Most tourists travel Colombia by bus or plane, but more and more travelers rent a car. Renting a car is easy, it gives you more freedom and with a car you can more easily explore Colombia off the beaten path. Driving a car in Colombia is a fun experience in which I myself have both been terrified and enjoyed it immensely. By now I have about 9 years of driving experience in Colombia and have driven many routes, and can give you the best tips. Renting a car in Colombia: in this article I tell you what to consider, what about your driver’s license, traffic rules, about safety, distances and parking, give you great routes for a road trip Colombia and more!
Itineraries for a road trip Colombia
What itineraries Colombia have I driven myself?
Many destinations in Colombia I discovered by car:
- Bogotá – Manizales – Pereira – Armenia – Bogotá and everything in between
- Second time Eje Cafetero (car rented in Pereira)
- Bogotá – Medellín and surrounding areas – Bogotá
- The whole of Cundinamarca I discovered by car, several times
- Boyacá and Santander (many times)
- Huila: from Bogotá to Tatacoa and San Agustín and back
Renting a car in Colombia: 7 road trips
Herewith some routes and regions that are very doable and perfect for self-driving.
Road trip Colombia off the beaten path
The coffee triangle: Manizales – Pereira – Armenia and everything in between
Eje Cafetero is ideal to explore by car and the major roads are in very good condition. Go outside Salento and discover how insanely beautiful this region is. You can also drive to a real Colombian finca to stay with locals instead of in crowded Salento. (Note that many interior roads are not passable or poorly passable with a regular car, a 4wd may be required).
From Bogotá to the spectacular Guavio and back again
Rent a car in Bogotá and take a two- or three-day road trip to the spectacular Guavio and back again. This is an unique area without tourists, but cute typical Colombian villages, insane nature at high altitude and the impressive Lake Guavio instead. The roads on the route are not the best, so take your time and be patient. Arranging a hotel in advance is also a good idea.
Road trip Boyacá: Puente de Boyacá – Villa de Leyva – Lago de Tota
Rent a car in Bogotá and drive first to Villa de Leyva and surrounding areas. On the way, make a stop at Puente de Boyacá. After Villa de Leyva, continue driving north. Here you can choose to really go off the beaten track, staying in such places as Finca Yerbabuena and explore the surrounding countryside and villages (how about Toca: the safest village in Colombia!). Then drive on to Lago de Tota: a remote gem in Colombia. I have been there many times now (always by car) and there is something new to discover each time and therefore perfect for a road trip Colombia. Along the way, don’t forget a real Colombian ruana to take with you from Nobsa!
Santander: Barichara and surrounding areas
Santander is known for its many picturesque villages, extreme sports and beautiful nature. Find a nice hotel in, for example Barichara and explore Santander from there. Drive to villages such as Socorro, Páramo, Charalá, Curití and Zapatoca. Venture on the thrilling ride between San Gil and Bucaramanga or Girón and marvel at the spectacular views of the valley. Excellent to combine with extreme sports such as rafting, paragliding and canyoning.
Perhaps I like this one the best: discover the unknown Cundinamarca. Indeed, around the corner from Bogotá, this part is massively skipped by foreign travelers. A shame, because there is so much to do! An example of a road trip:
Bogotá – Tobia (and surrounding areas) – San Francisco – Zipaquirá and Nemocón (salt mines) – the lake of Neusa – climbing in Suesca – Sisga and Chocotá – Machetá – Guatavíta and Laguna de Guatavita – Bogotá or on to Guavio.
Road trip throughout Colombia or just certain regions?
Colombia is not a country to cross entirely by car in 3 weeks. If you want to do all of Colombia by car, you will need a few months. The distances are enormous, bad roads, traffic jams, road works and hairpin turns take you a long time everywhere, you have to pay attention to everything on the road (people crossing, potholes in the road, etc.) and all this makes driving in Colombia enormous tiring.
In addition, you will pass through unsafe areas if you want to travel all of Colombia by car. Between Medellín and Montería for example. And the road between Cali and the border with Ecuador is not so safe either.
It is therefore advisable to choose to do only a part of Colombia by car. For example, take a road trip Cundinamarca – Boyacá and Santander. Or a road trip from Bogotá to Medellín, the coffee region and back again.
Rent a car in Colombia: what kind of car do you need for a roadtrip?
The best car to rent in Colombia depends on exactly where you want to go and how far off the beaten path you plan to travel. Do you stay on the major roads? Then an ordinary car will be fine. If you go off the main road, you mostly need a 4×4.
A higher car is always handy in Colombia. Outside the highways (and in Bogotá everywhere) there are many holes in the road, with a low car you quickly damage the underside.
On certain routes, many ordinary cars cannot proceed because the roads are impassable. In the vicinity of Lago de Tota, for example, you can encounter this. Like around San Agustín or between San Agustín and Popayán.
So it is best to have an idea beforehand of what you want to visit and whether you like to drive on more remote roads or whether you prefer to stay on the main roads.
Also keep in mind that some mountain roads are very steep. Then it’s nice to have a car that gets you up the mountain easily.
If you want to be sure, rent a high car, a SUV or a car with 4WD at least.
Traffic regulations Colombia
There are a lot of traffic rules in Colombia, only hardly anyone abides them. You will even see the police doing things that really shouldn’t be done. Here are some “rules” you will encounter most often:
- Pssing on the right is quite normal.
- Direction is often not indicated and mirrors seem to be for decoration.
- There are signs for speed, but basically everyone is just doing whatever. Unless checked, but that is almost never outside the bigger cities. Colombians just drive as fast as they can. In major cities, such as Bogotá, speed checks do increase these days. So in Bogotá, it is better to stick to the speed limit.
- Often, whoever drives the hardest has the right of way.
- Usually people do stop at traffic lights.
- Streets have a stop sign if you do not have the right of way. On the other hand: if you do have the advantage, there is no sign. So you have to look for a stop sign on the other street to know if you have the right of way.
- In large cities and towns, when a road has more than one lane, the right lane is used for loading and unloading goods or people. Driving in the left lane is therefore many times faster.
- Giving each other priority in traffic jams, for example, is very difficult; you have to squeeze yourself in between to get somewhere.
- Pedestrians cross everywhere, highway or not.
- In the mountains, Colombians drive just like in the city, even heavy trucks pass each other just before a turn. Tip: keep plenty of distance, be very patient and wait to pass until you are 100% sure you can actually do it (sometimes every few kilometers a one-lane road turns into a two-lane road for a few kilometers, you can safely pass there).
Pico y Placa
In many Colombian cities, they have the rule of Pico y Placa. This means that cars with a certain license plate are not allowed to drive between certain times. What times those are depends on each city. In Bogotá, cars are allowed on the road only a few days a week, depending on the license plate. On days when you are not allowed to drive, that rule applies between 6AM and 9PM.
When you have Pico y Placa in Bogotá you will find on this website. It’s just a little hard to find, so it’s better to Google for: Pico y Placa Bogotá.
How safe is driving in Colombia?
State of the roads
- In many cities and towns, especially in Bogotá, the roads are in poor state. There are many holes and you have to avoid them. This makes driving in Bogotá exhausting: you must not only pay attention to the chaos but also safely avoid the potholes. I would recommend driving as little as possible in Bogotá. Even in many other cities and towns, the roads are not of too good quality.
- The major toll roads are particularly good. Once you pass a toll gate, the roads suddenly become very nice and good.
- Inner roads come in all shapes and sizes. Especially if you have a car, it is fun to go off the main roads. Then you end up on back roads where you often don’t know what to expect. Sandy roads, asphalt, gravel, large boulders, deep potholes and mud puddles after rain. You can encounter it all. Some roads are passable only with a 4WD.
Security in general
When driving in Colombia, it is helpful to also think about safety in general:
- Basically, you can ride wherever you want, as long as you stay outside the red and orange areas.
- Drive with the doors locked (due to muggings).
- Car mirrors are big business in Colombia and are stolen without mercy if you are just standing at the traffic light or in a traffic jam (in the big cities).
- Most vendors, beggars and performers on the road are honest people, but especially in big cities it happens regularly that you get robbed as soon as you lower your window. Keep this in mind.
- Park (especially in big cities and towns) in a paid parking lot and not just on the street.
- Driving in mountains is sometimes terrifying due to the Colombians’ behavior on the road. And the many hairpin turns with deep chasms. Stay calm and patient and take frequent breaks to maintain your concentration.
- Colombia is anything but flat; if you don’t want to or can’t drive in the mountains, renting a car in Colombia is not the best option for you.
- Try to ride in the dark as little as possible, especially if you are just starting out and still need to get used to the traffic and roads. And yes I do drive in the dark myself, but I drive here regularly and have years of driving experience in Colombia. If you are not used to the Colombian traffic and will be in places you do not know, better avoid the dark;
- In big cities, preferably show valuables as little as possible. For example, put your wallet and camera under your car seat.
- Make sure you always go out with a charged phone and bring a power bank just to be sure.
Navigation for your road trip Colombia
It is wise to use navigation such as Google Maps or Waze. Keep in mind that there is no Internet or phone coverage in many places outside villages and cities. For that, these tips:
- Plan your route roughly in advance;
- Download the map of Colombia in advance via Google Maps, read here how that works;
- Download the app Maps.me and then the map of Colombia. Not only do you then have the map offline, but you can put all kinds of points on the map to go to, so you know what to do when offline as well.
When I travel abroad myself, I always use a SIM card from Keepgo, with which I have Internet anywhere in the world. Especially when I rent a car, I always make sure I have enough data to never get lost.
It is good to know that there is by no means Internet coverage everywhere in Colombia, even with a map from Keepgo, that is. So it is wise to have all maps offline in advance anyway.
Renting a car in Colombia: practical information
How and where to rent a car in Colombia and what are the costs?
The most obvious is to rent a car to explore a particular region, and do the rest of the country by bus or plane.
You can rent a car in any large or medium-sized city.
- For example, check out SunnyCars. SunnyCars is a good option to rent a car. If you want a car immediately upon arrival, you can pick it up right from the airport. SunnyCars however, has more locations to pick up and return your car.
- You can also rent a car at Localiza, one of the largest car rental companies in Colombia. This can be useful if you want to rent a car from a location where larger companies, such as Rentalcars, do not have a rental location.
- Or go to Rentalcars, where you will find many car rental companies together.
Renting a car in Colombia is known to be expensive, but in the end it is not that bad. The simplest car for 5 days on weekdays outside the high season you have already for about 130 euros or dollars. A 4WD is obviously more expensive. Note that there may be quite a few additional costs associated with the many toll roads (see below).
Parking is best done in paid parking lots, only in smaller villages you can sometimes park along the road (as in Sopó, Salento and Barichara, there parking on the street is just fine). You have to always park in reverse and pay by the minute.
Do you need an international driver’s license?
No, you can drive with your foreign license for up to 3 months. However, it can’t hurt to purchase an international driver’s license anyway, just to be on the safe side.
Colombia is huge and usually you drive between 40 and 80 kilometers per hour. 300 kilometers seems close, but that can take you 8 hours or more. Especially if there are unexpected road works, accidents or traffic jams. Therefore, take enough time for your road trip Colombia.
Driving a car in Colombia is exhausting. You have to pay much more attention than in, say, the Netherlands or the US (holes in the road, hairpin turns, barriers, fellow road users driving like idiots, trucks you just can’t get past, etc.). Eight hours here in the car is not like eight hours in Europe or USA. Take lots of breaks and consider overnight stops. Especially if you are the only driver.
Toll roads Colombia
Colombia has many toll roads and this can cost you a lot more money if you travel a lot of miles. On average, you will pay between 10000 and 17000 pesos at a toll gate (peaje), so if you drive for 10 hours and encounter 5 toll gates, you will quickly spend around 15 euros. The advantage is that these roads are very good, with no potholes.
Click here for a list of toll roads in Colombia and associated costs. You have to zoom in the map all the way to see the toll booths. Click on a toll gate for costs.
Stopping along the road
Colombia does not have typical stopping points like you are used to in Europe and the US, for example. Often there are roadside restaurants where you can stop for a while, or on a shortcut where no one is driving, just along the road. Also nice is to drive into a small village along the way to stop in the central square. And, of course, Puente de Boyacá is perfect for taking a break when driving north from Bogotá.
Refueling can be done in a surprising number of places. You place the car at a tank and the employee fills up your car. So you don’t have to do anything yourself. You usually pay directly to this person in cash or by credit card.
Renting a car in Colombia: to do or not to do?
I myself love driving in Colombia. Especially outside major cities. Driving in Bogotá is especially stressful. But outside of that, very nice. You have to get used to the way of driving and the different types of roads, but it’s worth it. Stopping along the way and seeing much more, visiting villages where no tourist comes, really going off the beaten path, more flexibility: you can do it by car! Of course, you don’t have to do your entire trip by car; just one region is great, too.
It is not (yet) common for travelers to rent a car in Colombia. Bus transportation is good and cheap, a cab also costs almost nothing, and even a car with a private driver is affordable. And on top of that, there are also disadvantages to driving in Colombia: you have to pay more attention and it takes a lot of energy to drive long distances (and on bad roads), it is more expensive than taking the bus, there are risks for accidents and damage to the car and driving in Colombia can sometimes be quite scary.
Still, renting a car in Colombia is certainly not to be discouraged, but do prepare well and pay extra attention. Don’t forget the long distances, either. Adapt to the rules of the Colombians and be patient. Get good insurance and don’t drive further if you are tired. There are so many beautiful villages, everywhere you can spend the night to continue the next day. If you don’t dare, better don’t do it. If you do, it is a wonderful and unforgettable experience!
Exploring Colombia by car is amazing. If you dare to rent a car, enjoy the beautiful landscapes, off the beaten path, cute villages and stunning views!
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