If you’re planning a trip to Colombia, you’re probably wondering how you’re going to get between all of the country’s amazing cities, towns and beaches. It’s very uncommon — and astronomically expensive — for foreigners to rent cars here. So you’re going to need to use a lot of public transportation. Luckily, the buses in Colombia are some of the best you’ll find anywhere in the world … most of the time.
In this post, I’ll cover the different types of buses and other forms of transportation in Colombia. Even on a short trip you can find yourself coasting in a modern coach bus one day and hanging on for dear life to the back of a motorbike the next. Colombia transportation is always an adventure!
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General advice and rules of thumb for transportation in Colombia
Using the Colombia public transportation network is incredibly easy, even if you don’t speak any Spanish. There is always a vehicle going in your direction, prices are generally fixed, and scams are rare. That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind before you hop on your first Colombian bus.
First, and most importantly — when you ask how long a journey will take, take the answer with a huge grain of salt. You can safely add at least two hours to whatever locals tell you. Most infamously, everyone claims Cartagena to Santa Marta takes three hours, but I’m pretty sure no one has ever actually done it in less than five. And my “16-hour” trip from San Gil to Medellin ended up closer to 24 hours when all was said and done.
Given how long these trips take, it would be wise to bring snacks. Long-distance buses in Colombia usually stop for a meal along the way, but it may not be at a normal meal-time and it may not be in an appetizing restaurant. (I got horrible food poisoning from a bus stop empanada.) Pack toilet paper in your carry-on as well; it’s never provided.
Additionally, remember to save your luggage receipt. Normally a bus conductor will put your large backpack under the bus before departure and give you a piece of paper with a number on it. When you get off, you’ll need to show that ticket to get your bag back.
Finally, you really only book in advance for overnight journeys and tourist shuttles (like Marsol in Cartagena). Otherwise, just turn up at the bus station and there will always be a bus going your way within half an hour or so.
Private coach buses: The best buses in Colombia
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat — Colombia is a huge country with a lot of mountains. So if you want to see more than a single city, you’re going to spend a lot of time on the road. After a couple weeks in the country a six-hour bus ride will start to sound “short.”
The good news is Colombia has one of the world’s best private bus networks. Colombia bus companies operate modern coaches with amenities like massive reclining seats, personal TV screens, separate men’s and women’s bathrooms, and leg rests.
If you’re taking a bus trip of more than a few hours anywhere in the mountainous regions of Colombia, your first travel choice should be a coach bus. They cover all major routes multiple times per day.
Coach buses in Colombia generally depart from bus terminals outside the city centers. Many cities have multiple bus terminals, so check where your destination departs from. The terminals have rows of ticket offices that display their departures. Buy your ticket, head to the waiting area, and wait for your bus to be called. Your luggage is stored underneath.
Coach buses are a bit on the pricey side — think $10-$15 USD for an 8-hour trip. But it’s worth paying for comfort. They’re so nice that even the dreaded overnight bus routes are totally tolerable. They generally don’t stop at intermediary points along the way, but they do make a stop about halfway through the drive for a toilet and food break.
Public buses in Colombia: Cheaper, hotter and more uncomfortable
If your budget doesn’t allow for the nice private coach buses, you still have options for transportation in Colombia. Your next best bet is a public bus.
Public buses cover many shorter and medium-length routes. They cost a fraction of what the private buses cost, but they’re cramped and they have no air conditioning. Because they’re so uncomfortable, they don’t tend to serve longer routes. You may also take smaller buses that fit about 20 people, but avoid them at all costs — they have NO leg room!
Public buses in Colombia also stop in every little town along the way to your destination. This can add hours to your journey.
Most people only really consider public buses for short trips — like from San Gil to Barichara — or along the Caribbean coast. Prices are about $1 an hour.
Minibuses: The fastest way to cover short distances
While most places of interest in Colombia are quite spread out, sometimes you’ll get lucky and only need to embark on a 3-hour journey. In these cases, minibuses are a good option.
Minibuses are much faster than big coach buses — the drivers are less bound by basic traffic laws and slow uphill climbs on windy mountain roads. They never stop between destinations (except perhaps for a restroom break). The air conditioning is usually very good. Comfort levels vary widely though — some minibuses are cramped affairs, while others give you all the legroom in the world.
The most common minibus route for travelers to encounter is the route from Cartagena to Santa Marta. You may also use them between Medellin and Jardin.
Minibuses aren’t the cheapest option. They can cost as little as $3 per hour and as much as $5 per hour. The minibuses in the Caribbean region are more expensive than those inland.
Chiva buses: The old-school way to travel in the Eje Cafetero
If you’re spending time in the Coffee Axis, and if you go off the beaten path, you may be lucky enough to get to ride in a chiva bus.
A chiva is basically a truck that hauls a platform on which rows of benches have been installed. It’s open-air (there’s a roof though). Chivas are invariably brightly painted — in fact, being a chiva artist is a very specific career path one can take in Colombia.
These old-school buses used to be the norm in Colombia — kind of like chicken buses in Central America. Today they have mostly been phased out except in the Coffee Axis, where they handle the unpaved mountain roads better than big coaches.
The best chiva route in the country for travelers is on the way from Jardin to Salento. It costs 20,000 COP for a three-hour ride. For the first hour it’s ridiculously fun and the views are amazing, but after awhile the dirt roads start to get painful. It’s also a bit chilly, so bring a jacket.
You may also end up on a chiva in Cartagena or Bogota, where tour companies use them as party buses.
Willy Jeeps: The workhorses of the Eje Cafetero
If the chiva is the form of mass movement of people in the Coffee Axis, the Willy Jeep is the equivalent of a minibus. These World War II-esque vehicles came from the U.S. decades ago and now haul sacks of coffee, plantains, and of course people all over the region’s mountains.
You’ll inevitably find yourself take a Willy Jeep when you visit Salento. They’re the only way to get to the Cocora Valley hike. They also replace taxis for more local trips around town, like from the center to the coffee farms.
You can either ride inside or you can stand on the back and hold on for dear life. (Super fun when it’s nice out; totally miserable when it’s raining.)
You’ll pay about 4,000 COP for an hour ride on a public Willy. If you charter one or hitch a lift on a private one, all bets are off — prices can run as high as 20,000 COP for a short trip.
Local buses in Colombia: Subways above ground
If you visit a big city like Bogota or Pereira, you’ll have the option to use one of the most ingenious developments in Colombia transportation. These cities have massive bus networks that use dedicated lanes, basically serving as a metro system that operates above-ground.
Bogota’s TransMilenio is the most famous example of this system. Buy a card and load it up with 3,000 COP and you’ll get across town for a fraction of the price of a taxi, and much faster.
It’s fairly straightforward to figure out if you speak some Spanish, and it’s generally safe provided you keep your wits about you.
Find maps of the TransMilenio system here.
The Medellin metro/metrocable system
Medellin deserves special mention here as having the best transportation in Colombia. The city’s Metro system — trains and cable cars — is not only a way for locals to commute every day. It was a core part of the city’s transformation.
When Medellin was trying to clean up its act after the rein of Pablo Escobar, city officials decided to connect people in the outlying barrios to the city center with the construction of a massive public transport network. The problem? The barrios that most needed connections are high in the hills above Medellin, where no train could reach them. So while the city constructed a train system through the downtown, it built cable cars to link those barrios to the city center.
Today, you can ride on these metrocable cars for under 3,000 COP. This is both a fun tourist activity and a great way to get around the city center. Locals take great pride in this system and keep it obsessively clean and safe. It’s one of the most unique public works projects in the world, and one that will hopefully be replicable elsewhere.
Taxis and moto-taxis — the bottom of the Colombia transport ladder
For very local trips, you can’t really avoid needing to use the occasional taxi or moto-taxi in Colombia. This is the most expensive way to get around, but by far the most convenient.
Taxis are cheap by international standards but pricey by local standards. In mountainous Colombia, drivers use the meter. Normally for safety reasons you should either call a taxi in advance or book through an online app like Tappsi (or Uber, which is technically illegal). But on the Caribbean coast you’ll have to haggle incessantly, as drivers don’t use the meter. Fares run about 20,000 COP for a short trip in town.
In small towns, you won’t find many taxis — instead, you’ll find moto taxis. These take two different forms. Sometimes it’ll be a technicolor tuk tuk, like you’d find in Thailand. Other times, it will literally be a motorcycle that you ride on the back of, like in Vietnam. Either way, prices are much cheaper than standard taxis and they’re way more fun. Expect to pay 5,000 COP for a short trip.
The alternative to buses in Colombia: Domestic flights
If you don’t really want to rely on bus travel in Colombia, or if you’re just not into spending 16 hours on an overnight journey, you have an alternative. You can use domestic flights to cover most major routes in the country.
Domestic flights are shockingly affordable. You can usually find routes like Bogota-Armenia (for Salento) or Cartagena-Medellin for under $50 one-way — sometimes as little as $30. They’re worth considering for a short trip.
Read the fine print, as some domestic airlines don’t have luggage allowances or charge extra for carry-ons. And pack a healthy dose of patience. Delays and cancellations are extremely common. But when you get to your destination in one hour instead of 16, it’ll feel worth it.
No matter your budget, you can always find a way to travel around Colombia. From the dustiest chiva ride to the most luxurious coach bus trip careening down mountain highways, it’s always an adventure, too!
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I have traveled Africa a lot and went by public transport most of the time. I haven´t been to Columbia yet but will keep your post in mind. Thanks for sharing.
Lol Colombia is WAAAAY easier on public transport than Africa. You’d have such an easy time here!
My friend and I are planning to travel by shuttle bus from Cali to Salento and then to Medellin. Do you know if it is safe? As far as robberies I mean. Have been advised against it by someone with family in Colombia.
Hmm, I’m not sure but I definitely heard more issues around Cali than anywhere else in Colombia. If local folks are telling you to avoid it, I’d follow the local intel.