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Columbia is no place for Cruise Control: an Americans insights on driving in Columbia

So, you are planning on driving in Columbia! It is possible but it may not be for everyone. Our family rented a car in Bogota and we have been driving to sights of interests with our children and dog. Here are our observations.

If just arriving in Columbia, pick a couple busy street corners to watch traffic patterns. Watch how drivers behave when the streets are congested and when the streets are clear. How do they avoid bikes, pedestrians, other cars, buses, Semis? Do this before you drive, especially in a bigger city.

Remember, the Columbian drivers are driving correctly and it is you, the American, who will need to change to survive your trip without accident.

So, how do you drive in the multiuser roads of Columbia? One Columbian friend said drivers in Columbia are always alert, you can’t use cruise control. You need a foot ready for a brake at any moment. In general, bikes, pedestrians, dogs and horses are going to keep their path of travel with a gentle swerve to avoid being hit by your vehicle. You, too, will give a few inches so passing is safe.

Motorbikes move around you like rivulets. Motorcycles will fill any gap in traffic on your right, left, on your bumper, and you will be jealous of motorbikes in traffic jams. Motorcycles sometimes travel in packs on highways to help signaling the time for safe passing around cars and trucks. Sadly, the one fatality we witnessed was of a motorcyclist in the highway so, the impression that motorcycles always know what they are doing can be wrong. As a driver of a car you must always be alert to the possibility that a motorcycle is close.

Turning into traffic: you need to see the flow of vehicles like a river. As soon as the current slows, you join the river. In the States, you might wait for complete permission to merge by someone stopping or moving over. That’s just not going to happen in Columbia. It only takes once waiting to merge like an American to know you can’t go anywhere like that. You can trust that other drivers do see you and expect you to make a move to merge after you have made your intentions clear by signaling and moving in the direction you want to turn. It’s not aggressive, just join the flow.

Passing on the highway: The slowest vehicles on the highway are the Semis.  A left turn signal when you are behind a large truck on the highway means it’s probably safe to pass. The truck driver needs to know you are wanting to pass by seeing you in his mirror. If you do not take the opportunity, the driver behind you will likely grab it. Or, also you may get honked at as if to, “What are you doing? Idiot?” The motorcycles below might pass the smaller bus if the smaller bus doesn’t make his move to pass when signaled.

A small bus waiting to pass a Semi on a mountainous highway in Columbia. The motorcycles are in position to do the same. After they pass, we will tailgate on the left bumper of the Semi and wait for a left turn signal from the Semi.
People catching a ride after the Semi slowed through a toll booth. A group of people ran to catch this ride by throwing their bags up and catching the rope across the bed of the truck. The driver seemed not to mind, he even stopped to buy a drink from the vendor standing in the street as if to let the riders settle before getting up to speed.

We took toll roads when traveling longer distances between cities. Tolls ranged from 10,000 COP to 13,500 COP. It’s not essential to have exact change but it’s smart to have smaller bills and coins to make change easier. We didn’t see a credit option, so bring your cash.

Navigating: If you are using Google to navigate Columbia, you are in good hands with a few exceptions. When navigating to smaller towns, ask a local which road to take into town. Google maps will send you up crazy roughs roads that fool Google as drive-able because motorcyclists with phones pass over them quickly and drive the data to appear safe. 

Also, Google maps time estimates are very optimistic even on highways. We learned to double the travel time due to accidents, rough roads, toll booth slow downs, construction and other more random events. All that being said, the highways are really nice except for the sudden deep potholes. Again, Columbia is no place for cruise control.

One of the nicest highways is Highway 45. We also drove 50 and 60 which had smooth pavement.

If you have the experience of driving at night, perhaps because you trusted Google’s travel estimate, you will find no lights on smaller roads. So, if driving small mountain roads at night, it’s good to try to stick to the back of a commuter bus like the red one below. If you do, you will have better vision around corners and will go faster. Also, traffic coming the other way stops for the bus on narrow passes. You will be amazed at how nimble these buses are through rough roads and sharp curves.

On small mountain roads, large vehicles make their way. Passing requires stopping and inching to pass. In person, it’s very loud with pumping air brakes and shocks working hard.

So, yes, it’s possible to drive all over Columbia. It takes a driver who can be alert at all times and a second person to navigate. In our case, it sometimes took 2 people finding better routes on Google and one driver making as much time as possible. So, plan well and go enjoy!