≡ Menu
Vagabond Journey

Cost of Travel in Colombia is More Expensive

On that great sucking sound coming from my pocket.

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.

Spending money in Colombia

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.

Filed under: Colombia, Money, South America, Travel Economics

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

26 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Sam October 18, 2011, 3:17 pm

    That’s spot on Wade. You have to tighten the belt a little bit here, barter and search a little harder and just accept that your not in Guatemala or Peru anymore. Sad and a little frustrating but true. Not sure if I could have phrased things any better than you did here.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard October 19, 2011, 10:46 am

      I was looking forward to your take on this where you actually use research and facts haha. Would be great to see how the prices of travel in Latin American countries match up against average wages and earnings.

      Link Reply
  • Scott October 18, 2011, 4:41 pm

    Wade,
    Totally have to agree with you here. I flew in from Nicaragua and the price difference was hard to except. In Nicaragua I was living in private hotels for 5 bucks a night and in Colombia I was sleeping in a crap dorm for 3 times the money. 3 weeks and I was in Peru and back to what I considered a good “bang for the buck.’ Rather disappointed though in not really getting to explore Colombia and just rushing through.

    Good heads up for your readers.

    Your site looking really good!!!

    Scott

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard October 19, 2011, 10:43 am

      Yeah, it is real funny. Especially as many other things like food and local transport are priced pretty competitively.

      Link Reply
  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell October 20, 2011, 4:43 am

    Wow, this update is disappointing – Colombia used to be very cheap = like Bolivia priced (in 2003). Was considering returning there in the next few years, to live … seems the world’s changing too fast for some of us, old-time travelers.

    PS: Anyway, apart from visa costs, still cheap – good value – to travel here in Uzbekistan (and Kyrgyzstan) for now … especially in Autumn / low-season.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard October 20, 2011, 11:45 am

      Yeah, it is really funny here as far as prices. It really does not make much sense. I think this country is changing a lot very rapidly.

      Looking forward to getting to Central Asia! Sounds great.

      Link Reply
      • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell October 23, 2011, 6:50 am

        Greetings from Samarkand – Uzbekistan …C. Asia is great BUT note not always easy on the wallet, if you’re budget minded (I’m not particularly, since I want to see the place and pay what I need to do to a horse trek with guide or hire a jeep in the Pamirs.

        VISAS are expensive and mostly limited to one month without massive renewel hassles (KG is the exception). Turkmenistan only offers transit visas (tourist visa requires a daily guide) so not much there for slow travelers; Kyrgyzstan is the most reasonable (and best suited to your style of slow travel), the others will be more bothersome but good for a month of fast travel

        Link Reply
  • Andy Graham October 21, 2011, 6:56 am

    I plan to move slower to offset the prices increasing faster by the tourist splurge mentality.

    I left Guatemala and enter the state of Indiana in the USA, the cost of food in my little Midwestern city of Orland is cheaper than the food in Guatemala. However, if I eat from the fresh food market, or anywhere there is no gringos in Guatemala it is cheaper.

    Bottom line, if you see a tourist sitting next to you, Gong, you lose.

    I want to go back to Africa and leave the west behind…

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard October 21, 2011, 11:17 am

      Right on, that’s it exactly. Colombia is an affordable country, but parts of it has been gentrified quick for the rapidly expanding middle class and foreign travelers. The reason why I fear this is because it is my impression that it will become a trend as the middle classes of developing countries grow and the backpackers with the, as you put it, splurge mentality ever more outnumber the lifestyle travelers and those who know the value of a dollar. I am looking at how the prices are inflating so rapidly in even the lowest level of the global travel industry and I’m seeing the writing on the wall: I’m going to have to find some new haunts haha. West Africa, Central Asia, far Eastern Europe, here we come.

      Link Reply
  • Rob October 28, 2011, 3:40 am

    “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.”

    In your other posts you quite rightly speak about the fact that the term “budget” means nothing.Everybody has one. I travel cheaply and a budget of $50 per day is not in my reach, however for many travellers, particularly people who are on say, a 2 month trip having a budget of 50 bucks a day doesn’t make them a middle class twat.

    Link Reply
  • Catalina November 8, 2011, 1:16 pm

    Wade, espero que entiendas español. La razon por la cual Colombia es mas cara que los vecinos es de orden macroeconomico, pues por un lado la crisis economica ha hecho que varias monedas latinoaméricanas se avaluen frente al dolar y el euro, a lo que debe sumar que en Colombia esta entrando muchos dolares por una creciente inversion extranjera y, claro esta, el narcotrafico. Resultado: el peso colombiano ha sido la moneda que mas se ha avaluado en el mundo en los ultimos años. Un ejemplo, hace 10 años un dolar valia $2300 y un almuerzo $2500 -poco mas de un dolar-. Actualmente un dolar vale $1800 y un almuerzo $5000 o mas -casi 3 dolares-. Esa es la razon mas que estar interesados en “robar” al turista -aunque algunos lo hacen- o una clase media snob. Saludos y espero que de todos modos haya podido disfrutar en el pais.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard November 8, 2011, 9:18 pm

      Hello Catalina,

      Yes, I understand Spanish, but I don’t usually allow comments in languages other than English to appear on this section of the site for ease of reading. We have a Spanish version coming though.

      It is my impression that the rising prices for “luxury” activities in Colombia — such as eating in restaurants or taking long distance transport — has more to do with gentrification from a rising middle class than anything else. I do believe that the tourists from Bogota and Medellin face the same challenges with price as foreigners. It is part of the gentrification process: as soon as some elements of a population can and are willing to pay more for something the price will steadily rise for everyone.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Link Reply
  • traveling Colombia December 27, 2011, 4:06 pm

    You’re right. Colombia is kinda expensive and it gets really really expensive when it is the vacations season. You have no idea how ridiculous prices arise for airplane tickets when it is the month of December! sometimes it is even cheaper for a person living in Bogota to travel abroad like Miami or Panama than even traveling to Cartagena or San Andres.

    Link Reply
  • Kevin Wollam May 21, 2012, 6:44 pm

    Just got a 8 hour bus for about 18 bucks…not too bad for Colombia…gotta ask every station. Getting in Cartagena and leaving is the most expensive I have seen in this country.

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard May 21, 2012, 9:53 pm

      No kidding man! That Cartagena racket is think haha. Unbelievable that the buses are almost the same price as the plane. Good on ya for the 18 dollar ticket. That’s a score, for sure. Glad to hear that you’re enjoying the country.

      Link Reply
  • Johanna October 25, 2012, 4:51 pm

    To leave a comment here is mandatory
    I’m Colombian and I went to Cartagena a few weeks ago… and everything is really expensive. Everything!!!… food, transportation, even the water. Rent the chairs on the beach, ride in the chiva, go to any museum …
    And actually was cheaper buy the airplane ticket than the bus ticket. Cartagena – Bogota it was less than a half that the price for the bus ticket.
    Pffffff

    Link Reply
  • RitaD March 2, 2013, 6:48 pm

    You are a great writer, but especially in this post you come across as an overprivileged gringo – expecting everything to be to your liking. A country has a right to name its own prices – if it’s too expensive for you, don’t go.

    Link Reply
    • Vagabond Journey March 2, 2013, 7:40 pm

      @RitaD Not wanting to be ripped off does not indicate privilege, it indicates a desire to be respected.

      Link Reply
  • Colombian March 3, 2013, 9:46 pm

    Colombia: “I just feel as if I’m not getting a good value here.” Sad. But that`s how I feel when pay $30 USD for a wax(aka fake)  museum sculpture tour in NYC. But people really feel that way when being around Manhattan ? No, because everything around could be way more expensive than that and because you are paying in us dollars. I can say the same for the overpriced pizza, coffee from a rusty machine etc.  Catalina said right: is a macroeconomic issue and you will face it in any part of the world with currency revaluation. The other point you need to understand is the ppl income( minimal wage : Bolivia $3000 per year vs Colombia $6000). Is fairly easy, Soda in the US $1.5 USD, Colombia 1600 pesos ( $0.8 USD). 
     
    Seems you were expecting Latin america being a big Bolivia and pay with pennies your meal…in the US you won’t be regretting paying 7 USD( 14000 pesos-two full well made meals- 1 bandeja paisa) for McDonalds combo, which has the nutritional value of #@##. Perceive diversity and enjoying it is the adventure’s traveler DNA. 
     
    Sorry, should comment in this one.

    Link Reply
    • Vagabond Journey March 4, 2013, 2:02 am

      I’ve spent years in Latin America, from Mexico to Patagonia. I think I know what constitutes a good value here. What bothered me in Colombia was not the prices in general, but the fact that the country seems to be trying to bleed dry visitors far more than its neighbors, turning itself into a big tourist trap. This is fine, but I’d rather be other places.

      Link Reply
    • Vagabond Journey March 4, 2013, 2:12 am

      Yes, if you don’t want to go to a $30 wax museum, don’t go. If I think that Colombia is a little too expensive to travel in, then I won’t go back. It’s simple. This doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy Colombia or think it’s a good value. I’ll repeat what I wrote above:
       
      “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.”

      Link Reply
      • Colombian March 4, 2013, 9:23 pm

        @Vagabond Journey
        Fair enough.
         
        Although, i don’t` think you are consistent with your arguments…went through your other entries about Colombia and my perception is bit different what you are standing for.  I am replying because if considering an ethnographic traveler  yourself,  the idiosyncrasy of common colombian is not being captured in your notes.  
         
        Your following paragraph: 
         
        “here 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”.  => Our macroeconomic discussion fits in here.
         Ppl with a minimum wage will love to have  cheaper cost of living, not because they can offer you a tropical paradise to hang out at bargain price…just because they should survive with. 
         
        Take a look of this chronicle of  a journalist that made the experiment in Colombia. 
         
        http://www.soho.com.co/zona-cronica/articulo/seis-meses-con-salario-minimo/887

        Link Reply
  • Nombres Apellidos June 3, 2015, 1:55 pm

    I agree with Wade. I am a Colombian myself and often times feel compelled to travel to other places rather than going back just because it is cheaper. As an example I am currently living in the Middle East and the airline ticket to go to Bogota is around $1900 while going to Japan is $1200. Both flights are about 25 hr from my point of origin. Similarly when I was living in the US, it was cheaper to travel to Argentina than Colombia. Some how the airplane tickets are more expensive…

    Link Reply
  • Prophet X December 1, 2016, 10:31 am

    i was just looking on airbnb and the flats in cartegena… i might as well just rent a place in South Beach …

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney December 1, 2016, 12:04 pm

      For sure! I wrote this five years ago. I can’t imagine what it’s like now!

      Link Reply