CARTAGENA, Colombia- Upon entering Colombia I became aware of a great sucking sound emitting from the vicinity of my pant pockets. No, it was not the sound of me getting lucky, but the sound of my money leaving me — being taken away by the cost of living and traveling in a country that is slightly more expensive than the Latin American standards I’ve come to expect. In point, I have never paid more money so regularly to travel in any other country during this 12 year, 50 country journey.
This is not to say that Colombia is an expensive country — no way can it rank against Western Europe, the USA, or Australia — but, for Latin America, it is definitely a mid-range sort of place in terms of travel expenses. The cost of living here is cheap — apartments, food, and local transport is relatively cheap — it is the travel “luxuries” that are priced slightly higher that what they seem they should be.
All travelers have these little criteria to balance out and estimate costs in a country. Generally, everything runs flush, the cost of food, accommodation, and transportation — the traveler’s triad of needs — are relative to each other as far as price is concerned. But once in a while you hit a country where the prices for certain things seem disproportionate. In Colombia, you can get a complete meal in a restaurant for $3 but a bus from Cartagena to Medellin will run you over $60.
I’ve heard few objections paid towards traveling in Colombia until I arrived. “Colombia is cheap,” I’ve read. These travel writers should be lined up agains the wall and shot — they are obviously middle class twats with no bearings on what the word “cheap” means. Cheap compared to Canada means nothing. A $50 a day travel budget is not cheap.
Colombia is one of the more expensive countries in Latin America that I’ve been to, and it is not just me who has noticed. Sitting in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, I am in one of the first stops for travelers coming down from Panama. They often look at me with worried eyes, “It is more expensive here than I thought, does South America get any cheaper?”
“Don’t worry,” I tell them, “You will spend more in Colombia than any other country until you get to Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. In Ecuador and Peru the prices get back to normal, and Bolivia is cheap.”
Coming from countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the cost of travel in Colombia often comes as a shock. I sit back in the Hotel Marlin in Cartagena laughing when I see the look on backpackers’ faces who traveled the long road down through Central America that they are going to have to pay 108,000 pesos to get to Medellin. Some just fly — it is only 50,000 pesos more.
There seemed to be this deeply buried annoyance that many long term travelers seem to feel in Colombia. I feel it too, but initially could not place it. Then Robin Reifel from Gadtramp.com laid it out perfectly:
“I just don’t feel that I’m getting a good value for what I’m paying to be here.”
I mentioned this to Sam Langley of Cubicle Ditcher Travel, who just spent the past year and a half traveling from Mexico to Patagonia and back up again.
“Yes,” he said, “that’s it exactly. . . I feel that I always have to go to the ATM in this country.”
I had to agree.
My lack of enthusiasm for Colombia was bothering me to no small ends. I love just about every country I travel in, why was Colombia any different? Everything looks, feels, tastes, and smells like many other countries in Latin America that I truly enjoy, so why wasn’t this emotion arising here? Was I becoming jaded after 12 years of travel?
“I just feel as if I’m not getting a good value here.”
Colombia is Latin America at double the cost.
Living cheap and well just feels good. It makes you feel real smart to say that you live for a couple hundred dollars a month in some tropical paradise. It makes you feel a little stupid to say that you are paying $22 per night for a $10 room in a hotel, that you are taking buses for four times what you expect they should cost, that you are being charged more money because your skin is white and you speak with a foreign accent.
I am not publishing this entry as a complaint. There is nothing that a traveler can do about the higher cost of travel in Colombia so there is no reason to complain about it. Rather, I am publishing this entry just to pass on the word to other travelers:
When you get to Colombia, just expect to pay more than in Central America, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia. Colombia is not a cheap country though it is not an expensive one either. Think mid-range Latin America. Don’t expect to live super comfortable here, pack on ten extra dollars a day to your budget, and you will be fine. Colombia will suck the money out of you, but it generally won’t leave you beach without a dollar to your name — it is not that expensive.
“These Colombians know what they’re doing,” Chaya from Travel with Children Tips spoke, “they make the prices a little more expensive so that they can make more money but not so expensive that people stop coming here.”
There is a little rule in the collective psychology of capitalist cultures that states that if the price is higher for something than quality should rise proportionately. It is not my impression that the quality of what you receive in Colombia is any higher than most other places in Latin America. If I’m paying $20 for a hotel room in this region of the world I inherently feel that it should be a place that I want to be, that it should have good WIFI, a shower that is more than a hose sticking out of a wall, a toilet that flushes without a fight, a window with light shining through, a place to live in. A $20 hotel in Colombia is just a tick above a hippie flop house. Sometimes we even stay in hippie flop houses here, as you can often get a room in them for under $15 a night.
My standard of living has plummeted in Colombia. I am not living in the gutter, but I’m not living as a vagabond king either.
My typical expenses in Colombia
The prices outline below often came with a fight. I’ve put in huge amount of effort bartering, searching and asking around to come up with the prices I’ve been paying here in Colombia. I go to great ends to find the cheapest prices possible, most other backpackers here spend twice as much as me. Many of the hotel rates are also for 7+ days, and likewise came at a discount. We also travel slow, often staying in each location for one week to one month, so the ultimate cost of transport is also way less than otherwise. If these prices seem low to you, keep in mind that I usually live for under half this much in other Latin American countries.
- Accommodation: $14 to $22 per night, double room.
- Food, restaurant: $3 – $5 per meal.
- Food, self cater: $5 – $8 per meal for the entire family.
- Transportation, bus: $3 to $4 per hour, prices won with extreme amounts of bartering.
- Transport, local bus: $1 a ride.
- Visa fees for staying over 60 days: $4 per day, 3 people.
- Snacks, beer, entertainment, random expenses: $2 – $10 per day.
Read a more typical traveler’s expense report from Colombia.
Travel cheap in Colombia tips
When traveling in Colombia, be prepared to employ some alternative travel strategies to save money. Here are some tips on how to lower the cost of wandering here.
- Bring camping gear. There are plenty of places to camp throughout Colombia. There is a camping/ hiking culture here, and there are sometimes even campgrounds in or near cities and larger size towns. The typical cost of a camp site in Colombia is $2.50 to $5 per night, drastically less than hotels.
- Use pensions. There are plenty of boarding house like accommodation available here, and it tends to be vastly cheaper than in hotels. To find pensions, look for signs hanging on the doors and windows of residential buildings.
- Stay by the week. If you are staying for at least a week, you can often work out an arrangement with hotels for discounts. Typical discounts range from 20,000 to 5,000 pesos per night.
- Stay by the month. If you want to stay somewhere for a month, you can get an apartment. Typically, an apartment rents for 300,000 to a million pesos per month. Even the high end estimate here is cheaper than most hotels.
- Barter hard for bus tickets. Find out how long your journey is and try to get it for under $3 an hour.
- Ride a bicycle. The classic form of cheap transport. Read about a bicycle traveler in Colombia.
Extreme budget travel in Colombia
The cost of travel in many expensive countries can often be offset by the use of more independent travel stragegies like hitchhiking, riding a bicycle, camping on the sly, and cooking your own food in the bush. I just traveled in Iceland — one of the more expensive countries on the planet — on under $15 per day. But in Colombia, I pay far more because of my reluctance to put my family in the way of additional risks and difficulties to save the rather small amount of money that we could otherwise. Latin America, while not a super dangerous region, does carry very real risks.
Colombia is not a country like Japan or region like Europe where you can just crash virtually anywhere outside, hitchhike, live as a pauper and take it for granted that nothing will happen to you. You can try to employ these strategies here — though the word is that hitchhiking here is so difficult as to be nearly impossible — but you do so with additional risk. For me, extreme budget travel in Colombia often breeches the risk/ potential savings ratio. I am not that broke yet.
Colombia expenses conclusion
In all, Colombia is not an expensive country for travel, but it is not cheap either. It is a mid-range sort of place that is more costly than what it seems it should be, and it often takes a shear amount of effort, a lowering of living standards, and a tightening of the belt to travel withing budget in. The daily challenge of keeping expenses low in a relatively costly country is perhaps the hallmark of vagabond travel, but living this way can become a dirge as well.
“In Bolivia, I did not ever have to think about money,” my friend Sam told me in Cartagena, “everything was so cheap that I could do whatever I wanted.”
It feels good to not think about the money you spend, to wander through the world as a vagabond king, but to do this in Colombia would mean going belly up fast. If money is constantly on the mind of the working traveler, in Colombia this concern is raised to an obsession. It feels limiting to look out on the road ahead and see financial barriers in all directions, it feels lame to not go to places out of respect of the cost of getting there, it leaves an empty feeling in your stomach to pay out more money than what you feel you should have, but this is now what travel is like in Colombia — take it or leave it.