Spanish is the official language, though more than 65 other recognised languages are spoken. English is also an official language in San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina islands. Business executives and senior government officials tend to have a high level of English proficiency, while average Colombians do not speak it fluently. A basic level of Spanish, at the very least a practical “Spanish for Beginners” book, is recommended for visitors.
Visitors from the US, Canada, EU, Latin America, Japan, New Zealand and Australia do not need tourist visas to enter the country. Upon arrival, the National Security Department grants travellers a 90-day stay. Visitors are allowed a total of 180 days every 12 months for tourism purposes without requiring a special permission or residence.
On arrival, 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. More information about visa requirements can be found at www.tramites.cancilleria.gov.co.
The local currency is the Colombian Peso (COP) and is available in notes of 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 20000 and 50000, while 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 always recommended to carry some cash.
Business hours run from 7-8am to 5-6pm, with a break around 12-2pm. During Easter and Christmas most of the country’s businesses are closed, as well as during other national holidays (a total of 19, which places Colombia second to Argentina for the most holidays a year). Colombian national holidays include Independence Day (July 20), Battle of Boyacá (August 7), Independence of Cartagena (November 17) and Labour Day (May 1).
While Colombia is far from the violent country it was 20 years ago, travellers should still be aware. Like many places in the world, theft and robbery, in the form of snatching personal belongings or pick pocketing, is quite common in larger cities such as Bogotá, Medellín and Cali.
Obvious security tips include not carrying too much cash, leaving valuables in a safe place and making money withdrawals from ATMs inside rather than outside banks. Even though they have drastically decreased in recent times, armed robberies still occur. As elsewhere in the world, the advice is to give in to thieves’ demands.
Colombia has a variety of cuisines drawn from the country’s different regions. Colombians have a hearty breakfast, which includes fruit, juice, coffee, eggs and bread. Midday meals are served between 12pm and 2pm and tend to be the biggest of all the daily meals, at least in the countryside. In big cities such as in Bogotá, dinner is the main meal, with people typically dining between 7pm and 8pm.
Some of the most famous dishes include arepas, a type of bread made from cornmeal, similar to a thick pancake; ajiaco, a soup that includes chicken, two or three kinds of potato, corn, sour cream, capers and avocado; bandeja paisa, a platter of grilled steak, fried pork and chorizo sausages on a plate of rice and red beans topped with a fried egg.
Adequate private and government health clinics can be found in major cities, with quality and coverage decreasing the more you venture into the countryside. The private clinics are generally better stocked than public facilities and the chances of finding an English-speaking doctor are higher. Pharmacies are well stocked with internationally branded medicines. Advance planning for vaccination requirements 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 such as yellow fever.