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Getting around in Colombia is not always a straightforward affair as expats will soon learn. Although most cities have extensive bus and public transport systems, expats often find that using these can be an unpleasant, slow and crowded experience. Driving is an option, but heavy traffic and the prospect of dealing with the unpredictable and dangerous drivers typical of Colombia make this a decidedly unappealing option for some.
Additionally, the fact that a sizeable portion of the country's south is covered in rainforest complicates matters further. Expats wishing to travel in this region will find themselves restricted to travel by boat. Even then some of the more remote areas still can't be reached.
Public transport in Colombia
As far as public transport in Colombia goes, buses are usually the best option. They are cheap and most of Colombia is well connected by bus, both within and between cities.
Most major Colombian cities have some form of rapid-transit bus system. The infrastructure for these is generally quite good, with dedicated bus lanes and well-positioned stations. In Bogotá and Cali this bus system is known as the Transmilenio, and in Cartagena as the Transcaribe.
Inter-city buses are often more comfortable than inner-city buses. They usually have aircon and may screen films (although these are almost always in Spanish). Some bus drivers prefer to play music and as such, passengers looking for peace and quiet should make use of earplugs.
Colombia does not have an extensive train system. After years of civil conflict, the vast majority of the country’s intercity railroads have been destroyed or abandoned, though some are still used for industrial purposes and carrying cargo.
Medellín is Colombia’s only city with an inner-city metro system. Expats will find that it is generally efficient, clean and safe. There are also a handful of tourist trains and routes, but these are not designed for everyday travel.
Taxis in Colombia
Taxis in Colombia are a cheap and convenient way to get around, though the way they operate differs from city to city. In the interior of the country, taxis are usually metered. However, in coastal cities, expats may have to negotiate a flat fare. A good grasp of Spanish will help avoid the 'gringo tax' that opportunistic drivers sometimes charge unsuspecting foreigners.
The best way to get a taxi is to use a call-ahead service to order one. The taxis from these companies are usually reputable. It's also possible to flag down a taxi on the street. Expats should exercise caution in this case and only hail official taxis, which are yellow.
Taxi drivers are usually happy to serve regular customers. They'll often provide a business card with their contact details so that customers can get in touch when they need a taxi. This is a good idea if expats find themselves using taxis regularly and come across a driver that they find trustworthy. Motorcycle taxis are also available and can be a useful way to bypass the traffic.
Ride-sharing services such as Uber are available in most Colombian cities. Expats who cannot speak Spanish will find that these services are an easy way to get around the language barrier, as there is limited room for miscommunication with drivers and no need to read Spanish street signs or maps.
Driving in Colombia
Colombian drivers are known for driving impulsively and unpredictably. This makes the roads chaotic and dangerous. Expats should avoid driving if possible and rather hire a driver or make an arrangement with a taxi driver. The quality of the roads in Colombia varies hugely and traffic is a problem in larger cities.
Tourists can generally use their drivers' licence from their home country, but residents will have to get a Colombian drivers' licence once they have received a Cédula de Extranjería (a Colombian ID document for foreigners staying in the country).
Expats who are planning to purchase a car should be aware that in major cities a system known as Pico y Placa has been put in place to help deal with the infamous Colombian traffic. Based on the last digit of its registration number, each vehicle is assigned two days a week during which it cannot be on public roads in peak traffic hours.
Cycling in Colombia
Cycling is becoming popular, especially in Bogotá, which has over 186 miles (300km) of cycle paths and lanes, although some of these lanes don't connect. A local community group called La Ciudad Verde has taken to painting their own lanes to remedy this. As these aren't official paths, expats should take caution when using them. Bicycles can be very expensive, so expats are advised to look for second-hand bicycles instead of buying new.
In most major Colombian cities such as Bogotá and Medellín, the local council have put in place a health initiative known as Ciclovía. Every Sunday between 7am and 2pm the cities’ main roads are closed to traffic and are used by pedestrians and cyclists. This is a popular Sunday activity for families and groups of friends.
Walking in Colombia
Colombia's reputation for crime has given many the impression that it isn't safe to travel by foot, especially within the cities. However, many expats find that this is an exaggeration of the situation and generally feel safe walking in busy areas. The grid system layout of the streets also makes cities such as Bogotá and Cali easy to navigate by foot. It's still best to exercise caution by not walking around at night, and walking in a group or with a partner. It's also important to stay alert and keep valuables out of sight.
►Learn more about the schooling system in Education and Schools in Colombia
"Public transportation in Cartagena is okay but could be better. The newer Transcaribe bus system implemented a couple of years ago is still short some buses. It does not reach all areas of the city and can be extremely crowded at peak hours. However, it gets you around fairly quickly and comfortably. Some of the older busetas are still running and depending on where you are and where you are going may get you there quicker once you learn the routes. Taxis are also prevalent and easy to flag down, although you have to use tough negotiation skills sometimes with them."
Check out the rest of American expat Adam's interview with Expat Arrivals here.
Are you an expat living in Colombia?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Colombia. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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