Editorial Note: In April, I took a month off in Medellin. For me, this meant an interesting and diverting month. For you, this means 30 days of posts about my vacation. I’ll try to make them somewhat amusing.
A word about money. The good news is that the major credit card networks (e.g., Visa) work just fine in Colombia. You can pay for stuff with a U.S.-issued credit card and withdraw money (i.e., pesos) from Colombian ATMs with a U.S.-issued ATM card. The exchange rate you get seems to be great. The bad news is that you’ll pay (modest) fees for the privilege, and that the “debit” features of your card won’t work.
My bank (Wells Fargo) likes to charge me fees both for withdrawing money from ATMs and for making credit card purchases. The ATM fees were a flat $5.00 irregardless of how much money I withdrew, while the credit card (foreign transaction) fees seemed to be about 3%. So, if you wanted to minimize your fees you might try withdrawing $500 at a clip. (Of course, then you’d be walking around with $500 in cash, which might not be such a great idea.)
An unfortunate reality of travel is that one risks becoming the victim of crime. For this reason, it is prudent to create and use separate, travel-specific bank accounts and credit cards while on the road. As an additional precaution, one should keep only the bare minimum of funds in these accounts, transferring money in as necessary via a laptop or smartphone.
The rationale behind this is that one wishes to minimize the risk of kidnapping. Kidnapping for ransom isn’t actually that much of a problem, as it’s an enormous hassle for a criminal to extort money from a foreigner’s family; he’d much rather deal with his own people, who are easier to contact and negotiate with.
Your biggest risk of kidnapping lies with those enterprising criminals who have their eye on your credit cards, and who wish to, ah, “persuade” you to hand over your PINs so that they can withdraw money from your accounts. Since your bank will only allow them (or you) to withdraw a certain amount every day, and since they won’t want to leave money on the table, guess what you’ll be doing while they spend days getting your money.
For this reason it’s best to have no more money in your account than can be gotten in one go. This will give your (theoretical) abductors no incentive to detain or injure you. The best option is to avoid such situations altogether, but the relevant concept here is “defense in depth”.
One cautionary note: Make sure that your PIN is 4 digits long. I like a nice, long, 8+ digit PIN myself, but the international networks reportedly aren’t too happy with such things. So stick to standard 4 digit codes if you want to minimize problems during your travels.
Also, you should probably set up two travel accounts, each with its own ATM card. That way if one is lost or stolen, the inconvenience will be minimal. (Obviously, you don’t want to carry both with you at the same time.)
Finally, any time you pay with a credit card here you’ll be asked a question. I think that question means something like “how many transactions do you want this charge broken into”. In any event, the right answer always seems to be “uno”.