20 Things to Know Before You Vacation in Cartagena, Colombia
We've learned a thing or two about what you should know before you vacation in Cartagena, Colombia, having lived here for over 7 months now, and having visitors from the States. So, in the spirit of transparentness, I thought it would be useful to share what we've learned.
1. Yes, they really only speak Spanish.
Spanish is the official language of Colombia, and yes, that is the language that most people here will engage you in. Given that this area of Colombia, in particular, is so dependent on tourism, you will find some people who can speak English moderately well. But, expect your restaurant and shopping experiences to be in Spanish. Those of us who are not fluent here are highly dependent on Google Translate. We all have the app on our phone and use it multiple times a day. I highly recommend it.
2. You need a passport to travel here.
I hope this goes without saying, but sometimes it's good to be reminded to go dust off your passport and make sure it's not expired or going to expire while you're here. And Visas are not required to travel here from the States.
3. Know the address of where you are going.
This is a must. You will need it for your Customs and Immigration form and you will be asked by those officers for the address if you leave that space blank on your form. You do not need the exact address, just the name of the hotel and it’s general location is fine (e.g., Casa Eva in El Centro). Or, if you are staying with friends, their building name and area of their neighborhood is fine (e.g., Edificio Charlie in Castillogrande). You just have to write and tell them something.
4. It is hot and humid.
If you ask Colombians from other parts of the country what they think of Cartagena, the first thing they will always say is that Cartagena is hot. It is a tropical location and we live near the equator, so expect humidity and heat. This also means you will need hats, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen. And, if you don't have any of these items when you arrive, there are plenty of vendors who are more than happy to sell them to you (see “you need to learn no gracias” below).
5. Beware of foreign transaction fees.
Before you arrive check with your ATM and credit card to verify that they will not charge you any "foreign transaction fees." Or, if they do, you're prepared to pay them. And, inform them that you will be traveling to Colombia, so they don't put a security hold on your card.
Plus, make sure that your credit card will actually work in Colombia. We have had some visitors whose credit cards were supposed to be international cards, but actually only worked at certain stores. We have a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card that works great, as does the Marriott credit card (also by Chase). I'm sure there are plenty of others, but I am confident that these cards always work here.
6. Colombian money is in pesos.
The exchange rate from US dollars to Colombian pesos is currently and pretty consistently about $1 USD = $3,000 COP. When you are shopping, the easiest way to roughly convert a price here from COP to USD is drop off the last three zeros of the price and divide by 3 (i.e., essentially divide by 3,000). So, a box of cereal for $21,000 COP is about $7 USD. I always use this quick conversion, or you can certainly download conversion apps on your phone to get a more exact price too.
Also, commas = periods, and periods = commas in Colombia when you are talking about money. So, $21,000 COP is actually written $21.000 COP. So, something that costs twenty-one thousand and four hundred and fifty pesos is written $21.450.
7. You'll probably need some pesos.
Speaking of pesos, you'll need some. Plenty of purchases you make here are small, from a roadside vendor or stand, or a taxi that won't take credit cards, so it is good to have some Colombian cash and coins here. Some places in El Centro (the Old Walled City) will take US dollars, but there is no guarantee that they will give you a good exchange rate, so get some pesos. It’s easy to get cash from ATMs here (at reputable places such as banks, grocery stores, and malls). They also have money exchanges in the airport when you arrive to exchange your country’s currency.
8. Check if your cellular service will work in Colombia.
T-Mobile is international and their basic service works pretty okay here for no additional fee. Downloading websites and checking Facebook or Instagram is difficult, but texting is just fine. You can pay for an International plan from T-Mobile for only $20/month more per phone line while you're here to be sure you have T-Mobile's fastest speed service.
But, all other cellular services from the States, if they work here, charge you fees just to use your basic cellular service here, as far as I know. Some may have the option to turn on a International plan temporarily while you're here.
Also, many places around town have WiFi so you can rely on that at times, but in an emergency it's nice to have cellular service.
The cellular companies here such as Tigo, Movistar, and Claro also have pay-as-you-go plans where you can change out your SIM card while you're here to one of theirs. But, you will have a Colombian phone number.
9. Review your Immunizations.
If coming from the United States, there are currently no vaccinations that are required to enter Colombia. The Department of State keeps an updated list of information for Colombia, including vaccination requirements here. Plus, CDC keeps a list of recommended vaccinations for traveling to Colombia here. Currently, on their recommended list is Hepatitis A and Typhoid. For some travelers (especially if you'll be traveling to jungle regions) they recommend Hepatitis B, Malaria, Rabies, and Yellow Fever.
Based on the CDC's recommendations for Cartagena in particular, we only received vaccinations for Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Hepatitis B, and Yellow Fever. Yellow Fever is difficult to receive in the US, and is not needed if you're traveling to Cartagena, but we got vaccinated because of some of the traveling we plan to do, and because it is often recommended if you are visiting any of the National Park areas here, some of which are nearby.
10. Learn the phrase "no gracias."
If you do not learn any other Spanish while you are here, at least learn the phrase "no gracias." Cartagena is notorious for its street vendors and beach vendors. So, expect that you will be approached multiple times, and sometimes by the same persistent person, when visiting the beach, or El Centro...well, anywhere really.
11. Car seats appear optional here, so bring your own.
Traffic laws in general here are lax. In fact, I have never seen anyone pulled over and given a ticket for their driving, or lack of wearing a seat belt, or for having 8 people jammed into a 4 person vehicle, or driving on the wrong side of the road, as some examples. So, if you have littles and would like them to be in a car seat in the car, then bring it with you.
12. Bring life jackets if you have little kids.
If you plan on partaking in any adventure that requires you to board a boat while here and you have small children, then bring your own life jackets. Professional tour and boat companies will most likely have life jackets for everyone, but if you have very small children, they likely will not have one that will fits them well. And, yes, they need them, for your own peace of mind. My son is 11 years old and uses the smallest life jackets they offer on the boats here, to give you an idea of the smallest size they typically have.
13. ADA compliance is not a thing here.
The sidewalks and streets are not smooth and not conducive to pushing a large stroller or even a wheel chair. And the "handicap ramps," if they even have them, are about two feet long and at a 45 degree angle, so not really useful for their intended purpose unless you want to send Grandma on the ride of her life.
14. A light long-sleeved shirt or thin jacket for restaurants is a good idea.
I mentioned above that it is hot and humid here, but some places, such as restaurants, are not afraid to crank up the A/C. So, I often carry a light wrap with me to dinner. And, if you're arriving during any of our rainier seasons (e.g., July, October), maybe bring a light rain jacket too.
15. There is no need to rent a car.
I honestly do not even know if there are car rental places here or what it would take to actually rent a car. Instead, there are taxis everywhere. Most people who own cars here, including ourselves, take taxis regularly because parking can be a pain.
However, again, traffic laws are loosely followed here, and this especially applies to taxis. So, when you get in one, be prepared for a potentially wild ride with no seat belts. Oh, and have cash to pay them.
16. Download WhatsApp.
WhatsApp is an app that allows you to text and make phone and video calls using your data plan. And EVERYONE uses it here. It is the form of communication. Even businesses, doctors, and dentists will display their WhatsApp numbers. Most businesses here don't have websites and may only have a Facebook or Instagram page.
WhatsApp is truly amazing because even if you have very limited cellular service you will be able to send a text, even with a photo. Plus, it's encrypted. And, most importantly, you can communicate from a US number to a Colombian number with ease. Just add the +57 Colombian country code before the Colombian number, and you are all set. And, as far as I can tell, all communications are free (it is possible that if your cellular plan charges for data use you could be charged).
17. There is always a guy.
Things here work very much by word of mouth and on a personal level. If you need anything at all, someone probably knows a guy who could help or perform the task for you. We have a meat guy, a water guy, a painting guy, a paddleboard guy, a favorite driver, a guy who weaves outdoor furniture, etc.
18. Drink bottled water and be smart with what food you eat.
We only drink bottled water, but the water out of the tap is fine for brushing your teeth, showering, and washing your fruits and vegetables. And the food here is quite good and reliable. Just be smart about what you choose to eat. For example, eating ceviche from a beach vendor whose cart has been out in the sun all day, may not be the best idea.
19. Leave your pooch at home.
Actually, leave your cat, parrot, hamster, or any other pet you might be thinking of bringing at home. Getting them here and home will be the most stressful part of your travels if you decide to bring them. There are many requirements to bring a pet to another country, and Colombia is not exempt. Dogs do not have to be quarantined here, but that is about where the benefits end. Check with the airline and the USDA to see all the requirements for transporting a pet overseas and then expect that at every step of the process you will face problems and have to convince or argue with someone to get your pet on the plane, or even in the country. It's just not worth it for a vacation. And, vacations are supposed to be stress-free, right?
20. Be sure that they are charging you in COP.
Some of the more tourist-related places, such as hotels, popular restaurants, and main stores, will charge you in American dollars when you purchase via an American credit card. That sounds great and awful nice of them, but it will cost you 3.5% to do so. And it is not required for your international credit card because your credit card company will convert it to American dollars for you at no cost to you. So, before a waiter or receptionist charges your credit card, be sure to ask them to charge you in Pesos (COP), not dollars.
21. Get reimbursed for your IVA.
Ok, so I thought of one more point…everyday items you purchase here are taxed at 19%. It will be listed on your receipt as “IVA.” You can be reimbursed for this tax. We have not had a visitor do it yet, but we have been told that at the DIAN desk inside the Cartagena airport, you can show them your receipts, fill out a form, and you will receive the tax back. So, if you have made a large purchase here, perhaps jewelry, it may be worth your time to visit the desk and fill out the form. For 2018, the total value of your purchases must be greater than 331,560 pesos (about $110 USD). Be forewarned that the person at the desk does not speak English, only Spanish. Plus, you need the full detailed receipt (“factura” in Español), not just the receipt they hand you from the credit card machine. For more information, see this handy summary by Medellin Guru.
I hope that this list answers at least some of the main questions you have before vacationing here. Feel free to comment if you have any others and I'll answer the best I can.