We only spent a couple of weeks in Colombia (not enough in this amazing country!), so the advice and tips I can offer are pretty limited. Here, for what they are worth, are my two cents:
- Plan a lot of time in this country, if you can. Like I said, we only had two weeks. While it was enough to hit the highlights of the country, there was so much we missed, like more moutains, deserts, whales, lost cities in the jungle, and Amazon trips. Many of the backpackers we crossed paths with said their favorite country was Colombia.
- Domestic flights, if booked at least a couple of days in advance, can be almost as cheap as buses. While FARQ has mostly be contained, they can still destroy parts of roads and cause travel delays. Airfare can be cheap through budget airlines, like Viva. Sometimes purchasing the tickets can be complicated, as the internet prefers Colombian credit cards, but it can be worth it.
- If you plan to do the boat crossing from Colombia to Panama, you will probably do a trip to Capurgana/Sapzurro to reach the tour boats. There are no roads to Capurgana, so you will need to take a boat across the bay to get there. Boats leave from Turbo and Necocli, which are also a little difficult to reach. Expect expensive airfare to Turbo or bumpy buses to Necocli or Turbo.
- While Colombia still has a bad reputation for drugs and gang violence, the Colombian law enforcement and government have worked very hard to expand the safety of their country. Perhaps foreign backpackers are treated differently than local Colombianos, but we didn’t have a single dangerous/bad experience there, and neither did anyone else we talked to. My friend had been warned beforehand by a Colombian relative how dangerous the country was, and was shocked to find how amazing the people and culture actually are. It ended up being her favorite place.
- While most places are safe, the Darien Gap still isn’t. I wouldn’t recommend it, based on word of mouth. Several friends of a friend traveled from Colombia to Panama via the Darien Gap and they said it was amazing, but they would never do it again. It seems cheaper, until you realize you have to bribe every policia you come across, even though what you’re doing is perfectly legal. And it doesn’t seem that dangerous, until you learn you have to hire a guide to get you through the jungle and you had better pray not to see a drug cartel or they may kill you. Alternatives are going via plane, which isn’t too bad. You have to reserve tickets at least a week in advice and be comfortable in a six-seater plane. There should be resources online to help with that. Otherwise, word of mouth is the best way. The most popular alternative is, of course, a San Blas boat tour. This is what we did, and I loved it.
- There are plenty of buses, about at Peruvian prices for Chilean comforts. Not bad at all.