Driving in Colombia. Some things you should know.
Tourists driving in Colombia is not common, but it happens. There are hire car centers in airports and locations around the major cities.
The rules for tourists driving in Colombia are basic. You need a license issued in your country of origin. (this is valid for 90days), carry a copy of your passport, be at least 18 years of age ( 23 if hiring a car).
It is not possible to drive to Colombia if you are coming from the North. Between Panama and Colombia there is a wilderness area called the Darian Pass.
There is no vehicle access through there.
If you are driving down from the Canada /USA / Mexico etc; for an extended tour of South America, you will have to organize for your vehicle to be shipped from Panama to Colombia.
That will entail a whole new set of bureaucratic paper work when you arrive in Colombia.
Essentially you have to take your vehicle with you when you leave the country.
Colombian Road Rules
- Driving is in the right side of the road.
- The minimum driving age is 18 years.
- The legal blood-alcohol limit is 0.04%.
- The maximum speed limits allowed on urban public roads is 60 km/h (37 mph). The maximum speed allowed in rural areas is 80 km/h (50 mph). On highways and connecting routes, the maximum speed limit is 100 km/h.
- It is a requirement that every vehicle be covered by a minimum limited third-party-liability policy and a medical policy written by a Colombian insurance company.
Speed cameras are used extensively throughout Colombia. There are also numerous speed zones in towns, cities and along highways.
A common limit in residential areas or areas with high pedestrian traffic, is 40klm/hr. 30klm and hour is also common.
There are also speed bumps / traffic calmers on many of these roads.
Speed is not a factor negotiating those roads as it is generally crawl speed only.
- Signage:- All distances are given in kilometers and speed limits in kilometers per hours.
- In case of an accident, drivers should call for the police and do not move the vehicles until the police arrive and write the report. This is painful for the following vehicles, which can create mass confusion.
- Gasoline is sold by gallon, using the imperial measurement which is 20% more than the US gallon.
- There are toll roads between towns.
- Some cities and towns have a system where you can only use your car based on your number plates last numeral. Odd numbers one day even numbers the next day.
- If your a tourist this shouldn’t be an issue as your from out of town. It is generally not an issue for Colombians either, as they just go and buy another car, or get another number plate.
I put drivers into into four categories, regardless of the country. Drivers, Drovers, Dickheads and Drunks.
For those wondering:- Drovers is an Australian term for someone who rides a horse, and drives cattle across long distances.
I have not had any issues with drunk drivers on Colombian roads.
I know Colombians like a beer, but I have yet to see a vehicle of any sort being driven in a manner, where you would suspect the driver to be drunk.
Still there are lots of places I haven’t been to, and who knows, I may discover one.
Lets look at the Motos.
Motor cycle riders in Colombia are usually small 100cc Japanese or Chinese weapons of destruction. They love nothing more than zig zagging through the traffic in the slower speed limit areas, and getting to the front of the queue at traffic lights.
Unlike Asia there are a lot more heavier vehicles in Colombian cities, concrete trucks, Semi-trailers, Buses etc; so you need to keep a very good eye out as the motos often move out of sight then appear where you don’t expect them.
An extra pair of eyes is a good idea.
A quick story
I was about to enter a round-a-bout coming into Santa Marta one rainy day, the brake lights on the car in front weren’t working, but I noticed him slowing down.
For what reason I don’t know as it was a clear run through the round-a-bout. I checked my rear view before tapping the brake and saw 3 motos right on my bumper.
They were that close, that if they had rags they could have cleaned by rear windscreen.
I quickly looked back and the guy in front had stopped, so I braked hard to avoid hitting him. Then one moto went past on the passenger side, as I looked at him, I felt a bump at the back of the car and turned to look in the drivers side mirror and saw a bike on the road with about 3 other bikes around him.
The car in front had driven off, and a couple of bike riders cursing him.
I never got out of the car or said anything. I could see he was Ok, as he got his bike back up on its wheels and got back on, then one of the other bike riders put his foot on the crashed bikes footpeg to push start him.
Although the rules say you must stop if you have an accident, these guys were in a hurry to get away.
Only one was wearing a helmet, and probably none of bikes were legal to be on the road. If he had been seriously hurt things could have been a whole lot different.
Needless to say I didn’t hang around.
In circumstances like these it pays not to let on you are a foreigner. If the police were involved then obviously, you have no choice.
With a small incident like that you could “negotiate” your way out with the police, with an offer to “solve the problem.”
On the highways the motos are either coming or going from a nearby town. They will be traveling slower than you, and generally stick to the right hand side of the road.
Still, care is needed, and beeping your horn to let the moto rider know your there is common practice here.
Do the same if your passing a vehicle on the right hand side.
Colombian Car Drivers and Others.
Due to government taxes cars are more expensive to buy in Colombia than many western Countries.
As well they are the largest expense for many Colombians.
Generally Colombians take great pride in looking after their cars.
Still, there are a lot of beaten up bombs on the road to be wary of.
Car drivers are a very mixed bag here. The number of near misses I have seen here could fill a book.
A favorite tactic seems to be to overtake you, pull back in front of you, immediately slow right down and turn down some street.
Why they do this I haven’t figured out. I mean sometimes they no sooner get in front of me, then they are braking hard to make the turn.
Why not wait 10 seconds,?
So, I am also jamming on the brakes to stop my car belting them in the rear, while checking the rear view mirror hoping the dude behind never speeded up to fill the gap…Crazy stuff.
The thing one common to cars, taxis and buses is, they will pull across an intersection and stop. Strange place for a bus stop… but there it’s what they do… usually there will be a taxi right behind the bus hoping for a fare from one of the exiting bus passengers.
So, the intersection is half blocked, and the beeping of horns begins.
Vehicles are not the only things using the roads here. Many times I have been on an open road and the cars in front are slowing to a crawl.
Often the reason is a taxi, but there are also horses / mules and carts.
Other reasons for traffic slowing to a crawl besides horse and carts, include motos with a cart on front, push bikes (sometimes), buses stopping in the middle lane to drop off passengers (sometimes an Ambulance needs to be called), and…TAXIS !
Taxis rule the roads in Colombia, they probably out number normal cars by 3 or 4 to one. Little yellow tin cans I have come to detest.
I had to use one the other day, while the car was clean inside, the driver competent, but the suspension rattles where so bad that I thought it was going to fall apart.
I have seen more than one taxi sitting in the middle of the road with a front wheel underneath the chassis.
I guess describing some of the roads around here as roads, is really pushing the boundaries of the term “road,” so I can understand the drivers reluctance to keep forking out his hard earned for new shock absorbers.
One of the more annoying (scary?), things is seeing three (or more) of them line abreast on a 3 lane road.
It is not unusual for a couple of them to be having a conversation.
Intersections:- This is a game of who can out bluff the other. Be careful. If their is a yellow line marking the intersection it must be kept clear. Often there will be a camera and if you block it expect a note to arrive at your address.
Other Taxi antics include
- Crawling along at 20k’s, chatting on the phone, in the “fast” lane of a 3 lane road in an 80k zone
- Never indicating. If they do be careful, they will probably go the opposite to what they are indicating.
- They always seem to break down in the left lane of an 80k zone
- If at a traffic light, they wait until the light goes green, before slowly putting the mobile phone down, slowly putting the car in gear and releasing the handbrake, then slowly driving off with about 10 seconds left on the green light.
I think that is a universal law for taxi drivers, but it is practiced to perfection here.
- Speeding up to pass you then slowing down, or stopping completely depending which lane you are in.
This is just a few of the many antics they get up to, there are others and probably a few more yet to be invented.
I haven’t quite worked out the system for indicators here, and it is probably unlikely I ever will. So far I have a few scenarios as to how indicators are used here.
- They are telling you where they have been
- They might be making a turn sometime in the future
- They are indicating that it is ok to pass them.
- The sound of the indicator is consistent to the beat of whatever tune is playing on the radio.
This of course is no reason for you not to use your indicators as intended.
Colombian Suburban Buses.
These compete with taxis for ruling the road. They have right of way in the right lane, for the pick up and drop off of passengers.
Often taxis follow them hoping to get fares from those exiting the bus. Often this leads to problems with the bus following (particularly at intersections), if the taxi driver is in negotiations with possible fares.
So the bus will go around the taxis to get to his drop off point.
Also it is not unusual to see 6 or 7 buses nose to tail to block any moves by taxis.
Apart from that bus drivers are known to race each other around their routes.
If you think seeing 3 taxis line abreast over 3 lanes is a problem. Try 3 buses! Two of them are going to want to get back to the right lane.
There are ways of avoiding these things, keep a reasonable distance between you and them.
Some taxi or a couple of motos will jump into the gap between you and the bus, but they will keep searching for other avenues. At least with the extra space between you and the bus, you have a better view of what is going on in front.
Unless you absolutely have to be there, stay out of the right lane.
The Delivery Trucks and Vans.
Generally these are slow moving. I think most of time they are lost. They meander along seemingly oblivious to the world around them.
But be careful. I have never had any trouble with them, a beep of the horn will let them know you are coming up beside them.
The Big Rigs.
No matter the country, many people have problems with “ the big rigs.” In Colombia from my experience, they are very competent. I have not had a problem with any I have come across.
They may not always be on the speed limit and that is ok. Colombia is quite hilly.
They will sometimes give you a heads up if the road in front of them is clear, allowing you to pass safely.
The same can be said for the bigger inter city buses, although they sometimes travel at better than the speed limit.
Conclusion on Driving in Colombia.
As I mentioned above Colombia is hilly, Parts of it are mountainous. You will probably never really get used to driving in the cities.
The country drives are reasonably good… However 😁, there are also a lot people who like to keep fit. So don’t be surprised if, in a hilly part of the country you come across push bikes being ridden up and down the hills.
So drive with care, and don’t get sucked into road rage. Remember to check out my safety tips Here, if your visiting Colombia.
Feel free to add any comments or experiences you would like to share in the comment section below.
‘Till next time.
Originally published at https://barefootaffiliatetravel.com on October 7, 2021.