a full, comprehensive Colombia Travel Guide that covers everything adventure travelers need to know about exploring this beautiful country. If you have ANY questions about traveling in Colombia, check it out!
3 | The Weather is Dependent on Elevation, Not the Season
This might have been one of the craziest things we learned during our six months slow traveling in Colombia. While we grew up in an area that was totally dependent on seasons in terms of weather (snow in winter, hot sunny days in the summer) in Colombia, seasons for the most part don’t exist. In fact, even though there are technically dry and rainy seasons, they are very fluid and not set in stone. Some “rainy” seasons can be quite warm and dry and some “dry” seasons can have rain showers 80% of the time.
What really affects the weather is the elevation. For example, up in the high Andes mountains (in cities like Bogota) the weather is pretty much always a bit chilly. 365 days a year you can expect the temperature to hover around 19° C / 67° F. The same can be said in much lower places like Cartagena, which sits right on the Caribbean. This historic city experiences much, much hotter temperatures year-round: on average, it is 31° C / 88° F, with over 80% humidity.
💬 INSIDER TIP: another thing that took us a while the wrap our heads around? The fact that flowers are constantly blooming. Where we grew up (Colorado, USA) you had just a couple of months where flowers would start to bloom and then they would die. But in Colombia, you can find vibrant, colorful flowers year-round. Crazy.
► Looking for more Colombia travel inspiration? Then consider checking out our cinematic travel films.
4 | It is Possible to Be Vegetarian… And Not Just Live Off Beans
We arrived in Colombia thinking that the food situation would likely be similar to our experience in Peru and Ecuador (i.e. most of the meals would consist of carbs and meat and very little produce). Turns out, that while yes most of the traditional Colombian foods do indeed consist of mostly carbs, meat and cheese, they also have a lot of vegetarian-friendly meals available, including many that come with fresh vegetables (like a salad) or grilled vegetables.
Similarly, we also found many restaurants that focused solely on serving up either just vegetarian food or else had many, many vegetarian (and vegan) options on the menu. And the best part was the price for the vegetarian and vegan meals were the same as the standard, traditional meals with meat. Plus, the produce selection in Colombia is top-notch. We highly recommend stopping by a fruteria and stocking up on fruit like papaya (delicious), pineapple, avocados (aguacate), lulo — a local fruit — and plantains.
➳ You will very likely be able to find a ton of vegetarian restaurants in bigger cities like Medellin and Bogota. If you don’t know where to start, consider heading out on a food tour with GetYourGuide.
5 | You Need to Be Patient While Riding the Buses
If traveling teaches you anything, it is patience.
You need to be okay with things not always being on time — be it buses, boats, restaurants, or coffee shops (we have found that opening hours are more of a suggestion and not a rule in many places). In our opinion, one of the key ways to enjoy traveling is to be more patient and relaxed and to just go with the flow.
In Colombia, the bus system is, don’t get us wrong, quite top-notch. For there are many bus route options available, all of which run quite regularly — even to small, off the beaten path destinations; the tickets are pretty affordable and the buses themselves are relatively comfortable. Overall, taking buses around Colombia is an enjoyable experience.
But with that being said, in our opinion, one of the key ways to enjoy bus travel even more is to be patient with the system. And not just the bus system, but the roads themselves (construction and landslides are very, very common in Colombia).
Coming from the USA, where things are so scheduled and the systems are so focused on organization and efficiency, it can be tough to ride the buses and not get a bit annoyed or stressed out. For starters, there aren’t really any bus stops and therefore it is common to stop every block or so for people to get on and off the bus. When you are stressing about getting somewhere on time, this can really start to grate on your nerves.
Similarly, the stated trip durations for the bus rides are usually more of an estimate. Obviously, this isn’t always the bus drivers’ or bus company’s fault, but it is something worth pointing out. If you are planning to make other connections, either by plane or by bus, then look at the arrival time as more of a best guess than an actual concrete time.
While it might sound like we didn’t enjoy riding the buses while slow traveling in Colombia, we can assure you we actually found them to be quite fun, and many times quite adventurous. If you are planning to travel around the country then taking the buses is definitely your best option — especially if you are looking to explore more off-the-beaten-path destinations.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: we found it quite easy to buy bus tickets the day of, especially if we were only planning on going short distances. But when it came to longer bus rides we did often like to plan ahead and buy our tickets in advance. One great place to do that was on BusBud (this website also shows you all of the available departure times and route options).
6 | Colombia Has a Bit of a Slower Pace
The final thing we learned while slow traveling in Colombia, was that the country moves at a bit slower and more relaxed pace. Even in the major cities, the energy is far less chaotic and go-go-go than in most other major cities we have visited previously.
Maybe it was because we decided to live in a smaller town (the beautiful town of Salento) for many of the months we were in Colombia, but we found ourselves falling into this slower pace ourselves — which in our opinion, was such a nice reprieve from what we were used to in the USA where it seems everyone has places to be and things to do.
If you are looking to slow down yourself, then definitely consider spending a decent amount of time in Colombia. And better yet, plan to spend a good amount of time in one specific place. This is one of the benefits of slow traveling, you get the opportunity to get to know a culture and build relationships with others.
► We spent most of our time in the exciting but laid-back Coffee Region of Colombia. If you are looking to combine outdoor adventures with a relaxing cultural vibe, then we highly recommend spending a good amount of time in this region as well. Here are 5 important things to know.
A few other important things we learned about the country and about ourselves while slow traveling in Colombia was that we are indeed birders at heart (to be fair, it helps that the diversity of the birds in Colombia is top-notch — in fact, it has the most bird species in the world). Similarly, we also learned that we absolutely love exploring smaller towns that feel very much off the beaten path and finally, that the absolute best way to learn Spanish (or any language) is to fully immerse yourself in it.
Colombia is one of those rare places in the world that seem to check all of the important boxes — at least for adventure travelers and people looking to slow travel. It has a wonderful and interesting culture, the food is delicious, the landscapes are absolutely jaw-dropping, the people are nothing but nice and the cost of living is very affordable.
If you are looking to travel somewhere for a decent amount of time — like six months — then we cannot recommend this beautiful South American country enough. And if you need any more travel information or inspiration on Colombia, then make sure to check out our in-depth travel guides or reach out to us www.backroadpackers.com.