How to Get Around in Colombia

Navigating the difficulties of domestic transport
How to Get Around in Colombia

Internal transport within Colombia is an important factor to take into account when planning your trip. The country is large, with a total surface area roughly equivalent to the combined size of the US states of Texas, Arkansas and New Mexico, or approximately 4.5 times the size of the UK. Traversing the breadth of the country is accordingly a sizable undertaking.

Roughly a third of the national territory is taken up by the Amazon jungle in the south east, through which travel is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Navigating between the major cities in the Andean region in the country’s center is, mercifully, much easier. Travel along the Caribbean coast is easier still, as the distances between cities are shorter, and the ground substantially flatter.

Bus Travel

Colombia has an extensive bus and coach network, but journeys are not the quickest. Intercity roads are generally of reasonable quality in terms of their surfacing (they are tarmacked, and potholes and other defects are relatively infrequent), but they are deficient in other areas.

Colombia has an extensive bus and coach network, but journeys are not the quickest

There are few stretches of dual carriageway, and the mountainous landscape means that routes between many destinations are somewhat circuitous. Road infrastructure also falls short in terms of its overall quantity. The country has just 350km of road per million inhabitants, compared to the 900km and 860km enjoyed by Mexican and Chilean residents (as reported by the Confederation of Road Transporters).

Such issues mean that bus travel between destinations can take longer than you may expect. Some sample journey times between major cities include: Bogota to Medellin 8 hours, Medellin to Cartagena 14 hours, and Bogota to Cali 10 hours.

Air Travel

Air travel is a quicker and more convenient way of getting around, and is the preferred mode of transport for those travelling with limited time, but a larger budget. For the most part, it is more expensive than bus travel, though the price differential is not always that great.

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The price differential between bus and internal air travel is not always that great

In particular, low cost provider VivaColombia periodically offers cut price fares between major destinations (though the price can mount up quickly though if you wish to take much luggage with you). There are generally several flights a day running between Cartagena, Bogota, Medellin, Cali and the coffee region. Flights to more remote areas, such as stop off points for Capurgana and Sapzurro are far more limited and sometimes operate only from one city.

If booking flights online, be advised that some airlines display different prices for foreign and domestic travellers, with the international price being up to 50% higher. You can avoid these additional charges by accessing the site through the incognito window in your web browser, and by altering language and currency settings on the sites to match local defaults.

Other Options

A less widespread method of transport is by boat. This is used predominately in the jungle provinces of Choco and Amazonas, where roads are almost entirely lacking. Along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts such transport is also available, but generally only for short distances between tourist areas. Options for longer, intercity sea / river travel throughout the entire country are limited.

Similarly, rail transport is not a realistic travel option as passenger services are virtually non-existent. Large parts of the railway infrastructure were abandoned in the early 1990s following the liquidation of the national railway company, and the then mounting attacks by illegal armed groups. Those services which remain today are almost exclusively designed for freight and industrial purposes.

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