Considering I’ve only been here for two months, this list is by no means exhausted. I’m always being put out of my comfort zone here and learning new things about Colombia and, more specifically, Bogotá. So, whether, like me, you’re doing a study exchange, moving here permanently, or simply travelling to the city closer to the stars, here are my pearls of wisdom to prepare you before you come.
Before you leave: Be prepared
VISA’s, PIPs, Bureaucracy: Nothing sucks the fun out of travelling abroad like sorting a VISA. But it’s a necessary evil and something you should look into well-ahead of going abroad. Generally, if you’re a British national all you’ll need is proof you’ve booked your return flight. If you don’t know when you’re leaving Colombia, you’ll need something like a letter or enrolment from your Uni, and then make sure you get a PIP stamp when you arrive at the airport. This lasts 90 days, after which you’ll need to get renewed to last you another 90 days. Anyone planning on staying longer than 180 days will need to get a VISA.
Vaccinations: Doctor’s appointments tend to fill up quickly, so book your appointment at least 6 weeks before you leave. If, like me, you’re too late to cop one before you leave, you can always get one in a private pharmacy like Boots. Try and bring along a list of any other vaccines you’ve had and also any travel plans you have (for instance, if you’re going to the Amazon or travelling onwards after Colombia you’ll need some extra ones).
Money: Spending money abroad is always complicated and rarely cheap. However, the wonder that is a Monzo card will save you a lot of money and stress whilst spending in Colombia. You can use the card anywhere that accepts Visa, and can withdraw up to £200 equivalent in cash a month for free. Unfortunately, the Colombian Peso isn’t a currency you can transfer with yet, so transferring money into a Colombian bank account will cost you some money. It’s also a good idea to tell any other bank you might use that you’re travelling, just in case they suspect fraudulent activity.
When you arrive: The logistical stuff
Phones, SIM Cards, etc: Unfortunately, as far as I know, no British provider works in Colombia for free. But, if you make sure your phone’s unlocked, it’s easy enough to buy a Colombian SIM card. Once you’ve got your SIM card, you’ll get a message asking you to register, which is something you need to do as quickly as possible otherwise your phone (not the SIM card) will be blocked. Also, make sure you choose a provider like Tigo, Virgin Mobile or Avantel, as certain providers (like Éxito and Claro) only provide services to Colombian citizens.
I would also recommend bringing an old phone (also unlocked, of course), just in case something happens to yours. Unfortunately, pickpockets are fairly common here, so it’s always good to have a back-up.
Transport: Get a TransMilenio card, also known as the Tu Llave card. It costs 5,000 pesos (about £1.25) and you simply top up as you go (like an Oyster card). There’s no student or youth discount, or a deal if you top up monthly, but when a journey almost anywhere in the city is the equivalent of 50p, it’s cheap enough. The TransMilenio system is like a mixture of a bus, tram and underground services. They use buses, but they have their very own lanes throughout the city, but have station barriers like an underground. An eclectic and unique transport system to say the least.
There’s also the SITP buses, which are a bit longer and less reliable but only cost 500 pesos (about 13p) for any journey. Ubers are also really common here, and recommended over taxis as they’re generally safer. They are, however, illegal, so you usually need to sit in the front so not to look suspicious.
Buying the essentials: I naively expected there to be a housing department store within easy access from my accommodation, but I was definitely wrong. My first evening here was spent aimlessly wondering around my local supermarket, meaning my first few nights were spent wrapped in a fleece throw, my airplane blanket with a big t-shirt pulled over my sheet-less pillow. To avoid this, do one big shop in one of the city’s big shopping centres where you’ll find more or less everything you’ll need. You could wander around the shops here and find the different things you need, but you’ll likely end up going into a lot of different shops trying to find what you need.
Give Yourself Time: Arrive With Time to Settle in
Arrive at least a week early: If you’re moving here, try and arrive at least a week before you start your studying/work/etc. Retrospectively, this was an obvious one, but I wanted to get as much time at home before I was off again. Other than the obvious things like settling in and getting over your jet-lag, Bogotá is 2,640 metres above sea level, meaning some funky altitude sickness to get over. The best way to handle this is lots of rest, drink plenty of water, avoid alcohol and the cocoa leaf is even proven to help the nausea and fatigue that comes with the thin air.
You’ll also need some time to get used to the Colombian time table. Everything starts fairly early: wake up early, go to bed early. This was something I found bizarre after being accustomed to the Spanish timetable, where everything is later and slower.
Homesickness: This is completely natural. I’ve never really had problems with it before, but definitely felt it being here. Keep in regular (but not excessive) contact with your friends and family back home, but most importantly talk to the people around you about it. More or less everyone will be able to empathise, which makes you feel a little less alone. Make lots of plans, put yourself out there and say yes to as much as possible.
Getting to know the city has been, for me, harder than others. At first, I felt quite claustrophobic: you can’t just get up and wander around the city on your own at night. I used to go out late at night on my own in Madrid without a phone and it wouldn’t matter. But here, you do have to plan ahead, make sure you’ve got someone with you, know where you’re going, have enough battery on your phone and won’t be wandering around late at night, which means doing something as simple as going to the shops for a late-night snack isn’t as spontaneous as you might think.
It’s taking a bit longer to familiarise myself with this city, but the it’s is definitely keeping me intrigued.