Colombia is full of friendly people and unique experiences for travelers worldwide. However, with that said, driving is only an experience we recommend if you are used to driving in Latin America.
Can I drive while traveling through Colombia?
If you have a driver’s license in your country, you can drive while visiting Colombia. The question is, though, Should you drive in Colombia? In my opinion, the answer is no. Don’t drive in big cities in Colombia. Small cities and towns are much more manageable, but big-city traffic is complicated in Colombia. The stress of driving in Bogotá is just not worth it to me, but I have many friends who don’t mind it. The decision is all yours.
Traffic in Colombia is much different than in the U.S. and most parts of Europe. Not only do you have to be aware of cars and pedestrians, but you also have to focus on bicycles and motorcycles everywhere, plus lots of street vendors. Although traffic laws are in place, most Colombians will tell you they are not enforced; therefore, everyone drives defensively.
In addition, in big cities like Bogotá, the amount of vehicles is immeasurable. Because of this, the government has implemented a program called Pico y Placa. You must follow these rules and stick to the Pico and Placa schedule to avoid fines and your car being towed.
I grew up in Bogotá; therefore, I know what to expect when we land in the city; however, as much as my Dutch husband fell in love with Colombia, the traffic in Bogotá scared him to death. It’s not the geography as much as it is the city traffic. He is used to driving through mountain ranges and all sorts of cities in Europe and the U.S., but this was much different.
When I asked him what he thought about driving in Bogotá this is what he said:
“It is chaos. Motorcycles are flying in between cars and trucks. People somewhat pay attention to the traffic lights but not really. Lanes are non-existent in some parts of the city. There are potholes in unexpected places. There are street vendors everywhere, which is entertaining, but you have to be very alert as a driver. If someone has to turn and cross over three lanes, they may very well do so. As a driver in big cities like Bogotá, you cannot be distracted for a millisecond”.
He feels comfortable driving out of Bogotá and into smaller towns and cities, but Bogotá is out of his comfort zone.
What is Pico y Placa in Colombia?
Pico y Placa literally translates into Peak and Plate. Originally it was a way to prevent cars with specific license plate numbers from circulating during peak hours. As the program evolved in Bogotá, this changed from peak hours to almost an entire day of restriction. The current hours for Pico y Placa are from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
How does Pico and Placa work in Colombia?
Depending on the last number of your license plate, you will only be able to circulate through the metropolitan area of the city and high-density areas on certain days of the week. For example, specific numbers are restricted from circulating Monday through Friday every week. This means that every week a group of vehicles is not permitted to be on the road for about three days.
Here is a pico and placa schedule example:
If your license plate ends in one of the following numbers, your car has no restrictions on those days, and you are okay to drive.
Monday: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5
Tuesday: 6, 7, 8, 9 and 0
Wednesday: 6, 7, 8, 9, and 0
Thursday: No cars
Friday: 6, 7, 8, 9 and 0
Remember that motorcycles are exempt from Pico y Placa, which explains why you will see an incredible amount of motorized drivers in the streets of Bogotá.
Public transit is also exempt from Pico y Placa.
What happens if I take my car out during Pico y Placa in Bogotá?
The authorities monitor Pico y Placa very carefully. There are a lot of checkpoints throughout the city. If you take out your car during Pico y Placa and you are one of the numbers restricted, not only will your vehicle be towed, but you will also be given a fine of approximately $522.000 Colombian pesos (about $115 USD).
What should I do if my car has Pico y Placa?
If you have Pico y Placa and need to get places within the city, the best solution is to use public transportation.
Parking in Bogotá
Parking in Bogotá is scarce. We recommend you avoid street parking as you can easily be towed if you park in the wrong place. Parking violations are enforced regularly. Look for public parking garages.
Before renting a car in Bogotá
Be sure to check with the rental office about Pico y Placa. You don’t want to rent a car that is prohibited from transiting the city during the days you will be there.
Filling up your car with gas in Colombia
If you rent a car in Colombia and have to put gas in it, you must be aware that the process is a bit different than in most parts of the U.S. and Europe. When you pull up to a gas station in Colombia, an attendant comes to help you fill-up the car. The attendant will ask how much gas you want on it, and they will fill it up. In the end, you pay the attendant.
Ciclovía in Bogotá
Something else to remember if you drive in Bogotá is that the Ciclovía takes place on Sundays. Many streets are closed to create bike paths for residents to enjoy. About 75 miles of Bogotá’s streets are used for this event. About 2 million Bogotanos come out to enjoy the day in the Ciclovía. Therefore, you will have to use alternate routes if you drive around Bogotá on Sundays. Click here for the full blog post about Ciclovía
The decision is all yours. If you drive in big cities while traveling through Colombia, pay close attention to road signs. Keep your eyes peeled for motorcycles, pedestrians, street vendors, and more. Give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination. Traffic can be insane, so you better plan ahead, but more importantly, don’t forget to check Pico y Placa to see if you can transit the city in your rented car.
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