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Colombia is a treat for travelers. After decades of unrest, the country is now becoming one of South America’s favorite destinations.
Wedged between the Caribbean, the Andes, and the Amazon jungle, Colombia has a varied landscape, with something to offer every visitor.
With such diverse geography, I feared keeping in touch could be tricky. Thankfully, my worries were unfounded: Colombia has a robust mobile network, and more than decent data coverage.
Claro has the largest network in the country, with the greatest LTE coverage. It’s the most reliable option.
The other main companies are Tigo and Movistar, which have good coverage, albeit not as extensive as Claro. ETB and Avantel have a smaller presence, and resellers like Virgin Mobile and Móvil Éxito round out the picture.
Claro, however, will likely be the first carrier you come across, since it has the most customers and vendors selling its services.
I didn’t see anywhere to buy SIM cards at Bogotá’s international airport, but that didn’t cause much of a problem.
The most reliable place to get one is in the carrier’s official retail stores. In the case of Claro, though, you can also drop into an Oxxo (the Mexican convenience store chain, which is also present in Colombia). Many Oxxos will have a little booth selling Claro SIM cards — I didn’t see any for other networks.
I chose to go this route, in the historical neighborhood of La Candelaria, and it was extremely simple. The sales attendant explained my options, and helped me set up the SIM card. I showed my passport, and gave my hostel address to register the account.
The whole exchange was done in Spanish (since that was both our native languages), but while I was paying, I heard another traveler start his own SIM card purchase in English with no problems.
A note of caution. You may run into informal kiosks offering SIM cards for a discount price. When I asked at my hostel where to get a SIM card, they specifically warned me against them, saying the cards have often been stolen, and blocked by the owner. It’s not worth the risk.
My starter pack set me back 18,000 COP ($6.25). The SIM card cost 3,000 COP, plus 15,000 COP in credit. I chose the data-heavy Datos plan, which included 500MB to use within a week, and free use of WhatsApp (including WhatsApp calls), Facebook, and Twitter.
There’s also an upgraded version of this plan, costing 20,000 COP for 1GB to use within 15 days. These plans have no airtime or text messages included, but I didn’t miss them at all.
In fact, apparently even locals don’t miss airtime. Many Colombians don’t make calls from their phones at all, using them mostly for data, or for people to ring them.
Around the country, many people set up informal call centers, in which they sell calls by the minute. They usually have three phones, one for each network. Whenever locals need to call, they just go to these “call centers” – and so can you, should you need to!
However, if you do want your own airtime, Claro offers several packages called Todo Incluido with minutes, texts, and data. They start at 6,000 COP for 30 minutes, 1,000 SMS, and 100MB to use within six days.
You can add credit to your account in any Oxxo (for all carriers, not just Claro), convenience store, or supermarket. Just go in and ask.
Coverage and Data Speeds
Claro boasts LTE in a third of the country, hoping to reach 100% coverage by 2018. I found myself on HSPA+ most of the time, although I did get LTE on occasion in Bogotá. In fairness, HSPA+ was so reliable that I didn’t get a chance to miss LTE.
Coverage in Cartagena de Indias was also very stable, with very similar speeds to Bogotá.
There was only one exception: in Cartagena, service was disrupted by the occasional thunderstorm. I expected it though, since I knew I was cutting it close to the start of rainy season (which I’ve had problems with in the past.)
Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.