If you are travelling to Colombia then you are in for a treat, it’s an amazing country. However keep reading to find out things you really should know about using the public transport in Colombia. To hopefully make your experience an easier one, although that being said you may come home without any amusing travel stories.
Types of Transport in Colombia
- Buses – big coaches, like ADO in Mexico or National Express in England. Primarily used for long distance, overnight transport in Colombia.
- Mini Vans – the standard type of transport when travelling from one town to the other. Agile enough to travel through the mountain roads.
- Colectivo’s – again a minivan, but not as commonly seen as they are in Mexico. They will leave when they are full.
- Chiva Bus – open sided, bench like seats, big truck. Adapted to be used as public transport in rural and mountainous Colombia.
- Taxi’s – useful to travel short distances, especially when trying to get to bus terminals. Be aware of fake taxi’s and ask the price before you get in.
- Mototaxi – motorbikes often used in areas where the roads aren’t great or are mountainous, like Minca.
- Metro – only found in Medellin. An extremely cheap form of transport. Eating and drinking is not allowed on the tram and locals will say something if you are!
- Cable Cars – also unique to Medellin, allowing people in the poorer neighbourhoods to travel up and down the mountains easier. Plus cable cars attract the tourists…
- Jeeps – a coffee region special, also known as willy’s. They can take you between coffee plantations, other villages and to the Cocora Valley.
- Tuk Tuk – not seen that often, but are dotted about, especially in Villavieja (Tatacoa Desert).
- Your Legs – the best and cheapest form of transport in Colombia.
You know you when you were younger, school age and sitting at the back of the bus was the place to be? Think again, this is the complete opposite in Colombia.
The ideal seat would be the one closest to the front. We had a stretch of 3 full days travelling, each bus between between 8 and 11 hours long. And yes you guessed it, every single bus we were seated at the back. Not by choice, far from choice. You get allocated your seats when you buy your ticket and in Colombia you stick to them. Although the locals won’t.
For three days we endured the dreaded back seats. Being swung from left to right, smashing my face up against the windows as the minivan, at what sometimes felt like it was up on two wheels, curved itself around bends. Of course there were no seat belts, why would there be? We were flung upwards and often floated in mid air for a second, whilst we sped over every pothole in the road. By the third day I had managed to figure out a way to wedge myself into my seat as well as I could.
Colombia, home to the Andes which makes it inevitable that transport is going to be tough, plus have you seen how huge Colombia is?
Overnight buses are an economic way of travelling long distances without ‘wasting’ daylight hours. Having said that overnight buses do sometimes have a stereotype around them of not being the safest form of transport in Colombia. Primarily because they can get stopped and passengers have to get off and be searched. I wasn’t sure whether we should get one. However it was the only choice we had to get from Santa Marta to Bucramanga. We waited at Santa Marta bus station for what felt like (what WAS!) hours until our bus finally arrived. That bus station was not the nicest, even the stray cats were fighting…
It Wasn’t All Bad Though
However our experience on an overnight bus was actually great. We only took one overnight bus though (Expreso Brasilia) so this can’t be read as a summary for all night buses. After passing over our backpacks to be loaded underneath, we queued up, in some form of an English queue. We got our luggage tag and got given water and snacks as we entered our den for the night. Us, the passengers were segmented off from the driver by a door, that was fine with me! The seats were large and had a lot of leg room which was for your chair to recline. We even had individual tv’s, it was like being on a plane. I didn’t watch anything though. I settled down in my reclined chair with my hoodie over my face, and tried to drift off into some kind of state of sleeping.
Just take a look at a satellite map of Colombia and notice the two dominant strips of mountains, running from North to South. These are the Andes, and travelling around them is exhilarating, both terrifying and magnificent.
Some of the roads are typical city roads. Most are mountain roads, meandering through stunning landscapes – which are of course the most dangerous ones. Some will make you feel sick just looking at them.
The road from Bucramanga to San Gil, is a beautiful but deadly one. Especially for those of us who are prone to travel sickness. I remember this stretch of road from my first trip to Colombia. It ended up with someone sat in the aisle because they were so terrified. This time I was in local transport, worse. The bus swayed from left to right as we climbed higher. The views became insane, but looking at them for more than 20 seconds was dangerous. Bound to make you feel dizzy. One passenger got up and asked the driver for a bag – a sick bag. I felt better, at least it wasn’t just us, the foreigners. At this point I think the driver realised he should stop for a rest. We got off and almost kissed the floor. However 5 minutes later we were off again.
Absolutely insane, but also great drivers especially all of the ones I had as I’m still here.
Flying is Sometimes the Better Option
No really this is true and this is how most travellers travel around Colombia. I know it’s not the most eco friendly way of travelling though. On the other hand you may want to experience every single bit of Colombia so buses may be a better option.
The latter was in fact our idea, we wanted to travel through Colombia not over it. Out of all of our many journeys across Colombia we only boarded one flight which was from Bogota to Medellin. We were on a slight timeframe – a friend was meeting us in Quito.
Therefore Bogota was eliminated from the itinerary and the decision was made to travel from from Villa de Leyva to Medellin. A very long journey and would have been tough if we had taken a bus all the way there. I had forgotten how quick the flights are in Colombia though. So much so that when I heard the airsteward announce ‘fasten your seatbelts now’ I started to freak out, thinking the worst (I’m sometimes a terrible flier). In fact we were already descending into Medellin after 20 minutes of being airborne. Plus, flying isn’t that expensive which makes it even more appealing to some travellers. Our flight from Bogota to Medellin was £37 each. Which I know is probably 3 times the price of the bus but it made sense for the route.
Jardin to Riosucio on a Chiva Bus
Now this was an interesting journey, which I absolutely loved at the beginning. But fell out of love with it quite quickly as soon as I started to get cold.
Jardin, a tiny town and the next ‘travellers’ stop from Medellin. Although, getting out of Jardin is a long and exciting journey. There are only two buses that leave Jardin daily either at 8am or 2pm. You cannot catch the 2pm bus if you plan on going to Salento – you just won’t make the connections.
On the morning we left, we wandered up to the patch of road where the buses stopped. We were greeted by two massive 4 x 4 trucks. They were colourfully painted, (usually brightly painted in the colours of the Colombia Flag) which did little to hide there fierce look. ‘Where are the minivans?’ I started to wonder…they never came, this was our ride out of here. We were ushered over to our monster truck and threw our backpacks up at the guy organising the bags. He told us to go and sit in the front row. We got on a few rows back from the front. Two minutes later the guy rushed over to us and said ‘no no, sit in the front row’. I asked why, he didn’t really answer. I looked around puzzled, why?! We clambered up into the front row, next to the driver.
The truck started to hum and we were off. Wading our way through this tiny town in a giant beast. Locals everywhere were helping the driver get through tight gaps and corners. Soon the houses started to disappear from the roadside and we were driving through lush jungle. We climbed higher and higher into the hills, leaving the jungle and heading into the mountains. Some bits of the road started to reduce in width. I looked down at the quickly disappearing road and gazed at the jungle we had left behind. With mountain passes comes cold weather, we were driving into mist. Now was when I was grateful for being told to sit in the front row. It gave us some protection against the elements.
Poyayan to Ipiales – Nightmare Journey
During our three day rush through the south of Colombia we arrived in Popayan – the white city. Unfortunately we only had time to sleep here and have an amazing meal at Pita. We decided to trust the hostel, because why wouldn’t you and go by the bus times they had printed on the wall. Supposedly there was a 6am bus, great, we could make an early start. We arrived the next morning at a very empty and eerie bus station, of course there were no buses. The 6am bus did not exist, we walked up and down the ticket booths. Either no one was there or we were told the next bus was from 11am.
When we nearly ended up somewhere…in Colombia
Eventually we spoke to a man who said he had a minivan leaving in 45 minutes. We debated it for a while. He offered the same price as the bus, and not wanting to wait for another 4 hours we agreed. That was our first mistake. The mini van turned up, packed with locals, I couldn’t even see any spare seats. Our backpacks were taken and put in the back before I could even check it was the right bus. The bus in which our bags were now in, was not the bus number that was on the ticket in my hand. I kept asking the driver does this bus go to Ipiales and he kept saying ‘yes, yes!’ However a few seconds later as I was stood firmly on the bus, Alex and Cat had their tickets taken off them by another man and he wandered off somewhere. Fantastic...
He came back after a few minutes and walked straight past us. He grabbed our backpacks out of the back of the bus and gave them back to us and walked off… erm! Alex rushed after him, asking for our tickets. I went too and asked is this not the bus? The man stopped and started to count out pesos, our refund it would seem. Apparently our bus, had suffered an accident on the road and was not arriving – in other words it did not exist. So we were back to square one – we were in Popayan with no bus.
My Very Own Personal Tips for Transport in Colombia
- Always check what the bus number is printed on your bus ticket, they should always match up!
- Please do go to the bus station yourself to check bus times, even if you are tired!
- If it doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t. Ask questions and keep asking if you are unsure.
- There are a lot of different bus companies in Colombia. Use these websites to find out bus times, although not all of them are on here: https://pinbus.com and https://www.redbus.co/en/. Ask at your hostel or go to the bus station and check times too.
- Sometimes it is easier to just get the most expensive option. Especially if you are tired, just entered the country or are just unsure. We paid extra for the hostel to come and collect us from Santa Marta and take us to the hostel up above the town of Minca.
- Colectivos will sometimes drop you off in the most random places. More than likely a taxi will be around the corner waiting to take you back to where you wanted to be. This happened when getting a colectivo from Minca to Santa Marta, we wanted to be dropped at the bus station, but we were taken up to the north of the city to the market?!
- Bogota traffic is hell, like any city, the traffic is awful. You can spend half of your journey waiting in traffic. So allow plenty of time if travelling into Bogota to catch a flight.
- Travelling from Bogota bus station to airport is fairly simple and will cost you about $ COL 20,000 for a taxi.
- Take your own food. Drivers will stop for food, but most places are either very busy or the driver will take you to where he wants to eat. A random shack up in the mountains.
- If it rains, brace yourself. Mountain roads can easily get washed away by torrential rain.
- Mototaxi’s around Minca can be an interesting ride. Watch them balance your backpack on the handle bars and you on the back. Prepare to hold on tight with your hands and thighs!