Spanish is the official language, although more than 60 indigenous and Creole languages are spoken in various regions. English is also an official language in San Andrés, Providencia and the Santa Catalina islands off the northern coast. Business executives and senior government officials usually have a high level of English proficiency, while the average Colombian does not speak it as fluently. A basic level of Spanish – at the very least a practical Spanish for beginners book – is highly recommended for visitors.
The local currency is the Colombian peso (COP) and is available in notes of 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000. Coins are available in 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 denominations. Most hotel and airport currency exchange booths handle transactions involving US dollars, Euros and British pounds. Credit cards are widely accepted in major cities, though it is suggested to carry cash for taxis or smaller shops.
Colombia is far from the violent country it was 20 years ago, though travellers should still heed the advice “no des papaya,” a local expression that suggests to be aware of your surroundings and to not attract thieves. Like many places in the world, robbery in the form of snatching personal belongings or pick pocketing is quite common in cities.
While Colombia’s big cities have mass transit services, such as the high-capacity bus lines TransMilenio in Bogotá, Mio in Cali, Metrolinea in Bucaramanga and Transmetro in Barranquilla, the only city with a subway system is Medellín. Plans to build one in Bogotá have been under consideration for years. Taxis are available at all major hotels. Due to traffic conditions and security concerns, it is advisable that travellers contract hourly taxi services, car services with drivers or use the “radio taxi” service. Taxis can also be ordered via various digital apps, such as Tappsi and Uber, though these services receive opposition by other drivers. Car hire establishments can be found at the airport or at several locations throughout the country.
Bogotá is a very congested city. It is recommended to leave plenty of time to get to business meetings, as travelling by road during rush hour can take up to four times longer than at off times. Peak traffic hours are typically between 6.00am and 9.00am, and between 3.00pm and 8.00pm.
The country code for Colombia is +57, followed by the codes (1) for Bogotá, (2) for Cali, (4) for Medellín and (5) for the Caribbean coast. Prepaid SIM cards for your mobile telephone can be obtained by providing a valid passport to any of the numerous mobile operators, as well as virtual operators.
Business hours run from 7.00am or 8.00am to 5.00pm or 6.00pm, with a break around 12.00-2.00pm. During Easter and Christmas most businesses are closed, as well as during other national and religious holidays, of which there are 19. Colombian national holidays include Independence Day (July 20), Battle of Boyacá Day (August 7), Independence of Cartagena Day (November 17) and Labour Day (May 1).
Visitors from 95 countries, including the US, Canada, the EU, Latin America, New Zealand and Australia, do not need tourist visas to enter the country. Upon arrival, travellers are granted a 90-day stay. Guests are allowed a total of 180 days every 12 months for tourism purposes without requiring special permission or residence. At the airport, immigration officials will require a local address, whether it be a hotel or a private house. Pre-travel visas are issued by Colombian consulates in countries for which they are needed.
Adequate private and government health clinics can be found in major cities, with quality and coverage decreasing further into the countryside. Chances of finding an English-speaking doctor are higher in private health facilities. Pharmacies carry internationally branded medicines. Advance vaccination will ensure safe travel within the country, since visiting certain regions, such as the Amazon and the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, carries the risk of contracting diseases.
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