10 Tips for Traveling Sustainably in Colombia


This post was originally written for and published on Colombia Eco Travel

Avoid Bottled Water

According to National Geographic, there are currently 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic litter in our oceans. One way to help make sure that number doesn’t keep rising is to avoid bottled water. Many people do this at home but accept it as a necessary evil while traveling, but there are options such as the Steripen or LifeStraw Bottle that purify water on the go. I used the Steripen while in Africa for a month with zero water-related illnesses, but I love that the LifeStraw bottle doesn’t require batteries, which is another environmental and packing perk.

Eat Local 

Not only does eating local provide you with a richer cultural experience and support local economies, it also reduces your carbon footprint by reducing how far food has to travel. In Colombia, you can search “Mercados Campesinos” and the city to find out when and where local Farmer’s Markets are happening. For example, in Manizales they’re the 3rd Saturday of every month in front of the University of Caldas.

Colombia is also a great country to seek out agrotourism, especially if you’re a coffee lover. As Shannon Mullen explained in “Colombian Coffee: From Crop to Cup,” “Behind every cup of coffee there’s a struggle to build stronger, healthier, more sustainable communities. There’s an effort to be part of the full circle of life by giving back to the land and being able to pass on history, traditions and culture to the next generation.” Agrotourism is an experience to connect with where our food products come from and from under what circumstances. It can’t be denied that the more you know, the more you care.

Ask Before You Go

Before you book a tour or an accommodation, take time to ask some questions about the business’s sustainability practices. Not only will this help you make an informed decision, but it will also help create a demand for sustainability. Some questions you might ask are:

  • Do you have a recycling program? / ¿Tiene un programa de reciclaje?
  • Is your building energy efficient? / Es el edificio energía eficiente?
  • Are you actively involved in local conservation? How? / Está involucrado activamente en la conservación local? Cómo?
  • Does your business benefit the local economy? How? / ¿Su negocio en beneficio de la economía local? Cómo?

One of the best experiences I had on the coast of Colombia was at Costeño Beach Surf Camp & Ecolodge - not only because of the relaxed atmosphere but also because of their practices. They provided filtered water to guests for only $3,000 COP per day instead of charging $5,000 COP per bottle of water like most other hostels. Power was also shut off during the day to help conserve energy, and they hired local cooks, masseuses, yoga instructors, and transportation personnel. Realizing how much I appreciated these values inspired me to always investigate a business’s practices before booking. 

Walk, Bike, or Use Public Transit 

We travel to experience new places, and there’s no better way to see more of a city than by walking or biking. Seek out bike rental businesses and walking tours. If you’re traveling across town, take the bus, metro, or cable car like a local would. The public transit system in most cities in Colombia is efficient and inexpensive.

Leave No Trace 

As I’ve shared before, the litter I saw on the Lost City Trek shocked me and turned me off from other popular group treks. Please adhere to basic Leave No Trace principles to help conserve the environment for future travelers and generations.

Buy Local

Support the local economy by buying handmade. Arts and crafts also help preserve a country’s culture. One example of this in Colombia is the mochila, a handcrafted bag made by the Indigenous Wayuu people. Before you buy, inquire how and where it was made. To browse a few of the styles, check out Chilabags.com, a Fair Trade company that works directly with Wayuu women and is committed to fair pay and good working conditions.

Say No to Animal Gimmicks

When visiting the popular city of Cartagena, you’ll no doubt notice the idyllic horse-drawn carriages. But according to Colombia Reports, 6 horses collapsed from malnourishment and dehydration in 2014, and locals have held demonstrations protesting the lack of regulations.  Thankfully in 2015, Colombia’s government passed a law that “animals must be considered sentient beings,” according to The City Paper Bogota. Hopefully this bill changes the landscape for animals in Colombia in the coming years, but for now it’s still best to resist all those touristy animal gimmicks.

Learn the the Real Story

Ask questions of locals with an open mind, and learn about the history and culture. I highly recommend the Culture Smart! series for brief but thorough overviews of a country’s customs and history. For example, Culture Smart! Colombia, written by Kate Cathey, provided me with a level of depth not found in typical travel guides and gave me a context for my traveling in Colombia.

Give Back with Care

 Seek out ways to contribute to the community. When I visited a teacher’s college in Zambia, we were given a list of what would be the most helpful for the local primary schools to make sure our packing space was best utilized. You can use sites like Pack for a Purpose to find out what local foundations and nonprofits are most in need of and ensure you’re not imposing. For example, La Brisa Local Hostel located in Santa Marta serves children from at-risk communities, and they’re currently in need of school supplies and children’s clothing. It’s become common for the children of the Kogi tribes who live near the Lost City in Colombia to ask passing hikers, “Dolce? Dolce?” Although they are impossibly adorable, resist handing out candy to children; in many communities, inadequate dental care can lead to serious decay and suffering in the long-term. 

If you want to visit a home, village, school, or orphanage know that these visits are best pre-arranged through a local community-based program. For example, in Zambia we volunteered to support local teachers in a local radio school program and taught a short English lesson we had prepared in advance. Poverty is not a form of entertainment for tourists, and orphanages are not zoos. Don’t just go to look – find out how you can contribute to the empowerment and economic sustainability of the community.  

Share What You See

 Travel is a privilege; with it comes a responsibility to share what you learn along the way. I’m passionate about sharing what positive social change Colombia has achieved in the last 20 years, especially in places like Medellín’s Comuna 13. My friend, Sarah Cockey, is also an exceptional example of this; her I am Change Project seeks to dispel myths and stereotypes about Arab culture based on her own personal experiences in Egypt. Maybe it sounds dramatic, but I really believe by traveling and getting to know new cultures and corners, we can make this beautiful planet a more peaceful place. 


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