Are you planning a holiday in Colombia, in South America? Do you wish to drive in the Country? If I were you, I’d be wary.
On the Road
Colombianos are normally friendly, happy and easy-going people. Everything however, changes when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle. Be it a car, bus or truck. Even on a motorcycle. When it comes to their driving, many local drivers are aggressive. Their vehicles can become a lethal piece of machinery on the roads. This Jekyll and Hyde syndrome is difficult to understand. Why would a perfectly friendly, understanding person turn into a monster behind a steering wheel?
Personally I would put it down to bad education and learning-to-drive processes. It appears that many learn to drive from a relative or a friend. While they have been taught to move and control a vehicle, they are badly educated in the rules of the road.
Driving Etiquette and Regulations
While driving, several Colombians do not go by the rule book. They will overtake on the wrong side, switch lanes without indicating, turn left or right from the middle lane cutting across a lane that has traffic going straight — just about everything that you would expect a decent driver not to do. I wonder if they think they are being extra smart drivers. They probably do.
In most parts of the civilised world, if one is indicating that one is going to change lanes, the person behind you on that lane, will permit you to change lanes. It is part of driving regulations. Let alone driving regulations, it is part of civilised human behaviour.
Here in the capital city of Bogotá, the person in the lane you want to move to, will speed up, as will every one else behind him, or her. It is as if they are telling you, “I have to go first. You can change lanes when someone else lets you do that.” It is the cause of many accidents. Busses that will behave that way too. If your are driving in a car and want to change lanes, you will have to be very cautious.
Talking about changing lanes, the average Colombian does not seem to know the real reason why indicator lights exist in a vehicle. They only use it when they want to break a rule.
Weaving Through Traffic
Another irritating local habit often displayed is weaving or switching lanes. If there is a Trancón (a Colombian term for a traffic jam), the situation gets worse. Many drivers will switch lanes just because they think the other lane is moving faster. They simply have to be in the lane that they perceive to be moving fastest. Quite often at the traffic lights that have changed to red, I see the same people who were crazy weavers. They would have gained nothing by their weaving processes.
I have often seen people park their vehicles in blatant violation of traffic laws, here in Bogotá. It could be in No Parking Zones; it could even be right at the traffic lights. Cars and even trucks are sometimes parked just a few meters before a traffic light that has turned green, before road intersections or in the slow lane. They callously block all the traffic behind them. If drivers did that in many other parts of the world, they would most definitely get a Traffic Ticket within minutes. Here in Colombia, policemen would ride by without batting an eyelid.
One Way Lanes
In Colombia, one-way lanes are not normally indicated by the familiar international, circular ‘No Entry’ sign. Here, one has to be on the careful look-out for Arrow Signs. The Arrows tell drivers the direction in which traffic is legally allowed to move. It is not uncommon to see some local drivers driving on a oneway lane, in the opposite direction to the permitted flow of traffic. I am unable to get my head around that phenomenon. Where there is space for a vehicle to move into, a Colombian driver, will move in. They don’t care what happens to others on the road.
As a traffic light changes to Red, there will always be a driver that races the lights. Bus drivers do that as well. Many will go through a stoplight. This happens at every traffic light, every day. If you are slowing down to stop at an amber light, there will always be the odd driver who will over take you and with a devil-may-care attitude, go through a red light. It is indeed a miracle that there are not as many accidents as there could be on the streets of Bogotá.
The Altiplano Cundiboyacense is a high plateau on the Andes Mountains with most of the area being rather flat – even at around 8,660 feet above mean sea level. There however are often sections of roads that go through mountainous terrain. Such areas always call for caution and orderly driving. A single bad driver could cause a very serious incident.
The only way to cope with thoughtless and selfish attitudes of the errant Colombian driver, is to drive defensively: expect every other driver in town to break established traffic rules. Be prepared for anything. If one cannot be that careful on the streets of Colombia, it may be better not to drive in the Country.
The traffic lights are red. You have stopped. Anyone knows that by studying the pedestrian crossing lights, you can estimate when your light will turn to Green again. Here in Bogotá, two-seconds before the lights turn to Green, people behind you will start to honk. “Move over; there is another Colombian in a hurry behind you!” Just ignore the honkers.
To Drive or Not to Drive in Bogotá
If you are on a holiday to this lovely capital city, it may be best not to drive. Take a Taxi instead. The Zapaticos (translates to, “little shoes” – what Bogotanos call their little taxis), to and from the popular sites in the City are inexpensive. On the other hand, not driving may limit your experience of exploring the Sabana de Bogotá (the area around the capital city) and from seeing some of its quaint little towns. Not driving will be the safer option. By the way, it is best to call for your taxi through a mobile phone app. It is not recommended to hail a taxi on the street.
If you must drive in Colombia, you can do so with an International driving licence or the national licences of your own country together with your passport. However, the minute you move to a Residence Visa, you will have to get a local driving licence. Licensing involves driving, written and health tests.
Only in India, are there some cities where driving is more difficult; but that is a different story all together. Here, Colombians believe they are the best drivers in the world. They will proudly tell you, “If you can drive in Bogotá, you can drive anywhere in the world!”
While not being a very safe country to drive in, there is much to be seen in this lovely Andean part of South America. All sites within the City can be handled with taxis. Some of it, especially an out-of-town trip is only possible with a car or an organised tour. To visit neighbouring cities, one could organise the trip through the hotel reception, with a friend if you have one with Bogotá, or with a reliable taxi service that has fixed rates for such trips. Welcome to Colombia!
© 2022 Mano Chandra Dhas
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Driving in Bogotá – FAQs
Can a tourist drive a car in Colombia?
Yes, a tourist can drive in Colombia with a valid licence. It is however not recommended.
With what licences can a tourist to Colombia drive a car?
Tourists can drive with a valid driving licence of their country of origin, or residence. It must be accompanied by a passport.
If a tourist chooses not to drive in Bogotá, what other means of transport are there available?
Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. TransMilenio is a popular public form of transportation. You’d however have to have your wits about you when you take public transportation.
Can you hail a taxi on the street in Bogotá?
It is best to request a taxi through a mobile phone app in Bogotá. Tappsi is a good one that most local people use.
How do you deal with the many traffic offenders on the streets of Bogotá?
To deal with the many traffic offenders in Bogotá, one just has to keep calm and be patient. Driving defensively helps.