Rumors about Colombia in Hollywood and the media are quick to depict a drug-state run by criminals and FARC rebels. Anyone who knows the country, however, will tell you about the mountains and beaches, about the fiestas and the happiest people in the world. Visitors who come for just a week or a month wish they had more time to spend here. Longer-term travelers find themselves extending their stay in whichever city, town, or corner that has captured them. Divided into regions known as departments, Colombia's geographical makeup is incredibly varied, as any proud national will tell you. Each department offers unique flavor and sights that are lesser known than other Latin American destinations. Choose Colombia for your Gap Year and you, too, will understand why they say: “The only risk is wanting to stay.”
Colombia is a very large, diverse country with ample opportunities to spend a year. While tourism has boomed in the past few years, Colombia is still largely “undiscovered” by the average foreign traveler and therefore offers fewer organizations and structured programs to the gapper than more popular South American destinations like Argentina or Peru. While this may mean a bit more work, it also means more freedom, novelty and opportunity in your travels.
Colombia’s recent reappearance in international trade, business and global affairs has ignited a nationwide movement and desire for more English language acquisition, from individuals to institutions and entire cities. If you already have a TEFL, CELTA or similar teaching certificate, finding a teaching job can be fairly easy in bigger cities like Medellín or Bogotá, though you need to search carefully if you need your employer to sponsor a visa. While it is possible to find opportunities ahead of time online, the best strategy is to show up where you want to teach with a handful of CVs and a friendly attitude. Degree-wielding teachers can check out international job fairs for private bilingual schools. Without formal teaching experience or certification, it can be trickier to find legitimate work but many institutions will hire native speakers. However, it may be in your best interest to participate in a program like WorldTeach or the British Council.
Backpacking and Adventure Travel
Colombia has a well-known “Gringo Trail” traversed by hundreds of travelers throughout the year, but this guidebook-inspired route only covers the bare minimum of this colorful, complicated nation. Any of the major cities can easily occupy you for weeks at a time as you explore the corners and find your way into the local population's warm embrace.
You can find adventure sports and activities in every department, although some towns and areas have more infrastructure than others. Paragliding is popular in and around Medellín, the outskirts of Bogotá and the Chicamocha Canyon in Santander. San Gil is a small town well-known for its extreme activities like rappelling, rafting, cave excursions, mountain biking and sampling hormigas culeonas or fat-bottom ants. Macondo Hostel in San Gil arranges the best, safe outdoor adventures for fair prices. If you're a water-dweller, both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts have great diving, snorkeling and surfing opportunities.
Colombia's wealth of adventure travel is what you make it. Beautiful hikes abound all over the country – just ask a local wherever you are staying and someone will be happy to point you in the right direction and give you the lowdown on safety (some excursions will require a hired guide or police officer to prevent armed robberies in remote locations).
Camping is a favorite pastime of many Colombians and there are ample campsites with cabins or equipment to rent. Cycling is also a wildly popular sport (winning Colombia’s first Olympic gold medal in 2012!) with a widespread circuit of bike paths in major cities as well as mountain biking trails in many national parks.
Colombians are some of the kindest, warmest people you will ever meet and everyone has something they want to show you. More independent travelers here will find that the greatest opportunities are not necessarily through a hostel, program or organization – they stem from a casual chat with a stranger-turned-friend.
If you want to learn Spanish, Medellín and Cartagena have the best structured classes but even better is arranging an “intercambio” or language exchange with a local. The coastal dialect can be extremely difficult to understand but Bogotá, Medellín, Calí and Bucaramanga speak very clearly. Even if you already have extensive knowledge of Spanish, there are hundreds of regional slang words and phrases to pick up here as well.
Artist? Colombia will capture your heart. Artists and artisans showcase their talent all over the country and love to share their work and talents with like-minded people. Ask any about their “taller” and arranging classes to learn about pottery, painting, sculpture, jewelry-making, metalwork and weaving. Walk around Usaquén market in Bogotá and you will encounter overwhelmingly talented, creative and lovely artists.
Any conversation with Colombians will ultimately lead to cuisine so why not ask them for cooking lessons? Learn to prepare ajiaco in Bogotá, arroz de coco on the coast, bandeja paisa in Medellín and hundreds of other dishes around the country.
What else do you want to learn? Music, dance, sports, academics…there are endless opportunities throughout Colombia.
Cost of Living in Colombia
Living and traveling in Colombia can be significantly more expensive than other South American countries. Bogotá and Cartagena will certainly set you back more than a smaller city or town less frequented by tourists. Hostel dorms in major locations run about 20,000 pesos with private rooms around 45,000 and up. It's often more economical to arrange a room in a pension or homestay for longer stays in one place – the best way to do so is ask around. You'll find prices from 300,000 per month up to twice that (Colombian cities are arranged by strata or income level, and higher stratas will have higher costs.) Transportation is affordable. City buses average 1500 and prices between cities vary depending on the bus company and quality – two hour trips might run 10,000 to 15,000 COP or an overnight bus around 60,000.
Food is the easiest way to save money in Colombia. Corriente set lunches can be had for 4,000 pesos and will keep you full for hours on soup, rice, meat, vegetables and beans. Alternately, fruit and vegetable markets are commonplace all over the country and vendors will gladly explain their wares and how to prepare the more exotic goods.
Culture and Etiquette in Colombia
Colombian culture covers a very wide range depending on your location. Rolos in Bogotá tend to be much more polite and formal, whereas costeños in Cartagena and Barranquilla are loud, laidback and much less concerned with formalities or timeliness. Paisas in Medellín and the coffee region fall somewhere in between but are known as the friendliest people in an already-friendly country. Time is very relaxed as a whole, but you should still try to be on time for important meetings and classes. Family always comes first here, and an invitation to someone's home is a special event – say yes! Physical dress and appearance can make or break you, too. You'll find that people dress sharply in cities but even casual wear is neat and clean. Run a comb through your hair and shake out the wrinkles and you'll get more respect from people you meet. Colombians tend to have a great sense of humor so don't be afraid to laugh off cultural mishaps and say, “que pena!”
Health and Safety in Colombia
Colombia is safe. Yes, you read that correctly – Colombia is safe. The government is still struggling with FARC and paramilitary groups but the once-widespread violence has overall been curtailed. That being said, your key to safety here is using your head and listening to locals. There are “red zones” around the Pacific coast and the Amazon most notably that should be skirted and just like anywhere in the world, each city has its neighborhoods that you should avoid. Learn some key Spanish phrases and always call taxis in major cities rather than hail them off the street. Pickpocketing is commonplace on city buses and in tourist destinations like Bogotá’s Candelaria.
Health-wise, take the same precautions you would in any foreign location. Wash, peel or cook fruit and vegetables, check out the cleanliness of small restaurants and food stands, use insect repellent and sunscreen (even in Bogotá’s chill – the altitude makes for easy sunburns!) If you do fall ill, most pharmacies will advise you over the counter for ailments like a cold.