Colombia – The Regions
Colombia is divided into 6 geographical regions: Pacífia, the pacific coast from Panamá to Ecuador; Caribe, the Caribbean coast from Panamá to Venezuela; Andina, the mountainous central part of the country, including Bogotá, Medellín and the Coffee Region; Orinoquía, the eastern part of the country including the huge wetland plains, Los Llanos; and Amazonía, as the name would suggest home to Colombia’s Amazon rainforest is split into departamentos, including the Caribbean islands departamento of San Andrés and Povidencia, which is actually closer to Nicaragua than Colombia.
Colombia is a big country with so much to do and see, but despite this there are realistically only a handful of places foreigners are likely to want to settle. The vast majority of foreigners that do come to Colombia to live will probably first get a job as an English teacher. Most foreign workers only stay for a year, or two years at most, and given that there is a huge demand for English, that’s what most end up doing.
The most popular places to live for foreigners, and also where the most opportunities are, are the big cities: Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Cartagena. It is not impossible to find work elsewhere, but you will find that these cities are the easiest.
Where is it?
Bogotá is the capital, the biggest city in Colombia, and one of Latin America’s largest and most diverse metropolitan areas. Located in the eastern of Colombia’s two central mountain ranges, it is pretty high – the third highest capital in the world at 2,625 metres, after La Paz and Quito.
What’s it all about?
The climate in Bogotá is not how you might imagine a country which has a coast on the Caribbean. First of all, it gets cold. Not freezing, but definitely jacket weather at night. Secondly, it rains. A lot. Colombians like to moan about how bad the weather is in Bogotá, but its not that bad. When the sun is out it’s hot, and when it isn’t it isn’t. Like everywhere in Colombia one minute it might be raining and half an hour later it might be blazing sunshine. Just be prepared for any type of weather – you’ll notice that everyone carries a pocket umbrella. Do the same – it’ll become your best friend living in Bogotá.
Bogotá, more than anywhere else in Colombia, really is a multicultural and cosmopolitan city. You can find most cultures somewhere, which only adds to its charm. People from other cities (especially Medellín) love to complain that rolos (Bogota natives) are arrogant and cold, just the same as people from outside New York, Paris or London love to say the same, but the reality is that Bogotá is a huge, bustling metropolis, and the pace of life is very different to pretty much everywhere else in the country.
How do I get there?
For international flights Bogotá has a large international airport, El Dorado. As there are lots of Colombian families living in the United States, especially Miami, flights are relatively cheap all year round. The same goes for Europe, with the cheapest entry normally being through Madrid, however Avianca, the Colombian national airline, has recently opened up cheap return routes to London.
Alternatively if you are arriving from within Colombia, the easiest way is to fly on Viva Colombia, the budget airline. Depending on when you book and when you want to fly, this can sometimes be cheaper than the cheapest way, and is always preferable to long, hairy hours spent winding through mountain roads on a bus. If you do want to catch the bus, then almost all routes converge on Bogotá.
How to get around
As with all cities in Colombia, public transport is a mixture of central, state-run mass transport, private bus companies and taxis. To the fresh-faced recent arrival it looks like chaos. And it is chaos; ever-so-slightly ordered chaos. Bogotá, as with other cities in Colombia, is set out in a grid system. Carreras, abbreviated to Cr. or Cra., run South to North, and Calles (Cl.) run East to West. There are also diagonales and transversals which cut across the city, as well as agendas which tend to be bigger, busier streets and often have names (and numbers as well).
Addresses in Colombia are a series of numbers, and can look confusing to the uninitiated onlooker, but are actually quite logical and once you get used to them you should be able to tell roughly where in the city it is just by working out the numbers.
Here is an example of an address: Calle 93 # 14 – 20. In Spanish this would read, ‘Calle noventa y tres, número catorce, veinte’.
Calle 93 means the location is on calle 93, ‘número catorce’ (14) means it is close to the intersection with carrera 14, and 20 means it is 20 metres West of this intersection (as called go from East to West). It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. With a little help from locals and taxi drivers you’ll get it soon enough. Obviously there are other complications to the grid system, as the whole city wasn’t built in one sitting, but this should give you an idea of how to orientate yourself in the city.
Seeing all the various private bus companies zipping around the streets, with no obvious bus stops and only the main stops listed on the boards in the windows of buses can be very daunting and extremely confusing. If you don’t know the city you are going to have to ask someone, and locals and bus drivers are normally more than happy to help.
As there are no bus stops, you just have to hail one when you see the bus you need and they will stop literally anywhere. The same goes for when you want to get off. If you plan on traveling by bus, especially to work, then make sure you leave plenty of time. The buses don’t drive slowly by any means, but you may have to wait until one comes by with space, especially in the mornings. Colombian law also states that if the bus only has one entrance (buseta) then passengers may only be seated and not stand. Most of the time the transit police (tránsito – they wear navy and pale blue uniforms and drive blue and white bikes) turn a blind eye to this, but if the bus gets pulled over it can add an extra 10 minutes onto your journey.
Sistema Integrado de Transporte Público (Integrated Public Transport System)
This is the entire state-run integrated transport system in Bogotá, and includes the TransMilenio and the buses which offshoot from it. You can pay cash for the TransMilenio, but will need to have already got hold of a Tullave card to take advantage of the whole network. If you care spending more than a few days in the city it is definitely worth getting a Tullave card, similar to an Oyster card in London. There are several discounts available for using your Tullave card, and you can obtain it at selected stations, at various puntos de personalización (personalization points) or online. Like an Oyster card you top it up at any of the punts de recarga that are locates all across the city.
TransMilenio and SITP urbano
The TransMilenio is a kind of hybrid between a bus and a metro. It is essentially a bus which has its own dedicated lane, and which stops in big bus stops that are much more like metro stations, complete with raised, covered platforms and sliding doors. It’s a great way to travel as you miss out on the famous (or rather infamous) Bogotá traffic, but the TransMilenio only covers the primary routes in the City (see the route map).
Like any public transport system in the city, the TransMilenio gets extremely crowded during peak times, and the concept of letting people out before you try and get in doesn’t appear to exist. Make sure you leave enough time and plan your trip well.
Extending from the TransMilenio network are blue SITP Urbano buses which can only be accessed with a Tullave card. Check the routes here.
Yellow taxis are found in abundance all over the city, and can be very cheap if there are a few of you, but you need to be aware of a couple of rules. Firstly, don’t get in a cab without a meter. Lots and lots of cabs don’t have meters, which means that the driver or taxista is basically free to make up the price on the spot. Secondly, have a general idea of where it is you care going before go – if you know its only 10 blocks away then you know he shouldn’t be charging you $20,000 pesos. It also helps when, as happens quite frequently, the taxi driver has no idea where you want to go. They don’t have to pass a test to drive a cab, and as a result some of them just look at you blankly when you give them a relatively obscure address.
Latin America’s largest network of dedicated cycle routes is found in Bogotá, with over 120km of cycle paths constructed as part of an urban development project. You can find a map of the cycle paths here.
Another initiative that was unique to Bogotá, but that is now being replicated in other cities, is called Ciclovía. Every sunday and public holiday lots of main and secondary roads in the city are closed to traffic for use by bikes, runners, skateboarders or anyone else that wants to join in.
What to do in your free time
Bogotá is a huge, sprawling metropolis with cultures from every part of the world, and as such has tons and tons of stuff to do and places to see. It is by far the best place to eat in Colombia.