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  • Total days on the road: 586
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Colombia Budget Recap

Written by Jared on August 7, 2012

This article is part of our Budget and Money Report series.

Our per diem expenses cover food, lodging, gas and other supplies and travel costs for three people. We travel in a 1997 Toyota 4Runner, tent camp in paid facilities roughly 70% of our nights and eat less than 10% of our meals in restaurants. This budget does not reflect personal spending money, which is mostly used to buy souvenirs and booze. We don't track this money, but we do know we have not come close to spending our budgeted amount of $10 per person per day.

Colombia surprised us in many ways. Most were good: great people, spectacular campsites and beautiful scenery, but it came at a cost that we were not entirely prepared for. That's not to say we did bad, in fact if it wasn't for higher than expected costs related to importing our vehicle, and a $200 resupply run, we would have pretty much broke even.

A bit of Googling would have better prepared us. We relied too much on our horribly out-of-date Lonely Planet Colombia book when coming up with the budget for this country. We found food and lodging costs to be at least 25% more than the listings from 2009. Couple that with the $600 we were over budget in Panama, and we had to seriously pinch the pennies to stay on target.

Budget Recap

Number of Days in Colombia: 48
Budgeted Per Diem:  $65.51
Actual Per Diem:  $70.38
Per Diem Spent:  $3,378.24
Per Diem Budgeted:  $3,144.48
One-Time Expenses Spent:  $335.35
One-Time Expenses Budgeted:  $200.00
Colombia Balance:  -$369.11

Over 48 days we narrowly missed our budgeted per diem by about $5 per day. Considering the six days we had to spend in a hotel room in Cartagena waiting for our car to arrive, that's not bad. We managed to squeak by, by using our tried and true tactics of camping most nights, and cooking nearly every meal ourselves.

Our one-time expenses include $87 for mandatory SOAT insurance and $250 in port fees in Cartagena to get our car out of the shipping container. We did not anticipate insurance being so expensive. A large part of this was because we decided to stay in Colombia longer than one month, which doubled the cost.

Per Diem Breakdown

Lodging:  $1,279.55 36.95%
Groceries:  $682.76 19.71%
Gas:  $586.80 16.94%
Eating Out:  $297.97 8.60%
Supplies:  $215.47 6.22%
Tolls/Parking:  $197.24 5.69%
Vehicle Maintenance $152.89 4.41%
Park Fees:  $77.86 2.25%
Transportation:  $44.08 1.27%
Laundry:  $25.50 0.74%
Coffee:  $25.28 0.73%
Phone/Internet:  $19.75 0.57%

We spent a total of $185 on tolls driving 2177 miles in Colombia. Unlike Mexico there's no way around it, toll booths are on just about every road and cost $3 to $5 a pop. On long driving days we'd hit at least a half dozen.

Since Jessica headed back to the US to work for a week we decided to order a few supplies for her to bring back. The total was just under $200, and consisted mainly of tent repair and cleaning materials. We also replaced a few things that were stolen in Costa Rica and got a cast-iron dutch oven.

Lodging costs were high due to the six days we spent in Cartagena and because it was difficult for us to find a hotel with a kitchen for under $40 for three people.

Food & Lodging

  Budget Actual Difference
Percent Time Camping:  50% 65% +15%
Average Camping Cost:  $10.00 $15.61 +$5.61
Average Hotel Cost:  $15.00 $46.79 +$31.79
Daily Food Expenses:  $25.00 $20.43 -$4.67

Had Colombia not been a friendly place for tent campers, we would have gone way over budget on lodging. You can clearly see how wrongly optimistic we were about both hotel and camping costs in Colombia. This is largely due to taking numbers from outdated sources. Prices have risen substantially in the last five years, especially in heavily-touristed areas.

Food was one area we actually managed to save money. In 48 days we only ate out 20 times, and most of those meals were under $5 per person. Grocery prices were on par with Panama. Shopping at the local butcher, baker and produce stand is definitely the way to go.


  Budget Actual Difference
Average MPG: 13 16.97 +3.97
Average Gas Price $USD/Gallon: $4.25 $4.71 +$0.46
Miles Driven: 1200 2177 +977
Total Spent on Gas: $392.31 $586.80 +$194.49

In Colombia we went with regular (corriente) gas instead of the high-octane stuff. It was typically $1 more per gallon for premium, although it was not available in many locations.

We drove far more than anticipated in Colombia, largely because we decided to extend our stay by a couple weeks and include a stopover in Medellin to drop Jessica off at the airport. Fortunately the added buffer of our underestimated fuel efficiency helped keep things from getting too ugly.

Lessons Learned

  • Colombia is a great place to camp, but it's not cheap. We averaged $5 per person, a bit more than we expected.
  • If you start your trip in Cartagena, don't worry, prices will get lower once you leave the city. There are plenty of cheap places to grab a plate of food for under $5 in Getsemani.
  • If you stay at a hotel for more than two nights, or refer other travelers to the hotel, ask for a discount.
  • Hostels with camping and a huge list of facilities are plentiful in Colombia. We saved money by staying for multiple days at these places and taking day trips to nearby locations.
  • Plan at least $100 for tolls to cross the country.
  • Gas is cheaper near the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian borders. South of Popayan on the Pan-American the cost is half of what it is in the rest of the country.
  • Plan your route in Colombia well, it's a big country with two mountain ranges running through the middle. It's difficult to see the whole country without backtracking long distances.
  • Asking hostel or hotel staff where to buy fresh produce and meat can save you money vs shopping at a grocery store. They can recommend the best places nearby with the lowest prices.
  • Many online booking websites have malfunctioning price calculators. We found that they have a flat rate per person which could lead to a room costing double or triple what it would if you just show up.

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