If you want to get around Colombia entirely on public transport, bus and coach travel is your best bet. All Colombian towns and cities have buses routes traversing the most populated areas and journeys are cheap. Most buses run from first thing in the morning until about 10pm, with a frequent service (in the cities at least). Though there theoretically formal bus stops, most drivers can be persuaded to stop almost anywhere along their route if you are able to flag them down.
Supply of buses is then, not a problem. Things get trickier though when you're trying to find information about the routes, timing and stops of particular buses. Not much in the way of public information is available here. The best way to find this out, for Spanish speaking visitors at least, is to check with bus drivers, passers-by or other passengers about how to get to your destination. If you don't speak any Spanish, you might have to rely on the small signs displayed on the windshield which list some of the major stops along the route.
In the cities, the buses have a set fare of around 2,000 COP per journey, which is paid to the driver once you are on the bus. Routes are operated by a variety of competing companies so if you have to change bus to reach your final destination you will need to pay the fare twice.
Integrated Bus Networks
In addition to the normal bus system, in Bogota, and parts of Medellin, there is also a separate network of interconnected bus services. These transport systems, called the Transmileno and Metroplus respectively, are designed to be resemble a metro system in that buses have their own dedicated lanes, and have large official stations and interchanges. Information about where these buses run is available both online and at stations throughout the two networks. All passengers must pay at a separate kiosk outside the station before boarding the bus.
Travel between Colombian cities by coach is also a straightforward business. The major cities have at least one bus terminal with services to Bogota and many other destinations, both near and far. For the most part, you do not need to make reservations and can just arrive at the terminal and buy the ticket for the next bus. However, for popular routes at particular times of day (for example, to catch the last overnight bus to Bogota) or during high season, you should book in advance.
While major roads are paved and well maintained, the mountainous terrain and comparative lack of highways and dual carriageways mean that long distance coach travel takes longer than you might anticipate. Bogota to Medellin, for example, is a distance of just over 400km, but the journey takes approximately 10 hours along winding roads.
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Overnight bus travel between most tourist routes is not a problem, though if you're being extra cautious you might want to double check what locals say. There have been occasional security incidents involving overnight buses, but mainly in remote areas which are not frequented by tourists.
Long-distance coaches usually have a toilet on-board and show (Spanish language) films by way of entertainment. A word of warning - air conditioning on these vehicles is frequently put on excessively high making the buses freezing cold. Even if you're heading to a warm coastal destination, make sure you wrap up warm for the journey if you want to avoid an unpleasant night. Finally, make sure you have your passport to hand as buses get stopped by police regularly and, when this happens, all passengers are required to present their IDs.
Domestic Flights: A Faster Option
To avoid long, chilly bus journeys, you can also consider getting a domestic flight. The main national airlines which operate these services include Avianca, LAN and Satena, which all have good safety records and run flights to destinations including Bogota, Bucaramanga, Cali, Cartagena, Medellin, San Andres and many others.
Flight times between most destinations are around 45 minutes to an hour, though trips to the island of San Andres are slightly longer, at about 1 hour and 45 minutes. The journey cost on these carriers will vary depending on the destination and time of year, but visitors should generally expect to pay around 200,000 COP to 300,000 COP for a return flight.
Viva Colombia is a no-frills carrier, offering a service similar to European operators Ryanair and Easyjet
Since 2009, Colombia has also benefited from a no-frills carrier, Viva Colombia, whose service is similar to that offered by European operators such as Easyjey and Ryanair. Flight prices, particularly when booked in advance, are often substantially cheaper than on the traditional airlines, and are occasionally even more economical than bus fares.
As such, it is certainly worth checking prices on this airline before embarking on any long-distance bus travel. For a fair comparison of travel prices between Viva Colombia and the alternatives, remember to factor in the cost of luggage (the airline charges for all luggage weighing over 6kg, including carry-on bags) plus the airport transfers, which can be up to 60,000 COP.