Travel Expenses Colombia
Our trip to Colombia was different from many of our previous journeys. We had to adjust our minds to having less time (though not necessarily more money). The cost of an airline ticket could not be spread out over months. The fact was, our new work contract started in six weeks, not much time to play. Colombia as a destination was kind of a whim. It started with the opportunity to grab a week’s timeshare exchange in Santa Marta. A three-bedroom unit on the beach would only require us to lay out $164. We got to thinking how nice it would be to catch up with friends in Bogota, and maybe, just maybe we could attend to some pressing dental needs too! After finding a super-low airfare, the decision was made.
Although we found Colombia to be more expensive than other destinations in South America, we were able to keep our travel expenses in Colombia lower by mixing up our lodging styles, eating frugally (some of the time) and choosing budget-friendly activities. We ended up seeing a lot in a short amount of time, but didn’t ever feel too rushed. Our itinerary included Bogota, several smaller cities and colonial towns on the way to Bucaramanga, the Caribbean coast and beaches, the beautiful Cartagena de Indias, and Medellin. It was interesting being in Colombia in the build-up to Holy Week, one of the most important holiday periods in the country. This did, however, complicate transport the last week we were there, and increased both lodging and transportation costs. (On the other hand, during our last few days, we had Bogota to ourselves! The city was deserted as everyone had left to spend Easter with family in other parts of the country. The Travel Expenses Colombia chart below shows a break-down of what we spent in 30 days in in the country.
A last-minute trip to Colombia was even more irresistible with airfare on Spirit Airlines from Atlanta to Bogota was available for only $357 round-trip. This first experience with Spirit was educational. There were many who complain about all of the added fees and lack of creature comforts, but for a relatively short flight, we felt it was worth the sacrifice of a free bag of peanuts and reclining seat. Also included in the Airfare category are two flights we purchased while in Colombia, both on Avianca. Colombia’s two main budget airlines, Viva Colombia and EasyFly have some great fares, certainly worth the research as well, but Avianca’s last minute fares between Cartagena and Medellin and between Medellin and Bogota could not be beat. They turned out to be cheaper than a bus ticket would have been! The flights also allowed us to see more and do more with our limited amount of time.
This category is mostly long-distance bus fares. Buses in Colombia were reasonably-priced. These days, most routes can be safely traveled either by day or overnight. Overnight buses, of course, save you a night’s lodging too. Bonus! Intercity buses were modern and clean, and reservations can be made online. Some of the major, national carriers we tried and had good luck with were Expresos Brasilia and Berlinas. Intercity bus terminals are usually outside the city, how far outside depends. There’s always public transportation from the terminal, but depending on the time of day and how much baggage you have, taxis may be preferable.
Taxis were generally not expensive, but the system varies from place to place. In Bogota we were strongly urged to never summon a taxi on the street. Most people, including locals, call for a taxi using a mobile app like Tappsi. The app sends data with your location from your mobile device and confirms a pick up time and address via an email, including the driver’s license plate number. We took taxis in Bucaramanga and the system was as you’d expect anywhere else. Within cities, busetas or colectivos as well as city-operated lines are available as a quick and cheap option, though it takes some to figure out the multitude of routes! We also had quite an adventure trying out the Transmilenio, Bogota’s mass transit solution. It’s three-part, accordion-style buses that run in a dedicated lane. The ticketing system is similar to that of a subway, and there are “stations” in the middle of the roadway rather than traditional bus stops.
We must also mention the super-efficient and cost-effective subway system in Medellin. Riding the Metro in Medellin is a piece of cake. It wasn’t nearly as overcrowded and overwhelming as Bogota’s Transmilenio. Buying tickets is a simple process. We were also impressed with the system’s ability to link previously inaccessible neighborhoods with the rest of the city rail system via cable car. A ride up to Parque Arvi, a large park at the top of the mountain, is a must do. All of the Metrocable lines provide a great view. Only the last leg (Line L to the park) is an additional fee.
Food in Colombia runs the gamut from budget-friendly street food to five-star, white tablecloth establishments. We ate fresh and tasty meals everywhere we went, but our favorites were on the Caribbean coast and in Cartagena. The availability of fresh fruit juice on every corner at a dollar or two a glass was something we took advantage of daily. The variety of fruit in Colombia is amazing, and sampling it all was an ongoing effort. In Cartagena we ate lots of seafood, including several delicious ceviches. In every city, we also took advantage of set lunches (Menú del día. or almuerzo correinte). These hearty portions usually include half a dozen or so options of meat or fish served with plantains, rice and beans or potato, and salad. A soup starter and a lemonade or other cheap juice is usually included. These meals usually run from $3 to $7 and are served from noon until about 2 pm. THE classic Colombia meal is Bandeja Paisa. Donny sampled one almost everywhere we went. This heavy sampler includes red beans, white rice, ground beef, fried egg, chorizo fried, fried pork (often chicharron), sliced avocado, fried banana and arepa (flat, cornmeal-based bread).
Breakfast is an important meal of the day too, and we loved the Colombian version of arepas combined with eggs for a quick breakfast. It was harder than we thought it should be to find good coffee in Colombia, so we sometimes opted for hot chocolate, which was always rich and sweet. One of our favorite breakfasts was calentado (lit. “heated”), which consists of leftover rice and beans, mixed with whatever else may have been served the night before, usually bits of meat, some beans, etc. This is served with a fried egg, avocado and arepas, sometimes chorizo (sausage), plus hot chocolate. Mmm mmm good!
Our favorite activity is walking new cities and towns and simply discovering what’s there. We did a lot of that in Colombia, so our activities costs remained low. We really enjoyed the street art in Colombia’s larger cities, and spent a day in each just seeking that out. The only organized trip we took was to the Totumo mud volcano north of Cartagena. This fun excursion involved a mud bath, massage and lunch. We went to a number of museums in Cartagena and Medellin and visited the Salt Cathedral north of Bogota.
We stayed in a wide variety of lodging types while in Colombia, from hostels, to budget hotels, to international chains, to urban apartments and family mountain homes! Here’s what we found:
Private Hostel Room: $15 to $50 (varied widely by city and room quality)
Budget Hotel: $15 to $40. Cheaper rooms are fan only.
Beach Bungalow: $50 and up
4-Star, upper-end in Medellin: $70*
Budget hotels and mid-range hostels are similar in quality and price. The difference is mostly in social interaction with other travelers, and we enjoy both the hostel atmosphere as well as mixing with more locals at regular hotels. Regular hotels supply towels and daily cleaning, while hostels often have shared kitchens, which can be very handy. In Palomino, we stayed in a great beach bungalow right near the beach for $50 a night. It was a splurge, but worth it (although we were attacked immediately by mosquitoes when the power went out in the middle of the night and cut off our fans!) We cashed in Marriott points our last two days in Bogota, and enjoyed the benefits of Platinum Status in the concierge lounge of the Bogota Marriott.