Travel in Colombia, as in any tropical or developing country destination, involves exposure to potential health issues which may be uncommon in your home country. The healthcare system in Colombia’s major urban centers is generally of good to high quality, so if any problems do occur while in these areas you won’t be far from decent medical facilities.
In rural and more remote areas, healthcare provision is unsurprisingly less widely available and facilities are likely to be more basic. Throughout the country, hospital care is provided privately and costs for even a basic treatment or surgical procedure can rapidly mount up. As such, you should invest in comprehensive medical insurance before traveling.
Beyond this, there are a number of steps you can take to minimize the risk of getting stomach problems, viruses or facing any other sort of health issue during your stay in the country:
Insects and Animals
Small insects and mammals in Colombia can spread a number of diseases. The risk of contracting any of these can be substantially reduced by taking a number of precautions. These include: covering exposed skin (particularly when travelling around tropical areas), using mosquito nets when sleeping outdoors, and making use of insect repellent, preferably containing at least 20% DEET.
There is low to no risk of contracting malaria in parts of the country above 1,600m altitude
Such precautions are sensible as much in the day as in the evening, due to the presence of yellow fever carrying mosquitoes in daylight hours. There is low to no risk of contracting malaria in parts of the country above 1,600m altitude (e.g. Bogota and Medellin) as well as Cartagena and much of the Caribbean coast. If travelling to lower lying areas - and particularly if visiting the Amazon or spending prolonged periods outdoors - then you may need to take anti-malarial medication. Some types of anti-malarials require use for several weeks prior to your trip (as well as during and after), so it is worth consulting with a doctor well in advance if you think you may be traveling to high risk areas.
Aside from insects, in certain parts of the country there may also be a higher risk of receiving bites from larger animals. When navigating through jungle areas, such as in Amazonas, make sure you move carefully to avoid surprising snakes or any other potentially dangerous animals. If bitten by a mammal, you should immediately wash the bite with soapy water and seek medical attention, as rabies remains a concern in the country. If you are likely to be in regular contact with animals in Colombia you may wish to take the extra precaution of getting a rabies vaccination before entering the country.
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Food and Drink
In most parts of major cities it is entirely safe to drink tap water
In most parts of major cities such as Bogota and Medellin it is entirely safe to drink tap water. Outside of these areas, and particularly in remote areas, visitors should exercise caution with water supplies as these may carry a variety of bacteria and water-borne diseases. In these regions, it is best to drink only bottled or boiled water, and avoid ice in cold drinks (which may have been made using unclean water supplies). To minimize the risk of hepatitis A, typhoid and other issues, it is also sensible to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, and ensure all food is well cooked before consumption.
In Bogota, and other elevated parts of the country, visitors are likely to feel the effects of the altitude. Indeed, the capital city is at the lowest height range at which it is possible to get altitude sickness. Though the onset of severe symptoms is very rare, during your first few days in the capital you may experience a shortness of breath even when engaging in low intensity activity such as walking up stairs. The altitude also affects the appetite and the body’s ability to digest food effectively so it is wise not to eat heavy meals during the first couple of days there.
For the most part, the symptoms experienced will be mild and will only last a few days. In the rare instance that symptoms are more extreme than those mentioned here (for example, the visitor begins to suffer a persistently bleeding nose or dramatic shortness of breath), you will need to seek medical assistance, and consider returning to a lower altitude.