I have added up our expenses.....we spent 152$ a day for the four of us to travel in Colombia, or about 38$ per person. This budget includes everything but our airfares. It covers in country transport (buses, taxis, motos), food, snacks, bottled water, hotels, activities, and souvenirs (we didn't buy that much).
I was expecting Colombia to be much cheaper. I did hours and hours of research for this trip, but I was still surprised to pay 65$ a night for a hotel room. In Colombia they charge by the person, unlike at home where you can get a 40$ room at a motel 6 and sneak/cram 4 people in there. Staying in a dorm room for 10$ per person a night would have reduced our costs but our family needed the space and privacy afforded by a double room with its own bathroom.
We didn't do a ton of activities so that helped save s bit of money. I think most people would have done a lot more activities than we did. We held back because of the costs and because our kids will only tolerate one excursion a day, and don't like to do activities two days in a row. This works to our benefit because half the time (who am I kidding, more than half the time!) they just want to hang out at the hotel. When you do independent budget travel with kids looking for a place to eat three times a day is plenty of culture for them. Walking to a town plaza and eating ice cream is plenty enough activity. They don't to feel the need to "do" a country. They can just barely "be" in another country.
Food wasn't a huge budget breaker. An average meal with soup, chicken, rice, beans, tostones, salad, and a fresh juice costs about 6$. Since the portions are huge we just ordered 3 meals for all of us. Our usual routine was to make our own breakfast in the hotel from food we purchased in a market the day before. If the place had a kitchen we'd buy stuff to make omelets, if not then we'd eat bread, fruit, and an avocado. For dinner we always scoured the area for street food which was excellent fun. We could eat fried chicken and potatoes at one cart then move on to empanadas and the next. Street food dinners would cost the entire family less than 10$. We could have spent less on food by always staying in a hotel with a community kitchen and cooking most of our meals there. Cooking and eating like a local would have cut our food budget easily in half, as we found grocery store food (the exception being American and European foods) to be pretty cheap.
There's really no getting around the high cost of transportation. Our bus tickets from Sincelejo to Medellin and from Medellin to Tolu costs us 450$. Could it have been cheaper if we didn't take the big comfortable Brasilia buses? I don't know because I didn't go from counter to counter at the bus station surveying the prices of all the other companies looking for a small, rickety, uncomfortable bus to travel overnight. I was more interested in comfort and safety than saving money in this case. Getting in and out of Mompos cost us about 200$. We had a snafu each way which led to taking expensive and lengthy rides in hired cars. In Medellin we over spent on a taxi we used to go all over town looking for a hotel that didn't exist. Otherwise, our bus, moto, taxi travel was pretty straightforward. Transportation mixups are par for the course when you travel independently, there's no one to figure it all out for you so mistakes along the way are bound to be made.
Lastly, we could have reduced our daily budget by eliminating the daily ice cream/sweet treat. I am pretty sure this would have caused a total mutiny as it can be a bright spot in an otherwise difficult situation. The daily treat was also used as a bribe, straight from the parent of the year tool box. Also you need to consider all the times when they upped the ante to more than one treat a day, to which I usually obliged.
A note about safety in Colombia. Without hesitation I will say that we felt completely safe in Colombia. Not even once did we have to duck for cover in a cross fight between paramilitaries and drug lords! Seriously though, there is a lot of police and military presence everywhere you go in Colombia and it does create the feeling that someone is keeping the peace. I definitely felt more safe in Colombia than I do in my home town. At home I fear gang activity, break ins, kidnapping, and gun violence. Makes me think we need a battalion of machine gun slinging national guardsmen patrolling our neighborhoods and public spaces here at home. The average law abiding citizen would be significantly safer, especially from gang activity. Luis said that this was a really republican attitude for me to have. Whatever. I'm just sick of the way gangs have taken over neighborhoods around here and I'd like to see our armed forces do battle with them. Oops, did I just say that? Anyway, using a little common sense (not walking around drunk late at night with wads of cash with a fancy camera strapped around our neck) security was not an issue for us.
What people say about Colombians is also true, they are pretty nice and friendly. Colombian tourists are a particularly happy group of people. They seem genuinely thrilled to be exploring their own country. We didn't meet a ton of other travelers, except a few in some of the hotels we stayed in. The travelers we did talk with were the typical 20 something backpacking type, most of whom were pretty awestruck that we were doing independent backpacking travel with our kids. We certainly did not meet, or even see, foreign tourists traveling with children. With the exception of the Colombian American family we met at the coffee factory in Minca, we didnt meet or notice any Americans in the entire 3 weeks....except at the airport, so we must have been running around somewhere!
We each came up with our own top ten best things about our trip to Colombia list. Here's mine, in no particular order:
1. San Antero mud volcano
2. The food
3. The futbol game in Medellin
4. The old city in Cartagena
5. The Metro and night time cable car in Medellin
6. River trips in Mompos and Tolu
7. Pozo Azul in Minca (riding the motos and jumping off the rocks)
8. La Victoria Coffee Plantation and drinking coffee
9. Interesting and challenging modes of transportation
It feels good to make a top ten on what I liked about Colombia. It hasn't been easy to describe the trip in glowing terms when people ask how it was, but making this list...much like making a gratitude list....makes it obvious that we had many good times and experienced much happiness and wonder.