My first ever solo backpacking trip was to Colombia and Panama back in 2017. I had been traveling my whole life but never backpacked on my own. This ended up being a two month trip, but I had originally only bought a one way to Medellin. At this point I clearly wasn’t an expert and so I did things that today I would never do. And because what I did you shouldn’t is why I wanted to share my experience with you. Continue reading to know what not to do when backpacking in Colombia. Which by the way you should totally visit because it’s not as dangerous as people make it out to be as long as you are aware of your surroundings.
Keep in mind I do consider myself an introvert. I like being upfront about this because I know there are other introverts who want to travel but feel it isn’t a space for them. I wrote about a post about how to travel as an introverted Latina, check it out here.
What not to do when backpacking in Colombia
Or anywhere really.
Only Carrying Cash
I look back and I can’t believe I did this. I landed in Medellin as a first time backpacker with over two thousand dollars in cash. TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS. Like who does that? Clearly twenty-five year old me had no issue with this. Obviously I don’t do this now so if you see me traveling don’t think you’ll find me with a wad of cash.
Was I nervous or worried something would happen? Yes, of course.
But I did not know about credit cards without foreign fees. A lot has changed in 5 years.
And so off I went with mi sobre de dinero (envelope of cash). I wish I was kidding when I said envelope, but I’m not. Had you seen into my day pack you would have found it and my trip would have ended right then and there.
Am I saying not to take any cash at all? No, definitely not. It’s good to have cash because depending on where you’re going they may not accept cards. Especially if you plan to visit smaller towns or buy from street vendors. Credit cards now have partnerships with international banks so that you don’t need to take everything you plan on using with you when you leave home. Always check to see what international banks your bank has partnerships with before leaving so you aren’t trying to figure it out last minute.
Managing Your Time
I tend to underestimate how long I’m going to spend in a place. It’s new for me so of course I wander around every nook and cranny looking for something I’m sure other people missed. This I still do to this day. I love seeing and experiencing what other people don’t see or miss on an oversight.
But all that exploring can lead to taking longer than I had originally planned and thus miss a bus or train or whatever mode of transportation I need to get.
So for me it wasn’t so much about not checking the bus schedules, but hoping it would work out in the end. I saw when the last bus was supposed to be and assumed I’d make it.
I was wrong.
There was one instance where this would have been more of an issue. I was about a couple hours south from where I was staying visiting a sanctuary near the Ecuadorian border. I had left really early in the morning because I went to visit a lake first before making my way to the sanctuary. The hike to the lake took much longer than I had thought because it started raining at some points and the distance was greater than I had known it would be.
Once at the sanctuary while the sun was setting I realized that I was not going to make it back to the terminal if I waited for the local bus. At that moment I knew that the only way I was going to make it was if I hitchhiked. I had never hitchhiked before in my life. So I was a bit nervous.
A guy on a motorbike stopped and offered to take me. During our 10 minute trip I mentally battled between “I’m going to be fine” and “what if this is my last day on Earth”. Was I being a bit dramatic? Sure. But as a woman, safety is constantly on my mind. If you’re a solo female traveler, grab my free guide with safety tips to stay safe on the road.
In the end everything was fine. I actually ended up feeling bad because I asked him before getting on the bike how much he would charge me and again when I got off. I will never forget that he told me, “One day you’ll pay me back”. Obviously in Spanish, but still. I don’t know his name and so much time has passed that I’ve forgotten his face. But I’ll never forget what he said.
So I won’t say you shouldn’t hitchhike in Colombia, but don’t have it be your only option to make it home. Manage your time a bit better so you’re not rushing and anxious as I was at this moment.
Not sharing my itinerary with anyone
This is a big one. I felt rather unstoppable and thought nothing bad could happen to me. Partly because I speak Spanish but also because I like to think I’m aware of my surroundings. Thankfully nothing bad happened to me at any point during my trip. But it doesn’t mean that things couldn’t have turned out very differently.
Before leaving on this journey I had told my family that I was landing in Medellin and had my first four nights booked at a hostel. But that was it. I didn’t even know what I was doing next. I was kind of going with the flow. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But as I went along I could have kept my family updated. I didn’t really do that though.
This was also during a time in my travel journey where I posted on social media in real time. Snapchat was my daily platform and I think I might have even had the map location option on. ¡Que horror! Please learn from this mistake and do not post in real time. It doesn’t even matter if you’re solo or with a group. You’re still a stranger in a land foreign to you. Better to be safe than sorry. This is a big what not to do when backpacking in Colombia, but anywhere as well!
Why You Should Visit Colombia
Even though these are travel mistakes I made while visiting Colombia, none of these should deter anyone from visiting. These were my mistakes and I never had any issues because of them or at all. Of course, it’s always good to be aware of the country you’re visiting and understand that the culture will be different. It’s important to remember you are visiting a place different from your hometown/country so things will not be the same.
Colombia has so much to offer and is a great backpacking destination. I spent a month there before heading to Panama and felt that it wasn’t enough to see and do everything I wanted to. I plan on going back in the future and visit places I didn’t get a chance to last time.
Please always do your research on a destination and don’t just take one person’s opinion or experience as what your trip will be like. We all have different travel styles and comfort levels so all experiences will be different. I say this because I know Colombia gets a bad rep, but I really think it’s worth visiting.
If you go, let me know! I plan to create some guides and maps for the places I did visit. It has been 5 years now so I’m sure some things may have changed so I won’t give too many details on buses or prices unless I’ve done the research to make sure you’re getting the right info.
I’d love your thoughts on this topic. If you have other things to add regarding what not to do when backpacking in Colombia, please add them in the comments!
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Viaja more y live más,