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 somewhat unpredictable 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.
Public transport in Colombia
Buses are usually the best option for public transport in Colombia. 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. Most have aircon and some 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 may wish to make use of earplugs.
Medellín is Colombia's only city with an inner-city metro system. Expats will find that it is efficient, clean and safe. This is generally the extent of Colombia's passenger rail infrastructure – beyond this, there a few tourist trains and routes, but they aren't designed for everyday travel.
Taxis in Colombia
Taxis in Colombia are a cheap and convenient way to get around, though how they operate differs from city to city. In the interior of the country, taxis are usually metered. However, expats may have to negotiate a flat fare in coastal cities. 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 largely reputable. It's also possible to flag down a cab on the street. Expats should exercise caution in this case and only hail official taxis, which are yellow.
Taxi drivers are often happy to have repeat customers, and many carry business cards with their contact details so that customers can get in touch when they need a ride. 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 helpful way to bypass traffic.
Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Easy Tappsi (a Cabify app) are available in most Colombian cities. Expats who cannot speak Spanish will find these services an easy way to overcome the language barrier, as there is little room for miscommunication with drivers and no need to read Spanish street signs or maps. It is worth noting that ride-sharing services in Colombia operate in a legal grey area, and drivers may be unwilling to make certain trips.
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 instead 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 driving licence from their home country, but residents will have to get a Colombian driving licence once they have received a Cédula de Extranjería (a Colombian ID document for foreigners staying in the country).
Expats planning to purchase a car should be aware that in major cities, a system known as Pico y Placa has been implemented 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 during 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 its own lanes to remedy this. As these aren't official paths, expats should take caution when using them.
In most major Colombian cities, such as Bogotá and Medellín, the local councils have implemented a public health initiative called 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 this 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.